Jurassic World: How to Train your Dinosaurs


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[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

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345-Word Reviews: San Andreas


If you find Roland Emmerich’s movies too slow and subtle, then San Andreas might be for you, a b-for-bloated B-movie in which no sequence of dialogue is allowed to go uninterrupted by the shaking of the Earth, as if the cast were being warned to keep all conversations brief and cut to the spectacle. With none of the calculated, faux-shitty incompetence of a Sharknado, and none of the self-deprecating humour or satirical mischief of a 2012, this is a genre film stripped down to the basics.

When an earthquake divorces San Francisco from the mainland and pummels it with an escalating series of aftershocks, tsunamis and plummeting house prices, San Andreas compiles a bunch of Fisher-Price symbolism and fortune-cookie plotting: from the start, you know that the estranged couple will be reunited, her smarmy executive new boyfriend will die a deserving, cowardly death, and The Rock will get to save his one surviving daughter and heal past wounds, because the biggest myth of the Hollywood disaster movie is that natural disasters, rather than randomly annihilating them, bring families together.
This pro-family message is just a pose. For the most part, San Andreas couldn’t give a fuck about any families other than the pretty one in its plot synopsis. We’re expected to cheer when Ioan Gruffudd gets his comeuppance, swatted by a container ship, ignoring the thousands of innocents standing alongside him on the Golden Gate Bridge as it takes the full force of the same preposterously large wave that The Rock surfs across in a commandeered boat, the latest in a string of vehicles he uses to fly over or zoom past the masses he might have been duty-bound to protect, seeking out instead his needle daughter in the Frisco haystack. This family of survivalists keeps all the best information to themselves and repeatedly ignore the plight of others around them. The resilience of the heroes is in inverse proportion to the frangibility of the background extras. The message to the earthquake dead in this film is that they didn’t try, fight, or drive hard enough.  [That’s not entirely fair, because the signature image of this film is of men with injured girls in their arms, because some types of saving will always be more OK than others.]

Under the Skin Randomised


Scarlett Johansson in Under the SkinI had to ask myself some personal questions recently, when it occurred to me that I had put Under the Skin and Holy Motors on consecutive weeks of a Film Appreciation course. I love both films, but I can see how they would be divisive in similar ways: I wanted to end the course with a couple of contentious films that would challenge students’ ideas about what cinema should do, and these are fairly accessible examples of feature-length experiments in narration, identification, performance and genre, all ideas that had been pertinent to the course (Holy Motors was also the set film for a week on cinephilia, since it strikes me as a film which targets the prone and yearning minds of a certain kind of viewer pining for an old-fashioned form of passionate and philosophical film about film). It’s also a good exercise to ask students to explain opaque films with reference to what they do know about film form, style and technique, showing how this kind of analysis can unlock and illuminate the meanings they have been used to communicate.

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Don’t Look Away Now


What’s with the current trend for movie posters where the hero (and sometimes the villain) gazes moodily away from the viewer? It’s as if Robocop can’t meet our gaze, or Brad Pitt is ashamed to look us in the eye, or Dwayne Johnson doesn’t want us to see him in his Hercules outfit. It could represent something of the of the recent cliche of the tormented hero, the agonising responsibilities of being responsible for other people’s lives, or just a general lazy me-too-ism of graphic design. But like the trope of turning one’s back from a couple of years ago, this trend looks like it will run for a while. I look forward to this little motif hitting peak shoegaze around about the time of the pre-release publicity posters for Superman vs Batman. They’ll both be shiftily averting their eyes from us. I plan to return the favour.

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

Naomi Watts Watch: Diana


I don’t sleep well on planes. But I don’t like watching films on those tiny dim screens they give you on long flights. So, I only watch films that I wouldn’t normally go out of my way to see: anything else, I wait for an opportunity to watch it under better conditions. That’s why, on a recent return journey from the Philippines, I ended up, bleary-eyed between timezones, watching Diana. I had twelve hours to kill, and this movie barely maimed two of them. Regular readers of this blog will know that I really like Naomi Watts, but following her acting career is like supporting your local, lower-league football team: the loyalty is taken for granted, and you know from past glories that there is greatness there, but you have to watch a number of crushing, humiliating defeats every once in a while. Continue reading

The Noir Instinct


Humphrey Bogart The Maltese Falcon[I recently completed an essay on film noir references/influences in the Ghost in the Shell franchise, for inclusion in a forthcoming book on noir in East Asian cinema. In the introduction, I wrote a lengthy section arguing that film noir is almost entirely a critical construct, brought to life by the convenient way in which it helps us to group together a disparate group of films and analyse them under a similar brand as if they represent some collective response to their social contexts. Much of this lengthy introduction was not really necessary, as the book’s authors had already built most of the terminological discussion into their introductory chapter. In the final version, then, most of what follows has been cut out so that my chapter cuts more quickly to the case, but I thought the longer version, despite being disjointed in places, might be of some interest as a standalone blogpost. I’ve added a few bits of new text to clarify some points, make it all less formal, and to round off the argument at the end.] 

For as long as I’ve been teaching and researching film, the term ‘film noir’ has been cropping up regularly, often applied loosely as an adjectival phrase in students’ essays (‘in a film noir style’, ‘noirish lighting’ etc.). One could easily get the impression that everyone knows what ‘noir’ is, and that everybody agrees on what it is, and that we’re all referring to the same thing when we say ‘noir’. To an extent, that’s true. It would be disingenuous to suggest that I didn’t know what you were referring to whenever you drop a couple of ‘noirs’ into the conversation. The difficulty of studying film noir is in the capaciousness of its definitions, the heterogeneity of an object of study that is supposed to describe a generic coherence. There are just so many films labeled as noir, and so many differences between them. Steve Neale has described the peculiar tenacity of ‘noir’ as a word rather than as a recognizable genre, calling it ‘a phenomenon whose unity and coherence are presumed in the single term used to label them rather than demonstrated through any systematic, empirical analysis’.[i] The invocation of the word therefore operates talismanically: once it is uttered in reference to a particular film, noir becomes a constructing force that grafts its interpretive codes onto the film text. Continue reading

Chris Morris: Graphics Content


Chris Morris in Brass EyeNo Known Cure[This is an edited extract from “‘Only This Can Make it a News’: The Language of News Media”, in James Leggott & Jamie Sexton (eds.) No Known Cure: The Comedy of Chris Morris. London: BFI/Palgrave, 2013. In this essay I analyse the use of graphics, idents, and title sequences in the news parodies of satirist Chris Morris. In this section, I discuss the title sequences that begin The Day Today and Brass Eye.]

Station logos and programme insignia serve connotative as well as nominative functions; they iconically refer to the names of things, but their designs also activate meaningful associations for viewers. The graphic design template of each show is firmly established in their title sequences. John Ellis has analysed the Day Today title sequence, noting that it is characterised by ‘a sense of excess of meaning, of heady overstatement within familiar forms’; it exaggerates the tropes and clichés of the opening of a news show.[i]

A montage of library footage filtered through digital surface simulations show the multiple foci of the programme (politics, war, celebrities, sport) in a mixed arena of metallic, granite and liquid structures that fluctuate between solidity and fluidity: the design connotes encyclopedic versatility, the image speaks of confusion. Continue reading

Spectacular Attractions Update


Ghost in the Shell Matoko KusanagiRegular readers, or anyone who has stopped by expecting some recent posts, will have noticed that things have been slow around here this past year. This is for a number of reasons: last summer, my second daughter was born, and having two young children around the house is very distracting, and leaves little time for thinking coherent thoughts, let alone writing them down (kudos to all the writers who do actually manage this – it’s not as if all parents stop being able to write). I’ve also been working, teaching courses at Webster University, a graduate seminar at Leiden University, and last month I started a new job as a projects office for LIBER Europe, the Association of European Research Libraries. Continue reading

345-Word Reviews: Only God Forgives


Only God Forgives Ryan GoslingFollowing the popular and critical success of Drive, Ryan Gosling reteams with director Nicolas Winding Refn for a film that is both more and less of the same: more vengeance, torture, blows to the head, and less movement, less dialogue, less significance. From its stately depiction of a neon-and-bokeh Bangkok (shot by Eyes Wide Shut‘s Larry Smith), to its hyper-Freudian, return-to-the-womb conclusion (cribbed from George Bataille’s Ma mère), Only God Forgives is a great-looking but stilted drama, painfully obvious, studiously enigmatic, and boringly sadistic.  Continue reading