Saturday, June 20, 2015

Fang and Claw

Chris Pratt in Jurassic World

My long-suffering partner has much simpler demands of movies than I do. For example: when she sits down to watch a movie about dinosaurs, she expects to see those dinos eating people. In this regard, she was mildly disappointed in the original Jurassic Park, in which very few people were actually eaten by dinosaurs and only one was spectacularly eaten on-screen. Mind you, she approved whole-heartedly of the film's disposition of the lawyer character, but in the long run, it was a brief moment. It's fair to say that she was thrilled with the newest "Jurassic" film, Jurassic World (2015, directed by Colin Trevorrow), though. This is a film that throws plenty of chum to the dinosaurs. I suppose I can't fault it for giving the audience what they paid to see.

The story itself finds In-Gen, John Hammond's company, operating Jurassic World, the fulfillment of his dream of opening a theme park dedicated to the dinosaurs his company has bred from fossil DNA. The park has been operating successfully for years, but revenue has plateaued for the company as people become more and more used to the idea of dinosaurs in the world. In order to keep people interested, they must refresh the public's interest with new attractions, even if they have to invent them from whole cloth. Such an attraction is Indominus Rex, the park's newest super-predator and a creature that has never before walked the Earth. It has been cobbled together from the genes of several dinosaurs and other creatures to boot. Park executive Claire Dearing is wrangling a deal for corporate sponsorship of the new exhibit as the film opens. Claire is also wrangling a visit from her nephews, Zach and Gray, as their parents navigate a divorce. She barely has time for them and foists them onto her assistant. On top of this, her boss, CEO Simon Masrani, has some concerns about the Indominus Rex, and asks her to consult with Owen Grady about the safety measures being developed to deal with it. Grady, for himself, is researching velociraptors. He's trained a quartet of them to take his orders, after having them imprint upon him. Head security man Vic Hoskins sees Grady's research as a springboard into military uses for dinosaurs, something that Grady abhors. The Indominus is bright for a dinosaur, it turns out, and Masrani's concerns are well justified. The Indominus plans and executes an escape, and the race is on before it makes it to the parts of the island teeming with theme-park guests--all 21,000 of them...

Whether or not this film qualifies as a "good" movie is going to depend an awful lot on what the viewer brings to the film and what the viewer wants out of it. If, as is the case with my long-suffering partner, all you want is dinosaur mayhem, then this film is your huckleberry. There's oodles of dino mayhem to satisfy even the most jaded paleo action fan. This movie doesn't make the mistake of throwing too few Christians to the velociraptors and tyrannosaurs. The film Jurassic World most resembles in my mind is Piranha. Piranha is the smartest of the Jaws rip-offs of the 1970s and it's makers looked at Jaws and decided to one-up it. Jaws kills a little kid and a dog within the span of about five minutes of running time, so Joe Dante and his collaborators decided to send the piranhas after an entire summer camp full of kids. No mercy involved, either. There's blood in the water. It's audacious, and one of the reasons that Piranha is remembered all these years later while Jaws 3 or Mako--Jaws of Death are long forgotten. You can see the makers of Jurassic World doing that kind of calculus in their heads. Certainly, this is a film that name-checks Jaws, too, both with the shark used to bait the mosasaurus and with the mosasaurus itself, so it's aware of its traditions. Where the initial Jurassic Park only fed a skeleton crew to the dinosaurs, this film has a park full to the brim with potential victims. Do people get eaten? Oh, baby, do they! In one memorable scene, a woman is eaten by two different dinosaurs at once! Take that! The scene where the pterosaurs take wing and descend on 20,000 vacationers is mayhem on a scale grander than what one finds in the first three Jurassic films combined. If this is what you want, man, you're going to dig this film. I'll admit that while the mayhem was playing out--mostly absent our protagonists, but sometimes with them--I was digging it.

Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard in Jurassic World

If, on the other hand, you want something else, something with recognizable human characters? Well, this film is going to be a disappointment to you, then. This is a film with types rather than characters, and depressingly conservative, hetero-normative aspirations for those types. The politics of gender in this film are completely regressive. Claire Dearing is a familiar character: a woman whose drive to succeed in business has unsexed her and turned her into shrew, a woman whose career path has severed her from her motherhood instinct. But worry not! The film is sure she'll find her inherent motherhood eventually and even tells her so in the text of the movie. This movie also recycles the impulse of the third movie to use children in peril as a means of uniting parents who are divorced (or divorcing in this case). The nuclear family is all in this movie, with women in traditional roles and not dabbling in careers. Worse, we're expected to side with the charming rogue who treats Claire like shit. Admittedly, this is stacked because the charming rogue is played by the very charming Chris Pratt and the brittle career woman is played by the frosty Bryce Dallas Howard. Most of the film's non-dino jokes come at her expense, not his, starting with the high heels she wears through the entire film. The movie never questions why her shoes might be useful to her in her realm (as opposed to the jungle where red of fang and claw reigns). The movie never stops to suggest that she might have sensible sneakers in the drawer of her desk. Instead, you have a parody of femininity, placed where "femininity" isn't "appropriate." I call bullshit on this, because it sets goal posts at both ends of the field. Claire isn't feminine enough because she pursues a career in preference to a family, but she's too feminine because she expresses her femininity in realms where it's a hindrance. Feh.

Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Vincent D'Onofrio, and Omar Sy in Jurassic World

Also: let's talk about the coding of the male characters. Hoskins, played by Vincent D'Onofrio, is dinosaur chum from the start. He's familiar to any fan of monster movies. He's the guy who wants to weaponize the monster. He's a bully-boy version of Carter Burke from Aliens. Feeding him to a velociraptor is so de rigeur that it robs it a bit of its catharsis when his time eventually comes. Grady, played by Pratt, is just as much of an asshole--albeit not a militaristic asshole--but he gets the designated hero immunity idol. He's the guy upon whom the producers want men to imprint themselves. He's buff. He's sarcastic. He's good with kids. He's good with animals even if those animals are velociraptors. He's horrid to women. "Horrid to women" is something you see growing inside Nick Robinson's Zach, too. He's not as interested in dinosaurs as he is in girls. He's a player in the making, which turns him into kind of an asshole, too, given that he's seen saying farewell to a (presumably) steady girlfriend at the beginning of the film. This is compounded by his complete indifference to his brother. I desperately wanted him to be eaten by a dinosaur. The movie did not oblige me. And if the film punishes Claire for her life choices, that's nothing compared to what it does to her assistant, Zara. Who is stuck with two disobedient kids and gets eaten by a mosasaur and a pteranodon at the same time. The one character who is out of the ordinary is Masrani, played by Irrfan Khan. He's a character type who is usually a villain, but the film chooses to make him a hero instead, although an incompetent one. I'd like to have seen more of him, but the film kills him off too soon.

This is not a film for anyone who likes movies about human beings. This isn't new to the series, but even in that context this is bad (which takes some doing). Much as I like the dinosaurs, I'm jaded at this point. They're not the same kind of cinematic miracle they were in 1993. You have to give me more if you want my love, and this movie doesn't provide me with anything beyond more chum for the dinosaurs.

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