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.
Poltergeist (2015) ** (out of 5)
Starring: Sam Rockwell, Rosemarie DeWitt, Jared Harris, Jane Adams, Saxon Sharbino, Kyle Catlett, and Kennedi Clements
Written by: David Lindsay-Abaire
Directed by: Gil Kenan
**POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD**
Remakes, reboots, re-envisionings, re-tellings. It’s what Hollywood does today. I’ve become comfortably numb to the idea, for it appears that if I protested them all, I wouldn’t actually see much at the theater, now would I? I only ask that the project follow my super fair guidelines. For starters, remake or reboot something that makes sense, or provides an improvement on a mediocre or poor original. Then, at least update the idea to reflect the current times, if applicable. Finally, capture something special, or at least something that distances your film from what came before. Otherwise, isn’t the whole exercise silly? Wouldn’t it be simply treading water? Keeping those guidelines in mind, you might guess that I had an aversion to the updated, seemingly forever-in-utero Poltergeist. You’d be right. Originally announced about a decade ago, the idea of this project has long bothered me, as it violated the first of my super fair guidelines- how could one improve, or even make relevant, a new version?
Director Gil Kenan’s (Monster House, City of Ember) film is neither satisfying, nor relevant enough to even enter the ring with the original’s classic status. It wouldn’t be prudent to critique this film solely as a companion piece to Tobe Hooper’s masterpiece, though. On its’ own merits (or lack thereof), I can’t recommend this version. To be fair, it isn’t near the wretched hive of scum and villainy I imagined it would be. It simply does not fill a void, serve a need, or matter in any way, shape, or form. This Poltergeist does not offer a sublime undercurrent of building tension or a wonderful Jerry Goldsmith score, and it doesn’t pray upon our fears as former children or current parents like it should. Instead, it has just enough boo moments and frightening imagery to rub shoulders with the thousand other mediocre horror films of modern times. As it is just interesting enough to not be a disaster, I suppose we should deliver Kenan, Sam Raimi and crew a hearty back slap, an ‘atta boy’ for making money off our penchant for nostalgia, and a shiny blue participation ribbon.
We’re familiar with the bulk of the film’s plot, but a few things have changed. In this version, both parents (Rockwell & DeWitt) are jobless as we meet them, and thus they need to ‘downsize’. Well, they’ve ‘downsized’ to a nice, cozy suburban home with four bedrooms. Now that’s the type of unemployment situation we could all get used to, right? Their teenage daughter Kendra (Sharbino) is spoiled and upset about life in general (oh those teens!), their son (Catlett) is afraid of most everything, and the baby of the family, Madison (Clements) is just about as adorable and precocious as you can imagine. The script provides this topical unemployment angle, which could lead to an unease that would lend a nice dollop of tension to the film, and provide a timely parallel to the original’s capitalists-be-damned angle, but Kenan doesn’t spend much time on it, and as a result, it becomes perfunctory.
For that matter, this film doesn’t have the time for such trivial elements as character development. With a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it run time of ninety minutes, Poltergeist is bewilderingly rushed. By the time young Madison has been snatched from the earthly plane by supernatural forces, we barely knew her, what she feared, or how close she was to the rest of her family. Coupled with our existing knowledge of her 1982 doppelgänger Carol Anne, how can we possibly care the requisite amount when she’s gone? How can we care about any of these characters enough to be concerned about their fates? For whatever reason (perhaps an expectation of shorter audience attention spans), the film makes an unnecessary push for the finish line that lays waste to possible character moments, the same base elements that made the original so endearing. Any fan of horror flicks, even relative amateurs such as myself, knows that most successful horror films tempt the audience with tension until a series of climactic scares are unleashed upon our frail psyches. Poltergeist plays like a pair of clumsy first-time lovers, prematurely ‘matriculating’ to the climax.
Something can be said about the film’s one strong point, however. Whereas the original relied on our blind faith in the invisible other-worldly plane, this update breaks that wall, literally and figuratively. The visuals ‘behind’ the world of Madison’s closet are ghoulish and effective, invoking an organic/mechanic mix reminiscent of H.R. Giger, laced with electric impulses. This version renders electricity like a tangible beast, insinuating a scientific origin for the afterlife. I’m pleased that a horror film actually used science to perhaps detail why a dead spirit might travel from place to place. It doesn’t explain everything, but it’s a good start.
Poor Gil Kenan had an unenviable task when he set forth to make this unnecessary film. Even with professional actors like Rockwell and DeWitt, the task of besting a masterpiece was never something he could realistically accomplish. That said, how seriously can I critique a film that simply lacks a valid excuse to exist? With the exception of a newfangled view of the ‘other side’, this Poltergeist offers nothing but a way to call on our sentiment for the original. If, like the original did, the story saw this as a family drama first, wrapped around the heart of a horror film, I sense that it might have worked. If it had been the first to make our irrational childhood fears come to life, it might have worked. Like most remakes, reboots, re-envisionings, and re-tellings, however, this update just cannot graduate past the starting line of, you know, needing a reason for being.
“RoboCop” (2014) ***1/2 (out of 5)
Starring: Joel Kinnaman, Abbie Cornish, Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, Jackie Earl Haley, Jennifer Ehle, Jay Baruchel, and Samuel L. Jackson
Written by: Joshua Zetumer, based on characters created by Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner
Directed by: Jose Padilha
**CAUTION- POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD**
The original “RoboCop”, while revered by many, was a dreadful chore to watch. It’s an overindulging film that thinks it’s saying something about the world we’re in, but is too dumb to know better. The message, if there was any, was lost soon after the first limb was shredded. Director Paul Verhoeven has often believed with his films that he’s ahead of the curve- I can’t deny that his films have been innovative, and even groundbreaking at times, but always for silly reasons. The first “RoboCop” had unprecedented and copious amounts of violence, “Total Recall” left us with a new ‘mammary arrangement’ as the most memorable scene, and “Basic Instinct” wore out multiple VCRs as a result of one leg-crossing moment. Verhoeven’s “cynicism as satire” angle never quite hit, and his “RoboCop” fails as a result. This isn’t a review of the 1987 version, however- Jose Padilha’s remake is a sleeker, smarter, and overall better film than the predecessor, hitting the marks that the original missed.
Joel Kinnaman (TV’s “The Killing”) is well-cast as Alex Murphy, an undercover detective for the Detroit PD who’s hot on the trail of Antoine Vallon (Patrick Garrow), a known drug lord. Conveniently, Murphy “gets too close” and becomes a target. Vallon and two corrupt officers then plot to eliminate Alex by planting a ‘device’ in his car- right in front of his home. It’s a devious action- for it clearly could have taken out his wife and child (although it does neither, nor does it seen to damage the house).
Alex is not so lucky- with burns all over his body and amputated limbs, he has no quality of life. Luckily for him, OmniCorp founder Raymond Sellers (Keaton- remember him?) wants to ‘help’. They’ve been looking to win over public opinion to put their robots in harm’s way and not people. Of course, public opinion contends that because robots don’t have emotion, they can’t operate with the difficult discernment required of soldiers and/or cops. This means they need Alex. With his wife’s (Cornish) reluctant permission, Sellers and Dr. Dennett Norton (Oldman, in another film-grounding performance) advance the company’s cybernetics technology to merge Alex’s conscience with a robot suit, thus making him the world’s first ‘cyborg’.
What could have turned out silly (like the original) is actually given some resonance with this new film. Although we aren’t given much screen time with Alex and his family pre-explosion, I loved that the filmmakers decided to flesh out the scenes introducing him as RoboCop. We get glimpses of blood-cleansing and cranial-computer chip fusion that are both difficult to watch but also plausible. Padilha wisely allows these first scenes upon Alex’s re-awakening to ‘walk’ a bit, and it gives the entire process a depth we don’t expect from this ‘type’ of film. It encourages us to explore this whole concept and ask interesting questions, which is what good science-fiction should do.
What questions are these, you ask? For beginners, Clara’s decision is a would-be first; millions upon millions have had to make end-of-life decisions for their spouses, but she’s the first one that has to consider allowing her spouse to become something else- a cyborg. Could we accept our loved ones in a state like RoboCop Alex? Is it really enough just to have someone exist, or do you need all of them, including their personality, to love them? Also, where would the society in “RoboCop” draw the line? Like all technologies, it would likely become more accessible to people, including in the home. Could a dying Fido last longer in a ‘RoboDog’ apparatus? Should Fido last longer?
Intentionally or not, “RoboCop” explored the willingness of our brains to accept outside, or ‘robotic’ influences. Alex is ‘controlled’ by OmniCorp, but his brain spends plenty of time trying to override the programming. Is it possible that the electrical and chemical activity in our wildly complex brains would be able to accept another system, or would it continue to stay its’ staunchly autonomic self?
On top of that, Samuel L. Jackson’s fanatic talk-show host of a character throws out words like ‘pacify’ and ‘safe’. These catchy, focus-group tested words, used to encourage viewers, support Sellers and OmniCorp’s push to remove government restrictions. Jackson’s portrayal may remind you of the various talking head blowhards on TV now. These personalities are not interested in journalism; instead they push a veiled, business-oriented agenda, which shines through in the character’s final screen moments.
Do you see what I mean? “RoboCop” is supposed to be a dumb remake of a dumb movie, right? We should never expect to take ideas from this, or think about it at all more than five minutes after the credits roll, right? I suspect the difference this time around involved bright, creative people like Padilha and the writer (writers?) seeing something deeper within the framework of the original film, then deciding to extrapolate. The result is a surprisingly thoughtful, smart, and almost prescient science-fiction movie- not at all a dumb action film. It’s the type of film that should be remade- the original is bad, and they made it better. If only all remakes cared to be so thoughtful.