Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Jurassic World (2015)

Warning: The following post may contain spoilers.

I grew up with Jurassic Park. My generation was the Jurassic Park generation. Jurassic Park was the movie of my childhood. I remember my excitement at the fantastic premise when I first started seeing trailers for it - a movie about an amusement park where they bring dinosaurs back to life?! And when it came out, around about the time I was 9 years old, I ended up seeing it a record number of times in the theater. I don't remember the count, but it was at least seven, and may have been as high as eleven. It takes a really good movie for me to want to see it in the theater twice; more than that is nearly unheard of.

What made Jurassic Park such a great movie? First and foremost, it was based on a brilliant novel by one of the preeminent science fiction (with an emphasis on science - Jurassic Park introduced me to chaos theory long before I earned my physics degree in college) authors of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. It had a killer premise - rife with potential for both action/terror (depending on how you approach it) and intelligent story-telling - with great, memorable characters. The movie was well-cast, well-paced, well-scored, and well-directed by a master of Hollywood blockbusters - Steven Spielberg - in his prime. And the effects were great, too. It became (and still remains) the best dinosaur movie ever made.

I read the book it was based on (after seeing the movie) in elementary school - being a bit mature, it was one of those books that other kids used to give me sidelong glances for carrying around. Then I read the sequel, The Lost World, when it came out. The movie sequel followed, but, as sequels usually do, it failed to live up to the quality of either the original, or the book it was only loosely based on, despite bringing back one of my favorite characters, mathematician Ian Malcolm. The most memorable thing about the movie sequel was a tense moment involving the T. rex and a car dangling over a cliff, and a forced attempt to bring the T. rex to the mainland (à la King Kong) - a potential story thread I'd daydreamed about since day one, but failed to live up to expectations. Perhaps the movie's most egregious error was completely ignoring the one point of sequel-bait that the original Jurassic Park had featured (and which still remains untouched): Nedry's canister of embryos.

A few years later Jurassic Park III came out, but even bringing Dr. Alan Grant back into the fold couldn't save it from being a mostly forgettable flop. The source material had already dried up by then, and advances in paleontology were leading to much-maligned design changes (enter the feathered raptor). Also, in a misguided attempt to one-up its predecessors, JP III arbitrarily introduced a bigger, badder dino (the Spinosaurus) to outperform the T. rex. (As we shall see, Jurassic World rectified both of those mistakes). Despite also expanding on the terrifying implications of the Velociraptors' intelligence, the most memorable scene in this movie involved Pterodactyls.

The franchise ran out of steam at this point, and what followed was over a decade of silence. Then, rumors of a new Jurassic Park movie began to surface, and it seemed that people were ready to give the series a fresh start. I admit that even I, after being less than impressed with the previous two sequels, was willing to believe that this new Jurassic Park movie would be different, and could do justice to the legacy of the original film. And now, having seen it, I believe that it does.

In a wise decision, Jurassic World mostly ignores the two sequels, but directly references the original. Here, we see the late John Hammond's dream finally brought to life (in spite of the earlier catastrophe) - a tropical vacation spot that marries an amusement park with a museum and a zoo, featuring the spectacle of living, breathing dinosaurs brought back from eons of extinction. The cautionary tale of the first Jurassic Park involved the dangers of man taking the reins of evolution from out of the hands of nature, and vainly bringing some of history's most dangerous predators back to life to coexist with humans.

Jurassic World takes it a step further - this time, it's the creation of a personalized hybrid, by demand from greedy corporations, and inspired by an increasingly jaded public, that, with its combination of size, unprecedented intelligence, predatory instincts, and other assorted evolutionary adaptations - the result of a mixed genetic cocktail of DNA - breaks loose and wreaks havoc across the island. This is the Indominus rex - a more plausible and intriguing variation of what Jurassic Park III's Spinosaurus wanted to be - and for all intents and purposes, an adaptation of the Carnotaurus from Michael Crichton's The Lost World, which I've been itching to see on the big screen for nigh on twenty years, since it was absent from the movie version of that Jurassic Park sequel.

The human element in Jurassic World is enjoyable enough to watch, if not completely remarkable. The humor seems to overpower the drama, as the main leads' romance isn't as compelling as Alan Grant and Ellie Sattler's more mature relationship in Jurassic Park. And the two kids in this movie aren't nearly as memorable as Lex ("I'm a hacker!") and Tim ("the human piece of toast") were. But it's worth noting that the male lead in Jurassic World (played by Chris Pratt), is basically a Robert Muldoon character (who was excellent but underused in Jurassic Park), elevated to the level of a lead à la Dr. Alan Grant.

But the real characters in Jurassic World are the dinosaurs. When Jurassic Park came out, it revolutionized the way dinosaurs were depicted on film. Inspired by Michael Crichton's true science approach, and based on the latest findings of paleontology, dinosaurs like the T. rex and the Brachiosaurus, in particular, were shown to stand and move in a more horizontal rather than traditionally upright position. But by the time the sequel came out, some of the details - such as the T. rex's motion-based vision - were being called into question, and the behavior of some of the dinosaurs changed accordingly (breaking plot consistency). Historical accuracy became a point of contention, and by the time Jurassic Park III came out, scientists were beginning to speculate on the possibility that some dinosaurs (including the Velociraptor) may have been feathered, like birds, rather than scaly, like reptiles.

The problem, from a narrative standpoint, is that birds are generally not as scary as reptiles. Well, Jurassic World deals with that problem in a very succinct and elegant fashion. Since de-extinction is not an exact process in the first place - DNA strands from long-extinct species have to be approximated, and filled in with fragments from other organisms - and since the company is already genetically manufacturing its own customized animals, considering that they are a corporate, profit-minded entity, it's not a stretch to believe that they would engineer dinosaurs that look sleeker and scarier, and maybe are even bigger, or have a few more teeth, or what have you, than would be historically accurate, all for the sake of putting on a good show for their customers. Lead research scientist Henry Wu says about as much, in fewer words, in a key scene during the movie.

The dinosaurs in Jurassic World may not be as unequivocal the threats they were in Jurassic Park - although even when helping or cooperating with humans, they are still dangerous - but that's a side effect of being able to have the audience sympathize with some of them. And while Jurassic Park succeeded as a violent thriller, twenty years have passed since then, and people have grown sympathetic toward the reptilian mascots of the franchise. While the I. rex is the clear villain in this movie, the raptors are its anti-heros. And as a longtime fan of Jurassic Park, I enjoyed the tag team between the raptors and the T. rex during the spectacular climax, which was littered with respectful homages to the original movie.

There's a little bit of cheesiness peppered throughout the movie, but I chalk that up to this being a self-conscious revival of an old and beloved franchise, resurrected for a new generation of fans (yet with its old fans kept in mind). Jurassic World isn't quite what Jurassic Park was two decades ago, perhaps, but I don't think that there really could be another Jurassic Park today, without completely reinventing itself - and I don't think that's what the producers or the audience really wants. It's more of a fun action flick than an intelligent thriller, but I feel that it's a worthy successor to the original - certainly much more so than the other two sequels we've had. I feel like Jurassic World is a Jurassic Park for a new generation - a generation where Jurassic Park has been around for a while; a generation that, like the people who visit the resort in the movie, aren't wowed simply by seeing dinosaurs in the flesh anymore. And isn't that just what Jurassic World should be?

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