Wednesday, December 23, 2015

On the Jurassic Park Sequels

As my fandom of movies like The Reef (2010) makes clear, I take much pleasure from films that fit perfectly and snugly in the gooey center of their genres rather than those that innovate too much or get too serious in an effort to "rise above" their genre's usual conventions.* There is something fun, unpretentious, and wholesome about enjoying a well-made genre film that hits all the expected marks and not much more. In varying ways, every Jurassic Park film after the 1993 original fits this description.

That is, if Jurassic Park is the Jaws of dinosaur movies -- the greatest entry in its subgenre and the film against which all other dinosaur films measure themselves -- then The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997), Jurassic Park III (2001), and Jurassic World (2015) all belong to the "distant second" category. Their relationship to the original Jurassic Park mirrors that of The Reef, Open Water, Deep Blue Sea, and the Jaws sequels to the original Jaws. Like its seagoing predecessor, Jurassic Park is an amazing summer blockbuster, a great monster movie, and one of Steven Spielberg's greatest directorial achievements.

While the same cannot exactly be said of The Lost World, I am going to open this rundown with a warning. In terms of pure re-watch value and number of times I've actually watched it, my favorite of all the Jurassic Park films is in fact the second one, the unjustly overlooked The Lost World. Mind you, I'm not saying that the second JP film is actually better than the first, but it is quite good and my weirdo tastes have led me to watch the second one more times than any other. There you go, confession over.

Pete Postlethwaite and Vince Vaughn in the cinematically and thematically dark 
The Lost World.

The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997)
I will attempt to explain in detail why I love The Lost World in what follows, but first let me reiterate that I really do know that the original Jurassic Park is by far the best of all these movies. I can leave it to others to explain why. Let me only say that the main reason I watch The Lost World more often than I do the original is due to its tone -- Lost World is by far the darkest of the Jurassic Park films, and is one of Spielberg's darkest and most brutal movies in general. The Lost World has more in common tonally with Minority Report (2002), Munich, and War of the Worlds (both 2005) than anything that came before it in the Spielberg filmography. In this sense, it is a movie that looks forward to Spielberg's mature style, despite the director's reluctance about returning to helm this "familiar"-feeling sequel.**

Crucial in this regard is cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, who shot Schindler's List in 1993, The Lost World in 1997, and pretty much every Spielberg-directed film since.

One of the best dinosaur attack sequences in The Lost World

At the wheel is Eddie Carr (Richard Schiff), a perfectly nice guy who, as you might guess from the implications here, meets a gruesome, terrible end. 

This shot from the same sequence shows off cinematographer Janusz Kaminski's handheld camera work, which he would deploy to great effect and critical acclaim in Spielberg's next film, Saving Private Ryan (1998).

Despite a slightly slower build-up, there is no fucking around in The Lost World, just lots of dinosaurs and brutal dinosaur attacks. (JP III will take this action-centric principle to the next level.) The dual T-rex shit is awesome, the raptors in the tall grass is one of the best sequences in any JP film, and the San Diego T-rex rampage, if implausible at many points, is nevertheless extremely fun. John Williams' The Lost World score is superb, easily the best of any Jurassic Park film and one of Williams' all-time best efforts.***

Beyond all that, Jeff Goldblum is great. His presence allows The Lost World to take its more dark and cynical turn. It also facilitates the inclusion of snarkily wonderful one-liners like "Where we're going is the only place in the world where the geese chase you!" and "While you're at it you might smear yourself with a little sheep's blood." And my favorite, "Taking dinosaurs off this island is the worst idea in the long, sad history of bad ideas." Goldblum's delivery of these lines is hilarious, and I like having Ian Malcolm as our protagonist this time around. As Simon Columb writes, Goldblum "is the primary reason I'd watch the film again."

Goldblum's snarky protagonism allows brilliant visual gags like this one to land.

Okay, sure, the gymnastics vs. raptors battle is dumb, as are most of the points the film tries to make about parenting, but the environmentalist main plot really works for me. And The Lost World is chock full of great supporting performances, such as Richard Schiff as beleaguered gadgets man Eddie Carr, Peter Stormare as vile outdoorsman Dieter, Arliss Howard as even more vile InGen executive Ludlow, and especially Pete Postlethwaite as safari guide Roland.

Pete Postlethwaite as Roland: "I believe I've spent enough time in the company of death."

Lastly, as I've suggested, the San Diego section works for me. I especially like the sequence when the Venture (a nod to Denham's ship from King Kong) crashes into the InGen harbor facility -- it is totally unrealistic yet a thrilling and effective homage to similar "death ship" sequences from Nosferatu (1922, 1979). The sense of poetic justice at play when Ludlow meets his doom makes The Lost World's one of the best demises of a villain in any film, ever.

If you pause The Lost World at the right moment (1:59:46 on the DVD) you can see director Steven Spielberg's face reflected in the TV screen. 

It is significant that Steven Spielberg, who essentially never appears in his own movies, makes one of his only onscreen cameos in The Lost World. In the film's final sequence, when Ian and Sarah sleep and Kelly eats popcorn on the couch while a news report plays, Spielberg's reflection can be seen in the shot of the television depicting the tanker at sea. He is just sitting on the couch between the actors. I take this to possibly mean that Spielberg truly loves this film and wants us to know he's proud of it. Or maybe that he just doesn't give a shit. 

In any case, say it loud and say it proudThe Lost World: Jurassic Park rocks!

Jurassic Park III (2001)
Sam Adams calls JP III "a perfectly fine little exploitation movie" and that's exactly what it is. The plot is contrived and improbable, the stakes are not super high, yet there is an island full of dinosaurs out there and it is fun to watch people get chased and flee for their lives for ninety minutes.

Though it is a bit lowbrow, thin on the ground plotwise, and lacking that magical "Spielberg touch," Jurassic Park III is nevertheless well-crafted and well worth watching if you like to see dinosaurs attacking things. On that front, it really delivers, staging its first major dinosauric bloodbath at just past the twenty-minute mark and refusing to pause for much quiet reflection the rest of its running time.

One thing you won't find much of in JP III is camp comedy. The movie has a light, unpretentious tone but it does not transform into parody or indulge much unintentionally campy earnestness. If you are looking for something to laugh at for its knowing or unknowing excesses, try instead Transformers: Age of Extinction or Sharknado. No, JP III isn't over-the-top campy but it instead goes for being mostly pretty good. It's not great, but it's too well-made to be laughable.

JP III ain't Shakespeare, it's a B movie, but if you are going to watch a B movie, it doesn't hurt to have acting talents like William H. Macy, Tea Leoni, Sam Neill, and Laura Dern (back for a cameo as Ellie) assaying the parts. Even the lost kid, Eric (Trevor Morgan), is pretty good. I basically like him, though -- SPOILERS! -- I don't understand how a resourceful young fellow like him can survive on raptor-infested Isla Sorna for eight weeks but can't kick a bunch of little baby pterodactyls' asses during the act two climax.

Speaking of inexplicable improbabilities, Jurassic Park III joins the ranks of fine films like Jaws: The Revenge and Spielberg's own War of the Worlds in resurrecting a character who, in any sane universe, would be dead. Billy (Alessandro Nivola) pops up at the end of the movie alive in a helicopter after being last seen getting drowned and pecked to death by several bloodthirsty pterodactyls. Billy should be dead or at least mangled beyond all recognition but what the hell, it's Jurassic Park III!

Jurassic Park III's Billy belongs to the "shouldn't be alive" club of movie characters who miraculously return from apparent death. 


However, if JP III skimps on sensible plot developments, it delivers the goods visually. There may not be as many dynamic Spielbergian camera moves nor as much Janusz Kaminskian high-contrast lighting compared to a bona fide Spielberg picture, but JP III's island environment and its dinosaur inhabitants look quite good and high-budget for the most part. Probably the film's biggest visual weakness stems from its over-reliance on computer generated imagery (CGI) -- there are some animatronics used but there seems to be more CG imagery used than in previous installments. (In this way JP III harbingers its belated successor, Jurassic World.) This was doubtless done for economic reasons but those raptors who retake the eggs near the end of JP III look clown-shoes.

All that said, JP III is a rip-roaring good time, ninety minutes of unpretentious monster-movie fun. If you like seeing people get hunted down and attacked by vicious prehistoric carnivores, then Jurassic Park III is definitely for you.

And come on, guys, this dinosaur kicks ass. 

Jurassic World (2015)
I wasn't planning to write a review of Jurassic World, because I basically enjoyed the movie in the theater but didn't feel I had anything particularly interesting to say about it. I got my money's worth, I had a good time, and I will likely watch the film again someday because I generally love dinosaur movies -- end of story.

But in the heady days since its record-shattering opening weekend, there has been a barrage of interesting articles, reviews, and think pieces about the film and its cultural and economic significance in 2015. I have probably had more fun reading these essays than I actually had during most of the movie, which probably says more about me than it does the movie, but so be it.

One like-minded fellow, Matt Singer at ScreenCrush, speaks for me when he writes in the aptly-titled "Stop Telling Me to Turn My Brain Off During Movies" that
The only argument I automatically reject on principle is “turn off your brain.” If the only way to enjoy something is to turn your brain off, then it probably isn’t very good.
I tend to agree. I can be "mindlessly" entertained almost as easily as anyone, yet I need to be drawn in, to be invited to care about the action and/or the stakes and/or the characters. I do not need all my films to be "art" films or character-driven emotional masterpieces, but I need to feel like the writers and filmmakers understand the basic principles of filmmaking and have at least a vague notion of how human feelings and motivations work. I suspend disbelief incredibly easily; I am the very last guy in the world to notice continuity errors or illogical plot holes -- UNLESS I am completely uninvolved with the film in the first place. As Singer further explains,
Turning your brain on in the midst of a dumb movie isn’t an act of sabotage; it’s a defense mechanism against boredom. If the movie did its job, it wouldn’t happen.
Quite so. Mind you, I only tuned out sporadically during Jurassic World -- mostly, I was so enraptured by the nonstop dinosaur action that I barely noticed how stupid the characters are. Conversely, I confess that I didn't truly care about very many of the characters in Jurassic World. I very much wanted to like Claire, and mostly did. I didn't much like Owen, which is saying something since I usually love Chris Pratt. Truly, Jurassic World's biggest crime is its underuse of / attempt to muffle Chris Pratt's comedic persona. As a naturally funny actor trying to be serious, Pratt comes across as somewhat parodic of himself -- Burt Macklin, Pratt's FBI-agent alter-ego from Parks and Recereation, inadvertently shines through many of his Jurassic World line deliveries, making the film unintentionally hilarious at several points.

That said, I truly liked and enjoyed the crazy park owner (Irrfan Khan), though I did think it odd when he headed off in that helicopter to do something (I truly don't remember what) at the pteranodon aerodome.

What in the FRIGG??!!

In general, where Jurassic World falls flat is in depicting its human characters in an involving way. I genuinely find myself caring more deeply what happens to the characters in Jurassic Park III than I do the ones in Jurassic World with the possible exception of Bryce Dallas Howard's Claire. But even in her case I cannot tell if I empathize with her because of her character's plight or as a reaction against the sexist stereotyping (as an emotionless ice queen) to which she is subjected. I was unnerved by some of the misogynist "humor" in the film and I think I agree with this author when she says that JW is the "most sexist film in the franchise."

Another niggle I have is Jurassic World's over-reliance on computer generated imagery (CGI). As the three previous entries in the series have shown, using just a few practical, animatronic dinosaur models on set could have helped certain of World's moments, like one in which a random little kid hugs the neck of a baby dinosaur or the times Owen interacts with his trained raptors up close, come more vividly to life.

But in this and so many ways Jurassic World is very much a sign of our times. To take one example, the retirement of practical creature effects legend Rick Baker this year signals that the non-digital effects era has officially ended for Hollywood studio films. That this has taken place in the same year as Jurassic World's release seems no coincidence.

In a broader sense, and as Lee Weston Sabo argues, contemporary blockbuster sequels like Jurassic World
no longer produce iconic images or catchphrases that enter the pop culture lexicon; they merely reproduce what’s already been made. [While] you may not remember the details of the plot in Jurassic Park, you definitely remember the water rippling in the cup as the T. rex approached. Jurassic World not only fails to create such memorable images, it doesn’t even try, and once a film gives up on originality, it immediately descends into nihilism. Whatever sensory pleasures such a film may offer, the underlying assumption is that the entire experience is empty and meaningless.
Sabo concludes that "the new Hollywood blockbuster doesn’t want to make you watch it again; it wants to make you watch the next one." This feels an accurate assessment of how Jurassic World made me feel. 

All in all, Jurassic World totally delivers on the dinosaur action and I like the concept and execution of the new "big bad" dinosaur, the Indominus Rex, very much. However, the movie is surprisingly superficial-feeling given the caliber of its talent and its budget, and I wish its screenplay had been given one more dialogue polish and that its actors had been given more leeway to bring their characters to life. The movie is fun but it could have been a lot more fun.

This guy should have been allowed to go full Burt Macklin. 

In the end, I would rate Jurassic World ahead of Jurassic Park III but behind the original Jurassic Park and The Lost World. So, ranked:

1. Jurassic Park (1993, dir. Spielberg)
2. The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997, dir. Spielberg)
3. Jurassic World (2015, dir. Trevorrow)
4. Jurassic Park III (2001, dir. Johnston)

My Jurassic Park Adventure Pack, containing the first three Jurassic Park DVDs, all of which I watch regularly. 

* There are exceptions. I tend to admire films that REALLY twist or fuck with genre expectations, "riffing" on a genre to do something else, like Nicholas Winding Refn's Drive (2011) and Only God Forgives (2013) or like Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers (2013) or like basically every Stanley Kubrick film.
** See "A World Apart," Peter Biskind's interview with Spielberg, reprinted in Steven Spielberg: Interviews (University Press of Mississippi, 2000). The whole interview deals with The Lost World but the section where Spielberg discusses his feelings about coming back to the JP franchise are on p. 198.
*** Strangely, Williams does some of his best soundtrack work for lesser movies -- his scores for the shitty Star Wars prequels are especially memorable.
† My friend AJ sees this differently: he argues that Jurassic World is "just showing the sacrifices [Claire] had made to get her very lofty, responsibility-laden position. I would agree that Claire shows highly antisocial traits through at least half of the movie, but then that wouldn't be far off the mark from most male protagonists--even Grant from the first Jurassic Park." AJ adds that "Pratt's character wanes substantially as the film goes on. I would even say he's revealed to be almost completely ineffectual by the end, all while Claire begins to use intellect, not just waif fu, to save him and her nephews." This is a compelling argument and I hope he'll write it up in full on his blog.

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