Letter From The Editor - Issue 58 - August 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
June 2015

Jurassic World

Hey, look, dinosaurs

'Jurassic World' delivers what it promises, but that's not nearly enough to make it interesting

Jurassic World
Universal Pictures
Director: Colin Trevorrow
Screenplay: Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Colin Trevorrow and Derek Connolly, based on characters created by Michael Crichton
Starring: Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Nick Robinson, Ty Simpkins, Irrfan Khan, BD Wong, Vincent D'Onofrio, Judy Greer and Jake Johnson
Rated PG-13 / 2 hours, 4 minutes
June 12, 2015
(out of four)

I never knew how much a movie could miss a trembling glass of water or a close-up of a side-view mirror. It's the little things, y'know? It's those moments - and a few others like it - that stand out about 1993's Jurassic Park. More than the sight of any dinosaur. They are perfect illustrations of how wit and visual ingenuity give weight - not to mention personality - to the spectacle of a special effects-driven blockbuster.

In Jurassic World - the new sequel / companion piece / quasi-reboot - there are no such moments. Objects in the mirror are never closer than they appear because ... well, because the film makes no secret of its intended scale. It wants nothing more than to be a giant demonstration of its CGI dinosaur action capabilities, and so it spends as little time on foreplay as it can get away with. As a result, it is free of suspense, free of terror, free of the kinds of cinematic flourishes that might make any one moment stick in the memory. (Between this and last month's Poltergeist remake, it's been a good summer to remind people how good Spielberg is at what he does.)

It's kind of astonishing how little director Colin Trevorrow seems to care about building suspense. It feels like he's playing down to an impatient audience. Like, Fine, fine, you want dinosaurs? Here. Here are some dinosaurs. There's a big difference between being a selling point and being the only point, and Jurassic World fatally confuses the two. Its mission statement is basically this: Hey everyone, remember dinosaurs? Dinosaurs are cool, right? Yeah! Dinosaurs! That is the extent of the film's reason for being, and I'd attribute it to the record-breaking opening-weekend success as well. When was the last time there was a major dinosaur movie? I guess, technically, that terrible animated Walking with Dinosaurs trainwreck would count. But besides that, probably Land of the Lost? Point being: There's been a dinosaur-sized void at the summer box office, and this movie filled it.

The cheapest trick the film pulls is a strained (but mercifully brief) attempt at self-awareness. Set within the same timeline as the original, the fourth entry in the franchise is set in (and named after) a bigger, fancier, more advanced version of the theme park John Hammond envisioned more than two decades earlier. It's now an immensely popular global attraction and, as such, feels the pressure to keep raising the stakes. Bigger exhibits, bigger rides, and now, bigger, custom-designed dinosaurs like the Indominus Rex (Andy Serkis). (OK, not really, but can you imagine?) "Every time we've unveiled a new attraction, attendance has spiked," explains contrived ice queen Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas-Howard), who runs the park.

As she explains the park's need to consistently up the ante to keep up with audience appetites for more and bigger, a less-than-subtle analogy about Hollywood blockbusters as an institution (and Jurassic World in particular) emerges. Self-commentary is a common enough deflection tactic in movies, but it's simply not an excuse or a defense, as much as it might want to be. (22 Jump Street this ain't.) The fact that the rest of the movie proceeds to dial up the spectacle and the special effects to the point of overkill doesn't excuse the fact that it's still just empty spectacle. Acknowledging that you are symptomatic of a systemic problem doesn't cancel out that fact. Being casually meta is not the same thing as being subversive.

In fairness, I'm sure Trevorrow and his various screenwriters know that - which just makes it all the more pointless. It's mere lip service. Then again, it's one of the film's only attempts to forge its own personality, so I maybe I should be politely applauding the effort. Most of the film spends its time paying respect to Jurassic Park while trying to cobble together something resembling a narrative (i.e. a half-hearted search-and-rescue that even the filmmakers can't pretend to be interested in) to justify the main attraction. But the dinosaurs - while "cool," because yes, dinosaurs are cool - rarely have any dramatic impact. As an adversary, they're not scary; as a spectacle, they're not exciting. With a couple of notable exceptions, Trevorrow shows no feel for how to build up to anything.

Which is to say nothing for the many other baffling flaws and filmmaking choices. For the first time, the series centers its action around an action star, and who better than Chris Pratt, right? Except ...

Well, except someone decided to take away Pratt's charisma - a borderline impossible task - and turn him into an information mouthpiece. He plays Owen Grady, an ex-Navy dinosaur whisperer (working primarily with Velociraptors) who is thrown into the middle of a crisis when the Indominus Rex mysteriously escapes from its enclosure. But instead of trading on the many things that make Pratt such a charming actor, the film has him bark instructions and explanations for two hours, and occasionally hop on a motorcycle.

He's developed as a foil for the uptight, by-the-book, workaholic Claire. In a cringe-inducing early scene between the two, we find out they once went out on a disastrous date. Once we witness their complete lack of chemistry in this scene, despite the knowing, faux-flirtatious banter, their aborted romantic history make a whole lot of sense. So consider my surprise when it turned out the film - apparently completely oblivious to how body language and sexual tension work, not to mention completely misconstruing its own script - attempts to develop Owen-and-Claire into an actual romantic subplot, which leads to one of the worst kisses in cinematic history. Trevorrow seems to think he's got a screwball couple on his hands. He does not. He has two characters that seem completely uncomfortable and woefully out of place, and who - I cannot emphasize this enough - have absolutely zero chemistry.

They're out in the wild together because her nephews - Zach (Nick Robinsoon) and Gray (Ty Simpkins), who the film repeatedly guilt-trips Claire for not having seen in seven years, as if living thousands of miles away isn't a good enough excuse for not seeing extended family for a while - are lost and being chased by dinosaurs. This leads to the screenplay's clunkiest section, in which Claire and Owen are always (quite unconvincingly) one step behind the increasingly resourceful brothers. We see Zach and Gray jump off a cliff into a lake in one scene, and in the next, Claire and Owen come along and announce, with inexplicable confidence, "They must have jumped into that lake." The middle of the movie plays out pretty much like that, with scene after scene of the the boys moving from one place to another and the grown-ups catching up just a few minutes too late.

On the periphery is Vincent D'Onofrio's character, a representative of a weapons contractor that wants to turn dinosaurs into military weapons, like they're going to go overseas and stomp on ISIS members or something. In any case, D'Onofrio (not surprisingly) is probably the only semi-memorable performance in the movie.

Jurassic World's burgeoning juggernaut status likely negates all of my (or anyone else's) criticisms, at least from a business standpoint. Like a Transformers movie, it gives exactly what it promises - but, and here's the crucial point, absolutely nothing more. (That it's also terribly paced, and its cast badly directed, is a whole other topic.) It has done its job of re-igniting a dormant franchise. But, with or without the winking self-commentary, Jurassic World is little more than a theme-park attraction masquerading as a movie. And it knows it.


Read more by Chris Bellamy


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