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Posts Tagged ‘Jurassic Park’

Studio blockbusters these days have such massive resources behind them that it is very rare for them to be technically substandard in any appreciable way: art direction, production design, sound, special effects, and cinematography, all of them are usually no worse than extremely competent, and frequently excellent. So if you go to see one of these films you can at least be assured it will be pretty to look at and listen to. For this not to be the case would be about as surprising as the film missing a major sequence simply because they forgot to switch the camera on.

However, because this has become so standard, it follows that achievement in these areas is not in and of itself grounds to praise a movie, unless it really does feature something exceptional. All that this technical accomplishment has done is throw into sharp relief which films have good scripts and directors, and which are – not to put too fine a point on it – a load of old nonsense assembled by a hack. This brings us to Jurassic World: Dominion, directed by Colin Trevorrow. (This looks very much like a fridge title, like you couldn’t have guessed.)

For once the film takes pity on the casual filmgoer and opens with a brief recap of the state of play following the end of the last installment: following the escape of a dozen or so dinosaurs from a mansion somewhere in North America, four years later the prehistoric beasties have spread worldwide, multiplied seemingly like crazy, and are now a major pest, threatening to cause an ecological collapse. (If you think this doesn’t particularly make sense, well, what can I say, you’re right.)

What’s really striking is how little this situation informs most of the plot of the rest of the film, which has nothing to do with this clash of wildlife from different eras (unless you count the interactions of the multi-generational cast). The first main plot thread instead concerns tough former dinosaur trainer Duke Thundervest (Chris Pratt), who is still very reliant on his ability to calm down any dinosaur just by holding up his hand, and his wife Brenda Bigeyes (Bryce Dallas Howard) [Note to self – double-check character names before submitting final copy]. They have retired to the wilderness to raise their adopted teenage clone (Isabella Sermon) and are also occasionally looked in upon by one of Duke’s pet velociraptors, which has been through a sort of virgin birth experience. Bad guys working for an Evil Corporation kidnap both the clone and the baby velociraptor, which makes Duke and Brenda both cross and sad.

Meanwhile, and you may well be noting that dinosaurs do seem to be a bit tangential to everything that’s happening, giant locusts are threatening to devastate the world’s food supply – or at least those parts of it not controlled by the same Evil Corporation from the other plotline. Working the case is Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern), and to help her, in a strikingly vague and general way, she recruits her old boyfriend Alan Grant (Sam Neill). We get another take on that scene where a character repeatedly says ‘I’m done, I’m finished with all that’ before immediately going off on one more adventure, which in this case also includes one of those moments where two characters call each other by their full names just for the audience’s benefit (‘Ellie Sattler!’ cries Alan Grant. ‘Alan Grant!’ cries Ellie Sattler).

Grant and Sattler are knocking on a bit for blockbuster movie characters, but they date back to the original 1993 Jurassic Park and so they have been allowed in for reasons of pure nostalgia. Sure enough, when they fly off to the Evil Corporation’s hide-out, it is with the help of their old acquaintance Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum), who is one of the boffins in residence there. Needless to say, Duke and Brenda are heading in the same direction, but can there be anything more than a spurious and contrived link between the kidnapped clones and the giant locusts? (Answer: no, not really.)

The original Jurassic Park still stands up really well today, I would argue, mainly because it understands how to do a story about dinosaurs: the scientists responsible are misguided and quickly got rid of, and the film becomes a simple question of how not to get eaten. There is a unity of focus and purity of intent which is completely absent from the more recent films in the series. This film has an actual villain with a nefarious plan and various henchmen; stopping him and dealing with the minions is initially far more prominent in the movie than any dinosaur-related peril. From being the focus of the film, the dinosaurs become a kind of set dressing – the first act and a half often resembles a Bourne or Mission Impossible film in which people just happen to keep driving past a triceratops. Some of these sequences are very well staged – for example, a car-chase around Malta featuring laser-guided attack-dinosaurs – but it’s hard not to get the impression that somebody somewhere is missing the point.

Towards the end the dinosaur-related peril does improve a bit, with dialogue like ‘Are there dinosaurs in the mines?’ (the answer turns out to be a surprising ‘no’, technically, as the beasties in there are actually synapsids) and the usual chasing about. However, the decision to bring together the entire surviving principal casts of both iterations of this franchise, and also to include a bunch of new protagonists to broaden out the ethnicity of the genome a bit, results in some heroically unwieldy sequences, almost resembling a coach tour gone astray rather than the heroes of a blockbuster movie. (In the practically obligatory helicopter flight to safety at the end of the film, people are very noticeably having to sit on each other’s laps as there just wouldn’t be enough space otherwise.)

The whole thing is actually quite unwieldy and off-kilter, and conspicuously badly-written in places (one character, presented as a hard-bitten and self-interested mercenary when they first appear, undergoes a rapid and complete change of attitude and loyalty for no obvious reason at all). At least there aren’t any made-up dinosaurs this time – a tyrannosaurus gets wheeled on, rather like the Rocky Balboa of the Cretaceous Era, for a climactic tag-battle against a giganotosaurus, along with a therizinosaurus (another slightly off-the-wall choice). It seems like we are supposed to feel some kind of sympathy and attachment to this grizzled old thing, simply because it also was a fixture of the older films.

Speaking of grizzled old things… as noted, the eventual message of the film is the importance of life-forms from different geological ages getting along with each other. The only way it actually incorporates this idea is by putting Sam Neill and Chris Pratt in the same scenes during the final act. I have to say that the three elder stars really do make the most of their opportunity here and manage to be funny and charismatic and generally lift the film; it’s not a great experience even so, but without them I can only imagine it being a horrendous slog. Something awful seems to have happened to Chris Pratt: a light has flickered out behind his eyes and he is notably boring all the way through (he’s much, much more entertaining in the Thor trailer which is running before Dominion in most places).

(In my head I imagined an entirely different Jurassic Park sequel with Neill and Dern’s characters: a touching autumnal romance about two characters rekindling their relationship during an entirely peril-free visit to a quiet and extremely well-run dinosaur sanctuary. I’d pay to watch that. It would have more going for it than Dominion does, anyway.)

In the end Jurassic World: Dominion is the kind of sequel that feels like it exists only because the people responsible felt obliged to make a sequel. It doesn’t feel like there was a bold new idea or a radical reinvention of the concept burning in anyone’s mind. It just takes up all the bits from the recent films, adds a few really old ones, along with some new ones that don’t really belong, and idly shuffles them all around a bit half-heartedly. The result is a film which happens in front of you for a couple of hours, gradually getting louder, and then stops. Possibly you will have been entertained occasionally during all of this. But it feels like the work of a franchise which has gone extinct and just hasn’t noticed it yet.

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‘So, do you think they’ve left the door open for another one?’ asked this blog’s Anglo-Iranian affairs correspondent, as we left our screening of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (I should point out he was not there in his professional capacity). After a picosecond’s thought I was moved to observe that when a film franchise has earned more than $3.5 billion at the global box office, and shows no sign of running out of steam in terms of audience appeal, the door will most likely not just be left open but carefully taken off its hinges and burned. Whichever way you cut it, the Jurassic Park films (as I still think of them) do make squijillions of dollars, although why they continue to be quite so successful I have no idea: the original movie had Spielberg at the height of his powers, plus gobsmackingly innovative special effects, but none of the others have really done more than remix the ideas from that movie.

Is this true of Fallen Kingdom? Well, for this outing, previous director Colin Trevorrow has been replaced by J.A. Bayona, whose last film was the (really good) A Monster Calls. So you could be forgiven for cautious optimism (it is never a good idea to be uncautiously optimistic when dealing with major movie corporations and $170 million budgets). Things kick off with a highly promising, genuinely scary prologue as a team returns to the ruins of the Jurassic World park in order to retrieve the genetic material of one of the engineered hybrids from the previous movie. Lightning flashes, shadows lurk, people get chomped; hope begins to flutter in the chest of the jaded so-called film critic (hope is the thing with feathers, as Emily Dickinson observed, unlike Jurassic World’s dinosaurs – but we went over that last time around).

Well, from here we’re off into the film proper. It turns out that Isla Nublar, where Jurassic Park and then Jurassic World were located, is volcanic, and fixing to blow up and kill all the dinosaurs, and people are not sure what to do about this. (Just what happened to the dinosaurs on Isla Sorna, the setting of Jurassic Parks 2 and 3, is not addressed.) Many, including former park visitor Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum, but don’t get too excited, as he appears for literally only about two minutes), are of the opinion that this is very much not a problem. Others disagree, including former park manager Claire (Bryce Dallas Cowboys, who clearly had one of those ‘make my character less irritating’ discussions between films), who is now a dinosaur rights activist. Helping her are a couple of new characters, a young man who is a somewhat craven comic relief clown, and a young woman who is incredibly feisty and competent – such is the way of the modern blockbuster, as any disgruntled stellar conflict fan will tell you.

Claire is contacted by representatives of an old business partner of John Hammond, who was involved in the very early development of the technology that recreated the dinosaurs. This man (James Cromwell) has a plan to transport the dinosaurs to a nature preserve where they can live peacefully, but he needs Claire’s knowledge of Jurassic World’s systems and also the help of her old beau Owen (Chris Pratt), the animal behaviourist and raptor trainer. (Owen has retired to the countryside to build a cabin, clearly unaware of the iron law that nobody who starts building a cabin in this kind of film ever gets to finish it.) Well, Claire recruits Owen and off they all go to the island to save the dinosaurs. What could possibly go wrong…?

It is a bit naïve to suggest that a tentpole blockbuster such as this is motivated by anything other than financial concerns – the studio’s notes to the director really only have one line, which reads ‘Make as much money as possible.’ But it always seems to me that this is particularly obvious with the Jurassic Park films – if there are any genuinely interesting or unexpected new ideas in any of these films, it is because they have managed to sneak in without anyone noticing, rather than being put there on purpose. Well, perhaps that’s not quite true, because I did note a slightly knowing and rather subversive element to the last one, albeit kept under extremely strict control.

The directors of these latterday movies do seem to be trying to move the series on, for all that the first half of Fallen Kingdom adheres strictly to the Jurassic Park formula (characters go off to an island infested by dinosaurs). Here things go pretty much as you would expect, with many imposing beasties, an altogether too nonchalant attitude to being thirty centimetres away from molten lava, and so on. People inclined to disparage Chris Pratt’s range as an actor should bear in mind the material he is usually given to work with – at one point in this film he is required to run stoically downhill, pursued not only by stampeding dinosaurs but also a volcanic eruption. I’m not sure even Sir Ralph Richardson could have given much nuance to that.

It’s where the film goes after this which is curious, as it becomes less of a traditional monster movie and more of a kind of faintly surreal gothic suspense thriller, with killer dinosaurs lurking in and around a stately old manor. But there’s also almost a sense of the film trying on lots of different ideas to see which, if any, fit: there are elements of an action thriller movie, a subtext in which the dinosaurs become symbolic of the natural world and its treatment by man, some (carefully veiled) criticism of Donald Trump, and even a move towards a much purer form of science fiction (it turns out that not just the dinosaurs have been genetically interfered with). The narrative ticks all the required boxes, but it still feels like a really mixed bag, and one reliant on some dubious plotting in places.

The key difference, I suppose, is that whereas the previous films operated purely in terms of ‘run away from the dinosaurs!’, this one is much more ‘save the dinosaurs!’ There are scenes involving our extinct friends solely intended to elicit pathos from the audience. Goldblum’s character, it is implied, is wrong to want to see all the poor dinosaurs killed off, despite the fact that these films have mostly been about dinosaurs causing trouble and eating people. It’s a curious shift and one the film struggles to negotiate elegantly – the workaround is that ‘natural’ dinosaurs are noble creatures which deserve to survive, it’s only the genetic hybrids created by man which are monsters with no right to exist (this film features an especially preposterous laser-guided prototype military dinosaur). It’s a rather artificial distinction, if you ask me.

Still, as I say, Fallen Kingdom does pretty much what you want it to, even if the first few minutes are by far the most impressive. The special effects are impeccable, and there is actually a really impressive cast – Rafe Spall is in there, along with Toby Jones, Geraldine Chaplin, and Ted Levine. I don’t think the studio need worry too much about getting their money back, even if the film is only competent rather than genuinely great. And the ending implies that the next one will be a thoroughly different kind of film, even if the basis for this doesn’t really hold up to serious examination. In the end, this is a capable blockbuster with some curiously weird touches.

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