What up, dinks. I’ve sent my Masters degree away for assessment, and thus The Cage Match has returned. Did you miss me? Huh? HUH?
Pfft. Of course not. Let’s get down to business.
So! Despite being immersed in a postgraduate fugue, the state of the world has not escaped me. I’m surprisingly up to date with current events! It might shock you young people to learn that I, Ryan Morrison, am very much aware that movable type is an unmitigated hit, MC Hammer is in possession of an undeclared article that it is beyond our ability to touch, and this ‘New World’ that Christopher Columbus has discovered will, in a few hundred years, become something of a planetary conversation piece.
But let’s set aside the incredibly current news of today, and have a chat about something that everyone has an opinion on—dinosaurs. Dinosaurs! They’re just fantastic, aren’t they? Are they not the coolest and best thing ever? Like a lot of children in my little slice of the world, being crazy about dinosaurs from a young age seemed deliciously mandatory. I knew early on what my favourite dinosaur was (Ankylosaurus, clearly), and I owned a lot of crappy little dinosaur toys that saw plenty of use alongside my Power Rangers, Transformers, and assorted action heroes du jour. There’s something inescapably perennial about palaeontology, and from what little I’ve seen of future generations, I don’t think that’s abating. Which is great.
However, while dinosaurs stand proudly as a pervasive cultural phenomenon, they are nevertheless a subset of a larger category. They’re certainly fascinating from a historic and scientific perspective—but come on, so are ferns. What makes dinosaurs different is that they are monsters. And people are fascinated with monsters. They turn up in our most popular narratives, again and again, as something to be analysed, to be feared…and in most cases, to be bested. How this struggle is represented can say a lot about the societal background in which the tale is set.
So yes, surprising no-one—least of all those savvy enough to read the title of the article—this month I’m going to be looking at Jurassic World (2015), written by Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Colin Trevorrow and Derek Connolly, directed by Colin Trevorrow, and based on characters by Michael Crichton. (Which is to say, they mention John Hammond a couple times, and B. D. Wong turns up and smarms at everyone.) Not only did this movie top the box office (data taken from the 11th to the 14th of June 2015), but it made a clean sweep of a whole bunch of box office records, slotting the Jurassic Park franchise back into the Zeitgeist along with the gormless and unshaven huggability of Chris Pratt. Set 22 years after the events of the first film, Jurassic World finally makes good on John Hammond’s promise: to resurrect the dead and then charge people to take selfies with them. Fucking genius. Of course, many of you are already aware of the plot—I mean hell, I’m no statistician, but judging by the box office sales, everyone reading this review has seen this movie at least seven times. The boffins at InGen genetically engineer the Worst Dinosaur Ever, and everything goes comically wrong. Whoops! Granted, nobody dies on the toilet, which is marked improvement on the hilarious death of Donald Gennaro. But a helicopter pilot does get sniped in the heart by hapless pteranodon, so that’s something, I guess.
Squaring off against this multi-million dollar colossus this month is Marshland (2014, Spanish: La isla mínima), written by Rafael Cobos and Alberto Rodríguez, and directed by Alberto Rodríguez. A subtle and powerful Spanish thriller, it follows the travails of police detectives Juan (Javier Gutiérrez) and Pedro (Raúl Arévalo) as they solve a series of violent murders in a rural Spain. Set in 1980, during the Transition, there is a level of ideological tension permeating the piece that provides a fascinating backdrop to what could otherwise have been a by-the-books procedural mystery. It struck a lot of the same chords as True Detective (2014), with the dubious bonus of having most characters visibly trying to forget that Franco was ‘a thing’. Like Jurassic World, this movie is about monsters. However, unlike Jurassic World, these monsters were actually scary.
First and foremost, antagonists need protagonists—which is to say, monsters need prey. And for the audience to fear the beast, they need to relate to its walking, talking dinner. In this regard, Jurassic World is mostly functional, if a little kitschy. Karen and Scott Mitchell (Judy Greer and Andy Buckley) decide that the best way to tackle their imminent divorce is to send their two flesh-filled children Zach and Gray (Nick Robinson and Ty Simpkins) into the comically irresponsible arms of their workaholic aunt, Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard). Left in the hands of Claire’s one part British, two parts useless assistant Zara (Katie McGrath), these two neophytic boy-band clones escape confinement, flipping off the Moirai with both hands and rolling around on a sunny hillside covered in sesame seeds and tangy BBQ sauce.
Enter the hero, Owen (Chris Pratt). As posterchildren go, he’s a firm choice. He’s handsome, he’s affable, and he’s occasionally a decent actor. But Owen smacks of having been written specifically for Pratt’s particular comedic sensibilities. His one notable character trait (aside from his clumsy romance with Claire that rides the line between offensively shallow and contextually ridiculous) is his hard-on for nature and respect for predators. But this only exists as a painfully obvious parallel to the two villains of Jurassic World: the genetically modified supersaur Indominus Rex, and contemporary Dennis Nedry stand-in Hoskins (Vincent D’Onofrio), who is the best thing in this this movie by far.
Comparatively, the heroes of Marshland are much less easy to define. The sublimely sparse dialogue in this film works in concert with subtle visual and contextual cues, imbuing both detectives with a rich amount of inferred character. In my case, the cultural gulf certainly helps; I don’t know whether Juan’s choice to casually drink some morning wine during a visit to a grieving family is appropriate, or abhorrent. I know I wouldn’t do it, but I also don’t drink wine. Juan is a compelling figure, taking pleasure in food and drink, but still treating his job with a serious hand. This hand becomes a fist on more than one occasion, which isn’t always justified, but certainly textures his portrayal. Add that to the oddly poignant eye contact he gives to birds from time to time, and you’ve got a recipe for a suitably mysterious co-protagonist.
Sharing the spotlight in Marshland is Pedro, the younger and more idealistic of the two detectives, whose grim facial expression belies his need to prove himself in this hostile environment. He’s certainly got a few more tropes to bear, such as the distant wife and newborn child, and promotion prospects hinging on the results of this case. But the actions he takes in the execution of his duty prove very telling, providing an intriguing counterbalance to Juan. I won’t spoil anything, but the act of working this case becomes a turning point for these men that is more crucial than the mystery itself. Character outweighs plot, somewhat to its detriment—the mystery could be modified, and the process of solving it would impact the protagonists the same way. I wouldn’t say Marshland falls terribly short in this regard, necessarily…but it does a little. The best mysteries are a darker reflection of the people solving them. Of course, this formula is a slippery slope towards predictability, so I would call this disparity less a complaint and more something of note.
Jurassic World has no such qualms about cliché. With one hand, it gives us Hoskins, who embodies the ‘humans are the real monsters’ trope. And with the other hand, it mines the deep technophobia that pervades every major scientific advance, trading on the commonly held belief that everything would be a lot simpler if Johnny and Barbara Scientist kept their teat pipettes out of the gorram gene pool.
Enter the pride and joy of Jurassic World, the Indominus Rex. And then, cue the fart noise, because this is where Jurassic World falls woefully short. Okay, yes, the Indominus Rex is big. It is a big dinosaur. But after three films, that doesn’t mean much. I would argue that, in a boxing match, the Indominus would likely be assigned the same weight category as a Tyrannosaurus rex. And the T. rex is already iconic! If Rex Jr was too much larger than that, it wouldn’t believably snack on something so paltry as a human being; you’re more likely to be scraped off its shoe than turn up shredded in its leavings. But any smaller, and the T. rex winds up looking scarier by comparison. The first film, in this and many other ways, set a tough standard to beat.
But what about its awesome genetic modifications, I hear you cry? This thing is one spliced genome away from getting a form letter from Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters. Doesn’t that make it awesome?! Sadly, no. No it doesn’t. Even in the damn trailer I could tell that this thing was incorrectly sized to be considered stealthy. Did they sneak in some ninja genes? Did Dr Henry Wu (B. D. Wong) sprinkle some cat hair into the test tube? Cuz I can think of no other way to give the Indominus Rex the magical noise-cancelling abilities required to sneak under your feet the moment you start grating some cheese.
The Indominus Rex is utter horsetrousers, from start to finish. Camouflage might make it more stylish than a T. rex, but it would not make it quieter. The ability to modify its body heat might make it less likely to borrow a jacket, but it would not know exactly when to turn it off when people were looking for it. Having it remember where they installed a tracking implant is conceivable, but it would not know that removing it when InGen called the fuzz would be better than removing it while it was still locked up. All of this is compounded by a slew of moments that were undercut by their thoughtless convenience: from the pteranodons becoming blissful killers upon release, to the radios failing every time the scoring orchestra hesitantly plucked a minor chord. Jurassic World flirted with brilliance, it even caught eye contact with brilliance and lightly pinched its bum, but this clumsy encounter pales in comparison to the true masterpiece that was Jurassic Park. The best moments in Jurassic World were little more than references to its 22 year old parent, leaving us to fidget uncomfortably as we realised that the first movie had cleaner teeth and a more symmetrical face.
Comparatively, the monster in Marshland is far, far more monstrous. Granted, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. The gulf between the films is massive, and I don’t just mean in ratings. Marshland isn’t dealing with the fantastic, it’s dealing with the realistic. Violent sexual predators exist, more horrible than a striding morass of polygons, and the better they are at their job, the harder they are to spot. I wish I could talk about the plot Marshland with more detail, I do…I don’t want to spoil the ending, and I definitely want people to see this movie. Suffice to say that there are numerous examples of human horror on display. In typical gritty hard-boiled fashion, everyone sucks and nobody can be trusted. Well, aside from a few. This is a genre that makes angels out of women and knights out of petty thieves. But at their heart, films like Marshland expose that not only is ‘good’ a relative concept, once you open the aperture wide enough, it’s functionally meaningless. Marshland has several exquisite aerial shots, no movement save for that which exists in frame, and no ugliness save for what humanity has injected into it. I found these peerless shots very telling, and I hope that’s not just my cosmicism talking.
So there we go. This won’t come as a surprise to long-term readers, but Marshland wins this particular bout hands down. It would honestly have my winning vote against most blockbuster films. Characters outpaced plot, but it was still very well made on all counts, and had me perched on the lip of my seat like a gargoyle. In aggregate, Marshland did less, but successfully said much more. I fully accept that this is my overall preference in cinema.
Comparatively, Jurassic World fell apart for me because they wanted to make something bigger, shinier, more exciting. I get that this message is within the film, and is meant to parody the movie industry, but the only thing it ends up lampooning is itself. Yes, people want more of the same. Yes, that results in the creation of inflated failures that have more in common with a jalapeño-fuelled bowel movement than they do with the works of William Shakespeare. But why didn’t Colin Trevorrow realise that highlighting this trend inevitably trashes any intended poignancy? Did he actually direct Jurassic World, or was he just the voice-actor for Mr. DNA, and when the time came for the corporate machine to stamp the blame on someone he pulled the short straw?
Okay, okay. I’m being ranty and cynical. I guess, at the end of the day, I’m just a little wounded. Jurassic Park was one of the first movies I ever saw in cinemas. Did this mean that Jurassic World was always going to fall short? Perhaps. It had big shoes to fill. And it certainly had some great moments, particularly in the third act. But then Owen would flirt with Claire, or the relationship betwixt man and raptor would take another dubious turn, and I’d stumble. This movie was so close, guys. But I genuinely don’t know how much of that closeness can be attributed to proximity. Michael Crichton and Stephen Spielberg did something great. Jurassic World made a lot of money. I am not convinced they are the same thing.
And, for the record, dinosaurs had fucking feathers. This wasn’t scientifically established until after Jurassic Park I think, so I sort of understand why they didn’t get shoehorned in. It would be ridiculous, after all. Sure, they interbred a T. rex with Batman, so they don’t have much of an excuse, but okay, they have an excuse. Hell, they even had some dialogue for Dr. Henry Wu that throws palaeontologists an incredibly vague bone. But come on guys—putting scientifically erroneous facts about dinosaurs on your website, with zero disclaimer? That’s not just a low blow. It’s fucking irresponsible. Kids love dinosaurs, and because Jurassic World is relatively bloodless, they’ve no doubt seen it in droves. And then they Googled it. And then you lied to them.
But hey. It sold a lot of tickets, right?