The Trouble with Giant Monsters

Let them fight.”

Probably the one line in a giant monster movie that sums up what they are all about. And at the same time, it highlights the gigantic flaw with them as a genre.

And even though I’m going to do my best to refrain from revealing anything pertinent about the plot or specific moments about the film Kong: Skull Island, just in case: *SPOILERS* if you have not seen it yet.

Don’t get me wrong. I love giant monsters. I sat wide-eyed with wonder in my formative years, devouring each and every one that was shown on Saturday afternoon TV or on Sci-Fi extravaganzas or Chiller Thriller Theater shows on late late night TV. I begged and pleaded for as many issues of Famous Monsters of Filmland as I could. I’d gleefully stare at the images of King Ghidorah or Rhodan or Gamera or the King of All Monsters – Godzilla.

I sat through the latest giant monster movie to grace U.S. screens today: – Kong: Skull Island.

I saw the original King Kong (1933) some long ago Saturday afternoon in the early 70’s. I sat in the living room in front of our TV and watched the black & white stop motion classic with a mix of horror and fascination. Looking at the film now, you may ask, what on earth did you find about it that evoked horror? It’s a tame film compared to the spectacles we have today. But something about that log rolling scene (when my child-like mind didn’t see stiff dolls falling to their doom but real people) stuck with me. I actually got a sick feeling in my stomach seeing those “bodies” strike the earth. Kong was a force of nature, a killer beast and men were insects he would crush underfoot.

And I’m sure that’s the reaction the filmmakers were hoping for when audiences saw it 40 years earlier. Its the same reaction that modern films aim for as well – the thrilling, voyeuristic depiction of death by monster.

There are a number of similar sequences in Kong: Skull Island, but they didn’t impact me as profoundly as did that log scene from the original. Of course it can’t – I’m much older and much more jaded than when I was nine.

Skull Island takes the premise of the original Kong movie and takes it out of the 30’s and puts it right smack dab in the 70’s. The synchronicity of my exposure to the giant gorilla and the setting for this latest incarnation is not lost on me, but its simply an interesting coincidence. Placing it in the Vietnam era and using the burgeoning reliance on satellites to uncover a ‘mythic’ island in the South Pacific is a twist that isn’t quite new, but the presentation of it is handled well.

The music used to hammer the time period home just seemed cliche and almost cringe-worthy to hear. Its like the producers needed to hammer everyone over the head with ‘its not 2017! It’s 1973! Can’t you tell? That’s Airplane’s “White Rabbit” for crying out loud!’ Give me subtle rather than in my face anytime.

Skull Island suffers not from a lack of amazing looking set pieces – but rather from a tired plot of ‘humans treading into spaces that should best left alone’. Much like the ’33 Kong, the film is about trekking through lethal jungle terrain to reach a point of safety and rescue. Along the way – the filmmakers showcase a number of giant monsters and deadly threats… which are really nothing more than filler to eat up time getting to the showdown between Kong and Man and the other reptilian threat that inhabits the island.

The one plot device I did find very intriguing was the whole “Hollow Earth” angle that the Monarch Organization was hoping to prove or exploit or whatever it is that their end goal is – it’s left vague or unanswered – that contrived end title scene notwithstanding. And by contrived I mean it felt forced and tacked on.

The geek in me likes the shared universe aspect of this. It sets up the inevitable showdown between Kong and Godzilla (a re-match of the 1962 version we all know and love). I would love a found footage type docu-film about Monarch, showing how they tie-in all the monster myths in this cinematic universe. The tag scene at the end implies they got a butt load of info and that the real villain of King Kong vs. Godzilla won’t be either of our two favorite giant monsters… which I look forward too 🙂

The plot of Kong: Skull Island is fairly simple – secret Organization piggybacks on a government funded expedition to an uncharted island to uh… find stuff before the Russians do.

All of the characters are pretty stock and it falls into the same safe pitfalls as any monster movie that deals with a ‘hidden land’ or ‘undiscovered island’.

Right from the start, we are told by one character (Tom Hiddleston as an ex-SAS tracker) that they are all going to die in horrible nasty ways. And then the film proceeds to march to that tune right up until the climax.

None of the characters are either likable (except for maybe John C. Reilly – he’s always a joy to watch) or despicable. John Goodman’s character is just obsessed and Sam L. Jackson isn’t so much a villain as a man who doesn’t know anything other than fighting and has a over-developed American self-righteous ego. He’s not a villain, just an angry military man who can’t believe that an indigenous life-form would dare kill those who intruded on its territory.

There are natives in this film – there always are – and like so many films of this type – they are reduced to mute savages – a wasted plot device there to simply give the main characters a place to discuss exposition before continuing the inevitable death-at-the-hands-of-giant-things mission they are on.

I think there was some confusion on the writing/casting part of the film – the “hero” is split for the most part between the Hiddleston character and another American soldier played with understated ‘aw-shucks’ Alabama goodness by Toby Kebbell. Personally I think they missed the boat and should’ve put Kebbell’s character more at the forefront and ditched the SAS tracker character altogether – but as Hiddleston has more star power, Kebbell’s Sgt. Chapman doesn’t fair well. I will note that the audience gasped at his fate – because the set up for him was handled in a way that made you root for him once things go sideways… but its a cliche cheesy tug at the heart strings kind of character to begin with.

As far as the Monsters… Kong is awesome, if a little bit cardboard. He suffers the same presentation as the human actors in the film – he’s one note and cliche. Now, don’t angry because I’m dissing on the big ape. It’s more about presentation than a comment on the King.

As an American, and growing up in the US watching the kaiju films and identifying them with certain geographic locations – Kong has always been presented as (and is in my mind) an “American” monster. He is associated with the US the same way that baseball and apple pie are… I remember having debates in grade school about who was cooler – Kong or Godzilla, and inevitably someone would always blurt out that “…Kong’s an American that’s why!” Kong is warm-blooded savagery. Godzilla is dragon-like and foreign. But if you want my true feeling – Godzilla is the better kaiju. he is the king in my book, and Kong is simply an over-sized rendition of the Beast from the fairytale – heck they even quote it in the original.

For most of Skull Island they didn’t touch on the human female / giant ape quasi-romance issue – but yet it got shoe-horned into it anyway. And it wasn’t handled in a way that made any real sense – it was just in there because the studios insisted upon it because otherwise audiences would’ve freaked out. Which isn’t true, but try telling that to them.

I liked this Kong better than Peter Jackson’s take. I remember watching it thinking I should be having more fun – and I simply wasn’t. It seemed to over the top and the actress (played by Naomi Watts) just wasn’t likable at all. Her sense of self importance was pretty off putting. And don’t get me started on that ridiculous bug valley scene… sheesh.

I guess I was sitting there watching Kong: Skull Island and wondering – what’s the point of all this? Maybe there doesn’t need to be – I mean, looking back at the first line of this post… its simply that: “Let them fight.”

I mean – what else do you really expect from a giant monster movie? Its an extrapolation of us in the sandbox with our monster toys – there are no deep and meaningful plots. Its simply an excuse to see monsters/animals battle for our amusement.

But as anyone who knows me or who has read other entries I’ve posted on this blog – fighting just to fight is boring to me. I found the reptilian beasts that were Kong’s enemies on the island to be unbelievable. Everything about them screamed “illogical” and I’m sure they were created with a “cool factor” in mind and also because audiences have had their fill of dinosaurs and other prehistoric beasts – so Kong has to fight something giant and terrifying and new! They just seemed like some dumb creature form a D&D Monster Manual. Two legged lizard things with a outer protective skull. Why? Simply to show Kong as a protector, not a savage. It just seemed convenient and forced.

I don’t know what I was expecting from Skull Island. Maybe more of a back story on Kong. Why is he so big? Why does he exist?

Instead what I saw was just groundwork for the films that will supposedly follow up on the Monarch theory that these creatures owned the Earth before us and are going to attempt to take it back.

Skull Island wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t great either. It was just a prequel.

Let’s hope what follows has more to it – but I’m sure what we’ll get is just more fighting.

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You’re not hip or cynical, you are just bored

So, a little while ago, I Hate Everything (real name Alex Bolton) posted a video about not caring about superheroes anymore. Be prepared, its a sixteen minute rant about what’s wrong with the genre.

And while there are some good points made in the video, what I got from it was this – its not that IHE hates or doesn’t care about superhero movies – its that he has a very narrow view of what makes a movie good or great. I would also chalk his rant up to a very real disease that all of us suffer from – boredom.

The criticism that the movies are two-hour long advertisements for the next movie is kind of crap, basically because the criteria that the movies should be self-contained and work on their own is a singular view point. And yes, I saw the big disclaimer at the start of the video that glaring displays the “this is my opinion” but that doesn’t automatically grant you a pass or free you from criticism of your criticism.

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There’s a definite air of intellectual arrogance with this type of video/vlog/rant that places IHE squarely in the supervillain category – and I use that term simply because of the subject matter 🙂 It’s the Loki speech: “Enough! You are, all of you are beneath me!”  Escpecially when he refers to those who may comment as

All of us has an opinion about everything – but that doesn’t make it valid. It may be shared by quite a few other people, but its still opinion. I like this, I don’t like that- and it sucks up a lot of energy and time – just take a look at any page on the internet – and you’ll find someone disagreeing with someone about something.

I’d point out to IHE that his problem with superhero movies isn’t the quality (though there have been some crappy ones) but that he is holding them to a standard they will never live up to. The word “great” is used, but what exactly is his criteria for a film deserving a “great” rating?

He says he’s looking at them for how they were written, directed and structured as movies. I can’t find any information about IHE’s education of film-making background and so I don’t know how much he’s studied filmmaking, or the business of movie-making or what it actually takes to create the content that he feels don’t measure up to his standard of what makes a movie ‘great’.

As far as I can tell – it’s just opinion. And his opinion is based on his boredom. He’s bored of superhero movies because a lot of them cover the same ground and tell basically the same story – bad guy(s) threatens city/world/loved ones – good guy(s) do what they need to to stop them… that’s the same story that’s been told since the dawn of time.

He wants things to be self-contained, easy to digest and then – gimmie the next one. It’s the whiny child asking for a piece of candy or a new toy because – they already have the other one. “Entertain Me!”

He points out that the Avengers was the pay off for five previous movies which he claims are forgettable and not worth sitting through a second time. I disagree – but hey, that’s just my opinion. 😛

He claims that of the five, only Iron Man meets his standard. Iron Man is a very good superhero movie. And yes, looking at it from one perspective, it’s self-contained. However, Iron Man was simply the first in Marvel’s attempt to translate their source material into a much larger presentation – and that it seems is lost on IHE.

His insistence that these superhero movies be stand alone, bite-sized nuggets he can devour and forget is entitled, childish and pretentious. His argument that it’s about the balance ignores the fact that these films are part of a tapestry of intertwined stories – but I’m sure I would be shouted down by the ‘they should be self-contained!’ argument…

Also, the assertion that these films are the only ‘blockbuster’ entertainment the studios is offering, just further points up the whiny bored attitude that pervades this video rant/opinion … how sad. Poor IHE. He has nothing to entertain him. Let’s trash someone else’s films because… I’m bored. There’s no real criticism in the vlog/rant, it’s just an excuse to tear something down without providing any real evidence or comparison to what is supposed to be a “great film”.

I do have to disagree with his assertion that the scores for the MCU are crap – they aren’t. Some are much better than others – but just expressing the opinion that they stink is equivalent to farting in a room and then walking out. What exactly is your criteria for good film music, IHE? That you can hum the theme? Seriously…

To refute IHE’s lambasting of the MCU as being bland and boring, I present the Phase Two Restrospective. I doubt it will change minds or even have any sort of impact on thise who dislike the films… but its a well edited bit that highlights the overarching picture of the MCU – and where it’s heading.

While there are some good points made about the BvS: Dawn of Justice film near the end, the rest of the video is simply an long winded diatribe about the films being products and not “art”.

I really don’t think they should be held to that standard. We’ll have to agree to disagree on what makes a film or movie “great” – if whoever you feel is qualified to write, direct and produce these films in order to make them art – ever did make them, they would not be superhero movies.

I’m sorry you feel that all of these superhero movies need to fit your mold of what is good and what isn’t. I’m sorry you are so jaded and cynical at the ripe old age of 22 that you cannot enjoy them and feel it necessary to have wasted our time with your oh so important view point.

I wish I could offer a suggestion about how to best alleviate your boredom.

Maybe taking a walk outsIde once in while?

Audio Hopes and Aural Dreams

For those of you who happen to read my little musings here on this blog, you’ll have to forgive me — but I’m about to post something Power Rangers related. 🙂

Icon-mmpr

Well, not related so much as my hope for what one aspect of the reboot movie slated for early 2017 will include.

As some of you know who read this blog or who have been around me long enough to know I’m a cinematic music junkie. I love the orchestrated portion of a film more often than not the film itself. It’s the first thing I notice about a film and the one thing that sticks with me long after the film has left the theater and is relegated to the $5 dollar bin at your local store.

For me, the soundtrack and score can make or break a film – it either works or it doesn’t and what I find is truly interesting is that some times the music is the best part of a film or film franchise – Transformers and Battleship, I’m looking at you.

Steve Jablonsky did amazing work on these – don’t let the haters and critics of these films steer you away from his work.

My hope for the Power Rangers reboot is that they will take a page from the Marvel film making bible – and find a composer who gets what the film is about, understands that it needs to capture some of Ron Wasserman‘s energy and verve but also brings into the modern view of what superhero films can be these days. I hope that they find a composer that can fashion a score that lifts the film out of what could be a run-of-the-mill action-adventure-superhero film and elevates it to true block-buster status.

MMPR- The Movie 1995

MMPR- The Movie 1995

Maybe I’m partial to some aspects of what make a good soundtrack/score and what doesn’t – or maybe I’m just a geek who gets inspired by my perception of what I think a good score sounds like. I mean, I’m not so obsessed with them that I analyze every nuance and note of a score or am so obnoxious about it that I consider one composer better than any other… I’m just a guy who hears this type of music and finding inspiration and joy in it. Period.

That being said – if I’m sitting in a theater and the movie is playing and the music I’m hearing is too jarring or something that seems derivative – it lessens the experience for me.

Don’t get me started on John Barry – the man has crafted some excellent music – but I challenge you to put his score for Enigma on and then his score for High Road to China or Out of Africa and tell me they aren’t almost interchangeable. At the very least they are so stamped with his signature style that they blend easily one onto the other… and his score to The Black Hole is so distinctive and maddeningly repetitive as to make you go buggy listening to it.

Enigma

The Scores of John Barry

By the way, I own all of these scores by Mr. Barry and love them – even if they do sound amazingly similar in parts.

What I’m hoping from Lionsgate is that they pay as much attention to the scoring of the film as they do the casting and producing of it – if they can find the right composer, they will do the film justice – and make us cinematic score listeners very happy.

For my money I hope they can wrangle the talents of either Henry Jackman or Christophe Beck.

Henry Jackman has scored a number of big action-adventure/superhero films – Kick-Ass, Kingsmen: The Secret Service, X-Men: First Class, Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Big Hero 6.

Christophe Beck has also score action-adventure/superhero themed projects: RED, Edge of Tomorrow, Elektra, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and most recently Marvel’s Ant-Man.

Both of these guys have the talent and the understanding of what a superhero movie needs in ordered to be scored so the action and story are highlighted and made thrilling for the audience.

Again – this is just my opinion – yours may vary and will be completely valid. And regardless of what you think of the films these gentlemen have worked on – I’m asking you to simply listen to the music and judge it by that context alone.

For example, most comic book fans feel Elektra was a sub-standard superhero movie. And it may very well be, but if you shut the images off and listen to the score… it captures the tone and feel (in my mind anyhow) of what a supernaturally trained superhero assassin needs. The driving percussion and Oriental influences give it a mystical and darkly urgent feel. It fits. It is one of those cases where the music surpasses the visuals in a very real sense.

You could take Beck’s score for Elektra and put it behind another film of the same type and it would work just as well.

On the other hand, Jackman’s score for Captain America: The Winter Soldier is so wonderfully matched to the visuals, its hard to think of the music fitting anywhere else.

Of course, there are other composers – other than Mr. Jackman and Mr. Beck – that are more than qualified to score the film: the aforementioned Steve Jablonsky has written some stunning action oriented scores. Ramin Djawadi‘s iconic Iron Man score is burned into every Marvel fan’s brain and he too could knock it out of the park. Nick Arundel‘s work on the Batman video game series also crafts some amazing soundscapes that would fit well with a modern Ranger movie.

And there are a number of others that could do excellent work

In the world of film scoring, it is kind of par for the course for the score to be one of the last things that gets done in the production process. It make sense for the composer to be able to see the semi-finished product so they can fit the music to what’s happening on screen. Unfortunately sometimes that can lead to it being rushed.

What I hope, is that Saban and Lionsgate secure the services of a composer that has the time to craft something worthy of bringing the Power Rangers to a new audience, while at the same time appealing to long-term fans of the franchise.

I also hope that the composer is able to work in Mr. Wasserman’s iconic theme – it just wouldn’t be Power Rangers with out it 🙂

Go Go Power Rangers!

Go Go Power Rangers!

 

 

Sequel-itis – Safe Bet or the Risky Venture

So, it looks like Jurassic World is going to get a sequel.

legoblueTeeAnd though I understand why that’s going to happen (box office receipts make it as one of the top grossing films of 2015) I fail to see what else you can do with the “franchise”. That may be a bit short-sighted of me, but how many ‘we shouldn’t create dinosaurs’ movies do we need?

I posted on Facebook saying that I didn’t think the film warranted a sequel and the post got a mix of reactions – most were excited to have another “dinosaur” movie and some who just shrugged their virtual shoulders and said that the studios will pump out sequels as long as they make money off them, or who argued that the film deserved to have a sequel precisely because it made a billion dollars.

And on one hand, its all about the profit margin. If a film does well, you do what you can to keep making money off of it. The ad guys and marketing folks for studios are able to translate the film-going experience into other products that can be collected or displayed or simply attached to another product (cereal boxes or other food products) in order to keep the public excited about it and rake in more money so they can make more movies, etc. And there have been a number of these franchises that have been well worth the effort, that succeed in terms of not only capturing the feel and excitement of the original but also move the franchise forward.

Some films warrant a multi-film structure, simply because you need that length or time to tell the story properly… others because the characters and the actors who portray them mesh so well with the original material (generally the books they have turned into screenplays) that the thrill of the franchise makes sense for reasons other than cash money (I hope).

There have also been films that were earmarked to be franchise-worthy, but for whatever reason, they failed to achieve or capture enough interest (read: millions and millions or billions of dollars) to warrant further effort. Which is one of the reasons that film studios continue to revisit properties they know will draw people to the box office.

Since the mid-60’s, the trend in movies and films has been to find something that is a success and then attempt to piggy back on the project’s financial success and turn that film/movie/TV show into a franchise – a product that people will buy over and over. It’s not a new trend, for over fifty years there has been a tidal wave of films that have been made in the multi-film sequence format. The James Bond series comes to mind, or the Planet of the Apes series, Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Transformers, The Matrix Trilogy. etc. All had multiple installments. And the Jurassic films too,  just to keep on topic.

I’m not really sure how or why JW deserves a sequel. Not because it wasn’t a success (financially it was a monster hit) or was a bad film (which is debatable), I just question the why of it? If it’s just to create more revenue for a studio or whatever – is that really the reason to make a sequel? Is it really all about $$?

If it is, maybe that’s why I am not more of a success story. I never put effort into pursuing the almighty $ as the be all and end all of my existence.

For me, any film worth its merit and worth my money has to be one that captures me with its story. And so, when they announce a film like JW is getting a sequel, I have to ask: What’s the story going to be? What new things will it explore?

I’m not a film historian or a film expert in anyway, heck I’m not even a member of the film making community (though that may change soon 😉 I’m really just another film-goer like everyone else; so what I put down here is just my thoughts and observances and they may be incorrect or uninformed on some level. But I’ll try to explain my self as best I can.

Maybe its the term “sequel” that makes everyone crazy. The concept of a sequel isn’t anything new, sequels have been part and parcel of film almost since the medium was created. The earliest films had recurring characters and plots and were created because the public enjoyed seeing “what happens next”. The Keystone Cops or adventure serials are good examples of this, though, the serial can’t really be categorized as a sequel, as it they were made in “chapter” installments, short pieces that fit together to tell a complete story.

And what is a sequel anyway? What are the hallmarks that mark a work a sequel?

According to the source of all sources, Wikipedia, the definition of a sequel is as follows: “a sequel portrays events set in the same fictional universe as an earlier work, usually chronologically following the events of that work… the sequel continues elements of the original story, often with the same characters and settings.”

JW adheres to the criteria for a sequel, but perhaps what we should do with this type of established franchise film, is to stop calling them sequels altogether. Or at least put an end to the horrible sequential naming system… having a film’s title followed by a number is just so lazy. As is having a new title, but including the original just to make sure the audience “gets” that it is tied to the original. But that’s a educational thing and this post is about movies and sequels.

So instead of sequels, maybe we should call them continuations or continuances – or, maybe every film should end with the dread “To be continued…” phrase when the film goes dark before the credits roll. That way we know the story isn’t over.

Also, from the studio’s point of view – its a risk to spend money on something that isn’t a proven commodity, especially when it comes to blockbuster type films. The blockbuster is less than fifty years old and really began to take hold in the 70’s, with Spielberg’s Jaws and have been fighting for summer movie goer dollars ever since. The maxim of the blockbuster being – bigger and better. And so, if you score a hit with one… you start planning the sequel. It would be crazy of a studio to take that money and put it into a new property… better to stick with the formula and make money than to risk a bomb.

And that’s great as far as business and finances are concerned, its a proven system, it works and we have gotten some really awesome entertainment because of it. Yet, as a storyteller I have to wonder what else we might get at the box office if the sequel formula lost favor and disappeared. I would hope we would get new stories, new characters, new inspiration.

And that I think is at the heart of what this post is all about – the story.

jpMichael Crichton published Jurassic Park in 1990, at a time when chaos theory was getting a lot of attention, and that’s a big part of the book and the 1993 film… that things that can go screwy, will go screwy. And that is the underlying theme of all the ‘sequels’ the to first JP film.

I saw JW and found that I wasn’t pulled into the world of the film, almost from the opening frames. Partly because the excitement of seeing dinos on screen has been lessened in the twenty years between it and the original JP. But mostly because I was aware of how closely its premise and characters and even plot was almost a carbon copy of the original ’93 Jurassic Park film.

That may be an over-simplification – but both are about the dangers of messing with nature, trying to predict or control wild animals and fleeing giant creatures that are higher than us on the food chain. They also have the same character types from the original film albeit transposed or mashed together – Claire Dealing is just a John Hammond clone with some Alan Grant thrown in, Owen Grady is a Muldoon/Ian Malcolm amalgam and so on. They even have a pair of teen siblings with a troubled relationship, sent to the park to see a relative. Oh, and other side characters that serve as menu items, basically.

So, what really irks me about Jurassic World, isn’t the ‘bigger and better’ element of it, which it has in spades – its the rehash of the same story as the original. Even down to the final dino on dino battle.

An interesting point for me, is that one of the lead characters in JW was unlikable from the moment we meet them. Perhaps that’s unfair, because we’ve come to expect our movie characters in blockbuster films to be drawn pretty simply – this ones a hero, this ones a villain and so forth. In contrast to the original JP’s main characters, Bryce Dallas Howard’s character Claire Dealing is presented as a ‘villain’ type, and for a majority of the film you look to see her get a Dennis Nedry level of comeuppance.

You know, that a scary dino would corner her and eat her.

— That fate is actually reserved for Claire’s assistant by the way, moasaurus(carried off by a Pterodactyl and then swallowed by a Moasaurus ) and who really doesn’t deserve that type of terrible demise given that the only thing evil she did in the film was roll her eyes. —

Now, I have to be careful here and wonder aloud – do I have a problem with Bryce’s character because of her attitude and outlook, or because she was female? There was a little twitter kerfuffle about that if I remember rightly, Josh Whedon had complained about the way she was represented. I would hope that I found her distasteful because of her personality, not her sex. (That’s a whole other post I think.)

Anyway, getting back to her character – who starts off as an arrogant type, but redeems herself because she finds she actually cares for her nephews, and who in a film of this type twenty years ago might have found herself bitten in half by a dinosaur, but instead, all of the bad decisions and death that result from her arrogance and greed, are ignored in favor of her surviving because… why? I guess that will be answered in the sequel.

Which will find her walking free, out and about rather than say, if you took it from a logical perspective, rotting in jail or in court facing criminal charges for allowing the animals in her park to escape and eat the tourists.

In the end, I’m not saying that Jurassic World, or any franchise film doesn’t have the right to exist or to get made. They do – I just want there to be a good reason for them to exist, one that isn’t necessarily driven by money and profit, but rather driven by story and character. Slim chance, I know.

I’m sure one reason why a lot of people were excited about the film were the dinosaurs and the special effects – I remember being amazed, the mouth open, wide-eyed kind of amazement that film can do sometimes, when I first saw the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park back in 1993. I think everyone had the same look on their faces that Alan Grant did when he saw what John Hammond was able to create.

The story was also new – though the concept is an old one. The thundering roar of the T-Rex was the most frightening thing ever… and now, twenty years on, we have to have a hybrid T-Rex/Raptor in order to try and generate the same thrill and sense of fear. The effects were better, the creatures realistic and we got to see some animals we hadn’t seen in previous incarnations of the franchise. Which is also a main sticking point of the film’s dialogue – ‘Things have to be new. They have to be bigger and better and scarier – or audiences will stay away.’

That’s the other thing about sequels – inevitably they try and outdo the film that preceded it, and most times don’t quite measure up. There are exceptions of course, but because making films isn’t entirely a creative process – you have people (who are funding the project and who have say in how their money is spent) ask, demand or threaten to have things ‘bigger and better’. The T-Rex from 1993 just isn’t scary enough anymore. It wasn’t scary enough for Jurassic Park 3 (grrrrr dumb title!) and so its not going to be scary enough now.

I would go into my issues with the assumption that the raptors could be tamed – I’m not versed enough on animal behavior to know whether or not its feasible. As an audience member it just seemed to stretch the bonds of disbeleif. They are not cats or dogs or lions or other mammals that have been trained – they are lizards. Lizard killing machines. Land sharks. I just didn’t buy it… not from the first trailer where Chris Pratt stares them down.

Don’t get me started on the scene where this lizard, this killing machine, “remembers” its training and forgoes instinct to not eat Pratt and the others and instead to attack a giant T-Rex/Raptor hybrid so the humans (its prey) escape. Face palm.

The other big sticking point for me with Jurassic World was the end sequence. It just seemed sooooooo over the top. And it was practically the same sequence we had at the end of ’93’s JP – with the raptors attacking a larger creature. But, as this is a sequle… that’s not good enough, so let’s throw in the T-Rex too… you know because the T-Rex was the big draw for the first movie… yeah! For nostalgia! And so we get a titanic battle between Indominus Rex, T-Rex and the raptors… but wait, that’s not enough… Indominus needs to get crunched and swallowed by an even bigger predator, the Moasaurus and dragged into the big water enclosure.

It was exactly the type of death that John Malkovich/Cyrus got in Con-Air. It’s not enough for the villain to get punched and knocked out, or just plain ol’ shot. Nope. Not good enough. They have to suffer and die – they have to be handcuffed to a ladder truck, thrown through a glass walkway, electrocuted on high tension wires, land on a convey belt and dropped to get their had smashed to a pulp by a piece of construction equipment… you know, because that’s what happens to guys who threaten Poe’s little girl.

Its almost as ridiculous as the end of  Taylor Swift’s Bad Blood video (if not the whole thing) – I mean, who can’t get enough of napalm and explosions, am I right? {It would take me a whole other 5,000 word essay to talk about how damaging songs and videos like that are on the psyche – what’s it really saying about us? Know what I mean?}

The JW ending wasn’t that level of ludicrous, but close. Because I guess, having someone actually machine-gun the beast to death, or take it out with a sniper shot or simply RPG it to death wasn’t satisfying enough. The only way the Indominus could or should be defeated was by its own kind.

In one way, I’m not really being fair to the film – it’s a perfectly fine piece of summer entertainment. I just don’t think it, or the franchise needs another go round. Not that my opinion counts for diddly. I’m just disappointed in the fact JW was so much like the original.

If I had any input into the sequel I’d ask that they set it several generations in the future. Show us that the dinos have reclaimed much of the earth and that mankind is going to have to fight back from the brink in order to take back the world – or learn to live as a creature who no longer sits atop the food chain. Sound ridiculous? Yeah… and so is a theme park full of dinosaurs, or mystic space knights with light sabers, or people plugged into a computer simulation thinking they are living in the real world.

Wait, wait, wait… that’s it! Space dinosaurs with light swords battling computer programs from the future!

It’s a brand new risk-free franchise! 🙂

Tomorrowland, the drive to Create and the Doom of the World

My place is of the sun and this place is of the dark
I do not feel the romance I do not catch the spark
My place is of the sun and this place is of the dark
(By grace, my sight grows stronger and I will not
be a pawn for the Prince of Darkness any longer) — Indigo Girls

doomsdayclock

I saw the film Tomorrowland today, and like many films it got me thinking.

I think all of us has an innate desire to create something. It doesn’t necessarily have to be something artistic or meaningful. We just like to occupy ourselves with the act of creation – be it painting or sewing or sculpting or music or architecture or cataloging plants in our backyard. Something, anything that is a thousand miles away from the other occupation we spend a lot of time on: destruction.

I have had this notion in the back of my mind now for a number of years, and this movie really kinda dragged that notion out into the light. There have already been a number of articles that decry the movie as a failure and list the reasons why it is and dismiss it as another “oh, it could’ve been so much better…” efforts at being a summer blockbuster movie.

But I think they miss the point.

wrist-radioIn 1946, the Dick Tracy comic strip introduced the now iconic 2-way wrist radio, which in the 60’s would be upgraded to a 2-way radio/video wrist unit. We have people wearing this tech today. A lot of science fiction has introduced ideas or fantasy that have actually become a reality. This is the major theme of Tomorrowland, and its something I’ve spoken with friends about – the notion that we are creating our reality.

There’s a wonderful visual moment that illustrates this in the film – George Clooney’s doomsday clock is fixed at 100% certainty of the world ending, until someone offers up that chestnut we hear time and time again in countless other stories: “But we make our own destiny, don’t we?” And then, there’s a flicker and the clock drops a fraction of a percentage point and the certain doom of the world isn’t so certain anymore – there’s a chance, however slight, that it can be changed or saved.

Is the premise behind the film new or original? No – not by a long shot. But why are so many quick to dismiss it as a failure?

There have been quite a few “popular” book and movie franchises of late that espouse a dystopian future that can only be salvaged or redeemed by a single young/teenage hero – or to put it more accurately, heroine. Take the Hunger Games, or the Divergent books or Twilight for example. There are others too that have a young male protagonist, i.e. The Giver or The Maze Runner… so when an article wags a finger at Brad Bird’s Randian exceptionalism – what makes these stories any different? Because they made many more millions on their opening weekend? Or is the idea that not everyone is special really that hard to swallow unless its presented in completely “that will never happen” context?

When I was younger, in the late sixties and early seventies, when I was in grade school – there was this very real sense that you couldn’t do everything. I guess I was part of that baby boomer set that wasn’t included in the “Me Generation”; the ‘everyone’s special’ generation. What I remember teachers telling me was, find the one thing you are good at and be the best that you can be… but to also recognize the fact that someone somewhere was going to be better at it. That was the reality. I liked playing sports as a kid… but I was never going to be Johnny Bench. I liked to draw, but I was never going to be Frank Frazetta – and that isn’t to say I couldn’t have been better than them, but that it was OK and natural and perfectly fine if I wasn’t.

The notion that some people were going to be better at something or have more than me held just the same weight as know that there were others out that that were going to have it worse than me. The idea that there were some individuals that were more exceptional than me seemed natural – part of just how the world worked.

Every single film of this type you watch is about one or a few exceptional characters. Watching a film about a guy or gal that gets up, goes to work and does their job doesn’t sell tickets. Heroes are supposed to be exceptional – chosen. So, don’t blame the mono-myth because you felt let down about a story or a film. Just deal with the fact that you are not the exceptional one and enjoy it for what it is: entertainment.

Maybe I should be outraged by that notion, it certainly seems that a lot of people are. The article I point to in the link above: 5 Mistakes That Made Disney’s ‘Tomorrowland’ a Movie Flop points out that the idea seems to be a strange one to put forth in a movie that is ‘aimed at children’. The thing is – I don’t think this movie is for children. Maybe that idea got fostered because it’s  Disney film – or because it was marketed that way. When I saw the film the audience did have quite a few young children in it. And I have to think that they must’ve been confused by it because there was very little in that was for children.

It’s a very adult movie about trying to change the way we think about the future — the future we are creating right at this very moment.

I love that this article was written in the first place. It has its merits. It also brings up some really good arguments about the kinds of media we gobble up when we go to the movies.

Honestly, the future presented in Tomorrowland isn’t any darker than that of Katniss Everdeen or any number of other dark and foreboding possible futures. I think what’s more interesting about Tomorrowland is that it questions the glut of gloom and doom scenarios that have peppered our popular culture and literature since man first put pen to paper.

Why are we spending so much time and energy creating media and entertainment that explores what will happen when the world is destroyed or might be destroyed or saving it from being destroyed? Why aren’t we directing all of that energy at building a better one?

Believe me, I will read and devour and sit in the dark and watch a good epic thrill ride about the end of the world and those people who try to out run a giant tidal wave or fight off a herd of rampaging freshly cloned dinosaurs or men and women in colorful tights fighting off an army of murderbots… just like anyone, I am captivated by the idea of the world ending.

I guess because its action-packed and thrilling subject – and you can monetize that. People will gobble it up because – on a subconscious level when you are reading about a world like that, or playing through it in a game or watching it on the movie screen – there is the thought: “Well, that will never happen to me.”

And when you present media or entertainment about a world where there isn’t want or need or danger or destruction — well, that’s really kind of boring isn’t? What’s to strive for if all of your needs are met? A bright and wonderful future is something you should probably be very suspicious of – according to science fiction anyway. There’s always some sinister force at work behind the scenes. I guess we are so conditioned and trained to believe the idea that Utopia is something that cannot be achieved… we are on a one-way road to destruction so let’s just enjoy the ride.

The second point in the article, that the plot was weak, is itself a weak point. The article points out – very correctly, that this is a story we’ve seen a billion times before – but that isn’t the film’s fault, or the writers or the director’s… it’s ours. We keep seeing this type of story over and over and over… because that is what sells tickets. I thought the premise – that the future was and is supposed to be Utopian – kind of refreshing. Of course, something has to go wrong and that future becomes perverted and dark and dangerous, but hey… again. That’s what sells tickets. So really – what’s the complaint?

The third point of the article is just simply childish pouting — where’s my special effects? Where’s my expansive universe? Why don’t I get to see more guys with jet packs and so on and so on… Forget the reality of the budget constraints that prevent that sort of thing in film making – or the that even when you do spend all of your time in a setting that is all tricked out with CGI and special effects, it doesn’t guarantee its going to be believable or that people will be satisfied with it – the last two Matrix films anyone? Revenge of the Sith?

Great stories are about character – not setting or effects. I felt this film did the same thing that Big Hero Six did… but, that’s just my opinion.

The fourth point in the article again misses the point of the film entirely. What, they were supposed to wrap everything up in a neat and tidy bow for you? That the doors to Tomorrowland would just be opened up to everyone? Maybe the notion they are putting forth is – you have to earn it. You have to work for it. It’s not just something for everyone because honestly, not everyone is working for it. Did you not noticed that the golden tickets, or in the case the World’s Fair pins were being given to people who were working at their talents? But I guess that’s the problem with the whole exceptionalism thing again. You can’t have just a few exceptional people. Everyone has to be exceptional. Otherwise… that would be a painful truth right? It’s just not fair.

What is it that Wesley says in the Princess Bride? Oh yeah…

Wesley

We are, in a very real sense, selling ourselves the Doom of the World. And business is booming.

The fifth point of the article lays at the feet of this film something I don’t think it deserves. The future of films and blockbusters does not rest on whether or not this film is considered a financial success. Seriously? The future of original scripts and films is in jeopardy because this film didn’t make 600 trillion dollars its opening weekend? I guess we’ll just forget about Cloud Atlas or Jupiter Ascending or any other number of films that were hyped and yet, failed to deliver a big pay day.

I’ll say it again – I think this film did what it was supposed to – just like Big Hero Six. At the end you had a very human moment about the value and importance of love and sacrifice. That the bright future we all want can be achieved, that the doom and gloom of the world’s end will not happen… because someone – exceptional or not – will stand up and do what needs to be done.

Maybe that’s too optimistic, maybe its too cheesy. In my opinion, we need more films about brighter futures and the world being better and not being burnt to a cinder or overrun by fascist military regimes or iron-fisted governments that want to catalog and use us to keep the machines of industry from grinding to a halt.

So, what Tomorrowland explored for me was this very real idea that we are creating our own reality. That all of the ugly things going on in the world is something we create out of our collective perception. We flood our televisions and news sites and talk radio with so much noise about war and death, hate speech, vitriolic speeches of one group about another – poisoning our minds and hearts with a steady diet of bad news.

I really liked the idea that all of that is something we are creating – and that its something we can and should change. Instead of monetizing and selling bad news – package good instead. We sent men to the moon in the late sixties. We are knocking on the door of space exploration, contemplating colonies on other planets – expanding our future. That was our Tomorrowland.

Tomorrowland didn’t shut its doors to us… we turned away from those doors ourselves, in favor of fossil fuels, resource wars and exploitation of our fellow man — just to name a few of the distractions that sucked all of the creative drive out of the space program and others that seek to better mankind, not just lead it into yet another year of war, hate and fear.

Sure, that’s simplifying things – I recognize that. And I could be wrong about a lot of things I’ve put forth in this little bit of writing.

But one thing I am certain of — I do not feel the romance or catch the spark of a gloomy and destructive future.

We are not creatures of darkness… our place is of the sun.