I recently re-read Bluebeard, which is a Kurt Vonnegut novel about an immigrant named Rabo Karabekian who comes to America to apprentice under a Norman Rockwell stand-in named Dan Gregory. Vonnegut draws a stark comparison between the two men: Rabo is a passionate person with a good eye and a steady hand, but for some inexplicable reason his work always feels flat and uninspiring. Conversely, Dan is an abusive drunk who has made a fortune selling sentimental paintings to millions of Americans who adore his every brush stroke.
Bluebeard is seen as a lesser Vonnegut work – and fair enough; I’ll admit that it isn’t as formally inventive as some of his other more sci-fi inspired books. Nonetheless, I enjoyed it because I am fascinated with the aesthetic questions that it raises. Rabo needs to understand how it is that a callous dick is able to put so much warmth in his figures while he – a young man whose heart is still open – can only draw limp and lifeless corpses. He has to figure out why his mentor’s paintings are so well respected while his are not.
I’m thinking of Bluebeard today because I last night saw a limp, lifeless sequel, and while I was watching it I kept asking myself: why doesn’t this work as well as the original film does?
I’m speaking of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, the newest entry in the Frankenstein-ish franchise where scientists turn mosquito blood into dinosaurs and then the dinosaurs turn whatever human happens to be standing near them into a snack.
The Bluebeard comparison first occurred to me during an early scene where Owen and Claire (the film’s main protagonists, played by Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard respectively) stop to watch as three increasingly large CGI dinosaurs bite each other in a violent attempt to create a reptilian Turducken. The knock against CGI-driven blockbusters is that computer created effects lacks the weight, texture and palpable reality that practical effects naturally have – but that knock didn’t apply here. There was nothing about the dinosaurs that stood out as fake to me. They all looked as weighty and textured and real as you would want them to.
I still didn’t care.
Which means that my problem with the film was not that it was poorly done, but that it lacked heart in some hard-to-articulate way. And given that I was kind of bored – even in the midst of a volcanic explosion on Dinosaur Island! – I had some time to try to unpack what about the film was leaving me so cold.
Generally I struggle to answer that question; obviously it is difficult to pin down what gives one work of art “heart” and not another. In Fallen Kingdom’s case it wasn’t quite as difficult. The film didn’t work for me because it’s characters were terrible – quite possibly the worst I’ve seen in a major film.
We know nothing about either Owen or Claire. They don’t have pasts that they ever refer back to. They don’t have friends they want to get in contact with. They don’t appear to have any non-plot-relevant desires. (Well, I guess Owen does say at one point that he likes playing pool, and we can infer from one shot where Claire is carrying a tray of coffee cups that she drinks coffee, but I have no idea if she is a cappuccino woman or an Americano kind of gal.) The two of them do flirt a few times and even end up kissing at one point, but I can’t imagine either of them getting horny any more than I can imagine Barbie and Ken becoming suicidally depressed.
The way that Fallen Kingdom treats its main characters stands in sharp contrast to the way that the original Jurassic Park treated its main characters. Steven Spielberg doesn’t spend a long time establishing his protagonists; he wants to get to the titular Park as soon as he can. Nonetheless, the two-time best director winner does take the time to establish his players in broad strokes. Dr. Grant is a bit gruff, but he’s passionate and knowledgeable. Ian Malcolm is cynical, aloof, and cocky. Ellie Sattler is kind, practical and determined. We get all of that in a few short scenes; within ten minutes of meeting those characters we can imagine how they behaved back when they were in college and we can project what they’ll do once the story is over.
That lack of specificity presents a problem for Fallen Kingdom, because it prevents the movie from having any sense of stakes. It is hard to care whether any of the dinosaurs ‘live’ or ‘die’ because they never seem particularly ‘alive’ - no matter how realistic they look I always know deep down in my gut that those triceratops-shaped things on the screen are just a bunch of pixels that are fundamentally interchangeable with any other similarly shaped set of pixels. And while Owen and Claire are played by real flesh-and-blood actors they might as well be CGI creations because they are drawn so vaguely that they never seem real, either.
To expand on the “no one really acts the way these characters act” point I’d like to make one more comparison, this time to James Cameron’s Aliens. The first half of Aliens is slow – probably too slow for a modern audience. In the director’s cut of the movie it takes about an hour for Ellen Ripley (the only survivor of the first Alien film) to return to space to fight the Xenomorph menace one more time. There are times when that first hour drags, but ultimately I think the effort pays off, because all of the time that Ripley spends debating whether or not she wants to re-enter her own personal hell establishes her as a real person, and the fact that she chooses to do the right thing at great personal risk to herself gives the audience a reason to root for her.
In contrast, it takes thirty seconds to convince Claire to go back to the island where she was nearly mauled to death multiple times by multiple animals in the previous Jurassic World film. It takes Owen slightly longer to get on board– maybe two or three minutes – but the debate is confined to one scene. And after the decision to go back is made neither character ever second guess it – not even after they get double crossed by the people who took them to the island, not after they almost get stampeded by hundreds of animals that are each ten times their mass, not after they almost get melted by falling magma, not after they almost drown in the ocean… At no point do they take the risk seriously. So how is the audience supposed to take it seriously?
I will probably never be able to solve the Rabo Karabekian / Dan Gregory problem. I don’t know why one painting fascinates while another elicits yawns. But I think that a big part of that is because I’m not a visual thinker and I can’t always analyze images to the depths that I want to.
I am, however, a narrative thinker, and as such I can analyze and isolate what makes Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom so frustrating, especially compared to it’s great-great-great-grandfather, the original Jurassic Park. Both movies have great effects, but Spielberg’s movie gave us relateable characters who went on a journey from curiosity to wonder to terror while Jurassic World has its dead-eyed robots bounce from meaningless set piece to meaningless set piece. So no wonder the original film moved me while it’s sequel four times removed did not: the original actually tried to go somewhere!