Ten years ago, the great ape King Kong plunged from the top of the World Trade Center in Manhattan. However, he did not die, as many people believed.
Rather, Kong was put on life support at the state-of-the-art Atlanta Institute, and nurtured under the tender-loving care of a pioneering heart surgeon Dr. Amy Franklin (Linda Hamilton).
Now -- a decade later -- Kong’s heart is giving out, and he requires a blood transfusion so he can undergo surgery for the implantation of an artificial heart.
The big question: is there a compatible donor out there anywhere? Where on Earth is Dr. Franklin going to find a compatible, giant ape?
That question is answered, unexpectedly in Borneo. A rogue hunter, Hank Mitchell (Brian Kerwin) encounters a giant, friendly female ape, Lady Kong, and befriends her. He negotiates for her to be returned to the States, and undergo the necessary transfusion after receiving assurances regarding her safety.
After the difficult surgery (which is conducted with giant-sized surgical tools…) King Kong awakes and detects the nearby presence of Lady Kong. He escapes from captivity, and frees his female counterpart. The two apes mate in the wild, but the Army wants them destroyed, fearing the two primates represent a danger to the citizenry.
When Kong is separated from his pregnant bride, he goes all out to rescue her, and see -- at least once before he dies -- his beloved offspring.
Most of the deficits that critics claim (incorrectly) for the 1976 version of King Kong are actually true of this sequel, 1986’s King Kong Lives.
The ’76 film is termed campy all the time, even though that descriptor is not totally accurate. This film, by contrast, is very campy at times, its tone largely inconsistent. In every way imaginable, King Kong Lives is a big comedown from its underappreciated predecessor.
John Guillermin again directs, but he is dealing with a plainly inferior script, fewer interesting characters, and unimpressive locations that don’t stack up to the wondrous natural vistas of the first film.
Also, there’s been a crucial change in how Kong (and the other apes) are visualized. There were a lot of low angle shots looking up at a looming Kong in the 1976 film. The audience thus had a sense of his size; his power. Here, we get far too many long shots of the apes tromping around on miniature landscapes, battling miniature tanks. The position of the camera is at about eye level of the ape; a viewpoint or perspective that does not capture the size and grandeur of the Kong family well. Instead, it is plain that men in suits are the order of the day, but not visualized in an inventive or expressive way.
Why else does King Kong Lives fail?
Well, there are no returning characters from the first film. I understand why Jeff Bridges and Jessica Lange may not have wished to return, in the mid-1980s, for a Kong film, but Jack Prescott and Dwan were present for Kong’s capture, his return to the States, and his tragic fall in Manhattan. It doesn’t seem likely that once they find out he is still alive that they wouldn’t attempt to involve himself in the story.
Again, I understand that the actors may not have been available. Recasting is one possibility. Or the characters could have been mentioned, even once. But without even an allusion to these important characters, the sequel automatically seems like a “step down” from its predecessor, since there are no returning characters other than the big beast himself.
Secondly, Kong’s survival raises important questions. He survived a fall from the Twin Towers, but did not break any bones from that fall? Instead, only his heart was damaged? What about blood loss from the helicopter attack and ensuing fall?
It seems likely that Kong would have died from blood loss, if nothing else, in 1976. If he had been comatose for ten years, as we are led to believe, wouldn’t his muscles have atrophied during that time?
Next, it is fair to state that Kong’s surgery is visualized in totally absurd, ridiculous fashion, with giant-sized medical equipment, as though this were another episode of Irwin Allen’s Land of the Giants (1968-1970).
At one point, a fork-lift is wheeled into the vast operating room, to lift and lower the giant ape hearts, real and artificial. So I suppose things like sterile instruments -- or a sterile environment -- aren’t a problem in a surgery of this type, on a being of Kong’s nature?
Finally, it’s fair to note, I believe, the wildly inconsistent tone of the film.
Some moments knowingly (and quite amusingly) tread into mean-spirited camp. For instance, there’s the moment wherein Kong crushes a sports car belonging to a young preppie kid. It’s a funny moment. It’s fun to watch the rich, entitled brat get his ride crushed.
And then there’s the (great) scene in which nasty rednecks capture and torture Kong, and the ape exacts his wrath upon them.
Both sequences are incredibly campy, and incredibly entertaining too. But the film vacillates from schmaltzy, sentimental scenes of the Kong family, to these (knowing…) ridiculous scenes of Kong’s destruction. The movie just doesn’t gel as a consistent narrative.
The actors treat the material with the utmost solemnity, especially Linda Hamilton, and the result is that the film plays as absolutely ridiculous. I’m a King Kong fan since childhood, but King Kong Lives fails in so many ways to update or maintain the character’s legacy.
Still, it is fair to note that the film carries some influence. The end sequence here, of Lady Kong and Baby Kong in a natural reserve, is ported lock, stock, and barrel for the ending of 1997’s The Lost World: Jurassic Park II.