Midnight Special (2016)

★★★★

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Midnight Special PosterDirector: Jeff Nichols

Release Date: March 18th, 2016 (US); April 8th, 2016 (UK)

Genre: Adventure; Drama; Science fiction

Starring: Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Jaeden Lieberher, Kirsten Dunst

The opening shot of Midnight Special shows a motel door peephole. The peephole offers those inside the motel room the ability to spy on any external goings-on, and is in fact the only means to such an end: each of the room’s windows have been dressed in cardboard by occupants wary, perhaps, of the instability of conventional curtains. One of the room’s occupants, Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), has even donned enormous orange headphones and a pair of goggles, ears and eyes shielded from something, or maybe someone. It is a brilliant introduction to this patient, mysterious world created by Jeff Nichols, without doubt one of the most exciting up-and-coming filmmakers working today.

A number of forces are after Alton for a number of reasons: the FBI, for fear of his invasive abilities, that the child can undercut complicated governmental systems albeit without malice, and a Texas cult corrupted by the promise of an upcoming day of reckoning. Adam Driver represents the former as Paul Sevier, a compassionate analyst of sorts, and ranch leader Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard) the latter. See, Alton possesses a variety of characteristics not written into the laws of physics. His eyes shoot blinding beams of light and his mind works prophetically, both of which make him valuable. But nobody values him more than his father Roy (Michael Shannon) who, with the assistance of friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton), sets out to shield Alton from harm.

Moral complexities are at large early on. Roy and Lucas’ motives aren’t initially clear therefore Shannon and Edgerton must convey a sense of righteousness or otherwise. As they leave their motel room with Alton, we cut to a suspicious receptionist. Shortly thereafter, the pair endure a nasty collision on the road and have a run-in with a state trooper which ends when the latter is shot. It’s not exactly a heroic introduction, but subtle nuances get us onside: Shannon’s paternal vibe towards his son and Alton’s reciprocal nature; Edgerton’s considered demeanour and his character’s need to protect any innocent bystanders (shooting not to kill the trooper, for instance).

The film is also Spielbergian in many ways, from its science fiction touch to how it places youth on a pedestal. You first notice the similarities in a dusk horizon shot, where the various silhouettes of imposing military trucks can be seen advancing along a shadowy road, the background an orange-tinted sky. A general nighttime vibe exists throughout the piece, partially because the screenplay requires it, but also because darkness funds an overarching sense of uncertainty and mystique. Visual flair is mostly restrained, though the film does let loose on two occasions with incredible results — especially incredible given the comparatively meagre $18 million budget.

Its celebration of youthful imagination is another trope from Spielberg’s wheelhouse, enacted generally across the piece but also more intimately when we see Alton reading a Human Torch comic. “Reading’s reading,” Lucas claims, to which Roy glumly replies, “He needs to know what’s real”. Lucas has been won over not just by Alton’s abilities but also his humanness. Roy, while evidently full of love for his son, is more strict when it comes to completing the task; that is, getting Alton to where he needs to be. Perhaps this early in proceedings Roy is unwilling to fully accept the consequences of doing so, which only adds further heft to his journey.

But he does have faith. Religion, the inevitability of one’s beliefs, the cultish haranguing instigated by an isolated community — these are all explored in Midnight Special. Calvin’s ranch carries significant pull, even to those who have left. “Do you miss it?” Roy asks former member Elden (David Jensen), and you can bet he does. We don’t really know anything about those on the ranch, nor those who have escaped, which includes Roy and his wife Sarah (Kirsten Dunst). Their backstories might have benefited from some filling in, though you have to commend Nichols for his consistency in letting the audience make up their own minds. And there certainly isn’t a total information blackout. Rather, this feels like a well-crafted piece, where each event and scene and conversation carries meaning.

It is always easy to compare a filmmaker’s current work to his/her previous efforts, though such a comparison makes sense here. In many ways, Nichols has taken the most appetising ingredients from both Take Shelter and Mud and moulded them into a sci-fi base: the former’s apocalyptic vision and air of encroaching trouble tags with the latter’s unflashy, youngster-imbued agenda. Alton is the physical manifestation of both elements, a dangerous otherworldly presence to some, yet to others simply a child searching for answers. Television news reels spew out stories on crippling addiction while honchos in suits decry the possibility of nuclear decimation, paranoid and afraid of change even if it is for the better.

Despite being set in contemporary times, the film has an undeniable retro quality similar to that purveyed in Super 8 (though clearly J.J. Abrams’ movie is set in a period that matches its retro-scape). David Wingo’s oscillating, spacey score somewhat soothes our ears as it recalls Alton’s futuristic attributes. It tends to play over scenes involving Alton and never jars, instead shining a positive light on what the boy could represent — that aforementioned change for the better — as well as his family’s motives. At times the music also reminded me of Kristin Øhrn Dyrud’s work in Coherence, a small sci-fi thriller bred from a similar pool of cagey mystery.

For those of you who thought Tomorrowland: A World Beyond lacked concrete storytelling or a consistent strain of intrigue, there’s every chance Midnight Special is film you have been looking for. While Nichols’ outing doesn’t flourish through splendour, it does keep the viewer engrossed for the duration. You have to be; various ideas are floated around — including concepts I haven’t touched upon here, such as undemocratic government surveillance — and it is often up to us to make our own moral judgement. Midnight Special is as much an on-the-road drama as it is any other genre, but it’s also very effective sci-fi. The special stuff, almost.

Midnight Special - Jaeden Lieberher & Michael Shannon

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Warner Bros.

Bridge of Spies (2015)

★★★★★

Bridge of Spies PosterDirector: Steven Spielberg

Release Date: October 16th, 2015 (US); November 27th, 2015 (UK)

Genre: Biography; Drama; History

Starring: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance

Silence dominates the opening moments of Bridge of Spies. Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) is the target, tailed by a swarm of men wearing fedoras. The possible KGB operative remains stony-faced — his dirty nails suggesting foul play — as he retrieves a silver coin which, after much tinkering and magnifying, opens to reveal a tiny folded message. It’s the late-1950s and the Cold War is at its peak. The US is feeling the after-effects of the Rosenbergs. McCarthyism is rife. Trials and conspiracies dominate the landscape. Director Steven Spielberg even insists upon showing us the construction of the Berlin Wall and the ensuing chaos in Germany. It’s that kind of movie.

Back in the US, a country scarred mentally rather than physically by rising tensions, we meet lawyer James Donovan. Donovan is clearly a smart man, and we don’t simply know this because he’s being played by Tom Hanks; we also see him outwit a fellow professional during a metaphor-heavy conversation about bowling pins and tornadoes. He has a way with words, and reverberates a diplomacy that wholly fits his occupation. For this reason Donovan ends up defending Abel in court, a job his superior suggests will be straightforward given guilt is unequivocal. Simply put, “It’s a patriotic duty”. “Everyone will hate me, but at least I’ll lose”, quips Donovan. It’s also that kind of movie.

See, Donovan is a beacon of ethical clarity in a murky world, and that’s why we endorse him with so much fondness. He relentlessly holds injustice to account in the name of his client despite the subsequent threat faced by himself and his family. It is right to defend a potentially wrong man, but is it feasible to do so under such conditions? Perhaps not, yet the upstanding advocate defends anyway. On the topic of family, Spielberg’s admiration and respect for children once again shines through during a talk between Donovan and his son — the latter, though young, hurdles naivety by understanding war is a possibility, and has intelligently worked out the potential radius of an atom bomb in preparation.

Bridge of Spies isn’t a boots-on-the-ground war film though. Rather, it is one that pits apparently important men around tables as they discuss the probability of battle without ever having to actively engage themselves. If anything, events on screen are propelled by a “war of information,” and we get lots of just that via high-stakes-cum-low-key rounds of dialogue. Donovan is at the centre of it all and often finds himself in no man’s land, devoid of support. He faces a grouchy judge in his quest for fairness, and a grouchy US too: locals stare at him with contempt when they realise he is the one defending the Soviet and Donovan unjustly becomes a rash on the domestic landscape.

That’s not how we see it though. Hanks offers more than just A-list reliability; he negotiates political wrinkles and unfair judgement with everyman aplomb. When two Americans face prosecution and trade deals are optioned, Hanks irons out any narrative complications with charm and a coherent tongue. There is nobody better at playing this type of role. On the opposing side, Mark Rylance affords Abel true mystery. The uncouth detachment that the infiltrator purveys could just be an act — he is a foreign agent, after all. But there is a constant kindness to Abel’s words, embodied by his “standing man” speech that reveals itself to be a masterclass in subtlety, beautifully delivered by Rylance.

A rustic production design blankets the movie in a 50s sheen. People use typewriters, wear grey trench coats, and smoke cigars. Yet there is an unavoidable modern truth at the fore too. “This Russian spy came here to threaten our way of life,” barks one particularly cheesed off American lawman, a statement that could easily be reshaped and applied to the climate of cultural blame within which we currently reside. Matt Charman and the Coen brothers’ screenwriting examines what borders mean in conjunction with matters of law (and, by proxy, matters of humanity). This forms another sturdy basis from which we can empathise with the characters on screen (Donovan, for instance, believes Abel has the right to a proper trial even though he isn’t an American citizen).

Spielberg harks back to Road to Perdition with his use of heavy rainfall, dripping umbrellas, and general murkiness. But also, oddly, bouts of light humour and fleeting courtroom trips recall Rob Reiner’s A Few Good Men. The Coen brothers’ screenplay inflections are those moments of dry comedy, generously spread throughout to loosen the dramatic belt while still giving room to the film’s weighty subject matter. Upon arrival in Germany for tetchy negotiations, Donovan takes up residence in a dingy apartment as his partners, conveniently unable to assist on the ground, are cosied up in the local Hilton hotel.

The gags are a treat, but the imminent possibility of peril seldom retreats. In fact, it grows stronger when we reach East Berlin; a shot from inside a train passing over the Berlin Wall highlights the difference between the fairly controlled west and the decimated east, forming a potential ‘before’ and ‘after’ picture for Donovan should he slip up and fuel the war bid. It is not as tense as, say, Sicario, but the threat of war does teeter on a knife edge and you can just about see each sway amongst the chilly mist.

Thomas Newman contributes a beautiful score that inspires and haunts as it reflects the changing landscapes: homely US, arctic Germany. In typical Spielbergian fashion, Newman’s score also tugs at our heartstrings, either through its grandiose scope (Saving Private Ryan occasionally springs to mind) or, as is the case towards the film’s conclusion, a simple piano melody. It almost goes without saying in 2015 but Spielberg himself is on fine form as he juggles a whole host of characters — Amy Ryan, Jesse Plemons, Sebastian Koch, and many more ably support — and a potentially tricky script with sure-fire handiness.

It’s not excessively complex filmmaking, nor is it in any way underfed. There is a clear start point, a clear end point (a lovely one at that), and an admirable confidence in the material. Bridge of Spies is a wonderful, eloquent piece of cinema, delivered by a directorial giant unafraid to promote the practice of principles, and actors who clearly cherish the process. It’s the kind of film that makes going to the pictures worthwhile. It’s that kind of movie.

Bridge of Spies - Tom Hanks

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, 20th Century Fox

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

Back to the Future, Back in the Cinema

Back to the Future - Doc & Marty

It’s the franchise that was never supposed to grace the silver screen again — director Robert Zemeckis has said so himself on many occasions — but the Jaws 19-decrying Back to the Future trilogy zoomed back into cinemas all over the world on Wednesday, breaking its own steadfast rule as a result. Great Scott! Heavy indeed.

But fear not. Zemeckis’ insistence that there shan’t ever be a Part IV is still set in stone, and as such Back to the Future’s legacy will remain firmly intact for the foreseeable, um, future. The trilogy’s re-release arrived as part of a wholesale cinematic celebration and moviegoers seemed to lap it up, attending screenings in their droves. October 21st, 2015 is a date that has been permanently marked in all of our calendars ever since Marty McFly and Emmett “Doc” Brown ventured from their 80s-set suburban existence through time, before landing in a world of self-tying trainers and hoverboards. The former has come to fruition in real life. Sadly, we are still waiting on the arrival of latter.

Back to the Future - Jaws 19

Variety is reporting that the trilogy garnered a respectable $4.8 million worldwide from its one-day rendezvous, a total comprised of North America’s $1.65 million domestic gross and an international intake of around $3.2 million. Those are heartening figures, especially when you take into account the day of the week (i.e. that it wasn’t a Friday or a weekend) and the pretty demanding near six-hour runtime for those sitting through all three films.

By comparison, Ghostbusters gained an extra $3.5 million in domestic revenue when it embarked upon its 30th Anniversary encore last year, and we all know just how highly regarded that outing is. Zemeckis, who coincidentally had to face off against himself at box office on Wednesday, will presumably be delighted that his franchise — produced by Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment — is still held in such high regard after 30 years. That’s the power of love.

For those few of you out there who aren’t up to speed on the madcap world of Hill Valley, California, the trilogy follows the trailblazing exploits of Marty (Michael J. Fox) and Doc (Christopher Lloyd) as they invariably travel backwards and forwards through time in order to influence a whole host of life events. Hilarity, unsurprisingly, ensues. Lea Thompson, Crispin Glover, Thomas F. Wilson, and Elizabeth Sue also star in one of cinema’s most endearing products.

Back to the Future - Mum & Marty

Images credit: Collider

Images copyright (©): Universal Pictures

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

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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.