Friday, April 22, 2016

Jurassic World review

“Boy, do I hate being right all the time!”-Ian Malcolm

For years I’ve wondered why dinosaurs aren’t popular anymore. They’re second fiddle again like always. The Renaissance is over, and the Wars of Religion have begun. Paleontology’s still small and uncool, science itself is forgotten in an anti-intellectual atmosphere, hardly anyone goes to museums for the collections anymore. Maybe I’m cynical. Maybe it’s just my bipolar psychology getting to me again.  I had hope for a while. Then I saw Jurassic World.

It’s cynical, it’s hypocritical, it’s dumb, it’s got sexist and racist undertones, it’s full of clichés, and there’s so little respect for paleontology there isn’t a single paleontologist character or even a real fossil in this film. And it was a big hit. Yes, the effects are good if never realistic. Yes, Chris Pratt is entertaining despite his stock, unlikable character. Yes, there was some good action sequences and scenes sprinkled throughout the film. But it’s one of the hollowest experiences about dinosaurs you could ask for. 

The film starts out promising, showing a beautiful, lush park; Hammond’s dream come true. The thing is, once everything goes right, you have to try really hard to make everything bad again. There’s the inherent problem: the park’s up, it’s fine, what kind of conflict can you get without someone doing something outrageously stupid?

“Gee, the lack of humility before nature that's being displayed here, uh... staggers me.”

You can’t. Of course, they go for the outrageously stupid. The filmmakers assume that people would be as bored by regular dinosaurs as they are, showing a great deal of cynicism and shallowness. Here’s a fun fact: the Columbus Zoo had 2.3 million people in attendance in 2013. Now, Columbus Zoo isn’t free like Chicago’s Lincoln Park, or in a huge city like the Bronx Zoo, or huge in itself like the San Diego zoo. Now, imagine if it was the ONLY zoo. In the world. And all the animals in it were extinct in the wild and nature documentaries never existed. Would you really think it would take less than a century for attendance to drop? 

“Why didn't I build it in Orlando?”

Or maybe it’s because of the elaborate security (which seems to be about a dozen people tops with no cameras in the wildlife enclosures), or the elaborate rides, hotels, and high-tech everything. Well, you could easily cut those down and people would still murder to get in. Or replace a ride where the passengers can go where they please with one on a controlled course like a sane person. Or not hire a psychotic obviously evil guy who doesn’t really do anything but make clichéd villain speeches about turning dinosaurs into weapons (which is such a stupid idea I can’t even begin to elaborate how dumb it is).  Or hire established animal trainers rather than an ex-Navy guy with a motorcycle-that doesn’t turn out to be an issue, because military guys and motorcycles are cool, but how much cooler would it have been if it had been a paleontologist or animal behaviorist instead?

Yes, this movie is really stupid. Which is a shame because it doesn’t start out too bad. Okay, an executive needs to balance her family responsibilities with her work. Someone has brought up some “Velociraptors” as a surrogate parent. A cynical teen and a hyperactive, wide eyed expy of Timmy from the original can’t wait to go to the park. Hammond is succeeded by another genial, optimistic man. The effects and cinematography of the new park are beautiful, and it feels like a wistful dream completed.
That brings me back to the stupid part. 

“They're not monsters. They're just animals.”

So to set up the conflict, the filmmakers and their fictional proxies create a new dinosaur. They explain for spectacle it’s a hypercarnivore even larger than a Tyrannosaurus.  That’s not that big a step, really. Wouldn’t people go “oh, just another big predator”. Wouldn’t it be easier to just search DNA for a Giganotosaurus, Spinosaurus or other big predator? Of course, to make it a movie monster, they add human-level intelligence (in some instances even smarter), an insatiable urge to kill, super speed, the ability to camouflage like a cuttlefish, cloak its heat signature, invulnerability to tasers, natural dinosaur weapons and bullets. The reasoning turns out to be that Dr. Wong (the only recurring character from the first movie) is creating a beast of war for Vincent D’Nafrio’s obvious villain. Of course, how the DNA expert could fall under the authority of…come to think of it, what role is the villain character? It’s implied he’s head of company security, but considering that a lot of security is ordered directly from the administration it doesn’t make any sense.   At any rate, how would they do this without the rest of the company knowing? How could they get away with non-disclosure agreements to the admins? And I already said I wouldn’t discuss the idiocy of investing government money into a weapons program they’re not even aware of.
To get back to my quote, the dinosaurs aren’t really treated with any kind of awe. After a wonderful little montage of the younger kid having the time of his life at the various dinosaur attraction, they pretty much skip it entirely to focus on their monster. In the original Jurassic Park, every dinosaur is revered. They’re the real stars; our heroes merely react to them. It’s taking humans back to primeval fear of dangerous animals. You could easily swap the Tyrannosaurus and dromaeosaurs for lions and wolves and bears and still deliver thrills. Take another Spielberg film, Jaws; it didn’t make up a new monster, but simply extrapolated from shark capabilities, a what if story about the potential of nature’s power. 

“A turkey, huh?”

Besides the dragon (oh, but for Bard to shoot an arrow into its empty heart, or Hiccup and Toothless to swoop down and blast it to pieces)  of a dinosaur, the other dinosaur stars are the raptors, now domesticated. They basically act as trophies to show how cool the main character is, and as ways to get cool action sequences and invoke the first movie when they briefly turn against the humans.  Pratt’s Owen character insists that they’re wild animals, but it seems a rather halfhearted defense.
More offensively they defy everything we know about dromaeosaurs today. In 1993, for the most part, Jurassic Park reflected modern understandings of dinosaurs-intelligent, active, complex. But even as science evolves, this movie doesn’t. As if it was written by the bratty kid Alan Grant threatened with a Deinonychus claw at the beginning of the franchise, the filmmakers only update them with brighter colors, personal names and improved computer graphics. Velociraptors, as we now know, were small, agile, covered with feathers, and very likely nocturnal. How amazing would it have been for our heroes to be tormented by small black creatures that come out of nowhere, their eyes shining in the moonlight like a cat, and disappear into the shadows. Like ninja, Hollywood prefers Velociraptors to be big flashy stereotypes.

“Ah, now eventually you do plan to have dinosaurs on your, on your dinosaur tour, right? Hello?”
The other dinosaurs are relegated to cameos or set dressing. There’s a fleeting moment of wonder as the kids take their vehicle (stupidly able to be completely under the control of the drivers, something the San Diego Wild Animal Park would laugh at) through a herd of herbivores, but that’s it. Herbivores are victims to be dismembered by the dragon, no other dromaeosaurs are seen other than the sidekicks, and Tyrannosaurus is brought in as a fanservice deus ex machina to save the day. The Mosasaurus makes a great film debut, stealing the show in all three of its scenes. The pterosaurs are outdated monsters, pure and simple. They don’t act like pterosaurs (attacking and killing people for no reason), they don’t look like pterosaurs (the Dimorphodon would make Mark Witton cry), and they only exist as a brief terror sequence.  Dilophosaurus and Parasaurolophus only appear as holograms. Triceratops and Stegosaurus make very brief cameos, and Ankylosaurus and Apatosaurus are merely fodder for the dragon. Again, it’s like the filmmakers just didn’t like dinosaurs as they are and prefer dinosaurs as they imagine.

“What a complete slob!”

The hero, Owen Brady, really reveals a lot about the filmmakers. He’s a man’s man, no showering or showing any respect to anyone. When he calls himself Alpha, it’s a reference to his parental role for the pack, but it’s also a reference to the stereotypical jock. He has Alan Grant’s authority and gruffness, without the character arc or depth. He has Ian Malcolm’s smugness and cynicism, without the wit. I could easily see Chris Pratt in a Jeff Goldblum role, but he’s written as a generic 80s action man.  He’s always right, never asks questions, and bulls down anyone who tries to have authority over him. And of course you don’t have to be Freud to talk about the motorbike or shotgun.  Alan Grant is introduced digging in the dust with his girlfriend and partner Ellie Sattler. Ian Malcolm is introduced smirking and quipping at John Hammond. Owen is introduced in a low angle pan up towards the sun, god of the raptors. Obvious hero is obvious.
When you see Bastian on Falcor, or Hiccup on Toothless, or even Eragon on Saphira, you see an underdog kid whose imagination and empathy gives him a powerful friend. With Owen and the pack, it’s forced coolness. He has no background other than being in the US Navy, a cheap way to garner sympathy. He’s apparently the only zookeeper employed. And I thought the original Jurassic Park was understaffed….

“Look... We can discuss sexism in survival situations when I get back.”
Equally revealing is Claire Dearing, an equally stock character. The prim woman and macho man pairing is so old and cliché it was already old hat by the 50s. She’s cold, clinical, cares little of the animals but for their monetary value, and spends more time with her job than with her family. To be fair, if my brother kept insisting I settle down and raise a family instead of getting a job, I’d find a way to spend months away from him, too. While Owen is always right, Claire is always wrong.
She’s smugly put down by Owen and the film at every opportunity. She’s the stupid bitchy boss who coldly rules with an iron fist until an actual crisis occurs turning her into a quivering, shrieking victim.   It would be one thing to re-enact Alan Grant’s transformation in the first film, but his parental instincts are shown in his interactions; he rescues and protects the kids, jokes with them, calms them down in their terrifying experiences. In Jurassic World, character development is simply done by surviving attacks, not by any real interactions. 

The other female characters are extremely minor-the tech who just acts as a wide-eyed foil for Jack Johnson’s comic relief, Claire’s weepy sister who nags her about the importance of family, and the brothers’ babysitter who is barely in the film before being brutally killed in an elaborate sequence.  The heroic, principled Ellie Sattler and the sympathetic hacker Lex Hammond are sorely missed.

“….it didn't require any discipline to attain it. You read what others had done and you took the next step. You didn't earn the knowledge for yourselves, so you don't take any responsibility for it. You stood on the shoulders of geniuses to accomplish something as fast as you could, and before you even knew what you had, you patented it, and packaged it, and slapped it on a plastic lunchbox…..”
This movie, like the other 2015 megahit The Force Awakens, is basically a lazy remake of the first film done as a sequel. Why? Nostalgia. Jurassic Park used to be a big name brand. It was everywhere. That black on red Tyrannosaurus skeleton design used to be everywhere. The word “raptor” was introduced to the lexicon.  Toys, books, video games, shirts, cups, party supplies, cars, bikes, etc. John Williams’ score became just as recognizable as his work for Superman, E.T., Jaws, Star Wars and Indiana Jones. Suddenly people debated chaos theory, and clamored to clone prehistoric animals.
How do you make as much money, please as many fans, and be as famous as a predecessor? Ape it shamelessly.  The helicopter vistas, the premise of a park going down, chases through the jungle, dinosaur battles, a dying herbivore, a working person learning how to be a parent, uncannily intelligent predators, a dinosaur attack on two children in a vehicle, a smug skeptic, a naïve administrator, talks about cloning and biotech, and an escape from the island by a helicopter. Doing a similar scene is a homage-doing a similar movie is a lazy copy.
For all intents and purposes, it’s a remake, only with a lot more clichés and without the imagination of Michael Crichton and the nuance of Steven Spielberg. It does everything the original does, only without any kind of wit, intelligence, or subtlety.

“See, here I'm now sitting by myself, uh, er, talking to myself. That's, that's chaos theory.”

This movie was still a major hit. As usual, I have very different expectations than most theater audiences. I expected to turn off my brain as in the original, but it didn’t have anything to keep me interested so the huge writing flaws stood out.  I will give the filmmakers some credit-they obviously loved the original, the mosasaurus was a great addition, the idea of trained raptors is an interesting concept, and the park is beautiful. Even the dinosaurs are as good as 90s style dinosaurs will ever look.  However, I don’t think that’s strong enough
The plot is still ridiculous, the characters are still shallow and obnoxious, the dinosaurs rather trite and even boring when the purpose of the film was to make them interesting, and the whole premise a weak remake. 

“…so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn't stop to think if they should.”
The thing is, did this movie need to exist? I mean, artistically, since it was a big trademark making plenty of money. Was it telling a new story? No, not really. The premise could easily have been thought up by the Syfy channel: mutant animal goes crazy. Otherwise, it’s a dumber version of the original.  People liked the 90s raptors? Make them the heroes’ sidekicks to make them cooler. People liked the Tyrannosaurus saving our heroes at the end? Use the same plot device. There’s even lazy retreads of moments from the other two sequels-the raptor attack in the tall grass and the villain being eaten while trying to tame a dinosaur as in the second film, and the pterosaur attack and the Tyrannosaurus fight from part 3.  We need a hero who combines the smug skepticism of Malcolm with Grant’s knowledge of animals, so we make Whitey McGaryStu here. We need to teach an uppity female a lesson while still keeping an upbeat naïve park head, so we split Hammond into two characters.  We need two annoying kids, one enthusiastic about dinosaurs, so we put those in too. They’d feel more like tributes if they weren’t so clichéd. 

“That is one big pile of shit.”

And that’s the thing-this movie is just plain unimaginative. Cliché dinosaurs, cliché scenes, cliché characters. Even the look of the Indominous is a generic theropod design, only white. There’s no moral or message here. This isn’t any exploration of science like science fiction is supposed to do. It’s not even a drama considering how flat and unlikable all the characters are. It’s just action we’ve all seen before. Was this really a labor of love, or just a cheap cash-in?  I’m leaning towards the latter; who wouldn’t want to reuse old Jurassic Park memorabilia. This movie is driven by nostalgia, but no imagination at all. What is so hard about making dinosaur films? Why are these animals so uninteresting to filmmakers when they have always been loved by the public? This film baffles me even more than it enrages me. 

“I guess we'll just have to evolve too.”

Jurassic Park should never have become a franchise. It’s an amazing movie, but it’s not a franchise film. Dinosaurs are still cool-people still went to see this movie, even just to see the CG dinosaurs. Kids love dinosaurs-not enough to buy the rather undermarketed, lazily written films Walking With Dinosaurs 3D movie or Pixar’s Good Dinosaur, granted. Adults love dinosaurs-not enough to demand scientifically accurate ones, granted. Still, all in all, the one good thing about this film is that it showed dinosaurs are still popular. I hope it doesn’t mean that people only like 90s style dinosaurs, but I’m trying not to be cynical.  I think people still love dinosaurs, and will continue to see dinosaur movies. I know that another filmmaker loves dinosaurs somewhere, and someday we’ll get a new Jurassic Park (only if it’s not a Jurassic Park, movie, of course).  Filmmakers and audiences just need to think of new, better ways. I know it’ll happen. We’re better than this.


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