Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Jurassic World: a Wannabe Horror Flick with a Mediocre Monster

Jurassic World

Director: Colin Trevorrow
Stars: Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Ty Sympkins, Nick Robinson

Like I said in my earlier review of Godzilla (2014), I’m not really one for creature features, but the Jurassic Park franchise will always have a special place in my heart. To get into the spirit of this movie review, I turned on the John Williams station on iHeart Radio.

In Jurassic World, we follow Zach (Robinson) and Gray (Sympkins), brothers who visit the rebuilt, reinvented, and revamped dinosaur theme park. Claire (Howard) oversees the park and all its guests—including her nephews, Zach and Gray—and makes sure the park is financially successful. The park’s success depends on new attractions, and Claire calls on Owen (Pratt) to consult on Jurassic World’s newest member: Indominus Rex, a scarier, cooler dinosaur (kind of).
If you know anything about the older movies in this franchise, you know that Jurassic Park was the brainchild of billionaire John Hammond, and, as we remember, Hammond “spared no expense!” The same is true for this new park—hamster balls that carry guests through the dinosaurs’ pen, trackers embedded in all the dinosaurs to track their movements, and even a genetically-engineered killing machine dinosaur! Oh, wait…probably should have left out that last one.

I love this movie franchise, but at some points in this movie, things got a little ridiculous. I was immediately reminded of a stand-up comedy special from Eddie Izzard who explained Napoleon and Hitler’s plans for invading Russia (viewer discretion advised—language):

"I've got a better idea, got a better idea...OH, it's the same idea, it's the same idea."

After Hammond’s original Jurassic Park was decimated by dinosaurs, one would probably think, “You know, we probably shouldn’t do this again. That was pretty bad.” After the events of both Jurassic Park: The Lost World and Jurassic Park III, wouldn’t somebody have thought, “You know, this was a really stupid idea, what with playing God and all. What a terrible idea.” Now, we seemingly have Hammond’s replacement, Simon Masrani, running the show and providing the funding, and he even says, “The key to a happy life is to accept you are never in control.” Apparently, a happy life would be to accept that you’re never in control—and in doing so, you’d not get eaten by a genetically-engineered killing machine dinosaur.

I must say, however, that the killing machine dinosaur was a bit underwhelming. In Jurassic Park (1993), I remember how terrifying the Tyrannosaurus Rex was, and Indominus Rex didn’t give me that feeling. Steven Spielberg built the suspense surrounding the T-rex using a lot of sounds—I’m sure we all remember the thundering steps in the background as the camera zoomed in on the water rippling in the cup, and who could forget that piercing roar? The Indominus Rex honestly wasn’t all that memorable, and I thought it looked like a Tyrannosaurus Rex with some spines on its back and a longer body. Whereas Jurassic Park’s main monster will forever be burned into my childhood memories, the Indominus Rex of Jurassic World was pretty forgettable.

My partner told me about her viewing experience of Jurassic World, and she noted that the Indominus Rex had some weird special abilities that make it the perfectly-engineered killing machine that “sparing no expense” can buy. I totally agree with her there—the abilities of this baddie dinosaur feel almost tacked on. The geneticist who engineered the Indominus was told to make a “cooler” dinosaur to make Jurassic World a relevant theme park again—guys, you have dinosaurs. (How is this NOT relevant? Jurassic World even featured a dinosaur petting zoo and triceratops rides! Guys, come on!) In any case, these abilities aren’t really explained until later in the movie—the Indominus Rex is a hybrid of multiple animals, and it apparently inherited all of the strengths of those animals, such as camouflaging. The Indominus needed to be overpowered so that it was scary, but because it’s explained so late in film, it’s almost like the writers were saying, “Oh yeah, we forgot to explain why the monster can camouflage…Because we spliced it with a cuttlefish? Yeah, that’s good enough.” Had they explained early on that we spliced this monster together with Animals X, Y, and Z, then discovered that it could do these things, that would have fixed things, I think.

Before the movie had even come out, a buddy asked how I reconciled the Indominus Rex being both female and monstrous, saying that I should watch the Jurassic World trailer and then interpret from that. I can’t formulate an interpretation of a character’s gender when a two-hour movie is boiled down into a two-minute trailer, and at the time, this was the only answer I gave.

Now that I’ve seen the movie, the Indominus Rex had a more masculine construction.. It was a big deal in Jurassic Park that all the dinosaurs were female, because “Life, uh, finds a way”—when humans meddle, problems arise, such as the destruction of the whole theme park. I suppose same theme of gender follows to Jurassic World—the geneticist specifically notes that the Indominus was not bred, but engineered. It seems like this film’s context sets up the idea that genetic engineering and science are masculine activities, and in the real world, that still seems to be the gendered stereotype (though it is just a stereotype). Ergo, the manufacturing of the Indominus Rex in the Jurassic World lab sets the character up as masculine. This masculine construction is pushed further when Hoskins, a corporate big-shot and military visionary (or so he thinks himself) suggests that the Indominus Rex could be used as an asset in warfare: the dinosaur can camouflage itself to hide even from the most advanced detection systems, making it the ultimate stealth operative (except for, you know, being a 50’ long dinosaur). Because the military is so often couched in masculine terms, it seems that the gender construction of the Indominus Rex is masculine.

If we’re talking about Jurassic World with a gendered lens, there’s definitely some sexism going on here, and that’s been a prevailing review of this film. Several people have equated Claire with the archetypical stiff-shirt, career-good-family-bad female character, and as soon as Owen steps on the scene—a man who acts as a “life-force,” Joss Whedon said—then she changes her act and falls into a traditional gender role. As soon as I read some of these reviews, I began nodding, because a lot of if seems pretty spot-on. Claire doesn’t evoke the same level of bad-ass as Dr. Ellie Satler in Jurassic Park, and that’s pretty clear throughout the whole movie. She has a moment or two of breaking traditional gender roles, but that’s about it. I was pretty disappointed in that—going back to my post about Godzilla, I don’t really see much for strong female characters or feminism, for that matter.

It was a good movie—don’t get me wrong. It had action, the pacing was pretty good, and the visuals were spectacular. I also appreciated the subtle and not-so-subtle nods toward Spielberg, such as the younger actors as main characters and the use of shadows throughout the film. Jurassic World got me right in the nostalgia as soon as John Williams’ iconic theme music came on in the theater, but it also showed some invention to the franchise. The movie definitely sets up a sequel, and you’ll definitely find me at the movies when it happens.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road, a High-Octane Feminist Ride

After an absurdly-long hiatus (in which I finished off my master’s degree in English and found a job teaching college English), another post! Seriously, it’s been a year and two days since my last post in this film blog, though I’ve watched numerous films. I even taught a film class this past semester! Thus, it seems apt that I restart this project of mine.

Mad Max: Fury Road
Director: George Miller
Stars: Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult

What I originally thought was a reboot, Mad Max: Fury Road begins with our hero, Max Rockatansky (Hardy), being taken prisoner. He’s taken in chains to the Citadel, a stronghold that’s built into the side of a group of mesas in the post-apocalyptic world. The Citadel is the property of Immortan Joe, a warlord whose face is always covered by a razor-toothed respirator. In a flurry of action, Max escapes the Citadel with Furiosa (Theron) on the “War Rig”—a souped-up, double-engined semi-truck covered with as many pointy thing as there are hairs in my beard. Max discovers that Furiosa is attempting to smuggle Immortan Joe’s slave-wives—what he calls his “breeders”—away from the Citadel to a safe place called the Green Land. High-octane, stylized violence in a desert wasteland? It’s going to be a bumpy ride. (Don’t forget your seatbelts, kids!)

The first thing I want to address is the film’s focus, which doesn’t necessarily lie with its title character. Rather, the story focuses more so on Furiosa’s quest to get Immortan Joe’s slave-wives to freedom. On a recent forum, I read one person who griped that the movie was called “Mad Max,” not “Mad Max and Furiosa.” Another person complained that the story isn’t even about Max, and that he’s simply thrust into Furiosa’s story. This seems like a misunderstanding of Mad Max’s character, however, since Max is essentially nomadic. If we think back to the original Mad Max: The Road Warrior, Mel Gibson’s character was set up to not belong anywhere. Even the name “the Road Warrior” suggests a level of transitoriness—Max is always on the move, and that can be seen in the opening of Fury Road, as Max stands alone next to his car. That’s basically what his character does—he tags along and helps in other people’s stories, and that kind of character can mean a lot of sequels, since writers can treat the character episodically. As soon as Max finishes helping Furiosa, he can be back on the road and looking for another adventure in which to partake.

The biggest item on the agenda of Fury Road is gender—and it seems like some people are getting hung up on it. Take, for example, this interviewer who asks Tom Hardy if this is supposed to be a “man’s movie”:

On the surface, Fury Road may be just that—a “man’s movie”—but the film implies that this post-apocalyptic wasteland is the result of hypermasculinity. Visually, Immortan Joe is a hypermasculine character: between his hair and his body, he seems far larger than nearly all of his followers, and his muscles are highlighted by his clear, plastic armor plastered with various medals and ribbons from military triumphs. The other two warlords we see in the film are also portrayed as hypermasculine: “the Bullet Farmer” wears a coif made of gun-belts, again bring his military conquests to the forefront; “the People Eater” portrays his hypermasculinity through wealth, as he adorns himself with gold chains and drives a Cadillac-bodied semi-truck. Three of the most socially-powerful characters in the film achieved their position via hypermasculine practices, it seems.

Looking specifically at Immortan Joe, his treatment of those he deems as his inferiors—men, women, and children—shows him as hypermasculine. Joe controls the flow of water throughout the Citadel, and the unwashed masses who live in the dirt below the stronghold are only alive because of his gracious dispensing of the water…by dumping it on them. To Joe, these people are his property, and this is exactly how he treats his wives—especially how he keeps his wives locked up in a vault to use at his disposal. In addition to being locked in vault, their sexuality is also under lock and key, as each of the wives wears a metal chastity belt—a belt with spikes where any mate (besides Joe, of course) would get his member stuck in a very gruesome way. Joe’s feels the need to protect these women, but not because they’re people, no. They’re his property, and Joe’s only reason for keeping them is because they can carry on his perfect, patriarchal, patrilineal family.

There are plenty of strong feminist characters in Fury Road, and that made me really happy. (If you look back at my post about 2014’s Godzilla, it really was a breath of fresh air to have so many strong female characters. Where Immortan Joe see his “breeders” as little more than incubators for his potentially-patrilineal offspring, these women explore a newfound freedom as soon as they’re clear of the Citadel (and as soon as those clunky chastity belts are off). If I understood the movie correctly, it was actually one of the brides who first planned the escape with Furiosa. As the women scream at Joe during one of several visually-stimulating car chase scenes, “We are not property.” I found it interesting that the production team brought on a writer from The Vagina Monologues as a consultant, just to make sure that the female characters were portrayed well; I’ve never heard of another movie doing that, and I thought it was a nice touch. On the topic of strong feminist characters, do I even need to talk about Furiosa, the badass War Rig driver with the mechanical arm?

Overall, this was a hell of a movie. It’s full of action, car chases, and fight scenes, and the pacing of the movie feels good—it doesn’t seem like it drags out or rushes through anything. Visually, this is a stunning movie; I read on IMDb that director George Miller wanted the cinematography to be as colorful as possible to set Fury Road apart from other apocalyptic movies where the colors are all washed out (see The Road, and you’ll understand). The acting is all on-point, and it was engaging all the way through. I would highly recommend this one. Seeing a Valiant Charger mounted on tank treads is all fine and good, but having a movie with this much depth makes for a great experience.