Archive for July, 2015

Film Review: Jurassic World

Jurassic World (2015; Directed by Colin Trevorrow)

Steven Spielberg’s 1993 summer hit Jurassic Park is one of the unquestioned cultural monuments of neoliberalism. The first real Clinton Era blockbuster in both chronological and ideological terms, Jurassic Park put the artistic prowess of its populist director to work alongside the latest technology in practical and computer effects. It tapped the childhood id of dinosaur fanatics young and old while running the extinct prehistoric creatures through the monster movie playbook, with interludes of visual wonder, Hitchcockian suspense, and corporate satire sprinkled in as well. It was effective in creating thrills and profit and in crafting iconic cinematic moments (the towering Brachiosaurs, the T-Rex in the rain with its footfalls creating ripples in a water cup, the creeping Velociraptors in the kitchen).

But more than anything, Jurassic Park advanced the neoliberal project of cynically and ruthlessly exploiting science, nature, society, and people while maintaining the progressive pose of conscientious concern at the dangers of capitalist excess and hubristic overreach. Jurassic Park tut-tutted about science playing God while captivating audiences by doing basically that; it’s both pro- and anti-science, but that science, positive or negative, is always primarily at the service of capitalist greed. Like so many slick products of corporate Hollywood, it bemoaned corporate products as slick and dangerous, especially when they tinker with the primordial sublimity of the natural world. Jurassic Park was neoliberal to the core in its simultaneous embrace and disavowal of shiny American corporatism and all the advantages and setbacks that system entails; it was a purported corporate critique with its own instantly-recognizable corporate logo. And audiences gobbled it up like a Tyrannosaur swallowing a goat whole at feeding time.

Jurassic World is fundamentally also about neoliberal corporatism, and shares a central enlivening contradiction in relation to that prevailing system with the first film in the dinos-run-amok franchise (The Lost World and Jurassic Park III were not all bad, but they’re not much adored for a reason, too). Where Jurassic Park was a sort of pre-emptive strike against neoliberal hubris, an attempt to strangle it in its crib, Jurassic World revisits the inherent modern Prometheus warning fable of a modern theme park populated by genetically-cloned prehistoric beasts as a fully-formed, adult entity. The movie brings that entity crashing disastrously down in the best disaster movie spectacle tradition, of course, but again does so in a way that reinforces not only neoliberal capitalist imperatives but creeping traditional gender roles as well.

Jurassic World is set two decades after that initial “containment failure” at Isla Nublar off the coast of Costa Rica (actually mostly Kauai, Hawaii; those epic establishing shots of the Na Pali Coast could be nowhere else). After the dinos’ corporate overlords learned practical lessons but not grander moral or ethical ones from the series of disasters in previous films, a working, inescapably contemporary theme park featuring live dinosaurs has been opened to the public on the island, and is attracting paying hordes. The casual, tie-less, helicopter-flying CEO of the transnational corporation that runs Jurassic World, Simon Masrani (Irrfan Khan), has popped in for a visit, and is ushered around by the focused operations manager Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard). Claire’s nephews (Ty Simpkins and Nick Robinson) are also visiting, but she’s pawned them off on her assistant (Katie McGrath) because she’s too busy running a theme park full of living dinosaurs to, you know, take them for virgin margaritas at TGI Friday’s or whatever she’s expected to do with them. Meanwhile, rugged ex-Navy badass Owen Grady (Chris Pratt in Serious Face Mode) is training velociraptors to respond to his commands, which the military-industrial complex as represented by park security head Hoskins (Vincent D’Onofrio) believes may have huge potential in terms of weaponized application.

The initial expositional tour of the park facilities is conducted concurrently by Claire as she guides investors through the experimental labs run by Dr. Henry Wu (B.D. Wong, the sole cast carryover from previous films) and via the awestruck gaze of the Nephews, who seem fine checking out the attractions without her. As a critical aside, they do have names (Gray and Zach or some other such suburban nomenclature), but I see little reason to refer to the boys as anything but the Nephews. They exist in a virtual side-plot of their own most of the time, and are only very thinly characterized. The movie intermittently remembers that younger Gray is a science nerd but doesn’t employ that part of his personality in any useful way, while elder Zach likes texting and girls because what else would he like? They’re worried that their parents are divorcing and talk about Sticking Together as Brothers and endure an insufferable Jimmy Fallon cameo but are basically only here to be young and frightened and in peril because if you don’t have that in this franchise, Spielberg won’t send you a Christmas card, I suppose.

Anyway, Jurassic World is a Disneyworld/Universal Studios/Sea World/zoo/museum hybrid with hotel resorts, monorails, a toney retail and dining pedestrian mall, and a corporate-sponsored “Innovation Pavilion” with holographic exhibits and a statue of the first film’s grandfatherly visionary boss/case study in caution from hubris, John Hammond. Claire compares the whole venture to the space program and indeed it’s all run from a huge control room straight out of NASA, although that budget-strapped agency probably wishes it had access to the funding resources at play on the island. It’s a gleaming testament to all that neoliberal capitalism can accomplish, marshalling science and finance and tourism and generalized profit-seeking of all kinds to grand, lucrative effect, selling pre-packaged wonderment to the masses for a hefty fee.


Raptors, you’re being very Un-Dude.

Of course, this must all come crashing down. The fox in this particular monetized henhouse is a specially-bred new super-attraction called Indominus Rex, a Frankenwu’s monster of a mega-predator with a dangerous mixture of genes, a high level of intelligence, and violent behavioural pathologies resulting from being raised in captivity. The product of focus group research as much as genetic experimentation, the beast busts out of its paddock and wreaks all sorts of havoc, leading to a panicked evacuation and a hyper-militarized containment effort while Owen, Claire, and the Nephews alternately run for their damn lives and try to eliminate the threat in whatever manner possible.

The Indominus Rex is a symbolic hybrid as well as a genetic one, a primordial refutation of man’s purported mastery over nature with mixed elements of Mary Shelley’s reanimated monster, Godzilla, and Melville’s great white whale at play. But it’s also associated very clearly and troublingly with Claire and her representation of modern femininity. The half-glimpsed introduction of the Indominus includes an observation by Masrani that it’s female and white in colour, and it’s impossible to miss that Claire is likewise decked out in an all-white outfit as he notes this. Jurassic World views both the confident, self-possessed professional woman and the genetically-engineered all-killing horror of the Indominus Rex as equivalent aberrations of nature. Claire has not seen her nephews in seven years and brushes them aside in favour of her professional duties; their mother does the same at the cost of her marriage, it’s implied, though she cares more deeply and maternally for her sons; the Indominus killed and ate its only family, a test-tube sibling. The inescapable message is that strong, independent females, be they human or dinosaurid, pose a danger to society when they discard their natural maternal instincts.

Claire’s narrative arc bends towards correct emotional socialization in this sphere, through teaming with the traditional male hero figure in the form of Owen (with whom she had a previous dalliance that is referred to in a cringe-worthy scene of swirling sexism between them), with his acrid stench of testosterone, to protect their makeshift family unit in the crucible of crisis. To Jurassic World‘s mild credit, this doesn’t happen in a manner precisely commensurate with traditional gender hierarchies, despite the anticipatory set-up. Claire is hardly a passive damsel in distress, sprinting away from therapods in heels (Claire wears the heels, not the therapods, although I like the image) and saving Owen from a vicious pterosaur with the butt and barrel ends of a rifle. Her formidability as a career-first woman transfers to a formidability in the milieu of action, it is implied; sprinkle in some belated maternal yearnings and you’ve got the perfect woman for a pack alpha like Owen.

The gestures towards traditional family connections in Jurassic World are ultimately as perfunctory as the movie’s critiques of neoliberal capitalism. The business and operational infrastructure of the theme park is a market-researched hybrid like the Indominus, a collaboration of corporate capital and administration, branded shopping, science and industry, and military contractors. It looks a lot like contemporary American capitalism, in other words, and all of it fails in concert to contain the “asset” when it gets out of control. This is a common contemporary perspective towards the power and authority of the neoliberal elite of Western democracies: just as assuredly as its buzzword bromides about consumer freedom and fulfillment mask exploitation and structural dissatisfaction, its professionalized expertise and mastery is frequently thrown into doubt by the basic unpredictability and unmanageability of our world.

Jurassic World visualizes this breakdown in a chaotic sequence on Jurassic Boulevard, as a flock of pterosaurs escape their domed aviary and descend predatorially on terror-stricken tourists (there’s a funny fleeting bit of one guy at an al fresco bar rushing to safety while carefully trying not to spill the tropical hi-balls in each hand which should not pass without mention). It’s a clear homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, an image of nature judging humanity’s trespasses from above and dispatching winged avengers as punishment. The attack of the birds in Hitchcock’s film has often been interpreted as being infused with vengeful maternal energies, an oedipal balancing on the part of the natural order when faced with the irruption of a strain of femininity whose motivations are other than biologically-grounded. There’s an element of that at play in Jurassic World‘s version of the scene, although the punished transgression of the natural order is on the part of corporate capitalism, of which transgressive modern femininity is couched as a mere symptom.

This interpretation is strengthened by the film’s tremendously silly but undeniably rousing climax, also set on that same half-destroyed commercial strip. Owen, Claire, and the Nephews team up with the lead raptor from the trained pack and a released T-Rex to bring down the rampaging Indominus at last. It’s a delirious fan-fiction turn in the Jurassic Park universe redolent of the popular rehabilitation of Kong or Godzilla as heroic figures rather than as destructive villains as per original intent, fulfilling geek wishes as the iconic classic dinos from the original film subdue the unnatural hybrid animal that has existed only in CGI design. It’s also suffused with the franchise’s own marketing iconography, as Owen and the Nephews shelter in a souvenir shop with logo merchandise surrounding them and nearly suffocating them.

Jurassic World carries thematic notes of anti-capitalism run through a natural order filter, but the conscientious viewer would be well-served to heed the words of D’Onofrio’s Hoskins, who characterizes even enlightened neoliberal capitalism as operating on the survival imperatives of the Darwinian jungle. The tentative family unit of Owen and Claire is also forged on the premise of mutual survival of that sort. In Jurassic World, the setting, premise, and featured creatures are both prehistoric and modern, and so are the thematic and metaphoric implications of socioeconomics, power, and gender roles.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Television Review: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (BBC; 2015)

For a longtime devotee and serial recommender of Susannah Clarke’s 2004 novel Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, the prospect of any screen adaptation of this most absorbing and beguiling tale of magic and manners in the Early 19th Century England sparks excitement and trepidation in nearly equal measure. Excitement at witnessing the book given visual form, with sumptuous sets and costumes, handsome cinematography and computer effects, and idiosyncratic performances by observant actors. Trepidation at the inevitable pitfalls of adaptation, and the helpless petit morts of disappointments when some cherished narrative element, characterization, or mental image from the pages does not transfer with the proper alacrity to the screen.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell has taken a long path from book to screen before landing at long last at the BBC, whose attractive if streamlined seven-part miniseries based on the novel and directed by Toby Haynes recently completed its broadcast run in the UK (BBC America is still in the midst of airing the weekly episodes in the U.S., while Space has the Canadian broadcast rights). New Line Cinema snapped up the movie rights and planned a big-screen version as an expansion of its post-Lord of the Rings profile as a fantasy genre powerhouse, but the project never proceeded beyond the screenwriting phase as other British fantasy literature adaptations like The Golden Compass flopped and New Line Cinema went belly-up and was swallowed by Warner Brothers. The BBC stepped into the breach in 2012 and produced the final adaptation, which at seven hours surely covers more of Clarke’s thick tome with a keener British eye, albeit with a lesser budget and weaker onscreen talent than Hollywood could probably have mustered.

strangeandnorrellHaynes’ television version has widescreen ambitions, but translates Clarke’s narrative surprising closely, at least to begin with (greater dramatic liberties creep in as the climax approaches, some of them of a dubious and cliched nature). That narrative concerns the titular gentlemen, who semi-reluctantly restore the public practice of magic in England in the early 1800s after it has lain dormant since the waning days of the Middle Ages. Clarke imagines a compelling but merely sketched alternate history of England in which magic and faeries play an important part. At the dark heart of this history is a legendary (and more than a little sinister) figure known as the Raven King, a magic-practicing monarch who ruled Northern England from Newcastle for 400 years before vanishing, perhaps into death, perhaps into another world. The heritage of his rule is still felt in the gothic moors of the northern shires, an ever-haunting mist of gloomy superstition set against the rational, imperial, and mercantile modern state of London and the South.

The historical-fantasy events related take place between 1806 and 1817, as England struggles against Napoleon on the continent. The wealthy reclusive landowner and scholar Gilbert Norrell (Eddie Marsan) is coaxed out of seclusion by a Yorkshire society of “theoretical magicians”; “theoretical” because they’ve read about magic in books (though not many good ones, as Norrell has ravenously bought them all up) but never performed acts of magic themselves. Norrell claims to be able to do magic, and is convinced by Society members John Segundus (Edward Hogg) and Mr. Honeyfoot (Brian Pettifer) to hazard a demonstration. Norrell obliges, bringing the carven stone statues inside the cathedral church of York Minster to sudden, jabbering life for the amazed members of the Society (this first instance of the magical is milked for atmospherics in the dim grandeur of the Minster). This public return of the practice of magic to England brings Norrell to overnight prominence, although it ends the operations of the York Society, part of the exacting Norrell’s desire to control the practice of and discourse around magic in the country as completely as possible.

Norrell arrives to great fanfare in London with the expressed intent of restoring English magic to a more respectable and modern place in society, in contrast to the wild and dangerous magic of the Raven King, whose magical practices Norrell despises and finds unsuitable to the modern context. Accompanied by his grim, tarot-card-toting servant Childermass (the excellently sneering Enzo Cilenti), the bookish, peevish Norrell has trouble establishing himself and magic in London society at first, but scene gadflies Drawlight (Vincent Franklin) and Lascelles (John Heffernan) soon usher him into the proper circles. He gains the attention and the trust of the government when he effects the miraculous resurrection of Lady Pole (Alice Englert), the fiancee of minister Sir Walter Pole (Samuel West) who has tragically died shortly before their wedding. Unfortunately, in order to raise her from the dead and gain the influence and notice for his magic that he so craves, Norrell must call upon forces of magic that have been long kept out of the human world, and for good reason.

Meanwhile, an amiable but aimless country gentleman named Jonathan Strange (Bertie Carvel) quite accidentally (or perhaps not so) happens upon a travelling street magician named Vinculus (Paul Kaye), who sells him some magic spells which Strange then performs with the élan of an unschooled natural. Strange and his newlywed wife Arabella (Charlotte Riley) are soon ensconced in London, where Strange becomes the pupil of Norrell in a partnership that will prove extremely tumultuous as well as decisive for the course of magic in England. The two magicians of very different temperments and outlooks will become embroiled in the struggle against Napoleon, against each other, and against a powerful foe from the land of Faerie with thistle-down hair and a certain sartorial strangeandnorrell1flair (Marc Warren), who has eyes for Lady Pole, for Sir Walter’s African butler Stephen Black (Ariyon Bakare), and for Arabella, and will not let two English magicians stand in his way.

Even such a detailed plot summary barely scratches the surface of what makes Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell such a rare delight on the page. Clarke combines a Dickensian flair for eccentric character (especially with figures like the sycophantic fop Drawlight, played with impeccable smarm by Franklin, who adds the canny detail of Frenchifying the pronunciation of his magician patron’s name: “Nor-relle!”) with a mordant, dry wit in her narrative voice, an impeccable and endlessly clever pastiche of Jane Austen’s recognizable free indirect speech. If it sounds a bit old-fashioned in literary terms, it both is and isn’t. Clarke’s book is a tremendously bookish read, full of nested narratives and illustrative anecdotes from magical history that are often self-reflexive if not necessarily post-modern. Many of these are contained in her wonderful footnotes, which sometimes take precedence over the main text itself but generally act as tangents from the main story that are at the same time illuminating and obscuring, distracting and deepening (Strange, for example, is introduced in a footnote before he ever appears in the narrative proper).

Her use of magic is also a marvel. Unlike the wand-pointing and Latin spell-declaiming of the Harry Potter universe to which Clarke’s world has been (unproductively) compared to, magic in Strange & Norrell is unsettling and unpredictable, an uneasy and sometimes imperceptible warping of the rhythms of the quotidian world. It manifests as an invisible smoke, in the reflections of mirrors and the language of birds, emerging out of dusty libraries and busy city squares like a secret door being opened for only a fraction of a second. Even the ampersand in the title seems like an unfamiliar rune, a mystery separating the two magicians. Magic is a digression from the “real” world, a match for her self-aware literary voice in telling her story.

It should be fairly clear from the outset that no visual medium, with its stark representational requirements, can approximate such purely literary devices, such purposely, artfully vague and suggestive descriptions. Images, dialogue, and tics of actors’ performances must perform similar functions, or broad, brief strokes of them at least, and that is what Haynes’ Strange & Norrell does. It frequently does a very impressive job of this. This miniseries is handsomely shot and miraculous lit. The period-recreation sets bristle with details both immersive and symbolically suggestive. The special effects are well-rendered and effectively used if noticeably restrained in comparison to blockbuster films, although the appearance of misty rain ships off the French coast or galloping horses conjured from sand are couched as showy spectacle rather than with Clarke’s nuanced diminishment of magic’s effectiveness (Strange’s spells in particular have a habit of getting out of his control and becoming a mischievous nuisance in the book).

“Your cravat is beautifully starched, but I shall still have to kill you horribly, I’m afraid.”

Both Carvel and Marsan are dedicated and mostly beyond reproach in their embodiment of the titular magicians. Marsan’s peevish, self-serious Norrell glowers in his library with his old-fashioned wig (it almost deserves its own cast credit, especially after its suffering in the finale), tugged between Childermass’s underworld knowledge of magic doings and the increasingly manipulative influence of Lascelles but occasionally capable of a wide, infectious impish grin at an unexpected display of magic by Strange. He’s a putative dictator of magic in the nation, naturally suspicious of rivals and even of his talented pupil for reasons that are never quite elucidated in Peter Harness’s script but that aren’t hard to fathom given Marsan’s characterization of the inherently fearful little man. Carvel, with his uneven hair and careless grin, represents a telling contrast. His eccentricity (and incipient madness) aligns him with the haphazard, hidden world of magic more closely than does Norrell’s prim, cranky bookishness, and makes the Raven King a much more fascinating figure to him. The younger Strange carries much more of the action than does Norrell, and whether bantering with Lord Wellington or the mad King George III or defending himself on the battlefield of Waterloo with desperate magic, Carvel seems ever in his element.

The supporting cast, however, is considerable less so, suffering from the relative compression of the material and flattened characterization as well as from casting less prominent talents for a more marginal television production. Riley’s Arabella is not such a clever, enticing partner for Strange as on the page, and their separation and his quest to get her back is rendered in much more conventional tragic romance terms (they also sleep in the same bed, which plays into an important plot point but is wholly unbelievable for anyone with any knowledge of the upper-class marriage conventions of the period). Cilenti and Kaye are pretty great together (and are at the centre of the closest thing to a sequel stinger that the series can manage), as are Warren and Bakare, although the latter lacks in general as Stephen.

Something rather substantial is missing from the gentleman with thistle-down hair as Harness writes him and as Warren plays him, however. On screen, Warren plays the troublesome faerie as consistently imperious and sinister, every inch the obvious villain at every moment. He becomes serious at times in the book, but when he does Clarke describes him “putting on grave and important looks quite unlike his usual expression”. Warren is always putting on grave and important looks, and his mercuriousness, his changeability, his fundamental faerie-ness, is entirely lost. It’s an important mistake, and as a result the character not only feels wrong to the book reader but distinctly single-note to the neophyte to the material.

While the television miniseries context makes for a less truncated narrative, its more limited set of resources dials back the ambition of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell in what will surely be its definitive screen version. A Hollywood blockbuster take on the material, even one extended over an unlikely two or three films, could very well make many of the same debatable adaptation choices and character missteps as were made here. It may well have butchered other elements as well, while not getting nearly as much right as this Haynes version does. Despite my misgivings there is plenty of good here; this is not at all an unreasonable or unrecognizable screen version of Clarke’s book, and is in fact a frequently entertaining one made with real craft and verve and respect for the source (which one hopes will gain new readers via the show, as it is by far the superior work). Still, there remains a small but unavoidable sense of mild despondency when considering that this is the only Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell screen version that lovers of the book will get. As good as it mostly is, there is often something missing that diminishes the magic.