The moment a movie’s title appears on-screen is always a huge opportunity to set the tone for the audience. So what does it say about “King Kong Lives” that the movie’s title appears over a shot of desktop computers with gentle music better-suited for something with Sally Field? This is a title that demands an exclamation point, but gets a weak little shrug instead. “King Kong Lives, I Guess.” Or, considering what actually happens in the movie, you could call it “King Kong Lives…For A While.” But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
This is a direct sequel to Dino De Laurentis’ 1976 remake “Kong,” and it reminds us of that fact right away by starting with the last couple of minutes of that movie. Say hello and goodbye to Jessica Lange and Jeff Bridges, as well as the city of New York. Since Kong’s unfortunate visit to the World Trade Center in the ’76 movie, he has been transferred to a university outside Atlanta, where he’s been on life support in a coma for the last 10 years. Linda Hamilton is a surgeon who has been keeping the giant gorilla alive all this time while working on an artificial heart the size of a Volkswagen. I don’t mean to sound callous to Kong’s plight, but what does the university expect to learn about a giant gorilla with an artificial heart that they couldn’t learn in the 10 years they’ve had him under sedation?
Once Kong’s new heart is ready, however, a complication arises – Kong needs a blood transfusion and nothing but 100 percent Kong blood will do. Wouldn’t you know it, an unscrupulous Indiana Jones type has just so happened to stumble onto the only other known member of Kong’s species in Borneo. And I mean “stumbled,” because he manages to sit in her hand without noticing her. Yes, King Kong finally has a queen, and she’s dragged back to civilization to help save his life.
The operation is a success, but Kong catches wind of Lady Kong’s presence and busts out of captivity, much to the chagrin of the single doughy security guard the university has watching him. Kong crashes the airplane hangar where they’re keeping the female and literally carries her over the threshold as they escape into the wilds of Georgia. The military gets involved at this point, while Hamilton and the hunter chase after the giant apes with the remote control for Kong’s artificial heart. Unless Hamilton can make regular adjustments to Kong’s heart, you see, he’s not long for this world.
Once the army catches up to Mr. and Mrs. Kong, they’re able to recapture the female and force Kong himself to plummet into a raging river where he cracks his head on a rock and presumably drown. This is where the movie jumps ahead one full year to reveal the army has been keeping Lady Kong at the bottom of a nuclear missile silo and King Kong has been living incognito in the Everglades and eating the entire alligator population of Florida. It was one thing when Kong lived on a secluded island in the far part of the Pacific Ocean, but how he can go unnoticed for so long so close to Disney World is a mystery the movie isn’t interested in.
In time, Kong gets wind that his lady love is being held captive nearby and, in a real step down from destroying Manhattan in 1976, demolishes a Florida trailer park on his way to the rescue. Kong breaks Lady Kong out of her captivity just after Hamilton and her now-boyfriend the hunter discover that Lady Kong is, inevitably, pregnant. It all culminates in a knock-down drag-out between Kong and the Army, but the fight is just too much for Kong’s temporary ticker, and he succumbs to his injuries just in time to see his newborn son for the first and last time. Monkey die, everybody cry.
The original “King Kong” didn’t make any bones about it – Kong was a beast, a truly terrifying monster. The 1976 and 2005 remakes did what they could to make Kong more sympathetic, perhaps reflecting a more enlightened view of animal rights. Where “King Kong Lives” stumbles is by being much too far in Kong’s corner. He’s not a monster – he’s a family man, wrongly imprisoned, a persecuted minority and suffering from heart disease to boot. The real monsters, as so often happens, are man, and there are already way too many movies about them. Long scenes of Kong and Lady Kong trying to play house in the wilds of Georgia try to inject some emotional heft but ends up looking like outtakes from “The Banana Splits.”
In addition to giving over so much of its running time to monkey melodrama, “King Kong Lives” handles its human relationships no more effectively. Hamilton and her hunter beau have nothing in common until he suddenly changes his entire attitude about profiting off the apes and tags along with her to rescue Kong. Then it’s about 10 minutes until they’re sharing a sleeping bag. It’s actually the second unearned relationship this hunter character has with a female in the movie, as Lady Kong develops a bond with him despite the fact that he gassed her and dragged her away from her home to forcibly donate her blood.
It’s strange to say that the main problem with a giant monster movie is that the relationships aren’t believable, but “King Kong Lives” doesn’t give you much else to talk about. Transplanting Kong from New York City into the nondescript American Southeast means there isn’t much for Mr. and Mrs. Kong to do. It’s worth noting that Kong’s rival from across the Pacific, Godzilla, went through a similar phase in his career when he stopped stomping on Tokyo and fought his enemies in the middle of a big empty field. The cost of living is cheaper in the suburbs, even when you’re a giant monster.
Every Kong dies, but not every Kong truly lives. That’s the problem with “King Kong Lives” – so much effort goes into making Kong sympathetic that one of the movie’s greatest monsters is reduced to a mopey, hobbled mess. The story of once-great man who struggles to overcome a chronic disease and overwhelming odds to be a good husband and father is a winning formula for Nicolas Sparks, perhaps, but not the Eighth Wonder of the World.