Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Jurassic Snark: 13 Ways of Smirking at a Blockbuster

Chris Pratt running from his new acquaintance in "Jurassic World" -- it's all our own damn fault.
 I liked it, actually. Yes, I did. Yikes.

“Jurassic World” is enjoying the biggest movie opening of all time. It’s a remake in all but name of the original “Jurassic Park,” Spielberg’s 1993 blockbuster about genetically revived dinosaurs and the CGI mayhem that ensues. Many of my fellow critical pygmies are busy jabbing their tiny javelins into its ankles. I’m going to join in – it won’t accomplish anything, it’s just fun.

To criticize the most successful film ever made to date takes the temerity of an ant attempting to upend a bulldozer (although with “Ant-Man” coming out soon, that image may become obsolete). Spielberg is the most successful storyteller in human history. You want to give him a few notes? It’s not going to impact the film’s success, impact, or sequels. And in fact the movie’s lowest-common-denominator appeal is an important choice that presages what your next 30 years of mainstream films is going to look like, whether you like it or not.

But first, there’re so many little things to carp on! In no particular order:

  1. Why is Chris Pratt staring intently at everything at all times during the film? I know his character has eyelids.
  2. In the post-Nolan era, many directors are framing their fight scenes much more closely than they used to, and editing more rapidly. The result is the action is choppy, and the antagonists difficult to differentiate. This vague thrashing about plagues most of “Jurassic World.” (Can the dinosaurs wear T-shirts with numbers next time?) The movie crams a number of compensatory schematics, maps, video imbeds, and vitals charts into the film. They don’t help that much. It is still wise to have a clean narrative line in a fight sequence. 
  3. It’s profoooooooooooundly sexist. In imitation of Laura Dern’s character in the original, Dallas Howard’s Claire, the director of Jurassic World, is a driven professional. Claire is lost in tasteful businesswear and high heels in a theme park that is, in parallel incongruity, set in the middle of a dangerous, stinking jungle. Unlike her married sister, whose two sons she hosts absentmindedly at Jurassic World until all hell breaks loose, is not a complete woman. She has no man she has borne no children, evidently: she just has a career. Tragedy. Fortunately, she becomes a tough ‘n’ tearful surrogate mother by movie’s end, and gains hot dino-training boyfriend who never blinks. That this change should still be seen as a viable issue to drive character on is, in the literal sense of the word, retarded. 
  4. Speaking of relationships, it seems that confronting fanged death is really good for them. Two alienated young brothers unite, becoming suddenly in touch with their feelings and capable of articulating them at the same time, something which has NEVER HAPPENED. EVER. Also, it looks like their parents were in the process of getting a divorce, but evidently being helpless bystanders at the potential gruesome dismemberings of their offspring snapped them back together like a couple of Legos. Thanks, T-Rex. 
  5. Really? You played the gifted child card? Is that a thing now? Making younger brother Gray a sensitive savant does nothing to make him cuter, but does provide a helpful funnel for exposition and background. 
  6. The racial hierarchy persists. The leads are white, and live. The head bad guy is white (a suitably greasy Vincent D’Onofrio) – dies last. Male lead’s helper is black – almost gets killed. The well-intentioned billionaire owner of the park is from India – dies about halfway. And BD Wong as the token Asian smart guy – saving him for sequel. The careful parceling out of subsidiary roles to various ethnicities gives the semblance of balance without actually providing any. 
  7. However, the ethnic distribution among the various park workers, security personnel, and armed bullyboys that serve as Dino Chow throughout the movie is pretty fair. It’s easy to track their character’s ethnicity, as that’s about all we determine before their infrared GoPros show them being eaten, dragged into the brush, mutilated, etc. It’s soooo CUTE when their individual vital-signs readouts go flat, one by one! 
  8. Speaking of killing, what in the hell is the point of killing Zara, Claire’s personal assistant, in a gratuitous sequence? Actress Katie McGraw should get dibs on a decent future role for putting up with this. 
  9. Another important theme of “Jurassic World” is the curse of middle management. You can’t win in that precarious position. You know how it is – you’re getting bad data from the ground troops, and the big bosses want results now and don’t care how. You make decisions that seem good in the moment, but unleash devouring herds and flocks of genetically engineered primeval beasts. A little organizational therapy, a retreat, or just some trust exercises in the office might have prevented this outcome. 
  10. “Jurassic World” is self-sealingly meta, answering its own arguments before they are raised. It creates a theme park on Isla Nublar just like any of the ones we might go to – complete with restaurants, hotels, shopping, leisure activities, etc. – the crapulous carapace of the entertainment experience .The park is a cookie-cutter copy of the capitalist shitstorm that plagues almost every tourist destination, natural feature, or activity or sight of interest on the planet. There is a Starbucks, and a Brookstone, and Samsung gets its name slapped on an exhibition hall. Supposedly, the creative team did this as a commentary. Then why didn’t they do more with the premise? Georre Romero would at least have shown a pterodactyl eating one of those hopelessly overpriced gadgets like the Motorized Grill Brush with Steam! The Consumer Society consumed. “Jurassic World” wants to have it all – it wants to be hip and ironic and earnest and political and message-y and neutral and cutting-edge and story-driven, all without losing anchorage to the lowest common denominator. 
  11. There is logic. Then there is movie logic Then there is blockbuster logic. Everything is a component, including people (note none of the tourists are killed; they are simply chased about, wounded or damaged purely for decorative effect). Do the velociraptors have shifting loyalties? Why? Because the movie needs it. Does Indominus Rex need a special skill? Then we can backfill by announcing that its genetic engineering borrows from many species, that allow it to mask its heat signature (used twice), camouflage itself (used once), and so on. If a song and dance had been needed, I’m sure mad scientist BD Wong and company could have spliced in a little Al Jolson. The most pathetic acknowledgement of this logic is given by Larry, the Loveable Loser and Living Plot Point at Jurassic World’s HQ console, who stays behind during the island’s evacuation why? “Someone has to stay behind.” Exactly. Larry knows his place in the world. 
  12. What the movie does get right is that it is totally down with the fact that it is what Ebert called “a thrill machine.” Like Indominus Rex, it does what it’s engineered to do, and it will plow through anything that gets in its way to achieve that goal. It is part of what I think of as the New Silence in cinema, a style of filmic storytelling that will play anywhere, just as silent films were capable of. To maximize profitability, films have to be able to be viewed in any country in the world. Let’s get real – if something in a movie won’t play in China, for instance, it gets removed. This restricts controversy, complexity, ideas, ambiguity, replacing them with sure bets – the template forged by Spielberg 40 years ago with “Jaws,” and perfected since. Film as video game, characters as action figures, very mechanical. A to B to C, beat after beat. Toning down any idiosyncrasies, creating a smooth and palatable smoothie of a film, is the legacy America will bequeath to the world over the next few decades. With the independent-film world toiling along in the margins, we may soon be in a mainstream film world composed primarily of CGI blockbusters and boring-ass Oscar-seeking historical dramas may exist. 
  13. “You didn’t ask for reality, you asked for more teeth.” Dr. Wu’s snide comeback to the park’s owner encapsulates the vicious-cycle nature of the film’s problem, while negating any negative response to it. If only people didn’t want to see scarier dinosaurs, they wouldn’t have created a big giant scary one that happens to be a serial killer. Ah, if only our first-world appetites weren’t so difficult to sate. And hey if we don’t like “Jurassic World,” that’s our fault too. We wanted more spectacle, didn’t we? The stakes get pushed higher and higher with every film, and Hollywood will definitely do whatever it has to do to keep our attention. You lousy tourists/moviegoers, you brought this on yourselves.

 When does it end? I am sure we will get sick of superhero movies long before the projected interlocking production cycles of these huge fantasy epics are completed, and so it will be with the revived franchise of “Jurassic” – we will keep running that formula until it wears out and the zeitgeist demands something different. But people raised on lazy, condescending, unchallenging storytelling have a hard time processing more interesting work.

“Jurassic World” succeeds on its own terms. It’s not trying to change the world; it just wants to entertain us. And that’s fine. I just think we need a little more fiber in our cultural diet.