Tag Archives: Jurassic Park

Fancy Brain Doctors Hate This One Simple Memory Test — “Jurassic World: Dominion”

There are so many ways to remake later franchise movies with the same beats as the original. Take the recent “Prey”, which acknowledges the “Predator” movies that have come before it with clever references and inversions of your expectations. It does these things without breaking immersion and with its own clear priorities. It includes franchise references in a way that serves the story it wants to tell. “Jurassic World” also does this pretty well. Just not this “Jurassic World”. The 2015 movie was a smart rehash of the original “Jurassic Park”, serving up references for fans while creating its own original tension and action…while unfortunately suffering from a cynical, antiquated opinion about women’s roles.

Now we come to “Jurassic World: Dominion”, a rehash of “Jurassic World” rehashing “Jurassic Park”. We should know by the sixth movie in the franchise that the more you clone, the more you’ve got to fill in the missing DNA gaps with frogs, wacky lizards, and probably some stuff from Australia we’d rather not know about. The storytelling gaps are cavernous and awkwardly spliced.

Say what you want about the last film, “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom”, but it stuck a designer dinosaur into the role normally played by a ghost stalking a Victorian haunted mansion – complete with a child hiding a chilling secret. It was an effective riff that took the franchise into territory it had never tried. This also makes it the only one out of five sequels even interested in new genre territory.

There’s no such commitment to anything new here. There are so many chances “Jurassic World: Dominion” had to be great, too. It’s like watching beautiful scenery pass by out the window from a train as it hurtles off a cliff.

Bryce Dallas Howard’s Claire, the former operator of Jurassic World, is now an ecoterrorist busting illegal dinosaur breeding facilities. I’d love to watch a whole film about that, so at the end of the opening scene, her group breaks apart and she gives that life up.

But it’s OK, cause Chris Pratt’s Owen is in one of those old cigarette commercials where men on horses live off the plain on nothing but gumption and grit. Instead of rounding up horses or cattle, he’s rounding up Parasaurolophus and…you know what, I’m just going to describe his scenes as if they’re dialogue from his “Parks & Rec” character Andy Dwyer:

ANDY: So then I lasso the dinosaur from my horse.

RON: A Parasaurolophus weighs 8,000 pounds. That horse is 800 soaking wet. It’s going to pull you to the ground, son.

ANDY: Then I’ll just body surf along the ground and use my lightning reflexes to wrap the rope around a tree stump.

RON: That dinosaur will pull you and the tree stump behind it without even noticing.

ANDY: Not if he turns around and becomes my friend first.

Yeah, that’s a scene. Claire and Owen are taking care of Maisie, the cloned girl from “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom”. They live deep in the woods with their velociraptor Blue and her new baby, Beta. Maisie resents not being allowed to go anywhere – not even into town. Ooh, is this going to be a Spielbergian movie about a fractured family brought closer together by their shared love for the baby velociraptor they raise?

Wait, why isn’t Maisie allowed to go anywhere? Because every mercenary in the world is after the cloned girl. Ah, so we’re going to get an awesome siege sequence where mercenaries with dinosaurs fight a Parasaurolophus-roping everyman, his ecoterrorist wife, their adopted clone daughter, and mom-and-baby velociraptor? I will watch that every day for the rest of my li– nope, Maisie just rides her bike directly onto the one-lane bridge a sketchy vehicle is clearly and visibly parked on. The mercenaries are just there to chauffeur Maisie and Beta to the next scene.

At least this leads us into the genre “Jurassic World: Dominion” wants to briefly try: the spy film. Welcome the half hour of the movie where dinosaurs are an afterthought. Now eventually you do plan to have dinosaurs in your dinosaur movie, right? Don’t worry, you’ll see them as they’re being trafficked at a black market in Malta that totally isn’t presented in a wildly racist way.

Wait, why are they at a black market in Malta? Cause that’s where Owen’s CIA contact (yes, really) says Maisie and Beta are being taken.

Claire decides to search for Maisie by showing her daughter’s picture to exactly one random person, a woman she bumps into in the bathroom. Wildly convenient then that this is the one person who’s actually seen Maisie. I mean, they could have had a CIA character be like, “Make sure you bump into this woman”, but nope, it’s just happenstance that the one person Claire bothers to ask is the one person worth asking.

Luckily, DeWanda Wise’s Kayla also has a plane, which is perfect for when things go wrong and dinosaurs are set loose to stomp all over Malta. At least we finally get exactly what we want to see in a dinosaur movie: Chris Pratt knife-fighting a mercenary.

Sigh.

ANDY: So he comes at me with a knife, but not before a baby dinosaur eats his arm.

LESLIE: The whole thing?

ANDY: Dinosaurs are big, so a baby one can probably eat an arm.

DONNA: Can’t he just fight with his other arm?

ANDY: Not if there’s two baby dinosaurs.

At least the dinosaurs get to have a motorbike chase. Well, the dinosaurs don’t have motorbikes, but that might’ve been better. Long story short, half the cast is on Kayla’s plane to Maisie’s destination: the totally innocuously named Biosyn’s remote dinosaur park, where I’m sure nothing bad will happen.

Let’s leave them aside. What should be the highlight of “JW: Dom” is the original “Jurassic Park” trio of Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum, and Sam Neill. Unfortunately, they’re woefully written, with no idea for how older generations, or humans of any sort, think and speak. Goldblum can sell it, but Dern and Neill feel like they’re acting out a soap opera on its last legs and desperate to gin up some press by getting the original pair back together. Will they or won’t they? It turns out they found the one narrow, hidden path along which I don’t care. It’s actually pretty cool that Dern’s Ellie Sattler moved on with her life as a professor, lecturer, field botanist, agricultural investigator, and parent. She’s leading a team investigating prehistoric locusts that are eating every crop except one corporation’s: Biosyn. The only man she can go to? Neill’s Alan Grant, who despite leading his own paleontology team is wallowing in loneliness as he pines for Ellie. Seems like a him problem, but “JW: Dom” says why not make it an all of our problem?

Ellie accepts an invitation from Biosyn’s in-house philosopher, Goldblum’s Ian Malcolm. She wants to get inside and prove that Biosyn has created these prehistoric locusts. Alan’s along as a witness, so now we’re all going to the same place. Locusts are located, planes plummet, and now everyone’s running around while dinosaurs look wide-eyed at their fresh chew toys.

APRIL: What are you going to do, Andy, the Dilophosaurus is about to spit poison all over your girlfriend!

ANDY: I make it submit with an awesome choke hold!

BEN: But there are three other Dilophosaurs watching its back. Did they just disappear? The whole point of this exercise is to plan ahead–

ANDY: That’s why I’ve trained as a ninja all my life, knowing one day I’d have to sneak up on a dinosaur to save the woman I love.

BEN: [sighs] Just roll initiative.

About the only one who saves the constant zipping back and forth is Bryce Dallas Howard. She’s not doing anything award-worthy, but she is the one putting forth the effort when it comes to physically throwing herself into scenes in a way that a “Jurassic [map feature]” film asks.

For every scene, it’s just a checklist. Are the characters in a jeep? Cool, let’s make sure we get the shots that remind the audience of the time a jeep drove off a road, the time a jeep fell off a cliff, the time someone hid in an upside down jeep, the time someone jumped out of the jeep with a flare. That’s just one scene about one thing. Name a reference and there’s a checklist of references that will be done for it in the most joylessly unironic way possible.

Do you remember the time a Tyrannosaurus was challenged by another apex predator and had to fight while the cast ran away, like in JPs 1 and 3, but was then saved by the interjection of a third badassosaur like in JW1? You want to see that done worse, in a more perfunctory way, complete with an unintentional slapstick ending?

Do you love seeing that one shot of someone leaping out of the way as a dinosaur’s jaws snap shut behind them? Remember that famous shot from JP1? Can we do it twice with every character, with lazier and lazier editing that makes it feel like the dinosaur’s nervous about hitting its cue, and slower and slower by the time we’re doing it to the 70 year-olds? Then this is your novocaine, because by the 10th time I just couldn’t feel it anymore.

I had this feeling in the back of my mind that I’ve seen this movie done so much better very recently. It was a “smash two casts together in a monster movie” that actually embraces its absurdity in an endearing way. Last year’s “Godzilla vs. Kong” took a similar approach to hurling two casts together, complete with a girl who needs protecting, unearthing a corporate conspiracy, and giant beasts obsessed with one-upping each others’ Spielberg references. It was silly as hell, but satisfying because it combined smart visual gags and jokes with a streamlined, uncomplicated plot. I called it the “Animaniacs of monster movies” because its references were smart, funny, and moved so quickly you didn’t have to worry about them overstaying their welcome. “JW: Dom” is more like LeBron’s “Space Jam: A New Legacy”, obsessed with making sure you notice each and every reference, and just in case you didn’t, here’s a lingering close-up of it.

As a film of recognizing things, “Jurassic World: Dominion” sure exists. I’m not against this kind of movie, but you have to make it satisfying. The references have to be in service of something more meaningful – and that’s not a high bar. Fun is something more meaningful, but you can’t have it when the priority is just to recognize things. For something like the “Jurassic [domain name]” movies, opening up the toybox of memories can bring more unintended sadness at what’s been shorn from them and the opportunities that have been missed. Nostalgia is a pristine thing. To fold that into your recipe, you’d better know how to evoke childlike glee from it. If you don’t, you just end up with the checklist of references that is “JW: Dom”.

I recently wrote that I’d watch dinosaurs read a phone book, and this is the baseline level of acceptability for that. It entertains only because it reminds you of other things you were entertained by, and just hitting the baseline for this franchise feels like such a wasted opportunity.

The toybox metaphor makes me think to earlier this year and “The Book of Boba Fett”. Robert Rodriguez upended the whole toybox so everything spilled out, with constant recognizable elements from the Star Wars franchise. It could have been annoying, but he did it with such unbridled joy and enthusiasm that he got to play with these toys. You don’t need to fit paragraphs of thematic message into one insultingly reductive and by then meaningless line, you don’t need to have a checklist of sub-references you need to make for every reference, and you don’t need a spy movie interlude to justify Chris Pratt’s paycheck. You just need to communicate joy that we all get to be here for two hours-plus. You can sense when it’s there, and you can sense when it’s lacking.

The point of “JW: Dom” is to recognize things, as if a test to see whether 90s kids are suffering from dementia yet. No, we’re in our 30s, get off our landlord’s lawn. The story is in service to checking off these moments of recognition, rather than being the priority that enables these moments to shine. A movie can’t be a movie when it’s just trying to be a memory test. All that does is show us how much the people behind it didn’t even bother to understand in the first place.

You can watch “Jurassic World: Dominion” on Peacock, or see where to rent it.

If you enjoy articles like this, subscribe to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to write more like it.

Massive Success and/or Giant Failure — “Godzilla”

Park all the tanks on that bridge

A fin coming out of the water and a two-note anthem. A velociraptor tapping her claw impatiently on the floor as she hunts two children in a hotel kitchen. These are some of the most terrifying moments on film, but why? It’s not the fin that frightens, but the monster it suggests, gliding underwater through Jaws. Yes, we’re scared of the raptor’s scythe-like killing claw in Jurassic Park, but the eeriest moment happens when she impatiently taps it on the tile – as if to say finding you is inevitable, so why keep her waiting? And so it is in Godzilla, in which monsters loom out of the midnight fog and detach from the shadows themselves. We’ve reached a point in filmmaking where it’s very difficult to scare audiences through complex visual effects. But the simple shadow of a monster around the corner? That will always set hearts and minds racing.

Does Godzilla reach the peaks of those epic Steven Spielberg monster tales? In terms of visual tension, absolutely. One of the biggest keys to creating a successful suspense film lies in withholding the payoff an audience expects. You can’t answer every moment of tension with a release. If you do, a movie becomes formulaic. You have to make a game out of when that inevitable jump scare or action scene will occur. Earning an audience’s trust while constantly betraying their expectations is what makes horror and suspense such difficult genres, but Godzilla director Gareth Edwards has obviously watched those Spielberg movies many, many times.

Get used to this expression

Even the opening credits of Godzilla build its mystery, redacting text in black marker as faux-historical footage plays in the background. From here, we’re offered a tragic prologue involving nuclear engineer Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston from TV’s Breaking Bad) and an apparent earthquake. Years later, we pick up the plot with his son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who’s lured to Japan when Joe gets arrested. Godzilla spends a lot of love and care setting up these characters and their history, which is why it’s so strange that it all becomes immaterial once monsters start hatching and destroying the countryside.

There are considerable problems here. The biggest is Taylor-Johnson, who may look the part of a typical leading hero, but who fails to elicit much emotion. Tell him a loved one’s dead, inform him of prehistoric beasts the size of skyscrapers, and even have one gnash its gigantic jaws feet from his head, and he only ever looks like he’s waiting very courteously for the camera to start rolling. It’s a shame; when the monsters are this big, it doesn’t matter if your hero’s as tall as The Rock if he can’t manage the curiosity and wonder of Richard Dreyfuss. In a cast featuring Cranston as a conspiracy nut and character actors Ken Watanabe (Inception) and Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine) as scientists with a near-religious fervor for the giant beasts they hunt, Taylor-Johnson’s perpetual lack of emotion is glaring and begins seeping into the audience. Elizabeth Olsen plays Ford’s wife Elle, and all it takes is one conversation – on the phone, no less – to make you realize who you’d rather see facing off against giant monsters.

Olsen shows you how to do a reaction shot

The plot is incredibly uneven. We don’t expect Shakespeare from Godzilla, but after the lush and detailed opening half-hour is chucked to the side, narrative developments later on are rushed so badly that, at one point, a character literally washes up into the next scene. Disaster-movie cliches – will the dog outrun the tsunami, will the hero find the lost boy’s parents – are answered with such coincidental ease that it’s easy to start distrusting any emotional investment we’re asked to make. These cliches are always manipulative, but they should never feel that way.

There’s a lot that’s right about Godzilla and a lot that misses the mark. It’s visually clever in a way few films are, but combine an illogical story and an unengaged lead and you have one strangely apathetic movie. What we’re left with is something that works exquisitely on the primal level – seeing the fin in the water – but that fails in giving it personal consequence. It’s half-a Spielberg movie, visually awe-inducing but without that crucial human element. Call it the inversion of Super 8 or Cloverfield, both of which I preferred more. In the end, though, I can’t remember the last time a movie had acting and a plot this bad and I still came out liking it. The visuals really are that striking, but I have to admit that little else about Godzilla is. It’s rated PG-13 for destruction and creature violence.

Godzilla imagines a better colead

Say Hello to Editorialist Vanessa Tottle

Vanessa blog pic

by Gabriel Valdez

I’ve had trouble discussing the blog lately. I never know whether to say “I” or “we.” My plan here’s always been to expand the role this blog plays, and to one day move to a full-service film site. That requires gathering a family of writers who look at criticism not just as a way to judge movies, but as a way to connect with readers on the same emotional, analytical, and socially conscious levels that films often use to tell their stories.

Two weeks back, Vanessa Tottle wrote one of the best articles I’ve hosted on the site, a scathing rebuke of sexism in Hollywood that resulted in several people coming forward to inform the both of us that sexism doesn’t exist anymore. Good to know; that was fast.

Several weeks ago, she wrote on her favorite film of 2013 in three beautiful paragraphs that brought tears to my eyes.

We’ve also co-written on the art direction in Curse of the Golden Flower and on the site’s music video series, No Miley Here. Though we’re very good friends, our joint editing process is best described as a cross between Sherman’s march to Atlanta and that scene in Poltergeist when Carol Anne gets sucked into an alternate dimension by the evil spirits in her closet. But it seems to work.

Vanessa will be focusing on film analysis and fiery editorials: pretty much what she does already, but now with a fancy title. A Texan by birth and a Canadian by necessity, she is getting her PhD in vertebrate paleontology with a special focus on geochemistry. She told me to sneak in the phrase “sadistic cladistics” if I could, but you try doing that and still sounding like a reasonable human being afterwards.

Vanessa’s specialty is in horror movies, 80s fantasy, and East Asian film. She also keeps threatening to write about Japanese role-playing games, so you may hear about that soon, too.

Her favorite movies include Jurassic Park, Kekexili: Mountain Patrol, and In the Mood for Love.

Please join me in welcoming the very tenacious Vanessa Tottle as our first official staff editorialist, and in celebrating as this site achieves the first of many goals: beginning the transformation from “I” to “we.”

And she tells me that’s a cheesy ending, so I’m keeping it.