Saturday, June 11, 2016

Dino Watch: Jurassic World (2015)

If Chris Pratt riding a motorcycle with dinosaurs gets you going, I have great news for you

One phrase I usually roll my eyes at when folks try to use it as a criticism of a fictional film is that it was "manipulative".  Fictional stories are made up tales that, by design, manipulate the audience to sympathize with characters, worry for them, etc...  While the best directors, writers, actors and Hollywood talent in general have a knack for this and make it happen organically, studios spend a tremendous amount of energy getting good at pushing all the right buttons for audiences despite the raw materials they're working with.  A combination of brand identity, pre-awareness, familiar faces and providing absolutely no surprises along the way seems to be the most profitable of movie formulas, if the roaring success of the Transformers franchise is any indication.  

Anyone who shrugs off Spielberg as a commercially successful director is missing the point, film snobs.  Spielberg has got his technique down, winning both the organic, artistic argument as well as the crowd-pleasing popcorn crowds, balancing one against the other with only the occasional misstep.  He's going to have to be long dead before we treat him like a rich, fun guy in a baseball cap, but the man can direct the living hell out of a movie.  And part of that has always been that Spielberg's attention to detail is astounding.  From his 1970's and 80's scenes of domestic life that ring with the cacophony of exhausted parents raising children (E.T., Close Encounters, Jaws) to the nuance of character he gets out of his actors in everything from Lincoln to Bridge of Spies.

When Jurassic Park arrived in theaters, it was a fun-park ride about a Disneyland with no rides - but, rather, living attractions, a fantastic zoo where science had not stopped to wonder if: just because they could, whether they should.  For all the wonder of dinosaurs, there were a million details that were right:  vehicles on tracks, contingency plans, a controlled environment overseen by an experienced crew including a big game hunter to make the calls on how to manage the deadly denizens of the park.  No thought was spared when it came to how such a park would work.

In fact, the movie takes place prior to the opening of the park as "the blood sucking lawyer" is brought in to review whether or not the park is fit to open, if it's safe, if they know what they're doing.  Of course, this came not just from Spielberg, but from the novel by pop-science-fiction author Michael Crichton (no, I never read it), who understood that sometimes if an idea is pretty fantastic, it can work as just a single point of fiction in an otherwise tangible universe.  So, of course, lawyers would be pretty interested in figuring out what sort of liability their eccentric founders were asking InGen to take on putting delicious humans anywhere near Tyrannosaurus Rexes.  And, of course, a major plot point is that the two paleontologists asked to look it over and give the thumbs up see danger everywhere despite the precautions taken.

Which is weird, because Jurassic World seems intent on lifting scenes and shots from Jurassic Park, but it's steadfastly disinterested in the logic and tone of the world of the first two movies.  It's a movie about dinosaurs eating people and that makes families find each other again, and two people with absolutely no chemistry fall in love.  Ready to the sacks for money!"

And that is exactly what happened.  Jurassic World (2015) made more than a billion and a half dollars worldwide.  It's the 24th ranked all-time grossing movie, adjusting for inflation.  Because, like I said, studios are actually quite good at knowing that there's a certain level of dumb you can hit where you bypass the critics and critical thinking of audiences (it's just a dinosaur movie, we say), move things along at a million miles per hour so the audience can't notice the roller coaster is held together with bubblegum and tape, and shoot us out the far end feeling like something happened.  They saw dinosaurs fuck some shit up and a happy ending.

I mean, I get it.  Again.  Transformers.  I'm always amazed how many people tell me "yeah, I saw that fourth Transformers movie and.. wow, was it bad."   I don't mind bad movies.  I relish bad movies in a certain context.  But I don't really get paying to take yourself to the fourth or fifth one of these things when the first one featured a robot urinating on John Turturro.

But if I went to take it back to the start here when I talked about "manipulating" audiences - Jurassic World feels like part of this Transformers trend of movies that manipulate the audience in ways they wants to be managed.  It's stupid, it's easy, they can turn off and shit just happens on screen, no matter how stupid.  There's no higher functions to manipulate, it's just scary dinosaurs on screen moving around, and the bar is set so low for what the movie needs to do to be considered a success, we'd have to go digging to find it.  Which is weird, because it seems like this franchise didn't start off this stupid.

In almost all ways, this Jurassic installment seems like it misses the point that in spite of all contingencies, planning, etc... you can't control nature.  It's hubris to believe that your soft, human self is going to outwit nature's perfect killing machines.  Jurassic World is the kind of movie where you can't quite figure out why someone not yet 40 is running a multi-billion-dollar attraction and the script thinks its making a point by having her refer to the dinosaurs as "assets" as she's addressing potential sponsors.  That's not clever, that's failing business-speak 101.

It's a movie that posits that park-go-ers could drive self-propelled gyroscopic hamster balls all over the rough terrain of a tropical island littered with dinosaurs, steering themselves with no tracks, no auto-pilot and no auto-recall, and, most hilariously, no tracking device.  Where the movie suggests the park is losing steam (after, what, 5 years in business?) and shows every scene packed to the gills in the tourist areas.  It then suggests that there is no emergency plan or evacuation plan for a hurricane prone area full of human-eating monsters.  And, of course, in this same hurricane prone area, they kept the flying man-eating monsters in a fragile shell of a building.

There's no compelling reason to dwell on the iffy CG of the movie.  It just wasn't great, and we're all pretty used to this stuff these days, so the wow factor is far, far lower than Summer of 1993.  But, yeah, it didn't really do a whole lot for me.

I kind of liked Vincent D'Onofrio's so-evil-he's-hilarious character, and his dream of putting Velociraptors to work like military dogs with bigger teeth, a scheme that makes absolutely no sense and feels like part of a draft of the script that maybe should have been thought better of before the cameras started rolling.

Curiously, the movie also forgets what Spielberg knew all too well - how to make you like all of the characters enough so there's something at stake.  Because when my favorite character is the villain of the movie and his goofy plan, things have gotten weird.  The first several scenes of Jurassic Park are, of course, exposition, but they manage to find a level of humor and subtlety that clear this film felt was for wimps.  Our characters are exposition delivering devices who feel like they should turn to the camera at the end of each sequence and say "did you get all that, you dummies?".  Because there's nothing there as far as the characters go.  It's just people saying stuff so you'll be ready when things happen later.  Even our comic relief characters in the control room - including Jake Johnson, who is usually hilarious - are simply there to show us that the dominatrix-coiffed Bryce Dallas Howard is un-fun.

The mere existence of the kids is kind of funny.  They're POV characters for the audience, if the audience sucks.  They're given personality quirks (the older one is broody and would like to be home with his girlfriend, maybe?  The younger one likes numbers) that absolutely do not matter.  One could have had been a hand gliding enthusiast and the other have been a magician, but this movie turns them into "the package" that Bruce Dallas Howard has to rescue at about the 45 minute mark and never looks back, the kids never mentioning who or what they are again.

Chris Pratt is fine, I guess, but he's hampered by a script that has some positively 1992-ish ideas about dudes and ladies, and that Bryce Dallas Howard should rightfully just be bowled over by his devil-may-care charisma (and, of course, through his many acts of manliness, she is all aquiver for him by movie's end).

I wound up live-tweeting the movie, and NakatomiTim pointed out the movie was being clever in the way it presented the Bad-Ass-a-Saurus or whatever the gene-spliced dinosaur was supposed to be, openly comparing it to how movie sequels get bigger and whatever as audiences need more.  And that may have been the one moment of self-realization the movie has.

Whether they were extending the metaphor or not, the movie reaches SyFy/ The Asylum levels of self-parody with the "what all did we splice in there?" sequence when we learn the Bad-Ass-a-Saurus has squids, tree frogs, whatever the plot needs to do some hand waving and give the made-up dinosaur some superpowers relevant only for the pertinent scene.  I was half expecting to hear we had squirrel, flying fish and ostrich in there for good measure.

I'd also point out - the movie hates science.  For every person who was inspired by Jurassic Park to learn more about dinosaurs - a science that is alive and well and continually evolving itself - this movie waves its hands, decides that science bunk is for "readers" and wants to make a scary monster movie that kids can see.  But even in that it misses the mark, clearly has no idea that dinosaurs, reptiles and amphibians aren't the same thing and that birds are closer to dinosaurs from an evolutionary perspective.  Something pretty much any kid in fifth grade knows in 2015.

I don't know if anyone else dwells on stuff like the legal ramifactions of dinosaur rampages, but it's the sort of thing I do ponder.  And, luckily, so do our friends over at Legal Geeks, who covered Jurassic World as extensively as you could ask.

Anyway, suffice it to say, this wasn't the movie for me.  Basically I think this movie was made by meatheads for dumbs.  And I don't really see a way around that opinion.  I get the "oh, it's just a movie" argument, but that's one that's never worked for me particularly well.  And, despite the high budget and the roaring box office success, Jurassic World just felt dumb and lazy, none of which fills me with cheer, especially as the director is scheduled to take on the 9th Star Wars film.

1 comment:

J.S. said...

It's a pretty obvious point, but it may be worth noting that the original Jurassic Park was based on a Crichton book that was very well thought out and a lot of fun. I actually remember reading the book before they made the movie and thinking, "This would be an awesome movie, but it would be really hard to pull off the special effects." Then, of course, voila! CG!
This new film definitely had the feel of just half heartedly cashing in on old, recycled ideas. I'm not sure that continuing to make additional Jurassic Park movies is such a great idea, at all. Seems like that particular idea has been pretty thoroughly mined...