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.

Cruising for a Bruising – Edge of Tomorrow (2014) Review

Edge of Tomorrow Poster

Tom Cruise is well known for playing heroes, the kind that are unphased by the desperate circumstances they find themselves in and who always walk away from explosions. It’s all just steely expressions and thrilling antics. I have enjoyed much of his acting in the past (“show me the money” anyone?) but recently it appears that he’s been doing the same action role over and over – Jack in Oblivion, Jack in Jack Reacher etc. It doesn’t help that his physical appearance remains the same from film to film, and I felt like I was watching Tom Cruise and not his character. Whomever he was meant to be was dwarfed by his enormous celebrity presence. All this left me jaded and when I saw his casting in Edge of Tomorrow, I didn’t hold out much hope for his acting talents to resurface. It is however, pleasantly enjoyable to be wrong on this one.

Edge of Tomorrow is based on the novel entitled All You Need Is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka and the set-up is as follows. In the near future, the forces of humanity are in a desperate struggle to repel an alien invasion of Earth. Major William Cage (Cruise) is part of the military but works only in public affairs, being a self-confessed coward. He is summoned by General Brigham (Brendan Gleeson) and is stripped of his rank and placed in the front lines of the next big attack – which is likely to be humanity’s last. Through circumstances that I won’t spoil he ends up repeating the same day every time he is killed and with the help of Sergeant Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt) must find a way out and a way to win the war. The elements of the story can feel quite familiar when viewed individually – the near future, alien invasion, mech battle-suits, and the time looping – but it is the combination of these that make Edge of Tomorrow into a fun slice of sci-fi action.

The concept of time looping is not new and many people have likened to Groundhog Day, which has given rise to many witty alternative titles e.g. Saving Private Groundhog or Groundhog D-Day. Wish I could take credit for those. Whilst the comparison is almost inevitable, I was pleased to see that there were no karmic elements, and the reasons for Cage being trapped in the loop are instead tied to the greater plot of the invasion. Despite this, predictability does threaten to rear its ugly head towards the climax of the plot but it manages to avoid straying into genre clichés.

Edge of Tomorrow Blunt Cruise

“I’ll be blunt, this won’t be anything like a pleasure cruise”.

In the overall grimness of the threat of human extinction, it’s impressive that the film-makers manage to include plenty of levity revolving around Cruise’s quivering yellow-belly, and I’m taking quite a few laugh-out-loud moments. It’s great to see a stalwart of action cinema bumble along like a fish-out-of-water and Cruise does this superbly. It’s not only these light touches to the character and his predicament that make Cruise’s performance quite possibly one of his best in a while. He brings a certain pathos to his hapless everyman, caught in a situation that couldn’t be more opposed to his instinctive self-preservation and you understand the struggles he goes through, be they with the battle itself or the growing relationships with the soldiers around him. Emily Blunt is also terrific, as is to be expected of one of the finest actresses currently working, and similar to Cruise as a coward it’s a joy to see her getting tough as a battle-scarred veteran.

There are a few more things that deserve a mention. Doug Liman’s direction is very assured and the way he handles the balance of action and drama is to be applauded, although I shouldn’t be too surprised at that, he did direct The Bourne Identity after all. It may not be to everyone’s tastes but I thought the design of the world was suitably sci-fi, in particular the mech-suits which are industrial and flat out awesome. Slightly at odds with the whole mechanized look is Rita’s weapon of choice – an unfeasibly large sword – but let’s just call that a nod to Japanese gaming and move on.

In a summer filled with sequels, it’s always exciting to see a film that amalgamates some ideas into a fresh viewing experience. You may have seen these elements before, but together with Cruise and Blunt leading the charge, they certainly have the edge over their cinematic opposition.