Monday, June 15, 2015

JURASSIC WORLD: After careful consideration, I've decided NOT to endorse your park.

Jurassic World made $204.6 million at the domestic box office this weekend and $511.8 million worldwide, which means that anything I have to say in a review is mostly meaningless. It appears that if you had any interest in the film, you saw it this weekend.

My expectations were all over the place with this film. The first trailer didn't inspire much confidence with its in-progress CGI and the promise of a relatively simple story about a genetically-engineered dinosaur on the loose. That seemed to set the tone for the first several months of anticipation, so much that when early reviews came back, it was a surprise so many people were enthusiastic about it. That stoked my hope that this could actually be pretty good.

Jurassic Park is probably one of my most-rewatched films. It's certainly a favorite from my childhood and one that still holds up strong for me even after some 20 or 30 viewings. It's also one that - like Jaws - I've always believed didn't lend itself well to franchising. Could there really be a second story with those characters that was as compelling as the first? The Lost World and Jurassic Park III seemed to answer "no" to that question, even if you grade on the curve of "there's no way this can match the original, but can we at least have fun here?"

No movie is flawless, but there's always a distinction between weak elements that detract from a film, and weak elements that end up neutral in the final analysis. I can overlook a few pimples if other parts of the picture are stellar. For that matter, if something is totally out there, but still WORKS, we don't need to hold the film accountable.

I'm thinking here of how the ending of Jaws - with Brody blowing up the shark - is completely implausible, but it somehow feels both earned and RIGHT. When Jaws author Peter Benchley complained about the climax, Spielberg supposedly told him, "If I've got them in the palm of my hand for two hours, I can do anything in the last five minutes."  He's totally right, but that formula requires a flawless build-up.

Jurassic World does not have a flawless build-up. There are some moments early on that I really liked that end up juxtaposed with some moments that really didn't work for me. I'm glad that this is the first movie to return to the original island. I never liked the Lost World retcon of "Site B." It's an addition to the backstory that mostly came about because in Michael Crichton's original novel, the island is bombed to all hell at the end. Thus, when it came time for him to write a sequel novel, he had to invent this backstory, despite the fact that Spielberg left the island intact in the first film.

And then weirdly, Jurassic Park III returns to the island from the second film. Right from the start, Jurassic World has me on board just by going to the real island and showing us Hammond's vision fulfilled. Had this story been done as the first sequel, it probably would have felt cheap to go back to the park just three years later as chaos breaks out. 22 years later, and after two less engaging voyages, we can finally see an operational Jurassic World. As a core concept, this isn't bad.

There are also a few "subtle" plot points about how twenty years ago, audiences were impressed by the mere achievement of bringing dinosaurs back, but now they're so jaded by those achievements that it requires bigger and bigger thrills to keep attendance up. It's a pretty unsubtle comment on the state of blockbuster filmmaking, particularly how the CGI of Jurassic Park led us down a path where it's really hard to impress audiences with any kind of VFX since the once-impossible is now routine. The subtext is a little too on-the-nose to be as clever as it seems to think it is, but I'm glad it's included.

The plot ends up being pretty straight-forward. To up the "wow" factor, the park owners have commissioned a genetically-spliced hybrid - a new species of dinosaur. Naturally it's part T-Rex and part... other dinosaurs which the scientists refuse to disclose. Turns out this "Indominus Rex" can camouflage, control its body temperature (so it can evade heat detection) and is smart enough to mastermind a trap that lets it break out of containment.

The human characters this time include Chris Pratt as a raptor trainer who's managed to be seen as the alpha of that pack; the park operations manager, played by Bryce Dallas Howard; and Howard's two teenage nephews. You can imagine how this goes: the stiff corporate priss played by Howard clashes with Pratt's more rugged manliness, in what feels like an homage to whatever Romancing the Stone was homaging. There's probably a version of this that could work, but due to some weak writing (and possibly acting) with regard to Howard's character, it doesn't work. That's not a dealbreaker, though.

The best I can say about the two teen boys is that they aren't the worst kids in the franchise. Ian Malcolm's gymnast daughter from The Lost World and Plot Device Eric from the third film. The older kid's a pretty unsympathetic jerk, but maybe the attitude comes from him realizing he's stuck in a pretty pointless subplot about his parents getting divorced.

Honestly, I'm not sure what the divorce subplot is supposed to add to anything at all. I suppose we're missing some scenes that gave it some resonance, but it feels like it'd be pretty easy to cut out all the references to divorce entirely. To put it another way, if they cut out other scenes to minimize that plot, why not go all the way and take it out entirely? But again, this isn't a dealbreaker, as awkwardly handled as it is.

Less inoffensive is the subplot about InGen scheming to turn dinosaurs into soldiers. You're never gonna have the military treated with any subtlety in a sci-fi movie like this (see: AVATAR), but the depection here barely tries to give nuance to the position. It doesn't help that the two advocates are Vincent D'Onofrio as InGen security head and B.D. Wong returning as Dr. Henry Wu. Neither one is cast in a light that seems anything other than shady and slimy. There's probably a better version of this film where they seem to have a legitimate stance, but Jurassic World makes sure we know from the get-go, these are the Bad Guys, capital B, capital G.

But still, we're not in dealbreaker territory. Even as we entered into the final act, I remember thinking, "It's no Spielberg, but I'm having fun despite the bumps."

There's one scene about midway through the film that really gave me hope. The I-Rex has been tearing through other habitats. Pratt and Howard's characters come upon a dying brachiosaur. It's one of the rare moments of the film that treats these creatures as empathetic animals rather than monsters or predators. This beast wasn't hurting anyone. It subsists entirely on plants, and now it lies wounded and dying in terror, unable to understand the inhumanity of it all. Pratt's character gently touches it, doing what he can to stave off the beast's terror in its final seconds.

For a moment, Howard's character is forced to see her exhibitions as something more than some science project that's there to draw crowds. An innocent creature dies in pain because of something she's responsible for. It's a death more affecting than any of the human deaths in this film.

Regrettably, that moment proved to be more the execption than the rule. The problem is the climax, which has the characters throw out all common sense just to get to a crowd-pleasing twist cribbed from the original. Spoilers ahead.

Security decides to unleash the raptors on the I-Rex. It's a spectacularly bad idea because the I-Rex turns out to be part-raptor. That makes him the new alpha, and within seconds, the raptors turn on the humans to do their new leader's bidding. It's all very How to Train Your Dragon 2.

Pratt, Howard and the two kids are chased into the visitor's center, where the raptors and the I-Rex both seem poised to close in on them. Howard gets an idea and orders the park to open up a specific paddock. She's there to greet the dinosaur inside when it's released.

It's a T-Rex, and not just any T-Rex, but the same T-Rex from the first one. Much like Ian Malcolm, she uses a flare to lead it back to the others, somehow running faster (in heels, I believe) than a beast once clocked at 32 miles per hour. It's brilliant, right? Use the T-Rex to stop the I-Rex.

Uh, wait. Didn't we just go through a whole scene about how dinosaurs yield to the alphas of their species? And now we're sending a T-Rex after an alpha that's part T-Rex? That seems risky, right?

Also, once you have the massive Dino-Battle 2015, why aren't you getting the hell out of there? These guys stick around to watch the fight like they have money on it!

I like dinosaurs fighting as much as the next guy. I just wish the film found a better way to get there.

Also, having watched Jurassic Park the night before, I gained a new appreciation for how deftly Spielberg shifted tone from comedy to tension. He gets laughs right before a scare that avoid stepping on the scare and somehow enhance it. Seconds before the lawyer is eaten on the toilet, there's a tension-releasing joke about how, "When you've gotta go, you've gotta go."

Jurassic World has a really nasty prolonged kill where Howard's assistant is snatched up by pterodactyls, taken high, dropped, snatched by another one, tossed back and forth before being dropped in the water, where at least two or three dinos make a meal of her at once. It's an ugly death, particularly for a side character who we've not seen do anything terrible. Usually a film will give that kind of painful end to someone the audience hates. It works as a cathartic moment. I wouldn't have been shocked for D'Onofrio's character or Dr. Wu to die that way, but it's jarring to see the movie take a perverse sort of glee in how this innocent side character is toyed with before a gruesome end.

Another tonal misfire is a scene between Jake Johnson and Lauren Lapkus's technician characters as they are told to evacuate. Johnson says he's staying behind. The music swells, and he moves in for a kiss goodbye, but the spell is broken when she's all "Whoa! What's going on here!" The swelling music literally stops. I'm shocked we didn't get a needle scratch on the soundtrack, to be honest. And then the scene gets more awkward. It feels like they wanted to do a Joss Whedon-like subversion of a trope with some jokey humor, but didn't stick the landing. It's a weird place to stop the movie and suddenly decide to toss in some self-aware moments.

I don't know if those two beats count as self-indulgent, but they both felt out of place.

I definitely found entertainment in the film. It's the best of the three sequels and its high points outdo the high parts of the previous two films. Honestly, if you try not to focus too much on the InGen silliness, you can probably get through 2/3 of the film without many serious issues. It's the utter silliness of the ending that kills all goodwill and makes it impossible to give the InGen stuff a pass.

Still, I can see how some people walked out of there feeling like they got their money's worth, even as I understand people walking out really, really hating this film. Chris Pratt is a lot of fun, and if they'd fixed Bryce Dallas Howard's character, maybe this thing would have worked enough to make that ending more satisfying.


  1. I enjoyed Jurassic World quite a bit, but somethinbg nagged at me while I was watching it. I let it slide; I was watching a Jurassic Park film, I expect a few characters at least to have a big 'Fast Food' sign around them. Or the idea that something would go wrong. Again, you know what to generally expect. But that wasn't my problem with the film at all.

    I did like Lost World, and I liked part III quite a bit as well. Neither was a great as the first. But here's the thing. There is a big set piece in Jurassic World where we see the remains of the visitor center from '93. Old jeeps, some gadgets and other knick knacks had been left behind. It's really cool. But to me it was also a smoking gun. Let me explain.

    Rome wasn't built in a day.

    It is my understanding that while the events in the previous sequels are not mentioned, they are still considered canon (and Malcolm's cautionary book is making the rounds) but even if they were not, so be it. You *still* have an island full of dinosaurs. At the very least, a T Rex who has survived the enzyme deficiency at least for twenty years, plus, 'life finds a way'. So, hundreds of construction workers have to build monorails, new fences, buildings - from scratch -and what not while being in the company of critters who will hunt and eat you.

    In any case, I think I have a possible answer to the 'outrunning a T Rex' question. I'm an optimist, or I'd like to think so, I'll go out on a limb, even though I'm pretty sure it isn't the truth, and say the T Trex had been trained. It also, being the original Rex from '93, might be a little crusty in its 65 million year old age ...if you are skeptical, remember after The Big Brawl? T Rex turns to the humans and all but takes a bow "You're welcome"..
    in all likelihood it was a writer's or filmmaker's trope - with the T Trex just standing in front of the door waiting to be turned loose to save the day - but aren't the dinosaurs meant to be the new heroes now? They attack the bad assistant who doesn't keep an eye on her responsibilities, they attack workers who cage them, attack those who exploit them and only 'bad guy' who lives is saved only for a sequel....? And they join forces to stop the bad dinosaur!

    And they are your friends now- but say the wrong thing and they will promptly bite the hand that feeds. Or just feed on the hand.

  2. Try posting this before, and when I hit preview it disappeared (oh well).

    I agree with most of your points, but I think you got one thing wrong. According to this film (and the canon established by the other three), raptors are pack animals, whereas the T-Rex hunts alone (with the exception of in the second movie, and that's only to defend immediate family. Since pack animals have alpha's, whereas individual hunting animals do not, it stands to reason that the T-Rex wouldn't turn like the raptors did initially.

    Secondly, in the film, Pratt talks about how a dinosaur in complete isolation is more dangerous. The T-Rex is shown to be more accustomed to the human presence, and is shown to associate the red flare with where his food is. While I agree her outrunning the T-Rex is ridiculous, it's not as far-fetched as you present it.

    I agree with almost everything else you said, just not those points.

    My biggest issue was that I missed the slow build. It went from 0-100 way too fast for my tastes.