Saturday, June 20, 2015

Movie Review: Jurassic World

 Movie: Jurassic World
Directed by: Colin Trevorrow
Starring: Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Nick Robinson

Jurassic World breathes new life into a presumably extinct franchise that’s been left cold for nearly fourteen years, and while the cardboard-thin characters and somewhat shallow plot leaves much to be desired, the smart humor, acceptable action, and willingness to engage in a bit of self-depreciation are what makes this sci-fi thriller worth the price of admission.

In depth:
If you’ve walked into any movie playing in the last - oh - 9 months, then you’ve probably been hit in the face with a Jurassic World preview.  Heralded as the long-awaited(?) resurrection of the thrilling, dino-ripper sci-fi action franchise sparked way back in ‘93 with the now-revered Jurassic Park, I must admit that I was already experiencing  hype burnout without really knowing anything about it.  I mean, dinosaurs?  Again?  With the wave of truly terrifying monsters that had graced the silver screen in the 22 years since the first movie’s release, the prospect of sitting through another dino flick hoping to be scared witless seemed a little underwhelming.  It didn’t help that the previous pair of mediocre Jurassic Park sequels appeared tailor-made to poison any fond thoughts I had for their glorious progenitor.  I knew that the franchise needed a new direction - needed, in fact, a reason to limp along in its rather extraneous existence.  I just wasn’t convinced from the spotty information conveyed through the previews that Jurassic World would be this series’ second wind.  It turns out I was mistaken, for while I found nothing in Jurassic World that captured the awe-inspiring terror that was Jurassic Park - a feat, I imagine, not to be matched by any dinosaur movie in the near future - the film does, in fact, point to a possible resurgence built not on thrills and chills, but rather on good, solid action and a willingness to poke clever fun at both the franchise itself, and the wider circus that often hovers over the entertainment industry.

The story kicks off with a surprisingly quiet and down-to-earth look at Zach and Gray Mitchell, two brothers played by Nick Robinson and the young Ty Simpkins, as they’re packing their bags and gearing up to go on a trip together.  This is a far departure from the other films, which usually hits you in the face with a jump scare, or some unfortunate schmuck having a sudden lapse in common sense and becoming dinosaur feed as a result.  While a seemingly trivial detail, this quite literal change in pace not only introduces two important main characters, but also keys in the viewer to the stylistic swerve Jurassic World takes with respect to the previous movies.  If you went by their parents’ lackadaisical attitude and Zach’s generic teenage boredom, you would think they were going to a petting zoo or an aquarium, instead of the titular island-wide theme park stacked full of creatures that have been given a 65 million-year stay of execution.  But dinosaurs, it seems, are familiar enough so as to lose their “magic” for all but the most enthusiastic neophytes, like Gray. With the expectation of either imminent threat or wonder neutralized at the very start, our minds are left open on any assumptions with this new movie - a rather smart move by the filmmakers.

And sure enough, they capitalized on this by immediately taking us to Jurassic World and introducing Bryce Dallas Howard as Claire Dearing, the Mitchell brothers’ aunt, who is not an archaeologist, not an adventurer, but the park’s operation manager - a bored bureaucrat who looks at the dinosaurs and sees neither wonder nor fear, but mere dollar signs.  That the corporatization of a dinosaur theme park would be a major plot point was unanticipated, but completely logical; with so many people seeing so many dinosaurs, it’s no surprise that a certain crowd apathy which always accompanies familiarity would set in.  In fact, the park itself has been on a bit of a backslide lately as, if I can paraphrase Dearing, the average child on the street looks at a Stegosaurus in the same manner as they would an elephant at the local zoo.  In order to bring the numbers back up, they have to unveil a new “attraction” in order to reel the fans back in, which usually entails cooking up a Mesozoic abomination in the park’s genetic laboratory.  Meanwhile, across the island, Owen Grady (Pratt) demonstrates his remarkable degree of communion with a pack of Velociraptors to a group of onlookers.  Vic Hoskins, InGen’s head of security played by Vincent Philip D'Onofrio, alerts Grady that his services will be needed to test the latest genetically-modified Franken-saur, the ridiculously named Indominus Rex, but not before discussing the possible military applications of the somewhat-controllable raptor pack.

The brilliance of these particular plot nodes is in how they provide a subtle but necessary commentary on the state of both the Jurassic Park franchise in public mind, and how the general media demands for bigger and flashier effects leads to the commodification of nearly anything.  Dearing literally sees everything as commercial gain or loss, and in the beginning is never seen far from the swarm of corporate sponsors itching to learn the latest return on their investment.  On the more cynical side, Hoskins’ military ambitions for raptor foot soldiers might seem a touch silly on first blush, but plays quite well into how these scenarios have played out historically - especially when he applies the cold logic of “we made them, hence we own them.”  In fact, nearly everyone in the film represents to some extent the deadening effect mass commercialization can have on even the most spectacular of visions: Dearing and Hoskins’ views; Zach’s constant “so-over-this” attitude, even before the spectacle of a Mosasaur chomping on a great white; and the myriad of park employees who couldn’t look any more apathetic if they were handing out tickets to the local carnival.  About the only ones who have a sufficient sense of awe or at least respect for the un-extinct beasts are Gray and Owen Grady - even Simon Masrani, the flamboyant and enthusiastic owner of Jurassic World, while less concerned about the bottom dollar than about the sense of wonder and enjoyment his customers experience, corrals the commercial disaggregation with his demands for bigger, badder, and more dangerous dinosaurs.  The parallels to the entertainment industry are obvious, and require little further elaboration as they’ve been showcased in many movies since the year dot; however, it’s hard to miss the gentle poke at the Jurassic Park series and its finicky fan base.  After the major coup d'etat of the first movie, we were left in demand for more thrills that the sequels, lackluster as they were, couldn’t fulfil.  It’s true that we often weigh the mettle of any monster flick by how much bigger and scarier it is compared to the one last week, and Jurassic World lampoons this notion with surprising subtlety even as it forms the basis of its story.

Accompanying these stealth digs was an unexpected wealth of humor pervading throughout the entire film.  While cheeky, dark humor has always been a mainstay in the series, the filmmakers seemed to kick it up a notch this time around, and with a keen eye to the self-referential and self-depreciating.  Lowery Cruthers, the park’s operations overseer, is a virtual fountain of in-jokes, puns, and snide remarks to this end.  Played by comedian Jake Johnson, the tech-savvy snarker is first seen sporting an original Jurassic Park T-Shirt - apparently a hefty buy online - and while fully admitting it’s bad taste, defends his fashion choice by expressing had admiration for the “legitness” of the original park.  These reference could easily be driven to the point of annoyance, but Jurassic World generally avoids that pitfall - partly by keeping Cruthers’ appearances succinct and relevant, but also by displaying a knack for comedic timing completely atypical for a sci-fi thriller.

This surprising feat for a supposedly “meat-headed” action movie somehow comes about without distracting from its designated genre, though here, ironically, is where it fell off for me.  Don’t get the idea that there is anything terribly innovative about Jurassic World as a whole; the details around the I. Rex’s escape and rampage, as well as the course of the action, were predictable in the absolute sense.  To be fair, the same could be said for Jurassic Park, but its characters felt much more compelling, especially the two siblings Lex and Tim, who instantly drew in the viewer with their strong acting and delightful blend of vulnerability and moxy.  In contrast, the Mitchell brothers are relatively flat along the rest of the cast.  That said, while strong, 3-dimensional characters are by personal preference the apogee of any story for me, I must contend with the reality that characters can be tools for plot progression just like anything else, and while they may have been flat, they certainly were not weak; I can’t say that there was a single unintentionally unlikable person in the whole shebang, and the pervasive humor went a long way towards humanizing them.  I suppose “economical” is the best way to describe everything in this film, from the flat but believable characters, to the judicious pacing and just-right action that all made Jurassic World feel pleasantly shorter than its 124 minutes, with some highlights including Owen Grady's general badassery and Dearing's very admirable showing in this department herself, saving the day on more than one occasion despite the prim, by-the-book girly-girl exterior.

Jurassic World could have been just an average, popcorn thriller with the obligatory special effects “magic” that fails to compensate for its many other shortcomings.  But while the film was in many ways generic - though the special effects DID pull their fair share - it stands out for those subtle jabs at the film industry in general and the Jurassic Park series specifically.  No matter where you stand on it - as an “awesome” big-budget thrill ride, or as another lame addition to the canon that will never live up to the original - there is something or someone in this film to mirror your views, ensuring that even we the moviegoers cannot escape its well-executed satire anymore than we can its genetically-altered saurian antagonist.  I’m not sure how much of this was intentional, but the pieces fell into place too well to be a complete accident.

Rating: B

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