Jurassic World: Bigger, Faster, Louder

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Those of a certain age will remember the spectacle of seeing Jurassic Park on the big screen in 1993. The hype, the anticipation, and ultimately the payoff: the moment when the skeptics and scientists first look out over the park and see a field full of living, breathing dinosaurs. It was honestly awe-inspiring. It may seem silly today, but like those first visitors to the fictional Jurassic Park, real-world audiences were seeing something that they had never seen before.

The deployment of visual effects in Jurassic Park—not just the game-changing CGI but also its seamless blending with more traditional animatronics and live actors—was revolutionary. Think about the simplistic dinosaur effects that had come before: the prehistoric creatures of King Kong (1933), One Million Years B.C. (1940), Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959), The Lost World (1960), The Land that Time Forgot (1975), Baby: Secret of the Lost Legend (1985), TV’s Land of the Lost (1974-77)…or even the pseudo-dinosaur men-in-suit approach of Godzilla (1954) and his descendants. Nothing that came before could prepare audiences for what they would see in Jurassic Park.

For the first time ever, the bones in the museum grew flesh and moved. The lost creatures that had fueled our imaginations since childhood were there, in front of us, interacting with real people. All of a sudden, cinematic dinosaurs seemed real.

When Sir Richard Attenborough’s John Hammond intoned his breathless “Welcome to Jurassic Park”, it marked a new era in film.

Twenty-two years and hundreds upon hundreds of CGI dinosaurs later, Jurassic World suggests that the new era has become passe’.

Apparently, twelve years after the disaster of the original film (and ignoring the existence of its two sequels), the dinosaur park finally opened as Jurassic World on the infamous Isla Nubar, and it has become an international sensation. We join the action ten years on, at a time when Jurassic World’s brain trust has decided that the only way to protect its market share (from what is never really clear) is to introduce new attractions: in this case, an ill-conceived genetic mishmash dubbed Indominus Rex that is bigger, badder, and more terrifying than any dinosaur that Mother Nature could come up with on her own.

Believe it or not, Indominus gets loose, and hijinks ensue.

Are there kids and scientists and heroes and villains? Sure. Are there plot twists and third act surprises? Sort of. Does any of it matter? Not really.

This is a movie about dinosaurs, dinosaurs, and more dinosaurs. Everything else is a distraction.

The whole bigger-badder-more-terrifying thing has been much remarked upon since the release of Jurassic World, primarily because the movie is so self-conscious about it. When Bryce Dallas Howard, as the park’s operations manager, explains to a group of investors that “just” dinosaurs isn’t enough anymore—focus groups have told them that consumers expect something bigger and more exciting—the scene might as well have cut away to a flashing neon sign saying “WE’RE TALKING ABOUT THE MOVIE BUSINESS!” Then again, one shouldn’t expect subtly from a movie about a genetically-engineered sociopathic dinosaur.

The shame of it, though, is that the filmmakers actually got the theme wrong. It’s not that audiences are demanding “bigger, faster, louder, better,” as Jurassic World director Colin Trevorrow suggested in one interview. It’s that Hollywood has found that “bigger, faster, louder, better” is simply easier to make than “original, interesting, challenging, smart”. It’s an industry that thinks a $20 million movie is more of a risk than a $200 million movie, because at least with the latter they have a formula to follow: formulaic scripts, formulaic characters, formulaic effects, and formulaic marketing. So, in a sense, perhaps it is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If everything is a formula, then really the only way to stand out from the crowd IS “bigger, faster, louder”.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean better.

The original Jurassic Park carved out its place in film history because of the “wow” factor and its industry-changing visual effects. But that’s not what made it an effective movie that stands up to multiple viewings. Jurassic Park is a taut, suspenseful thriller with strong characters, terrific acting, and a world-class director at the top of his game. That film’s climactic kitchen scene—the velociraptors stalking the kids in the theme park’s pantry—remains one of the great suspense scenes ever put to film. The movie still holds up terrifically today, 22 years later.

Jurassic World will not have that kind of shelf life.

Trevorrow, himself—who had exactly one feature film credit to his name prior to Jurassic World—got his start by way of “original, interesting, challenging, smart”. His feature debut, Safety Not Guaranteed, is a little film about a trio of magazine employees who pursue a story about a guy who places a classified ad seeking a companion for time travel. If Jurassic World is a gargantuan T-Rex, then Safety Not Guaranteed is a tiny little baby pigeon, but it is absolutely terrific. Somewhere along the way from tiny to titanic, though, Trevorrow lost his way. (That is, if Jurassic World’s $524 million opening weekend can be considered losing his way. Safety Not Guarantee, by contrast, grossed just under $100,000 its first weekend.)

None of this is to suggest that Jurassic World is a film without merit.

The early scenes, especially, chronicling a day-in-the-life of a dinosaur theme park, are legitimately inspired. From the crowds pouring through the gates to the wonder in the eyes of the kids seeing their first dinosaurs, you really get a sense of what a theme park like this would actually be like. And it’s awesome. You may not even realize anything is different when you see the IMAX theater, the food franchises (Margaritaville, anyone? Ben & Jerry’s?), and gift shops. Pretty standard stuff. But then you take your kids to the Gentle Giants Petting Zoo and saddle up for a ride on a triceratops. You take a self-guided kayak trip down dinosaur dwelling river ways. And you settle in for a riveting Sea World –esque water show (didn’t these guys see Blackfish?) on steroids…climaxing with a gigantic, 60’ long Mosasaurus leaping out of the water to munch a shark hanging from a steal hook. Eat your heart out, Shamu! Jurassic World’s Jurassic World is truly a sight to behold, full of spectacle and clever imagination. (Check out the park’s fully fleshed out Website at www.jurassicworld.com.)

Considering the fact that there have been interminable lines forming outside Disney’s It’s a Small World ride since it first debuted at the 1964 World’s Fair, somehow it seems unbelievable that Jurassic World patrons have already grown “bored” after just ten years.

The again, one patron, at least, grew bored with Jurassic World in less than two hours.

But maybe that’s just me.

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The Madness of Doctor X

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Mad scientists occupy a special place of honor in the pantheon of horror.

Sometimes misguided, sometimes megalomaniacs, sometimes simply evil for the sake of evil: mad scientists come in all shapes and sizes and have rivaled vampires, zombies, and giant monsters as the primary threat to cinematic civilizations for more than a century. The fear and mistrust inspired by horror cinema’s rich tradition of reckless experiments, out-of-control technology, and scientists determine to rule the world still impact our culture and politics today.

Henry Frankenstein (or Victor, if you’re a purist) may be the most famous: inspired to create life from dead tissue, he animated a creature so foul and monstrous that even he came to realize that it must be destroyed. But Frankenstein hardly stands alone. From Doctor Jekyll to Doctor Heiter: horror fans know all the names and all the schemes.

Which is why it was such a delight to stumble across Doctor X.

Released in 1932, Doctor X upped the ante on the still-young mad scientist subgenre by offering up five—count ‘em, five!—mad doctors for our viewing pleasure.

When New York City finds itself terrorized by a series of gruesome murders perpetrated under the pale light of the full moon, five colleagues at a prestigious medical research academy come under suspicion. It seems that the “Moon Killer” uses a special scalpel in his crimes that can only be found at that particular facility, meaning that one of the five researchers must be the fiend. Unfortunately, finding the actual killer proves to be a difficult task, as the five of them collectively tick off every transgressive box one can imagine: intellectual arrogance, delusions of grandeur, sexual perversion, fixation on the sinister power of moonlight, and even fascination with cannibalism. (Three of them—count ‘em, three!—have potentially cannibalistic tendencies, which must be a record for prestigious medical research academies.)

Given 48 hours by the police to root out the killer among them, Doctor Xavier—the head of the academy—whisks the sinister bunch off to his spooky, beach-side mansion. There, he intends to conduct an ethically-questionable psychological experiment: a re-enactment of the Moon Killer’s crimes designed to reveal guilty party.

There is other business to attend to, of course—Doctor Xavier’s beautiful daughter (a pre-King Kong Fay Wray), the meddling reporter (Lee Tracy), and the alternatively creepy (George Rosener) and comical (Leila Bennett) household staff—but for most of the film the focus remains locked exactly where it should be: on the five suspicious scientists and the race against time to unmask the Moon Killer.

Based on the movie’s title, it might appear that the mystery would be a particularly easy one to solve, but one of the most compelling things about this film is its ability to maintain suspense and to conceal the Moon Killer’s identity right up to the big reveal. Each of the five mad scientists stands alone as an interesting, compelling character, and their individual rivalries and quarrels ratchet up the tension and provide the conflict that keeps the plot moving forward. It is to the credit of the actors—first and foremost Lionel Atwill as Doctor X himself—that none of these characters comes off as stock or shallow.

Today, Atwill’s horror resume’ stands on its own, but at the time of Doctor X, he was still years away from his signature performances in films like Mark of the Vampire, Captain Blood, Son of Frankenstein, and as Professor Moriarty in Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon. Here he headlines an outstanding cast that features Preston Foster, John Wray, Harry Beresford, and Arthur Edmund Carewe as the rest of the motley band of potential killers.

What really makes Doctor X an effective horror film, however, is the unflinchingly jagged edge of the material. Produced before aggressive implementation of the infamous Motion Picture Production Code, Doctor X deals openly with themes like cannibalism, rape, and brutal murder, themes that would soon be subject to censorship under the Code.

At the same time, the production design and direction (Michael Curtiz helmed this one) give full visual expression to the risque’ material. Shot in early Technicolor, the film’s awkward hues, urgent close-ups, and menacing set design fuel the film’s ability to maintain a sense of dread that drives it through a highly entertaining 76 minutes.

Laughing at the Shadows

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“There’s tension in any—any—flatting situation.”

Wise words, indeed, but then wisdom does come with age. And at 862 years old, Jermaine Clement’s vampire Vladislav—from the pitch-perfect What We do in the Shadows—has had centuries to hone his personal flatting philosophy.

The particular flatting situation at the heart of What We Do in the Shadows (now streaming at a variety of venues) involves four undead roommates who share a gothic old house in Wellington, New Zealand. Seemingly mismatched—there’s the swashbuckling Vladislav, the prissy Viago, the chore-slacker Deacon, and the crotchety 8000-year-old Petyr—these vampires bicker and snarl at each other from time-to-time, but have clearly fallen into an easy, pleasant co-existence. They’re friends. But their comfortable arrangement faces significant challenges when Petyr turns their servant’s vacuous ex-boyfriend Nick into a vampire. Nick promptly moves in with the boys and upsets the whole dynamic. Lucky for us, there is a film crew from the New Zealand Documentary Board on-hand to capture the evolving conflict.

Think MTV’s Real World but set in Victorian England but actually modern-day Wellington—so maybe a sort of pseudo-Victorian Wellington?—and you will have a good sense of what to expect. Together, the vampire pals discover the internet and the wonders of video chatting. They negotiate the exclusive Wellington club scene. And when they want to keep a low profile, they eschew flying across the countryside and instead take public transportation out for their night on the town.

Clement and Taika Waititi (as Viago) both pull triple-duty here: co-starring, co-writing, and co-directing. Although American audiences will know Clement best from two hilarious seasons of Flight of the Conchords (well, one hilarious season, and then a follow-up), their previous cinematic collaboration was 2007’s Eagle vs. Shark. In that film, Clement starred and Waititi wrote and directed. Where Eagle vs. Shark was charming but uneven, their work on What We Do in the Shadows represents much more confident, effective movie making.

Their script is sharp. Their cast—from the central characters to the walk-on parts, especially Rhys Darby as the alpha male among a pack of personally-conflicted rival werewolves—is spot-on. And what it lacks in story the movie more than makes up for with intelligent, character-driven humor, terrific visual gags and asides, and an obvious affection for the classics of the horror genre.

What We Do in the Shadows succeeds due in large part to that palpable love and appreciation of horror classics. Its humor may be modern, but its roots and inspiration burrow through more than a century of classic horror cinema. More Young Frankenstein than Scary Movie 5, Shadows’ affectionate take on the horror comedy offers equal parts satire and homage, with dashes of genuine melancholy and dread thrown in for good measure.

That tone represents a welcome departure from the current trend in horror comedy.

Comedy and horror have been kissing cousins since the early days of cinema. Moments of humor have been the go-to safety valve that horror filmmakers use consistently to relieve audience tension and to provide a break from the suspense and terror. But then a subgenre emerged and fused the horror film with the movie comedy.

The dark humor of The Bride of Frankenstein, for instance, eventually evolved into movies like An American Werewolf in London, The Evil Dead 2, and Re-Animator: horror movies first but with a wildly comic spin at the same time. Early full-throated horror satires like The Cat and the Canary, The Ghost Breakers, and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (and the Mummy, and the Killer Boris Karloff, and on and on) eventually became Young Frankenstein and Ghostbusters.

But then something changed.

Over the past 20 years or so, any genuine appreciation of the genre has essentially disappeared from the horror-comedy. With the rare exception (say something like Shaun of the Dead or Zombieland), the modern horror-comedy either wants you to know how very hip and smart it is…or doesn’t really care how stupid it becomes.

Scream introduced the concept of “meta” into the horror genre, primarily by telling its audience over and over and over again just how “meta” it was. It is unclear if more damage was done in Scream by knife-wielding maniacs or by the main characters (and filmmakers, included) breaking their own arms by incessantly patting themselves on the back. That is not to say that Scream is a bad movie or that “meta” horror is all bad. Funny Games, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon, and Cabin in the Woods are all interesting, fun (well, Funny Games isn’t fun at all), creative takes on “meta” horror.

At the other end of the spectrum is the brain-dead horror-comedy. The Wayans brothers are not entirely to blame here, but they have certainly done more to dumb-down the genre than any family in the history of cinema. Their Scary Movie(s) and Haunted House(s) take the lowest common denominator and somehow still manage to divide it by two. The audience isn’t so much expected to actually find these movies funny but simply to recognize that they are MEANT to be funny, and that is apparently good enough for them.

In that context, What We Do in the Shadows is more than a breath of fresh air.

It’s an instant classic.