In a competitive rush to explore every conceivable spot on Earth for hidden sources of oil, the Petrox company has sent an expedition into Micronesia headed by Fred Wilson (Charles Grodin) and scientist Bagley (Rene Auberjonois) to investigate a report of rich underwater oil deposits off fog-shrouded Skull Island.
Before leaving port, Wilson’s ship picks up a stowaway, Jack Prescott (Jeff Bridges). A Princeton University zoologist, he is drawn to Skull Island by ancient reports of a prehistoric monster still living there.
On his discovery, Wilson is unimpressed by Prescott’s credentials and accuses him of being a spy for a rival oil company. Their confrontation is disrupted, however, by the picking up of a lifeboat. Inside it is a lovely young woman, Dwan (Jessica Lange) who was on her way to Hong Kong with a film producer when the boat blew up, leaving her the sole survivor.
With its extra passengers, the ship sails on to Skull Island.
After coming ashore in small landing crafts, the Petrox crew plus Wilson, Prescott, Bagley and Dwan make their way over rugged mountains to a village resting at the base of a huge wall. After watching a native ritual – in which warriors chant “Kong . . . Kong . . . Kong” as a sacrificial girl is carried to a gate in the wall – Prescott is convinced a monster-sized primate lives on Skull Island. Wilson remains sceptical.
But later, while fishing from a rowboat, Dwan is captured by the natives who carry her through the Wall to Kong’s sacrificial altar.
From the jungle comes the sound of something crashing and as the natives go wild, Dwan looks up to see a 40-foot ape in front of her. As she swoons, Kong gently lifts her off the altar.
As soon as they hear of this, while Wilson remains on the ship, Prescott heads a rescue party. But disaster strikes when an angry Kong shows up as the men are crossing a deep ravine.
Prescott and one other survive the ape’s attack, and while the other returns to the beach to inform Wilson of events, Prescott goes on alone.
Kong, by now smitten with Dwan, is expressing his deep love by crooning to her when a giant snake slithers up to them. In a death struggle, Kong kills the snake, but while distracted in combat, Prescott makes off with Dwan. The raging ape gives chase.
Back at the wall, Wilson and his men have dug a pit filled with canisters of chloroform (something all oil tankers carry?). Prescott and an exhausted Dwan just make it through the gate when it is bolted. Kong smashes down the gate and, overcome by the fumes, falls into the pit.
Knocked out and chained, Kong is put in the hull of the supertanker as Wilson tells Prescott and Dwan of his plan to introduce Kong to the public of New York. Both balk at the money-making scheme, defending Kong’s right to remain in his natural habitat.
But Wilson is undeterred and the ship heads away to New York.
On deck, Dwan and Prescott embrace and her scarf floats down to the imprisoned ape. Kong goes wild with passion and is only stopped from demolishing the boat by Dwan’s soothing words.
Prescott will have nothing to do with Kong’s exploitation, but Dwan is contractually bound to appear in the circus at a New York park before thousands of spectators, where Kong is brought in concealed under a huge Petrox gas pump.
Dwan, resplendent in a silver gown, is on the specially constructed altar when the pump is lifted, revealing Kong. Flashbulbs explode and Kong, thinking Dwan is in danger, breaks out of his steel cage.
Amidst the turmoil, Prescott whisks Dwan to an elevated subway and Wilson is left weeping on the ground. Kong, in pursuit, wrecks the train and follows them to a Manhattan bar, where his giant hand scoops up Dwan.
Kong’s ape instinct drives him to seek shelter on higher ground, so in the concrete jungle of New York he seeks safety with Dwan atop the city’s tallest buildings, the World Trade Center.
Kong straddles the twin towers as army helicopters swarm over him. The choppers refrain from firing while Dwan is in Kong’s hand, but – in the classic tradition of beauty and the beast – Kong makes the ultimate sacrifice to save the woman he loves and, thinking her in danger, lowers Dwan to safety. The army attacks immediately and Kong plummets to the ground.
As hordes of reporters descend on Kong’s body, his last sight is of Dwan standing near him in tears.
Prescott walks away from Dwan, knowing that they could have stayed together only if Kong had lived. His death would only remind them of the cruelty and deceit involved in taking Kong from his jungle paradise.
Producer Dino De Laurentiis spent a fortune updating the classic King Kong and received no praise from the critics, although the ape effects were superior.
Former model Jessica Lange proved herself an attractive light comedienne as the beauty who tames the beast.