Jordan Vogt-Roberts is a Funny or Die alum who'd only directed one full-length feature film, the 2013 Cleveland-shot indie comedy Kings of Summer, before he was called upon to helm the big-budget action spectacle Kong: Skull Island, out on Friday.
Vogt-Roberts joins a class of "up and coming" directors — Colin Trevorrow, Taika Waititi, Ryan Coogler, to name a few — who have been handed the reins or granted the rights to a major movie (or major franchise) despite limited credentials. Trevorrow, for instance, wrote and directed the 2015 smash hit Jurassic World on the strength of the 2012 indie Safety Not Guaranteed. He's now writing and directing 2019's Star Wars: Episode IX.
One reason for this trend may be that studios, concerned about a perceived emptiness or soullessness in their special-effects-driven blockbusters, want the humor and personality of young, spirited filmmakers. (But why are they almost exclusively male?) Many directors today — the Russo brothers, for instance — acknowledge that the elaborate technical work that goes into making a VFX-heavy action movie is handled by the studios and their enormous staffing infrastructures. The director's job is to work with actors and to bring a sensibility to a movie. Kong's sensibility is a recognizable one. It's certainly quicker and more jokey than its immediate predecessor, King Kong (2005), the majestic colossus directed by Peter Jackson, fresh off Return of the King, that was as much an ode to filmmaking's history as it was to King Kong's. This iteration bears a greater resemblance to today's run-of-the-mill action movies: competent special effects, breakneck pace, lots of jokes. Gotta keep those teenage boys engaged.
The '05 King Kong took place in the 1930s, a nod to the original film which debuted in 1933. Skull Island takes place in the early '70s for reasons that seem mostly to do with wardrobe and tech (unless of course it's a subtler nod to the 1976 King Kong remake starring Jeff Bridges and Jessica Lange). Like previous versions, it features a large ensemble cast, but this one fails to cohere as a unit. The characters feel like pieces and parts cobbled together from earlier drafts.
In the final analysis, Skull Island's effects are as good as you'd anticipate, with two striking encounters — one between Kong and a fleet of helicopters; one between Kong and another giant creature — that deliver on the high-octane promise of the trailer. The cast is hit or miss, with John C. Reilly delivering the film's best punchlines. Brie Larson is the token female. There's one other woman on the expedition (The Great Wall's Tian Jing), but she has perhaps three lines of dialogue and fails to register as a presence onscreen.
It's a survey crew, not a film crew, venturing to Skull Island this time around. Samuel L. Jackson plays Preston Packard, a Vietnam War captain, called upon to escort the geographical team. Explorer-geologist Bill Randa (John Goodman) swears the island is home to ancient creatures of enormous size. As the helicopters lift off from an aircraft carrier toward the tropical-storm-protected island, Packard tells his crew to "hold on to [their] butts," a callback to Jurassic Park. Once inside the tropical storm, Packard delivers a monologue through his radio headset about Icarus and American steel — a pretty cool moment — to which you can draw a line from his iconic Pulp Fiction scene, "and you will know my name is the Lord ..." Unlike in Kongs past, the goal of Randa's team is not to bring the beast back to civilization. (That would be impossible. This thing is huge.) Instead, Randa wants to bring visual proof of Kong's existence back — Larson plays a war photographer, constantly snapping away — so that "the cavalry" may return to destroy him. Packard, the hardened military man, views himself as the cavalry and grows obsessed with the idea of bringing Kong down on his own.
One of the most startling and wonderful elements of Peter Jackson's King Kong was the deep, tender connection between Kong (Andy Serkis) and Naomi Watts. Kong was a character. Remember him spinning around on his butt on the ice in Central Park? Here, Kong is played by Toby Kebell, who, like Serkis, also plays a live-action role in the film and has similar credits under his belt: Koba in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes; Durotan in Warcraft. But as the protector of Skull Island, Kebbell's bipedal Kong is more Transformer than man.