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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Part (one) of the problem – The Maze Runner (2014) Review

The Maze Runne PosterPerhaps the most unsurprising aspect of The Maze Runner – the latest member of the ever-growing club of Young Adult dystopian sci-fi – is that it is the first part in a trilogy, tasked with introducing us to its bleak world and investing us in its characters for the sequels that will inevitably be greenlit. By its very nature it must include set-up, but should it be allowed to get away with being entirely that? All preamble and no pay-off? Should it rather be self-contained, able to stand apart on its own without the help of its future episodic brothers? In a mess of absent exposition and unanswered questions, the films response is ironically very clear.

We are elevated into the Glade – a luscious forest and field area – along with our hero Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) and a healthy dose of amnesia. In this area we meet a group of teenage boys, all of whom have entered in a similar way to Thomas, now eking out an existence in a well established mini-society. Questions abound like sparks but it’s here where the film shows its odd approach to pacing. For a community so rooted in co-operation, the boys are remarkably reticent about explaining things to their new compatriot, sometimes even refusing to answer queries like it’s an insult to even be asked by an amnesiac newbie. Clearly some exposition is needed, but it’s spread out thinly along the runtime that all conversations become laden with it, never allowing time for the characters to develop or the viewer to care about them.

The Maze Runner, 2014

And it’s a shame that it’s all exposition when there’s so much talent in the young cast list. On the whole their performances are good but seem to be held back by weak scripting. Aml Ameen gives a sage performance as the longest-serving Glader and his careworn Alby is perhaps the most compelling. Will Poulter plays the closest to an antagonist, zealous to protect and restore the status quo after Thomas disturbs it, but his motives are flimsy which never gives his stay-at-home attitude any weight. Likewise Thomas Brodie-Sangster and Blake Cooper are solid but sadly one-dimensional. The greatest waste is Kaya Scodelario, who appears late in the game as a connection to Thomas’ previous life but criminally nothing more. She’s likely here to foreshadow a greater role in sequels but comes off as the token female, given very little to do at all. The less said about the bland Dylan O’Brien the better, his clichéd amnesia robbing him of almost all interest.

Whilst little care has been given to its characters, the excellence of The Mazer Runner lies in its production design. The eponymous maze is brilliantly imposing, so gargantuan that it literally casts a large shadow over our protagonists. The maze is also old but of unknown age, its cracks and overgrown areas lending it a monolithic quality as if it has stood for centuries. Its constant presence lends the world a wonderful tactility and entices you to ponder on the nature of the world beyond the maze, and just who or what might be in charge of this diabolical lab-rat stunt. This is clearly the direction The Maze Runner is going in, namely the next instalment territory, but it does so with such determination that it completely forgets to have a satisfying ending. It completely forgets to be its own film. It’s perfectly fine to have ambiguity in a story, but when your finale feels entirely like the introduction to the sequel, and there is no ending, you’re doing something wrong. The Hunger Games does it right, so why can’t you?

I’ve got high hopes for the The Maze Runner: Part Deux, where I have no doubt things will start to make sense, but I rather wish someone had just given me the heavily edited highlights from part one.