Jurassic World **1/2 (out of 5)
Starring: Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Vincent D’Onofrio, Nick Robinson, Ty Simpkins, Irrfan Khan, Omar Sy, B.D. Wong, Jake Johnson, Lauren Lapkus, and Judy Greer
Written by: Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Derek Connolly, and Colin Trevorrow (screenplay); Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver (story); based on characters originally created by Michael Crichton
Directed by: Colin Trevorrow
**POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD**
Grabstalgia. Oh, that’s just a new word I made up to describe what happens when a piece of art doesn’t have a single aim, aside from grabbing and plucking those nostalgic strings of your memory. In 1993, Jurassic Park became an instant classic; not necessarily because of a riveting, life-altering plot, but rather because of the fresh, carefully crafted grand spectacle it provided. Until then, we knew nothing of dinosaurs in our movies, save for poorly rendered versions showing at our local museum’s theater or stop-motion beasts from yesterday’s earnest puppeteers. Now, we’ve seen everything. Jurassic World knows that, and plunges forward into “bigger and badder is better” territory. After all, the next logical step (because there is a pile of cash to collect from this franchise) was to create a grander spectacle, and constantly remind us why we loved the first film. That’s a neat strategy for a cash grab, but let’s be clear: if you’re looking to recreate that feeling of sheer awe from the original, you likely won’t find it. If you’re looking for a grounded film, you won’t come close to a glimpse. If you simply want to be entertained without consequence in the presence of the theater’s industrial air conditioner, Jurassic World was made for you.
The film is aptly made, appropriately sequenced and rendered, and provides likable, if not typical leads. The problem, it appears, is that none of Jurassic World‘s characters have seen, and thus none have learned, from the original. For all of the wanton loss of life and destruction of property we witnessed in the film’s first three installments, John Hammond’s original vision has somehow been seen to fruition. In fact, the park has been open for some time. Where there are myopic billionaires like Hammond, I suppose there are giant piles of cash ready to dump on problems and pay off vast numbers of people. Speaking of myopic billionaires, a new “Hammond” has taken ownership of the park, in the name of Simon Masrani (Khan). He’s a cool customer, and a modern CEO at that. He’s hired a young woman to run his park, a young, rogue-ish fellow to train his raptors, has younger techs in prominent positions, and even flies his own helicopter. What a guy! He’s Elon Musk without the social responsibility (I imagine the role was pitched that way).
Sure, like the other films, we hear talk of ‘cautions’ and ‘safeguards’ with the park. We hear about backup systems, genetic inhibitors, and other devices ready to quell the monstrous reincarnations known as dinosaurs at bay. Just typing that bothers me, though, as it should the collective of theoretical ‘Jurassic’ investors. Trying to keep nature, especially extinct nature, from being itself just doesn’t fly. It simply begs for a righteous smattering of Murphy’s Law, the natural sibling of Mother Nature. By creating a new breed of dino, Masrani and his team of nearsighted nitwits have gone and taunted the both of them, and thus deserve a steaming heap of karma. Dubbed Indominus Rex (a name even the script scoffs at), this beautiful and horrific creature has more teeth, just like the investors ordered. It also hasn’t paid nature’s dues, the tried and true steps every living creature has gone through to earn their place on our planet. Through no fault of its’ own, the “I. Rex” is sufficiently underdeveloped, and thus cannot behave predictably. Can you imagine what happens next?
Amidst the ensuing chaos, the young woman named Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) who runs this massive park must figure out how to contain the already deadly I. Rex and bring her two visiting, meandering nephews (Nick Robinson and Ty Simpkins) in from the park safely. Luckily, she has Owen Grady at her disposal (Chris Pratt), and he trains velociraptors. I’m quite serious. His job, quite literally, is to form a bond with ancient killers in an attempt to; well, I can’t give it away, but you can easily figure it out. So, the villains from the first film (raptors) are now our pals. I hate to sound snarky, but let’s be real. How many trainable reptiles can you name in today’s age? What do you think the odds are of training one that went extinct and has a super tiny brain? I suppose the plot needs this, or the finale wouldn’t come together, but come on. This is only a simple step from the ‘laser raptors’ of Kung Fury. At that point, what little science still remained from the genesis of Michael Crichton’s already far-fetched idea officially fades into the ether.
I find myself in a similar position to Clerks‘ resident gas station attendants/Star Wars skeptics. Their perceptive concerns about innocent contractors caught in the crossfire may seem like a silly, irrelevant point to make about a sci-fi fantasy film, but it brings into focus the critical mass of characters and plot these films churn out. If we hold comic films to a ‘death toll’ standard, chiding them for blase attitudes to human lives, shouldn’t we do the same for these Jurassic films? Each subsequent sequel barely touches on the fallout of all previous entries. Each film has bland characterizations of the individual in charge, as they create and spend, but never ask whether they should. A paraphrasing of Ian Malcolm’s line from the original has always been the right angle, but not a single person really listened to him, or reason.
That simple statement invites a litany of questions. Who harbors responsibility for these animals and what comes of them? For that matter, what became of the hundreds of dinosaurs from the first three films? What has happened to Isla Sorna from The Lost World and Jurassic Park III? How is the original visitor’s center from Jurassic Park still standing? Does it serve a purpose to the plot other than to call attention to our strong nostalgic feelings for the original? How can this park be sponsored by major companies, when they know full well the risk inherent in having their product connected to a possible catastrophe? How can world governments not want to be involved in the safeguarding of this park? How can a company like InGen still be in business? Can someone blow the whistle there already and ‘Enron’ the bejesus out of them? How unoriginal is it to have the archetypal “bad guy” be Vincent D’Onofrio? Isn’t his presence enough to know he’s hiding something sinister? By now, how are there not pteranodons and pterodactyls, last seen flying from Isla Sorna, not picking off swimmers on the Gulf Coast?
The unfortunate side effect of the glorious disease of nostalgia is the latitude we allow, thus the need for all of those questions of logic. We hear John Williams’ Jurassic Park cues, and we forget that the film rushes head-long into a plot without catching us up to speed. We see B.D. Wong reprising his role from the original, and we forgive his unabashedly broken moral compass. We see set pieces from the original, and we forget to ask how these landmarks still stand. We see a huge dino battle and ignore the convenient ease with which the mosasaurus picks off its prey. Reading my words, you might imagine plenty of glorious movie visions, and there are; in fact, I’ll credit Jurassic World by proclaiming it as the most impressive of the monster movies in terms of sheer scale. I simply find myself frustrated with a franchise that acts like its’ own antagonists, and continues to deliver the same “gather people up, run away from dinosaurs” story line. Every person with power in these films is corrupt or blind, and by the time morality catches up to them, salvage is impossible. Director Colin Trevorrow, for all his accomplishments with the brilliant indie Safety Not Guaranteed, spends so much time honoring the original in every way that he may have forgotten to make his own film.
Generally, I’m not a complete buffoon, devoid of appreciating escapist joy at the theater. I can forgive honest films that simply mean to be aimless summer fun. As a monster movie, the results of Jurassic World are most impressive. I understand why it exists, and why most crowds are drawn to its’ promise of awe, but the reasons are disappointing and cynical to me, yet somehow acceptable to the masses. Crowds might not have wanted a new Jurassic film, per se, but they sure want homages, repackagings, and familiar blockbusters. They might not even notice what’s wrong with the narrative. Like the film’s teenager Zach, our heads are probably too buried in our phones to bother noticing the transfer of our money into Universal’s coffers. Jurassic World is not a bad film, but nor is it a good one. It is not a loud, garish disaster, but neither is it an intelligent, thoughtful film. It simply exists to remind us that we loved a movie 22 years ago. That’s great and all, but we already paid for our movie ticket once in 1993 (if not two, three, and four times), bought a VHS copy, bought the DVD, bought the Blu-Ray, and paid again to see it in 3-D upon re-release in 2013. I would never ask a Jurassic film to stop dreaming like a child it once was, but I do expect the story to grow up, and attempt to break a film barrier like its’ forefather.
Jupiter Ascending ** (out of 5)
Starring: Channing Tatum, Mila Kunis, Sean Bean, Eddie Redmayne, Douglas Booth, Tuppence Middleton, Maria Doyle Kennedy, and James D’Arcy
Written and directed by: Lana & Andy Wachowski
History will suggest that Jupiter Ascending was an utter disaster; it teeters ever so close to the edge of that, but a disaster it isn’t. Consider the sad state of affairs for blockbuster story ideas in Hollywood when I’m praising a bad film for trying. Lana and Andy Wachowski, the sibling duo behind the ambitious, and occasionally brilliant Matrix trilogy and the wonderful Cloud Atlas, have created a monstrosity with their new film. It makes little sense, suffers from a lack of focus, is loud and dumb, and is utterly forgettable- but I absolutely adore that someone out there bothered with an attempt to make an original blockbuster, and well, it is beautiful to gaze upon.
Channing Tatum co-stars as Caine, a genetically engineered, half man/half wolf bounty hunter with a past. This past is not integral to the plot, but it is included anyway to give his character more of an ‘edge’. His mission is to track down Jupiter Jones (Kunis), a young woman who may or may not be the ‘recurrence’ of a dead alien queen. Tatum and Kunis actually do develop some decent chemistry in their roles, and manage to give the film some much-needed charm, even if it barely lasts. Kunis is her usual stunningly beautiful self, but her ability to pull of humility is what solidifies her in the role. Tatum and his abs “air-skate” through the movie, much of it with his shirt off for the pleasure of ‘oglers’ everywhere.
It says a great deal about the rest of the film that they’re the only ones that seem to be having any fun, however. The convoluted plot finds Jupiter hunted by various factions, some interested in her claim to various worlds (including Earth), some interested in just plain killing her. Balem Abrasax (Redmayne), the current big man on the universal campus, is the baddie here, apparently suffering from some sort of laryngitis along the way. If I hadn’t been assured from critics everywhere that his performance in The Theory of Everything was brilliant, I’d have wondered if Redmayne was actually trying for ‘most miscalculated delivery ever’. Not only is it a difficult performance to watch and listen to, the character doesn’t make much sense. What is his problem, really? If Jupiter is truly the reincarnation of his mother, wouldn’t that be a good thing? If he’s the ruler of the universe, why would he risk everything for Earth? Is he not aware of global warming or the depletion of our natural resources?
Let’s not forget the Abrasax siblings, specifically Titus (Booth). Space Caligula here wants Jupiter- yes, his mother reincarnated, for his wife. Sure, we know that he’s just interested in her hereditary claims and titles, but the thought is still disgusting, right? Jupiter, as grounded as she is, sees no choice in the matter, for if she doesn’t relent, Balem can and will ‘harvest’ the Earth. This ‘harvest’ I speak of? I won’t spoil it, but let’s just say the film never bothers to present it as starkly as is necessary- yet another missed opportunity. Kalique (Middleton), the other sibling, is just as gross and awful. The sibling rivalry is akin to a midday soap opera, substituting Romanesque archetypes instead of wealthy urbanites.
Similar in many ways to Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element, The Wachowskis have created a world with this film in which they were allowed to play at will, and seemingly spend money at will. Make no mistake- those dollars ($179 million of them) are on-screen here. They’ve made a miscalculation on what the film should have been, however. When your title has Jupiter in it, and the gas giant is prominently featured in the film, one should take the time to properly explore the awe of the planet itself. I envision this whole idea working with a change of tone and a change of focus. Instead of a popcorn flick, why not take an additional chance and make this an abstract, strictly sci-fi film? Why not let the wonder of a familiar yet still mysterious planet be the centerpiece of your film? Why not make the horror of the ‘harvests’ the real villain and not the painfully typical Emperor Emphysema? Instead of generic action cues for music, why not have the great Michael Giacchino develop something inspired? Maybe he had little to inspire him? Likely.
Jupiter Ascending never quite reaches the ‘so awful that you should create a drinking game to mock it’ level, but it certainly never aspires to be great. The Wachowskis should know better than to play it lame like this, for this critic believes they’re quite capable of the greatness, making this all the more disappointing. The Wachowski’s seeming obsession with messiahs or saviors is on clear display, when a better, more watchable film is well within their grasp, especially with the budget allotment they received. At the same time, I hope this grand financial failure isn’t the figurative nail in the coffin for their creativity. I hope they continue to get opportunities to showcase their abilities. I also hope they use some of that creativity to reign themselves in, to find ways of producing films with more focus and direction. After all, that is what Jupiter Ascending so desperately lacks- and that’s all on the filmmakers.