Friday, 19 June 2015

Jurassic World - Dir. Colin Trevorrow

Spoilers ahead. Seriously, nothing is left unspoiled.

Jurassic Park is a one trick dinosaur. Admittedly it’s a very good trick when done properly, but it’s a trick built primarily on spectacle and the awe of watching these extinct creatures on screen (strong characters will strengthen a film and ensure that it endures for generations); but once that raptor has bolted, any sequel has to find other ideas and elements to make up for that initial wow factor. That’s why Jurassic Park shouldn’t really have sequels (let alone be considered a franchise), much in the same way that Jaws shouldn’t have sequels; the illusion is ruined once you’ve seen what’s in the water. Most sequels stick to the notion that bigger must be better but only a few ever succeed.
Director (and one of the four credited writers) Colin Trevorrow makes a similar point early on in this belated third sequel to (or its only sequel in the minds of everyone involved). We’re back on Isla Nublar and a new park is up and running, but attendances are on the decline as the public are beginning to lose interest in traditional dinosaurs. To spark the collective interest, the park’s scientists have cooked up a new, genetically modified dinosaur called the Indominus Rex that is bigger, scarier and cooler than the rest; this of course means that it’s better. Any points that Trevorrow gets for ridiculing the nature of modern blockbusters and their bigger, louder and dumber sequels are taken away when he goes on to make a sequel that’s just bigger, louder and dumber than its predecessor.
That’s not the only case of Trevorrow trying to have his goat-bait and eat it. He makes a joke about product placement when a telecoms provider wants to sponsor the new attraction; except Verizon is a real company and so the joke is a genuine piece of product placement and there are plenty of other instances of product placement throughout the film. There’s also an overwhelming amount of nodding back to the original film, so much so that Trevorrow might as well be a novelty bobblehead on Spielberg’s dashboard. Jake Johnson wearing an original Jurassic Park t-shirt is by the far the most egregious example and his comment about how the original park was better makes no sense because he never visited it. This all forms part of an odd feeling that Trevorrow and co. aren’t even trying to make a film that’s better than the original. In fact, they’re making references and jokes about how they’re not trying to make a film that could be better than the original. I’m not saying that Jurassic World had to be better, but it would’ve been nice to see them at least try.

I have no problem accepting the idea that we, as a species, would be arrogant enough to make a second attempt at controlling these dangerous beasts and parading them around for our entertainment. What I can’t accept is the sheer amount of stupidity on display when the Indominus Rex inevitably escapes captivity. In Jurassic Park, the security and containment measures are in place and the dinosaurs only escape when Nedry disables the systems. In Jurassic World, the Indominus Rex escapes because the measures have gone backwards, seemingly designed by the same genius who left an exposed exhaust port on the Death Star.
My most infuriating pet hate in films and television is when children wander off, get in danger and then need to be rescued. Zach and Gray (park manager Claire’s visiting nephews) not not only run away from Zara, the personal assistant escorting them around the park, but they also ignore the warnings to return to the gyrosphere ride launch point and then decide to go through a dinosaur shaped fence on the edge of a clearly signed restricted area. Short of rubbing dino poo in the Indominus Rex’s face, they couldn’t have done any more to get themselves into danger and wouldn’t you know it, they soon find themselves in need of rescue; Owen and Claire duly oblige. If you think about what happens from Zach and Gray going off road up until the point where Zach and Gray arrive back in the main park, the only thing of any consequence that occurs is the Indominus Rex crashing into the aviary; everything that Owen, Claire, Zach and Gray do is just to correct Zach and Gray’s illogical decision. It’s just an excuse to indulge in a bunch of references to the first movie (animatronic dinosaur, old visitor centre, banner, night vision goggles, original jeep), to cover up stupid plotting with a dollop of nostalgia.
In Jurassic Park, the action and the plot develop in logical order and you’re aware of what the characters are trying to achieve. Save kids, get back to visitor centre, rescue Ian Malcolm, reboot computer system, go to other bunker, press switches, hold off dinosaurs, lock doors, reconnect the phones, call for helicopter, get off the island; all the action is driven by a desire to achieve something and then the next logical thing. In Jurassic World, a lot of the action is just people running around. Owen, Claire, Zach and Gray all willingly run into the skirmish with the pteranodons instead of going anywhere else. When the raptors turn against the soldiers, everybody panics and just runs anywhere. Owen, Claire, Zach and Gray drive away for a bit and then decide to go to the lab. Why? Hoskins turns up at the lab. Why? Oh because he needs to be killed. The gang then run outside. Where are they going? Why haven’t they tried to join all of the people hiding at the other end of the island? There’s nothing wrong in terms of logic with showing people running away from dinosaurs (always run away from dinosaurs is sound advice), but it rapidly becomes boring if that’s all that happens.
Most of the action scenes are ok and the CGI dinosaurs work well enough. I really liked the start of the raptor hunt as it felt like there was actually a plan, the characters were trying to achieve something rather than just run around. I liked it even more when the raptors turned on the humans as it was finally showing Owen and humanity the error of their ways. We arrogantly thought we could control these intelligent beasts and get them to defy their ingrained instincts. This is all completely undone when the raptors decide to side with Owen and attack the Indominus Rex. One minute some secret raptor DNA beats Owen’s dino-whisperings and then the next minute dino-whisperings beat secret DNA. Well, which is it Colin? Or are velociraptors just very fickle beasties. Side point, Dr. Wu keeping the raptor DNA secret again doesn’t make sense: if he didn’t want people to find out that the Indominus Rex has raptor DNA, he just has to lie and fake any documents; saying that it’s a secret is just suspicious.
On paper, Trevorrow has assembled an eclectic cast but then proceeds to waste almost all of them. Irrfan Khan probably fares the best as the charismatic owner Simon Masrani whose hubris ultimately leads to his downfall. I liked how he wanted to present himself as a fun-loving boss who just wants the public to enjoy his dinosaurs, but then changed into a ruthless and cold-hearted business-man as soon as his investment was threatened. He gets to have an interesting conversation with returning scientist Dr. Wu (BD Wong) who dons the black polo-neck of sinister intentions and suddenly decides to become evil. Ty Simpkins is good value as Gray and there are some touching moments between him and his older brother Zach (Nick Robinson), once Zach stops being a bit of a creep (something which is introduced, never makes any sense and then thankfully dropped). Andy Buckley plays Scott, the kids’ father. He doesn’t get as much to do as Judy Greer but that feels appropriate enough as Karen has a dual role as the children’s mother and as Claire’s sister. Omar Sy gets given nothing to do whilst Vincent D’Onofrio’s mercenary Hoskins comes on way too strong in the beginning (he believes the raptors could be trained and used in the military) to ever be thought of as credible. Chris Pratt is charming enough but given nothing to do at all; his character is utterly bland, perfect at the beginning and just as perfect at the end. Once again (as with Guardians of The Galaxy) he is not Han Solo: Han Solo was a flawed, selfish asshole who had to choose to redeem himself; Owen is never allowed to be flawed. Owen Grady isn’t Han Solo, he’s a condescending Mary Poppins in a waistcoat.

Then there are the female characters (including those of the dinosaur variety) most of whom get the shortest straws of all. Kelly Washington plays Zach’s girlfriend in the opening scene; she’s present to be the butt of a joke and then never heard from again. Judy Greer plays the boys’ mother and manages/is allowed to express more of a personality in her few scenes than Pratt does in his, so that’s a thumbs up there. Lauren Lapkus (Vivian) seemingly has the same sort of job as Jake Johnson (Lowery) but where he gets to have an actual personality, play with his nerdy toys and make nonsensical meta gags, she gets to repeat commands into a headset; he nobly elects to stay behind to push a button, she leaves (coward!). Katie McGrath plays personal assistant Zara who’s tasked with looking after Zach and Gray on their first afternoon at Jurassic World. She has the audacity to be looking at her phone when the irresponsible boys run off. There isn’t even a scene where she realises the children are gone. For that reason and as part of a supposed commentary on people looking at their phones too much, she gets a gruesome and unnecessarily cruel death at the claws of the Pteranodons and the jaws of the Mosasaurus. Much of her role appears to be on the cutting room floor, but whether or not that footage helps to justify this awful death is irrelevant as it’s not in the final film. I can understand how Trevorrow was trying to perhaps shock the audience by killing a character who doesn’t deserve to die. The problem is that Zara (or rather what we see of her in the final film) isn’t a properly fleshed out character, it feels like she’s a character who exists to be violently killed. Her death is neither an earned death or a shocking undeserved death and it’s ultimately comes across as mean spirited. Zara’s death is particularly hard to take when the children are never chastised for running off in the first place. Trevorrow’s message seems to be that the kids were in danger because Zara was so engrossed in her phone. No, the kids were in danger because they ran off, ignored safety messages and went through a dinosaur shaped hole in a fence.
Speaking of dinosaurs, the Indominus Rex is a pretty cool dinosaur villain for all of about 10 minutes. She’s smart and manages to trick the rubbish security systems into thinking that she’s already escaped. Her vision is based on being able to see heat signatures but she never once uses this ability. When she attacks the old visitor centre, Owen and Claire manage to hide by staying still. Staying still and quiet does not stop you from producing body heat. This isn’t a little nitpick in the storytelling, this is the film actively contradicting itself! Similarly, she has the ability to camouflage herself but only ever appears to use it once (in the scene when it’s established). We don’t see enough of her actually being smart and as with all of the characters, we never understand why she does what she does. She just stomps around a lot and has an overwhelming desire to eat four specific people when she has a whole park of people to eat, unless I missed something that explained why she couldn’t go and eat all of the tourists hiding at the other end of the island.

Bryce Dallas Howard is Claire, the park’s manager, who is constantly undermined and belittled by almost everybody. Her boss Mr Masrani tells her to be more fun and stop worrying about the facts and figures (i.e. stop doing her job), which is exactly the sort of carefree attitude that caused shit to go south in the first film. Then there’s Owen who, despite being Claire’s employee, constantly undermines her authority, makes inappropriate sexual jokes and tells her to stop thinking of the dinosaur as just assets; they’re animals too. If done properly, Claire should realise that it might not all be about the numbers and Owen should realise that Jurassic World is a business that needs to operate successfully; they should both learn and change. That doesn’t happen because Owen is perfect and couldn’t possibly ever be wrong about anything. The entire basis of their romantic relationship is that he’s the perfect guy for her and she would realise this if only she stopped being such a career busy-body. Some people have pointed out that her arc is reminiscent of Dr. Grant’s (Sam Neill) arc in Jurassic Park, which is partially true but there’s also a key difference. At no point in Jurassic Park did Dr. Satler (Laura Dern) shame or berate Dr. Grant for not wanting to have children. He was not portrayed as doing something unnatural that needed to be fixed. He was just a guy who didn’t want kids. Yet in Jurassic World, Owen lambastes Claire for not knowing exactly how old her nephews are; the implication being that she would know how old her nephews were if she wasn’t such a career busy-body. Firstly, this information will not in any way help Owen find the kids; if he’s that concerned about saving the right kids (heaven forbid he accidentally saves the wrong kids), he just has to ask if they are Claire’s nephews. Secondly, it’s already been established that they are the only ones not to return their gyrosphere. Thirdly, not knowing the exact ages of her two nephews that she hasn’t seen for SEVEN YEARS at a time when a rampaging dinosaur is on the loose isn’t the most heinous crime now is it. Most people can name their nephews, nieces and cousins and know which ones are older/younger than the others, but might struggle to give their exact ages.
Even Claire’s sister Karen gets in on the act, interrupting her when they talk about kids; Claire says, “if I have kids” but Karen insists that it’s “when”. The problem with all of this is that it’s never established whether Claire wants children or not. If Claire does want kids then Karen’s interruption is some sort of reassurance that she will eventually find someone she likes and wants to have children with. If Claire doesn’t want to have children at this time, then Karen’s interruption is her correcting her sister for being such a career busy-body.

Zach and Gray too belittle their aunt, in the aftermath of the pteranodon attack. Claire shoots a pteranodon that has got Owen on the floor, thus saving his life. The kids see this and stand in amazement, impressed by their aunt’s capabilities. A few minutes later, there’s a joke where the kids say that they want to stick with Owen specifically and not necessarily with their aunt. I’m not saying that they should not want to stick with Owen but why do they undervalue their aunt when they’ve just watched her do exactly the same sort of thing that Owen did (they don’t know who Owen is, they’ve only just met him when he shot some dinosaurs and reversed a car). Despite showing she’s capable of using a gun, Owen then takes the gun from Claire. Owen has two guns (I think this is right, but it’s now a few days since I saw the movie and I’m not entirely sure), why not let Claire use one? It would increase their chances of survival. Her character is allowed to move forward for a minute when a situation needs her to, but then yanked back as the film gets ready to move on. Owen kissing Claire isn’t entirely stupid, but a romantic locking of lips amidst an attack from flying dinosaurs felt a bit too much. It’s also the most overtly romantic point of their apparent relationship; even at the end there’s no mention or repeating of the kiss or discussion about the possibility of that second date. As it turns out, Trevorrow hadn’t really thought it through and so the kiss scene was also shot as a non-kiss scene (and included it in an early cut of the film). The kiss should be a significant point in both character’s arcs and their shared relationship, if Trevorrow and Connolly can even consider the possibility of taking it out (which is the only reason why you would shoot the non-kiss version) then either the moment doesn’t work or they’re stupid… or both! Do you think that Irvin Kirshner ever considered shooting a non-kiss version of Han and Leia’s first kiss in The Empire Strikes Back? Of course he (probably) didn’t because changing that scene causes the whole film to fall apart, especially when Leia says “I love you” just as Han is frozen in carbonite.
Irrespective of whether or not it’s possible to out run a T-Rex whilst wearing high heels, the high heels are problematic because it implies that Claire is stupid, which she isn’t meant to be. When faced with the real possibility of being eaten by one of several dinosaurs, any remotely intelligent person would realise that continuing to wear high heels might not give them the best chance of survival. Imagine you go to a supermarket and buy a basket of shopping. You could carry all those items in your arms as you walk home, but it’d be awkward, slow and there’d be a high risk of something dropping to the floor. You would only do that as a last resort, if there was no better way of carrying your shopping. At a supermarket, there is an easier way to transport your items home and so you put your shopping in a bag instead. Claire doesn’t think to look for a bag; she makes no attempt to find other footwear or even reference that they’re not particularly appropriate (as far as I can remember, Owen does and Trevorrow does in his direction).

What’s most frustrating is that some of these odd instances can easily be fixed and often without demeaning or damaging the male characters. With the heels for example, have Claire ask an assistant to get her some better shoes. If the assistant can’t find any then never mind, at least she tried. When she’s about to lead the T-Rex to the fight, she could realise that she should probably risk taking off the heels; she might accidentally stand on something painful, but will definitely be able to run quicker bare foot and therefore will stand a better chance of not being eaten. The kids could just say, “we’re sticking with you two, you make a good team” (cheesy I know); that doesn’t belittle either Owen or Claire. Owen knows the kids are in the gyrosphere park, he doesn’t need to know their exact ages so just take that line out. Let Claire stand up for herself more when Masrani tells her to be more fun. Give Vivian an actual personality and as much character as Lowery, it doesn’t have to be the same personality as him either. Establish Zara as a proper character before she gets killed off.
A regular rebuttal used when a summer blockbuster franchise entry is criticised for having poor characters, story development or dialogue is that nobody cares about those things in a blockbuster; you go see Jurassic World for the dinosaurs, a point I don’t disagree with. Similarly, you don’t go to a Beyoncé concert to see the backing band, but you would miss them if they weren’t there. The main selling point of Jurassic World is the dinosaurs but sensible character development, logical plotting and a consistent tone are all conspicuous by their absence. Jurassic Park didn’t just focus on the dinosaurs and Jaws didn’t just focus on the shark, that’s why they’ve stood the test of time. Jurassic World may be conquering the box office but it is one big pile of shit.

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