17 June 2015

First Impressions: Jurassic World

If only Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) hadn't dropped a few weeks earlier, then we'd sure be praising Jurassic World (2015). Or I would at least. I'll inarguably call it the second-best blockbuster film of the year, and so far out of the "Big Three" dropping in 2015 (the others, by my count, being Avengers: Age of Ultron and Star Wars: The Force Awakens), it's definitely the most enjoyable. SPOILERS abound from here on out, so if you're looking for a long, thorough discussion of this flick's awesomeness, stay tuned.
Just a boy and his Raptor best friend.
Or my dream since I was six.

First off, Jurassic World is an odd movie. It's actually really odd. It's got a lot going on at once. It's an update of an earlier, landmark blockbuster than tacitly acknowledges the impossibility of topping its predecessor while steeped in transparent thematic irony trying to do so. It's at once an obnoxious monster-mashing blockbuster that's trying to have restrained character moments and recapture a sense of wonder so often lost in these kinds of films. At the same time, its characters are clear audience surrogates, who struggle re-realizing the specialness of the situation they're in. It also is successfully able to expand upon the general themes of the original - man's futile attempt to wrangle nature and the slow descent into chaos. And of course, when that happens, woman inherits the earth. So let's dissect this a little more, talking about the most obvious meta-theme.

Jurassic Park (1993) has a legacy that's nearly impossible to live up to, even if its immediate successors are generally acknowledged to suck balls. Colin Trevorrow and company seemed to have a tough time reconciling this and decided to work it into the script. Jurassic World the park is basically a substitute for the changing blockbuster landscape of the past twenty years. The effects of Jurassic Park were groundbreaking and mindblowing, but now they can be done on a laptop. CGI is ubiquitous, and as such, we tend to forget that these new worlds we discover in film are supposed to be special.

There's scant directors other than Spielberg who are good at imbibing films with that sense of wonder. There should be some kind of character reaction to the fantastic, which sort of gets lost when to us (and filmmakers), the fantastic becomes standard. Jurassic World tries hard to bring that wonder back. It fumbles in some part with say, the rather staid introduction of our girl, Indominus Rex, but the intricate world-building, especially seen through the eyes of young Gray (wtf name?) Mitchell (Ty Simpkins), while his older, jaded brother rolls his eyes. In-world it's almost a time where the existence of dinosaurs has become blasĂ©. That's an easy metaphor for how different audiences may look at a film like this. For littler kids, Jurassic World is going to be their nostalgia trip. For older folks who grew up with Jurassic Park, been there, done that.

So the park heads in the same direction as movies have in the past twenty years. The same old stuff is never enough. Audiences always need more and more, until it's become unsustainable. The big first trailer moment is designed to shit on Spielberg's JAWS (1975). You thought great white sharks were scary? Well, here's a big fucking Mosasaurus who chomps that like a snack. It's a fantastic introduction to hook the movie audience into the heightened spectacle of the film, but within the meta-narrative it's also the first inkling of our need for our movies to be bigger, badder, and crazier, even though that doesn't really make them better.

Trevorrow wraps a lot of the same themes into the Indominus Rex. She was created to appease audiences by giving them a spectacle they've never seen before, to please the park owners by increasing profits, and even to cheer up the apparently secret military investors who really just want that thing to fuck up Iran or something. The flick does a fairly deft job of rolling it all into one, and then showing us that no, our desire for this new crazy thing is going to turn around and eat us.

The film's conclusion then reverts to normal, although it gets a little muddy. The final Dino-Battle is loaded with symbolism. Claire Dearing (BDH) unleashes the original T-Rex (yes, there has been acknowledgment that somehow this IS this girl. I don't know how long T-Rexes live. Plausible, I guess. She still likes goats), and she goes to town on the new, sexier model. On the way she also blasts through a Spinosaurus skeleton, which is a neat dig at Jurassic Park III (2001). I really love films like this and X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014) getting to the point where they are just like "yeah, the last sequel sucked. Sorry 'bout that."

She eventually needs to team up with her arch-nemesis, the Raptor to bring down Indominus, which comes immediately after Indominus fights two raptors at once, which is exactly like the ending to Jurassic Park. It's still not enough, though, and only the tricky placement next to the Mosasaur tank is enough to take it down. Did anyone else think of this when that happened? But if the T-Rex represents the Old School and the Mosasaur and Indominus both represent New School, what does it mean that the Mosasaur is the one to bring down Indominus? I don't know. That was the moment where the brilliant metaphor kind of skipped a beat. To be fair, I have no idea how the T-Rex could have beaten the Indominus - but shouldn't she and the Raptor be better than the monster that is a genetic combo of both? That's also kind of the point of movies. How is Star-Lord supposed to beat Ronin? I dunno. He just does, and it's an awesome moment. The T-Rex needed a great finishing move to make this whole meta aspect come full circle. The roar at the end reclaiming her place as Queen of the Castle works though.

As we continue to inevitably compare this to the original, a few important things fall into place. It's curious how much the film honors John Hammond, which you've got to think its more for Richard Attenborough than for his character, who was really deeply flawed with sharing his vision with the world. His successor, Simon Masrani (Irrfan Khan), is actually somewhat more sympathetic, even if the legacy of Hammond gets deeply twisted with the creation of Indominus Rex.

Then again, B.D. Wong is there, as a villain this time, which is one of the more interesting turns for a character who was in Jurassic Park for two expository seconds, to tell us that this is all genetic engineering and Indominus isn't an abomination crime against God more than any of the other things they have created. It's also a great way to battle against the film creators' negligence in giving anyone feathers. No mainstream audience would want to see a T-Rex covered in feathers. That's not what the Jurassic World parkgoers want either. It keeps feeding into the idea that all this is designed to just placate these idiot masses to maximize profitability.

I also like how Dr. Wu succeeded in taking embryos off the island, which is exactly what Nedry failed to do like twenty years ago. Apparently, that's the direction that sequels will head towards. I don't have a huge problem with that. New is always better, and as fun as T-Rex rampaging through San Diego was, I'm not sure how sustainable that is on a mainland full of tanks and guns.
You know, this actually isn't the first time Jurassic Park
has spliced different Dino genes together...
I seriously had an Ankyoranodon.

Speaking of the military, the Raptors-as-military weapons is sort of a ham-fisted idea that doesn't totally gel with the science-as-commercialism-leads-to-hubris aspects of the rest of the film. It's not the totally unreasonable assumption on the part of Vic Hoskins (Vincent D'onofrio) that this is possible that some reviews whine about, but it is a fairly played out trope. I mean, the only real way that would work is if we eventually had Raptors with robot brains. Or we literally just drop them in a combat zone and watch them eat everyone. That could work. Then again, rocket launchers. Then again, Zerg rush...

I did like the role of the Raptors in this film. They were almost allies of the humans, which is a cool spin on these guys who have been so integral to the franchise for so long. They always seem to be getting more and more human-like, or at least their relationship seems to grow from antagonist to quasi-ally film to film. I think some may believe that's over the top, but it presented some really tense will they or won't they scenes (that is, will they or won't they eat Chris Pratt), and pushed the narrative. It was sweet.

This film also boasted some spectacular villains. Hoskins is this terrible bloated mirror of Owen Grady (Chris Pratt), who also loves Raptors but for the completely wrong reasons, and has no effective relationship with them, despite wanting one much more badly than Owen. I wish he had had a more iconic death, though. No death is really as classic as Gennero on the john or "Clever girl." Or even, "Thank goodness, Mr. Arnold!" The one brutal death is really uncalled for - poor Zara, the cell phone-obsessed millennial gets bobbled by Pteranodons before getting swallowed by the Mosasaur. None of that felt really kosher, even though it was during one of the more effective scenes of mass panic.

See, this film has a much slower chaos burn than the first. It's more a domino effect of one thing going wrong after another, all thanks to Indominus. The humans keep trying to tighten their grip to control the situation, but it just keeps getting farther and farther out of hand. It's really well constructed. And I loved Indominus as a central villain, who is like the Spinosaurus in Jurassic Park III (2001), except more thematically important, cooler, and much more earned. Like I said, a more iconic entrance and exit, that thing would be truly classic. I also kept getting a constant Star-Lord vs. Satanus impression, which is always solid.

As for the sexist claims, I really think after watching this that they were unwarranted. BDH's Claire is pretty well-thought out with a specific personality who at the end is more clever and heroic than Chris Pratt's Owen, who is really just an exposition machine. "She's killing for sport." "She's the new alpha." "She's deranged from being raised in captivity without a social structure." It's like he's the only one who is qualified for his job and knows what's going on. And what is his background? Just the navy? Does he have any animal training experience?

I was also sort of put off by his hyper-masculinity. He totally just spends his spare time chilling with a Han Solo vest, drinking tequila, and working on his motorcycle in his spare time. It's almost over-the-top without being real blatant about it. Claire, on the other hand, could be seen as a stereotypical uptight businesswoman, but so what? Women can't be busy running successful theme parks? The Playlist suggested we'd have had a much more interesting movie if the characters had switched genders. I'm sure we wouldn't criticise Olivia Grady for being a manic pixie dream girl at all.

I thought about her pumps a little bit during some of those running scenes, but not as much as some people. It's really getting rough out there, folks. I mean, it's kind of weird, but why would she take off her shoes? There's sticks and broken glass and dinosaur teeth out there, man. Sucks she didn't have time to grab a pair of sneakers in her office, but I guess when she dressed like an office professional for the day she didn't anticipate all hell breaking loose on the Dinosaur Island she worked on. Alright, maybe she should have been on guard a little.

The kids were fine, even if they kind of stopped having things to do after a while. Again, let's look the other way - "A Unix system? I know this!" People get angry at this kind of stuff, like, how their characters don't do shit after a while, but don't totally think of the alternative. The adults should be in charge. Did anyone notice that the older one was kind of a cad, like not saying "I love you" to bae, and checking out other chicas the whole time? Might I add, THANK GOODNESS THEY USED TO FIX UP OLD JEEPS.

This brings us to the film's heady nostalgia-tripping, although it's mostly kept at a good distance, with enough clever callbacks without exactly being overwhelming. It's cool that the park itself has a constant effort to forget the failures of Jurassic Park, while the film ironically wants us to keep remembering Jurassic Park. There's some cool tension there. The ghosts of Jurassic Park keep haunting them, from innocuous T-shirts to how, albeit delayed, Jurassic World faces the same fate. I wonder how that would look on Claire Dearing's resume for future job applications. There are so many direct parallels we don't need to list them here. You can read them here!

I also liked Jake Johnson as a sort of anti-Nedry, a nerd with a messy workspace and glasses, who is a little bit less of a sociopath and one of the braver characters rather than the most cowardly. It's another way this film runs in parallel that's really impressive. That boyfriend scene was killer, but not totally something subverted in Wet Hot American Summer (2001) an age ago.

The fully functional park adds so much more pressure with this descent into chaos. It's also great to see what this place may have looked like if Hammond's grand idea succeeded. The film does an exceptional job of building this world to be real, from the crowds to queues to the whole corporate atmosphere. Even Jimmy Fallon as the tour guide is a canny touch, because even though in the theater I was like "wtf Jimmy Fallon?" I guess he actually is the tour host on many Universal Studios tours and rides. So if you've ever been there seeing him on your Jurassic World gyroscope is pretty natural. Or something.

Even though there a few flaws here and the ending gets an otherwise solid theme muddled, I really enjoyed this flick. I'm curious how long this new era of self-commentating blockbusters can last (I might call out Chris Pratt's other vehicle, Guardians of the Galaxy [2014] for its much more blatant deconstruction, although it wore its goofiness on its sleeve much more than this, which tries to keep its commentary through metaphor rather than spunky dialogue). It weirdly felt more Spielbergian than J.J. Abrams' best attempts, and I wonder how he feels about that. It's more Spielbergian than even Peter Jackson, actually, or any of those proteges or heirs to the throne in the past few years. This is apparent even if the CGI really isn't as impressive, and the use of animatronics and puppets, which is really the reason why Stan Winston's Jurassic Park remain so sticky, scary, and feels real, is largely absent.

And not like I even need to mention it, but this film made half a billion dollars in three days to come to the highest grossing opening weekend ever. That's nuts. This was an underdog amongst the Big Three in 2015. Will Star Wars shake it down come December? We'll see, baby!

1 comment:

  1. A few more things:

    1) I did NOT realize that Ty Simpkins was also the little kid in Iron Man 3. Do you think he has a bright blockbuster future? Or more Jake Lloyd style? Considering I didn't remember him at all and he doesn't make too much of an impact here, I'll say...no.

    2) I just realized that Indominus Rex is basically a giant Predator. IF IT BLEEDS WE CAN KILL IT.


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