Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Review - Jurassic World

          If I am going to make it my goal to review the representative sci-fi and action movies of the summer, than such a list would certainly be incomplete if I left out Jurassic World. Rest assured though, for I won't fail to add my two cents to the flurry of discussion that Jurassic World appears to be generating. And this is a pretty big discussion indeed; Jurassic World seems to be garnering both acclaim and controversy, surrounding anything from the performance of the actors to the nature of the content in the film. In fact, Deadline.com even reports that Jurassic World had a top opening in over 25 countries. All of this is apparently on the heels of both The Avengers: Age of Ultron and Mad Max: Fury Road, which I previously reviewed.
          Given all of this discussion, one can ask what exactly all the hype is all about. After all, Fury Road didn't generate this much discussion, and I thought Fury Road was innovative, perhaps just below revolutionary for science fiction films of this decade. Much like Fury Road, I had something of a personal interest in Jurassic World. Anybody who grew up watching movies in the 1990s (I was born in the closing months of the 1980s) will have no doubt seen the original Jurassic Park and remember it as a highlight of that decade (one of a only a few). As such, the prospect of a new entry in the Jurassic Park series is bound to send any millennial on a nostalgia trip. Still though, there have in the past been several reboots that have invoked a feeling of nostalgia for people, and still none of them seemed to generate as much discussion as Jurassic World.
          The Jurassic Park series has been somewhat of an odd success story in the science fiction genre. Where most sci-fi movies usually present us with the usual tropes of aliens or robots or time travel, the Jurassic series gives us dinosaurs. In a way, this is a very simple, yet profound approach; insofar as most sci-fi films illustrate the potential consequences of advanced physics and technology, the Jurassic series is meant to illustrate the potential consequences of biology when tampered with by humans. Such a shift in scientific sub-disciplines presents us with amazing potential. The timing was right for realizing this potential with Steven Spielberg in the 1990s. By the early 90s, Spielberg had already made a name for himself after several very imaginative projects in the 1980s (see E.T. and Indiana Jones), and he was showing no signs of slowing down come the 90s. The first installment in the series, Jurassic Park, was released in 1993 with Sam Neill, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum, and Richard Attenborough at the forefront. The film presents us with a billionaire philanthropist, John Hammond, who hires a team of biological engineers to use fragments of dinosaur DNA found in fossils and petrified amber to reintroduce dinosaurs into the world, in a theme park on the remote island of Isla Nublar in Central America. He then asks two archaeologists and a mathematician (among a handful of others), to take a preview tour of the park in order to try and garner endorsements. However, this preview tour goes south very quickly, and before long, the dinosaurs are left to rampage the island and eat people, with only Hammond, Alan Grant (Neill), Ellie Sattler (Dern), Ian Malcolm (Goldblum), and Hammond's grandchildren making it off the island. The second installment in the series, dubbed The Lost World, is set four years after the events of the original Jurassic Park. In The Lost World, control of Hammond's company, InGen, has shifted from Hammond to his greedy nephew who plans on capturing dinosaurs from an island neighboring Isla Nublar and bringing them to the mainland United States. Hammond has Goldblum's Ian Malcolm team up with Julianne Moore's Sarah Harding to try and interfere with InGen's operations on the island. The Lost World was notable for having a tyrannosaurus rex rampaging around downtown San Diego during the ending scene. Jurassic Park III was produced in 2001, four years after the production of The Lost World, and has (perhaps to the detriment of the series) a much more straightforward plot: a young kid, on vacation off the coast of the islands of the previous films, gets stranded on one of them, so his family enlists the help of Neill's Dr. Grant to try and rescue him.
          As mentioned, the most unique point of series is its foundation built on biology and dinosaurs as opposed to the usual sci-fi tropes of advanced physics and aliens, but of course the series does a few other things well that are worth noting. The cast is probably the next most memorable thing. Jeff Goldblum already had somewhat of a reputation for doing science fiction after The Fly, but millennials are more likely to relate to the leather jacket-clad, quick witted, mathematical genius Ian Malcolm as the guy that gets stepped on in Jurassic Park and as the main protagonist in The Lost World. Like Goldblum, Sam Neill has also shown that he can portray a wide array of characters, but, just like Ian Malcolm, millennials are more likely to remember Neill for Dr. Grant as opposed to, say, Damien in Omen III. Laura Dern's performance as Ellie Sattler and Julianne Moore as Sarah Harding were also great additions to complete the tag-team protagonist duos of Grant/Sattler in Jurassic Park and Malcolm/Harding in the The Lost World. It should be quickly noted that, despite the major role both characters play in their respective films, one can argue that both Sattler and Harding ultimately amounted to "support" characters, albeit significant ones; at the end of day, it still feels as if Grant and Malcolm were the heroes of the hour (this point will become relevant in discussing Jurassic World). Sam Neill also continued his great portrayal of Dr. Grant in Jurassic Park III, but, alas, it seems as if seeing Grant again was the only highlight of that film. Another core aspect of the series is that, at least for Jurassic Park and The Lost World, a lot of the plot is built around entertaining the possible answers to various philosophical questions. For example, there is a memorable scene in Jurassic Park where John Hammond tries to defend the creation of the park and the work of his scientists from Malcolm's criticisms, to which Malcolm replies "but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could [recreate dinosaurs] that they didn't stop to think if they should". This is an important point for me. I have previously written that one of the main points of this blog is to bridge the gap between philosophy, art, and culture, and that films that ask these kinds of questions are, more often than not, going to be better than films that don't. Lastly, the other big characteristic of the Jurassic series has been the involvement of Steven Spielberg. As mentioned, this series came towards the end of what I would consider to be Spielberg's high point. Anyone could have made a film with dinosaurs in it at the time, but I think only Spielberg could have pulled it off with the amount of imagination that the Jurassic series demonstrates while still asking those important questions that a work of art should be asking. This is made even more apparent by the fact that Jurassic Park III seems to be lacking the same approach to storytelling and artistic finesse that the first two installments in the series demonstrated, while it is also the first in which Spielberg wasn't both the director and producer (nor was it based on a Michael Crichton novel, which may also be part of the explanation).
          Now, we have Jurassic World, produced fourteen years after Jurassic Park III, with Spielberg serving as executive producer and Colin Trevorrow at the director's helm. Admittedly, given the current state of Hollywood and its tendency to produce poor reboot after poor reboot, this set off a handful of red flags for me. Trevorrow, up until this point, was a fairly unknown director. As such, having him direct a reboot to a series that would more or less serve as a positive nostalgia trip for most millennials, particularly one formerly directed by Spielberg, is a large gamble for a studio, whether they realize it or not. At the same time, this could also be considered a good starting point for Jurassic World; bringing in a director who is still trying to establish himself in Hollywood gives the project a kind of "blank slate" feel, as opposed to Universal Pictures bringing in, say, Michael Bay, in which case everybody would automatically expect half the set pieces to explode and a cameo appearance from Optimus Prime. Perhaps one's discomfort with the prospect of Trevorrow as the director was even eased by the fact that he was working under the guidance of Spielberg as the executive producer. Still, there is the seemingly daunting task of how one can make Jurassic World live up to the standards set by Jurassic Park and The Lost World, and avoid making Jurassic World feel like something that just draws out an otherwise dead series. That said, Fury Road showed us that it is nonetheless possible, as long as one takes the right kinds of steps.
          Perhaps even more to my surprise than the quality of Fury Road, Jurassic World, while not without a few questionable moments, takes many of those right steps, and goes against the norm for your typical reboot in the 21st century, earning its spot in the Jurassic series not as an entry that painfully carries a dead series on and on in hopes of cashing in on the nostalgia dollar, but as an entry that contributes to the imaginative universe of Jurassic Park, adding its own kind of story and characters to help build it. The events of Jurassic World take place a significant amount of time after the events of Jurassic Park. John Hammond has passed away and Simon Masrani (portrayed by Irrfan Khan) has replaced him as the visionary behind a dinosaur-themed amusement park and is the owner of "Jurassic World", the successor park to "Jurassic Park". Masrani has employed Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) as his park operations manager and has renewed the idea of using genetic engineering to recreate dinosaurs and use them as attractions at the park. Masrani even goes one step further and asks his engineering team to occasionally alter the genetic material of a particular species, creating a new breed to display. At the same time, the park also employs Owen Grady, a kind of "horse whisperer" for dinosaurs, primarily responsible for training and handling the velociraptors. When the events of the movie take place, we are given the impression that Jurassic World had been operating and open to the public for at least a little bit of time, and that it is actually very popular and doing well. Claire's nephews, Zach and Gray, much to Zach's (and Claire's) reluctance, are sent to spend the weekend with her at the park. It was a poorly timed visit to see their aunt, however, because it just so happens that that weekend one of the upcoming exhibits, a genetically engineered predator dubbed the "Indominus Rex", escapes from its enclosure and rampages around Jurassic World, indiscriminately killing and consuming everything in its path. 
          We can now return to the question of why Jurassic World is generating the amount of discussion it is. There are several different answers to this question. One of the shorter answers is that the marketing behind Jurassic World paced itself and made sure that everybody at some point was aware of, and interested in, the film (this is to be contrasted with the poor marketing that Terminaor: Genysis received). However, another one of the answers (one that I actually care about) is that Jurassic World builds itself around asking a lot of the right questions, much like the original Jurassic Park, and in stark contrast to most contemporary reboots (again, see Terminator: Genysis). This is probably the thing that struck me the most about the film; it appears as if Trevorrow studied the original films well, and put in the effort to make sure that the plot invokes a lot of the same themes as other installments in the series. For example, there is a very important scene when flocks of pterosaurs are released from their enclosure and begin ravaging the people of the park. We are given an amusing montage of fat tourists running for safety, but not without first grabbing their all-important margarita. Pterosaurs crashing in through the windows of a Starbucks and Brookstone. On-lookers trying to record the chaos with their iPhones (or, in the case of Jurassic World, as Business Insider finds, everybody has a tendency to have a Samsung device), as opposed to, say, finding shelter. The imagery is highly suggestive of the idea that nature and the environment are more important than corporate and industrial expansion, as evidenced by the fact that representatives of the wild, dinosaurs, are tearing down symbols of the corporate and consumerist establishment, i.e. Starbucks, Brookstone, Hilton, etc. Is this a good idea to represent in a film? That's a different question. Some would disagree with Trevorrow's choice of themes to portray here, but those people baffle me. In a world where corporations and business snuff out any kind of diversity or variety (such as Starbucks making it exceedingly difficult for anyone to open an independent coffee shop in suburban America), people often forget that such variety is possible, and that it might even be good (heaven forbid that a coffee shop has better tasting coffee than Starbucks, or that another mobile carrier has better service than AT&T or Verizon). In this sense, Jurassic World serves as a reminder of that, which is a good thing.
          Another theme that one can argue gets explored in Jurassic World has to do with the dangers of greed and excess, particularly from a consumerist point of view. There are a few examples of this in the film. Perhaps the most glaring example centers around the "Indominus Rex", the artificially engineered T-Rex offshoot and primary antagonist of the film. It is important to note that the original motivation for creating the Indominus by Masrani's scientists was to create a bigger, better, scarier attraction that would inevitably generate more revenue for the park. The consequences of such an action were of course secondary to how much profit the Indominus would bring in (in fact, it appears as if the consequences of creating the Indominus weren't even considered). This turned out to be a disaster for the park. The Indominus itself can be looked at as greedy and excessive. The film makes it a point that the average dinosaur, including the Tyrannosaurus, only hunts and kills when it absolutely has to, and, by nature, is not excessive with this. The Indominus is a clear contrast to this. For example, there is a scene where Owen and Claire, soon after the Indominus escapes, arrive at the Brontosaurus exhibit and find them all attacked and killed by the Indominus, to which Owen explains that the Indominus kills for sport, going beyond what it needs for survival. Not only is the Indominus created out of greed and excess, but the Indominus itself appears to be greedy and excessive. And the greed doesn't stop there; Vic Hoskins (Vincent D'Onofrio), representing InGen, Hammond's former company that served as the primary antagonist of The Lost World, wants to assume control of the park, particularly the raptor program, and weaponize the dinosaurs, enabling them for military combat. As one can imagine, none of this pans out well for the future of not just the park, but for many of the various characters in the film and visitors to the park: the park and its clumsy tourists are ravaged by pterosaurs, Nature eventually deems the Indominus as contrary to the flow of the evolutionary food chain and removes it by the end, and Hoskins gets torn apart by one of Owen's raptors.
          Out of all of the various themes and questions that the movie raises, the most controversial discussions seem to surround any feminist undertones Jurassic World may (or may not) have. I will assert up front that there can certainly be feminist readings of several characters and situations in the film. One of the most interesting things about discussing this question is that there are already several resources and opinion pieces written on the subject floating around that I can cite here and respond to. The feminist discussions surrounding Jurassic World seem to be split into two categories: those points surrounding the portrayal of Claire and her relationship to her sister, Zach and Gray's mother, Karen (portrayed by Judy Greer), and those points surrounding the odd, but nonetheless entertaining, fate of Claire's assistant, Zara (Katie McGrath). Of Claire, Alex Abad-Santos of Vox.com writes that:

           "Jurassic World divides women into two categories, presenting the characteristics of those two categories as mutually exclusive; loving women with demanding jobs don't exist in this world, nor do tough moms. And by the time Dearing has been changed, just as Trevorrow vowed she would, she falls into the role that's been prescribed for her. She doesn't have a job, but she does have a new boyfriend and a newfound appreciation for her nephews."

At the beginning of the film, Karen sends Zach and Gray to Jurassic World to visit their aunt Claire, whom they apparently rarely ever see, and have a good weekend hanging out with her at the park. Upon arrival, Claire quickly dumps her nephews on her assistant, Zara, far too busy to worry about such things as greeting her nephews or pleasing her sister. Predictably, this upsets Karen to the point of tears, to which Claire responds with only a mild sense of guilt and an agreement to go find Zach and Gray, though not without a certain degree of reluctance that she has to put her important life on hold for this. Molly Fitzpatrick, writing for Fusion.net, summarizes the supposed problem well, noting that "the film's female protagonist is Claire, a high-powered executive who works at the massive Jurassic World theme park. She's a cold, driven career woman who must learn (or, more accurately, who must be taught) the importance of motherhood." This transformation from "cold, driven career woman" to motherly figure is supposed to coincide with the events of the movie, as she (theoretically) takes on the responsibility of saving her nephews and tackles the dangers of rampaging dinosaurs like a courageous heroine in order to understand the importance of family.
          Abad-Santos' sentiments on the portrayal of Claire are pretty accurate; the idea that the "driven career women" and motherly figure are mutually exclusive is a questionable notion. But this wouldn't even begin to capture my sentiments on Claire. In essence, this is where I think Jurassic World makes its biggest blunder: the film had so much potential to make deep feminist statements with Claire, which at times it seems to try and do, but by the end of the film, any feminist statement has been withdrawn and we have returned to the status quo. For example, by the end we are supposed to believe that Owen and Claire are a heroic tag-team duo that amazingly saved the day, where Claire, in particular, underwent a transformation and matured into the "ideal" character that actually cares about her nephews. At least, this is what I theorize was are supposed to be feeling. However, Claire was more of a feminist statement at the beginning of the movie than she was at the end. In today's society where women are expected to stay at home and serve as the primary caregivers for children, or even that they have to have children, any character that challenges this norm is making the feminist statement. It's really quite a shame that Jurassic World paints this kind of character in a negative light. As I sat in the theater, I could tell that many of the people around me expressed disgust at Claire's reluctance to interact with her family, without realizing that it's really not that hard to turn the example around and illustrate the flaws of the "motherly" character that Karen represents. The idea that women could be interested in things like mathematics or cartoons or being independent and sex-driven or finding her career more fun and entertaining than a couple of kids is foreign to American society, where the paradigm of a successful woman is one where she stays at home and puts food on the table for her husband when he comes home from work. This is supposed to be made all the more evident by that fact that, again early on, Claire shrugs off the romantic advances from Owen (for example, the scene where the two of them are having the conversation at Owen's hut). Claire is a successful businesswoman and executive, whose income sets her in a category above that of the wild and rugged Owen. Again, this would be the stronger feminist statement. But alas, all of this potential gets shot down by the end of the movie. As the film progresses, Claire actually becomes more of the "sidekick" or "damsel in distress" kind of character as opposed to heroine, such as in the scene where she, after finding that her nephews were lost somewhere on the island, rolls up her sleeves and tightens her blouse in an almost "Rosie the Riveter", DIY kind of fashion, to which Owen is quick to remind her that dinosaurs will likely be unimpressed with her laughable attempt at being determined and independent. Owen's criticism is made all the more serious by the fact that, as many other sources are quick to point out, Claire is somehow able to escape from the hungry maws of many dinosaurs while wearing heels. Add to this the numerous points in the movie where Owen has to come to the rescue of Claire and her nephews (not that Claire doesn't have her moments, but they are few and far between, and even Claire's nephews recognize this when one of them points out to her that "your boyfriend is a badass"), and the fact that, by the end, Claire has transformed from the strong-willed woman more interested in her career than she is having children to the homely, boring, motherly type, thereby conforming to the status quo, than any feminist potential that Claire had is quickly undermined. In short, Jurassic World more or less shoots itself in the foot with its portrayal of Claire.
          The other point that has generated not just feminist discussion, but has even dipped into discussions of morality, has to do with the fate of Claire's assistant, Zara. It might help if I summarize the character and scene in question. Zara (portrayed by Katie McGrath) is Claire's British assistant, in many ways displaying an amalgam of the traits that not just Claire ("start-of-film" Claire, to be exact), but most young professionals have. She is glued to her phone (as evidenced by the fact that Zach and Gray get lost in the first place as a result of her being too preoccupied with a phone call), strong and assertive (as evidenced by that fact that she doesn't want her fiancee having a bachelor party), and has the overall air of self-importance that many young professionals are apt to have (as evidenced by the fact that, like her boss, she is disinterested in anything but her own little world). Well, during the famous pterosaur scene, where the flying dinos escape from their enclosure and terrorize the park, Zara meets an interesting end. During the chaos, she is lifted up and carried away by a pterosaur, then thrown around for a little bit (as in one pterosaur drops her, another catches her, and so on for a few times) before eventually being dropped into the large mosasaur lagoon, where the pterosaurs continue to dunk her in and out of the lagoon a few more times before the behemoth, carnivorous mosasaur leaps up out of the water, swallowing Zara whole and taking a bite out of the pterosaur that had her in its talons in a very Sarlacc/Shamu-esque fashion (several commentators have made a reference to Jaws, especially given that fact that Spielberg was on the production team). It is perhaps important to point out that this entire scene is filmed more or less up close, so all of the details are pretty hard to miss.
Zara's death scene has generated a lot of controversy among critics. It is an important point for the series insofar as it marks the first on-screen death of a (semi-)notable female character in the entire series. Some would say the sheer extravagance of the scene makes it seem as if they were  celebrating that fact. Devin Faraci of birthmoviesdeath.com writes:
          "Why, in a movie predicated on the promise of dino destruction, does Zara's end come across as deeply mean-spirited? It's because death has a cinematic language all its own, and Jurassic World doesn't speak that language properly. Zara's death rankles not because she didn't deserve to die but because she didn't deserve to die quite that hard...But, like, it's a dinosaur movie! That's what should happen, right? Sort of. Here's what's important to understand - and what Jurassic World does not understand - the deaths of your characters must be proportional, unless the unproportional nature of death is, in and of itself, the point."

Faraci takes issue with the seeming celebration of the first on-screen female death in the series, comparing Zara's drawn-out demise with that of Hoskins, the scheming InGen operative, who more or less gets chomped on quickly by a velociraptor off-screen, almost as if it were a quick footnote in the movie. And he isn't alone in these sentiments. Reddit user "highmrk" explains that the scene apparently made him or her "sick", and takes it one step further to point out that, since Zara was swallowed alive and whole, Zara probably died slowly and painfully while being digested (making the Sarlacc comparison even more appropriate). highmrk also invokes this notion of merit-based death, questioning what Zara's crime was that warranted a punishment that he or she sees fit for torture porn or the next installment of the Die Hard series.
But are these negative assessments of Zara's death scene being hastily applied? I think so. I'm going to reject the notion that one should evaluate Zara's death seen from a morality, "merit-based" point of view and suggest that one should evaluate it from a kind of "even humans can fall prey to chance and Nature" point of view. Of course, if one goes into Jurassic World thinking that everything good is going to happen to the good guys and everything bad is going to happen to the bad guys, then Zara's death is inevitably going to raise some eyebrows. However, such an approach is better fit for a movie centered around themes of justice or courage, more installments of the "good guys win, bad guys die" kind of plot, yet wholly inconsistent with several of the other themes of Jurassic World. Recall that Jurassic World depicts dinosaurs, wild, primitive representatives of Nature, rampaging around the perfect little world of fat tourists at an amusement park, destroying symbols of a society (Samsung, Starbucks, cocktails) built on these notions of justice and virtue. Dinosaurs don't care about things like equality or justice or sympathy. When a fox is hunting an injured rabbit, I highly doubt the fox takes pity on the rabbit because it is injured. When a hawk dives on a field mouse and carries it away to its ultimate doom, we don't wonder whether or not the mouse deserved it. That's just the way fate played out. It's the same thing with Zara. The notion that things like judges and juries and merit are involved when it comes to dinosaurs is, to say the least, misplaced. She just happened to be a victim of the circumstances. We could have replaced Zara with any other character in the movie and the dinosaurs wouldn't care any more or any less. And, contrary to what Faraci thinks, this is the point. Scenes like this serve to illustrate and remind us that, in the grand scheme of Nature and the universe, we are just as significant (or insignificant) as the hawk or the field mouse or the fox or the rabbit - just more links in the evolutionary chain, puppets whose strings Nature can cut at any time and let fall into the abyss. This scene is a great illustration of that. The only way such an idea could be illustrated any clearer in Jurassic World would be to take the famous scene where Chris Pratt is riding his motorcycle through the jungle with the raptors to save the day, have a flaming meteor fall from the sky and strike him in the chest, and for the movie to abruptly end right there and roll the end credits.
Overall, Jurassic World delivers more than any sci-fi or action movie I have seen in a long time (save Fury Road), and, despite its blunders in the representation of Claire, can remind us (or, in the case of those who are particularly naive, teach us) of our place in the evolutionary chain, a lesson that alone renders Jurassic World worth seeing and earns its place next to Jurassic Park and The Lost World as a great installment in this series. It not only asks all the right questions, but even entertains several different answers to them, illustrating a degree of effort that most Hollywood reboots these days can't lay claim to. The discussion that Jurassic World is generating seems warranted; whether or not one agrees with the various themes or ideas in the movie is irrelevant given the fact that it even has themes and ideas at all. At the end of the day, Jurassic World is undoubtedly a highlight of this cinematic summer in 2015.


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