Right Now, Kong Then: The Retrospective Worthy Of A King

What is it about cinematic advanced primates which makes them so fascinating? Is it the similarities they have with us homo sapiens? Is it because they are cute? Is it because they have such engagingly primal instincts that we cannot look away? Is it because they satisfy our need to see city-wide destruction? Or can it be all the above? With recent box office hits like the rebooted Planet of the Apes trilogy, the Monsterverse films and the videogame film adaptation of Rampage, audiences are still going ape for the wonderful creatures.

We have to go back to the franchise that started it all. We are going all the way back to the year 1933. To coincide with the awaited release of the monster mash-up Godzilla vs. Kong by director Adam Wingard, we will venture back to the beginning and examine the films of King Kong and its similar ilk in gigantic primate goodness. There is truly no business like monkey business.

King Kong (1933) – Dir. Ernest B. Schoedsack & Merian C. Cooper

The film that started it all. A pioneer in special effects that bolstered imaginations in visual storytelling, King Kong (1933) is a rollicking action-adventure spectacle that still astounds after eighty-eight years. For those who do not know the well-worn story, the film follows the quest of Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong), an enthusiastic filmmaker who specializes in huge spectacles. But over time, he has received criticism for not featuring love interests in his stories so his solution is to find a marketable female lead.

The studio fails to provide one because Denham refuses to reveal the shooting location of his latest project. Denham decides to explore the streets to look for his female lead. Here we meet Ann Darrow (Fay Wray), a needy, down-on-her-luck woman who almost resorts to shoplifting. After getting caught in the act, Denham saves her from scrutiny and the two form an alliance as director and star.

The two set off on a ship and the crew set off to Skull Island. The presence of Ann spooks the crew due to ridiculous superstitions spouted by first mate Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot).  In a serendipitous fashion, the two form an unlikely romance.

However, all that may come to an end as Denham’s intentions for Ann hide an intent of greed. Denham knows of a monster called Kong living in Skull Island and plans to use it as a character for his project. When he and the crew come onshore, they encounter a native ritual. The locals plan to sacrifice a girl as the bride of Kong. However, Denham and the others interrupt, which apparently ruins the ceremony and things get worse and worse from there.

It is unfair to expect realism out of special effects from filmmaking techniques in 1933 but filmmakers Schoedsack and Cooper do a fantastic job with their compositing and staging of the titular creature alongside the cast. Of course, it is unbelievable but the stellar techniques lend the film a sense of immersion and interactivity that makes the audience wanting in on the fun.

The film also boasts a surprising amount of action. Once the titular creature appears, we get lots of chase sequences through forests, rivers, cliff faces. There are many monster bouts as Kong fights sea creatures, dinosaurs and winged creatures. The action scenes are all energetic, thrilling and most importantly, illicit a sense of scale that overcomes the factor that we are looking at miniature special effects.

The cast all give fine performances; especially Wray as the ingenue and Armstrong as the filmmaker who is in over his head.

It wasn’t the actors though which the audiences came to see, it was the titular character which got them to the cinema. And on that note, the filmmakers have succeeded in giving the audience what it wants. King Kong (1933) is a pure popcorn flick that is still wonderfully entertaining after almost 90 years. The dated elements are easily compensated by dynamic action sequences and special effects that are still thrilling today.

Son of Kong (1933) – Dir. Ernest B. Schoedsack

As you may have guessed due to the year of release, Son of Kong (1933) is clearly a response from the filmmakers to make a film after the popularity of the first film. Whether it is giving the audience what it wants or to milk the cash-cow (or both?), the studio gathered the same crew and the majority of the same cast and now have the follow-up to King Kong (1933).

Set a month after the events of the first film, Carl Denham has fallen on hard times. After the city-wide destruction wreaked by Kong, Denham is drowning in death threats, lawsuits and subpoenas after the victims held him responsible for their hardships. Not willing to own up to responsibility, Denham goes into hiding after meeting up with Captain Englehorn (Frank Reicher) and the two partner up to run a small shipping operation.

The two have a random encounter with Captain Helstrom (John Marston), the man who informed Denham about the location of Kong. The plot soon kicks in when Helstrom gets into trouble after killing a circus performer whilst in a drunken stupor. He hatches a plan of escape by luring Englehorn and Denham by saying that there is lost treasure in Skull Island. But the circus performer’s daughter Hilda (Helen Mack) knows what truly happens and follows them as she tries to thwart Helstrom.

During the trek, they discover that Hilda stowed away on the boat. The remaining crew and Hilda all continue toward Skull Island. There they discover a smaller relative of Kong’s, and the rest of the story follows their onward journey.

Clocking at a short runtime of 63 minutes, the film spends an awfully long time with the humans before the plot takes them to Skull Island to meet the creatures. We get endless sequences of interactions that lend little in terms of characterization; with the nadir reached with a musical scene that has nothing to do with the plot. To be fair, the filmmakers have come up with a convincing continuation for the character of Denham, who is trying to deny his responsibility until he realizes the error of his ways.

But other than that minor innovation, the film is basically lacking in almost every way in comparison to the first film. The special effects are as good as ever but the action scenes lack the visceral feel that made the scenes in the first film stand out. That may have been the filmmakers’ intention as Son of Kong (1933) is a lighter affair with more comic relief and a nicer, more upbeat titular creature.

Audiences may warm up to the change in tone as the humour does provide a couple of laughs due to how cheesy, cutesy and weird the creature comes off. The returning cast do what they can with their roles (Armstrong is still as charismatic as ever while Mack is spirited as Hilda) but few make a memorable impression.

And that basically sums up Son of Kong (1933); an obvious quickie cash-grab made to squeeze the juice out of the popularity of the first film. Although it is not without its own goofy charms, it is a letdown after the fantastic adventure of its predecessor.

Mighty Joe Young (1949) – Dir. Ernest B. Schoedsack

It is quite common for imitations to come out after a popular piece of work has made its mark. However, it is uncommon that an imitation of such ilk would come from the same people that made the popular piece of work in the first place. Sixteen years after the first two entries in the Kong pantheon, director Shoedsack, actor Armstrong and most of the crew reunite to create another creature feature with Mighty Joe Young (1949).

The film differs from the Kong template enough to stand on its own two feet, as it explores a tamer, less menacing ape. While the film may lack the menace of its predecessor, Mighty Joe Young (1949) compensates with more sophisticated effects work (supervised by renowned SFX artist, Ray Harryhausen). The action scenes are well-made in of themselves but they lack vigour since the titular character does not exude the same menace as the ape in the 1933 film.

However, Schoedsack provides a solid emotional backbone in the story and the effects complement in such a way that they make Joe’s conflicts and predicaments emotionally stirring; which still involve animal cruelty, corporate greed and the stigma of mass media entertainment. The human characters are fine, with Armstrong returning as a charismatic producer that is a similar riff to his prior roles and Terry Moore displaying enough spirit to make her character relatable and worth sympathizing for.

The action does peak with a satisfying third act in which Schoedsack stages the climax in a burning orphanage where Joe has to save the children. With a burst of colour conveying the rip-roaring fire, the set-piece becomes thrilling and visually stunning in its destruction and tenacity.

Overall, Mighty Joe Young (1949) is a remarkable feat in special effects and an improvement over Son of Kong (1933). It lacks the rip-roaring fun of the original 1933 film yet it stands on its own two feet thanks to its advanced special effects, a convincing emotional core and a satisfying final act. The use of colour in the climax is inspired.

Konga (1961) – Dir. John Lemont

Konga is one of the first Kong rip-offs that have tried to cash in on the ape craze. Consequently, most of these rip-offs tend to range from awe-inspiring to awful. In the case of Konga, it veers towards the latter. However, there are many moments that are so awful that it becomes hilarious.

The plot involves a British botanist (played magnificently by Michael Gough) trying to experiment on a baby chimpanzee known as Konga. After successfully growing his plant life (not a euphemism) to an enormous size, he decides to use Kong as a test subject to prove he can grow creatures into an enormous size. However, his obsession and arrogance get the better of him after his colleagues dismiss him as a crackpot. At this moment he decides to use Konga as a weapon to get rid of his enemies. This course of action damages his relationship with the people closest to him.

The story is as stupid as it sounds and quite frankly, the film can be a lot of fun to watch if you are heavily inebriated. The funniest (or most out-of-place) plot point in the film is when Gough’s character uses Konga to kill a student of his, just so he can be able to court the student’s girlfriend. For those in the back, do not laugh! That plot point is true and it is just as creepy and misguided as it sounds.

For the most part, the film is quite uneventful and treats itself too seriously to be a consistent laugh riot. The storytelling is laden with exposition delivered by Gough, who struggles valiantly to make it interesting. The suit effects are laughably inept and the mayhem sequences in the third act are unbelievable at best.

Overall, Konga is a King Kong cash-grab that is laughably ridiculous and yet too sincere to be unintentionally hilarious. With all the mad scientist antics like meat-eating plants and giant gorilla assassins, we expected more. Michael “Don’t Call Me Alfred” Gough is a tremendous sport by keeping all the tremendously silly proceedings in order.

King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962) – Dir. Ishiro Honda

Before we get Adam Wingard‘s film Godzilla vs. Kong in 2021, we currently have Ishiro Honda‘s King Kong vs. Godzilla, the first Godzilla film in colour!

He discards the depth, social commentary and characterizations from the prior Godzilla films altogether. In place of this, he fuels up the action, the camp and the monster fights. The film is fun, with the plentiful battles and attempts to capture the creatures being entertaining.

But large amounts of alcohol and a strong sense of humour are needed if you want to get past the political incorrectness (the natives are portrayed in blackface), the laughable special effects (the use of an actual octopus is laugh-out-loud funny), the extraordinary overacting (particularly from Ichiro Arishima, who is out-of-this-world bonkers as the Pharmaceutical CEO) and the ridiculous plot (A pharmaceutical company wants to capture Godzilla for marketing purposes?).

However, there is a strong social commentary underneath the monster antics as Honda lays out a blatant critique over Japanese mass media; through characters that are so greedy that they repeatedly endanger peoples’ lives just for the sake of popularity and mass profits. News shows are over the top, villains chew the scenery and the action scenes start to look like wrestling matches. King Kong vs. Godzilla is the film that turned the tables away from the sombre storytelling of the prior Godzilla films and it changed Kaiju cinema forever.

NOTE: There is also an American version of the film, that has extra scenes, rearrangement of existing scenes and a different musical score, in an attempt to make the film more Americanized. Unfortunately, the extra footage consists of a boring exposition that slows the film down to a screeching halt. Stick with the original version.

King Kong Escapes (1967) – Dir. Ishiro Honda

Director Ishiro Honda returns to the well to bring Kong back to the spotlight with the second (and final) entry of his Japanese oeuvre; King Kong Escapes, a flagrantly silly piece of fluff that throws in well-worn sci-fi tropes with a reckless abandon that can only inspire fun. With a villain named Doctor Who (I know, stay with me here), a hilariously inept evil plan involving making a robot version of the titular creature called Mechani-Kong to hypnotizing Kong for his dastardly deeds; it sounds like a total blast of goofy fun from beginning to end.

The suit effects and miniatures are still charming in their low-fi, scrappy qualities – especially when moving vehicles that look like toys that children would play with. The physicality of the performers in the suits (Haruo Nakajima, being the master of said craft) is incredibly admirable due to the sheer torturous moments of stuntwork and pyrotechnics they have to go through.

The performers are in on the proceedings as they perform broadly with the material with a bit of a wink (Mie Hama vamps it up while Eisei Anamoto chews the scenery with his evil glares and scruffy haircut) and not above it. The parallels between this story and the 1933 film are also appreciated; especially when Kong becomes allured by Linda Miller as the requisite blonde in Kong films.

However, the main detriment of the film that prevents it from being a stellar entry is the pacing. The thin characterizations are one thing (and are expected from films like this). But when the film’s storytelling slows to a crawl in the second act to focus on exposition, it becomes a bit of a bore. Especially when the audience has to do without interesting characters to cling to.

Thankfully, the climax delivers in all the city-wide destruction that one expects and leaves the film ending on a positive note. It is a bit of a shame that we did not get any more Toho films involving Kong as the opportunities are still left unattended.

Overall, King Kong Escapes is an entertaining film infused with Kaiju goodness, meaning a deeper sense of scale and men in suits. Veteran filmmaker Honda lends the film a fun, goofy edge that overcomes its stodgy pacing and bland characters.

King Kong (1976) – Dir. John Guillermin

The first remake of the 1933 film and certainly not the last. Unless you count the Mighty Joe Young films but mileage may vary. Produced by renowned producer Dino De Laurentiis and saddled with a then-sizable budget that many filmmakers would envy, director John Guillermin had the mammoth task of bringing the titular creature to a modern age. Does the man succeed?

The film still follows the template of the 1933 film (venture on to island, encounter Kong, get Kong to civilization through means of a blond woman, destruction ensues). However, the film discards the filmmaking angle and diving more into the capitalism angle, as the characters venture onto the island in search of sources for oil.

The story leaves plenty of room for different interpretations of the original material and some of it works quite effectively. The portrayal of capitalist and industrial greed may have been seen as over-the-top at the film’s release. However, it does feel quite prescient in the present age of social media and comical memes through the marketing lens. The portrayal of adventure in the film is grittier; particularly in the case of injury detail as the cannon fodder gets disposed of in graphic ways.

But the film lacks a strong personality to stand out which makes the film a fine however unimpressive experience. The cast does their best with their characters but they all fall behind in the background to let the special effects do all the talking.

Jeff Bridges is strangely anonymous in the lead role as the palaeologist who is against the expedition. Conversely, Jessica Lange exhibits a strange yet beguiling mix of wonder and obliviousness that proves amusing, in the role of the shipwreck survivor/actress who is the point of affection for Kong. Last but not least, Charles Grodin chews the scenery with his exclamations on greed and doing whatever it takes to exploit Kong for oil companies. Yes, it is as ridiculous as it sounds. Speaking of ridiculous, there is a scene in the film where Kong and Lange’s character bond as he blows her dry as she is wet from swimming. No, that is not a euphemism.

It is a shame that the only true thing that is ambitious about the film is the technology. Veering away from the stop-motion animation and aiming for rear projection and actors in suits, it lacks the charm of the Kaiju films in Japan and it comes across as unconvincing when the filmmakers try to exhibit wonder. However, the levels of violence and tension are appreciated as it provides an alternative tone in how Kong is not a wonder to gaze upon, but a force of nature to be reckoned with.

Overall, King Kong (1976) is an average reiteration that has an expansive budget and a modern edge. However, it lacks a true personality to stand out from the other Kong films, aside from a noticeable streak in cruelty.

Queen Kong (1976) – Dir. Frank Agrama

One would think that with this many iterations of the King Kong story, a parody would be on the horizon. In the case of the UK production Queen Kong, it was not looked favourably on by the producers of the 1976 film i.e. Dino De Laurentiis. So much so, the filmmakers of Queen Kong were taken to legal action, and the film was never released theatrically in the United Kingdom. However, the film has been released on DVD and people have been rediscovering it. Was it worth the wait?

The film essentially remakes the plot of the King Kong lore but it flips the gender roles; meaning that the blond bombshell is now a male and all the crew members and island natives are played by women. Unfortunately, that is the only modicum of wit that is evident in the film as Queen Kong revels in infantile, boorish, offensive and worst of all, unfunny humour that makes its 84-minute runtime a massive slog.

The film starts off quite well as it adopts the filmmaking angle of the story with promise; showing a metatextual view that proves to be amusing due to seeing many women in roles of autonomy as they belittle the roles of men. But once the character of Ray Fay (an obvious joke of the lead actress in the 1933 Kong film, Fay Wray) enters the picture, the film gets into a slathering of “jokes” that go into dated product placement (Konga Kola?), obvious pop culture references (the island natives dance the Konga), musical interludes that aim for shock value with how un-PC the filmmakers are and offensive jokes that one should not mention in writing here.

But the true horror of the film is the blatant disregard for making anything involving Kong or the special effects even remotely convincing. The suit is awful in its attempt to be funny (a literal breastplate, wow!). Now one would think that this type of sloppiness can be seen as unintentionally hilarious. However, the cynicism behind the filmmaking — especially in how they think they can get away with the horrific presentation just because it is a comedy – is so blatantly prevalent that there is no fun behind any of it.

Queen Kong is a film that is best left for cult film enthusiasts that can find value in seeing what is questionably a film relic but everyone else should steer clear from this dud.

A*P*E (1976) – Dir. Paul Leder

The third giant ape film that came out in 1976; an American/South Korean co-production that like Queen Kong was made to cash-in on the buzz of the then-upcoming remake of King Kong (1976). But like Queen Kong, the film A*P*E was sued by the filmmakers of King Kong (1976) and has gone on to cult obscurity until its eventual release on DVD/Blu-Ray. But will the film gain a new life as an undiscovered gem or will it be something that should have stayed forgotten like Queen Kong?

Just when you thought when a film cannot get any worse than Queen Kong, here comes the barf-fest known as A*P*E; a grossly incompetent piece of work that is so mindboggling in its ineptitude that you sit there in utter disbelief for the first ten minutes and become bored out of your mind for the remaining eighty.

Say what you want about the sloppy films like Queen Kong, Konga or Mighty Peking Man; at least those films exhibit a sense of spirit that makes their flaws somehow tolerable or even enjoyable. Somehow, A*P*E cannot even approach those levels. The storytelling is so incredibly tedious that it is absolutely astounding that even the titular creature moves faster. The characterizations are all so scant that all the human characters might as well have been substituted by cardboard cutouts.

But last and definitely the least is the effects work. The entire film budget was USD $23,000 but when you see it on-screen, you will wonder whether the film might have had less than that. There is only so much one can blame on the low budget because there is just so much terrible filmmaking on display. Believe it or not, assistant director Mimi Leder (daughter of A*P*E director Paul Leder) is famous for films like Deep Impact, The Peacemaker and On the Basis of Sex.

There is no sense of believable scale whatsoever as the titular creature moves around as if it is just a man in a suit. The 3D is of the pointing variety but there is so little of those moments that it just becomes a pointless endeavour. Even if one were to see the film in 3D, it can only make the miniatures even more obviously fake.

There is no stylistic flourish (like the use of slow-motion) or filmmaking technique that is utilized well (there is never a moment where the creature is shown in rear-projection or forced perspective convincingly or seamlessly) and there are so many gaffes (strings are visible as projectiles are thrown) that it will either make you want to rip your hair out or it would make you laugh if you had a lot of alcohol in your system.

There are many unbelievably misguided moments that will elicit a laugh or two like a scene when the ape dances to the incongruent musical score (I am not kidding!) or the moment when the ape encounters incredibly fake miniatures like a wind-up cow or a hang-glider (Again, I am not kidding!); but there are not enough of these moments to make a consistently laughable piece of schlock. And there is an appalling moment where two characters romantically bond after the actress had just finished filming a rape scene.

It is movies like this that will make people consider their mixed opinions on monster films that are sometimes dismissed as disposable crap; and that is exactly what A*P*E is. There is a moment in the film where the titular ape gives the middle finger to the military attacking him. That sums up everything about this film.

Mighty Peking Man (1977) – Dir. Ho Meng-hua

Watching this film after Queen Kong was a breath of fresh air and shows that in order to make a so-bad-it’s-good film, you need an element of sincerity behind it. Due to the success of King Kong (1976), the renowned Chinese film stalwart Shaw Brothers Studios took notice and decided to make their own version. With blockbuster director Ho Meng-hua at the helm, Danny Lee as the lead and acclaimed sci-fi/wuxia author Ni Kuang on screenplay duty, the film looked like it was going to be a big winner. Does the film succeed in providing a fresh coat of paint to the established ape formula?

The story starts off when word spreads around that a giant ape creature (known as Peking Man or Utam) is living in the Himalayas. Our lead characters are the handsome adventurer Johnny Feng (Danny Lee) and a slimy promoter (Ku Feng) who are sent to the Himalayas to bring back the ape alive to Hong Kong. Johnny is basically pushed to go along with the group after his life has gone into a downward spiral as a result of catching his fiancée cheating on him with his brother.

Through many misadventures and dangerous situations involving ferocious tigers, quicksand and stampeding elephants, Johnny is left alone in the wilderness. It is at his dying state, he is fortunately found by the mesmerizingly young Samantha (Evelyne Kraft), a feral jungle woman who happens to be the guardian for Peking Man and might as well be the female Tarzan. It is during Johnny’s stay, the two fall in love and inexplicably, Johnny somehow gets Samantha to bring Peking Man back to Hong Kong. Danger ensues.

There is no way in poo-perfect hell one can critique this movie without laughing. But wow, this film is a boatload of fun if you can stomach the rampant terribleness and if you have a steady supply of alcohol. The effects work from the rear projection, the miniatures, the suits are all hilariously shoddy since the filmmakers never even attempt to make it realistic or even plausible. However, director Ho brings a palpable sense of energy to the pacing (which fittingly involves the laughable use of undercranking) which makes the flaws feel oddly exhilarating in how it compounds itself with its awfulness.

If you thought the effects were terrible, the script by Ni Kuang is even worse. A love triangle between Johnny, Samantha and Peking Man is such a misguided moment that it can only end up exerting laughter from the audience. There’s even a sequence involving Johnny sucking out the venom out of Samantha after she gets bitten by a snake and it is as sexually suggestive as it sounds.

Not to mention the plot holes ahoy; and the many other misguided moments like the cross-cutting between Samantha on the verge of sexual abuse and Peking Man exhibiting levels of rage. Or a tear-inducing barf-fest of a romantic montage that will have you in hysterics thanks to its corny ballads and liberal use of slow-motion.

You cannot legitimately review a film like this one, but that is what makes the film so memorable. Mighty Peking Man is a fantastic example of a film that is so bad that it ends up being good. It is definitely the funniest film of the entire bunch.

King Kong Lives (1986) – Dir. John Guillermin

10 years after the events of King Kong (1976), director John Guillermin returns to the well to continue the story of Kong. Thought to be dead after ten years, Kong is actually in an induced coma under the care of the Atlantic Institute. The only way to save Kong is to conduct a heart transplant with an artificial heart. But Kong is lacking blood and the staff have to find a creature that is similar to Kong in order to do a blood transfusion.

But “oh what a coincidence”, our lead characters being the handsome adventure Hank “Mitch” Mitchell (Brian Kerwin) and the knowledgeable and headstrong scientist Dr. Amy Franklin (Linda Hamilton) come across a female ape on the same island where Kong was found, dubbed Lady Kong. The transplant to revive Kong succeeds but not without its consequences; leading our two leads in complete danger as the two Kongs try to figure out how they can leave human civilization to get back home.

If you thought King Kong (1976) was bad, King Kong Lives makes that film look like an Oscar winner. Strung with performances from actors who look like they do not want to be there (there are various interviews of Hamilton admitting her embarrassment with the film), bafflingly silly story/plot decisions (A love interest for Kong? Monkey heart transplant?) and shoddy effects that are inferior to those in its predecessor; the film would be a laughable hoot if it were not so darn boring.

There are moments of inspired silliness like a childbirth sequence in the climax, a death scene that is morbidly funny that it literally ends in a cemetery and a camera shot from the perspective of a frog; but it is just not enough to justify its runtime. For the latter, why does that moment happen? Who the hell knows? To provide some important context, director Guillermin was in a strong bout of grief over the death of his son, which could explain the shoddy quality of the film.

The most memorable thing about the film is that the film itself was used as an integral plot device in the 1998 Mark Wahlberg-led action/comedy, The Big Hit. That is the biggest thing going for it and unfortunately, no critical re-evaluation can save it.

 

Mighty Joe Young (1998) – Dir. Ron Underwood

A remake of the 1949 film of the same name; the film looks promising with the talent involved including leads Charlize Theron/Bill Paxton and an increased budget that speaks well for the special effects involved, backed up by Walt Disney Studios. However, the 1949 film was already a slight diversion of King Kong (1933), so a remake of the former already sounds quite redundant at face value; which unfortunately speaks of the quality of the 1998 film.

As for the positives, some of the special effects – including animatronics, miniatures, CG creations, green screen – have aged quite well. The action scenes which involve a traffic jam and a theme park are well-realized, convincing and deliver a welcome punch to the proceedings.

The film also shows some minor inspiration with its storytelling as it veers away from the showbiz angle of the original and aims for an ecological angle without sacrificing the themes of animal cruelty, exploitation for greed that made the original dramatically compelling. It also helps that Theron and Paxton lend some credibility to their roles in making some of the drama work and there are cameos you can spot from people that worked on the original film, including Ray Harryhausen.

As for the negatives, the storytelling and filmmaking prove to be incredibly didactic to the point of being annoying and quite patronizing. Yes, the film is produced by Walt Disney Studios and it is aimed at children but even so, a little subtlety would have worked wonders to make the drama convincing for both children and adults.

It also does not help that the characters are played broadly and have no discernible arc whatsoever, making the audience wait desperate for Joe to show up. The heroes are pristine, squeaky-clean for the most part while the villains are SO EVIL! So evil that the only traits about them are wanting money and the main antagonist (played by Rade Serbedzija) has a grudge against Joe for having his thumb bitten off. This leads to the lack of control with its tone. It veers towards being too infantile for adults and too sadistic for children.

Mighty Joe Young (1998) is an inferior remake of the 1949 film that primarily loses what made the original great due to its insistent filmmaking; telegraphing every single story point to the point of annoyance. The effects work and set-pieces are effective though.

King Kong (2005) – Dir. Peter Jackson

With the recent accolades of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, acclaimed New Zealand filmmaker Peter Jackson takes on the mammoth task of bringing Kong to modern times. Jackson is a talented director who always brings a sense of grandeur and horror to the stories that he tells and King Kong (2005) is no exception.

The story is very faithful to the 1933 film but it has notable embellishments and changes that make it a remarkable, if flawed piece of work. The first embellishment is Jackson’s focus on beefing up the characterizations in the story. For example, Jack Driscoll (a charming yet morose Adrien Brody) is no longer the first mate of the crew but is changed to being an acclaimed writer who is reluctantly brought onto the ship to continue script duties for the film. That notable change makes the romantic subplot between Ann Darrow (a dynamic Naomi Watts) more convincing in its establishment and it makes it easy for the audience to care for the characters.

However, that embellishment comes at the expense of the film’s pacing; particularly in the case of the first act. It takes an entire hour for the characters to reach Skull Island, which can test the patience of the audience. That is not to say that the first act is a dearth of interesting material but more tightened pacing would have benefitted the film.

The second embellishment is the introduction of horror to the story. As Jackson has dwelled in the genre before with his early films like Dead Alive, The Frighteners and Heavenly Creatures; the tension, suspense and brutal violence gives the action a remarkable sense of heft that earns the film its blockbuster status. The haunting feel starts when the crew meet the natives — it is surprisingly scary, especially how it brings up moments that are reminiscent of the horror film Cannibal Holocaust. This is most evident in a scene when the remaining crew are in a crevasse and they are attacked by giant locusts and slugs and it is excruciating to watch in how long it lasts.

The final embellishment is the romanticization of the bond between Darrow and Kong. In the prior films, it is either glanced upon or executed poorly but in the 2005 iteration, Jackson breathes new life and makes their interactions endearing and even quite touching. There are moments of cheesiness to be sure (like a scene involving ice skating on a frozen lake) but the emotional follow-through is undeniable.

On the technical front, the film is fantastic. The mo-cap work on Kong (along with Andy Serkis’ remarkable performance) is seamless and convincing in its scale and realism. The action set-pieces are spectacular to witness as Jackson goes over-the-top with the obstacles that he throws on the characters (including one sequence where the crew runs along with a dinosaur stampede that looks endearingly retro in its execution) and the scenes where Kong faces opponents like a T-Rex pack a real visceral punch.

The performances are all stellar enough to make their characters stand out and they never act above the material. The call-backs to the original film range from being amusing (a scene that a charismatically smarmy Jack Black as Carl Denham directs is an exact scene in the 1933 film) to being emotionally stirring (a scene involves Denham telling the opening screed of the 1933 film in a voiceover as Kong is presented on stage).

King Kong (2005) is a vastly entertaining rollercoaster of a remake of the 1933 film that overcomes its long runtime with a strong sense of grandeur, romance and horror to the serial action-adventure in the story. This makes it an awe-inspiring and emotionally compelling experience.

Kong: Skull Island (2017) – Dir. Jordan Vogt-Roberts

Let’s get one thing straight: this film does not have the tone of Gareth Edwards‘ Godzilla. So for those who want their monster films dark and serious would probably be deterred by the film’s lighter tone. But for those who relish the campy, silly monster films of yore will be highly entertained.

The trailers for the film promise loads of monster battles and boy, do we get them! Unlike the relentless teasing of showing Godzilla in the 2014 film, Kong is shown in the very first scene and has a constant presence throughout the film. The action scenes are plentiful, distinct, and pack a massive punch.

The scene where Kong appears before the expedition crew for the first time is the highlight of the film. Other action scenes include giant insects, pterodactyls, octopi and of course, the Skullcrawlers, and they are spectacular to behold, thanks to Jordan Vogt-Roberts‘ direction, Larry Fong‘s graphic novel-like cinematography and John Dykstra‘s handling of the special effects. There are some inventive touches in the action scenes that also add to the fun like the use of a flashing camera or the use of toxic gas.

Speaking of Vogt-Roberts, it is very clear that he is a huge fan of genre cinema and animation, particularly with Studio Ghibli. Besides the obvious references to Apocalypse Now and Platoon, the visual splendour and film-making references acclaimed animated films like Princess Mononoke (the settings and monsters), Spirited Away (the monsters) and even Laputa: Castle in the Sky (the scene where the expedition crew go through the storm to enter the island).

Although the splendour may interfere with the logic in the story (would anyone standstill if an explosion happened that close?), thankfully, the film doesn’t really take itself seriously, therefore the splendour always adds to the fun. I also liked the fact there are no shoehorned references or excessive foreshadowing to future films, unlike films of other established universes.

The violence of the film is also a surprise that actually shocked me quite a bit. Considering that this is an M-rated film, the implications of these violent scenes still make a huge impact. For example, a soldier meets his end with an incoming helicopter and another in a bamboo forest, which has a striking visual reference to the found-footage horror flick Cannibal Holocaust.

Speaking of the lighter tone, contrary to the 2014 Godzilla film, Kong: Skull Island actually has a sense of humour. Everyone in the film clearly knows the ridiculousness of the story and the premise and they all have fun with it. So much so, that it’s quite hard to believe that this film is set in the same universe as the 2014 Godzilla film.

Almost every monster film has weak characterisations and Kong: Skull Island is no exception. Fortunately, the majority of the ensemble cast are all charismatic enough to stand out regardless. Tom Hiddleston basically reprises his role from The Night Manager as James Conrad; meaning that he gives a stoic, heroic and controlled performance that suits the film. Brie Larson capably exudes charm, sympathy and some much-needed wit to the proceedings, while John Goodman and Samuel L. Jackson chew some scenery with gusto.

The majority of the supporting cast have their moments like Corey Hawkins as a passionate geologist and Thomas Mann, who gives an amusing performance that is clearly inspired by Bill Paxton‘s performance in Aliens while Shea Whigham and Jason Mitchell are an amusing duo with their banter. Toby Kebbell is fine as the sympathetic family man of the squadron, but he isn’t given much to do, probably because he was too busy helping out with the motion-capture process of the film.

Fortunately, the film compensates with John C. Reilly, who is the standout of the film. The trailers seem to hint that he was cast in the film for comic relief, but he ends up more than that and registers as a convincing action hero. His character has a solid backstory and also has a scene during the credits that was surprisingly poignant.

Overall, Kong: Skull Island is a lot of fun, with many spectacular monster battles, a likeable ensemble cast, outstanding visual splendour and a standout performance from John C. Reilly. Don’t leave the film during the credits, as there is still one scene to come for your pleasure.

Rampage (2018) – Dir. Brad Peyton

When you hear of a film that features a giant albino gorilla, a towering mutated crocodile, a massive hybrid wolf wreaking havoc, led by the ubiquitous Dwayne Johnson, it would be hard to resist such a simple premise. But there is one single caveat that would make one shudder in trepidation; being that the film is based on a videogame. As it is common knowledge for many, films based on video games do not exactly have the perfect record when it comes to both critics and audiences. But will this film somehow break the video game cinematic curse?

While the film is no great shakes in terms of filmmaking, the spectacle is entertainingly robust and their aspirations from the filmmakers are simple enough to appreciate and enjoy; considering the low-level ambitions which are to just simply entertain.

What Rampage does well is to adapt a lesser-known entry and establish a universe that complements the titular videogame, without the unfair expectations and creative restrictions that would burden the filmmakers. The decision means it succeeds on its own two feet. It also does not suffer from large amounts of exposition to establish the world, which keeps the running time tight and concise.

And on that note, Peyton and crew simply establish simple character arcs for both human players and monsters; then they simply let them loose and the mayhem and – wait for it! — rampage begins! The film does have a level of self-awareness in which the filmmakers lean into a bit too much – especially with the use of Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s character as the upper echelon agent with an exaggerated drawl – but the cast is all in on the jovial nature of the silly premise and adds fun to the proceedings.

Johnson does the established persona that spoofs his hulking image to amusing effect while Naomie Harris adds a smidgen of personality that rises above the exposition role. The villainous roles by Malin Akerman and Jake Lacy are played with moustache-stroking bravado and it comes across as hilarious when audiences discover their plan; which is one of the stupidest plans in cinematic existence.

The monsters are all portrayed convincingly, with massive kudos to the special effects crew for making them menacing enough to fear them as well as sympathize with some of them. Which is saying something when one considers the lack of logic and suspense in regards to the action. The setpieces are rollicking in their audacity but it never gets the hearts pumping because characters survive the most dangerous scenarios repeatedly that their chances of survival become extremely predictable. The film also takes some of its dramatic stakes a bit too seriously that it makes it all quite perfunctory; despite the filmmakers’ attempts to examine serious issues like animal hunting.

Overall, Rampage is one of the better recent video game-to-film adaptations; an intergalactically silly monster mash that gets the destruction and performances right but struggles to correlate the tones of silliness with sincerity.

Neil Frances

Godzilla vs. Kong is screening now in Australian theatres. It’s also screening in theatres and digitally on HBO Max in the USA. 

Simpsons Photo Credit: 20th Century Fox

Harris Dang

Rotten Tomatoes-approved Film Critic. Also known as that handsome Asian guy you see in the cinema with a mask on.

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