Jordan Vogt-Roberts had the same reaction you did the first time he heard another “King Kong” film was in the works: Why?
“That was my initial reaction: Why does this movie need to exist?” the director says. “Why would we make it? How would it be different?”
The finished film answers all those questions. “Kong: Skull Island,” which opens Friday, shares some of the DNA of the 1933 original (and its two subsequent remakes, by John Guillermin in 1976 and Peter Jackson in 2005): A group of people travel to an uncharted island, where they discover an indigenous tribe that worships a giant prehistoric ape.
But the similarities end there. The year is 1973. The villagers are peaceful, not dangerous. The explorers are no longer filmmakers: They are scientists (Tom Hiddleston, John Goodman) and journalists (Brie Larson) who piggyback on a U.S. military mapping mission led by a commander (Samuel L. Jackson) bristling from the way the Vietnam War has turned out.
The whole story is set on the island – no New York skyscrapers are scaled – which is home to all sorts of creatures. The beauty-and-the-beast narrative has been tossed out: This Kong is too savage and ferocious to fall in love with an ordinary woman.
“Kong: Skull Island” doesn’t make you wait long to meet its star, either. You get a good look at the ape, who is bigger than any of his previous movie incarnations, in the film’s first few minutes – a prologue, set in 1944, in which an American pilot squares off against his Japanese enemy after their planes crash-land on a beach in the South Pacific.
That prologue (which pays off wonderfully much later in the story) is so well shot and edited, so crisply realized and imagined, it reminds you of vintage-era Spielberg, which is exactly what Vogt-Roberts intended.
Although his first film, 2013’s “The Kings of Summer,” was a charmingly odd coming-of-age comedy about three boys who hole up in the woods to escape their overbearing parents, Vogt-Roberts, 32, says the movies that inspired him to become a director were big-budget spectacles.
“I grew up on ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Back to the Future' and ‘Blade Runner' and ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark,’” he says. “Those are the movies that made me into a cinephile, before I discovered art cinema and foreign films. Back then, big studio movies didn’t have the stigma they have today. They were good. They showed you worlds that were new and fresh and had characters you cared about.”
Even though “The Kings of Summer” earned good reviews, the movie tanked at the box office, grossing only $1.3 million.
“No one saw it, which was heartbreaking,” Vogt-Roberts says. “There were other movies that summer much better than mine, like ‘Fruitvale Station,' that didn’t catch the zeitgeist. It’s next to impossible for an independent movie to break through the noise. So I decided I wanted to make a big movie, because I wanted people to see the next film I made.”
Post-production was still underway on the 2014 “Godzilla” reboot when the production company Legendary Pictures announced the launch of a new film franchise built around classic giant movie monsters. “Kong: Skull Island” is the second installment in the series. “Godzilla: King of Monsters” is currently filming and due in theaters March 2019. “Godzilla vs. Kong” is in the development stage, with a release targeted for 2020.
But although recent films about huge creatures stomping down on cities have tended to be weighty and lugubrious – the “Transformers” series, “Pacific Rim,” even the somber “Godzilla” – “Kong: Skull Island” is surprisingly brisk and humorous. The drama is played straight, the war allegory is thoughtful and the death of certain characters carries a sting. But the movie isn’t afraid to be sheer entertainment, too: It’s fun and nimble in a manner that’s not common to the genre.
Max Borenstein, who co-wrote the screenplays for “Godzilla” and “Kong: Skull Island,” says the lighter tone of the new film is a reflection of its protagonist.
“The difference between King Kong and Godzilla is that when you think about Godzilla, you don’t think about a story: You think about a creature,’” he says. “He’s not humanoid, so he’s difficult to describe. With Kong, you think about a primate that is exploited, a character who is thought of as a monster but has a real personality. One of the reasons ‘Godzilla' had to be so grounded was to set the table and clean the palate, so people were able to treat the story seriously. Because the danger of Godzilla is that it’s ridiculous. But Kong isn’t ridiculous, so the movie can allow for a lot more humor.”
“Kong: Skull Island” is the latest example of a big studio production made by an untested director, like Colin Trevorrow and “Jurassic World,” Marc Webb and “The Amazing Spider-Man,” Ryan Coogle and “Creed” and the upcoming “Black Panther,” and Taika Waititi and “Thor: Ragnarok,” which arrives in November. Vogt-Roberts says he landed the gig because the producers liked how he had turned the woods in “The Kings of Summer” into a veritable character in the film.
“I think they were hoping I could do the same thing with Skull Island and make it feel alive,” he says. “They know so many of these big studio movies now are very humorless, and they hoped I’d be able to bring a sense of levity to this. They liked my pitch of ‘Apocalypse Now' and doing the Vietnam War with monsters.
“My mantra while making the movie was ‘Elevate beyond expectation.’ I wanted to avoid anything that felt derivative, because otherwise why would anyone go see this movie? And I wanted to keep it short. I’m fascinated by how bloated movies have gotten these days. ‘Fargo' was 95 minutes. I miss the days of brevity in films. You’ve got ‘Transformers’ movies that are three hours. I wanted this movie to be fun.”
“Kong: Skull Island” clocks in at a refreshingly swift one hour and 45 minutes (minus the end credits, although you'll want to sit through those). And although the film is a tentpole picture designed to prop up a huge franchise, the movie is filled with artistic touches that make it feel personal and unique. There’s a genuine artistic vision here, from the plentiful improvisations (most of them by John C. Reilly) to throwaway but lovely shots, such as a dragonfly flying in front of a fleet of military helicopters, looking like it’s one of the choppers.
“That shot is super expensive,” Vogt-Roberts says. “We had to build a creature model and it also uses visual effects. I was told ‘You gotta cut that shot' a lot. But I said ‘No, this is important.’ It has this kind of weird (Terrence) Malick beauty I wanted to bring to the movie. These big movies generally don’t have a director’s voice in them, because they’re so expensive to make. But that’s the only currency that film really has these days – a specific point of view or approach that separates it from television and everything else out there. I hope people feel my voice is in this film. I’m very proud of what we did.”