Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Jurassic Shark

Jurassic World the movie has a lot in common with its own primary antagonist. Like the Indominus Rex, it’s one movie with the DNA of other movies stitched in: I could have sworn they used elements of the Marine ambush (including the use of helmet cams and life support readings sent to a control room) from Aliens at least twice, the Predator camouflage gimmick, bits of Jaws and Jaws 3D, the Birds, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

Oh yeah, and there were one or two nods to Jurassic Park.

Truthfully though, I don't see a close relation between Jurassic World and Jurassic Park.

Instead, Jurassic World most closely resembles Deep Blue Sea.

Ridiculous, you say. Deep Blue Sea featured genetically-modified super-sharks. Jurassic World's antagonist was a genetically modified super-dinosaur.

See? Totally different.

There are still a lot of similarities. There's the  animal wrangler/hard-headed boss lady dynamic between the male and female leads. The rich guy dies in a fashion dies in underwhelming fashion while trying to be inspiring and heroic. Even the composition of some of the actual shots in Jurassic World (mostly involving the mosasaurus but also one where the female lead steps vulnerably into the Tyrannosaurus paddock) seemed to call back to Renny Harlin’s schlock non-classic.

Perhaps most importantly, both Deep Blue Sea and Jurassic World submitted entries to the Most Incompetent Helicopter Crew Hall Of Fame. 

Deep Blue Sea is different from Jurassic World in one respect--Deep Blue Sea knows exactly what it is. Im not so sure the same can be said for Jurassic Shark.

Watching Jurassic World left me thinking a line in the movie Joyride where Steve Zahns character, while looking for pornography on a motel television,  asks Paul Walker: Are you in the mood for a story or more of a collection of scenes?

Jurassic Worlds dinosaur pornography mostly falls into the collection of scenes category. There are the disconnected bits cribbed from other movies. Characters are inconsistent. The story has a beginning, middle, and end, I suppose, but for the most part feels like something my four year old nephew would tell: This happens and then This and then This, with each moment having only the flimsiest connection to the next.

It isnt just the story and character that is inconsistent. The ideas behind the movie are inconsistent, which makes for interesting watching. Because the movie isnt mindless--it DOES put forth some ideas. The trouble is, it cant seem to decide what those ideas are.

Consider the treatment of gender.

Some critics accuseed Jurassic World of misogyny. The most violent death is reserved for a woman. The kids in the movie prefer the male lead to the female lead, and on one level it seems to be criticizing her choice to be more committed to her work than to family and mawwiage.

At the same time,  the film subverts as many gender tropes as it reinforces

While fleeing from the Indominus, in a moment of benevolent sexism we’ve seen in countless movies, Chris Pratt as Owen reaches back to take Bryce Dallas-Howard's hand…and she blows right by him, high heels and all.

In terms of beats of physical action, it's Bryce Dallas Howard's character Claire that is the most effective--she saves Pratt from a a dinosaur's air attack (My four-year old nephew‘s note--pternadon isn‘t a dinosaur. It‘s a flying reptile). She drives the van in the only car chase in the movie and does a hell of a job, escaping the dinosaurs and saving the children (immediately followed by the inexplicable moment where the kids express that they want to stay with Pratt). She is the one who comes up with and executes the plan that frees the Tyrannosaurus.

By way of contrast, Pratt is pretty much treated like the token female love interest in shows from less enlightened times. His crowning physical moment is hiding under a truck. We're told he’s a badass navy SEAL and he gets some token moments such as  taking down a couple pterodactyl redshirts, but at the end of the day, he’s cowering in a pipe with the kids waiting to be rescued.

The scene where he kisses Claire is a similar reversal. Some said it was an unearned moment where the male grabbed the heroine and planted one on her in a moment of sexist, unearned, tone-deaf entitlement. Yet from my end, I  thought Pratt kissed her because she'd just saved his life from the dinos----sort of a gender-swapped "my hero moment." The scene works both ways. It simultaneously subverts and reinforces.

Let’s also not forget that what he lacks in action beats, Pratt gets in emotional beats, a role typically played by women. He’s the pretty, plucky animal trainer who is the only who can get through to the raptors with the power of his FEELINGS.

He’s Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side. He’s Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds.

(Which doesn’t, by the way, mean I’m comparing the raptors the kids from the bad side of the tracks or accusing Hollywood executives of being unable to tell the difference between inner-city youth and dinosaurs. Clearly they can: One is a cunning, hyper aggressive, pack-hunting super-predator and the other is less scary covered with feathers. I’m just saying according to Hollywood, the only thing a genetically engineered Mesozoic theropod problem needs to thrive is also the only thing poverty-stricken minority teens in areas blighted with crumbling infrastructure and rampant economic equality are lacking--an empathetic white woman to care and believe and get to know them as people and whatnot.)

In Jurassic World, Chris Pratt is that empathetic white woman. His kindness, and goodness even leads to the tragic end of one of the raptors in a sequence that calls back to Muldoon’s death in the original Jurassic Park. The dinosaur hesitates when it sees him and is consequently outflanked and killed by a soldier with a rocket launcher.

Chris Pratt is Raptor Muldoon‘s “clever girl.” Twas beauty killed the beast.

The movie sends mixed messages on other themes. It uses the park as a metaphor for blockbuster sequels, and then sends contradictory messages about the value of them. Its multiple references to the original Jurassic Park seem to alternately deify and devalue it.

The movie’s final battle is a case in point. The new Indominus creature is beaten and the T-Rex from the original Jurassic Park and one of the raptors stand tall, as if to say that nothing compares to the original. Except that the T-rex and raptor actually LOST the fight. The Indominus was foiled by the intervention of the Mosasaurus, a dinosaur introduced in this movie.

Symbolically it feels like the movie first says that the Original will fight the Sequel (T-Rex and Raptor challenge the Indominus) but they cannot hope to defeat it (Indominus wins the fight) until the sequel eventually defeats itself (Mosasarus eats Indominus) and returns to the pool from whence it came, leaving on the originals (the final shot of the T-rex).

Actually, you know what? Written out like that, it kind of works as a thematic statement, albeit a complicated one. Unfortunately, if a movie’s theme has to be worked through and written out after the fact to be understandable, it‘s not really a theme. It‘s one thing to allow a viewer to connect the dots; but you need to give them enough dots to connect.

Finally, the movie seems to want to make a statement about the martial mind through the character of Hoskins. He is framed as a bad character wanting to do bad things by militarizing the dinosaurs  When he proposes using the velociraptors to hunt the Indominus, the other characters are incredulous and appalled.

And with good reason. Hoskins' plan is ludicrous. I have the solution to our escaped dangerous animal public safety problem. We’ll release other dangerous wild animals to hunt the first one. The polar bear is loose! Quickly, unleash the jackals! Lives are at stake!

 A woman I dated worked at a zoo. There were a number of protocols in place for dealing with, say, an escaped tiger, and exactly zero of them involved throwing open the wolf cages and strapping cameras to their heads.

If you were looking to make a critical or satirical statement about our tendency to think we can resolve a conflict by escalating it, Hoskins and his plan would be a great way to do it.

To me it seemed like that’s what Jurassic World was doing. Except for a few niggling points.

A) None of the primary protagonists offers a reasonable alternative. Or an effective alternative. Or ANY alternative for that matter.

B) Our heroes eventually go along with Hoskins’ plan. Willingly. They just sort of roll over. Which makes them, well…not the heroes.

C) Hoskins’ plan eventually works. Not without a few hiccups along the way, granted, but still…Hoskins was right and the protagonists were wrong. We thought Hoskins was the bad guy. This whole time Hoskins was Sheriff Brody and Claire and Owen were city council. In fact, not only does Hoskins plan works, it works when…

D) Claire doubles-down on Hoskins original plan. The problem wasn’t that releasing deadly, uncontrollable dinosaurs to hunt other deadly, uncontrollable, dinosaurs is a bad idea. The problem is the deadly and uncontrollable dinosaurs he released weren’t big ENOUGH.

A villain needs to be more than a jerk. He needs to provide some form of opposition to the heroes--physically, morally, or philosophically. But other than lip service, the heroes have no opposition to Hoskins. The security team deployment and the helicopter sortie are Hoskins’ plan--find it and kick it’s ass--without dinosaurs. Claire’s plan is Hoskins’ plan with different dinosaurs. There is no difference in approach; there is only a difference in degree.

So what are we left with?

Part of me wants to say that the conflicting messages in Jurassic World are deliberate. After all, the movie doesn’t seem to be saying nothing or sending unintentional or unintended messages. The messages seem deliberate--they just seem contradictory.

I enjoyed Jurassic World so I’d like to believe its incoherence is the point. In some ways, it has a certain resonance with what I see in my own life. It’s possible for me to be both progressive and sexist, sometimes in the course of a single interaction. I find meaning in the events of my life and sometimes those meanings completely  contradict each other. I judge people more for being unlikable assholes and less on whether they actually oppose me in any meaningful way.

Also, like Jurassic Park, in my life, the characters in my life are inconsistent and the protagonist never accomplishes as much through his own efforts as he’d like.

Also, the pacing is horrible.

There’s more: Sometimes kids like the adult that seems the coolest and talks the biggest game instead of the one that is competent and actually has their best interest at heart. Sometimes when the new thing clashes with the old, instead of a clear winner, everything comes out muddled and confused. Sometimes, in a dinosaur movie, for no reason at all, you get scooped up and dropped into a tank and suffer an ignominious, pointless extended death sequence torn between the jaws and claws of two creatures, neither of which is technically a dinosaur. Now that’s rain on your wedding day.

Maybe Jurassic World’s thesis, it’s thematic eye in the hurricane of self-contradictions is in Wu’s speech. He’s describing the Indominus Rex, but he’s also describing the movie….and maybe describing how the more short-sighted of us go through life, grasping at what we want in the moment without thought towards a bigger picture, focusing on pieces without considering the whole. You wanted this, so I gave you this. You wanted that, so I gave you that. You criticized, complained, demanded more…so long as you didn’t have to do any of the work yourself. You ordered fundamentally incompatible things stitched together without sparing the slightest thought as to how these things came about or what the result of trying to stitch them together would be. You wanted the cool parts without the downside. Reality never entered into your plans. And then you come crying to me when all I did was give you exactly what said you wanted.

Much of Jurassic World comes to us directly from other movies. Maybe it’s only fitting that its thematic statement does as well.

Remember, you asked for this.

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