13 June 2015

"Jurassic World" Review



I thought Jurassic Park: The Game by Telltale Games (2011) was a worthy sequel to the first film, whether or not it's considered canon. (Does it really matter in this series?) Not only did it feature all the same dinosaurs and settings, but also puzzle-solving game-play clearly inspired by all the technological challenges in the movie - even an explanation why "Push to Close" is the button for restoring electrical power. It fleshed out the character Harding (albeit a younger version), whose story deviated from his role in the book but explained what he was doing during the events of the movie following his brief appearance with the sick triceratops. Setting it during and immediately following the movie was a great way to capitalize on its urgency and the audience's nostalgia. What's more, it beat the new movie Jurassic World to introducing a Mosasaurus threat and the first on-screen death of a female character (by the mosasaur in both cases, oddly enough).


Despite all that, the game was criticized for being more a movie than a game, and not many are likely to "see" it as a result of that hybrid nature. Fortunately, Jurassic World is a nostalgic sequel in its own right, featuring a more impressive hybrid in the Indominus rex. (See what I did there?)

I loved the first movie and went on to read the book much younger than I probably should have. My copy is so used it fits my hands like a well worn baseball mitt. I must have reread Dennis Nedry's death scene the most, since that page is so exhausted it's falling out. Prior and after this, I was known for an obsession with dinosaurs and often bragged that one of the first words I could spell was "paleontologist." My point is, I went to Jurassic World fully expecting a nostalgic experience, but I also walked out wondering where the line is between "nostalgic" and "predictable."

I wrote my own sequel to Jurassic Park when I was eleven or twelve. Like Crichton's actual sequel, Lewis Dodgson was the villain, but I also contrived a way to get the entire original (surviving) cast back on the exact same island for pretty much the exact same tour. The kids ended up stranded with Grant again, and when he played another playful prank on them (as in the movie), Tim said, "That was another good one!" Fan fiction at its least creative.

Jurassic World does a much better job than me or either of the other movie sequels at recreating the original. (Spoilers follow.)

It's like the filmmakers sat down and made a list of the proper ingredients: "Theme park gone wrong? Check. Trusted employees with hidden agendas? Check. Moments of awe and wonder building a false sense of security? Check." Many of these are nods to the original movie alone, like luring the T-rex with a flare or the surprise appearance of a spitting dilophosaur. However, homage is paid to the other films, too, whether that's in familiar objects and locations or more subtle Easter Eggs, like when the T-rex announces itself by crashing through a Spinosaurus skeleton (maybe belonging to the same spinosaur that quickly defeated a T-rex in Jurassic Park III.)

Humor is present, too, sometimes at the expense of the genre, the movie industry, and commercialism in general. (Though it was a missed opportunity to let Verizon sponsor the Indominus rex. An I-rex clearly belongs to Apple.) The humor is never quite as cheesy as certain moments in the other films. The final fight against the Indominus is an obvious exception, but I can forgive that knowing the alternative was to allow the T-rex to defeat an enemy we already know to be stronger, faster, and deadlier. Most of my family was disappointed there was no fist bump or mutual nod after the fact.

I was probably overly pleased that 1) BD Wong returns as Dr. Wu, who dies in the book but not in the original movie; 2) he gives a speech acknowledging how different their dinosaurs are from the prehistoric ones, hopefully silencing the common complaint that the raptors should be smaller and have feathers; and 3) that he quietly survives yet again, hinting at the possibility of yet another installment. Dino-riders at last? Who knows!

Aside from dinosaurs eating people, one of the most consistent ingredients in this series is the inclusion of children whose parents are or soon will be divorced. I have no idea why that is, but it's interesting to note. It only gets a brief mention in the first movie, but the book confirms that Lex and Tim's parents are divorced. It's played for greater pathos in the second movie, when Malcolm's daughter Kelly uses his guilty parent syndrome as an excuse to stow away; then even more so in the third, when two divorced parents pretend to be together in order to trick Grant into helping them rescue their son. The experience brings them closer together, which might also be said of Zach and Gray's parents in Jurassic World, though that's left unclear. Even Harding's daughter Jess constantly uses his divorce against him in the aforementioned video game. I guess one of the ongoing themes in this franchise is that, on the subject of failed attempts to resuscitate something dead, divorce doesn't look so bad next to dinosaurs. (Okay...)

But about predictability. That's a fitting topic, given Malcolm's speeches about chaos in the original. He might say the only thing predictable here is the inevitability of chaos, and that's both true and false. Everyone knows going into this what they're going to get, but the hope is that it will still surprise and impress them. The Indominus rex is the movie's best achievement in this regard, and its faked escape from its cage is the one plot point the film trailers probably helped disguise instead of ruin. Most everything else is pretty easy to see coming a long way off, including the fact that the Indominus is mixed with raptor DNA. It's disappointing and puzzling to find out this was meant to be a secret.

That predictable development relates to another, bigger one, which is the Indominus's ability to "dominate" the raptors. It's in the name, first of all, and second of all, that scene was teased in at least one of the trailers. Owen's ability to communicate with the raptors already reminded some people of How to Train Your Dragon, but I thought of its sequel, where Hiccup's trained dragon Toothless is turned against him by a more powerful alpha (an albino one at that). This may be another reason why that over-the-top ending isn't quite as satisfying as it was probably meant to be: We already saw a dragon/dinosaur resist the alpha and save his human friend once before.


So in toying with the difference between nostalgia and predictability, retellings and rip-offs, one of my favorite quotes comes to mind. It has been attributed to several people, including authors Leo Tolstoy and John Gardner: "There are only two plots: A stranger rides into town, and A man goes on a journey." I also like this slightly different version from Raymond Queneau: "Every story is either the Iliad or the Odyssey." This means that all stories can be (supposedly) boiled down to one of two archetypal patterns, or even the single hero's journey described by Joseph Campbell (advertised on the right-hand menu of this blog). Recognizing those repeat patterns can be surprisingly familiar, like running into an old friend, or pleasantly consistent, like eating at your favorite restaurant. The trouble comes when you realize you and that friend no longer have anything in common, or when you've tried everything at that restaurant and it loses its novelty. The first of the above links contains an excerpt from writer David Long, who says "[T]here's no such thing as a new plot, and I don't expect to find one.... But I do crave an original telling - one of our shared stories done again, ablaze with new detail."

As the fourth installment in a franchise that is, itself, a retelling of classic science fiction - and that, on its own, asks how to make the old new again - is Jurassic World an original telling? To summarize this review, it's a hybrid of "Yes" and "No." Which dominates which is probably a matter of personal taste.

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