Friday, June 12, 2015

Jurassic World movie review.

One must often wonder what John Hammond’s original vision for Jurassic Park would have turned out had it not been sabotaged by Dennis Nedry. 22 years after Steven Spielberg’s original blockbuster, we finally get to see that vision realized in the fourth film, Jurassic World.

Longtime readers are no doubt familiar with my adoration of the original Park film, as well as my furious disdain for its two sequels. For those reasons, I initially dreaded, laughed off, and completely derided the idea of a fourth entry ever getting made. It really is difficult to recapture that same lightning in a bottle. However, with the film attracting a fantastic set of actors and technicians, as well as the guidance of newcomer director Colin Trevorrow of Safety Not Guaranteed fame, all of those bitter feelings and fear were replaced by hope and optimism.

So for all of these reasons, I’m glad to say I can breathe a huge sigh of relief, and say that this was not a disappointment. A dazzling and thrilling adventure, Jurassic World is an epic dose of popcorn excitement.

After the incident of Isla Nublar, InGen eventually found itself teaming up with the Masrani Corporation to bring Hammond’s dream to life. Now fully operational and a popular tourist attraction, Jurassic World is currently losing some steam, leading it’s business heads to bring in a new attraction, a hybrid dinosaur nicknamed Infominus Rex, in order to bring a spike in attendance. However, the creature learns at rapid rates and manages to break out of its lifelong holding cell, and begins rampaging through the island. To neutralize the threat, a raptor behavior specialist (Chris Pratt), an ambitious business figure (Bryce Dallas Howard), and various others find themselves banding together to stop the relentless predator from killing the park’s dinosaurs, as well as its guests.

The original film was a groundbreaking achievement in how it not only started the widespread revolution of CGI, but also brought dinosaurs to the screen with a gracefulness to them that had never been seen before. It created a sense of wonder as well as terrifying its audiences, and the other great story elements were icing on the cake. The sequels are notorious for having mainly ditched this sense of wonder in favor of harsher action sequences, and didn’t understand that a less is more way of thinking is what made that film so great in the first place. Knowing this, Jurassic World knows full well that the novelty of simply seeing the dinosaurs, potent as it may be, won’t be enough to leave you satisfied another time out, knowing that it has to do genuinely creative and different things to prevent déjà vu.

Following up such an enviable first installment is a difficult task, but there’s no definitive right or wrong ways to write a sequel. For recent examples, you could take the meta-satirical route of 22 Jump Street, having fun with recreating old set pieces, but still playing with audience expectations just enough with those well selected differences to spice up the laughs. On the other hand, it’s not necessarily an easy task to mock one’s own sequelitis, like the distasteful “Sequels and remakes, bunch of crap” line from Transformers: Age of Extinction, a hypocritical way of lamp shading Ehren Kruger’s career out of making these very things (such as all the Transformers sequels, the latter two Scream films, and his sequel to the American adaptation of The Ring).

Thankfully, Jurassic World addresses this in a tasteful manner, but not directly so. Using the theme park setting to a great advantage, it plays up a certain expectation for venues to install bigger, scarier, and more thrilling attractions for guests, somewhat mirroring the expectations of sequels to be more action packed and have bigger casts with every installment. Whereas rides can be over in a few minutes, film has many restraints in their two hour running times that can threaten to feel overstuffed. In light of this, Trevorrow is wise in how he decides to scale back the focus and not establish too many characters and subplots than he can handle. Taking the Spielbergian influences that worked so well for him in Safety Not Guaranteed, and largely ignoring the more mean-spirited side events on Isla Sorna (a huge plus for me), he understands that to be awestruck is just as important as to be terrified in a Jurassic Park movie, and recreates the optimistic and nostalgic tone of that first film without ripping off classic segments, including the first time that we see no nighttime rain sequence.

He also uses the theme park setting to sustain an appropriate sense of both disillusionment without forced cynicism, but also the sense of theme parks, like Jurassic Park, having something more sinister and subtly manipulative below the surface. With smartphones and social media at an all time high, there’s a constant sense that both parks and film have to adopt bigger is better ways of thinking in order to restore interest off of people’s touch screens. That’s not exactly the case, as all you really need is that right creativity and entertainment value to instill both fun and memorability.  Sometimes, it’s simpler touches that make all the difference, which this film shows in spectacular fashion.

The film has also come under recent criticism for the use of its product placement, but even then, it’s still done in a smart and subverting fashion. As someone who frequents theme parks myself, I can tell you that their representation of outside sponsorships making their way onto various attractions and store blocks, including their Innovation Center being headlined by Samsung, and Verizon Wireless wishing to sponsor the Indominus Rex, is spot on. There’s always a feeling that in spite of the excitement you may be having, there’s always something manipulating you that you don’t seem to catch at first, trying to create pleasantries, but perhaps having something more greedy hidden beneath those intentions. However, the film can occasionally stretch it too far, including imagery of several Mercedes Benz vehicles, and an oddly placed cameo in one of the attractions by a late night comedian whose name I dare not spoil.

The Indominus Rex, in particular, is a fitting allegory to the excess and consumerism that the film talks in reference. A hybrid of various dinosaur species, and also of several current species of animals, it truly does provide nightmare fuel. Conceived by Henry Wu, played by returning cast member B.D. Wong, the creature is a super-intelligent predator, deadly both in hunting skills and brutality. It stalks the island as a commonly described monster, but whereas that would normally be the wrong way to describe a dinosaur, it serves a purpose to further highlight the thematic elements of challenging nature in the first film. With the park having been safely maintained for years, the teams on the island may not be making the same mistakes, but that hasn’t stopped their arrogance or self-assuredness from stretching to make new ones not thinking through all the likely consequences, including new InGen head Hoskins, played by Vincent D’Onofrio, who wishes to militarize the velociraptors that Chris Pratt's Owen looks after. Basically, the Indominus is exactly what the Spinosaurus should have been.

But beyond that, Trevorrow also understands that in order to make audiences care about the dinosaurs, you have to make them care about the humans as well. True, these characters still aren’t the deepest or most fully-dimensional, but they’re still very memorable, full of personality, and absolutely a delight to watch. Chris Pratt continues to make for a charismatic and compelling leading man, and while he does fall into a bit of his Star-Lord tendencies, he makes for an appropriately humorous and stoic action hero. The film also makes great use out of smaller roles played by Irrfan Khan, Omar Sy, and especially a scene stealing and hilarious Jake Johnson. Ultimately it’s Bryce Dallas Howard who ends up taking MVP status, initially shown to us as one of those more business minded heads in the first act, and even embodies some of the monsters vs. animals outlook on dinosaurs that the other sequels tried to force down our throats, but by the end becomes a capable, commanding, and unlikely hero in her own right. However, that’s not to say they’re all that impressive, including the two flat child characters that border on boring, and D’Onofrio playing a particularly wasted villain.

That said, the dinosaurs are the star of the show, and Trevorrow absolutely does them justice, wisely taking a page out of Spielberg’s book by waiting as long as possible to show them, that way to let you care about and connect to the human characters, and that’s when you finally get to see them. The effects still aren’t quite up to par with those of the original (then again, what movie is?), but they still look just as majestic and imposing as ever. They feel all the more real if you’re able to feel engaged with the human characters, and unlike 3’s distasteful treatment of the creatures as monsters, this restores the balance back to a grounded animalistic nature, including one of the more brilliant touches in which Owen trains the raptors similar to the way a handler trains lions or tigers, as well as a tear-jerking sequence in which Pratt and Howard comfort a dying Apatosaurus.

On the rest of the technical standpoints, Trevorrow has clearly done his homework. He’s smart in how he separates the various set pieces from each other, and builds each of them up by escalation, all leading up to an epic finale that left my heart-pounding the entire time, though I dare not spoil surprises as to why. The sound design is just as creative, with Al Nelson and Gwendolyn Whittle taking the reins from original designer Gary Rydstrom, and doing justice to the older animal calls while seamlessly blending them with their own. In the music department, Michael Giacchino contributes by far and away the best score in this series since the classic first film, again, seamlessly blending old favorites with his own work, but also contributing immeasurable soul to the film. Honestly, the whole soundtrack is like a church experience all its own, delivering on big and lively before bringing the experience to graceful rest.

Is Jurassic World perfect? No. Is it as good as the first film? No, but it was never going to be. That said, it is by far and away the best sequel the film has received yet, embodying the same epic scale imagination, as well as the good-spirited adventure and wonder of the first, and even its imposing terror without directly copying its success. Perhaps some more ironed out writing and a few less dodgy effects could have helped it be as amazing as a sequel to my favorite film of all time deserves to be, but in the end, I found myself walking away from this movie more than satisfied. It’s everything I wanted it to be, and if this is the last we ever see of the Jurassic Park series (highly doubtful), then I couldn’t ask for a better note to go out on.

**** / *****

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