Popular history records the 1976 remake of King Kong as a terrible failure, but this is not in fact the case. The film cost a shocking amount of money, much of it wasted on a terrible-looking and dysfunctional live-sized robot Kong, but it also brought in a pretty healthy box office return, emerging as one of the year's biggest hits. Certainly, it brought in enough to suggest that a sequel might potentially be a financially advisable idea, and producer extraordinaire Dino De Laurentiis was absolutely not the sort to leave money on the table. So it's not so daft, on the face of it, that King Kong Lives was made. As sequels to King Kong moves go, its existence was at least as predictable as that of Son of Kong from 1933, made before the era of sequels and franchises really kicked into overdrive in the back half of the '30s.

No indeed, what's actually daft about King Kong Lives is that it took ten whole years before it finally came out, by which time King Kong had completed its undoubtedly short journey from "this movie about a giant ape who is kidnapped by an oil company executive is kind of borderline-fun!" to "what the fuck was going on with that piece of crap movie?", by which time Star Wars and the many films to follow its lead had totally redefined what the audience wanted out of its mindless popcorn entertainment, by which time King Kong star Jessica Lange had managed to eke out enough distance between herself and her mortifying screen debut to win an Oscar, and by which time any conceivable interest anybody might have had in seeing anything to do with De Laurentiis's baby had iced over. Accordingly, King Kong Lives proved to be an enormous financial failure of exactly the sort that King Kong somehow managed not to be.

And aesthetically? Yeah, that too. I harbor no love at all for the 1976 film, but there are flickers of something watchable in it: Jeff Bridges's performance, the state of the art mechanics in the Rick Baker-designed Kong suit. It takes King Kong Lives to show us just how deeply rancid a King Kong movie could eventually get - I 'm not sure that I can name a solitary aspect of this mournfully bad sequel that I don't at least slightly hate. John Scott's score, I guess; it's not one for the ages, but it has a rich adventure movie attitude that suggests somebody at last learning the proper way to copy off of John Williams, if not how to etch out his own personality. The music is very lovely, but used in very dumb ways, let's put it that way.

"The music is kind of good, or could anyway be a whole lot worse" is among the most passive-aggressive compliments that I think I have ever paid a movie, but that's all King Kong Lives deserves. It's an utter wretch, bad as a ten-years-later sequel to an awful remake might turn out to be in your deepest, darkest nightmares. The idea is that when Kong fell off the World Trade Center at the end of King Kong, see, he didn't die. Turns out that - are you sitting down? - King Kong lives. But he is in a coma, and has been for ten years now, at the Georgia institution of medical learning called the Atlanta Institute if you're the sort of viewer who likes to go by onscreen text, or the Atlantic Institute if you're more into the dialogue that characters say. By the way, if you do tend to care about the dialogue that characters say, you'd be well advised to bring a crash helmet and some Dramamine into King Kong Lives because ho-lee shit. I think my personal favorite part might be when a very serious doctor gravely declares, "Only one thing can save Kong" (his massive heart is about to give out), and another very serious doctor gravely asks her, "What's that?" and the first one gravely replies, "A miracle", and all of the attending doctors gravely nod as though Christiaan Barnard himself had carved those words onto golden tablets and hand-delivered them to the good folks of the Atlantanic Institute.

Making things that much worse - that much better, if your stomach for enjoying dispiriting, crappy movies is higher than mine, and there are precious damn few of such people - is that the particular surgeon who passes that immensely serious and very professional diagnosis is one Dr. Amy Franklin, played by no less than Linda Hamilton, and that just two years and two movies after The Terminator. So we know damn good and well that she wasn't a charmless incompetent who can barely make it through lines of dialogue without it very distinctly feeling like she learned how to speak English by watching public access television commercials. You wouldn't be able to tell that from King Kong Lives, which finds her glacially responding to every stimulus with emotionally denuded expressions and vocal tonality, like she wandered in from a Bergman film. Hell, even the time she initiates sex, she does with with the dead-eyed solemnity of a woman who just learned that all of her cancer-ridden children died when a school bus tipped over on them. To be fair, it's sex with Brian Kerwin's Hank "Mitch" Mitchell, a fourth-tier Indian Jones knock-off, and Hamilton and Kerwin exude less sexual chemistry than just about any other male and female leading pair in any movie from the 1980s I can name.

The really sad thing is that Hamilton is still easily giving the best performance of anybody in the movie not wearing a giant ape costume.

So anyway, here's what happens: Amy wants to give Kong an artificial heart, but he'll never survive surgery without a blood transfusion, and giant apes aren't just laying around waiting for any old bozo white person to trip over them. Meanwhile, bozo white person Mitch practically trips over a giant female ape when he's adventuring in Borneo. Adventuring at what, I am not sure - Ronald Shusett and Steven Pressfield's screenplay doesn't really tell us all that much about Mitch, which is too bad, given that he's the protagonist and all - but he knows that there's money in 40-foot apes, so he captures the animal and takes it to Georgia. Here, the new blood revives Kong, who falls desperately in love with Lady Kong, as really does seem the be the best name anybody involved was able to whip up. Shit, not even, like "Kongette" or "Kongella". She reciprocates, at any rate, in a flirtation-between-ape-suits scene that really is just one of the dumbest things I have ever witnessed in a movie. Things get obnoxiously, unnecessarily complicated from here: the Kongs escape, and Lady Kong is recaptured by deranged army man Lt. Col. Nevitt (John Ashton), while Man Kong escapes to the Louisiana bayou, where he survives by eating alligators, as frogs watch in comically ebullient reaction shots. It would give me enormous pleasure to be lying about the thing I just wrote. Later on, he is antagonised by a small population of tacky rednecks, one of whom he devours in a scene that film is just enraptured with, really letting us dwell on the stupendously horrible death that a human being is suffering right in front of us. The redneck interlude, which feels like it goes on for days, is almost as bad as the ape meet-cute; certainly, it would be the worst moment in many another film through the years.
Lady Kong meanwhile, is very sad, and very pregnant. Amy and Mitch are horrible characters and suck, and I hated the movie every time it cut back to them. In the suits, Peter Elliott (Kong) and George Yiasoumi (Lady Kong) at least manage to convincingly put across human emotions, while quite failing to ever leave us with the impression that they're even slightly akin to gorillas.The whole thing is exorbitantly dumb in every detail, occasionally hilariously so; besides the Kongs' lovemaking, the heart surgery scene is so ludicrous, dredging up every medical procedural trope out there while the actors gamely mill around in front of an enormous prop gorilla, that you'd certainly believe it was a parody if you saw it out of context. Unfortunately, King Kong Lives, in addition to being very dumb, is also very slow and thus very dull. It's weird, given how much stuff happens in the back, and particularly considering that this is some 20 minutes or more shorter than the '76 King Kong, that every last plot point should feel stretched out to such numbing lengths. John Guillermin, returning to director duties after filling that role on the previous movie, has no detectable sense of urgency, and he simply lets the actors trudge throughout the script blindly. It's all very dreary, and despite the steep competition for the title of Worst Film Involving Giant Apes, I insist that I have never seen a King Kong knock-off more lifeless and almost mean-spirited in its lack of narrative cohesion or functional human characters than this one