Friday, June 12, 2015

The conflicts, contradictions and hypocrisies of 'Jurassic World'

It's hardly irregular for blockbuster films to fail to follow through on their ideas or high concepts – many films have surrendered depth as their budgets grew higher. Others simply struggled to make good on their deliciously promising, tricksy conceits. It is relatively irregular, however, for a blockbuster film to highlight and even critique its own limitations, while also failing to transcend the very traits it has expressed disdain towards. That's the unusual dissonance to be found in Jurassic World, one of the most self-aware and hypocritical Hollywood productions you're ever likely to watch.

From the off, it becomes clear Jurassic World is a film operating on two different wavelengths. The very first shot shows a hatching dinosaur egg, the creature inside slowly revealed. It's a homage to the convincingly clunky hatching sequence in Jurassic Park (which remains perhaps the greatest realisation of the modern spectacle movie), yet obviously rendered through unconvincing, cartoonish CGI – the shared burden of almost all contemporary spectacles. Yet with the next scene, director Colin Trevorrow (graduating from the charming sci-fi indie comedy Safety Not Guaranteed) changes tone. We see a young boy (Ty Simpkins) in a room covered with dinosaur stuff, feverishly anticipating a trip to the theme park where his favourite animals roam wild. In two scenes, then, we've had two conflicting registers: one of modern CG excess, the other of childlike and old-fashioned anticipation and wonder.

Over the next half hour or so, the film – unsurprisingly credited to four screenwriters – presents itself as a film comfortably in tune with what exactly it is. There are knowing attacks on marketing and corporate interference, and on-the-nose dialogue that articulates the need for ever bigger thrills to attract bored audiences. In one scene, Jurassic World visitors observe a giant aquatic dinosaur (well beyond the capabilities of an SFX team in 1993) with awe and joy – it's no coincidence that the angle chosen makes it look like they're staring at a cinema screen.

Jurassic World establishes itself, with unmistakable clarity ('subtext' would imply there's a 'sub' to it), as a film with a distaste for trends within mainstream filmmaking, and seemingly sets out to do something fresh while harking back to a better, more magical time for blockbusters. One character played by Jake Johnson wears an original Jurassic Park t-shirt while affectionately reminiscing about the park (and, with a wink, the film), while the early 1990s is frequently referenced as an altogether better, simpler time. Yet it's obvious the same old tricks won't totally cut it this time, either. Can the film play the nostalgia card while also bringing some fresh ideas to the table?

The answer is inevitably disappointing. After an extended opening act of self-reflection, everything goes to shit – both for the fictional theme park operators who foolishly thought they could contain their genetically engineered super dino, and for the filmmakers who dared to propose (promise?) potentially overcoming the limitations of a $150 million+ franchise sequel in 2015.

Where to start? The film is constantly highlighting the horror of corporate interference – even hiring Vincent D'Onofrio as a sneering InGen stooge up to no good - yet is concurrently littered with seemingly unironic product placement. It celebrates the wonders of science and reflects on the dark power of playing God (poor BD Wong, the one recurring cast member, is also reduced to corporate puppet by film's end, anticipating – the film teases – film number five). It is cynical towards empty, focus-grouped spectacle, and ultimately resigns itself to empty, focus-grouped spectacle. Depending on how much credit you're willing to give the creative team, it's almost as if they are actively making fun of the audience at times, albeit for no discernible or coherent gain.

The jarring dichotomy extends to the characterisation too. Bryce Dallas Howard plays Claire, a senior figure at the park who is meant to be looking after her visiting nephews when all hell breaks loose. She is the de facto protagonist of the film, surprisingly taking centre stage alongside or arguably even ahead of poster boy Chris Pratt. Over the course of the film, she develops into a more proactive hero, confident, assured and risk-taking after being a bit of a selfish stick-in-the-mud at the start of proceedings. Honestly, it remains a sad rarity to see a female character so prominent in a tentpole blockbuster, an especially encouraging sign so soon after the proudly progressive Mad Max: Fury Road.

But that's not all there is to Claire in the film. Her character development is tied to her effectively surrendering to a more traditional gender role – her maternal and, well, sexual instincts the factors that encourage her to break out of her shell. And that shell is already one of a confident, career driven woman – something portrayed as a negative. Somewhat incredulously, the development of her character is also symbolised directly by her continued disrobing. For no good reason, the filmmakers draw attention to her slowly but surely removing her outfit, not least in one of the most gratuitous cleavage shots in recent memory. There is an argument to be made that the gradual removal of her work clothes is done in the name of practicality, or a physical manifestation of her character changes. But put it this way: why don't the male characters end up doing the same?

The dissonance is present elsewhere. For the most part Pratt does little more than growl and get shit done, but in one scene – that one controversially highlighted by Joss Whedon – he comes across as a wisecracking asshole / borderline sex pest. The central romance feels perfunctory and unconvincing. Yet in a witty scene elsewhere Johnson's character rushes to explicitly express his feelings for a co-worker (Lauren Lapkus) during a moment of high drama, only for Trevorrow to amusingly subvert our expectations and instead highlight the silliness and creepiness of such a thing. Again, it is clear that the filmmakers are conscious of the ludicrous tropes and conventions limiting much genre film, but they seem perfectly happy to indulge in them without irony while making fun of them elsewhere.

And so we get to the spectacle – the dinosaur action. That's where the constant homages to its predecessor (The Lost World and JP3 are wisely ignored) become least flattering. There are throwbacks like the economically utilised iconic music cues that suggest the filmmakers are intimately aware of what made Spielberg's film so successful. And a handful of moments do capture some sort of majesty, maybe even magic – like the first glimpse of a dinosaur petting zoo (a beautifully loaded image), or an impressive shot that comes across as a dark subversion of that unforgettable image of that first wide shot of a dinosaur plane in Jurassic Park.

Yet for the most part the comparisons are unflattering (even if, almost by default, it's still the most interesting sequel). There's no sense of tension or weight to the action - even the build-up to the park reveal is handled with brutal efficiency in the first ten minutes or so. A handful of sequences toy with being more intimate, but feel contrived in a way the original never did (safe to say an unsupervised tour through dino-town in a glass bubble would not make it past many health and safety inspectors). One shot sees Owen and Claire nursing what appears to be a wounded, animatronic Brachiosaurus – a pleasingly weighty shot undermined when the camera swoops to encompass a clearly CG body. This isn't to say the original was not full of computer manipulation because it absolutely was, but Spielberg always made sure to offset it with some of the best practical effects work in cinema history. That's sorely missed here, hardly aided by direction that is at times is clear and coherent, but mostly bores with unconvincing, flavourless spectacle - not least a preposterously realised climactic multiple-dinosaur brawl that concludes with a T-Rex and raptor effectively affectionately winking at the nearby humans before politely leaving them to their business. It's only slightly less silly than that in action.

All this from a film that spent much of its opening act decrying the sorry state of the contemporary blockbuster. Generously speaking, it could be considered the filmmakers highlighting the impossibility of doing something original within the confines of a big studio blockbuster with a dizzying budget, sneaking a message in however they. Perhaps a bold attempt at critiquing both the audiences and corporations that maintain the business model. But it's a film that never manages to transcend that which it criticises, instead coming across as if different writers were responsible for the film's first and second halves (Charlie and Donald Kaufman, maybe?). Even if we do give the filmmakers the benefit of the doubt, accepting that they were fighting against impossible odds – what a lousy, depressing message we're left with.

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