Thursday, June 11, 2015

EXTINCTION AVERTED: "Jurassic World" Reinvigorates A Stagnant Franchise [MINOR SPOILERS].

Have you seen the trailer for the upcoming Vacation reboot? It showcases a scene from the film that contains this batch of dialogue:
 
     “So, you want to redo your vacation from thirty years ago?”
     "This’ll be completely different."
     “I’ve never even heard of the original vacation.”
     “Doesn’t matter; the new vacation will stand on its own, okay?”
 
When films get meta with their dialogue, you know there’s a giant elephant in the room.  Jurassic World, directed by Colin Trevorrow (who also served as screenwriter alongside Rick Jarra, Amanda Silver, and Derek Connolly), is well aware of its own elephant; or, in this case, dinosaur.  “No one’s impressed by a dinosaur anymore,” claims Park Operations Manager Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard), who addresses that very sentiment in this franchise-reboot-that-isn’t. Taking place twenty some years after the events of the original Steven Spielberg-helmed CGI extravaganza (who serves as executive producer for this outing) both in fiction and reality, the film reveals it's self-awareness with its in-story acknowledgement that an entire generation (or two) has since become jaded with the technical wizardry that brought the original and its sequels to life. 
 
In the time since the events of Jurassic Park III, Isla Nublar has been rebranded “Jurassic World” and is run by Simon Masrani (Irrfan Kahn), the CEO of the Masrani Corporation and successor-in-ownership to the island who wants to provide a bigger, better theme-park entertainment for the masses. To that end, he employs bio-engineering scientists to clone dinosaur hybrids to meet that demand; culminating in the appropriately named Indominus Rex.  Claire (Howard) is a workaholic who would rather run the park 24/7 rather than spend some quality time with her park visiting, estranged nephews Gray and Zach Mitchell (Ty Simpkins and Nick Robinson, respectively). When Indominus Rex starts acting erratically, Claire reluctantly enlists the aid of resident Velociraptor expert and trainer, Owen Grady (a rugged Chris Pratt); a man with whom she is most uncomfortable with. As with all previous films in the Jurassic series, when the big, bad dinosaur gets loose, mayhem ensues.
 
The film follows the current trend (as with the recent flop Poltergeist, the aforementioned Vacation, and the forthcoming Star Wars: The Force Awakens) of creating a whole new franchise upon the bones (or fossils) of what has come before. Brand name recognition is the name of this game, and Jurassic World by its very nature plays it (which also includes some rather over-the-top product placement; in fact, its usage of same is as metatextual as the film itself, given that actual theme parks are replete with store brands littering their landscape). Given the under-performance of relatively original material such as Disney’s Tomorrowland, expect this re-branding to become the norm. These films want to eat that proverbial cake and be taken on its own merits despite riding the coattails of its predecessors, but Jurassic World (disingenuously or subversively, depending on your perspective) tries to serve as commentary to the very nature of the beast/studio that feeds it. Jurassic World the locale is a Disney/Universal studio theme park hybrid brought to the life in a “nudge-nudge/wink-wink” fashion, with Indominus Rex acting as the reptilian epitome of that insatiable corporate need for "bigger and better". The film serves as a cautionary tale even as it revels in the very tenants it cautions against.
 
The whole “it’s not wise to fool with Mother Nature” trope is a defining hallmark of this series; however, given the ongoing controversy regarding genetic mutation and GMO’s in the food chain, it seems even more topical than ever…especially when said research is done for military application (as epitomized by the character of Vic Hoskins, played with scenery-chewing glee by Vincent D’Onofrio). These allegorical inferences weight the film with more resonance than it probably would have.
 
Not that it needed it. In terms of pure popcorn summer spectacle, the film is a visual delight. It’s one of the few films wherein the special effects are virtually flawless; surprising given that 3D filming, especially in IMAX, tends to make the weaknesses stand out. The dinosaurs have never seemed so textured or real, and their interactions with the actors are practically seamless; the accuracy of their design, however, is a subject not to be debated here.
 
If the film is anything to go by, Director Trevorrow, a relative newcomer to the world of blockbuster filmmaking, understands that it’s the suspense as much as the visuals that made Jurassic Park stand out from its lackluster sequels. He paces his scenes with enough apprehensive anticipation that the payoffs are more than effective. In terms of pacing overall, the story has a tight flow that makes its two hour and five minute run time seem shorter than it is. Unfortunately, characterization is sacrificed for the sake of expediency. Subplots regarding family abandonment and emotional distance are given cursory lip service and, quite frankly, add nothing to the narrative; they could have been completely excised and wouldn’t have affected the overall story in the slightest. There are minor continuity issues, with one so particularly glaring as to take one momentarily out of the film; however, for all the fantastical elements in the film, none is more unbelievable than the idea of Claire running all over the Isla Nublar in high heels. Eggs, both Easter and dinosaur, abound for the pterodactyl-eyed fans of the series; but one of the film's strengths is to be able to tell a complete self-contained story that can be viewed without having any knowledge of its cinematic predecessors.
 
The filmmakers opted to continue the mythology without the original cast of characters, save BD Wong as franchise carryover Dr. Henry Wu, in keeping with its “look-towards-the-future-while-keeping-a-toe-in-the-past” philosophy; a wise decision, for an overabundance of nostalgia would have kept the focus of off Chris Pratt’s surprising performance. Owen could have easily have been played as “Star Lord.v2”; however, Pratt excises charming goofiness and channels a bit of old school rakish, Clark Gable, no-nonsense swagger. His performance is the solid foundation which anchors this film. In terms of character development and growth, such as it is, Bryce Howard’s Clarie gets the most of it. In what starts out as a blank slate performance, she convincingly gets the audience invested in her character’s fate. Yet, one must wonder how many key grips with spritzer bottles were on hand to constantly spray water on her entire body, since she spends most of the movie looking so oiled up one has to wonder if she’s running from dinosaurs or about to mud wrestle one. As her nephews, Simpkins’ and Robinson’s characters exist to give a child’s (or at least, pubescent) point of view and someone for the youngsters to identify with (after all, Jurassic Park, much like its real-life mouse-led counterpart, existed for children, both literal and figurative). Kudos to Trevorror for not allowing the Mitchell brothers to fall victim to the “precocious child” syndrome that plague most movie kids. While the boys seem like jaded know-it-alls in the beginning, it doesn’t last. In the face of pure terror, their reactions ring true, their narrow escapes believable. Despite hiccups in their individual acting styles, the two actors do sell their fraternal relationship.
 
The film's powerful majesty, both in CGI and cinematography, would be undermined if the score were not up to snuff.  Thankfully, Michael Giancchino’s score is up to the challenge, though his mandatory inclusion of maestro John Williams’ themes and motifs reveal the weaknesses within his own original compositions. Nevertheless, they meld together to create an evocative, thrilling, and poignant sound that, while not equal, is to this film what Williams’ orchestrations were to the original.
 
Ultimately, the question to be asked is whether or not Jurassic World invokes the same wonder and majesty that Jurassic Park did a generation ago. To an arguably lesser degree, it does; but not due to the improvements in special effects, digital or otherwise, over the past twenty-plus years. It’s the focus on the story. The film could have fallen victim to “bigger is better” excess it blatantly extols in self-aware fashion. Instead, it focuses on the more story and relationships (such as they are), which is what drives any storytelling of note…that, and the backdrop of cool looking dinosaurs. No one would be impressed with films just about dinosaurs…the human element is what counts.
 
If this film serves as any indication, the Jurassic franchise is in no danger of going extinct for the foreseeable future.

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