Thursday, June 18, 2015

Jurassic World Stirs Up Excitement and Moral Debates

I waited 22 years for this moment.

That's almost as long as I've been playing saxophone.

When I ask my students the year of their birth, and I discern they were born after the year 1993, two comments quickly come to mind.

First, you probably don't know that the World Trade Center was bombed once before.   Besides news archives and other historical sources, a record of this event was kept on Biggie Smalls' radio-friendly track “Juicy” up until recently, when those in charge decided to make the song more radio-friendly by censoring the line “Blow up like the World Trade.”  You can hear this bastardized version most days on any revivalist hip-hop/R&B station in a town near you.  It's probably owned by iHeartMedia another revision of history known formerly as Clear Channel.

Second, you probably have never seen the original Jurassic Park, a hallmark of American cinema.  I sometimes add Independence Day to this revelation.  I then go on to pronounce the merits of the film interspersing random quotes (“Dino DNA,” “Hello John,” "Hold on to your butts," “Clever girl...,” etc.) into my speech, which by this point has lost all viability of being a teaching moment.

Well, that moment is here.  The next generation will finally get its chance to experience the ultimate fantasy of children everywhere as Jurassic World serves up a collage of familiar images, themes, and motifs.  There is a zoom-out shot of a black bird.  Shots of the lab featuring DNA strands and dinosaur eggs.  Tones from John Williams' original movie score stoke our sci-fi sense of wonderment yet again as we embark in helicopters and jeeps to explore the Costa Rican jungle island. Once again, dinosaurs escape, and once again, we are woefully unprepared.

We should be clear: Jurassic World is not a remake.  There are nostalgia-grabbing references and shots of the old park, which still lies in ruins, but director Colin Trevorrow and executive producer Steven Spielberg made sure to distinguish his film(s) from the old franchise.  That's why there's a scene in which Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) chastises a subordinate park overseer (Jake Johnson) for wearing a shirt with the red-and-black logo from the old movie.  He is quick to tell us its monetary worth on eBay—fitting for a character who seems to be hoisted straight from Comic-Con.

There are brief visits to the chaos theory and the unpredictability/inevitability of confining nature to man-made pens.  Lowery, the park overseer and a poor replacement for Samuel Jackson's character, even comments after all hell breaks loose on the island, “You should put that in the marketing for this place: 'Eventually one of these things will escape and eat a bunch of people.'”

Indeed, that is the basic plot for many an action movie, and several critics have remarked on the meta-level that the film resembles the park featured in it as a spectacular mega-attraction meant to be consumed.  There are also undertones of Sea World and Blackfish, but really, who doesn't love to see a giant alligator dinosaur (Mosasaurus) jumping out of the water to eat a shark?  At least these creatures are CGI.  I'm sure the seal from the famous Planet Earth Great White Chow-down enjoyed that scene from the grave.

The acting and dialogue, especially from Howard, is a little spotty, but the cast and crew get the job done.  Chris Pratt plays a strong, moral hero (Owen) separate and distinct from his prior roles, rarely devolving into the antics that made him popular in Guardians of the Galaxy and Parks and Recreation while still serving up a lovable, stern character.

His ethics, about not raising animals in social isolation and the ramifications of GMO dinosaurs, as well as weaponizing them, play a central role in the story and provide fodder for intellectual debates for years to come.  He sees the limits of his behaviorist training of velociraptors, but also recognizes the power of social construction as the raptors come to learn he is the alpha.  This is developmental theory in the context of extinct reptiles.

Owen's humanist sentiment applied anthropomorphically to dinosaurs clashes with Claire and John Hammond's successor Simon Masrani (Irrfan Khan), in addition to the paramilitary antagonist Hoskins (Vincent D'onofrio), who all believe dinosaurs to be money-making/military assets, and call them just that. This little bit of anti-capitalist soul-searching was refreshing, and I was wondering whether the movie would lean the other way.  We can also be happy the movie is not racist.

These thematic battles combined with wild yet tactful action scenes adds up to a great representation of the franchise.  The film gives you a lot to talk about.  In the end, man has no control over its world. Nature does.

All you Hitchcockians should watch out for Pterosaurs.

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