Book Review: On the Edge of Gone

On the Edge of Gone

Summary: January 29, 2035.

That’s the day the comet is scheduled to hit—the big one. Denise and her mother and sister, Iris, have been assigned to a temporary shelter near their hometown of Amsterdam to wait out the blast, but Iris is nowhere to be found, and at the rate Denise’s drug-addicted mother is going, they’ll never reach the shelter in time.

Then a last-minute encounter leads them to something better than a temporary shelter: a generation ship that’s scheduled to leave Earth behind and colonize new worlds after the comet hits. But each passenger must have a practical skill to contribute. Denise is autistic and fears that she’ll never be allowed to stay. Can she obtain a spot before the ship takes flight? What about her mother and sister? When the future of the human race is at stake, whose lives matter most?

On the Edge of Gone is a post-apocalyptic YA novel with an autistic protagonist, written by an autistic author. This is how I first heard about the book, and was the main impetus behind my picking it up at the library. I’m a big fan of diversity in fiction, and I wanted to experience this book and support the author. I was not disappointed.

On the Edge of Gone is a YA novel about the end of the world, but post-apocalyptic doesn’t quite do it justice. Rather, On the Edge of Gone is the rare mid-apocalyptic novel, a story that takes place in the middle of a world-ended disaster–here a massive meteor striking Earth somewhere in eastern Europe. The book’s opening chapters occur just before the disaster, and event itself happens partway through act one. The rest of the story unfolds from there, in the increasingly and alien world of the post-apocalypse.

This world is at once both recognizable and unique, thanks to the incredible talent of author Corinne Duyvis. The book is set entirely in the country of the Netherlands, which is mostly below sea level and quickly floods after the meteor. Another major obstacle to the characters’ survival is massive dust cloud, also kicked up by the meteor’s impact, that makes the air dangerous to breathe without a filter. Duyvis’s apocalypse is dark and cold and wet and empty–but the story she tells is one of hope, and her characters are not only relatable but deeply human.

The novel’s protagonist and narrator is Denise, an autistic, biracial teenager desperate to prove her worth in the midst of this disastrous new world. Other characters include Denise’s older sister Iris, a former teacher of Denise’s named Els, and several other kids Denise’s own age: Max, Mirjam, Fatima, and Sanne. Each character is rendered with personality and depth, and every one them reacts in nuanced, realistic ways to the end of the world. On the Edge of Gone has several antagonists but no real villains. That seems to be by design. With humanity already perched on the precipice of extinction, the book seems to say, why should we continue to work against each other? If and when the end of the world comes around, trust and compassion is what we’ll need to survive as people.

On the Edge of Gone is, above all, a hopeful story of the apocalypse. It shows that the collapse of civilization need not mean the end of human decency and kindness, and it deliberately makes room for an incredibly diverse range of people in the aftermath. I’m not autistic, so while I appreciated the nuance of Denise’s voice and portrayal in this book, I can’t personally comment on how accurate it is; but I am biracial, and as someone who’s always hungry for more biracial characters in science fiction, this book hit the spot perfectly.

I would go so far as to say that we need more books like On the Edge of Gone. It feels like the end of the world is closer every day, and we need reminders that the end of our world doesn’t necessarily mean the end of kindness and hope. It’s important to keep telling stories that remind us of everyone’s humanity, and how we can help each other. If you’re an avid fan of post-apocalyptic media, like I am, I would highly recommend that you pick up On the Edge of Gone. It’s a fantastic novel for anyone to read, but for people specifically invested in reading about the end of the world, it’s doubly important. Post-apocalyptic sci-fi can be, and usually is, dark and bleak and cynical and scary. It’s good to have an antidote to that. It’s good to read books that think outside the box. It’s good to stay hopeful.

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How to Fix Ant-Man

It’s July. In just a few days, Ant-Man and the Wasp is set to release in the U.S. Finally, we’ll get to see the superhero buddy-cop movie the Ant-Man franchise was always meant to be. Finally, we’ll get to see a lady superhero front and center. Finally, Laurence Fishburne will get a role in the MCU. But before all of that happens, let’s revisit the original Ant-Man film. Let’s talk about how it wasn’t actually that great.

I know I’m in the minority here. Ant-Man isn’t really anyone’s favorite Marvel movie, but most people like it. And it’s not like I hate Ant-Man, either; I have some pretty strong criticisms of it, but overall I do think it’s a really fun movie. It’s a great standalone film, despite being part of this mammoth franchise machine, and it’s got a tight, simple plot, a lot of fun visuals, and good acting. Ant-Man isn’t a disaster on the level of, say, Jurassic Park IIIIt’s a decent movie. But it does still have some pernicious flaws that (pardon the pun) bug me every time I watch it. So, on the eve of Ant-Man and the Wasp, I’m here with a list of four ways to fine-tune the Ant-Man machine.

Fix #1: Let Hank Pym Be Morally Grey
Hank Pym, played by Michael Douglas, is meant to be the mentor-type character of the Ant-Man movies. As in the comics, Hank is the original creator of the Ant-Man name and suit. Now retired, he watches and gives help from the sidelines to his successor, Scott Lang. Here’s the thing, though: Hank Pym from the comics was kind of a shady guy.

As with everything in comics, Hank Pym’s history is a long and sordid tale that can’t be easily recounted, but it involved some ethical dilemmas, a few mental breakdowns, and one very infamous instance of domestic abuse. (Warning for a short discussion of, well, abuse, if you follow that link.) Suffice to say, Hank Pym had some issues, issues that made him a bit more of a challenge to adapt than his successor. This may have contributed to Marvel’s (understandable) decision to take the focus off of Hank when they made an Ant-Man movie. But they couldn’t just abandon such an important character, so they did decide to keep him in the film. They just… didn’t talk about all that nasty stuff from the comics.

This is all standard for an film adaptation, so far. The thing about the whole affair that bothers me, though, is that even with the PR update Hank Pym got for the movies, he’s still kind of morally grey in the film. 

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“I’ve been watching you for a while, Scott.”

The biggest example of this, I think, is the fact that Hank is actively stalking Scott (the main character!) throughout most of the movie’s first act. But Hank is also manipulative toward Scott, emotionally closed-off toward his daughter, and, oh yeah, he basically kidnaps Scott like halfway through the film. I’m not saying Hank Pym should’ve been the villain or anything, but it’s weird that the movie never even acknowledges his willingness to be underhanded in the name of justice. It might’ve been neat if the movie had talked about it a little, maybe in combination with some of Hank’s… other problems from the past. This would also have folded in really nicely with the decision to make Hank’s daughter Hope a major character–a big part of the story could have been Hope coming to terms with her dad’s dubious deeds.

The writers didn’t need to make Hank Pym a domestic abuser, or the architect of a genocidal robot, or any of the other weird stuff from the comics. But they could have stayed consistent with his original characterization, and just admitted to themselves that Hank Pym might be a pacifist, but he’s not a very nice person.

Fix #2: Don’t Be Racist
Just hear me out.

Ant-Man is not a racist movie. It’s mostly harmless. It just happens to have what I like to call White Writer Syndrome: a production team made up of mostly or all white people, who didn’t take the time to ask themselves “Should we be including all this stuff?” before they greenlit the script. So there are some questionable bits in there.

The main problem is Luis. Played by Michael Peña, Luis is basically just Scott Lang’s sidekick. He’s a thief, the main comic relief character, and he’s not only the sole Mexican character in Ant-Man, but, as of the writing of this article, the only explicitly Latino character in any Marvel movie, period. That’s… just not great in general. Luis is a lovable character, but he’s still a stereotype. He talks about his dad being deported (and it’s played as a joke). He’s characterized as a little unintelligent. He has a van that plays La Cucaracha, for some reason. He’s never an overtly racist caricature, but he left a bad taste in the mouths of some Latino viewers, myself included.

There’s also a throwaway line from one of the supporting characters about “g*psy magic”, and if you’re wondering why part of that word is starred out, it’s because that word is a slur towards Romani people. A lot of people don’t know this, but Marvel does! Or at least they should, because they’ve made missteps with the Romani community before, and they’ve been called out for it. A couple of times, actually. It’s a really small thing, in the context of the movie, but that word is still a slur, and it’s still really disappointing that such an unnecessary and offensive line is in the movie for no reason.

Also, while I’m here, I’d just like to point out that there are a lot of white people in the MCU, and the creators of Ant-Man actually had a great opportunity to diversify their lineup while staying accurate to the comics. Janet Van Dyne, the original Wasp from the comics and Hank Pym’s wife, was Chinese in the Ultimate comics universe (long story). Janet doesn’t properly appear in Ant-Man, but the movie’s female lead is Hope Van Dyne, Hank and Janet’s daughter. What I’m trying to get at here is that Marvel had a great chance to introduce a biracial Chinese character with Hope Van Dyne, and they absolutely did not take it. It’s not a big deal, but it makes me sad.

Fix #3: Admit That the Ants Are Female
I went long on the last section, so I’ll keep this bit short: the ants are all female. That’s just the science. Ants have a slightly different gender system from the one humans have, but the way it’s generally broken down for children (you know, Marvel’s target audience) is that all of the worker ants in a colony are female. The queen is female too, obviously. Only the drones are male, and they don’t do much other than breed with the queen.

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Look at all those beautiful ladies! (Source)

This is, again, a comparatively small problem, but it just bugs me so much. Hank and Hope Pym are both supposed to be some kind of ant experts, but neither of them ever corrects Scott when he genders the ants as male. Scott even rides around on a queen ant, which has wings, because it’s a queen, but he calls it “Antony” and refers to it as a he for the whole movie! And no one ever corrects him!

The fix here is really, really, really simple. Just accept that the ants are female. Let Scott’s ant buddy be named “Antonia”, or something else suitably punny. Let Scott be functionally surrounded by women for 50% of the movie. What are you afraid of, Marvel?

Fix #4: Let the Wasp Be the Main Character
Look. I like Ant-Man. He’s a neat guy. I like Scott Lang, and I’ve always been partial to Hank Pym, too, despite his extremely dubious past. But here’s the thing: Ant-Man has never been the most interesting part of his own franchise. That honor has always gone to the Wasp. Whether it’s Janet Van Dyne literally naming the Avengers in the comics, or Hope Pym having to teach all of her skills and knowledge to Scott so he can be the hero, Ant-Man has always been outshined by his female counterpart.

When Ant-Man, the movie, was first announced, I remember that a lot of hardcore fans were upset that Janet Van Dyne had been killed off before the movie even begins. The Wasp was a cool and important character in the comics, and her sidelining in the movie only added to Marvel’s rather abysmal track record with female characters. Then, when the film came out, it drew criticism for pushing aside the female character it did have in favor of another bland guy hero. If Marvel had just bit the bullet and made the Wasp their title hero, with a story of her own, they could have avoided that criticism, and taken another step towards diversifying their lineup of characters. They also could have beaten DC to the milestone of “first female-led superhero film since Catwoman” by almost two years, but hey, who’s counting.

It looks like Ant-Man and the Wasp is seeking to fix some of Ant-Man‘s problems. They’ve bumped the Wasp up to a title character. They’ve brought Janet Van Dyne back into the story. They’ve continued to diversify the cast, with new characters played by Laurence Fishburne and Hannah John-Kamen. It’s great that Ant-Man and the Wasp is trying to evolve past the problems of its predecessor, but for some fans it feels like too little, too late. Marvel didn’t need to play it safe with Ant-Man; they could’ve done what they’re doing now three years ago. It’s not a terrible movie; it’s not even a bad one. I love Ant-Man. It’s fun. But it’s also full of little, annoying problems, problems that could have been (mostly) fixed by some small tweaks to the script. Ant-Man is pretty good, but it could have been even better.

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

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Image source: Amazon

Everything old is new again.

Three years ago, Jurassic World brought a dormant franchise back to life by recreating the original Jurassic Park, albeit with inferior writing and lackluster special effects. Seventeen years ago, Jurassic Park III told us that velociraptors were supremely intelligent creatures: smarter than dolphins, smarter than primates. Twenty-one years ago, The Lost World: Jurassic Park showed us that if we wanted more Jurassic Park films, we would have to accept some truly absurd plot contrivances to get humans back in contact with dinosaurs. And now, with the release of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, all that information and more is relevant once again. The franchise is moving forward by looking back to where it started.

The most obvious comparison here is with The Lost World, which Fallen Kingdom draws quite a bit of its plot from. Where that first sequel to Jurassic Park saw characters returning to Isla Sorna to document the existence of wild dinosaurs, Fallen Kingdom’s ambitions are of course bigger and bolder: Owen Grady (played by Chris Pratt) and Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) seek to rescue the dinosaurs of Isla Nublar from an active volcano that threatens to erupt and wipe every single one of them out.

That feels like it could have been the pitch for the entire movie, but it isn’t. Fallen Kingdom could have been a thinly-veiled rehash of The Lost World; it skillfully avoided that trap by shoving the entire plot of The Lost World into the first thirty minutes of its runtime and then moving on from there. (Fallen Kingdom is the better for this decision, by the way. The Lost World is many things, but a very engaging movie it is not.) The characters and dinosaurs are off of the island and back in northern California by the end of the first act, and from there the rest of the story unfolds.

I feel like it’s become common, as blockbuster films are increasingly written by committee, to say that a big-budget flick feels like two movies jammed into one–but Fallen Kingdom really does feel that way. Sometimes–particularly at the beginning and at the end–it’s a by-the-numbers sequel that exists to set up relevant plot points so the franchise can continue to run. At other times–mostly in the second act the and the beginning of the third–it feels like a hyper-competent, low-budget genre film, a straight horror flick with the ghosts replaced by dinosaurs. The Jurassic Park franchise has always taken subtle cues from the horror genre, but Fallen Kingdom takes that stylistic flourish to new heights. That’s not surprising if you’re familiar with the director, J. A. Bayona, whose first feature film was The Orphanage–a horror-suspense film shot on a relatively low budget. Bayona is an extremely skilled director, also known for The Impossible in 2012 and A Monster Calls in 2016, and his abilities are out in full force in Fallen Kingdom. The best part of this film is by far the directing: the slow, crushingly suspenseful buildup of the opening scene; the soft framing of quiet dialogue scenes; the electrically frightening jump scares scattered throughout the entire movie. Not a frame of this film is wasted.

The actors seem to have been better-directed, too; at least, the acting is a definite improvement on the previous Jurassic World. Newcomers Justice Smith and Daniela Pineda, as supporting characters Franklin and Zia, do an excellent job with acting skills developed over stints on popular television shows. Pratt and Howard also seem more at ease with their roles (thought their chemistry is still nonexistent); Chris Pratt has had a bit of empathy injected into his manly-man character, and Bryce Dallas Howard finally looks like she has something to do. Isabella Sermon, as the obligatory plucky kid, demonstrates a decent range with the material she’s given. Rafe Spall is here too, lending a modest amount of pathos to a villain that would otherwise be incredibly cartoonish and one-dimensional. I don’t have a problem with the acting in Fallen Kingdom, but then, I didn’t take issue with the acting in Jurassic World, either. The problem I have here, as always, is with the writing.

Fallen Kingdom was written by Colin Trevorrow, who also wrote and directed Jurassic World, and Fallen Kingdom has many of the same problems that its predecessor did. The dialogue is still wooden and unrealistic, the plot doesn’t feel particularly cohesive, and Trevorrow can’t for the life of him come up with an interesting way to let the dinosaurs out so they can start rampaging. The one problem Fallen Kingdom doesn’t have–and I am eternally grateful for this–is the woman problem. Where Jurassic World had a very particular edge of misogyny to it, Fallen Kingdom is blessedly equitable in how it treats it female characters. There are still a few cringe-worthy bits of script, but Fallen Kingdom is no worse on this issue than the average blockbuster. I do appreciate that.

Still, Fallen Kingdom has significant problems with its dialogue, and its plot, and it doesn’t really have a coherent theme, either. All it really has to fall back on are the old franchise standbys: the question of ethics in genetic engineering, and the question of whether dinosaurs and humans can co-exist. Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they couldetc., etc.; Life finds a way, etc., etc., etc. These questions are asked but never answered, and by now they’re just starting to feel tired–as tired as Jeff Goldblum looks in his quick cameo as Ian Malcolm.

Fallen Kingdom has a lot of good in it, but it never seems like anything as much as it does a film trying to outrun its own script. There are several scenes that are largely free of dialogue, and every time one of those comes along, the directing and the acting take over, and the audience gets a tantalizing look at what this film could have been, had the script only matched the director in quality. As Bayona’s horror expertise seizes the second act of the film, it really does start to feel like a race: If we just direct this script well enough, if we just put our all into the acting, maybe we can escape it. Maybe we can be good enough to transcend it completely. 

There are two movies contained with the runtime of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. There’s the modern knock-off version of The Lost World, a franchise film advancing the story so the next sequel can have a new setting and a new plot and maybe, finally, some interesting ideas. But there’s also the simple and delightful genre film, a horror/suspense flick with genuine scares that keep you on the edge of your seat in terrified delight. It’s hard to reconcile those two movies. That first film, the shallow franchise vehicle, is something I know I would hate. I dislike the parts of it that poke through into the movie we got. But it never takes over completely, never drags Fallen Kingdom down to the level of Jurassic World or Jurassic Park III. On the other hand, that sincere, razor-sharp horror movie–the movie, I suspect, that J. A. Bayona really wanted to make–is a delightful addition to the series, a beautiful and original breath of fresh air. Unfortunately, that film never truly gets a chance to take flight. It is, again, constantly weighed down by its own script.

I’m already grading Fallen Kingdom on a fairly steep curve, and I suspect a lot of others will as well. Is it as boring as The Lost World? we ask. As ridiculous as Jurassic Park III? As insultingly awful as Jurassic World? No? Well, then, it can’t be that bad!

It’s not that bad. Fallen Kingdom has a lot of good in it. It has its fun moments; it has its disappointments. It’s not, ultimately, a good movie; it’s more of an extremely mixed bag. You might have fun with it, particularly if you like dinosaurs, or the Jurassic Park series in general. I know I enjoyed it. But ultimately, Fallen Kingdom is just another Jurassic Park sequel. Maybe, like Isla Nublar, it was doomed from the start.

Throwback Thursday: What About Jurassic World?

Throwback Thursday is for talking about older movies–from Golden Age classics to early-2000’s films that just haven’t been reviewed in a while. Discussions about movies tend to decrease the older a film gets, but that’s no reason not to examine older pieces of media–so we’re here to do just that.

I don’t like Jurassic World very much.

I know I’m in something of a minority here. Jurassic World debuted in 2015 to mostly favorable reviews and an overall positive audience response: the film has a 71% on Jurassic World (2015)Rotten Tomatoes and a 59 on Metacritic, and based on its box office earnings (1.6 billion dollars in its theatrical run), fans enjoyed it too. It reinvigorated a dormant franchise and jumpstarted a new trilogy of dinosaur movies. It’s generally regarded as one of the better Jurassic Park sequels.

But it’s not a good movie. This is my opinion, and petty though it may be, I will stand by it to the end. Jurassic World is a terrible, terrible movie that did not and does not deserve the praise it has garnered. I’ve believed that from the first time I saw it. There are a lot of reasons for why it’s bad, and I’m here today to talk through all of those reasons in detail. This has been a long time coming.

First up: the story.

Jurassic World is obviously heavily inspired by the plot of the original movie. On its own, that’s fine; none of the Jurassic Park sequels have ever been very good, and returning to the series’s roots probably seemed like the best way to avoid falling into that trap. Unfortunately, Jurassic World appears to have imitated many of its predecessor’s iconic scenes without realizing that those scenes mean something in the narrative in which they take place. To really be an effective sequel, Jurassic World needed to give those iconic moments a new context and a new story to play out in, a story that had its own themes and morals to communicate. This is something that Jurassic World never quite manages. Its story is overstuffed and unbelievable, and its themes are muddled and incoherent.

This sequel actually has a neat setup: decades after the original park crashed and burned, a new, hypermodern park has opened up to the public, featuring all of your favorite dinosaurs. To keep attendance up, the park’s resident scientists have even started to create genetic hybrid dinosaurs, tailor-made to hold the interest of the fickle public. This is a interesting idea. Unfortunately the movie never realizes its potential, veering instead into generic subplots and tired nostalgia. It never once utilizes its theme park setting as anything more than a colorful backdrop. It sets up cool things that the Indominus Rex can do, like change color to camouflage itself and talk to velociraptors, and then never mentions those ideas ever again. What’s worse, the film never settles on a coherent theme, opting instead to bounce from idea to idea without ever settling on a central message.

The Jurassic Park series has always been about the apocalyptic danger of man trying to play God. Jurassic World returns to this theme, as it depicts its characters trying to create a new dinosaur out of thin air, and reaping the deadly rewards of that decision. But while the movie comes back to this theme again and again throughout its story, it never really has anything new to say on the subject, and it never comes up with anything half as concise and witty as Ian Malcolm’s original, iconic line: “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, that they didn’t stop to think if they should.”

Another attempted theme is that of hyper-commercialization in modern entertainment. Jurassic World, both the movie and the in-universe park, is awash in corporate sponsorships and obvious product placement. The movie’s centerpiece, Indominus Rex, is a project originally sponsored by Verizon, and one character explicitly expresses disgust about this. Jurassic World is almost a commentary on its own existence, with the I. Rex standing in for itself. The I. Rex is a genetically edited version of T. Rex, a bigger, faster, flashier “improvement” on something that was already pretty perfect. The I. Rex should not have been made, the movie tries to tell us. We should have left well enough alone.

This is an interesting idea to explore, but the problem with making a movie that is a commentary on itself is that the movie still exists. Jurassic World argues that no one can improve on the original, so we shouldn’t try–but the fact remains that they did try, and they did make this new movie, and no amount of smug moralizing about commercialization will disguise the fact that this movie takes part in the very product placement and corporate pandering that it purports to be against. No amount of crowing about how “legit” the original park was will disguise this attempt to create something even bigger, even better, and even more lucrative.

There is one more theme that Jurassic World plays with, one that I think could have made a very interesting film if followed to its logical conclusion. Early on in the movie, Bryce Dallas Howard’s Claire asks a shareholder what he wants out of a genetically modified dinosaur, and he says: “We want to be thrilled.” To which Claire replies, “Don’t we all?” This short exchange contributes to an idea present throughout the Jurassic Park books and movies: that the park is a monument not to scientific achievement but to mass entertainment. This idea comes back in Jurassic World later, during a heated conversation between Dr. Wu and the park’s owner, Masrani. Wu berates Masrani for order a bigger, meaner, “cooler” dinosaur without thinking through the consequences of creating such a creature. When Masrani accuses him of creating a monster, Wu delivers this line: “Monster is a relative term. To a canary, a cat is a monster. We’re just used to being the cat.”

The idea that seems to be percolating here is that of people demanding more and more extreme forms of entertainment, until that “entertainment” becomes something altogether horrifying and out of their control. This is a good idea, one the Jurassic Park movies are uniquely suited to explore, but the movie never fully realizes this theme. It doesn’t stick the landing of it, either: the Indominus Rex is scary, sure, but it never seems different enough from T. Rex or velociraptor to be truly horrifying.

So Jurassic World is pretty lacking in the story and theme departments. That’s no good, but hey, it wouldn’t be the first movie in this series to have those problems. But Jurassic World has one more major problem, one that makes it truly, unforgivably bad: the characters.

The characters in Jurassic World aren’t well-written. They’re all very cliche and boring, and most of them are very similar to characters we’ve already seen in the series. There are too many named characters here; I counted at least three, possibly four, who could’ve been cut to the benefit of the movie. Out of four main protagonists, three are incredibly unlikable for the whole first half of the movie.  But none of these represent the biggest problem with Jurassic World’s writing. The biggest problem here, one that’s far worse and far weirder than anything else, is the movie’s absolute, roiling contempt for nearly every female character in its script.

The biggest example of this is obviously Claire. Claire Dearing, the head of the park and one of the most important characters in the movie, is deliberately painted as a terrible person in the first half of the story. You’re not supposed to be rooting for her. Which–okay, sure. Claire at the start of the movie is unlikable–she’s money-obsessed, cold, and uncaring about the lives of both dinosaurs and people. But while these traits contribute to Claire’s arc, that’s not what the movie punishes her for. Claire’s entire arc in this film centers around the perceived flaw of her not spending enough time with her nephews. 

At first this seems reasonable, if a little reductive: it is bad, at least theoretically, to let business get in the way of spending time with family. Except that’s not the angle this film takes. Jurassic World consistently paints Claire as a terrible person because she’s a businesswoman, and thus too busy and structured to be doing normal woman things like getting a boyfriend and having children. Claire is consistently punished for this by the story, and her “happy ending” is her losing everything she’s worked for and getting together with a man who’s been nothing but rude and dismissive to her since they met. Claire’s “arc” in this film is specifically linked to her willingness to do traditionally feminine things that benefit the other main characters, all of whom are male. That’s a really worrying and insidious storyline to see in a blockbuster that’s supposed to be fun. And the problem doesn’t stop with Claire.

The death of Zara, Claire’s assistant, has already been discussed at length in the three years since Jurassic World first debuted. Zara’s death not only broke the series’s streak of never killing a named female character, but attracted ire for giving a minor and inoffensive character an incredibly brutal and personal death. The problem isn’t that Zara dies; this is a Jurassic Park movie. Of course some of the characters were going to bite it. The problem is that Zara’s death is so drawn out and so vicious that it starts to feel like a punishment, and the Jurassic Park movies tend to reserve those sorts of deaths for character who have done something to earn them. Zara did absolutely nothing to deserve such a horrible death. She’s such a minor character that we barely know what she’s like as a person. From what we do see of her, she seems very similar to Claire: a focused and busy career woman, someone who doesn’t have much time or inclination to be taking care of kids. Still, she does take care of them as much as she’s able, and when she loses track of them she seems genuinely worried, and she tries to get them to safety when all dinosaur hell breaks loose. Zara didn’t do anything wrong–except be a woman who wasn’t sweet and maternal to every kid she came across. Apparently that’s a crime worthy of horrific death, now. Of all the bad writing in Jurassic World, this is one of the things that bothers me the most (and I’m not the only one).

This problem bleeds over to some of the minor female characters as well, but it’s most present in the treatment of Zara and Claire. I said before that Jurassic World doesn’t really have a coherent theme, but maybe that’s not true. Maybe Jurassic World‘s most central idea is that women should be women, and if they don’t fit into a perfectly feminine box, they should be badgered by the men (and dinosaurs) in their lives until they do. That idea is present at the beginning of the film–where we see that the kids’ mom is sweet and clingy, which is good, but Zach’s girlfriend is somehow too sweet and too clingy, which is bad–and it’s present at the end, when Claire is redeemed not by atoning for the death and destruction her hubris caused, but by realizing that what she really needed all along was a man. I’m not saying that Jurassic World is sexist. Maybe I’m just reading too much into it. But there is some really worrying subtext present in this movie, and for a big fun action movie about dinosaurs, it really seems to hate its female characters, and only its female characters.

I can see why people might have liked Jurassic World. The filmmaking in this movie is fairly competent, particularly the framing and composition of various shots. The CGI looks realistic and nice, for the most part, and of course it’s always fun to see dinosaurs roaming across the big screen. This is a very nostalgic movie, and I imagine that all of its various callbacks to the original were fun to experience for people with fond childhood memories of it. I think it’s great that B.D. Wong was able to reprise his role as Henry Wu, and the newer actors–particularly Bryce Dallas Howard and Irrfan Khan–all did a great job with the material they were given. But that material wasn’t good. In some areas, it was downright bad. Jurassic World is meant to be fun and nostalgic, and there are a couple of places where it is those things. But for the vast majority of its runtime, Jurassic World is incoherent, mean-spirited, and far less clever than it thinks it is.

It’s been three years since Jurassic World brought the franchise back into the spotlight; a new sequel, the fifth in the series, is set to be released in less than a week. Can we finally admit to ourselves that Jurassic World was a bad movie?

 

How to Fix Jurassic Park III

If you’ve been following my blog over the last few weeks, you may have noticed that I’ve been re-watching and reviewing the Jurassic Park movies, one by one, in order. Most recently, I took a shot at hashing out the worst mistakes of Jurassic Park III. I concluded, to no one’s surprise, that Jurassic Park III is a bad movie–but it’s not without redeeming qualities. Something I didn’t mention in the review, but feel obligated to say, is that for all its flaws, I don’t hate JPIII. I don’t even dislike it. No, I greatly enjoy Jurassic Park III.

I might be sitting a lonely table for one here, but it’s the truth. Despite being bad, Jurassic Park III has a lot of potential, and if anything can draw me to a bad movie like a moth to a lamp it’s potentialJPIII has scenes, whole segments of the script, that hint at the much better movie it could have been. I can’t watch Jurassic Park III without re-writing it in my head as I go along, thinking of ways this scene or that character could’ve been revised into something functional. It actively bothers me to see all that potential go to waste. So, after writing a detailed breakdown of all the movie’s defects, I wanted to write something more constructive. I’m here with a list of five basic ways to fix the script of Jurassic Park III.

(Note: This post contains numerous spoilers for the movie and assumes that anyone reading has a basic understanding of the plot and characters. If you haven’t seen the movie and want to follow along, Wikipedia has a pretty thorough summary of the plot, including the ending.)

Fix #1: Don’t Kill the T. Rex
Jurassic Park III was the first movie of the franchise to move away from using the Tyrannosaurus Rex as its main dinosaur antagonist (a trend that was continued by Jurassic World with the Indominus Rex). JPIII‘s big scary dinosaur is Spinosaurus Aegypticus, a semi-aquatic predator that had a cool fin on its back and might’ve been even bigger than T. Rex. So far so good, right? Bringing in a new predator to inject some variety into the franchise isn’t a bad idea.

Unfortunately, one of the Spinosaurus’s first big scenes in the movie is a knock-down drag-out fight with a T. Rex, a fight that Spinosaurus quickly wins–by killing the T. Rex. This scene was probably written with the intention of establishing the Spinosaurus as even badder than the T. Rex, but it didn’t come off that way. To me this scene reads like the filmmakers trying to replace the T. Rex with a far less iconic dinosaur, one that doesn’t and didn’t have anywhere near the symbolic power of T. Rex. It wasn’t a good look.

This wasn’t the only problem with Spinosaurus, either. The Spinosaurus vs. T. Rex scene happens very early in the movie, ruining what could’ve been a great climactic battle scene. And throughout the rest of the movie, Spinosaurus acts more like the Terminator than a real-life predator, as it relentlessly pursues the human protagonists rather than hunting something closer to its own size, or eating the prey it’s already killed. The Spinosaurus was a good idea in conception, but its execution was poor. Fortunately, the fix would be simple: have the initial Spinosaurus/T. Rex fight end in a draw instead.

This would set up an epic rivalry between the two, a genuinely interesting conflict. It would also create a compelling obstacle for the human characters to avoid, and it would put the Spinosaurus’s behavior into context. An ongoing battle between predator and prey would have given Spinosaurus a much better reason to keep crossing paths with the hapless protagonists.

The death of T. Rex so early on in the film left a bad taste in the mouths of most Jurassic Park fans and turned them off from the Spinosaurus permanently. It didn’t have to be this way. Pitting Spinosaurus and Tyrannosaurus against each other throughout the film would have been much more epic, and more respectful of the original movie’s legacy.

Fix #2: Keep the Focus on Alan Grant
Dr. Alan Grant (played by Sam Neill) returns as the main character of Jurassic Park III, just as Ian Malcolm was the main character of The Lost World. And like The Lost WorldJPIII picks up several years later in the life of its main character and finds him down on his luck. As we find out early on in the film, Alan Grant’s paleontology dig is quickly losing funding and his career has stalled, as most people would rather hear about Jurassic Park than about his research. Grant insists that he would never in a million years go back to Isla Nublar or Isla Sorna, but when he does end up going back against his will, his adventure reminds him of the most important constants in his life.

Alan Grant is a good core character for the story to focus on: he has a pre-established personality and familiarity with the audience, he’s likable, and even with his previous character development there are still various avenues for growth that the writers could’ve explored. Unfortunately, basically every other character is underdeveloped and boring, and yet the film keeps trying to get the audience to care about them. With characters as dull and annoying as this movie has, it might have been a better choice for the writers to focus on Alan Grant–a character who actually has depth, pathos, and a fun personality.

Of course, the movie still has to have other characters–Jurassic Park movies traditionally have ensemble casts. With that in mind…

Fix #3: Make the Kirbys the Human Antagonists
Paul and Amanda Kirby are the parents of Eric, the kid who gets lost on Isla Sorna and kicks off the entire story. The plot gets going in earnest when the Kirbys convince Alan Grant to return to Isla Sorna by promising him money to fund his dig site.

The biggest problem with the Kirbys as written is that they’re boring and generic. In the second act it’s revealed, in an attempted plot twist, that the Kirbys aren’t actually rich, and were lying in a desperate attempt to find their son. This “twist” somehow makes them even more boring and more annoying. The Kirbys are so badly written that they drag the rest of the movie down in quality and make it much less fun to watch. But there is a simple way to make them way more interesting, and have them actually contribute to the story: make them villains.

Jurassic Park III is the only film in the Jurassic Park series that lacks a human villain. The Kirbys could have filled that void perfectly, had they been written with a little more originality and care. They could have been an echo of John Hammond–rich folks throwing money around to solve their problems–but more reserved, more intimidating, more suspicious. The “twist” that they aren’t actually wealthy is dumb and should’ve been cut. A better story might have seen one or both of them start to grapple with the question of whether the ends justify the means–whether finding their son, who’s probably already dead, is worth risking the lives of several innocent people. The conclusion they come to could define whether they end up heroically surviving the final showdown with Spinosaurus, or dying a well-deserved death.

The Kirbys are by far the worst-written characters in the whole movie, and they consistently drag everyone else down with them. Their sparse characterizations and stilted dialogue could’ve played much better if they were villains. Alternatively, the writers could have put effort into characterizing the Kirbys and writing dialogue for them, and crafted characters that the audience could relate to and enjoy.

But I can see how that might be too much effort.

Fix #4: Give Billy Brennan a Personality
Billy Brennan is a college student who works closely with Alan Grant and is basically his sidekick. On a meta-textual level, Billy is a very interesting character–I could write a whole other post on the role Billy plays in the plot and his marked similarities to certain other characters in the franchise. However, Billy as written in the movie is pretty dull, and doesn’t really have any set personality for the audience to latch onto.

The writers had several options for how to characterize Billy. We first see him flirting with another college student at the dig site; he could have been care-free and impulsive, the exact type of person you wouldn’t want to be stuck with in a survival situation. We also see him using a 3-D printer to further his velociraptor research, so maybe he could have been a contrast to Grant, an up-and-coming young scientist who prefers technology over frustratingly slow digging methods. But the most important thing Billy does, for the plot of the movie at least, is steal a pair of velociraptor eggs in hopes of selling them to fund the dig site. This is a monumentally stupid decision, as multiple characters point out, one that endangers the entire group of survivors. And the movie never earns it.

Stealing raptor eggs is a dumb and impulsive thing to do, but it’s not outside the realm of possibility for a particularly impulsive person, someone who regularly takes insane risks yet always somehow pulls it off. The trouble is that Billy as written is not that person, so the audience doesn’t believe it when he makes that choice. It feels contrived and meaningless. To really pull this off, the writers would’ve had to give Billy a much, much stronger personality. He would have had to be a risk-taker, someone who always leaps before he looks, someone who regularly takes it upon himself to solve problems and never asks for help. (Incidentally, that last trait might’ve set Billy up as in interesting foil to Grant, who goes through his own arc about recognizing and accepting help from others.)

A strong personality for Billy could have fixed not only the raptor-egg plot twist, but other plot problems as well, particularly the movie’s weak attempt at getting Alan Grant back to the dinosaur island. Grant states early on in the movie that “No force on earth or heaven could get me on that island”… but two scenes later he agrees to visit it by plane, for the same reason he visited Jurassic Park: money. It’s a really weak justification for getting Grant back onto the island and it doesn’t make any sense. A better script might have included a scene where Billy–who does kind of want to visit the island–actively talks Grant into taking the Kirbys’ deal, or even agrees to it in his mentor’s absence. Either way, if Billy was going to drive the plot and make the choices he did, he needed a tangible personality. And I love Billy, but that’s not something he had.

Fix #5: Streamline the Plot
It all comes down to this: Jurassic Park III had all the scenes you might expect from a Jurassic Park movie, and it had an overarching story, but those two things never meshed together into a plot progression that made sense.

JPIII feels like what you might get if you boiled any of the other Jurassic Park movies down to its bare essentials. It has character from the original reprising their role, a relentless pack of velociraptors, a scene where a big scary predator hunts the protagonists in the rain, a scene where the characters reflect on the beauty and majesty of dinosaurs, and a plucky kid character from a broken family who somehow survives the entire movie. But none of those characters or scenes feel like they mean anything. The plot sort of shambles from scene to scene, knowing that it needs to include all of them but never quite knowing why.

A good story is a mixture of action and reaction. A good story is set in motion by the main character(s) making an active decision–and the story continues when that decision kicks off a chain reaction that the main character(s) must then find a way to escape or overcome. That is the essence of a story–at least, the type of story that blockbuster action movies deal in.

JPIII technically starts with an active choice–the story begins when Alan Grant chooses to visit Isla Sorna–but that choice that is out of character and weak. The movie goes on with a series of scenes and set pieces that all sort of connect to each other, but never coalesce into a reactive chain. Nothing drives the characters into the midst of the T. Rex-Spinosaurus battle; the two dinosaurs just kind of show up and start duking it out. The Spinosaurus has no reason to pursue the protagonists as relentlessly as it does; it acts completely illogically just so something interesting will happen. Stealing velociraptor eggs is a really bad idea, and Billy knows this, but he does it anyway, because otherwise we wouldn’t have a plot twist.

Jurassic Park III’s biggest problem is its script. It doesn’t have a good story and it doesn’t have good characters. But–like I said in my review–it could have been good. The groundwork is all there. There are some genuinely interesting ideas buried under all of the dull filler. All the suggestions I’ve given are based off of elements that are in the movie, elements that I really like and that I think should have been expanded on. If I can come up with quick, easy fixes for the parts of this movie that didn’t work, there’s no reason that professional screenwriters who are actually getting paid can’t do the same. Jurassic Park III wasn’t good, but it could have been great.

Throwback Thursday: Was There Ever Any Hope for Jurassic Park III?

Throwback Thursday is for talking about older movies–from Golden Age classics to early-2000’s films that just haven’t been reviewed in a while. Discussions about movies tend to decrease the older a film gets, but that’s no reason not to examine older pieces of media–so we’re here to do just that.

Jurassic Park III (2001)
Image source: IMDb

Nobody likes Jurassic Park III. 

The Lost World: Jurassic Park had its weak points, but it’s still an overall competently made movie with solid direction, despite its flaws. Jurassic Park III, on the other hand, has many of the same flaws The Lost World had–bland characters, a nonsensical plot, subpar suspense–with none of the artistic direction that might have lent more credibility to the project. The Lost World, unentertaining though it may be, is still a tonally and artistically consistent movie, with a distinctive Spielbergian flair tying it all together. Jurassic Park III, on the other hand, varies wildly in tone and quality from scene to scene, and since Spielberg had moved on from directing in this franchise by the time this movie was made, the film has no such creative talent to lend it more cohesion. Jurassic Park III is, by all metrics, a bad movie, easily the worst film of the franchise so far.

But it’s not beyond redemption.

First, the bad: Jurassic Park III is no one’s favorite Jurassic Park movie. It’s a cash grab sequel that probably never should have been made, but exists all the same. Some people hate it; some merely see it as mediocre and undeserving. Wherever you stand, it’s easy to agree that this film just has too many bad elements to be enjoyable. The biggest problem is the script: the story, frankly, makes no sense. The scenes all feel disjointed, as though they were all written separately and then haphazardly arranged into something like a progression. And the characters are all bland, forgettable, unlikeable, or some combination of the three, save for our old friend Alan Grant, who returns as the main character of this ill-fated adventure.

(Whenever I watch this movie I can’t help but feel bad for Sam Neill. He’s clearly putting effort into his performance, but it’s just such a bad movie, and there are so many other, better things the guy could have been doing with his time.)

The special effects in this movie aren’t so bad. Most of the dinosaurs look convincingly real, though there are a few instances where it’s glaringly obvious that a dinosaur was made with circa-2001 CGI rather than practical effects. The sets look alright as well, though this film makes the same mistake The Lost World did and drops the characters into a generic-looking jungle setting rather than the unique locales of the original park. The camerawork and general direction can’t hold a candle to Spielberg’s work, but it’s functional, and there are no glaring errors in the cinematography or the editing. On technical merit alone the movie is more average than it is abysmally bad; but movies are not built on technical merit alone. For a movie to be good, to truly rise above, it needs a relatable, compelling story. Jurassic Park III has the opposite of that.

Almost no part of this movie’s plot makes sense. All of the “plot twists” are either easy to predict or really dumb (or both). Almost none of the characters have any personality or likable traits. A lot of the dialogue–fifty percent, at least–is wooden and doesn’t sound like anything a real person would say. And who can forget that this movie gave us the velociraptor nightmare scene–the worst scene in the entire franchise, now and forever.

This all sounds bad. If you’ve seen the movie you can probably confirm it: this is a bad movie, a franchise low point, a mistake. I would agree with all of that. But here’s the thing: this movie is not irredeemable. It’s not bad beyond all hope. Somewhere, deep beneath the surface of Jurassic Park III, there’s a good film, a good story, trying to claw its way out.

If you break Jurassic Park III down to its core story elements, its outline, it has a very similar plot to The Lost World–a down-on-his-luck character from the original movie is bribed-slash-coerced into returning to Isla Sorna/Site B, where he must help rescue someone in danger, and get himself and others off of the island before their inevitable deaths. That’s not a bad pitch–it worked for The Lost World. And there is one area where Jurassic Park III actually managed to succeed over The Lost World: its length.

As I stated in my reviewThe Lost World is punishingly long, partly due to it run time–just over two hours–and partly because it doesn’t seem to know what to do with all of that time. Jurassic Park III is similarly unfocused, but with a runtime of ninety-two minutes the film is over quickly and (mostly) painlessly. So Jurassic Park III has a decently interesting pitch, and a script that knew when to keep things short. And remember how I said that around fifty percent of the dialogue is wooden and stilted? Well, that other fifty percent isn’t so bad. Some of it is actually fairly subtle. One of The Lost World‘s mistakes is that it piles on the exposition at the beginning, with characters often giving long speeches to let the audience know what all has happened since the events of the original film. Jurassic Park III has a similar setup that the audience needs to know about, but it manages to communicate most of its key information–such as Alan Grant’s career failings, his financial troubles, his continued fascination with dinosaurs even in the face of considerable trauma–without ever having a character deliver a monologue straight to the audience. Some of that is in the acting, but some of it is in the script.

There are good elements, good scenes and good dialogue, in Jurassic Park III. The problem is that the elements that aren’t good are so abysmally bad that they drag the entire movie down, creating a much worse film overall. Jurassic Park III is a bad movie. But the damage isn’t–or wasn’t–irreparable. With a creative team that cared about telling an interesting and compelling story, with writers committed to revising the script until they got there, this might have been a much better movie than anyone reckoned for. But the project never got to that point, because it was a sequel to a sequel, Spielberg had moved on from the project, and everyone else more or less had too. Jurassic Park III had potential, but no one on the creative team cared to realize it, and they made a bad movie. For years, that was the legacy of the last film in the Jurassic Park trilogy.

Throwback Thursday: What Went Wrong with The Lost World: Jurassic Park?

Throwback Thursday is for talking about older movies–from Golden Age classics to early-2000’s films that just haven’t been reviewed in a while. Discussions about movies tend to decrease the older a film gets, but that’s no reason not to examine older pieces of media–so we’re here to do just that.

The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997)
Image source: IMDb

After the runaway success of Jurassic Park in 1993, the idea of making a sequel must have seemed like a no-brainer. Steven Spielberg had proved, once and for all, that a dinosaur move could be made that captured the imaginations (and money) of adults and children alike. With Spielberg back in the director’s chair and Jeff Goldblum on board to reprise his role as Dr. Ian Malcolm, and a new book from Michael Crichton to adapt, The Lost World: Jurassic Park must have seemed like a surefire moneymaker, if not a mega-hit like its predecessor.

And with all that–Spielberg, Goldblum, Crichton, and Jurassic Park screenwriter David Koepp all back to collaborate on a new film–The Lost World is… well, it’s okay.

Spielberg knew what he was doing as director here; there’s no denying that. He must have known, on some level, that a sequel wouldn’t be able to recapture the magic of the original. The world had already seen dinosaurs; the same trick wouldn’t work twice. To be successful, The Lost World would have to be its own thing. It would have to tell a new story, and though some of the characters and dinosaurs might carry over from the original, The Lost World would have to create a world of its own, so to speak, to hold up the way the original does.

The problem is that the film failed to do this.

The Lost World has a lot of good in it. The cinematography, of course, is both functional and elegant. The acting holds up and the dinosaurs for the most part look alright, although the special effects here never reach the level of those in Jurassic Park. Much of the movie is well-written and there are several genuinely great dialogue scenes that reveal subtle details about the characters while driving the plot forward. But The Lost World never comes together, never achieves the magical cohesion that made Jurassic Park such an arresting film. The Lost World is never greater than the sum of its parts. Where Jurassic Park coalesced into an immersive story that felt well-defined on every front, The Lost World falls apart, along two main fault lines.

The first is the characters. Jeff Goldblum reprises his role as Ian Malcolm, now the main character of this story, but except for some brief cameos from John Hammond and Tim and Lex, none of the other original characters return. The Lost World is populated almost entirely by new characters, and though some of them are entertaining, almost none have the strong personalities and individual quirks that everyone in Jurassic Park had. Even Malcolm isn’t his usual self; Goldblum here is playing a toned-down, sobered-up version of Ian Malcolm, a man who has lost a lot since the events of the infamous park and isn’t quite sure what to do with himself anymore. Of all the new characters–and there are a lot of them, too many for everyone to get proper screentime–the only one that comes close to that magical, larger-than-life charisma is Pete Postlethwaite as big-game hunter Roland Tembo. Postlethwaite is magnificent in this movie, and honestly deserved a larger role than the one he got. Certain other characters–particularly Vince Vaughn as photographer Nick Van Owen and Vanessa Lee Chester as Malcolm’s daughter Kelly–clearly have potential, but don’t have enough time or development to really connect with the audience. This shouldn’t have been the case; with a runtime of just over two hours, The Lost World is not a short movie. But a lot of that time is eaten up by action scenes that go on for far too long. This is the second way that The Lost World falls apart.

I don’t enjoy The Lost World, personally, and this is the reason for that. Every action scene goes on for at least five minutes longer than it needs to. The T. Rex attack on the trailer by the cliff is menacing and eerie… until the Rexes leave and the scene just keeps going on. The T. Rex attack on the InGen encampment is, in my opinion, hands down the scariest and best-constructed scene of the movie… but even that doesn’t end when it should, and the nighttime lighting makes it hard to keep track of all the various characters. The velociraptor attack in the communications center… well, I could write a whole separate post about this movie’s treatment of the velociraptors, but that scene has the same problem. After a while, these scenes become dull. And after that, they turn irritating.

The Lost World, it seems, could not find a satisfying place to go after the complete, contained story of Jurassic Park. And without a destination, the movie had nothing to do but find a batch of newer, blander characters, drop them onto a more generic-looking island, and try to re-create the thrills of the original for a couple of hours. The lack of purpose shows. With characters that weren’t half as interesting as those that came before, The Lost World had no choice but to go heavy on the dinosaur action, until it became too much of a good thing. One problem fed into the other, and with such a tough act to follow, The Lost World just couldn’t make the grade.

The Lost World is not a bad movie. Unfortunately, it’s not quite a good movie either. What it has is a lot of potential: interesting characters, a unique plot, and the same spine-chilling suspense of the original. But most of the characters lack any real progression or development, the plot meanders back and forth for a good thirty minutes before it really gets going, and the suspense peters out in the face of action scenes that overstay their welcome. With a tighter script and trimmed-down action scenes, things might have been different. The Lost World might have been an entertaining movie, if not a masterpiece on the same level as its predecessor. The potential is certainly there. But that potential never sees a worthy conclusion, and by the movie’s second ending (which is clumsily tacked on to an otherwise finished story), the whole thing feels played out and tired. The Lost World is not a bad movie, but it is an exhausting one. By the time I reached the end of it, I just wanted it to be over. For a sequel to such a breathtaking, inspiring film as Jurassic Park, that seems like a tragedy.

Book Review: Velocity

Image source: Amazon

Cassica and Shiara are best friends. They couldn’t be more different, but their differences work to their advantage — especially when they’re drag racing. Cassica is fearless and determined, making her the perfect driver for daring, photo-finish victories. Shiara is intelligent and creative, able to build cars out of scrap and formulate daring strategies from the passenger’s seat. Now they’ve set their sights on the Widowmaker–the biggest, most anticipated, and most dangerous race of the year. The winners get a pass to a life of luxury and fame. The losers, more often than not, die in fiery explosions. And even if Cassica and Shiara survive the deadly three-day challenge… their friendship might be roadkill.

Velocity is a high-octane story of high-speed racing in a far-future dystopian world. If that sounds like what you might get if you crossed NASCAR racing with the plot of Mad Max: Fury Road, that’s because it’s exactly what you’d get. Velocity markets itself as an action-packed, mostly fluffy take on the YA dystopian genre, and it certainly fits all of those descriptors. It is full of action and it is a light, quick read, but it also carries an unusual, and surprisingly serious, theme.

The story contains a lot of action-racing scenes, all of which are tight and well-written, and most of which drive the plot and characters in new and interesting directions. The book doesn’t just have action for the sake of having it; each scene is exciting and interesting in its own way, and each scene contributes or changes something in the way the two main characters interact. And they do interact, in varied and unique ways. Cassica and Shiara are polar opposites of each other: Cassica is hot-headed, impulsive, and bold to a fault, whereas Shiara is quiet, thoughtful, and cautious. Still, their friendship has a believable rhythm to it, their disagreements feel real, and they have just enough depth as main character to keep from feeling flat. The supporting and minor characters don’t have quite that much depth, and each slot into their own easily-defined types: the gruff-yet-caring father, the sad-and-quiet mother, the sleazy fast-talking lawyer, the bad boy love interest, the good boy love interest, the vaguely threatening mob boss, etc. Cassica and Shiara are the only characters that feel completely developed, but what Velocity lacks in supporting characters it makes up for in world-building.

Velocity is set in a far-future, post-apocalyptic America in which the majority of the population has given up on democracy completely and turned to a sort of capitalistic feudalism for government instead. The book never lays out a timeline for how the world ended, but it doesn’t shy away from describing various events that contributed to the husk of a wasteland most of the story takes place in. The book uses its setting to skewer various aspects of our current world: the circus of American politics, the nuclear warfare it feels like everyone is threatening each other with these days, and, most surprising of all, Hollywood celebrity culture.

When all the dystopian set pieces and racing action scenes are stripped away, Velocity tells the story of two teenage girls from a small town who achieve and sudden and dizzying rise to fame, and are forced to choose between embracing their status as cultural influencers and staying true to themselves. That story arc sounds cliche, but Velocity rises above that cliche by repeatedly, consistently, making very specific criticisms of a culture that idolizes celebrities and chews people up only to spit them out in the name of entertainment. The book repeatedly criticizes this type of system, in multiple different ways, from the points of view of multiple different characters. Without spoiling anything, the book’s ending supports its thesis that this cycle of entertainment is shallow and harmful, and gives the characters a way to escape the vicious cycle of fame.

Velocity is overall a fun read, a light and entertaining story that, to my surprise, uses it dystopian setting to examine an overarching theme. It could be described as The Hunger Games by way of Hot Wheels, or maybe Fast & Furious by way of Mad Max: Fury Road. In any case it’s a fun book, with two complex female protagonists whose relationships forms the emotional core of the book, and some interesting dystopian worldbuilding on the side. If YA dystopian novels are your cup of tea, I would definitely recommend checking it out.

Throwback Thursday: Why is Jurassic Park So Great?

Throwback Thursday is for talking about older movies–from Golden Age classics to early-2000’s films that just haven’t been reviewed in a while. Discussions about movies tend to decrease the older a film gets, but that’s no reason not to examine older pieces of media–so we’re here to do just that.

Image result for jurassic park poster
Image source: Amazon

Everyone loves Jurassic Park. It’s the classic dinosaur movie, remembered for its cutting-edge special effects and unforgettable action sequences. Despite spawning an entire franchise, it’s a one-of-a-kind film that none of the subsequent sequels could really live up to. Jurassic Park  is a well-beloved action/suspense film that overwhelmingly holds up even to this day–but why is it such a great movie? What makes Jurassic Park such a genius work of art and storytelling? Today, I’m here to investigate.

An element that everyone points to when the topic of Jurassic Park comes up is the special effects. Jurassic Park‘s special effects were absolutely mind-blowing when the movie first debuted in 1993–but unlike other films from the same time period, these special effects have aged extremely well and still look incredibly lifelike. A lot of this can be chalked up to director Steven Spielberg’s decision to use practical effects wherever possible. The use of animatronics, puppets, and, for the raptors, actors in suits, means that most of the dinosaurs in the movie still look as lifelike as possible; I still have trouble telling myself that the sick triceratops seen early on in the movie isn’t a real animal. The digitally animated dinosaurs, such as the gallimimus herd and the first brachiosaurus the characters see, do look a little bit dated and can remind the audience that the dinosaurs aren’t real. But the film used so few CGI shots that these moments are few and far between, and are generally outclassed by the overwhelming experience of seeing what looks like a real Tyrannosaurus Rex chase a car, or what looks like a real velociraptor murder a guy.

The practical effects and carefully parceled-out CGI in Jurassic Park are impressive all on their own, but the movie derives an added benefit from using dinosaur props that were, by and large, on set in front of the camera. By using these practical props, the film creates the sense that these dinosaurs are in the same space as the actors, that the action the characters are reacting to really is happening in front of them, that they’re really seeing dinosaurs because the dinosaurs are really there. This heightens the film’s realism, further convinces the audience that the dinosaurs are really there, and contribute to the film’s grounded sense of reality.

I don’t mean reality in the conventional sense here, because Jurassic Park is not a realistic movie. The entire premise is based on not only cloning but cloning dinosaurs, something far beyond the science of our time. In addition, the dinosaurs that show up in this movie were inaccurate even to the knowledge paleontologists had in the 90’s, and have grown more outdated as science has marched on. When I say reality in reference to Jurassic Park I mean that the film has an unshakable sense of place and continuity and experience, a subtle and yet inescapable feeling that what is happening on the screen really happened in front of the cameras on which it was filmed.

Most movies, or at least most good movies, have some measure of this groundedness, this verisimilitude. But now that special effects have advanced to the point where just about anything can be created in lifelike detail on a computer, and now that many action scenes are shot on green-screen soundstages instead of actual sets, many action-adventure movies in the legacy of Jurassic Park no longer feel real. Jurassic Park’s own sequel-slash-soft-reboot, Jurassic World, falls prey to this. The dinosaurs in that movie are overwhelmingly computer-generated, the action scenes are all layered over with heavy CGI, and the entire movie feels too shiny and polished to be something that could have really happened on a real island. The special effects are lifelike and even beautiful at times, but we know that they’re fake. In newer films it is clear that the dinosaurs, or whatever else has been rendered by a computer, does not occupy the same space as the actors, and that reminds us that none of it is real.

Jurassic Park, in contrast to newer films, feels absolutely lifelike in every scene. The actors are reacting to the dinosaurs that are right in front of them (rather than the dinosaurs they’ve been told are right in front of them), and the dinosaurs are actually moving around in and interacting with each of the various places in the park. Laura Dern and Sam Neill can get up close and personal with a triceratops, touching its mouth and listening to its breath and feeling its horns, without having to worry about leaving room for a digital artist to fill in the rest of the creature. The triceratops is simply there in front of them, and the difference is palpable.

This effect spills over to how the actors interact with the various sets as well. The T. Rex reveal scene, which takes place during a rainstorm, is the best example of this: Sam Neill and the two child actors playing Lex and Tim wind up covered in mud and soaked to the skin as this scene plays out, reaching a level of dishevelment and misery that drives home how much these characters have been through. The amount of water, mud, and jungle plant life that all of the characters interact with throughout the movie highlights the real sets used in every scene. The complex interplay of human actors, realistic dinosaurs, and real sets is what gives the movie an awe-inspiring sense of lifelike verisimilitude, the feeling that all of this is real despite the knowledge that it isn’t.

This is the crowning achievement of Jurassic Park, the element that sets it apart from other action-adventure films (including its own sequels). Of course the movie has other merits; after all, it’s Spielberg. The camerawork is excellent, and so is the lighting, and the action scenes all have a great sense of geography. The characters are complex and well-drawn, each with unique motivations, personalities, and quirks, and they constantly play off of each other in fun and interesting ways. The writing, particularly the dialogue, is wonderful, and the acting is spectacular. The sheer competence of this production would have set the movie up for success even if the special effects had been a bit sub-par. But with special effects that still hold up today and that overwhelming sense of realism, Jurassic Park flies past the mark of simply being good. By creating a wholly immersive experience of a park filled with dinosaurs, Jurassic Park captured the imaginations of millions, and established itself as a great movie.

 

Summer Reading Roundup: Classic Adventure Novels

Summer is almost upon us, and with summer comes the irrepressible urge to read a bunch of books and make up for our reading habits in the rest of the year. I know I plan to get my reading back on track, and finally get around to all the books I’ve been putting off because of school or work.

There are a lot of books that I love, and a lot that I’m looking forward to discovering over the summer. I hope as the season progresses I’ll be able to review and recommend various books, new and old. Since my favorite way to find book recommendations is by genre, I plan to publish various short lists of recommended books that fit a certain theme. For today, I have a collection of old-time classic adventure novels that have all aged pretty well, but I hope this list will only be the first of many.

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1. Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne
Jules Verne is best known for his works of speculative fiction, particularly Journey to the Center of the Earth and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. But where those books are long and verbose, in the way of 18th century science fiction, Around the World in Eighty Days is fast-paced, easy to read, and thoroughly entertaining. It tells the story of four main characters–an eccentric millionaire, his easygoing servant, an Indian heiress, and the sly detective pursuing the three–as they attempt to win a bet by circumnavigating the world in eighty days or less. The characters play off of each other in fun and unique ways, the Verne’s lush descriptions of pre-airplane travel are always a delight to read. The book’s only downside is its vintage racism towards non-white people in the British and American empires, which is subtle but still present. Still, Verne manages to avoid the more overt imperialistic attitudes many of his contemporaries included in their writing. With its historical context and shortcomings kept in mind, Around the World in Eighty Days is a fun look back at pre-20th century travel.

2. The Time Machine by H.G. Wells
Sometimes called “the British Jules Verne”, H.G. Wells was a prolific writer of science fiction in the late 1800s and early 1900s, often incorporating the cutting-edge scientific and philosophical thought of his day into his writing. The Time Machine, published in 1895, is credited as one of if not the first time travel story ever written. As if that weren’t reason enough reason to read it, the book is an adventurous tale of a man discovering how Earth has developed in the far future–and it contains some none-too-subtle commentary on the growing class divide that Wells perceived in post-Industrial England. Finally, the book has a considerably faster pace than some of Wells’ other work, and stays short, sweet, and the point throughout. Though it can’t stand up to some of the flashier, more modern time travel stories published in our time, The Time Machine is a piece of science fiction history and a certifiably fun read.

3. The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells
Published in 1898, three years after The Time MachineWar of the Worlds is a bigger, longer, heavier-hitting adventure from H.G. Wells. This book is a sci-fi adventure, as it chronicles one man’s attempts to get himself and his wife to safety in the midst of an alien invasion–but it also contains some genuinely horrifying elements, as the story systematically tears down every facet of British society and shows the stark post-apocalyptic landscape left at the end. As with most of Wells’ work, the book is also packed with social commentary, in this case a treatise on the brutality of the British Empire’s imperialism. The story has a surprisingly optimistic ending, but it pulls no punches on the way there, and I found it some parts of it genuinely scary even in the year 2017. If you’re looking for a classic adventure that’s darker and more mature, read this.

4. Mr. Midshipman Hornblower by C.S. Forester
C.S. Forester was an extremely prolific British author, consistently publishing works from the mid-1930s until the late 1960s (and on into the 1970s after his death), but he might be best known for writing the twelve-book Horatio Hornblower series, a saga of adventure set in the British navy in the early 1800s. The series was written and published in non-chronological order (similar to Star Wars or the Chronicles of Narnia), starting in the middle and later jumping back to the beginning. Published in 1950,  Mr. Midshipman Hornblower is chronologically the first book in the series. It details the adventures of the title character–here an awkward and depressed seventeen-year-old–as he tries (and sometimes fails) to start a career in the British navy. This is, in my opinion, the most entertaining and easy to read of the many Hornblower books, and since it’s technically the first in the series it doesn’t require you to read any of the others. Since it’s more a collection of short stories than anything else, it doesn’t even require you to read the entire book, though I personally like the character arc the chapters collectively present. If British naval fiction or “adventure on the high seas” are genres you’d like to get into, this might be a good starting point.

5. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy really does hold a special place in my heart. Nowhere else have I found the perfect blend of obnoxiously garish science fiction concepts, supremely entertaining self-awareness, and lovable, engaging characters. (Other books and movies have come close, but just can’t compete.) This is a book written by a man who has realized the full potential of science fiction, and doesn’t intend to let the reader go until he’s thrown them into the deep end of his imagined galaxy and left them feeling just as confused and invigorated as Arthur, the main character. As far as science fiction goes, this is on the lighter end of the scale; though it flirts with some philosophical concepts, it’s more concerned with the bizarre adventures of the main characters, particularly Arthur, an ordinary human man who abruptly finds himself hitchhiking through space one day after Earth is inconveniently destroyed. The story unfolds from there, making twists and turns and never taking itself too seriously. For a unique look at science fiction stories as a whole, give The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (and maybe it sequels) a try.

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I complain a lot about “classic” books, usually for good reasons–they’re all too often long, drawn-out, and hard to make sense of decades or even centuries after the fact. But the books on this list are shining examples of just how good classic books can be, how entertaining and informative and evocative of the period they were written in. Any one of them would be a great summer read, and I hope I can inspire someone to pick up one of these and maybe even enjoy (although you might not, and that’s okay–my tastes aren’t for everyone).

Another summer reading list will hopefully be ready in two weeks to a month. The next topic will probably be science fiction, maybe focused on space pirates or something similar, because that’s what I like and I haven’t read a really engaging space pirate book in about a year. However it turns out, I’m really excited to focus a little more on books here at the blog, and I hope everyone else is too. Summer should always be a time for reading, and I, for one, can’t wait to get started.