Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Jurassic World

Alternate Title:  Jurassic Parks & Recreation

One sentence synopsis:     A dinosaur trainer and the chief of operations of the now-active Jurassic World park must stop a transgenic dinosaur after it escapes from captivity.

Things Havoc liked:  Though it has become fashionable to denigrate it in the high critical circles in which I turn, I still maintain that Jurassic Park was one of the great movies of my childhood, a film overflowing with imagination and wonder, one which inaugurated, for better or worse, the modern era of the effects-laden spectacle film, and one whose message and acting were far superior to what a movie about rampaging dinosaurs could reasonably expect to have. Hollywood is a place where one pays for one's privileges, by and large, and Jurassic Park was saddled with a pair of sequels in its day, the former merely mediocre, the latter outright awful. But the mystique of the original film never quite went away, and so here we sit, some twenty years after the first movie, with a new attempt to recapture the magic in the form of a film in which Starlord rides a motorcycle through the jungle alongside his pack of trained Velociraptors.

... okay so maybe we're going for something else this time.

Actually that's more true than you'd expect. Jurassic Park was Steven Spielberg's baby of course, one of his best films from the height of his powers, but Jurassic World is the brainchild of indie director Colin Trevorrow, who both wrote and directed this film, and who was previously best known for 2012's Safety Not Guaranteed, a film I unfortunately managed to miss, but which was apparently a quirky, offbeat indie comedy of the sort that quirky, offbeat Gen-X filmmakers like to make. Trevorrow might seem like a strange pick to helm something this big budget, but Marvel, among other studios, has been leading the charge in converting these sorts of quirky indie directors into quirky blockbuster directors, and they've only profited by that policy, so what the hell. Trevorrow rides the line here between making a Spielberg homage and making a Spielberg movie, but for all the rich callbacks to the original film (something made infinitely easier with a fresh dose of John Williams' iconic score), this isn't the same film as before, being far more in the mold of a Guardians of the Galaxy or Avengers script, a movie that recognizes the narrative and cinematographic history behind this franchise and plays around with it without sacrificing the soul of the film itself. It's the same dance that Marvel's been doing for nearly a decade, and that some studios are finally starting to figure out how to ape, and I can't object one whit to see some real humor and some general reality infused back into this franchise. Indeed one of the standout elements of the movie is just how plausible it all feels, from the details of the Bush-Gardens-style theme park that Jurassic World has become (the over-blatant product placement actually works in the film's favor), including a show in which a Mosasaur is showcased like an Orca at sea world, or glimpses of kayak rides down hadrosaur-lined rivers and a petting zoo featuring baby Triceratops fitted with miniature saddles. This is exactly how Six Flags or the Disney Corporation would build a theme park around Dinosaurs, and it lends the film a nice veneer of reality for when the creatures start to eat everyone.

Oh and speaking of Guardians of the Galaxy, let's consider our heroes. Chris Pratt, last seen saving the universe with the assistance of awesome 80s music and a dance-off, this time is playing Owen Grady, a Velociraptor trainer, or at least the closest thing to it. The film's trailers proudly showcased Grady riding off to battle with the aid of his raptor buddies, a concept that was admittedly kind of awesome, but also ludicrously stupid, and one of the nice surprises that Jurassic World has is that the filmmakers seem to agree with that analysis. Grady is not some dino-whisperer or hippie who communes with the animals (Vince Vaughn's turn in The Lost World continues to haunt me), but a former navy trainer from what one presumes is their dolphin-and-seal program, who wastes no time (in or out of universe) explaining that while he has made many strides in getting the raptors to understand him, they are wild, dangerous animals, as liable to kill him as they are to do what he says. The inability of the rest of the cast to understand this fact (I guess they saw the trailers too?) actually forms a significant chunk of the plot of the film, alongside the usual themes of scientific hubris and life-finding-ways. Ably assisted by Omar Sy (of Intouchables, which you should be watching right now) Grady is employed by billionaire Simon Masrani, played beautifully by Bollywood actor Irrfan Khan, whom I last saw in Life of Pi, and who here plays a lunatic playboy of equal parts Richard Branson and Dr. Morrow. Khan, who for all his Bollywood training has always played a fairly restrained set of characters in western cinema, plays this character like someone who has read the script and decided to gleefully steal all of the best one-liners for himself, come hell or high water. His arguments with returning character Henry Wu (B.D. Wong) over what the nature of Jurassic World really is highlights the lampshade placed upon the entire concept, as well as acknowledging the annoyances of those who felt that the dinosaurs needed updating with modern understandings of their physiology (by which we mean feathers).

Ah but let's discuss those dinosaurs, shall we? It's 2015, not 1993, and we're no longer as impressed by seeing impossible creatures on screen as we once were. The film, rather thankfully, seems to be aware of this fact as well, and rather than engaging in the sweeping spectacle shots of the original film (remember the sequence where they first see the Brachiosaur?) which would never have worked today, the film takes a wider view, using the dinosaurs the way a superhero movie uses costumes or a sci fi movie robots, elements that simply exist within the world whose draw is not their mere presence, but the ways in which they can interact with the rest of the cast and setting. Great attention is paid to the dinosaurs as individual dinosaurs, both the crazed transgenic monster that Ingen's scientists have conjured up ("Indominus Rex" is exactly the kind of stupid bad-latin meaningless name that might come from a corporate focus group), as well as individual raptors (Pratt's project raptors have their own names, personalities, and heirarchy) and even other dinosaurs, identified specifically as characters in their own right with their own quirks and identifying marks. The original Jurassic Park regarded their dinos with a broad brush, this many raptors, that many Brachiosaurs. This film, in most cases does not, something helped, as in the first movie, by the ground-eye view of a couple of kids. I'm well aware that movies like this tend to fail thanks to their need to include annoying children who stubbornly refuse to be eaten by the lizards, but the original Jurassic Park used them to decent effect to punctuate the sheer wonder of what they were presenting. Being less-focused on wonder and more focused on cool, this film also gets pretty decent mileage from their child actors, including Iron Man 3's Ty Simpkins. YMMV of course, but I at least was not left with the urge to strangle them by the end of the film.

Things Havoc disliked: Jurassic Park was a serious movie, a movie about grandeur and spectacle and questions of scientific hubris, starring serious actors like Richard Attenborough and Sam Neil (yes, Sam Neil was a serious actor once). Jurassic World, on the other hand, for all the sincere speeches about respect for wild animals and bringing joy to the children of the world, is a movie about Starlord riding through the jungle on a motorcycle alongside his pack of trained raptors. In terms of content and tone, we are dealing with a much sillier, much stupider version of the original tale. Even Irrfan Khan, cast here almost literally in the John Hammond role of the avuncular old billionaire who wants to run the park for the betterment of the world, is tasked in this film with flying a helicopter gunship against genetically-engineered Supersauruses, and flights of man-eating Pterodactyls. I'm all for irreverent jaunts down the snarky side of sci fi, but this movie positively falls over itself to wink at the audience, with everything from slapstick routines by Jimmy Fallon, to cameos by Jimmy Buffet, of all people. And while the result is fun, it deadens all other reactions that the movie might engender. Jurassic Park, in addition to everything else, was an extremely tense movie at times, with unseen monsters stalking their prey and revealed only by a twitch of a leaf or the drumbeat of a footstep. Jurassic World tries to evoke this, sometimes stealing from its originator shot-for-shot, but cannot convince the audience to take it seriously enough for any real tension, especially since the characters involved in it never do. The plot is predictable and honestly quite pedestrian, with obtuse military-industrial-complexes-are-bad themes that the original film eschewed entirely (though it's worth noting that The Lost World did not). Fun though the film is, that's more or less all it is, and the entire project seems a bit... shallow. A few moments where the movie puts the brakes on the winking asides and allows itself a moment of sentimentality (including a standout scene wherein two characters discover the ruins of the old park's visitor's center) only serves to highlight how much is missing from the rest of the film.

And part of the reason for that is the unevenness of the cast. Bryce Dallas Howard, daughter of Ron and former protege of disgraced director M Night Shayamalan, takes on the role of Claire Dearing, the operations director of Jurassic World. She's not very good, partly because her character is utterly forgettable, being a typical workaholic-who-needs-to-learn-to-lighten-up routine that I've only seen a good three thousand times. Howard, who is usually known for playing strange, naive waifs, plays this character like she's doing a low-rent Jessica Chastain impression, and despite the issues I've had with Chastain in the past, she would have been a far better pick for a role like this, one which requires her to project a commanding, responsible presence, one that could believably be in charge of a project this immense. Another person I'd have replaced is my favorite bugbear and yours, Vincent Freaking D'Onofrio, a man who never saw a role he couldn't suck at. D'Onofrio is coming off a series of good reviews for his work on the Daredevil Netflix show, unseen by me, but even if he's managed to reinvent himself there, it doesn't translate in this film. It's not so much that D'Onofrio is awful, but that his character, a military contractor looking to find ways to use Dinosaurs to hunt terrorists (which is a concept both unspeakably stupid and undeniably somewhat awesome), is a mess. The film hints at evil plots he may be involved in without ever paying them off, and has him deliver a whole series of smug "let me describe the right-wing worldview that will get me karmically punished in approximately seventeen minutes" lectures, which really serve nothing beyond hammering home the lesson that "war is bad" or some damn thing. Neither of these two actually ruin the movie, but they are the sorts of annoying, unconvincing performances that the original film pointedly lacked, even when it involved Newman from Seinfeld cackling madly to himself as he hid dinosaur embryos in a bottle of shaving cream.

Final thoughts:   I've done an awful lot of comparing of Jurassic World to Jurassic Park, and to a degree that's unfair, as movies deserve to be considered on their own terms, even sequels. But it's almost impossible to avoid something like that with Jurassic World, so dedicated is it to the legacy of its predecessor. Brimming with references, throwaway asides, and sequences lifted in loving (or larcenous) homage to the original masterpiece, Jurassic World may not be as good a movie as Jurassic Park, but it is, at long last, what feels like a proper sequel to it. The tone may be entirely different and the quality of the acting and plotting may not be as good, but Jurassic World is still at its core a movie intended to be fun, and a lot of fun it is. It's an energetic, exciting, visually stimulating blockbuster, with more than its fair share of awesome setpieces and just enough actual substance underlying it to avoid collapsing into a Snowpiercer-like chasm of context-free cinematography-porn. My fondness for the original film probably tilts me a little bit in this one's favor, but the movie is a good one regardless, no masterpiece perhaps, but not every film has to be.

Given the records this thing has made at the box office, I'm guessing that this is not the last Jurassic Park movie we're going to be seeing. Hopefully the sequels to this one can avoid the fate of the previous sequels, and stick to something sincere and functional, or at least display their stupidity in a way that doesn't make them unwatchable. After all, I don't demand that all my movies be smart. I just demand that the stupid ones commit.

Final Score:  7/10

Next Time:  Can Pixar recapture the magic?

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