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

How Special Effects Work #5: Mary Pickford Kisses Herself

This is the latest in a long-running, very occasional series of posts about special effects but this is the first time (I can’t promise it will be the last) where my starting point is a trick I can’t explain. Of course, I know that the shot (see above) from Little Lord Fauntleroy, in which Mary Pickford, playing two roles, appears to kiss herself, was created using a double exposure, but I don’t know exactly how they got it to look so seamless. I would be grateful for any inside information, and interested in any speculative theories, about how this magnificent special effect was achieved. Much of this post was derived from out-takes of research for a chapter on special/visual effects in the silent era, for a forthcoming volume of the Behind the Silver Screen series from Rutgers University Press, which should be available some time next year. Continue reading

The Spielberg Hundred #005: The Magic of Special Effects

This is the complete screen recording of a paper I gave last month at a conference in Montreal, The Magic of Special Effects: Cinema, Technology, Reception, 10 November 2013. Aside from the final plenary talk by Tom Gunning, I was the last speaker at this intensive, 6-day conference, so I will plead a little bit of fatigue and befrazzlement; I mostly resisted the urge to rewrite my paper over the course of the week as I heard so many stimulating ideas from the other speakers, but I will no doubt feed some of that stimulation back into the next draft of my paper. What I presented was an early sketch of my chapter on Spielberg for a forthcoming book, and thanks to helpful comments and questions from other delegates, I have a better idea of what I need to do to develop it into a longer, stronger essay. I hope you enjoy this snapshot of a work-in-progress, but let me know in the comments section if you have suggestions for improvement. Although the finished chapter will explore in more historical depth the relationship between Spielberg and Industrial Light and Magic, what I presented here is an attempt to characterise what Spielberg does with visual effects set-pieces, and how the audience is embedded in a “spectacular venue” for the presentation of marvellous things. 

Gravity: The Weight of Water

Gravity Sandra Bullock

[This post contains spoilers for Gravity, but since I seem to be the last person in the universe to see the film, that shouldn’t be too much of a problem…]

By the time I got around to seeing Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity, so much had already been said. It received rapturous reviews, then a bunch of criticisms of its scientific plausibility, then prompted, or at least chimed with, talk about space debris, roused the obligatory Oscar “buzz” (i.e. somebody somewhere thought it might win a couple of awards), and generally came on like an end-of-year blockbuster that showed the summer how thrills and spectacle should have been handled. So, while I feel like I want to write a little something about the film, I’m not too keen to burden you with a retread of opinions you might already have found elsewhere.

Continue reading

Fragment #37: Jack Conway on Romance and Illusion

In case you thought complaining about how special effects are just not as exciting or authentic as real stunts, spectacle and peril was a new thing, here is an article from a 1933 issue of the Hollywood Reporter, in which film director Jack Conway worries that the spread of camera trickery might be depleting the excitement of film. One problem he notes, is that audiences have just become too wise to the illusions, and just aren’t fooled any more. Conway Hollywood Reporter[I found this article using Lantern, the amazing new search tool for the Media History Digital Library. It’s a great way to search for film and media articles from public domain journals. Read David Bordwell’s appreciation here.]

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 #36: Suing Spielberg

Twister Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton

In 1998, writer Stephen Kessler sued the makers of Twister (Steven Spielberg, Michael Crichton, Warner Bros and Universal studios), claiming that they had plagiarised his script “Catch the Wind”. At the same time, Dreamworks was being sued by Barbara Chase- Riboud who accused them of borrowing extensively from her novel Echo of Lions in the production of Amistad. Kessler alleged that he sent his script to Spielberg’s agency in 1989, and later found out that it had been adapted by Michael Crichton (who denied ever hearing about Kessler or Catch the Wind) to make Twister. The case went to a US District Court, but Kessler ultimately failed to win any compensation. At one point, Spielberg himself was cross examined, and the text below is extracted from the court transcripts. I wonder if he would still stand by his ruthlessly “pragmatic” assessment of the value of a script to the success of a film. Screenwriters, cinematographers, and composers may want to look away… Continue reading

Peter Tscherkassky’s Instructions

I started writing this post about the films of Peter Tscherkassky nearly three years ago, and never finished it: that happens sometimes, if I don’t have time to complete a bit of writing, or I lose my train of thought, or if I come across an article that says exactly what I wanted to say. I can’t remember what happened to this one, but I was reminded of the unfinished piece when I attended a talk by Tscherkassky at the newly opened EYE Film Institute in Amsterdam. It was the first time I’d seen the films projected on film, and it reignited an interest that had begun for me after seeing them on DVD and trying to use some of them in my teaching. Listening to him explain the incredibly painstaking methods he uses to create his films made me think the least I could do was knock out a few words in response. Continue reading

Digesting Hugo

These are some preliminary thoughts from a first viewing of Martin Scorsese’s Hugo. I’m in the process of writing a chapter on representations of Georges Méliès for a forthcoming book, so this will be one of my primary texts, and I’ll need to watch it again. I thought I would assemble some notes as I go along. As a result, this might read like a string of disjointed observations at times, but hopefully there will be some points of interest for you along the way. I’m happy to discuss the film, too, and I’m aware that it has divided moviegoers in a way that it didn’t necessarily divide the critics. A quick perusal (which is all anyone should usually have to endure) of the IMDB comments page will give evidence of popular objections to the film. It was looking like a weighty flop on its domestic release, but Hugo will probably just about claw back its $170million budget  (the best evidence that this greenlit at a time when it looked like 3D was an infallible cash-cow) when the totals are added up from international markets. So, please leave me a comment if you have an opinion about this film.  Continue reading

Spectacular Attractions Video Podcast #001

This week, I present the first of what I hope will develop into a regular series of short video podcasts. Last year, I experimented with ten audio podcasts, most of which adapted posts previously published on this blog. As much as I enjoyed making those shows, I missed being able to show images and clips, so this is an opportunity to refer very directly to particular scenes from films; sometimes I’ll analyse a single clip, and other times the subject will be more of a video essay like this first entry, which revisits a post about Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. You can read the original entry here, but I really wanted to start with something familiar to get used to the editing software. I’m using iMovie for now, but might progress to something more complex if needed. This equipment serves my purposes for now.

I plan to follow this with two more short videos about 2001, and then a broader variety of films. If time allows, new video podcasts will appear every fortnight. Feedback on episode #001 would be greatly appreciated:

Spectacular Attractions Video Podcast #001: 2001: A Space Odyssey – This Way Up from Dan North on Vimeo.