It's been 90 years since The Eighth Wonder of the World's cinematic debut. Now he's set to return to the small screen on the upcoming MonsterVerse anime, Kong: Skull Island, which releases on June 22nd. In those 90 years, King Kong's cinematic journey encompasses eight feature films, ranging from campy kaiju flicks to landmark accomplishments in film history.
Through all the highs and lows of his movie career, Kong has remained one of the most enduring and revered icons of American cinema, and every reinvention seems to mark the evolution of special effects and filmmaking techniques. That's why FANGORIA is commemorating the Big Guy's 90th anniversary with a ranking of every live-action King Kong film, from his solo ventures to his bouts with Godzilla. This list will only count the movies that Kong himself has starred in, so I apologize to all Son of Kong enthusiasts.
8. King Kong Lives (1986)
A belated sequel to the '76 remake, King Kong Lives is almost universally derided as the worst Kong film. In contrast to its highly-publicized predecessor that sported an A-list cast and Academy Awards, King Kong Lives feels like a B-movie knockoff of itself even despite the return of director King Kong 1976 director John Guillermin (The Towering Inferno) and producer Dino De Laurentiis (Army of Darkness). The plot sees Kong surviving his tumble from the Twin Towers and falling in love with Lady Kong. From its Spirit Halloween style gorilla suits to the inclusion of a female Kong, King Kong Lives is barely indistinguishable from the likes of the schlock-tacular Queen Kong. Quite a thing to say about a direct sequel to one of the most expensive productions of its time. But what would you expect with a sequel that came out over a decade later?
And yet, there's something about this Roger Cormanesque affair that I can't hate. Maybe it's my fondness of stuntmen in gorilla suits trampling on plastic tanks, but this sequel is more watchable than its reputation would suggest. That's probably because of likable performances from Brian Kerwin (The Help) and Linda Hamilton, hot off of her star-making performance in The Terminator. While King Kong Lives probably stalled her momentum, she still brings some semblance of class (which this movie desperately needs). Hey, I'm not complaining, though. Gimme all the scenes of King Kong flirting with Lady Kong, which is the most unironically amusing thing this movie has to offer. At least he's crushing on somebody his own size this time.
7. King Kong Escapes (1967)
I would say that King Kong Lives is the closest Kong has gotten to a campy Showa-era style Godzilla movie. But as fate would have it, Toho got to make Kong movies of their own. Inspired by a Rankin/Bass cartoon from the '60s, King Kong Escapes was Toho's second and final Kong movie, though there were (ultimately abandoned) plans for sequels. Probably because King Kong Escapes turned out to be an awkward venture for Kong and made audiences question whether Toho and The Big Guy were a good fit.
In the tradition of Toho's other kaiju flicks, the plot is simultaneously bonkers and inconsequential. An evil scientist, Dr. Hu, is digging in the Earth for a precious resource called Element X. Instead of just using a drill, he builds a whole Mechani-Kong to dig for him. But then Mechani-Kong gets busted by the radiation, so Hu abducts the real Kong, who, as the title suggests, escapes. This movie's goofy tone will either play as charming or tedious depending on your affinity for '60s-style camp. But if you're a kaiju enthusiast, you can honestly do much better than King Kong Escapes. Kong has rarely looked worse, and the fact that he's being used to dig for some generic radioactive element is just lame. You do have to give King Kong Lives credit for beating MechaGodzilla to the punch with Mechani-Kong. But with the shabby suitmation, there's a reason audiences remember MechaGodzilla more. I'm guessing that Mechani-Kong won't be making an appearance in Godzilla x Kong.
6. Kong: Skull Island (2017)
A period piece following Vietnam soldiers getting stuck on the eponymous island, this was a star-studded affair with the likes of Tom Hiddleston (The Avengers), Brie Larson (Captain Marvel), and Samuel L. Jackson (Pulp Fiction). Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts, Kong: Skull Island is a kinetic creature feature dominated by memorable setpieces and state-of-the-art effects. It could've been the definitive Kong movie for a generation. If only Kong himself felt like the actual star and not something more akin to a cameo. Much like his rival Godzilla, Kong's introduction to the MonsterVerse sees him sidelined by a clan of well-designed but generic creatures.
Compared to the horde of monsters lurking on Skull Island, he's almost a non-entity. The only thing more lacking in Skull Island than Kong himself, though, is substance. While the Apocalypse Now homages certainly lend an inspired visual style to the film, no movie has ever been more "vaguely" about something than Skull Island is "vaguely" about the Vietnam War. It would've fared better had it focused on John C. Reilly's character and explored an American soldier teaming up with an enemy to survive Skull Island. As it is, the characters are static and don't come to any more prescient revelations than the fact that both war and man-eating lizard monsters are bad.
Still, Vogt-Roberts proved himself to be a visual stylist, and I'd be happy to see him nab the Metal Gear Solid movie he's been campaigning for.
5. Godzilla vs. Kong (2021)
Kaiju fans have been dying to see a rematch between Kong and Godzilla ever since their first bout, and the MonsterVerse eventually delivered. One of the first blockbusters to get a successful wide release during the pandemic, Godzilla vs. Kong is a technical achievement in every way. The titular monsters are brought to life with stunning definition, and director Adam Wingard (You're Next) crafts some of the best throwdowns of the whole series.
Alas, Godzilla vs. Kong suffers many of the same problems that plagued the other MonsterVerse movies. The character drama is insipid, and the plot is about on par with King Kong Escapes. A scheming billionaire wants to use King Kong as a homing beacon to find the Hollow Earth.
After the grounded tone and visceral intensity of 2014's Godzilla, Godzilla vs. Kong jumps the shark to pit its kaiju against each other. Thankfully the setpieces are all worth it, but it also makes me crave a fan edit of this movie that removes any spec of the human cast.
4. King Kong vs. Godzilla (1963)
I'll be the first to admit that Kong and Godzilla's first round of fisticuffs is, let's say, less technically sophisticated than its 2021 revamp. But I can't deny the entertainment value of watching Kong shove a tree down Godzilla's throat. Maybe the film seems dismissively goofy by today's standards, but it was a monumental event that still retains significance. After a tumultuous production history that almost pitted Godzilla against Frankenstein's Monster, King Kong vs. Godzilla was a triumph with audiences, proving that monster mashes were here to stay. It was Kong's first film since his 1933 debut, the first time he and The Big G would be in color, and it was a landmark of cinematic crossovers.
The plot is simple but charming. A greedy television executive sends his men to capture the mythic King Kong while a slumbering Godzilla awakens from hibernation. The two of them meet and, wouldn't you know it, they don't get along too well. It's easy to take shots at the suitmation and wacky plot, but if you're down with all that, then King Kong vs. Godzilla is a fiercely entertaining movie that earns its cred as an absolute camp classic. The characters, while archetypes, are more amusing than your typical monster-movie fodder and add to the film's good humor and endearing innocence.
3. King Kong (1976)
"No one cry when Jaws die. But when the monkey die, people gonna cry," promised mega-producer Dino De Laurentiis when he unveiled plans for his own remake of the original King Kong. The final product was 1976's King Kong, a politically charged, romantic, dare I say erotic, take on the Kong mythos that managed to make bank back in '76 but has alienated Kong fans ever since. It's been accused of being both boring and inappropriate, with the, uh, horniest King Kong to date.
But for some reason, my soft spot for this remake endures. While it suffers from a languid pace and a serious lack of monster action (apparently, Dino couldn't be bothered to put dinos in the movie), it's refreshingly more concerned with themes and relationships. With a cast of pros like Jeff Bridges (The Big Lebowski) and Jessica Lange (American Horror Story), that bet pays off. This story retelling centers on a tycoon going to Skull Island for potential oil reserves, perfectly updating the original story of documentarians venturing to the island for their film project. This Kong represents the dangers of corporate plundering of the environment. He's a force of nature threatened by our spiritual decline, from the energy crisis to rampant materialism, making this the most transgressive King Kong to date. Not to mention the Oscar-winning special effects by the legendary Rick Baker, who even got to play Kong himself.
2. King Kong (1933)
The original King Kong isn't just one of the most legendary films ever made, it's a watershed accomplishment in film history. While we'd had giant monster flicks like The Lost World, all of that was an appetizer. King Kong perfected those special-effect techniques and used them to craft the ultimate adventure story, introducing audiences to one of the most beloved movie monsters of all time. King Kong still remains the Holy Bible of Practical FX and represents the pinnacle achievement of its era. It also gave audiences one of the quintessential scream queens in Fay Wray, who does as much to bring Kong and the monsters of Skull Island to life as the special effects team does.
This original movie might have lost its appeal to stop-motion skeptics, who probably prefer the more advanced FX of the later Kongs. To each their own, but there's probably not a simpler thrill than watching Kong fighting a stop-motion Tyrannosaurus Rex before snapping its jaw. Makes me cheer every time.
Unfortunately, the special effects weren't sophisticated enough to give Kong true pathos or expression. That's where our #1 entry comes in.
1. King Kong (2005)
After coming off what many would consider the single greatest accomplishment in cinema with the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Peter Jackson used his clout to finally produce his passion project: an epic remake of his favorite film, King Kong. To call this a love letter to the original wouldn't be doing it justice. This is a Shakespearean sonnet, a reimagining that brought the thrills and whimsy of the original Kong to a modern audience.
In truth, it built upon the original with a prestigious cast of thespians that flesh out the original film's archetypes into three-dimensional characters (aside from an unfortunately miscast Jack Black). The magic of Peter Jackson's King Kong isn't watching people run away from a stampede of brontosauruses, but watching Naomi Watts (Mulholland Drive) perform a whole vaudeville routine for an enthusiastic Kong, who's brought to life with motion capture performed by the irreplaceable Andy Serkis (The Batman). Did the movie need to be three hours? Probably not. But the complaints about the movie's runtime feel almost quaint in today's media landscape dominated by three-hour-plus movies like Beau is Afraid.
I was debating whether to put this over the original, but I just had to, because this one made me tear up. And if you're not getting emotional as you watch Andy Serkis' King Kong being shot down from atop the Empire State Building, then I just don't trust you.
The animated Skull Island series will be released exclusively on Netflix June 22.