Saturday, June 13, 2015

JURASSIC WORLD - On the Shoulders of Giants

In 1993, Steven Spielberg's landmark adaptation of. . . you know what? No.

Normally, I'd spend a paragraph or two giving some context to the film, its predecessors, a franchise legacy, or some other nonsense as a lead-in to talk about the cinematic flavor of the week, but no. Not this time. This is Jurassic Park. You know Jurassic Park. EVERYONE knows Jurassic Park. It's one of the most influential films of all time, the definitive 90's blockbuster, a watershed moment in special effects, the modern day grandchild of the legendary King Kong.

And Jurassic World knows you know this. It's embedded this knowledge not just in its callback-happy marketing but in the very DNA (heheheh) of the film's relation to and perception of its audience.

Which is kinda the problem.

. . .Well, one of them.

Jurassic World believes itself to be a truly clever animal, and wastes no time in communicating to the viewer how proud it is of its central metaphor.. In the context of the film, not only has Isla Nublar been secured from the catastrophic events of the first movie, but the park is finally open with more and bigger attractions than ever before. But that was years ago in the film's timeline - visitors are so used to dinosaurs that they've become almost mundane, and there's a constant need to "up the wow factor" and offer new and bigger and flashier attractions.

Until - dramatic fanfare - SOMETHING GOES TERRIBLY WRONG.

Sound familiar? Yeah, World is trying to comment on the state of modern blockbuster cinema (and doing so with all the subtlety of a giant CGI sea serpent eating a great white shark). Audiences don't just want to see a dinosaur, they want hundreds. We don't just want to see a superhero punch a bad guy, we want to see him PUNCH AN ENTIRE CITY (oh...wait...). And this is a valid criticism (although the rapturous response to the deliberately personal Mad Max: Fury Road calls the reality of audience desire vs. perception thereof into question), and would be a neat hook upon which to hang a smart adventure movie.

Unfortunately, Jurassic World is a very stupid monster movie (and a sexist one, but we'll get to that). This is one of the misconceptions of the original film - Spielberg wasn't making a splatterfest, but a rollicking adventure yarn that just happened to contain prehistoric creatures. The dinosaurs in Jurassic Park had more in common with the lions or crocodiles of the old Tarzan serials than with bloodthirsty horrors - they were just part of a savage world that the characters had to trek through. Which brings us to the other secret weapon of that original film - the characters. There's a reason that the wonder of the first brachiosaur reveal is still so palpable today, or why there are Ian Malcolm memes for a 22-year-old movie. These characters mattered to the audience. They were our bridge to the wonder and terror of the dinosaurs - their awe inspired our own because we felt connected to them as people, not just as walking traits from a focus tested spreadsheet or potential dino snacks.

Spielberg leveraged this to create some of the most brilliant moments of tension in blockbuster history. The initial T-rex attack and the iconic "Raptors in the kitchen" work so well because we're concerned for the people, not hungry for more CGI dinos. Jurassic World, on the other hand, has NO conception of this fact. Gone are the tense moments of cat-and-mouse, replaced by instant and rampant bloodshed by pixelated terrors. Gone are strong, layered heroines like Ellie Satler, a competent, prepared survivor whose ilk is swept aside for Claire Dearing - a woman so smart and capable that she. . . never takes off those high heels. . . even when inspecting dinosaur paddocks or going off to rescue missing nephews. Gone are bittersweet heroes like Alan Grant, who connects with a new generation even as he sees the dreams of his own crumbling. No one has an arc or a journey to speak of, other than the laughably regressive "sexy outdoorsman teaches chilly scientist lady that she shouldn't have done that naughty science" subplot borrowed from Deep Blue Sea (there's actually far more of that film than the original JP in World), which is also what passes for the "theme" of this film. "Don't do science. It''s dangerous."

And speaking of regressive, the film goes beyond tired gender roles in how bizarrely sexist it is. Not only is Claire strangely inept at running a park, even though she's apparently been doing it for a while, but the film features one of the most oddly drawn-out deaths of the entire franchise - not for a mustache-twirling bad guy, but for an innocent female character. It calls to mind Kong pulling women out of skyscraper windows only to toss them to their deaths because they weren't blonde enough, except even more grossly indulgent.

To borrow from the aforementioned Dr. Malcolm, Jurassic World was so caught up with whether or not it could structure an entire film just on referencing modern blockbuster tropes that it never stopped to think if it should. The movie bends over backwards at every opportunity to remind you of how much you loved the original film, but forgets to include an actual story to go with it, and has no idea why the original movie worked. But to give credit where it's due, when World stops pretending to be anything but a schlocky monster movie, it has plenty of enjoyable monster schlock (and even when he's given nothing to work with, Chris Pratt is a real deal movie star and charming as hell). In fact, there's a particular sequence in the finale that's such perfectly-engineered gleeful nostalgia bait that one can easily forget the clustercuss that was the preceding 100 minutes of the film. For all that's wrong with the movie, it really does offer an exhilarating viewing experience.

And taken as a monster movie on its own terms, maybe that would be enough. But Jurassic World doesn't just want to be a stand-alone monster mash blockbuster, and is constantly winking at the audience about how smart its meta-narrative is and how much fan service it's delivering. But without a core story of sympathetic characters with genuine wants and needs (this has been Marvel's secret weapon from the first Iron Man through Age of Ultron), it's just another clumsy example of the very thing it's trying to satirize. Jurassic World seems to be under the misconception that people loved the first Jurassic Park because we got to see people being killed and eaten by dinosaurs, and that's simply not the case. It was the 90's, there were plenty of ways to watch people die.

People loved Jurassic Park because it made us believe that dinosaurs could live.


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  2. Great eye, Brendon. Well thought out also. You do really have a handle on elements of movie making and the way human beings think. great review.