Friday, June 19, 2015

Jurassic Week, part III: It is in the rock that real scientists make real discoveries


In which we learn, again, that sometimes the very best thing a movie can be about is itself.  Now, about that ending...

Directed by Joe Johnston
Written by Peter Buchman, Alexander Payne, and Jim Taylor (based on characters created by Michael Crichton)
With Sam Neill (Dr. Alan Grant), Laura Dern (Dr. Ellie Sattler), William H. Macy (Paul Kirby), Tea Leoni (Amanda Kirby), Alessandro Nivola (Billy Brennan), and Trevor Morgan (Eric Kirby)

Spoiler alert: moderate

Word is Jurassic Park III is just rotten, even worse than The Lost World.  Thus this review must begin with a confession: from just a few seconds in, until maybe two minutes before the credits rolledmaybe even all the way through themI didn't just like this movie, I loved it.  Bad enoughand it gets much worse!  If you had caught me at just the right moment, I would have told you I liked it more than the first.  I only hope that when they find enough pieces of my body to confirm what everyone suspected, the papers will at least say I was brave.

Now, there's any number of reasons why I could have come so close to holding such a catastrophically incorrect opinion, like the vastly tighter scriptindeed, a script so tight it leaves little to the imaginationor the cameo from my personal favorite dinosaur family, the ankylosauridae.  But the biggest reason is that I've seen Jurassic Park around 20 times, whereas thanks to you gang of bullies, you sultans of swing, I only screened JP3 for the very first time this past weekend.  Thus everything I saw was, to me, brand newas brand new, anyway, as anything in JP3 can fairly be said to be.

You bastards kept me away from Sam Neill.

JP3 is the point where the franchise decided to be something else.  It's where Spielberg withdrew, like God did in the Bible days, leaving one of his disciples to mind the temple, which in the case of Joe Johnston could mean only one thing: an adventure machine with absolutely nothing on its mind besides delivering a giddy fun time on a nearly indescribably shallow level.  In this it is triumphantly successful.

In the aftermath of Lost World, Isla Sorna, InGen's dinosaur breeding ground, has been quarantined.  Contrary to reasonable expectation, a neo-Mesozoic ecosystem has flourished there in the absence of human intereference.  Sorna's reputation for danger, however, has turned its shoreline into a favorite illegal vacation spot for thrillseekers andapparentlytheir girlfriends' small children.  We meet such a duo as they enjoy a parasailing excursion near Sorna's coast.  Since we're watching them, we have an inkling that their enjoyment will be short-lived, as will they.

Back in Montana, Alan Grant and his sidedick grad student Billy Brennan are still digging.  But the existence of "real" dinosaurs has dampened enthusiasm for fossils, killing the kindness of the strangers Grant relies on for his funding.  It's a lucky break, therefore, when Paul and Amanda Kirby show up, with an offer Grant doesn't refuse: be their guide for a flyover of Dino Island, and he can name his own price.

In extraordinarily short order, it becomes clear that the Kirbys and their heavily-armed friends from "church" aren't touristsGrant's suspicions are aroused when they hit him in the head, and confirmed when he wakes up to discover they've landed.  It turns out the Kirbys are, in ascending order of importance, 1)not presently married, 2)not experienced outdoorspeople, and 3)not rich.  But they have executed this killer sting for the most sympathetic of reasons: to find their son Eric, lost along with Amanda's new boyfriend in that parasailing accident, now missing for eight weeks.

You might be correct to suppose that their interpersonal wounds are healed through unimaginable trauma.  But this time it's sweet.

The Kirbys' plan goes to complete shit immediately, "complete shit" embodied in the form of a theropod predator larger than Tyrannosaurus itself, Spinosaurus aegypticus.  ("That wasn't on InGen's list," Brennan notes for anyone in the audience who cared; discouragingly, many did.)  They book, but in their panic crash their plane.  Stranded, our screwball heroes are now subjected to a series of inventive, electric, and occasionally-wacky set-pieces, at which point the film ends without any apparent moral other than "don't parasail."

Already better than Lost World, JP3's superiority is epitomized by the switch from the loathsome Ian Malcolm to a hero who has any business being here.  (When Grant asks another character if he's read Malcolm's book about his experiences on Islas Nublar and Sorna, he shakes his head and calls it "a little preachy"; not coincidentally, at this moment I asked the film to marry me.)

If Grant already seemed patterned after Indy, now he's actually coming within spitting distance of the icon.  It's no mistake that one of JP3's most beautiful transitions comes with the sound of a cartoonishly fleshy punch delivered by Grant to the mustachioed dweeb who's burned him.  Unlike Malcolm, Grant speaks less than he sneers; when he does, Sam Neill's maximal bitterness renders each line golden, even the purely functional ones.  Yet in quieter moments, there's a whole world of emotions in Neill, painting a precise portrait of Grant's eroded lifethe loss of his relationship with Ellie Sattler, the obsolescence of his career, and the burden of being the kind of man who thought he only wanted to be left alone with his rocks and his books, painfully aware he's now too old to change.  Not bad for a film said to be thinner on characterization than Jurassic Park, a condemnation if I ever heard one.

And what of the creatures in this feature?  JP3 brings new ideasfew of which, it should be said, made anyone very happy.  (Its immediate predecessor's abject lack of new ideas didn't make anyone happy either.  People don't know what they want.)

We've already met our principal villainand in JP3, the meat-eaters are nakedly villainous, which I can appreciate, and only one late-coming scene of herbivores recalls that Jurassic Park is also about "awe."  We can concede that Spinosaurus is transparently an attempt at a bigger, badder t-rex.  It's not like JP3 hides its intentions: one of the very first things the spinosaur does is fight a tyrannosaur, and win.

And despite this terrible screencap, it is fucking rad.

Spinosaurus is also the slightest bit silly looking, but frankly this is true of every dinosaur that livedBaby-arms Rex tops the list.  The major objection is that it's the monster no one ever heard about when they were a kid.  Anything "the slightest bit silly" was easy to reject as the Jurassic demographic aged out into the Ironic Years.

Still, something as ugly and mean as JP3's spinosaur can't avoid remaining a threatening presenceGod, even when a phone rings in its stomach (I told you JP3 could get wacky)and the instinct to go bigger is hardly one to be dismissed out of hand in what is, at heart, popcorn spectacle.  (And if you grind down, you'll discover the spinosaur is the most biologically accurate carnivore in the franchise.)  Further arguing Spinosaurus' case is the best CGI in the series so far (if not, perhaps, the best animatronics).  It isn't flawlessturn-of-the-century CGI never wasbut the spinosaur (and its nemesis) possess believable weight and power.  Meanwhile, Johnston's camerawork emphasizes each animal's ultraviolent grandeur, rendering their battle one of the utmost highlights in a film not sparse with visual stimulation.  (My one complaint is a matter of tactics: it's mystifying that Johnston passed up an opportunity for the perfect matinee shock by revealing the superior predator before its contest with the tyrannosaur could prove its mettle.)

Grant and the Meat later find a misty ruin they belatedly discern is an aviary, and an extra dimension is added.  The entrance of the pteranodons is extraordinary monster filmmaking, one shot in particular framed with such a looming menace that it ranks amongst my favorite in the franchise.  (The pteranodon CG is, shall we say, less effective than our dear spinosaur's; most noticeably when Grant kicks one in the head.)

Bela Lugosi, no!

Finally, the velociraptorsand another sticking point for the Jurassic purist.  Suffice it to say that Rise of the Planet of the Raptors was a possible follow-up to this film.  I say it's kind of great.  With their near-human intelligence comes human-like motivesthe capacity for genuine evil and arbitrary mercy alike.  The final confrontation initially overwhelms with the sheer neatness of its science fantasy, but I will admit that it's hardly the perfect version of itself, which hurts this vignettish movie out of proportion to its importance, simply for being the moment right before the narrative screeches to a halt like they just ran out of money.  The initial engagement between the dromaeosaurs and the primates, however, is as close to flawless as it could be.  We arboreals find safety in the trees, but should we recapitulate our evolution and descend to the forest floor, we'll find it defended by the closest match to us nature has ever devised.

The feather combover on the males may be the most token of all possible gestures to the then-closed debate over plumed theropods, but heck, they're trying.

Indeed, save for the last, JP3's every component is assembled impeccably, by a director whose amazing promise was never really fulfilled.  The hell of it is Johnston's a man after my own heart, a classicist who sought most of his inspiration from the Golden Age and the rest from the likes of Spielberg and Dante.  Indeed, early on, he did substantial work: The Rocketeer and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids aren't remembered for nothing.  But JP3 might easily be the high-water mark: despite my borderline fondness for Captain America: The First Avenger and The Wolfman, it's possibly the only thing he's done in the 21st century really worth recommending, final judgment withheld solely because I haven't seen Hidalgo.  (I have seen his latest, the terrible microbudget thriller Not Safe for Work, seeming like it couldn't have come from the same man who made this.)

Nevertheless, it's a monumental capstone for the first phase of his career: Shelly Johnson's photography is a close replication of Dean Cundey's; Robert Dalva, Johnston's reliable collaborator in the editing room, presents the best-cut film in the series, with playful transitions one scene, and a hard-nosed thriller tempo the next, without ever betraying the tone.

There's that word again.  When trying to explain why JP3 is better than Lost World to the put-upon soul who's been watching these films with me, I knew that there was little use in saying that JP3 was not, also, a demonstrably goofy motion picture.  But the difference, I think, is clear.  Lost World knew it was frivolous, and, hating itself for its own inanity, invited us to laugh at it. (At best: sometimes I think Lost World is the one laughingat us.)  JP3 knows it's frivolous, but pretends it isn't, and asks us to pretend tooso we might laugh with it.  It helps immeasurably that JP3 is still an order of magnitude less stupid than Lost World, which is so dumb it's actually a little distressing.  In fact, I'd contend that JP3 might be smarter than the first Jurassic Park; at least by omission, since it didn't need to gin up an easily-avoided disaster.

That brings us back to the insane comparison I made 1900 words ago.  Johnston's film is a Johnston film, embracing the Jurassic series' Harryhausen roots.  Simplicity is its virtue. When JP3 abandons the best of Jurassic Park, it also abandons the worst.  All the tedious anti-technology harangues, the ignorant pedantry, and the film-engulfing plot holespresent in the first movie, comprising nearly the entirety of the secondare now gone.  If JP3 practically could've been an original property, set in some other lost world, this is to its credit, not its detriment.  It offers dinosaur draculas and tarzan boys, and hopes you'll like it for what it is.  I can't say with a completely straight face it's the best of the original trilogy, no matter how much the contrarian schmuck in me wants tobut I've watched it twice in less than a week now, and damned if it isn't close.

Score:  9/10

Other reviews in this series:
Jurassic Park
The Lost World: Jurassic Park
Jurassic World

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