Jurassic World: How to Train your Dinosaurs

[Note: I wrote this quick review of Jurassic World a couple of hours after seeing it on opening day while on holiday in the Philippines. Then, things got busy, and I never got around to finishing it off and publishing it. So, here it is, limping along behind the zeitgeist, but hopefully of interest to some people. In the meantime, the film has munched on box office records left, right and centre, but I had little sense at the time that this was a truly blockbusting event unfolding in that nearly-empty auditorium on a scorching hot afternoon. Maybe the big audiences were shelling out to see it in 3D (in the Philippines, 3D tickets are double the 2D asking price), but since Jurassic World was a post-conversion job, and I’ve never seen a post-conversion 3D movie that wasn’t pointless, I opted for old school flat screens, thanks very much. The real story about this film’s money might be how it has grossed almost a fifth of its box office in China, an extraordinary and unprecedented amount: could it have implications for the sequel? Perhaps a full-blown subplot for Chinese-American geneticist Henry Wu, the only returning character, now taking on a somewhat villainous air? But seriously, let’s get this thing reviewed…] 

The short version of this review goes something like this: it’s OK. It’s not quite a sequel, not quite a reboot: it’s too reverent a tribute to the original film to be considered a restart to the JP franchise, and closer to the wave of slightly embarrassing 90s nostalgia that’s going around at the moment. As such, it plays disappointingly safe, but it’s at least sticking with a winningly watchable formula of building up a magnificent system that will gradually deteriorate into chaos and carnage as the film progresses. That’s always as alluring as building a beautiful, intricate sandcastle while tingling in anticipation for the moment the tide will come in and fuck with it. I’m sure most of us love to watch other people’s nice things get safely, fictionally annihilated. The first half of the film builds a nice sandcastle of plot threads, character arcs and spinning plates (hey, you’ll accept the premise of genetically engineered dinosaurs, but you can’t handle a couple of mixed metaphors?), with the insistent promise that the water will soon be trickling into the moat and knocking down some turrets.
Jurassic World Mosasaur. Yes, I think it's a Jaws reference.At the centre of Jurassic World is a great idea: we’ve passed the point where dinosaurs are a marvel and a novelty. We’re now at the stage where audiences are getting a little bored, and certainly have settled for the commoditisation and confinement of the dinosaurs. This is a neat pre-emptive strike against the charge no doubt coming from snarky moviegoers that we have seen all of these spectacular attractions before. The franchise has no new tricks to compare to that first flush of digital dinos from 1993, so its plotting turns that fatigue of spectacle back on its audience. But enough about the plot. Let’s cut straight to the dinosaurs. We don’t have to do an hour of world-building around here.Planet of DinosaursThe Jurassic Park films are not really part of an ongoing narrative, so much as variations on a trope, a history their various protagonists are condemned to repeat. They might also be seen as developments in what Bob Rehak calls a micro-genre of special effects, where particular modes of spectacle might circulate in popular culture independently of their framing narratives: each new Jurassic Park movie speaks to other depictions of CGI dinosaurs, most notably the franchise’s own “canonical” representations of the big lizards. Kristen Whissel has referred to visual effects emblems, the recurring motifs embodied by particular kinds of visual effect (the digital crowd, for instance) that carry a lot of the meaningful weight of a film’s thematic import. For Whissel, CGI creatures are always too alive, too much in constant motion, and “overcoded” to “compensate for their ontological differences”, i.e they have an excess of vitality to make up for their lack of human or organic qualities, using algorithmic gesticulation to cover up their lack of actual lifeforce. The vfx dinosaur is one of Whissel’s emblems, signifying the imminent threat of a monstrous (scientific), apocalyptic overload, but its meaning has changed over time. Since at least the release of Jurassic Park, digital dinosaurs have come to stand in for notions of scientific hubris and the Frankensteinian terrors of creatures created by man in defiance of God and his deific ilk. Dinosaurs did not serve these symbolic functions at the hands of Willis O’Brien, Ray Harryhausen, Jim Danforth and others in the many variations on the “Lost World” theme (adventurers discover a plateau, island or other isolated space where a zone of prehistory has been preserved against millions of years of evolution), which were more like the fantastical return to a prehistoric repressed than a prediction of a corrupt technoscientific complex overturning the natural order. The “bad science” version of filmic dinosaurs is undoubtedly inspired by the Jurassic Park movies’ use of genetic engineering as a McGuffin, but I like to think it is also an outgrowth of the proliferation of CGI; somehow the increasing facility for conjuring creatures on a computer stirs up issues of simulation and representation that parallel the concept of cloning. In that sense, we might conceivably read Jurassic World as a film about the problem of creating a spectacle that won’t run away from its creators and mess up all their hard work. But in case you were curious about how much the digital technologies had progressed since Jurassic Park III in 2001, I’d say they’ve been refined a lot, but little has fundamentally changed except for the almost total replacement of animatronics with CG, and using motion capture to allow actors to perform the roles of some the dinosaurs. Some the CG is also pretty coarse in places, especially in all of the shots involving the giant aquatic mosasaur, a big misjudgement of scale and perspective.
Jurassic_Park_sam_neill_T-REXJurassic Park (1993) is a difficult nostalgia object for me. I saw it in the first week of its release in 1993 and was bowled over. I can distinctly remember the prickly heat, the palpable tension in the cinema as the T-Rex sniffed out Alan Grant and the kids as they backed up against their overturned Jeep. Coincidentally, I was working at a Chrysler/Jeep showroom at the time, and remember trying to apply the Jurassic Park promotional stickers to couple of Cherokees: harder than it looks. I can recall the way the velociraptors were built up as a chilling offscreen threat, and that their eventual attack was seat-clenchingly frightening. But the film has diminished for me with every subsequent viewing. I can still admire its technical properties, and I still use it as an example in my teaching to illustrate how a visual effects set-piece can be structured. Compared to today’s summer blockbusters it is impressively patient, not just in the build-up to the collapse of the park’s systems and the ushering in of dinosauric mayhem, but in the construction of individual set-pieces (that T-Rex attack is long, and most of it involves calmly waiting for the pitter-patter … sorry, PITTER-PATTER of enormous feet. But I find Jurassic Park‘s technological discourse far too schematic and obvious: scenes where characters sit around tables and argue about the merits of cloning are infinitely less eloquent than the visual interventions in that debate by the dinosaurs themselves. In a world of climate change, economic meltdown and Tweeted beheadings, the idea of genetically engineering dinosaurs as an ethical tipping point for humankind now seems rather quaint.

I also became distracted by the nature/nurture question that the film never addresses: if the first generation of cloned dinosaurs had no parents, how did they learn all their behaviours? Why are these beasts not utterly delinquent? Were they reared with puppets, like condor chicks in captivity, and if so, when can we have an entire movie about that, please? In Jurassic World, Chris Pratt’s theories on how to raise and train velociraptors dips a toe into the idea of humans’ parenting responsibilities towards their surrogate monsters. But still the creatures show few signs of having been raised in captivity, despite the films’ half-hearted subtext that zoos may be creating unreal impressions of the natural world: as one character says, “you don’t want reality, you want a simulation you can control.” The dinosaurs we are shown in these films are always perfect specimens. I wanted Jurassic World to have more of a feel for the mundane realities of zoos. The smells, the cramped enclosures, bored animals, sick animals, mentally ruined by lifetimes of confinement. There’s a little energy behind that idea but not enough: the tech and the facilities at Jurassic World are all state of the art and implausibly advanced. In turn, Jurassic World feels very tightly honed, and near-phobically avoids innovation or surprise. This is a movie about chaos which has no chaos about it. This is why Colin Trevorrow was a good choice – his calling card, Safety Not Guaranteed is a faux-indie movie about shambolic, unsettled characters that is very tightly formulaic despite its quirkily fantastical ending.
Jurassic World Zara i-really-didnt-have-this-coming
I get mixed messages from Jurassic World, especially by the time we get into the pteranodon attack on a mass of soda-guzzling, tourists, which has such a maniacal glee to it that could have been guest-directed by Joe Dante. Are the crowds in the park some super rich elite? Are we supposed to delight in their hubris being punished? The film assures us that corporate and military types inevitably conspire to fuck things up for everyone else, and that they deserve their toothy deaths, but what about the visitors? Are we meant to applaud their destruction along with their bratty offspring? One particular character, whose only crime seems to have been not thinking children are awesome, suffers a ridiculously protracted and baroque death, fought over by a series of beasts. It’s either evidence that a subplot in which she did something monstrous was cut out, or the film really wants us to see what happens to women in heels and skirts who lack a maternal streak: a cautionary example for our heroine, who at the same moment is finding her protective heroine persona.
Bryce Dallas Howard in Jurassic World - Look, she's also holding a flare! I also wanted to see the filmmakers explore, for instance, how our understanding of dinosaurs, and their cultural reception was changed by their de-extinction. But here I go again, complaining that a film does what it wants to do and not what I want it to do. OK, fair point: the film’s response might simply be that humankind would quickly accept as mundane reality their new co-existence with dinosaurs. But I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask that by the fourth film in a series we should be expanding the ideas and developing the themes instead of repeating the same cyclical narrative of the park’s attractions being fought over by the same corrupt and vested interests. Another thing nagged me, especially given the global audience to which the film must surely be addressed, and from whom it will draw most of its revenue: how did the JW owners get away with hiring so few local workers? There’s little sense of this park being an actually situated location on South America. Oh, and Chris Pratt riding through the woods with raptors is the new Shia Labeouf swinging through trees with monkeys. Finally, it’s worth noting that for all their emphasis on digital spectacle, when you really need a dinosaurs to die, affectingly, in close up, you call the animatronics dept. The end. I’m done complaining about blockbusters that are adequate to the task but unable to cut loose and thrill.
Jurassic-World-Raptor-Bike-Chase Chris Pratt

Pacific Rim

Final_Four_Jaegers, Pacific Rim

One of the signature images of the contemporary action blockbuster is of human operators manoeuvering artificial bodies. Whether it’s Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) in Avatar, operating a lanky blue alien chassis while napping in a metal cocoon, Wikus (Sharlto Copley) in District 9 in a cyborgic war-machine suit, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) operating his hi-tech Iron Man suit, or the combatants of the Jaeger programme in Pacific Rim working the mind-and-body controls of their gargantuan monster-punching robots, we are accustomed to seeing the spectacular visual effects doing the heavy lifting while the human performers, seen in occasional cutaways, take up subordinate roles. This is partly a way of finding something for the people to do while the focus is on the big machines that are the agents of action in these movies, but it is also the visual logic of films dependent on motion-capture to fuel their digital heroes: these are films that celebrate technology, but remain anxious that those technologies are inscribed with the markers of human input that make films about machines relatable and engaging. Continue reading

Fragment #31: Fay Wray to the King, by Judith Rechter

Dear Kong
Some have slurred our relationship
Some have called it unnatural;
Some have said I’m a tart;
Some have said you’re an ape.

Dear Kong
Rumor, and rumormongers, old farts.
It’s what you say that hurts.
It’s when you criticise your little Fay that hurts.
Not rumor, rumormongers, and good taste.
When you speak of splitting, instead of loving,
When you talk of hating, instead of copulating,
When you rant of not relating, instead of knowing,
That’s what hurts
Your little Fay,
Your own sweet flirt,
Your tiny Miss Wray..

They have been wrong –
As if miscegenetic pleasure was a freak of nature,
As if I was not easily satisfied or well supplied;
If only they could touch your hairy rump and tool –
They’d realise I wasn’t such a fool.

Dear Kong
You are my beast;
Devour my nice white body if you please;
Don’t act like a cowardly golliwog
Or use philosophical doublespeak;
Save me from the terrible pterodactyl;
I’m agog at your marvelous soul
And adore the hairs on your toes
And cylinder which towers above
The Empire State, though they say
You have torn four sexes to shreds
And had other women in bed..

Dear Kong

Save your adorable Fay;
Miss Wray who adores you
And loves you, is true to you.
Affectionately, YOUR QUEEN

Judith Rechter

Fragment #24: The Invention of Godzilla

[In this extract from his book Eiji Tsuburaya: Master of Monsters, August Ragone describes the development of the eponymous monster for the original Japanese Gojira (1954), better known to international audiences as Godzilla.]

“They … wanted the film to reverberate with current geopolitical, national, and social concerns, as well as evoking the spectre of the Tokyo Fire Raids and the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They agreed they should approach the film in earnest, treating it as they would any serious, real-life subject, rather than as a ‘monster movie’. The monster’s attack on Tokyo could be seen as an incarnation of war itself, and [executive producer, Iwao] Mori thought the creature should carry the physical scars of H-bomb tests.

Originally, [Eiji] Tsuburaya wanted to bring the nuclear nightmare to life using stop-motion effects, as King Kong had been made. When asked how long it would take to produce such effects, Tsuburaya told Mori it would take seven years to shoot all of the effects required by the screenplay, based on the current staff and infrastructure at Toho. Of course this was out of the question – the film had to be in theatres by the end of the year. Tsuburaya decided that his department’s considerable expertise in miniature building and visual effects photography could accommodate working with a live actor in a monster costume instead of using stop-motion techniques. Mori and Tanaka agreed and gave him the green light to proceed with planning and construction.

Planning was a painstaking process. To ensure that things would run smoothly, [director Ishiro] Honda and [writer Takeo Murata] would present scene ideas to Tsuburaya, who would tell them whether his team could pull them off. (More often than not, he told them he could.) Problematic scenes or shots were rooted out during the extensive storyboarding process, helping prevent costly mistakes during shooting.

[…] To design the creature, Kayama suggested popular mangaka (comic book artist) Wasuke Abe, who had illustrated several of Kayama’s juvenile adventure stories and worked for numerous publishers and in many genres. Abe’s most famous work was Kenya Boy (Shonen Keniya), written by his brother, whose pen name was Shoji Yamagawa. The story, about an orphaned Japanese youth lost in Africa, was more Lost World than Tarzan, set in a land alive with prehistoric creatures. When Abe conferred with the Godzilla staff, he brought with him the current edition of Kenya Boy, which featured an encounter with a Tyrannosaurus Rex. This would prove to have a decisive influence on the production design of Godzilla. While Abe’s designs were ultimately rejected – they were more abstract and humanoid than animal, and the beast’s head was rendered like a mushroom cloud – he was retained to help draw the hundreds of storyboards required for the film.

Tanaka, Tsuburaya, and Honda decided to focus on an original dinosaur of their own design. Inspired by a Life magazine pictorial on prehistoric times featuring paintings by Rudolph Zallinger and by the celebrated Czech dinosaur artist Zdenek Burian, production designer Akira Watanabe combined attributes of the Tyrannosaurus Rex and the Iguanodon, and added the plates of the Stegosaurus. To bring Watanabe’s drawings to life, Tsuburaya contacted his old colleague from The War at Sea From Hawaii to Malaya, Teizo Toshimitsu. Toshimitsu took Watanabe’s drawings and began to render the creature in clay. After experimenting with scaly, warty, and alligator-skin textures, the staff agreed on the alligator version.

Toshimitsu and the staff of the visual-effects department began construction of a Godzilla suit for an actor to wear. The first version of the suit was built over a cloth-and-wire frame and layered with hot rubber, which was melted in a steel drum and applied in layers over the frame. This resulted in a heavy and immobile costume in which the actor could barely move, and so it was scrapped.

A second suit, while still incredibly heavy at 220 pounds, allowed more freedom of movement, and became the final costume. The first suit was cut into two sections and used for scenes requiring only a partial shot of the monster, and Toshimitsu also created a smaller-scale, mechanical, hand-operated puppet that could spray a stream of mist from its maw, to simulate the creature’s nuclear breath in close-ups. A young actor and stuntman, Haruo Nakajima, was given the part of Godzilla (a role he would play a number of times in a long career that found him frequently cast as a monster), alternating with fellow thespian Katsumi Tezuka, which allowed production to continue when Nakajima needed relief from the physicality demanding part.

[…] The first day of shooting miniature photography involved Godzilla’s destruction of the National Diet Building, Japan’s Parliament, which was built in 1/33 scale so that Godzilla would appear to tower over the structure. They decided to let Tezuka play the scene, Nakajima later recalled, but he fell flat and hit his jaw square on the miniature set, ruining the shot and necessitating retakes, this time with Nakajima in tight close-ups because Tsuburaya did not have time to rebuild the set.

The punishing role would bruise and scar both men. Stuffed into the stifling suit, roasting alive under the studio lights, they suffered from heat exhaustion and blackouts, and found themselves breathing fumes from burning rags soaked in kerosene, used to give the impression that Tokyo was ablaze. More than a cup of sweat was poured out of the suit after each scene was shot, and Nakajima ended up losing twenty pounds during the course of the production. On one of his rare days off, Nakajima received word that Tezuka and several crew members had nearly been electrocuted when a live wire fell into the indoor pool set. While using live actors was less time-consuming than tackling stop-motion animation, it was far from an easy shortcut, and involved long, arduous hours, often all-nighters.”

Picture of the Week #70: Krassimir Terziev’s Double King Kong

These two paintings come from Bulgarian artist Krassimir Terziev‘s ‘Missing Scenes’ series. His work often reconsiders and appropriates the history of cinema, as in Double King Kong (2007), which collapses the temporal gap between Kong’s 1933 and 1976 imaginings, to show the big ape doomed to repeat the same tragic ending against the backdrop of an indifferent city. The Fall of King Kong (2007, below) is, hopefully, self-explanatory and poignant:

Fangoria Ads


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Don’t ask why I decided to compile a gallery and slideshow of advertisements gathered from early issues of the horror magazine Fangoria. I don’t have a good answer. Rummaging through back issues looking for articles about prosthetics, special effects make-up and puppetry, I became a little distracted by the advertisements for video-cassettes (look how expensive it was, in the 1980s, to buy your own VHS tapes!), masks, books, t-shirts and gloopy, gory make-up effects. Ostensibly a journal celebrating the inventive evisceration of the human body, Fangoria actually comes across as a cheery community centre for enthusiasts of rubbery prosthetics and homemade horrors. You’ll find some familiar monsters in this gallery, and some lovely offers to help you simulate demonic possession, or a bit of  limb-lopping, gut chewing dismemberment in the comfort of your own home. Avoid if more than a little squeamish. Otherwise, enjoy a bit of 80s nostalgia. Some of these offers may no longer be available, though. Sorry.

Picture of the Week #51: Jack Arnold

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This blog has seen more than its fair share of monstery movie posters, but it’s Jack Arnold’s (1916 – 1992) birthday today, or at least it was when I wrote this, and still is (just!) in some places far West of here. Anyway, it’s a flimsy excuse to liven up my blog with a batch of posters and images from some of Arnold’s best known films like Tarantula, Creature from the Black Lagoon and The Incredible Shrinking Man. The sensational imagery and hyperbole of the marketing campaigns is matched in the films themselves not by a similarly one-note gigantism, but with a considered delivery of that premise. Well, maybe not Tarantula, which is about a massive spider, but The Incredible Shrinking Man is quite a mournful, agonising account of the effects on its protagonist of an ongoing process of ensmallening (it’s a perfectly cromulent word). Plus, it has one of the most extraordinary, unforgettable endings in all science fiction cinema, which I won’t reveal here.

Initially an actor, Arnold’s career path was diverted when he enlisted in the Air Corps after Pearl Harbor:

As luck would have it they sent me to join a unit that was making a film produced and directed by Robert Flaherty. Now Flaherty was a kind of idol of mine so I decided to tell him the truth. I went up to this giant of an Irishman and said, look, I’ve got something to tell you–I’m an actor, not a cameraman. But I told him that I thought I would be able to handle the job. And I guessed he liked the fact that I had told him the truth instead of trying to fake my way through it and he kept me on.

After I got out of the Air Force a buddy of mine who had been in my squadron said, let’s go into business together. So we started a documentary film company. We made a number of documentaries over the years – for the State Department, the Ford Motor Company and so on, and we won some prizes. Then I made a film for the International Ladies Garment Workers Union called These Hands. It was a feature spanning fifty years of the union which was good enough to be released theatrically, and it got very good reviews. I was even nominated for an Academy Award which brought me to the attention of Hollywood. Universal gave me a contract with them as a director and I started working for them in 1950.

2010: Moby Dick

[Read more of my Moby Dick and other whale-related posts here.]

I haven’t heard much news about Mike Barker’s forthcoming TV movie of Moby Dick, except that it is still in postproduction. There are small poster images here and here. Assuming that Timur Bekmambetov’s supernatural adaptation is a long way off (he has three other films in production in the meantime, including his Tim Burton collaboration Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter), the next “adaptation” in this recent flurry of Moby Dick films (unless Danny Glover gets his Ahab in first with Dragon Fire) might prove to be Asylum’s 2010: Moby Dick. Asylum have carved out a distinctive niche as the most brazen producers and distributors of exploitation movies on the market, riding a current wave of self-congratulatory affection for trash by making films that are more fun to imagine and anticipate than they are to watch (such as their run of marine monster movies Mega Shark vs Giant Octopus, Mega Shark vs Crocosaurus, Mega Piranha), or piggybacking mainstream blockbusters with their timely titles including 2012: Supernova, Snakes on a Train, The 18 Year-Old VIrgin, Allan Quatermain and the Temple of Skulls, or Paranormal Entity. So, one can only imagine what they’re going to do with Herman Melville’s novel, apart from the obvious trick of hurling a big sea mammal at a big ship. No trailers are available yet, but you can find some images at Asylum’s website here. And read more at Live for Films, io9, or Cinefantastique.

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