Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Movie Pseudo-Review: Jurassic World (2015)

I was 14 when I saw Jurassic Park (1993) in the theater. I loved it, of course, and couldn't wait for the inevitable sequels. When The Lost World: Jurassic Park came out in 1997, I saw it with a girl I liked (and married four years later). Although I generally enjoyed the film, it didn't have nearly the impact as the original, and I felt that the San Diego sequence significantly detracted from it.

I'm not entirely sure that I even saw Jurassic Park III in the theater in 2001 or if I first saw it on DVD. By that point, my expectations weren't particularly high. It was entertaining enough, and didn't have anything as stupid as its predecessor's San Diego scenes, but it was disappointing compared to the first film.

Thus, I was somewhat wary when I finally saw the Jurassic World teaser trailer. Sure, it looked pretty cool, but what were the odds that the fourth film in a franchise that had a sharp dip in quality with the first sequel would be any good?

Actually, the odds turned out to be pretty good.

Fortunately, Jurassic World turned out to much better than Lost World or Jurassic Park III. Surprisingly, I even enjoyed it more than Avengers: Age of Ultron. Sure, it's not quite as good as the original Jurassic Park, but how many films could claim that?

Rather than do one of my usual reviews, I think I'll list a few things that really stood out to me. Expect some spoilers ahead:

The Setting
Jurassic Park is set on Isla Nublar while The Lost World and Jurassic Park III are set on Isla Sorna (aka, "Site B"). The first island was meant to be the "showroom" while Site B was where the significant research was done. Although the first movie's pristine, soon-to-be-open park is a lot cleaner than the abandoned and decaying facilities seen in the second and third movies, all three movies have essentially the same setting; an isolated location where a small group of people find themselves at the mercy of uncontrolled dinosaurs. This worked well once, but it was feeling pretty stale by the third movie.

Jurassic World took a different approach. InGen, the company founded by John Hammond sometime before the first film, faced financial ruin and was eventually bought out by Simon Masrani. In fulfillment of Hammond's dying wish, Masrani established Jurassic World on Isla Nublar. The public portions of the amusement park take up the southern half of the island while the northern part contains research facilities. The abandoned Jurassic Park site, which remained effectively untouched since the 1993 incident, also happens to be located in the northern half of the island. By the time of the movie, the park has successfully operated for ten years.

It's refreshing to see the franchise change its setting from an untested and empty park with barely contained animals, or an abandoned facility where the dinosaurs are entirely free to roam, to a well-established and heavily populated park (one where the presence of children isn't an anomaly). It's also apparent that the new owners have learned from their predecessor's mistakes. Instead of electrified fences, animal paddocks use solid concrete walls. On top of that, the facility is proactive in managing risks, including running drills and maintaining a special team for containing escaped animals.

Although we know that there will be dinosaur-related mayhem, part of the fun is watching the well-oiled machine of Jurassic World break down through mistakes, misjudgments, and years of complacency.

Simon Masrani
A movie billionaire CEO that
doesn't deserve to be eaten.
Masrani (Irrfan Khan) easily could have been cast as a villain, or at least as a cynical money-grubbing CEO like Hammond's nephew, Peter Ludlow in The Lost World. Instead, he's a very likeable character who explicitly wants both his park's visitors and the animals to be happy. Although he makes some misjudgments, he's generally cautious; an oddity in disaster films like this one. This is most apparent when he first sees the park's future attraction, the Indominus Rex (a hybrid of multiple dinosaur species and several modern animals).

Instead of gleefully rubbing his hands together and monologuing about how much money the new attraction will bring into the park, he immediately becomes concerned about the animal's apparent aggressiveness. He asks his operations manager, Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) to bring in Jurassic World's behavioral researcher, Owen Grady (Chris Pratt), to evaluate the animal and the security of its pen.

When the Indominus inevitably escapes and starts eating park personnel, Masrani personally flies a helicopter loaded with an armed team to kill the animal. Sadly, pursuit of the Indominus leads to the escape of dozens of pterosaurs, which attack the helicopter and destroy it. Masrani's popularity with his employees becomes obvious when we see that several control center employees are left stunned or in tears when video feeds show their boss go down.

InGen's Dinosaurs versus Current Paleontology
At the time of Jurassic Park's release, the depiction of the dinosaurs was considered to be reasonably accurate (with notable exceptions such as the size of the velociraptors). By the release of Jurassic Park III, it was widely accepted that dinosaurs such as velociraptor would have been covered in feathers. The 2007 discovery of quill knobs on well-preserved velociraptor forearm bones is considered to be definitive proof of this.

It's possible that the 2001 film was attempting to explain away the growing discrepancy between everyone's favorite kitchen-stalking terrors and current paleontological reconstructions with a brief line from Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill). When asked why he was still digging up dinosaur bones when there were living examples on Isla Sorna, Dr. Grant responded that "What John Hammond and InGen did at Jurassic Park is create genetically engineered theme park monsters. Nothing more and nothing less."

Genetically engineered theme park monsters
(also one of the greatest scenes of 20th century cinema)

More accurate, but not what gave an entire generation kitchen-based nightmares

When Jurassic World's trailer came out, the franchise was attacked by paleontologists for continuing to portray the dinosaurs inaccurately. Rather than introduce a huge inconsistency into the film series by updating the dinosaurs, the writers of the new film took advantage of statements made in Jurassic Park that the DNA of the resurrected animals wasn't entirely ancient. When Masrani confronts InGen's chief geneticist, Dr. Henry Wu, and accuses him of creating a monster in the Indominus Rex, Wu retorts:
You are acting like we are engaged in some kind of mad science but we are doing what we have done from the beginning. Nothing in Jurassic World is natural! We have always filled gaps in the genomes with the DNA of other animals. And if their genetic code was pure many of them would look quite different. But you didn't ask for reality, you asked for more teeth [my emphasis].
With that single line, Jurassic World explains why the films' animals haven't kept up with modern paleontology; at the genetic level they're Frankensteinian creations rather than true dinosaurs. In addition to a hodgepodge of dinosaur genetic material, Dr. Wu admits that the Indominus Rex's genome includes cuttlefish DNA to accelerate its growth rate and tree frog DNA to allow it to adapt to a tropical climate.

Owen Grady
Jurassic Park, The Lost World: Jurassic Park, and Jurassic Park III have two types of people: victims and survivors. The victims are generally random people or those who think they have everything under control. The survivors typically include at least one expert (e.g., Alan Grant or Ian Malcolm) whose skill or experience allow himself and a chosen few to avoid getting eaten.

Jurassic World's Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) introduces one more type into the franchise: the action hero. Grady is a Navy veteran and an expert on deadly animals, has earned the respect of a velociraptor pack (although they're far from tame), and is perpetually cool under pressure. The character is a cliche, but one that the Jurassic Park franchise could really use. Heck, Claire Dearing's nephew simply comes out and says what we're all thinking when Owen Grady is leading the raptor pack from his motorcycle: "Your boyfriend's a bad@$$."

I loved Dr. Alan Grant's character in the first and third Jurassic Park movies, but he definitely couldn't call himself a raptor pack's alpha.

Bad@$$, indeed

I'm looking forward to Jurassic World II.

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