Spared no expense on everything but story

This is not the most unbelievable thing about Jurassic World. At least mosasaurs actually existed.
This is not the most unbelievable thing about Jurassic World. At least mosasaurs actually existed.

There are lots of things you can do with collaborators. Build a house, manage some kind of project that synergises all the paradigms, play sports. There are even things you can do with collaborators in film production: set up lights, operate cameras, run cables, produce. I am of the very strong opinion, though, that there is one thing you can’t do as a team: write a script. And if you need an absolute case-in-point as to why this is now indisputable fact: go watch Jurassic World.

I had very low expectations of this film going in, but there was still a part of me that really wanted to get swept up and then blown away. I wanted to rekindle some of that magic from that moment in Jurassic Park where Alan Grant turns Ellie Satler’s head so she can gawp at the brachiosaurs. The thing with Jurassic Park, though, is that they were restrained by technology. Time and time again, this restriction has led to some of the most innovative — and believeable — filmmaking. The combination of early CGI with models, miniatures, and animatronics, had the audience holding their breath with every T-Rex footstep. The other Spielbergian touch that really worked in the original is the idea of hiding the monster. This is something he started with Jaws (for budgetary reasons), but which ended up being so very effective. If you hide the monster, you can build the script and the characters around that suspense, such that when you do reveal the demon in full, it becomes a focal point: the final conflict, which ultimately leads to resolution.

This sense of wonder mingled with deft suspense, this ability to suspend disbelief, this logical story progression, was entirely absent from Jurassic World. Instead we get Male (Chris Pratt) off-handedly flirting with Female (Bryce Dallas Howard) while the genetically-modified hybrid dinosaur runs amok in an inexplicably fully-functioning dinosaur theme park. If the story were that simple, the film may have worked (or had a fighting chance). Instead, you’ve also got Kid 1 and Kid 2 embroiled in the chaos, military contractors led by Gomer Pyle (Vincent D’Onofrio) wanting to use dinosaurs to overthrow ISIS or whatever, oh, and Male (Pratt) has actually been training velociraptors to do tricks for park visitors. Also there’s 21st century Denis Nedry (played by New Girl guy) and his coworkers in Mission Control at NASA watching everyone die on big screens. Also this film is apparently a subtle dig at consumer culture and the film industry.

My biggest problem with Jurassic World isn’t the sheer amount of groundless, physics-defying CGI (at one point a velociraptor glides across the ground as though animated by me with my crappy After Effects skills). My biggest problem with Jurassic World is that all these characters I’ve mentioned are supposed to be human beings. They’re meant to have backstories and lives and motivations, and all of these things are meant to be apparent to us as soon as we meet them, because we know we won’t have enough time with all of them across the length of the film. My biggest problem with Jurassic World is that it fails so spectacularly at what Jurassic Park did so well: tell a story with a sizeable ensemble cast, and get you seeing what they see, feeling what they feel, wanting what they want. And so much of that empathy is down to the script. Shoehorning expositional shortcuts into dialogue is not the way to create empathy with characters: showing us how a character we’ve prejudged based on appearance reacts in an extraordinary situation is. To be fair, there are moments in Jurassic World like this, but they’re so few and far between that these actual character development/storytelling ‘bits’ are lost in a sea of hokiness.

These characters were profiled by committee, and their stories were written by different people in different rooms, and there was no meeting between that process and filming. The clunkiness of the script is even further exacerbated when your film does not have any acts: the audience is left with no time to breathe, and there is no logical escalation of action. Storytelling was farmed off here, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen it writ so clearly on the screen. Almost every line of dialogue in the first half of the film made me cringe. I think I only stopped cringing in the second half because the final build-up of action was distracting (and my shoulders were sore).

The biggest hurdle that Jurassic World faces is that it’s part of a franchise that began with one of the most beloved films of the 1990s. It doesn’t hurt that the original film is one of the finest action-adventure films in cinematic history, with believeable characters, with pacing, and with some of the most innovative visual effects ever put on screen. Jurassic World fails for the very reasons that it attempts to satirise: it ignores its audience, giving them what it thinks they want, rather than attempting to engage them on a meaningful level.

Suffice to say this new franchise will likely not, uh, uh, find a way.

I jumped a shark and I liked it

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I really liked this film, and it’s really hard to articulate why. I’d seen all the criticism, read all the accounts of the demise of storytelling, character development, and good taste: hell, even the blaming of this movie for the single-handed demolition of the popcorn movie.

Somehow, though, five minutes in, I forgot all that. I didn’t find the story hard to follow. I didn’t find it particularly dumb (and certainly not intellectual). I enjoyed all the characters, including Ultron. The Romanov/Banner subplot was oddly sweet. Thor was, well, adorable. Hulk was hulkey. And yep, it still hit all the touchstones (pardon the pun) for the next few movies and, yep, I’ll probably go see them too.

Of course it’s not believable. Of course it’s not pristine storytelling. It’s got lots of stupid action in it for no real reason. There’s no time for real character development.

Reason? It’s a comic book movie. Go in with sub-zero expectations, like I did, and you’ll have a ball.

P.S. Fun fact: beyond this blog post, I have no desire whatsoever to write about Age of Ultron, certainly not from any academic perspective. Heh, maybe that’s why I liked it.

Speed and politics

Need for Speed (d. Scott Waugh, 2015).
Need for Speed (d. Scott Waugh, 2015).

Cinema is movement. Movement is change. Change is politics — politics regulates change.

Movement in the frame is thus political.

The addition of speed amplifies the political impetus of cinema. Movement is cinema.

* * *

[It’s okay, I haven’t lost it. These are perfunctory scribblings for upcoming research, that I thought were strangely poetic. Rough thoughts on the disappointingly not-that-disappointing Need for Speed here.]

Re-framing the frame

Blow Up, Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966.
Blow Up, Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966.

‘Framing is a position of thinking.’

– Daniel Frampton, Filmosophy, p. 125.

As previously alluded to, I’m in the very strange process of having to think through my own comprehension of the cinematic medium. In a way, I’m taking baby steps towards my own theory of film. I’ll be taking these initial explorations to a couple of conferences in New Zealand in a couple of months, and I’m also running a studio around the same topic in the second half of the year.

The basis of this new research is that throughout film history, film theory, the notion of the ‘frame’ is never questioned. So much of this is due to the fact that up until very recently, the frame itself was a tangible thing: there’s little need to theorise or philosophise about something you can cut up and hold in your hand. While my research goes out on multiple tangents, the ones we’ll be looking at in the studio have to do with our framing of the world, and how we can link this notion of framing to our conception of self, and our own thought process. It sounds pretentious, I’m well aware, but I’m hoping that through exploring what a cinematic frame is in 2015, we can move towards a comprehension of digital cinema that is either entirely new or, at best, a – ahem – reframing of older theories of film form and philosophy.

My weekend, in film

As you will have gathered on Friday, I put together a rather formidable schedule of film viewing. This was partly due to the need to do a bit of catch-up, but also because after watching Snowpiercer and Drive the previous week, I was just in the mood to get some serious movie-watching done.

I was – well – well, look, I didn’t make it through all seven films. Lastnight, after half an hour or so of Christophe Honoré’s La Belle Personne, I hit critical mass and needed to switch off. This is no reflection on poor M. Honoré: his film looks stunning, and I’ll certainly return to it in the coming days.

Of those I did watch, I enjoyed The American most of all. Rather than re-hash my thoughts all over again, though, here they are, re-posted from my Letterboxd profile. Continue reading “My weekend, in film”

On Snowpiercer

Snowpiercer

Snowpiercer is a funny one. In a lot of ways it’s a mere shadow of films like The Road or I Am Legend, in the sense that humanity’s last remnants must struggle to survive after some great global calamity. However, it’s also about the Arab Spring. Maybe. Or about the Occupy movement. But, again, it’s not. Because the film was based on an obscure French graphic novel released some thirty years ago.

The parallel most easily drawn, I think, is with Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta. In terms of setting, mood, tone, colour palette, the two films work quite well in this politico-apocalyptic mode. The fact that Snowpiercer (and its originator, Le Transperceneige) take place on a train, is often secondary to the class struggles that occur within. I’ve not read the comic, but I watched the French-language adaptation documentary on the bluray, and it seems that director Bong Joon Ho was determined to adapt the story rather than just translate it directly to the screen. This works, for me, in the film’s favour. The characters are mostly changed, from what I can tell; rather the setting, mood, and overall arcs are what remain from the comic.

As a few friends have noted, the pacing is odd, and I tend to agree. Rather than build and build right to the climax, the film seems to peak and trough with no rhythm. There are some stunning sequences, including the long-distance gunfight between carriages on a long bend: possibly my favourite from the entire film. These great set-pieces, though, are disconnected, and don’t fall into any sequential logic.

Snowpiercer fits alongside the other texts I’ve mentioned as ‘political’ cinema, albeit speculative. However, more than that, it fits into a cultural movement that transcends culture: what scientists and social commentators are calling the Anthropocene. McKenzie Wark has written and spoken eloquently on the cinema of the Anthropocene, in terms of a broad definition. He suggests it is now worth exploring cinema not in terms of character, but more in terms of setting. Further, he writes that maybe we should ‘ask about cinema as both a practice and a representation of energy-using systems.’

Snowpiercer is ‘Anthropocentric’ on all counts. The setting is crucial, despite its seeming obliviousness to the narrative. All characters are aware of the cold, and know they are secondary to it. The environment, thus, is the true tyrant. The train’s engine, ‘sacred’ as it is called by all the front passengers, is a representation of mankind’s reliance on technology, but also reflects this need to present energy and its considerations on screen. The cinema of the Anthropocene is contradictory in that human characters are both central to it, and yet entirely external. Rather, it is humanity’s irrevocable ruin of the landscape, inscribed as it is now geologically and atmospherically, that truly takes a starring role.