Ghostbusters (2016)

★★★

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Ghostbusters PosterDirector: Paul Feig

Release Date: July 11th, 2016 (UK); July 15th, 2016 (US)

Genre: Comedy; Fantasy; Science fiction

Starring: Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Leslie Jones, Kate McKinnon

You might use the term “whipping boy” to describe someone who is unfairly or unevenly hammered for the flaws of someone or something else. That political leader who bears the brunt of the blame for a vote gone awry. The footballer whose defensive error gives away the second goal in a 5-0 defeat. You get where this is going. Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters has been, for quite some time now, cinema’s highest-profile whipping girl. And for what? Because it’s a reboot of a cult classic? See Jurassic World. Because it’s the product of a big studio using an established brand to cultivate cash? See just about every summer blockbuster for the past decade. Or because it subs four leading men for four leading women? Ah. Bingo.

Well the four women are funny and, shock-horror, the film is funny too. It’s also in the same ballpark quality-wise as its predecessor, a movie apparently moulded in the hands of God himself (of course God is a guy, pfft). Ivan Reitman’s Ghostbusters was a fun flick with charismatic players and a popcorn plot. A lot like Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters, in fact. Neither is worth the buzz that surrounds it: Reitman’s Ghostbusters is far from the greatest comedy of 1980s, let alone all time, and Feig’s effort is far from the end of masculinity, let alone cinema.

This incarnation follows Erin Gilbert, Abby Yates, Jillian Holtzmann, and Patty Tolan — Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Jones — an academic, two scientific minds, and a general knowledge buff who collectively band together to defend the streets of New York City from insurgent ghosts. The ghosts’ sudden arrival has everything to do with spiritmonger Rowan North (Neil Casey), whose barmy devices pave a paranormal path to the real world. Though that hardly matters. What matters is the re-establishment of the ghostbusters, that they are legitimised both within and outwith the narrative, and that we get some laughs along the way.

And there are some laughs, often at the expense of the male characters in the piece. Chris Hemsworth, for instance, plays a dumb blonde receptionist, a role that has historically been reserved for the token female in big budget cinema. Spoiler alert: Bill Murray shows up as the film’s biggest sceptic. He doesn’t believe in ghosts, and by proxy, he doesn’t believe in these ghostbusting women. Even the male tour guide we see at the beginning is utterly afraid of bumps in the night, so much so that he has one of those juvenile ‘accidents’. I can’t recall one strong male character, and guess what? That’s sort of the point. That is the joke. The film does not set out to demonise men (#notallmen) but rather to pithily tear down the cultural and filmic stereotypes prevalent in cinema.

You could argue this approach is overplayed and that it perhaps gets in the way of other would-be satirical adages. For example, the ghostbusters find themselves not only battling their paranormal opposites, but also the non-believers. YouTube trolls bear the brunt of a quip or two: “Ain’t no bitches gon’ hunt no ghosts,” reads one comment. And still, they do. Maybe co-writers Katie Dippold and Feig’s stereotype-smashing could have even gone a tad further, but this is standard comedy fare after all. Besides, Hemsworth’s dopey Kevin — the longest-running and most vociferous of the stereotype gags — is worth his screen time. He wears glasses without frames and has a cat called Mike Hat (phonetics). Hemsworth plays the idiocy straight; Kevin is a cardboard cutout coloured with heightened irony, and it works as well as any other strand of amusement.

The remaining amusement is served up by our key quartet. You initially pin Wiig as the reluctant one of the group, her attire academic and her exterior distant, but that reluctance quickly evaporates. Wiig, perennially brilliant at being awkward and standoffish, gets to be awkward and standoffish before gelling with the gang. That Gilbert so suddenly abandons her academia in favour of beliefs she has repressed for many years does suggest a sense of rushed characterisation, but it at least affords Wiig the opportunity to exercise her versatility. Speaking of gelling with the gang, Jones’ Patty is treated as an equal instantly — it hardly matters that she has no scientific experience, only that she has valid local knowledge and a desire to rid the city of ghosts. Crucially, the performers season a believable camaraderie.

The action is run-of-the-mill. The visuals, expectedly lively (it all goes a bit weird during a Godzilla meets Avengers final act, particularly when Feig invokes 2001: A Space Odyssey. Theodore Shapiro’s score is fun and bombastic and nods admiringly towards its predecessor. And the costume design matches that bombast, effectively reflecting the variable personalities of our four leads — especially the goggles-wearing Holtzmann, McKinnon’s wide eyes purveying excited madness. The story itself isn’t especially laudable, a criticism that has been thrown at many a recent franchise reboot. In a lot of ways Ghostbusters is vintage Feig, cultivating a light atmosphere with steady technical facets and the occasional barb. It is not as volatile as Bridesmaids, and thus not as good, emphasised by McCarthy’s less-brazen approach.

But Ghostbusters is fine. It’s a solid reboot, not narratively groundbreaking but funny enough (listen out for a terrific Jaws gag). It isn’t mistake-free: for whatever reason, there is a disorienting Ozzy Osbourne cameo and the human villain is a barely-realised two-dimensional prospect. However, Feig’s Ghostbusters is not going to taint whatever legacy the original has mustered, but will instead encourage a new generation of fans. It’s frothy, not vindictive. It’s another big studio reboot in an era of big studio reboots that people will either love or hate, and as they decide the world will keep spinning. Relax.

Ghostbusters - Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon & Leslie Jones

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Columbia Pictures

Jaws (1975)

★★★★★

Jaws PosterDirector: Steven Spielberg

Release Date: June 20th, 1975 (US); December 26th, 1975 (UK)

Genre: Adventure; Drama; Thriller

Starring: Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss

It is probably fair to say Jaws cemented Steven Spielberg’s status as a prominent athlete in the movie-making race. Released in 1975, the film ushered in a fresh era of monster flicks. Those hallmarks that we deem familiar in the genre today made their mainstream debut in Spielberg’s classic: the inaugural attack and subsequent denial; the saviour who is the only one bearing initial clarity; the prevention plan executed atop a wave of mayhem.

It is a blueprint that studios and filmmakers have followed since — the pitch for Alien famously included the tagline “Jaws in space” — primarily because the structure indiscriminately appeals to audiences. You only have to glance back at the last two summers to see the formula play out in Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla and Colin Trevorrow’s Jurassic World. Speaking of summer, Jaws is often also touted as the first seasonal blockbuster (it broke box office records upon release in the US). The catch? This blockbuster is one of those intelligently composed things.

Following the watery demise of a teenage girl via shark attack, the residents of Amity Island find themselves on high alert. Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) is tasked with developing a solution, but when the problem takes the form of a person-guzzling creature solutions are hard to come by. Bill Butler’s camera focuses directly on the words “shark attack” as Brody punches them into the death certificate of the aforementioned teen, the surrounding silence signifying both the solemnity at hand and the imminent danger. Everybody is a potential target because, on Amity Island, everybody is water-bound.

The locale is a “summer town [that] needs summer dollars,” according to Mayor Larry Vaughn (Murray Hamilton). Speaking to an agitated Brody, he continues, “You yell shark and we’ve got a panic on our hands on the 4th of July.” Though his use of the word panic is probably a reference to any incoming tourists, chances are he is more concerned about panic on the business front. It’s commercialism versus well-being, a duel unethically buffeted by a mayor who slinks around in a bright suit looking like a candy floss vendor selling treats that appear appetising but are ultimately bad for your health. And it’s Brody who takes the brunt of his poor decision-making: after a grieving mother vents her fury to Brody’s face, the film evolves into a tale of redemption and vengeance.

A smart and often snarky screenplay accommodates various themes and elevates Jaws well beyond popcorn entertainment (though it can be just that if you want it to). Originally written by Peter Benchley, the screenplay was reshaped by Carl Gottlieb, adapting his own novel, as filming got under way. And to his credit Spielberg values the duo’s writing just as much as he does tension building and aquatic action. This means there is wit in abundance, “we’re gonna need a bigger boat” being the obvious calling card. It is more than just a throwaway line though — the iconic scene quite brilliantly combines comedy, timing, and terror.

The shark seems to strike out of the blue. Though precautions are in place (shutting down beaches etc.) everything seems a bit rushed, a bit chaotic, as if the appearance of the creature is a wholly uncommon event. A rubbery meteor thrashing into an otherwise idyllic seaside lifestyle. Then there are the constant distractions — while Brody tries to keep an eye on swimmers, a plethora of unwary residents inundate him with random musings. And when the islanders catch a bogus shark, the local photographer is too busy taking photos for anyone to notice it’s the wrong fish.

Like an old Wild West villain, the shark has a $3,000 bounty placed on its fin. We don’t see it for a long time, but we do catch a glimpse of the consequences left in the monster’s wake: a crab-strewn arm; a volcanic bloodbath; various images of unevenly dissected limbs. You can do nothing but watch as its grey silhouette stalks the dangling legs of helpless victims whose idea of a beach vacation involves more relaxation and less chomping. Simmering in the background is this domestic strand about a father trying to introduce his sons to a dangerous world, juggling the virtues of the sea with the violence of its inhabitants.

There is a masculine theme at play too, and it particularly rears when boatman Quint (Robert Shaw) shows up, gruff and tough, parading a confidence and idly disrespecting those around him. But there is more to Quint, a clouded morality that swims beneath the surface. Robert Shaw delivers a revelatory monologue with a look on his face that denotes unsubtly disguised horror in one of the film’s more serene, excellent scenes. He joins Brody and oceanographer Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) on a voyage to oust the shark and as the three guys get grimier and drunker, you constantly wonder just how exactly they’re going to conquer the aqua beast.

Jaws’ score is often heralded for its tense beat that builds to a crescendo, but it also bears a swooping grandiosity that marks the film’s action-adventure element. Sharp high notes chirp along pleasantly, notes that composer John Williams would go on to recycle for the first few Harry Potter outings. The film isn’t an out-and-out horror flick but it does dabble in gruesome visuals and a playfully heart pounding atmosphere.

There is a bit of dip in stress levels just before the final act plays out, but you let it slide as Spielberg has spent so long admirably refraining from bluster, favouring human drama instead. Led by the quintessential everyman Chief Brody, his regular qualities superbly highlighted by Roy Scheider, Jaws manifests as a clever genre-chewer that still boasts significant bite 40 years on.

Jaws - Cast

Images credit: IMP Awards, The Guardian

Images copyright (©): Universal Pictures

Crash of the Titans: The Decline of the Actor

Stars - J Law 2

Following a dour weekend stateside for new film releases, that ever-intrusive question is banging around the cinemasphere again: What has happened to our movie stars? Now more than ever films are sold to audiences through an expertly crafted marketing gaze, and it seems the most effective marketing strategy for studios these days is to repeat that which was once successful.

Through no fault of their own, actors are no longer truly bankable; even the biggest and best have financial flops lingering in their back catalogues like an unwanted infection. The same could be said for directors, many of whom have helmed a financial disappointment. If you’re not Steven Spielberg or Martin Scorsese, chances are you’re not getting top billing on the poster. In fact hiring less well-known directors to oversee large productions is becoming an increasingly popular trend in Hollywood.

Instead, distributors are all wrapped up in promoting a marketable product these days. It’s partly why franchises are in vogue; they have a ready-made narrative structure in place and are therefore easier to sell. Skyfall currently flies the most successful British film ever made banner and, as good as his performance is in the film, chances are people didn’t scramble to their nearest cinema to catch a glimpse of Daniel Craig. They went for James Bond, the character, the familiar entity. Jennifer Lawrence is arguably the world’s most in demand actor, a reputation she has carved out for herself by being very good in two huge movie series (The Hunger Games and X-Men).

In the US, this past weekend saw name-value take another hit: Bradley Cooper and Sandra Bullock both had films released, and both films succumbed to poor box office returns. Cooper stars in Burnt, a culinary drama that took as little as $5 million, while Bullock’s vehicle is the political comedy Our Brand Is Crisis. The latter only managed to recoup $3.2 million of its $28 million budget. As those films struggled, grander ventures such as The Martian continued to reign supreme — thankfully, Ridley Scott’s sci-fi jaunt is one of the year’s best (another, in fairness, is franchise reboot Mad Max: Fury Road).

Stars - Sandra Bullock

While middle-of-the-road outings such as Burnt and Our Brand Is Crisis feel the weight of their franchise-less, big budget-less predicaments, the past 12 months have brought us this lot: Jurassic World, Fast & Furious 7, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Minions, four sequels (or prequel in the case of Minions) that greatly emphasised their pre-existing worlds during the sales pitch. Heck, Jurassic World went full throttle and unveiled distinctly recognisable posters to the world before incorporating an updated version of John Williams’ wonderful score in its trailer. Those movies, incidentally, are four of cinema’s largest ever grossers.

If the waning power of the actor wasn’t so explicitly obvious before, Suffragette may well have totally pulled the plug. Focus Features heavily promoted Meryl Streep’s involvement in the project alongside main players Carey Mulligan and Helena Bonham Carter, even though the iconic actor only appears on screen for a handful of minutes. Presumably, the studio expected her name-value to grasp the consumer’s attention and subsequently increase viewership. Unfortunately, the film has only grossed $11.6 million up until now (it’s in its fourth week), $2.4 million short of its initial budget.

There are pros and cons to our present age of sequel-dom. On the one hand, we get to see exhilarating and smart blockbuster outings such as the aforementioned Mad Max: Fury Road and also Marvel’s Ant-Man, these films succeeding in spite of their pre-established identities. But we also have to sit through monstrosities such as Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, a film that when issued back in 2009 arrived on the silver screen warmed by the security blanket of a guaranteed audience. A film, sadly, that hardly values quality.

There are exceptions to rule — some may call them diminishing lights amongst the bleak darkness — and one of those might be The Revenant. Granted the upcoming film will be riding the Oscar wave, particularly given its director Alejandro González Iñárritu is fresh off a golden statuette victory himself. But even films touched by the shiny sheen of an Academy Award nomination rarely yield monster returns — the 2015 crop harvested a circumstantially low intake — and it’s worth noting that these often host the flashiest names too. Steve Jobs, starring Michael Fassbender, is another potential awards-hauler performing poorly.

Stars - Leo DiCaprio

But back to The Revenant. There is an argument to be made that any financial success incurred by The Revenant will lie solely at the feet of its genuine A-list star, Leonardo DiCaprio. One of the last original flicks to make any real cash was Christopher Nolan’s Inception, also starring DiCaprio, though to claim that movie’s monetary success was exclusively down to said actor’s involvement would be a stretch. A genuine exception might be Spring Breakers, starring Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hugdens who, at the time, were Disney starlets. It made over $30 million on a $6 million budget.

A24 Films delivered Spring Breakers to audiences back in 2013 and since then the studio has prioritised freshness (though its movies don’t always boast big names). Its highest grossing picture thus far is Ex Machina, which featured relative newcomers Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson, and Alicia Vikander. Conversely, Under the Skin starring Avenger Scarlett Johansson failed to regain even half of its initial outlay. American Hustle, of the non-A24 Films variety, done well at the box office under the guidance of a conglomeration of star power: Christian Bale, Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, and Jeremy Renner were all involved.

Is it a good thing? Recent history suggests that the demise of the actor as a wholesale draw has meant most studios see the establishment of a brand as the only way forward. If true this approach cannot be healthy, as it would almost certainly encourage a lack of diversity in cinema (many will claim cinema is already lacking diversity). You might argue Gravity, starring Bullock and George Clooney, is an example of a film that was beefed up by its two major stars, but even that was marketed largely as an immersive and stunning cinematic experience. Clooney himself felt the brunt of ebbing clout when audiences opted not to see Tomorrowland: A World Beyond this past summer.

None of this should come as a surprise. The days of the star system are gone and in their place we have a society that subscribes to Netflix not to see a particular film, but because it’s Netflix. A Will Smith-led Bad Boys can no longer make over $140 million based solely on Will Smith’s appearance. The solution, if there is one, is an entirely different matter, though perhaps actors don’t need one. Perhaps studios and audiences just need to have more confidence in original movie-making.

Stars - Bradley Cooper

Images credit: Metro, Collider

Images copyright (©): Warner Bros. Pictures, 20th Century Fox, The Weinstein Company

Top 8 Films of 2015 (January-June)

In life it’s always worth taking a moment to stop and think. Before crossing the road, for example. During an exam. Just as you’re about to send out those inflammatory tweets. And especially when the cinematic year reaches its midpoint. At half-time, sports teams indulge in a studious team talk. This is our half-time team talk. A period of transitory reflection. Or, plainly, a great excuse to muster up a celebratory list singling out the best films released between January and June. Besides, if Mark Kermode does it, it’s worth doing.

I’ve decided not to include films released last year in the US. As such, the rankings won’t incorporate any of the 2015 Oscar crop – Birdman and Foxcatcher would definitely have made the cut otherwise. Though released this year in the UK, those are technically 2014 films. And so, from the great to the greater, let’s get going.

8. Inherent Vice

Inherent Vice PosterIt is very likely that your face will resemble Joaquin Phoenix’s poster expression by the end of Inherent Vice, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The film has a woozy magnetism that occasionally threatens to blind, but Phoenix’s aloof performance as an oddball 1970s detective keeps us attentive throughout (though probably not wholly aware). Paul Thomas Anderson is a really interesting director and this is another really interesting, if frequently bonkers, journey. Recurrent collaborator Robert Elswit provides hazy mood-setting cinematography. Josh Brolin also shows up bearing the flattest haircut in the history of cinema.

7. Kingsman: The Secret Service

Kingsman PosterAn amalgamation of Kick Ass’ thumping comic violence and Bond’s narrative flow, Kingsman: The Secret Service is an at times dazzling action-comedy. You do occasionally get the sense writer/director Matthew Vaughn’s errant imagination is overruling his common sense, but it is this exuberant mentality that funds the film’s enjoyability. Colin Firth ditches the stuttering king’s speech for something more poised and abrasive, while his fresh on the scene co-star Taron Egerton delivers a breakout performance. Firth also engages in a Quicksilver-esque slow motion church battle that has to be seen to be believed.

6. Jurassic World

Jurassic World PosterAs it continues to chomp its way through the global box office, Jurassic World is fast becoming one of the biggest films of all time in economic terms. Colin Trevorrow’s dinosaur delight is also a nostalgic powerhouse, respectful in its acknowledgement of Steven Spielberg’s breathtaking original but also geared towards a new generation of young, expectant cinemagoers. Underfed screenplay and character problems aside (no outright disasters), this is genuinely enjoyable cinema with a few spine-tingling moments to really savour. Listen out for the reverberations of John Williams’ glorious score, and keep an eye on that flare.

5. It Follows

It Follows PosterDavid Robert Mitchell’s second feature gained a lot of positive traction through word of mouth and subsequently found its way into cinemas nationwide across the UK and US. It Follows opens atop a barrage of tension, most of which the film never loses. There’s a vintage sheen at the fore, broadcast exquisitely via Mike Gioulakis’ rich cinematography, though we never actually find out when the movie is set (adding to the bizarre and unsettling goings-on). Maika Munroe is brilliant as the anti-scream queen in a patiently eerie horror outing that has more in common with John Hughes than it does Rob Zombie.

4. Ex Machina

Ex Machina PosterAnother wonderfully paced piece, Ex Machina manages to be both pristinely clinical and oddly ambiguous. Alex Garland, whose screenwriting backlog includes the stunning Sunshine, makes his directorial debut: a sci-fi mind-jolter set almost entirely within the shiny walls of a remote retreat. The director uses the element of mystery to great effect – character motives are never wholly clear. Oscar Isaac is pally yet deceitful, feeding Domhnall Gleeson’s inquisitive suspicions. Alicia Vikander also superbly captures the uncanny valley-like quality of a humanoid robot.

3. Avengers: Age of Ultron

Avengers Age of Ultron Poster 2Much like Jurassic World the second Avengers get-together suffers in the screenplay department. However, here it’s a case of over-complication as opposed to a lack of perceived originality. Age of Ultron isn’t difficult to follow, there’s simply a bit too much going on. And you can understand why: these characters are tremendous fun to be around, full of inevitable persiflage, and by now the actors have clicked as a collective unit. As Hawkeye, Jeremy Renner finally gets something meaningful to do and he does it with emotional gravitas. Joss Whedon’s final Marvel bow is one of the studios’ best so far.

2. Girlhood

Girlhood PosterGirlhood, a French independent drama that hones in on one girl’s social and cultural maturity, is quite the opposite. The film is compelling to no end, aided in abundance by lead actor Karidja Touré’s standoffish performance. The first time performer really is a joy to watch and a miraculous casting find. Crystel Fournier’s stylish cinematography contrasts thematically with an otherwise gritty, urban environment, highlighting the difference between dreams and reality. The film also hosts the year’s best scene so far: a stunningly shot group dance to Rihanna’s “Diamonds” that you’ll watch in a state of emotional fluctuation.

1. Mad Max: Fury Road

Mad Max Fury Road Poster 2Comparing the merits of a low-key European drama and a barnstorming Aussie dystopian epic is a pretty thankless task, but Mad Max: Fury Road just about edges top spot. After a thirty year break, George Miller delivers his best franchise instalment yet. Charlize Theron and Tom Hardy share the same type of niggling chemistry you’d expect to see in the middle of a high-intensity, life or death vehicular war. As Imperator Furiosa Theron is bullish and powerful, but the fact that she has a heart is why we care so much. Miller’s penchant for practical effects works a treat, helping to signify a seminal moment in action cinema.

Images credit: IMP Awards

Jurassic World (2015)

★★★★

Jurassic World PosterDirector: Colin Trevorrow

Release Date: June 11th, 2015 (UK); June 12th, 2015 (US)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Science fiction

Starring: Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Nick Robinson, Ty Simpkins

They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. In the context of filmmaking, it’s very easy to construe that as nothing more than an excuse for lazy writing or a general lack of ideas. Mainstream horror comes to mind, movies that retread the same ground so often that the concrete slabs below are eroding into nothingness. Jurassic World similarly stomps over familiar tracks, the same ones paved back in 1993 by Steven Spielberg.

Yet there’s an authentic admiration afoot in Colin Trevorrow’s work. Moments so sincere that any semblance of cynicism will be expunged from your psyche. A lot of goodwill has clearly been poured into the making of this fourth dino instalment, a film that undoubtedly strives to capture the fantastical magic of the first. It probably gets there in the end. We see imitation in spades and it’s flat out splendid.

Some time after the tumultuous events of Jurassic Park, Isla Nublar has been transformed into the tourist-attracting dinosaur paradise originally envisioned by John Hammond. Operations manager Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) invites her two nephews — gloomy Zach (Nick Robinson) and wide-eyed Gray (Ty Simpkins) — over to experience the park first-hand. When something inexplicably goes wrong, Claire and Velociraptor coach Owen (Chris Pratt) find themselves in a race to restore civility.

These characters are initially drawn rather whimsically. Chris Pratt’s Owen is the morally upright park hand who spends his time tucked away in a cabin fixing up motorcycles when he’s not training Velociraptors. Claire is work-obsessed, her penchant for sustainable order and satisfaction statistics often overruling any time spent with her nephews (both of whom also assume recognisable age-related traits). It’s all part of the writers’ plan though; imminent danger brings heroism and savviness to the fore, particularly in Claire whose transformation is punctuated in a scene where she literally rolls up her sleeves.

In fairness, there are early hints at this increasing character roundedness. Conversations about the new breed of dinosaur — Indominus Rex, a corporate attempt to freshen up the park — leave Claire flustered, suggesting she is somewhat torn by the possible consequences. “Indominus wasn’t bred, she was designed,” we hear ominously. Owen, despite treating his raptors with care and respect, is still holding them captive. The influence of corporations, poor animal welfare, and immoral science are all interesting themes that would have benefited from more breathing time in a film not contractually obliged to serve up grand bouts of action.

Occasionally, Trevorrow and his team of co-writers do return to the aforementioned themes — an exhilarating scene where Owen rides his bike among the raptors seems to suggest humans and dinosaurs are one in the same. But the moment of the movie, and a shoe-in for one of the moments of the entire year, belongs to Claire. It comes towards the conclusion, spine-tingling in delivery, and cements her place atop the annual cinematic table of quick-thinking badassery.

While Bryce Dallas Howard moulds into the cool aunt we always knew she could be — shooting errant dinosaurs and using her wily driving skills to protect her nephews — Chris Pratt remains impossibly cool throughout. He’s Indiana Jones, a surly customer not afraid to echo some juvenile Han Solo-esque one-liners. When he gets serious, he means it. The two actors appear effortless in their roles, and share an engaging, charmingly awkward chemistry.

An underfed yet sweet relationship plays out between brothers Zach and Gray too. Not helped by an unnecessary divorce plot strand, Nick Robinson and Ty Simpkins are fun to watch as the generic sibling duo who eventually, predictably, come to appreciate each other. Robinson, who excelled in The Kings of Summer, has natural charisma and could be a breakout role away from superstardom. Comparably younger, Simpkins defies the annoying kid curse and puts on an amiable show here.

Other members of a pleasingly diverse cast include Omar Sy, Jake Johnson, Lauren Lapkus, Vincent D’Onofrio, Irrfan Khan, and previous Jurassic survivor, BD Wong. Jimmy Fallon makes a hilarious cameo, striking a funny bone from which point the film gets gradually more amusing. Trevorrow manages to carefully balance light-hearted humour (which the franchise well known for) and rampaging action (which the franchise is also well known for). We see this during a dino football scene: the situation is terrifying in theory, but the visual of a marauding dinosaur thumping a giant glass ball around is humorous.

Action spots are aplenty, though never burdensome. Executed with boisterous energy, you willingly give into the air of childlike joy and genuine threat. One sequence sees the dinosaurs meet The Birds and we subsequently feel that film’s sense of impending, uncontrollable danger. A claustrophobic night vision routine looks like it has been lifted directly from the Zero Dark Thirty Abbottabad raid. These instigators of flickering emotion merge with John Schwartzman’s realistic-looking cinematography, and as such we constantly feel embedded in the story. This is, without doubt, a CGI masterstroke.

The same can’t be said for compelling dialogue, of which is there is very little. There are plenty of exposition-driven sound bites in first hour though, lines wrapped in a heightened dramatic effect, snippets that have an unfortunate made-for-trailer dynamic. The screenplay is ham-fisted, especially during the film’s opening third where the desire to induce peril overrides any airy character discussion. But the people and the sounds and the overall atmosphere collectively create a welcome distraction.

At its simplest — and it is often simple — Jurassic World is a nostalgic love letter to cinema. It is a wonderfully reminiscent piece bearing great admiration for Spielberg’s original, and is able to duplicate Jurassic Park’s most memorable moments without plunging into mawkish territory. We hear John Williams’ famous track early on, during a perfectly handled island tour sequence celebrating the magnificent park facilities (Tomorrowland… pfft), before it hits a crescendo coated in cinematic glee.

Those sort of goosebump-inducing moments are the foundation of the cinematic experience. Jurassic World is not the complete package by any means, but as far as celebratory storytelling goes, it has serious bite.

Jurassic World - Pratt & Howard

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Universal Pictures

Jurassic Park (1993)

★★★★

Director: Steven Spielberg

Release Date: June 11th, 1993 (US); July 16th, 1993 (UK)

Genre: Adventure; Science-fiction

Starring: Sam Neill, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum, Richard Attenborough

Who knew rippling water could be so menacing? Steven Spielberg’s early 90s dino classic swings from a slyly humorous thrill-ride to a tense environmental duel harbouring geopolitical connotations. Visually enticing beyond its years, the opening of Jurassic Park’s gates ushers forth a landmark in technological achievement on screen with effects that wouldn’t look too far out of place amongst the CGI blockbuster behemoths of today. There are one or two missteps along the way, most notably a paternal plot strand that feels forced rather than instinctive and an outrageous accent that seeps from the mouth of Richard Attenborough which at times threatens to boil over into caricature territory. Subtlety mightn’t be on the menu (that spot is reserved for human beings) and nor should it be in this rip-roaring tale of imagination, immorality and animatronics.

After a worker is killed by an errant Velociraptor, lawyer Donald Gennaro (Martin Ferraro) converges on Jurassic Park, an island owned by entrepreneur John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) and inhabited by cloned dinosaurs. Hammond simultaneously invites doctors Alan Grant (Sam Neill) and Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern), a palaeontologist and palaeobotanist respectively, to join the certification jaunt knowing the pair have more than keen interest in the fossil business. Mathematician Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) gets wind of the goings-on too and accompanies the party on their venture around the island that is prospected to open publicly in the near future. They ought to fix that fencing first though.

From the moment our ragtag band of explorers and suits reach their ill-fated destination, David Koepp’s screenplay based on Michael Crichton’s novel — also a co-writer here — strikes up a juxtaposition bearing an awesome visual gloss, but with a dirty underbelly. We first see the immense dinosaurs roaming across the landscape at the same time as Dr. Grant and company, the creatures’ awe-inspiring repertoire generating a sense of splendour. However, it’s not long before crass ignorance and abject misconduct take over; touring car doors are missing locks, the park is understaffed, a disinterested slob controls central safety measures and flimsy wired fencing is implemented as a harnessing mechanism. In essence, the park is a sham.

This notion of lawlessness disguised as grandeur is developed further as it latches onto certain characters. In a scene pivotal to the narrative’s apparent wary message, the group settle around a sleek table to discuss degrees of wrong. Is humanity’s imperious domination over nature — mirrored by CEO John Hammond’s genetic manipulation and cloning — immoral? Effectively, is this the rape of the natural world, to paraphrase mathematician Ian? Financial gain is presented as the ultimate destination for some (“We will have a coupon day or something”) whereas it’s the inherent allure of discovery for others. Spielberg refrains from indirectness here, instead placing his cards on the table and facing the query head on. The film asks questions that are perhaps even more relevant to this day, and doesn’t shirk away from picking sides. It’s a mature approach that, coupled with a visual affluence, successfully challenges the viewer to consider external prosperity gained at the cost of nefarious biochemical control and human tyranny over nature.

Tonally, Spielberg hammers a balance between the geopolitical and the humorous. Admirably, there’s no shortage of the latter as we see a witty, banterous dynamic rear between the various characters on display. As resident number-cruncher Ian, Jeff Goldblum scoops and skilfully delivers many of the funniest quips. Goldblum’s timing is terrific and the film would’ve benefited further if he had garnered more screen time towards the conclusion. Sam Neill’s Dr. Alan Grant relays humour cut from a blunter cloth, and his pseudo-Indiana Jones demeanour — the attire, the adventurous mind, the standoffish personality — is a tad camp, but amusing when paired alongside Ian, his polar opposite. In fact, an ongoing campiness exists throughout the film, embodied by zoomed-in camera shots on shocked faces and the occasional line cheesy in obviousness (“They’re approaching the tyrannosaur pen”).

The only significant issue Jurassic Park must contend with is a sub-plot that is unnecessary in existence and contrived in execution. John Hammond’s grandchildren arrive mid-way through, and it just so happens that they find themselves under the care of Dr. Grant, who dislikes children (“They smell”). Though the actors do a fine job and present a duo of child characters who are not in any way annoying, their inclusion feels primarily like a method solely intent on generating sympathy where sympathy is superfluous to requirements. At a stretch, it is conceivable to consider that the intention behind these characters is to reflect civilisation’s should-be protective instinct towards nature, though there is already enough weight behind this particular cog.

Other than Richard Attenborough’s disastrous Scottish accent that chimes more off-putting than funny, the remaining performances invariably contribute peripheral goofiness and/or tension. Laura Dern is Dr. Ellie Sattler and endears from start until finish. Samuel L. Jackson’s hard-headed poise is particularly humorous, playing a cigarette smoking engineer who oversees many of the park’s operations. Computer geek Dennis Nedry (paha) grumbles in his chair and bumbles in the rain — pathetic fallacy is almost a character on its own — and funny man Wayne Knight portrays this ineptness as well as anybody. And aside from the accent, Attenborough does well as the increasingly flaying visionary whose plans are progressively falling apart.

When we aren’t laughing or contemplating moralities, a brooding atmosphere grabs hold and gains momentum as the film evolves. The T-Rex reveal is timely; held back long enough to allow simmering anxiety and in turn create a mystique that bellows danger upon the dinosaur’s appearance. Cinematographer Dean Cundey captures the mechanical appearance of the park where metal fences, armoured vehicles, durable weapons and giant food dispensers retract from the dinosaurs’ animatronic motions, subsequently accentuating their perceived fluidity. Some scintillating sound work complements the tremendous visual array and bolsters said ominous atmosphere.

“We never had control, that’s the illusion!” bellows Dr. Sattler as proceedings begin to go awry. The line effectively sums up an inquisitive narrative that denounces immorality, but also wholly contradicts the efforts of Spielberg and co who absolutely always have control and resultantly chisel out an optical cinematic milestone.