Monday, June 29, 2015

Jurassic World (2015)


















Director: Colin Trevorrow
Writer: Rick Jaffer, Amanda Silver, Derek Connolly, Colin Trevorrow
DP: John Schwartzman
Editor: Kevin Stitt
Score: Michael Giacchino
Producer: Frank Marshall, Patrick Crowley
Starring: Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Vincent D'Onofrio, Nick Robinson, Ty Simpkins
Distribution: Universal Pictures
Length: 2 hrs. 4 min.

There are many possible reasons viewers revel in violence in action movies. People will say it builds suspense, it clarifies the stakes, it makes us experience loss, or it's apportioned by karmic justice. And there's probably some element of bloodlust, of vicarious pleasure in seeing someone commit violent acts. Jurassic World's overbearing "self-awareness" and direct statements of theme have led some to suggest that it intends to attack the audience who comes to see carnage.

The most graphic death in the film is that of an irrelevant character. We know who she is but she barely has any lines and remains offscreen for most of the movie. Out of nowhere, we're subjected to a brutal sequence in which three pterosaurs pick at her, ending in her being devoured by an enormous mosasaurus. The camera follows the actions, and we can hear her screams even over the loud score and sound effects. It's too personal for us to feel the global terror of the scenario, too random for us to feel sad about it, too late in the film to introduce any new stakes; it's too nothing to feel like anything. It's just a bizarre choice of what to emphasize.

But since Jurassic World is "self-aware", this scene suddenly becomes, according to director Colin Trevorrow, "subversive." In another movie it would simply be awful, but here it's intended to subvert the audience's sensibilities. The problem, however, is that Jurassic World's idea of "self-awareness" is too basic and limp. It constantly calls attention to the fact that it is a movie by showing us characters who talk about the fact that it is a movie. These characters are not visitors to the titular theme park, but its owners and operators; even though it uses the visitors as a metaphor for the viewers of the film, they hardly matter or even appear in the film at all. Insofar as the movie indicts anyone, it's the corporate executives.

It's worth noting that this might be exactly the right place to lay the blame. But that's beside the point: because it works through self-awareness, the film has to be the thing it's attempting to criticize, which itself implicitly blames the audience. I don't care where the film lays the blame as much as that it seems to be working toward totally incompatible ends.

What's more, Jurassic World includes the genetic scientists who created the dinosaurs among those responsible for the violence. The movie's script prevents this from being part of any self-awareness there that would let it excuse itself by claiming the label of "satire". It instead becomes a matter of a crude anti-intellectualism which this film apparently takes for granted.

This plays out mostly between the characters of Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard. Pratt's character is the dinosaur trainer, who the film exalts for being primitive. The other characters think about the consequences of their actions and that is why they fail. His character has no arc, he just hurtles through the film like a meteor whose only job is to make everyone else look bad for having impulses other than instinct, whether their problem is that they're impractical or simply that they're smarter than Pratt's character.

Howard's character is a scientist who, portrayed as uptight and self-aggrandizing. The side of her that believes in organization - in other words, her scientist side - is the bane of this film's existence. Until Pratt's character teaches her to behave otherwise, she's arrogant and puritanical. Pratt insults her for using words he can't pronounce, which is played as a joke at her expense. Pratt's interaction with her consists almost entirely of him berating her for not being him, whether it's because she doesn't wear athletic shoes or because she knows how to pronounce big words. She achieves "redemption" by saving Pratt's character from being killed, which results in a kiss between two characters with no chemistry; it doesn't function but at least it's thoroughly predictable.

To the extent that the film has a theme (and I'm not saying having "themes" makes it any better or worse), that theme is the conflict between wanting control and wanting more. The act of genetically engineering dinosaurs is mad science, a wanton act of hubris with grave and unforeseen consequences. Paired with the scientists is a military man who wants to turn velociraptors into tools of war. The failure of these people makes up Jurassic World's criticism of the desire to expand. Chris Pratt is presented as the alternative to these people, a holy fool who deserves trust and respect because some dinosaurs like him; at least, that's the best reason I can glean from this movie. While the film celebrates his ridiculous posturing, all the scientists in the film are portrayed poorly, and none get to redeem themselves without abandoning their role as scientists. The film is not a cautionary tale; cautionary tales are ultimately not so mean-spirited as this, because they depict the downfalls of people with good intentions. But there is no nuance to the film's blatantly dismissive attitude toward people who think. In the end, the film is most coherent in its disdain for people who have a polysyllabic vocabulary - though even then film is so poorly written that one of those people causes the plot to be internally inconsistent.

Perhaps everything clumsy and horrible about the film is deliberate; maybe it too is satire, as a criticism of the audience through the implicit assumption that that's what they wanted to see. It's an act of being "bad on purpose." To me this seems like a waste of effort and $150 million, and it doesn't make a point so much as it attempts to make the film immune from criticism, creating an environment in which detractors are "missing the point". Saying detractors are missing the point is like saying you shouldn't complain when someone punches you in the face if the reason they did it was to teach you how much it would hurt. And frankly, if someone watches the film and completely misses the satire, even if that proves the film's point, it also means the film is no better than what it satirizes.

While the fact that I hate what I perceive the film to be saying is a big factor in why I have such disdain for it, it's important to admit that when a film says something disagreeable it doesn't mean it has no merit. No, Jurassic World has other problems. Poor comedic timing, repetitious dialogue, the aforementioned violations of internal logic, and occasionally, effects that simply look ugly and indeterminate.

Not all the effects are bad and the film is not, on the whole, poorly directed. But some decisions were confusing to me, and only two action scenes are interesting to look at, let alone enjoyable. In the others, the camera is incapable of capturing the dinosaur's bodies in a way that makes sense. If you view the film in 3D, the film's use of short-focus looks awkward. The visual effects used to produce the dinosaurs look are undermined somewhat by the heavy-handed way the film tries to anthropomorphize them, destroying any sense of reality that would have given them physical presence. This is also, sadly, an case where the film shoots itself in the foot: the significance of Chris Pratt's character is his respect for the dinosaurs as living things, specifically living things that are not humans; what statement can be made in that vein when the dinosaurs are all caricatures?

Jurassic World is awful; the film also had, when it came out, the most successful opening weekend at the box office of all time. I suppose it's good that it was able to recoup the money wasted on its production. But if only it had bombed, it would have spared us the unwelcome prospect of a Jurassic World sequel.


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