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.
“Guardians of the Galaxy” **** (out of 5)
Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel, Lee Pace, Karen Gillan, with Benicio Del Toro, John C. Reilly, Glenn Close, and Josh Brolin
Written by: James Gunn and Nicole Perlman, based on the Marvel comic created by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning
Directed by: James Gunn
Prior to the release of this film, I sensed a small, but vocal group of fans growing discontent with Marvel’s ‘stubbornness’. After all, fan hero Edgar Wright had walked from the “Ant-Man” project due to creative differences, seemingly because Marvel wouldn’t budge. Remember, this is a group that hit so hard on their gamble, yet seemingly couldn’t wait to plan everything out in ‘phases’, then not allow for different versions of their ‘plan’. Sure, they’ve been unbelievably successful, but I’ve been pining for them to have some fun. Even the latest Captain America film, despite how well-done it is, still operates at a spy thriller-level of seriousness. In walks Guardians of the Galaxy, a robust, strange, kind of gross, yet extremely funny space opera that’s a complete breath of fresh air for the Marvel cinematic universe. Aside from a few problems that are really nothing more than my own brain being finicky about songs, this film does ‘comic book movie’ better than any of its’ counterparts, and will likely be remembered for generations to come.
More than one specific part of the film, the tone is spot on. Upon the hiring of James Gunn as director, I was understandably worried- even with the bits and pieces that worked with his films Slither and Super, they certainly weren’t complete. I did, however, detect a specific sensibility from Gunn that would work for a proposed film about a bunch of rag-tag galactic misfits. From an opening scene where Peter Quill (Pratt) prances around an alien treasure room to Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love” to a chase on the galaxy’s capitol planet, cast and crew alike seem to know that the world they’ve created is far too ludicrous to be taken too seriously. As a result, Guardians sets a different set of rules, and comes off as quite self-aware, which is the right approach. Think of it as an ‘indie blockbuster’.
Star-Lord/Quill is the focus of the story, but unknowingly he brings four other beings to him in search of the stolen alien orb. On the galaxy’s capitol plant of Xandar, home of the “Nova Corps” (think Green Lantern Lite), Quill tries to sell this alien treasure. Soon, he’s pursued by the green-hued Gamora (Saldana), the enormous, deadly Drax (Bautista), and the dynamic but scientifically improbable duo of Rocket (Cooper) and Groot (Diesel). After tearing through the city in a three-way bounty chase, all five are arrested and shipped off to “Knowhere”, a floating galactic space skull, which just happens to serve as a prison. This motley crew goes from fighting each other, to gathering in a police lineup, to plotting an escape, to collaborating against a common enemy, all within 45 minutes. What feels like a rushed partnership in lesser films actually makes sense here- these five all have specific skills that mesh well, and they’re all outcasts.
Little does Quill know that his artifact-snatching actions have attracted the attention of Thanos (Brolin), the ‘Mad Titan’. He has both his son Ronan the Accuser (Pace) and his daughter Nebula (Gillan) scheming to acquire the power contained within this orb, and now that the five galactic misfits have it, they’re a target. Much has been made of the Thanos character since he first appeared on-screen in The Avengers– but if I’m honest, his menacing tease isn’t fully realized here. Brolin, while vocally capable of pulling off the role, delivers flat, antiseptic lines that don’t reflect the promise of his hype. I’m sure he’ll eventually show off, but Thanos underwhelmed here. The same goes for Ronan, who doesn’t appear to have much of a motivation for his aggression, nor is there much nuance to his character, other than his hatred for his boss/father Thanos. If there is a weak spot to this film, it would be the underwhelming presence of the villains. In fact, their lack of menace is what keeps this film from overtaking Captain America: The Winter Soldier as Marvel’s best entry.
The villains aren’t what make this memorable, however. Let us ponder the multiple possibilities for failure with this film- a talking, irascible CGI alien raccoon, a stoic alien tree that can only utter four words, a former pro wrestler in a pivotal role, a green-skinned assassin, and a talented, but unproven lead. In the hands of lesser talent, Guardians would be a disaster. As it is, Gunn and crew took all of those same possible eccentricities and spun them into positives. Pratt is a star- and he’s brilliant as Star-Lord/Quill, showcasing both his comic timing and his action chops. Cooper and Diesel, while just voices, offer such a depth of character with the small amount of time they have. It’s truly remarkable how Rocket and Groot are realized, both behind the mic and behind the CGI wizardry. Saldana, playing off her existing connections to sci-fi popular culture (Star Trek, Avatar), brings depth to her character and elevates it from being a simple hired hand. Bautista was a real revelation- who would have thought he could bring a dry, comic awareness to a character named ‘Drax the Destroyer’? What appeared to be a weak link with his casting actually stood out for its’ brilliance. There are new, exciting worlds loaded with strange, bold new visuals, prompting me (a critical sci-fi stickler) to fixate on the screen in wonder.
Other than the obvious comparison to another pop culture titan in Star Wars, one needn’t look much farther than another Marvel mind for a more prescient comparison. The late “Firefly” series and subsequent film entry Serenity are good, low-budget templates for this material, but Guardians stands taller. The ironic part is that Guardians, for all of its’ visual brilliance, actually owes its’ character chemistry in large part to Joss Whedon’s cult favorite. What sets it apart is Gunn’s inherent odd sensibility- the need to place a gross joke in the right place, or a gnarly alien to ground it in a different universe.
Guardians of the Galaxy does care about the larger “Avengers” universe, but only by proxy. The filmmakers have forged their own beast here, rife with the fantastical and the improbable, and it works. Ok, not only does it work, it’s wonderful. Despite my minor protestations (and they are minor), Guardians succeeds where others haven’t- bringing the spirit and fun of something like Star Wars back to pop culture, a task that even the latter’s creator failed to accomplish. There are brash heroes, skilled warriors, sly sidekicks, idealistic factions, and loyal friends. Simple? Sure. Pandering? Not at all. Guardians is the film experience the Star Wars prequels wishes it could have been- but as a function of artistry, the film isn’t the slightest bit worried about comparisons, expectations, or symmetry along the lines of a franchise. I appreciate that rebel sensibility, and it should be commended for being so bold as to cast a lead like Pratt, for being weird, and for coming off like the middle child that wants to be noticed, but is fine to do its’ own thing. Guardians is fun enough to make me say I “felt like a kid again”, and actually mean it.
*note: the mid-credits scene would be throw-away, if not for the already obvious Star Wars/George Lucas link. By getting the scene right, it shows just how wrong Lucas was/is, and solidifies Guardians as a new standard-bearer in sci-fi/fantasy.