Raptors with Cameras – Jurassic World (2015) Review

Jurassic World posterWhen did we start letting blockbusters off the hook so easily? When did we start expecting so little of them that we allowed studios to churn out generic sequel after generic sequel? When did we become so content as to replace enjoyment from originality with enjoyment from references to an older, better film? If one thing defines our cinematic era it is the power of nostalgia and our willingness as audiences to give into it with each passing franchise iteration. This power is rampant in Jurassic World, a gigantic and spectacular beast that worships at the altar of its first ancestor with an unsettling post-modern grin.

Mere seconds after practically breaking the fourth wall with her welcome to this new dino-park, confident operations manager Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) strides purposefully towards the camera, investors in tow, and states that “no-one is excited about dinosaurs any more”. This typifies the blatant self-awareness that pervades Jurassic World, emerging as the fourth film in a series that has failed to dazzle audiences since its first outing way back in 1993. It’s a film that’s all too knowing of what it is; as a sequel, as a summer blockbuster, and as a money-making product. It’s also acutely aware of the problems it faces with its apparently jaded audience; going so far as to use them to set up the thin narrative and state them in dialogue time and again. But for all this seeming intelligence Jurassic World is surprisingly dumb, opting for more as the answer under the misapprehension that it equates to better. Someone forgot to tell the writers that you can’t just wink and state the problem – you have to come up with a creative solution.

As is clear from the title, things have moved on in the twenty-two years since the grand failure of the original attraction as a viable business. The ‘Park’ is now a ‘World’, jam-packed with visitors, rides, and more dinosaurs than you can shake a flare at. Plus a monorail, an aquatic section, a pyramid, and probably fifty separate Starbucks and McDonalds establishments (somewhere off-screen no doubt). But audiences are bored to death of de-extinction and want something new, so not-a-mad-scientist Dr. Wu (B. D. Wong) cooks up the Indominus Rex using a ludicrously dangerous cocktail of DNA that gives it all the tools required to be the perfect prehistoric killing machine – adaptive camouflage, anyone? All the park staff, except the sage yet stoic Owen Grady (Chris Pratt), think this is a cracking idea and completely safe. Verizon even sponsor and present the I-Rex. But tradition must be adhered to and things go pear-shaped quicker than you can say “hubris” and we’re along for another prehistoric rampage.

Contrary to Claire’s earlier statement, the most exciting parts of Jurassic World are when the reptiles break free and stomp around devouring the guests. Where the original film built suspense this one barrels ahead with fast-paced action and whilst entertaining at times it subsequently fails to capture much of that unique blend of wonder and dread. Director Colin Trevorrow – with no more than one indie film under his belt – ably handles the carnage and it’s still fun to see dinosaurs chomping people (even if one character does meet with an uncomfortably drawn-out demise), but these highs are not lasting and seldom inspire awe, even when Giacchino kicks the John Williams score up to eleven and the camera sweeps elegantly across the vast expanse of the attraction.

Moments like these expose Jurassic World as a messy but safe creation, hamstrung by the considerable history behind it, never able to tell a convincing story because it’s too busy nodding at the previous films. The characters – once so strong with the likes of Malcolm, Sattler, and Grant – are barely given enough attention for us to root for them. In fact, in this outing the dinosaurs are given as much depth as the humans, severely reducing the fear factor they once possessed. Case in point – Owen’s pack of raptors with which he somehow communicates using plain old English and a clicking device, able to placate them with an outstretched palm.

The more one thinks about this and the rest of the film as a whole, the sillier and crucially duller it becomes – using dinosaurs for military applications has to be the height of ridiculousness, and don’t get me started on the out-of-the-blue conclusion. The film-makers have set about the task of reinvigorating the franchise with their pieced-together script in one hand and a giant Jurassic checklist in the other, and have judged the latter to be far more important than anything resembling narrative. So in the end that’s what we get with Jurassic World, a handsomely made pile of references that’s just bigger and more on the surface. There’s still raptors, but this time they’re tame…and they’ve got cameras.

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Teenage Kicks – Kick-Ass (2010) Review

Kick-Ass final movie posterCast your mind back to 2010 and the comic book film landscape was quite different from today. The early Spider-Man and X-Men films had proven that the medium was ripe for adaptation and studios had smelled the lucrative possibilities. The Marvel Cinematic Universe had started two years prior with Iron Man but had taken a misstep with the second attempt at an Incredible Hulk film, and DC was enjoying a lot of success in the wake of Nolan’s The Dark Knight. Into this mix came a little film based on a lesser known comic that gave the superhero genre a swift kick in the spandex pants.

Kick-Ass is simultaneously a love letter and a giant middle-finger to the world of comic book superheroes. It charts the tragically mundane life of hormonal teenager Dave Lizewski, his journey to becoming masked crime-fighter Kick-Ass, and what happens when he gets in way over his head with the mob. It’s a story that feels very much grounded in our modern reality, with Kick-Ass finding fame thanks to YouTube and answering requests through Myspace, the latter feeling a little dated nowadays but substitute it for a Facebook page and it fits in nicely. It shares a small amount of its DNA with Watchmen which posed the question of what the classic superheroes would be like if they were real people. Kick-Ass is about real-life superheroes too, but it answers it in an entirely different way.

As opposed to the thoughtful slow-burn of Watchmen, Kick-Ass approaches its story with a bundle of exuberant energy and then some. It just throws you in and bounds along from there. The pacing is one of its strengths and there’s something different happening every few minutes. Like a sped-up version of those rides at historical museums, you’re never shown anything for too long and you’re always moving forward. This exuberance is best appreciated in the fight sequences which are often punctuated by thumping popular music; they start off realistic and quickly turn outrageous to the point where they’re on the verge of utter baloney. They’re also wildly entertaining…as long as you can stomach the violence, and those of a queasy disposition should be glad that director Matthew Vaughn didn’t adapt the comic panel-for-panel. Kick-ass mirror This all exudes a teenage sensibility that grates from time to time. Profanity is applied liberally throughout the dialogue so much so that it loses any sense of comedic impact to the point where every character is just chronically foul-mouthed. Swearing can be done creatively (see In The Loop) but it’s juvenile in the hands of Vaughn and Millar. Their characters fare better though. Aaron Taylor-Johnson mixes naivety and optimism to make Dave a likeable lead and Nicolas Cage is perfect in a role that requires him to be off-kilter, in and out of his Big Daddy persona.

Kick-Ass is undoubtedly a fun ride while you’re in it, but once it comes to an end it leaves some niggling issues. It’s caught between two worlds in more ways than one. From the start it seems to be a realistic look at an every-kid trying to be a hero, but in its final act it takes off the shackles and goes full comic-fantasy, indulging in what it seemed to be railing against. The same is true in its approach to violence. There are dire consequences for beating up people that come to a head in quite a disturbing scene heavily inspired by the way terrorists use the internet, but the film still delights in lopping limbs and spilling blood in an entirely playful way. The film wants us to get behind the ‘good-guys’ as they slaughter their way through a small army of thugs, shedding more blood than the mob in the process. Double standards much?

If you can find your inner teenage boy – and many of us still have easy access to him – you’ll like Kick-Ass. I know I still do. It’s a film that is raucous, brash, and completely unapologetic about being so, but it doesn’t quite get away with it. It’s weirdly summarised in the line from Lizewski’s narration, “With no power, comes no responsibility. Except that wasn’t true”. You can go all-out and over-the-top if you want, but it might just leave a sour taste in the mouth once you’re done.