Skip to main content

They're dinosaurs, "wow" enough.

Jurassic World
(2015)

(SPOILERS) Your reaction to the long-time coming fourth instalment of the Jurassic Park franchise will probably depend on the extent to which you hold the original in high esteem. I don’t, especially. It’s expertly made and all, but lacks the enthusiasm and brio Spielberg was brining to his adventure romps a decade earlier. I prefer its unloved follow-up (tantamount to claiming Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom over Raiders of the Lost Ark). Even that is by increments, though, and mainly because the ever-charismatic Jeff Goldblum is given his moment in the spotlight as Ian Malcolm. Jurassic World can claim superiority to the previous last shrug that was Jurassic Park III, and there are times when it very nearly makes its overt silliness an asset, but it continues the series’ trends of scant originality of concept and spartan at best characterisation.


The makers have, of course, slightly adjusted the stir-and-repeat plot this time out. Yes, there are the prerequisite kids (how or why it was decided this was an essential ingredient of the series would be beyond me if Spielberg didn’t have a casting vote), yes they’re back on one of the islands (announcing itself as the true inheritor of the legacy, this is Isla Nublar from the original), and yes a carefully controlled environment goes hopelessly wrong. But this time we were tantalised with the promise of a Westworld type affair (never straying too far from the Crichton. A fully operational park goes tits-up! Dino-slaughter! Bloody carnage! No such luck. While there are a couple of gleefully gruesome moments along the way, fledgling blockbuster director Colin Trevorrow generally sticks the series’ localised template. When the vast swathes of tourists come into contact with the dinosauruses it’s only of the winged variety, with flocks of pteranodons and dimorphodons bagging tourists.


Maybe there’s an essential conflict between 12-certificate movie making and what the average kid wants from a dinosaur movie, although I doubt that’s really it (12s can go increasingly far, and the formerly PG Jaws goes further than most).  More likely it’s the familiar problem of being creatively stunted; Spielberg’s baby has never been willing to take the brakes off. Only a solitary T-Rex has made it to the mainland. Flying or swimming creatures have never escaped to the wider environment (wouldn’t numerous enterprising types have stolen a few beasties in the previous two decades?) The potential for Malcolm’s beloved Chaos Theory to exert itself has been strictly controlled, even though the movies’ plots are predicated on these systems regularly breaking down. The results are limited and repetitive, when there are actually all sorts of possibilities as a jumping off point for “Jurassic” bannered dinosaur movies (certainly more so than the current attempts to make a Transformers universe).


One of those was John Sayles screenplay for Jurassic Park IV. It featured genetically engineered human-dinosaur soldiers (visions of Alien Resurrection’s aesthetically-challenged hybrid might not be so far off the mark if the online concept art is anything to go by) and dinosaurs had got out into the wider world. Which frankly is where this series needs to go, but you can bet that V and VI will stick to just as limited a canvas as before. Sayles’ movie might have been terrible, but at least it was something different.


Instead, Trevorrow and co-writer Derek Connolly (Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver are co-credited, despite Treverrow and Connolly claiming it was all down to them) appear to have retained the briefest smidgeon of Sayles’ idea (just don’t take it to arbitration) but have divested it of anything that approaches balls. There’s a genetically engineered dinosaur, Indominus Rex (in a calculated snub to dino-purists, B D Wong’s returning Dr Wu testifies that none of the Park’s dinosaurs are pure specimens, so the conversation about the ethics of tampering is irrelevant; even the debate over feathers gets a mention). He looks remarkably un-outlandish, and damnably like any old dinosaur, just with an albino tint and longer arms that lend him a passing resemblance to the Roland Emmerich Godzilla.


The Indominus is where Jurassic World is at its most meta – it’s to be the fictional park’s star exhibit, where visitors have quickly grown jaded. The owners require bright and shiny new lizards to attract punters, just as the “wow” factor of CGI/animatronic dinosaurs wears off and it’s difficult to rekindle that enthusiasm (actually wrongheaded; what Spielberg, and now Trevorrow, failed to realise is that you only need to come up with a different tale to tell). Indominus is also the star of the trailers, albeit tantalisingly glimpsed rather than show off; it’s the promise of something nasty and new (honestly, though, the aquatic mosasaurus is far and away the most impressive sight here).


Variable attentiveness seems to have gone into the Indominus’ hodgepodge of genetic ingredients. It can camouflage itself, mask its infrared heat signature, remove a tracking device from its body, stage a fake-out escape in order to conduct a real one, and kills purely for sport. It is very smart. But when it comes down to it, the big reveal that it has raptor DNA doesn’t really cut it. Sure, it’s a nice twist that it usurps the alpha relationship between Chris Pratt’s veloci-whisperer Owen and his raptor buddies, but the kind of brains Indominus is displaying would only really be justified by the revelation that it has human (or raven) DNA in the mix. Which would take us right back to Sayles’ script.


The other element that’s a hangover from Sayles, and rather redundantly used, is the militarisation of dinosaurs, as represented by Vincent D’Onofrio’s Hoskins. Hoskins, InGen’s head of security, is mad for sending raptors into war zones, for no logical reason other than it sounds cool. I mean, why not train a tiger? Or an aforementioned raven? It eventually becomes clear the only reason Hoskins has this crazy notion is that the script needs to manoeuvre itself into a position where Owen is on board with using his raptor pals to hunt down the Indominus. The only way to allow that, without him being an irresponsible dick, is to have his hand forced.


Mention of John Sayles in the context of monster movies naturally leads to Joe Dante, and one can’t help recall the untempered satirical swipes he took at the sequel machine in Gremlins 2: The New Batch (a quarter of a century old this year). Trevorrow’s bite isn’t nearly as unapologising, likely because Spielberg didn’t want his fingers burned again, but also because Trevorrow is no Dante. 


Still, from the digs at viewer apathy, to corporate sponsorship of dinosaurs (actual sponsorship is, of course, abundant in the picture), and the nostalgia of buying original Jurassic Park t-shirts on e-bay and discovery of classic movie jeeps, this makes a legitimate parallel between how quickly the lustre of actual dinosaurs reborn would wear off and the fizzling of the movie series (no one really cares about photo-real dragons any more either). The theme park is believably vacuous, with a bored employee not even attempting enthusiasm as he ushers attendees onto a ride, and then proclaiming that it isn’t his fault and he only works there when an alert is raised.


Typically of Spielberg (like, in every one of the movies) it’s the nipper who appreciates the true awesomeness of dinosaurs. None of the characters in this picture are up to much, but the younger actors in the cast knock spots of previous incumbents. Ty Simpkins’ Gray is the dino-adorer, while too cool for school brother Zach (Nick Robinson) only perks up when the big fish douses him. Which is probably the most succinct visual comparison to the audience, since it’s easily the best dino-feat of the movie (alas, spoiled in every trailer, but still impressive).


I’ve read a few reviews suggesting Chris Pratt is stripped of charisma , but he’s actually fine as the nominal lead. It isn’t a great part (Pratt doesn’t even get to kill a dinosaur for sport, which must have been a great disappointment to the actor/hunter), but he makes more of it than might otherwise be expected. When he’s interacting with his raptors and being the really cool guy (as the kids refer to him), Pratt’s on solid ground. When attempting to strike up a modicum of chemistry with co-star Bryce Dallas Howard he comes unstuck, required to deliver corny or unfunny lines and engage in a tentative romance no one is rooting for.


The real victim in all this is Howard, who has been landed with one of the least flattering leading lady roles in recent memory. It’s the sort of part that would have been pushing it three decades ago. She’s the starchy corporate suit who needs to rekindle her humanity and mothering instincts. If only she would warm up a bit, she’d be fine. They were probably aiming for Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner in Romancing the Stone. What they hit was way off, though. Of course, there’s a scene where she saves Pratt, but basically Claire’s as unsympathetic as they get and Howard is unable to bleed any fun into the part.


Trevorrow is on more solid ground with the supporting turns. Irrfan Khan is a live wire as the not-very-good-at-flying-a-helicopter CEO of Jurassic World. He’s appealing enough that you don’t really want him written out as quickly as he is (it would be tantamount to killing off Jon Glover in Gremlins 2). Omar Sy is appealing but very much in the shade as Owen's dutiful righthand man.


The director brings back his Safety Not Guaranteed co-star Jake Johnson as a desk jockey. Lowery exhibits the kind of snappy self-consciousness that suggests this is where Trevorrow is truly most comfortable (particularly good are his failed advances towards Lauren Lapkus). Judy Greer is completely wasted as the boys’ mother. 


B D Wong is sadly underused (hopefully he’ll be better catered for in Jurassic Universe). D’Onofrio can do little but cash his healthy cheque and wait in line as raptor food; there’s really absolutely nothing to be made from what he’s been given, which says something as he’s usually great fun to watch.


While there isn’t enough of Wong’s Wu, what there is exposes the series’ most significant adjustment in approach. Before, the heroes were scientists; bookish professors more at home discussing chaos theory or surrounded by fossils. Their theoretical rigour ensured a balance against the more unscrupulous and ethically challenged aspects of scientific advances. Now, Wu is the only representative of science. As a result, any assumption of caution from right-minded defenders of the new faith has abandoned island.


I had doubts about Trevorrow taking this gig. Nothing in Safety suggested he could adapt to the budget and scale (whereas someone like Chronicle’s Josh Trank seemed a naturally fit for the upgrade to Fantastic Four…) He actually does an entirely serviceable job. Some of the set pieces are decent. He gets in a few solid scares, and maintains the tradition of the series for including some fairly grisly fates. 


The highlight is the unenviable demise of Zara (Karie McGrath), unlucky enough to be delegated the task of looking after the boys. For failing to do so, she must be punished (alternatively, if the little brats hadn’t run away she might still be alive). So she’s carried away by a pteranodon, dropped in the mosasaurus tank, hoisted aloft by one again before it, and her, are downed in one by the mosasaurus. Something about this sequence strikes closer to the hopeless nightmare of an inescapable shark attack from the first Jaws or Richard Benjamin fleeing Yul Brynner after his friend is shot down before his eyes in Westworld. It’s the only point where the picture actually doesn’t feel safe.


The scene where Masrani’s helicopter crashes into the pterosaur enclosure is also a bit of corker; it’s the closest the picture hews to the original’s chain reaction of things going wrong with the park, and includes a security guard in the co-pilot seat getting skewered by a pteranodon beak.


The T-Rex is broken out as a welcome old favourite at the end; it’s nice enough to see her, but the picture was chugging along quite nicely before that. The reliance on both her and the raptors (there’s a whole sequence where they are fully realised as the xenomorph knock-offs we knew they work, when they Aliens-like take out a squad of security guards) further evidences a lack of confidence in breaking new ground that permeates the franchise.


It’s also pretty unlikely that the T-Rex would claim ultimate victory, even with a little help from his not-such friends. It’s a bit like one of those boxing movies where he’s lost nine rounds straight and then comes back with a K-O in the final minute.  That said, the reappearance by the mosasaurus is a neatly paid-off visual gag (and narratively references the re-arrival of the T-Rex at the end of Jurassic Park), and the use of the “friendly” raptors mostly works. It’s too Arnie in Terminator 2: Judgment Day for my tastes, but at least Trevorrow encourages a petting zoo where you can still lose your hand.


The goofy bit in the trailers with Pratt and the his veloci-buddies actually does work in context and, as daft as it is, the reclaiming of their loyalty, and their valiant attempts to do for the Indomitus, works well dramatically. Trevorrow is never in any danger of living up to prime Spielberg (although everything here is superior to anything in the ‘berg’s own fourth instalment, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull) but he never brings a shame on both their houses. He also dutifully litters the picture with references to the original (the Mr DNA cartoon, the disused park hall, Howard attracting a Rex with a flare).


Jurassic World looks like it will be a monster hit, nearly doubling its predicted opening weekend gross. That’s probably much bigger than a franchise reboot resting on its laurels deserves. If most of that decade’s properties hadn’t already been extended or plundered in one way or another, this might signal the end of the ‘80s movie nostalgia boom and the beginning of a ‘90s one. Independence Day 2 will be the tester of that theory (sans Will Smith) next year. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles has already been “successfully” rebooted, Bad Boys 3 is finally being lined up. What next? Speed Free? The Matrix Re-Reloaded (the Wachowskis will need an easy box office win soon at the current rate)? Twistered?


Nevertheless, aside from not having Goldblum (next time, next time) there isn’t a huge amount between this and the first two pictures. It doesn’t take the age to get going that Jurassic Park did, and it doesn’t have that girl doing somersaults that blighted The Lost World. On the other hand, there’s no defining masterful set piece either.  


I have to imagine the fun Joe Dante would have had with it, but I imagine that of most movies, even wildly inappropriate ones. Overall, Jurassic World exceeded my low expectations. It’s a bit of patchwork job, but it’s a never less than entertaining popcorn flick. This is still a series that doesn’t have the stomach to fully indulge dinosaurs as mean mofos (as evidenced by the triceratops-referencing dying brontosaurus, by way of a latter-day E.T.) and pussies out of actually allowing humans, and more especially Chris Pratt, to kill them (because that would send out the wrong message about a millions-of-years-extinct and genetically-modified hybrid species?). And which thinks we should all be as impressed as John Williams’ overrated theme (Michael Giacchino is forgiven for his Tomorrowland score; this one’s quite decent. For VI, though, really up the stakes and go global. And have an entire underwater sequence where Jeff Goldblum must evade oncoming mosasaurus.





Comments

Popular posts from this blog

If you never do anything, you never become anyone.

An Education (2009)
Carey Mulligan deserves all the attention she received for her central performance, and the depiction of the ‘60s is commendably subdued. I worried there was going to be a full-blown music montage sequence at the climax that undid all the good work, but thankfully it was fairly low key. 

Alfred Molina and Olivia Williams are especially strong in the supporting roles, and it's fortunate for credibility’s sake that that Orlando Bloom had to drop out and Dominic Cooper replaced him.
***1/2

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Can you close off your feelings so you don’t get crippled by the moral ambiguity of your violent actions?

Spider-Man Worst to Best

I should have mailed it to the Marx Brothers.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
When your hero(es) ride off into the sunset at the end of a film, it’s usually a pretty clear indication that a line is being drawn under their adventures. Sure, rumours surfaced during the ‘90s of various prospective screenplays for a fourth outing for the whip-cracking archeologist. But I’m dubious anyone really expected it to happen. There seemed to be a natural finality to Last Crusade that made the announcement of his 2007 return nostalgically welcome but otherwise unwarranted. That it turned out so tepid merely seemed like confirmation of what we already knew; Indy’s time was past.

Do you read Sutter Cane?

In the Mouth of Madness (1994)
(SPOILERS) The concluding chapter of John Carpenter’s unofficial Apocalypse Trilogy (preceded by The Thing and Prince of Darkness) is also, sadly, his last great movie. Indeed, it stands apart in the qualitative wilderness that beset him during the ‘90s (not for want of output). Michael De Luca’s screenplay had been doing the rounds since the ‘80s, even turned down by Carpenter at one point, and it proves ideal fodder for the director, bringing out the best in him. Even cinematographer Gary K Kibbe seems inspired enough to rise to the occasion. It could do without the chugging rawk soundtrack, perhaps, but then, that was increasingly where Carpenter’s interests resided (as opposed to making decent movies).

Everyone who had a talent for it lived happily ever after.

Empire 30:  Favourite Films of the Last 30 Years
Empire’s readers’ poll to celebrate its thirtieth birthday – a request for the ultimate thirty films of the last thirty years, one per year from 1989 – required a bit of thought, particularly since they weren’t just limiting it to your annual favourite (“These can be the films that impressed you the most, the ones that stuck with you, that brought you joy, or came to you at just the right time”). Also – since the question was asked on Twitter, although I don’t know how rigorous they’re being; does it apply to general release, or does it include first film festival showings? – they’re talking UK release dates, rather than US, calling for that extra modicum of mulling. To provide more variety, I opted to limit myself to just one film per director; otherwise, my thirty would have been top heavy with, at very least, Coen Brothers movies. So here’s they are, with runners-up and reasoning:

You're always sorry, Charles, and there's always a speech, but nobody cares anymore.

X-Men: Dark Phoenix (2019)
(SPOILERS) To credit its Rotten Tomatoes score (22%), you’d think X-Men: Dark Phoenix was a travesty that besmirched the name of all good and decent (read: MCU proper) superhero movies, or even last week’s underwhelming creature feature (Godzilla: King of Monsters has somehow reached 40%, despite being a lesser beast in every respect). Is the movie’s fate a self-fulfilling prophecy, what with delayed release dates and extensively reported reshoots? Were critics castigating a fait accompli turkey without giving it a chance? That would be presupposing they’re all sheep, though, and in fairness, other supposed write-offs havecome back from such a brink in the past (World War Z). Whatever the feelings of the majority, Dark Phoenix is actually a mostly okay (twelfth) instalment in the X-franchise – it’s exactly what you’d expect from an X-Men movie at this point, one without any real mojo left and a variable cast struggling to pull its weight. The third act is a bi…

What, you're going to walk in there like it's the commie Disneyland or something?

Stranger Things 3 (2019)
(SPOILERS) It’s very clear by this point that Stranger Things isn’t going to serve up any surprises. It’s operating according to a strict formula, one requiring the opening of the portal to the Upside Down every season and an attendant demagorgon derivative threat to leak through, only to be stymied at the last moment by our valorous team. It’s an ‘80s sequel cycle through and through, and if you’re happy with it functioning exclusively on that level, complete with a sometimes overpowering (over)dose of nostalgia references, this latest season will likely strike you as just the ticket.

You want to investigate me, roll the dice and take your chances.

A Few Good Men (1992)
(SPOILERS) Aaron Sorkin has penned a few good manuscripts in his time, but A Few Good Men, despite being inspired by an actual incident (one related to him by his sister, an army lawyer on a case at the time), falls squarely into the realm of watchable but formulaic. I’m not sure I’d revisited the entire movie since seeing it at the cinema, but my reaction is largely the same: that it’s about as impressively mounted and star-studded as Hollywood gets, but it’s ultimately a rather empty courtroom drama.

Why would I turn into a filing cabinet?

Captain Marvel (2019)
(SPOILERS) All superhero movies are formulaic to a greater or lesser degree. Mostly greater. The key to an actually great one – or just a pretty good one – is making that a virtue, rather than something you’re conscious of limiting the whole exercise. The irony of the last two stand-alone MCU pictures is that, while attempting to bring somewhat down-the-line progressive cachet to the series, they’ve delivered rather pedestrian results. Of course, that didn’t dim Black Panther’s cultural cachet (and what do I know, swathes of people also profess to loving it), and Captain Marvel has hit half a billion in its first few days – it seems that, unless you’re poor unloved Ant-Man, an easy $1bn is the new $700m for the MCU – but neither’s protagonist really made that all-important iconic impact.