The (D)Evolution to Jurassic World

Jurassic Park captured the imagination of both children and adults alike by bringing to life long lost dinosaurs. Steven Spielberg blended together a chilling science-fiction tale with the majesty of living and breathing dinosaurs to create a cult classic. Twenty-two years later, Jurassic World is breaking box office records by stunning audiences with a fully functional dinosaur theme park. Sitting in the theater before the movie started, my date asked if I would go to that dinosaur theme park, and I responded, “Well, we now have four films telling us not to go.” Then the film started and Michael Giacchino’s score guides the audience through the incredible features of the theme park, from the dinosaur petting zoo, the herbivore river tour, and the Mosasaurus water show. At that moment, I leaned over and whispered, “Yes, I would go”. How could you not want to go? John Hammond’s dream is finally realized! But the bravado of Jurassic Park falls short in Jurassic World. The latter pokes fun at the idea of bigger and badder means better, but the film essentially embraces that idea in its narrative. Spielberg has the perfect formula for Jurassic Park, but its three sequels all flounder in their imitations. What has caused this devolution from a thoughtful and portentous story to a flashy summer blockbuster?

Storytelling is fundamental to what made Jurassic Park the successful film that it is. Spielberg is a master storyteller, who goes to great lengths for the believability and magic of a good story. In Jurassic Park, it’s evident that his first priority was telling a cogent story. In fact, there’s no one storyline for Jurassic Park; it all depends on how you look at it. This is the story of how John Hammond’s most profound dream crumbles before his very eyes. It’s the story of how Dr. Grant learns to appreciate and protect childhood. It’s also the story of how human hubris could cost humanity itself. It’s the story of how Dr. Sattler figures out what she really wants in life. It’s a story about how life, uh, finds a way. Use this story test on Jurassic World, and the outcomes are not as numerous. Jurassic World is the story of stopping a super dinosaur. That’s it. To be fair, it could also be the story of how Claire, after what seems like years of devoting herself to her job, suddenly realizes that she wants and needs children to fulfill her life and conveniently finds that possibility in the hunky arms of Owen – which is an all too familiar and lazy female character trope. The visitors of Jurassic World want a bigger and scarier dinosaur, and, judging by its incredible sales so far, 2015 moviegoers want a flashier yet shallower film.

A core flaw in Jurassic World’s storytelling deals with villainy. Jurassic Park did not have a villain, per se. Dennis Nedry was a greedy man, but even if his plans had come to fruition, it would not have caused the kind of damage that occurred in the film. The hurricane that hit the island was an unfortunate incident that certainly acted as a catalyst for many of the events in the film, but it was by no means a villain. The brilliance that Spielberg brings to the story is that Hammond and his geneticists were their own villains. They, like the creators of the Titanic, felt that they had a handle on every situation and outcome — that they were indestructible. Enter the selfish computer programmer and the tropical storm and it’s clear just how delusional they are. Their own hubris is the “villain”; they are their own downfall. This makes for a true science fiction story, portentous at heart, warning society of the danger of thoughtless technological advancement. Dr. Malcolm perfectly sums it up: “Yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.” Upon first glance, it appeared that Jurassic World was going to take a similar approach. Claire talks about how the park needs new attractions every so often and that kids want a bigger and scarier dinosaur with more teeth. When the Indominus Rex is introduced as a completely genetically engineered dinosaur, a brand new and original dinosaur species, it looks like hubris in genetics is the villain again, only ramped up a notch – which would have been a genuine story to tell. Instead, the film actually has villains, InGen’s Vic Hoskins and nostalgic Dr. Wu,  who have concocted a laughable and contrived plan to create a genetic hybrid dinosaur army. It’s clear from the first moments of watching Owen interact with the velociraptors that he’s not in any position to control the dinosaurs, yet Hoskins’s resolve to use the raptors in battle doesn’t waver. Let’s say there ever is a plan to create a non-human army, wouldn’t the logical first step be to use animals that humans can already somewhat control? Dogs? Horses? That Jurassic World goes from zero to genetically altered super dinosaur is altogether idiotic and absolutely takes from the verisimilitude in the story. With this storyline, Colin Trevorrow puts the narrative secondary to the wow factor.

Another creative flaw deals with dinosaur screen time. Out of the 127-minute long Jurassic Park, dinosaurs appear on screen for only fifteen minutes. This caused a lot of uproar from moviegoers hoping to see more dinosaurs on screen. Because of this, writers included more dinosaurs in The Lost World: Jurassic Park, and the trend continued with Jurassic Park III and Jurassic World. In all my years watching Jurassic Park, I have never felt cheated of dinosaur onscreen time, and that is because Spielberg was economical with his time. Sure, at the time, creating dinosaur animatronics (auto-erotica, as Gennaro humorously calls them) and CGI dinosaurs was a challenge, but when dinosaurs are on screen, it’s meaningful. Dinosaurs are exploring their world without a cage, and humans are interacting with herbivores in astonishing ways. Spielberg is also showing the world just how smart these animals potentially could have been. That is what makes Jurassic Park so terrifying – you don’t know what these beasts are capable of. In the following films, there is a lot more dinosaur screen time, but there is also a lot more destruction for destruction’s sake. It’s as if the dinosaurs in the sequels are less animals and more pure monster. It makes for some suspenseful watching, but it makes for lazy and trifling writing.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed Jurassic World. I love dinosaurs and it was exciting seeing the fully functional and, up to that point, safe dinosaur theme park. I imagined myself spending hours in the dinosaur petting zoo or kayaking down the river alongside sauropods and stegosaurs. If I ignore the deficiencies in storytelling and take the movie for what it is — a summer thriller — I can enjoy Jurassic World. And to his credit, Trevorrow truly ups the ante with the Indominus Rex. He’s a ferocious and intelligent dinosaur with long, grasping arms, capable of camouflage. The film gets increasingly hopeless when the Indominus Rex turns the raptors to his side. It seems like there is no winning scenario – unless you gang up the fan-favorite Tyrannosaurus Rex and velociraptor together and lure the Indominus to the water’s edge to unleash Chekhov’s Mosasaurus. An easy out, yes, but I was absolutely engaged and stressed out. Jurassic World was meant to thrill, and it accomplished its objective, though it falls short of Spielberg’s objective to tell a good story. This narrative devolution from Jurassic Park to Jurassic World directly reflects on the cinematic devolution over the past two decades.

Star Trek Into Darkness

Star Trek Into Darkness (2013) is the second installment of J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek reboot, following Star Trek in 2009. The film brings back the all-star cast in the newly altered Star Trek universe, where anything goes.

The 2009 Star Trek film gave a breath of life to the decrepit Star Trek franchise. Mix together a cast with great chemistry, that goes to the absolute core of the original characters, with an exciting and unprecedented story line  and a great action blockbuster is formed. While many devoted Trekkies were scandalized by Abrams’ complete dismantling of the entire Star Trek universe, it opened many doors for new — and equally as important — familiar stories. The first film excited and shocked audiences, and the second film makes use of its most valuable tool: reinterpretation.

Many criticize Star Trek Into Darkness  as being a mere remake of A Wrath of Khan, but to believe so is to miss the whole point of the first film. Changing time as we know it opens the door for anything. It was entirely possible that the Enterprise would never encounter Khan in this new timeline, but isn’t it exhilarating that even though time was altered so significantly, this epic encounter still exists? It’s almost as if the confrontation is fated, an idea that I imagine Spock would seriously disagree with, yet this theme can now be considered due to Abrams altered timeline.

The film exhibits scandal from the very beginning, at least it does for Trekkies. The crew of the Enterprise is on planet Nibiru, inhabited by a primitive alien race, and they plan to drop a device into the planet’s volcano to make it dormant, which would alter the natural course of life on Nibiru — a overt violation of the Prime Directive. This violation of the most important regulation in Starfleet is highly shocking, but it develops Captain Kirk’s (Chris Pine) character: a brazen young Captain without accountability. One of the film’s transformations is that of Captain Kirk, from egoistic impulse to selfless leader.

A similar transformation is scene in Spock (Zachary Quinto). Quite possibly after Vulcan’s demise in the previous film, Spock has made even greater effort to stifle his human half. Even after Kirk saves Spock from volcanic doom, Spock struggles to make any emotional connection with Kirk. After relationship trouble with Uhura (Zoë Saldana), experiencing Admiral Pike’s (Bruce Greenwood) dying moment, and experiencing that same moment with Captain Kirk, Spock’s human half surfaces in a shriek of absolute anger, an homage to A Wrath of Khan.

This film’s brilliant villain, Khan, is played by Benedict Cumberbatch. His peculiar countenance lends to being a villain, and it’s backed up by an incredible performance which includes subtleties like sitting up perfectly straight and speaking with arrogance — after all, he’s better at everything. Khan’s climactic (though, to some, anti-climactic) identity revelation brings much scrutiny. Because of the way Khan’s character was introduced in the Original Series, The Wrath of Khan is filled with a heavy intensity. To viewers new to the franchise, Khan’s identity does not mean as much, but it is still packed with superhuman and eerie mystery which keeps viewers invested. The meaningful part of this entire film is that it tells the same story in a new time; while details change, a new generation can participate in and appreciate an older story.

The film’s brilliance culminates in a few wonderfully shot scenes. These scenes focus on four different characters and their facial expressions, which are meaningful in that they express emotions seemingly opposite of what those characters embody. The first is Kirk; as Admiral Pike is chastising him for lying in his report, Kirk slips into a state of vulnerability. The camera stays on his reddened face, peering into his deep blue eyes which show a softened quality hardly ever seen from his character. The magnificence of that shot is that Kirk retreats inwardly instead of acting aggressively. The next scene showcases Pike. As he lays dying before Spock, the camera again stays on his face, which is usually strong, sure, and fearless, but what the camera shows is terror. It’s a terror that is shocking, especially on a face that’s never shown such fear. His eyes are absolutely moving, even to stoic Spock. Thirdly, as Khan explains how he and his frozen crew became part of the picture, the camera yet again stays on his face. As he tells his story, about trying to save his crew — his family — the anger takes over his face, flaring his nostrils and bringing tears to his eyes. The camera doesn’t move away from his face, letting the viewer fully appreciate this surprisingly show of emotion from this ruthless killer. This scene denies any sense of one-dimensional villainy for Khan. The last scene is for Spock, at his transformation in the film. He’s speaking with Kirk as he lays dying, again expressing his vulnerability. Spock, who has only lost his composure over his mother’s death and Vulcan’s demise, is clearly emotional. His colleague — and friend — lays dying and can’t control himself. The camera, again, stays on his face as tears fall from his eyes, a particularly stark sight from anything ever expected from Spock. That, followed by the iconic “KHAAAAAAN!”, express a side of Spock never seen. These four scenes are the magic of the film, taking four characters and turning them inside out in ways never experienced.

This film is an exciting and captivating story — all up until its coda. After Kirk’s death, the film is aimless and wraps up much too quickly. The story could have benefited from the way A Wrath of Khan ends, which would have been more emotional, as well as quite the cliff-hanger for any sequel. Along with those criticisms fall the characters of the rest of the crew. Uhura, who has the potential of being a strong and badass character unfortunately falls into the role of “girlfriend” for Spock. Even though she has a big scene with the Klingons, the majority of her actions are motivated by her being with Spock, not for the good of the order. Karl Urban, who portrays Dr. McCoy exactly, along with Anton Yelchin, as Chekov, received little roles in this film. Even John Cho, as Mr. Sulu remains mostly secondary in this movie. These characters have the potential for more than just comedic relief, something that Simon Pegg’s Scotty was able to achieve. Scotty in the first movie was only humor, but he basically saves the day in this film. Perhaps the rest of the crew will get more screen time and plot lines in the next film.

Star Trek Into Darkness is the first voyage into Star Trek’s new alternate universe. It brings the Enterprise together with a familiar villain in an entirely new light. With plenty of action, lens flares, and  Michael Giacchino’s fantastic soundtrack, Star Trek Into Darkness brings a story and villain back to life in an entirely new light.