Jurassic World brings the franchise roaring back

In the first half hour of Jurassic World, I thought I was going to have a déjà vu experience from the previous 2 dino-sequels – idiotic woman allows maternal instincts to supersede common sense and puts her entire group in harm’s way. In 1997’s The Lost World: Jurassic Park (which I watched again on TV last night), Julianne Moore’s character coos and frets over an injured T. Rex infant and brings two very unhappy parents calling on their trailer, just so that director Spielberg could give us one of his nail-biting action set ups. Four years later in Jurassic Park III, Téa Leoni’s character uses a bullhorn to call out for her missing son, thereby attracting the unwelcome attention of a Spinosaurus, which then leads to their plane crashing and mayhem in the jungle. Dr. Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern) had plenty of maternal instincts in Jurassic Park but that didn’t stop her from being one of the smartest, bravest, feistiest people in the movie. Somehow scriptwriters have struggled to write sensible characters and believable plot mechanics for the 2 sequels.

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In this latest installment however, it’s not Claire Dearing’s maternal instincts that cause the trouble…she initially appears to have none whatsoever, avoiding her two nephews who have come to spend the weekend with her and palming them off to her assistant instead. Nevertheless the scriptwriting misogyny continues as Claire (played by Bryce Dallas Howard) doggedly ignores common sense and endangers lives in the pursuit of profits and sucking up to her boss. It’s been 22 years since the events of the first movie and now Isla Nubar has been tamed and converted into a sprawling theme park with real live dinosaurs. It is visited by millions every year and is generating huge profits for Masrani Global, the corporation which acquired InGen and perfected its dinosaur DNA technology. Dr. Henry Wu from the first film is still around; he is now the chief geneticist for the park, responsible for creating the most optimum mix of dinosaurs to maximize the experience for all the different demographics that visit the park – families with little kids, bored teenagers and thrill-seeking adults (yes, that’s corporate speak for let’s do whatever it takes to make lots of money!). BD Wong who plays Dr. Wu looks very dapper with his black turtleneck and slick hair, and you could imagine a backstory where the good doctor may be using some genetic technology on himself!

Driven by greed, hubris and customers’ demands for bigger thrills, Dr. Wu breeds an experimental dinosaur named Indominus Rex, created from a cocktail of genes from various reptiles. They end up with a dangerous, cunning animal and it’s not difficult to imagine what happens next; the trailers have been pretty explicit with scenes of dinos on the loose and park visitors getting attacked.

I really enjoyed the way we are introduced to the features of the park and a whole new cast of characters. The ensemble cast of Jurassic Park was a wonderful mix – the two smart and conscientious paleontologists (Sam Neill and Laura Dern), the cocky chaos theorist (Jeff Goldblum), the intense chain-smoking park engineer (Samuel L. Jackson), the greedy computer systems manager (Wayne Knight), the visionary but naïve billionaire (Richard Attenborough) and his two grandchildren. The next 2 movies tried different combinations of the same formula but as I mentioned at the start, they didn’t get the female characters right and the other people were rather forgettable. In Jurassic World, the ensemble is smaller, but comes close to replicating the chemistry from the first movie – besides Dr. Wu, Claire and her two nephews, we also have her boss Simon Masrani (Irrfan Khan) who’s dropped in for a visit, Vic Hoskins the head of security operations for InGen (played by Vincent D’Onofrio) and last but not least, Owen Grady, an ex-Navy man who is working on an InGen side project to tame and control Velociraptors. Grady is played by red hot actor Chris Pratt and is the ‘macho man’ around whom all the action coalesces. Pratt is coming off the success of Guardians of the Galaxy last year and has been rumored as the front runner to play Indiana Jones if Spielberg decides to reboot that franchise. He certainly has the chops of a big screen leading man, in the same mould as Harrison Ford; he is equally at ease with humor and action, has good chemistry with leading ladies and is good looking in an unconventional way.

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Besides the cast, the film is as expected, technically excellent in every way. The 3D really works and this is one film that is worth the premium for IMAX 3D. The dinosaurs look more real than ever and this was especially apparent as I watched the 2nd movie last night which dates back to 1997. Nothing can beat the original John Williams score and it was good to see it make an appearance every now and then as part of Oscar winning composer Michael Giacchino’s score.

Well, eventually Claire turns out not to be so dumb, the kids get chased by dinosaurs as usual, a bunch of people get their comeuppance (which means they get eaten), lots of other people get eaten as well, the bad ‘guys’ from an earlier movie become the good ‘guys’ (kinda like Arnie in the Terminator franchise), a familiar ‘character’ makes a reappearance and at the end of two hours, all’s well that ends well.

For someone directing his first big scale Hollywood action movie (and only his 2nd movie ever) 39-year-old Colin Trevorrow has done an amazing job. The film is rushing towards a June record opening weekend in the US and looks set to hit USD 1 billion worldwide by the end of the summer. What a great year for Universal Pictures: with Furious 7, Fifty Shades of Grey and Pitch Perfect 2 already minting money, the studio has hit the USD 2 billion mark worldwide on the day Jurassic World opened, the fastest that any studio has reached this milestone in history. Get set to put on your seatbelts for the inevitable sequel in a couple of years’ time and keep an eye out for Trevorrow’s next directing job; bound to be something big!


James Wan: Yet another low budget horror maestro goes epic

Earlier this week, Warner Bros. announced that Malaysian-born Australian director James Wan would direct Aquaman, the 7th entry in its newly created DC Cinematic Universe, which started off with Man of Steel in 2013. It was also announced that he would direct the big-screen adaptation of the long-running Japanese anime franchise, Robotech. James Wan had already hit the big league, with his Furious 7 becoming the most successful entry in the franchise earlier this summer, but with this news, one can confidently add him to a small but illustrious group of directors who have made the transition from micro-budget horror to epic action blockbuster.

Sam Raimi was the first of these guys to break onto the scene in 1981 with yet another version of ‘silly teenagers get killed off mysteriously’. What differentiated The Evil Dead from previous low budget horror flicks was the liberal use of blood and gore, supercharged with great editing and camera angles, and leavened by the unexpected use of black comedy. More such films followed, each growing in budget and scope. Then in quick succession between 1995 and 2000, Raimi ‘matured’; he directed a western, a crime thriller, a sports drama and a supernatural mystery thriller. Across these films, he worked with established and future stars of Hollywood – Sharon Stone, Russell Crowe, Leonardo di Caprio, Kevin Costner, Cate Blanchett, Billy Bob Thornton, Keanu Reeves, Hilary Swank and Katie Holmes! Soon after, Raimi was chosen to direct Spider-Man for Sony Pictures. The highly anticipated film opened in April 2002 with highest opening weekend of all time and went on to make USD 800 mn worldwide. In 20 years, Raimi had gone from a haunted tree attacking a woman in the forest to the unforgettable upside-down kiss in the rain. Its success ensured that superhero films were here to stay. Raimi went on to direct two more highly lucrative Spider-Man films and although he is now primarily a producer of TV shows, he remains one of the most respected directors in Hollywood.

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Peter Jackson started off his career in New Zealand making low budget ‘splatter’ horror comedies, with films like Bad Taste and Braindead. Then unexpectedly, he switched genres and directed the highly acclaimed true-life drama Heavenly Creatures starring a teenage Kate Winslett. It made a splash at film festivals from Venice to Chicago to Toronto before landing Jackson an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay. He then got his first Hollywood gig, the big-budget horror-comedy The Frighteners (I think of it as ‘Beetlejuice meets Ghostbusters‘) and then spent the next 4 years working on the biggest gamble of his life – The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Three years and 3 Oscars later, he was the undisputed king of big budget, intelligent, epic film making. His Weta Digital special effects company had taken over from George Lucas’ ILM and James Cameron’s Digital Domain as the new powerhouse for visual effects. His 2005 remake of King Kong remains one of my most memorable cinema theatre experiences (along with Jurassic Park and the first LOTR) and I enjoyed his recent Hobbit films although they didn’t reach the critical or commercial heights of the LOTR trilogy. He is now likely to direct the next installment of the animated Tintin feature films he is co-producing with Steven Spielberg. But as you can see from the images below, he seems to be constantly drawn back to material that deals with spirits and the afterlife, so it will be interesting to see what comes after the Tintin movie.

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Last but not least, Guillermo del Toro. I first heard of him when Barry Norman reviewed his debut film Cronos on BBC’s Film 93. Cronos was a contemporary vampire drama in which the vampirism is ‘created’ through a mysterious biomechanical device. The film was screened at Cannes and won several Mexican Ariel awards. Mr. del Toro’s output has not been as commercially successful as that of Raimi or Jackson and I guess that’s because his movies are mainly for fanboys. Because of that, all his material has a distinct and memorable visual signature. Think about the two Hellboy comic-to-film adaptations or his Oscar-winning Pan’s Labyrinth or even the derivative Pacific Rim, and there will always be some character, creature or device that remains in memory years after watching the movie; for those who have read the monochromatic Hellboy comic books, it is easy to see del Toro’s contribution in translating those characters to the big screen; likewise, who can forget the creepy ‘tenome’ creature in Pan’s Labyrinth with eyes on the palms of his hands or the exquisite technical detailing of the Drift/ Jaeger tech in Pacific Rim. Meanwhile, del Toro has also emerged as a prolific producer (both sides of the spectrum: horror and animation) and mentor of up-and-coming directors. His upcoming Crimson Peak is his take on the good old ‘haunted house’ sub-genre.

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Another director who crossed over from horror is David Cronenberg, but unlike the others he continues to work outside the Hollywood studio system and has never ventured into escapist blockbuster territory. The Canadian director was one of the pioneers of the ‘body horror’ sub-genre in the 70s; Scanners in particular became infamous for its exploding head scene. He then broke out with a variety of intelligent but disturbing scifi films like The Fly, Naked Lunch and eXistenZ which continued to explore the effects of science tampering with nature. In the 3rd phase of his career, he has diversified yet again: gritty crime dramas A History of Violence and Eastern Promises earned multiple Oscar nominations followed by the period piece A Dangerous Method, the psychological drama Cosmopolis with Robert Pattinson and the Hollywood semi-satire Maps to the Stars. Unlike the other directors in this group who have transitioned from claustrophobic horror to epic escapist fantasy, the claustrophobic settings remained a constant while Cronenberg moved from scifi-based horror to reality-based drama.

When I listed these directors, I thought about Stephen King’s body of work and I realized that the best horror story tellers are able to find the path to the darkest corners of the human psyche. King may have started off with buckets of blood in Carrie and The Shining, but pretty soon he was exploring the epic post-apocalyptic genre with The Stand and The Dark Tower. Some years later he traveled into the ultimate heart of darkness with Misery. With all these books, what made King successful was not his ability to think up of fearsome entities, but his ability to show us that true fear lurks deep in our own hearts. Once a storyteller has been able to reach that far inside, all the other layers of emotion are easier to uncover.

Coming back to James Wan, his horror films Saw, Insidious and The Conjuring are truly disturbing, less like the early gross-out work of Raimi, Peter Jackson and Cronenberg. His work on Furious 7 was competent but did not produce anything very distinctive in my opinion, particularly because it was the 7th entry in a franchise where characters and relationships were already set. By the time he gets to Aquaman, that too will be the 7th entry in a franchise for which the creative direction is being set by Zack Snyder, so once again I’m not sure how much he will have to play with. If he is able to find his own ‘voice’ in spite of this, it will definitely place him in the same league as Raimi, Jackson and del Toro.