Jurassic World (2015)

Rated PG-13. Running time: 2 hours 4 min.

Our content ratings (1-10); Violence 6; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 2.

Our star rating (1-5): 3.5

 Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves.”

Genesis 11:4

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The huge dinosaur theme park draws thousands of tourists. (c) 2015 Universal Pictures

 An important subgenre of science fiction films is the cautionary story—you know, Frankenstein; Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde; The Hollow Man; The Fly, and, of course, the original Jurassic Park. The scientists in this genre all conduct esoteric experiments rashly, heedless of possible consequences because they arrogantly see no limits to human capability. And of course, their projects end disastrously, leaving survivors chastened. This fourth film in the Jurassic franchise, based on Michael Crichton’s works, is far better than the previous two sequels. It follows the cautionary formula to a T, but still manages to thrill audiences, the suspenseful chases and dinosaur fights calculated to make them forget their popcorn. Although Colin Trevorrow directs the film, Steven Spielberg serves as its executive producer.

The story begins with the parents of teenaged brothers Zach (Nick Robinson), and Gray (Ty Simpkins) sending them off on a vacation to Jurassic World, located on a rugged island off the course of Costa Rica. Their aunt Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) is Jurassic World’s operations manager. We see her escorting some potential investors around the park as she explains, Twenty years ago de-extinction was up there with magic. Now kids look at a stegosaurus like it’s an elephant in a zoo.” It seems that JW’s profits are slipping because of a jaded public, so, as we shall see, the corporation is looking for something Bigger and Better.

But back to the brothers. When they arrive their aunt is glad to see them, but can’t remember their ages—and she’s such a workaholic she cannot spend their first day together. She turns them over to an assistant so she can tend to business, telling the disappointed boys that she will see them later. Of course, the adventuresome kids soon give the assistant the slip and launch out in a small gyro-car to explore the place by themselves.

And what a place it is, no longer just a park, but Jurassic World, with large buildings housing exhibits, offices and laboratory. There are numerous rides, mechanical and organic, the latter being atop triceratops so tamed that they have become a children’s ride. Plenty of eating establishments, as well as scheduled feedings of the dinosaurs, souvenir sellers, and the names of corporate brand sponsors everywhere—Starbucks, Imax, Samsung, and more.

We also meet our hero Owen Grady (Chris Pratt), former Marine (thus his “manliness’ is a given) and now dinosaur trainer who has developed a rapport with some Raptors. He and Claire obviously have shared some past history, but now she keeps her distance. This being the kind of film it is, we know that pretty soon Owen’s job will be to rescue the boys and keep her safe when everything goes haywire.

We also meet Jurassic World’s eccentric CEO Simon Masrani (Irrfan Khan), concerned with corporate profits, and, of course, the arrogant scientist Dr Henry Wu (BD Wong) who has developed a super dinosaur, the Indominus Rex. This latter is even bigger than the Tyrannosaurus Rex that flocks of tourist watch as he consumes a tethered goat. This and later segments are when the sound track becomes as important as the visual elements, the theater virtually shaking with the combination of boom and thud signaling the approach of the creatures. Last of all there is security officer Hoskins (Vincent D’Onofrio) who makes sinister remarks about what a great military asset some of the dinosaurs would be—organic super weapons! He has accomplices with whom he communicates, but this subplot does not go very far. Perhaps a sequel of this sequel will pick up on this.

In Jurassic Park it was Jeff Goldblum’s Dr. Ian Malcolm who questioned the wisdom of what they were doing. His place is taken twenty years later by Owen, whose “Is this a good idea?” is repeated in various ways. Dr. Wu wants to begin using Indominus Rex for the public, and Masrani agrees. The new monster has mixed DNA, some of it from Raptors. Thus far it has been confined in a huge concrete pen in an isolated portion of the island, but… Amidst the mayhem that ensues from this unwise decision some are punished and some are rewarded. Hubris is once again shown as a destructive element of the human mind. The film also joins those that question corporate greed in which profits are put ahead of public safety, something that has become all too familiar in the real world, as witness the airbag debacle still going on. In Owen we also see an admirable person who truly sees his Raptors as sentient beings and thus cares for their welfare. This is in contrast to his employers who see them only as a source for profits.

In the film’s climax we almost forget for a while the humans, as two giant beasts square off against each other. As a thriller Jurassic World is top notch. The 3-D is used judiciously, adding to our feeling that we are in the middle of the action. However, the extra cost of this special effect is questionable, the flat version with the life-like dinosaurs also being mesmerizing. This scientific morality tale is far better than the two sequels of years gone by, the scriptwriters wisely ignoring any references to them. As a popcorn movie this one comes close to matching the original. It is one that viewers ought not to wait until NetFlix offers it. Even if one waits for it to come to a cheap seats theater, it demands to be seen on a big screen. One last cautionary note for parents: the producers have upped the violence, with both JW employees and tourists dying horrible deaths. I would suggest seeing it for yourself before taking a young child to this!

This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the July issue of Visual Parables. A subscription to the journal will also give you access to Lectionary Links, a feature for preachers that links a film to one or more lessons from the Common Lectionary.

Into the Storm (2014)

Rated PG-13. Running time 1 hour 23 min.

Our Content ratings (0-10): Violence 4; Language 2; Sex/Nudity 1.

Our star rating (0-5): 2.5

 The crash of your thunder was in the whirlwind; your lightnings lit up the world; the earth trembled and shook.

Psalm 77:18

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One of 4 tornadoes bears down upon the team of storm trackers. (c) 2014 New Line Cinema

The ancients, with no concept of science and nature, connected whirlwinds and lightning directly to God—and in often saw these devastating forces as divine punishment for sin. If this were the case in this disaster film, then the Midwest town of Silverton must have been full of sin—a convergence of four tornadoes creates a monster storm of wind s of 300 mph! The people we meet, however, are not lascivious sinners, but just ordinary folk going about their job.

The first part of the film, like other disaster films, sets up the various characters about whom we are to care enough about to root for them when the disaster hits. There are two groups of characters. First is a team of storm chasers headed by filmmaker Pete (Matt Walsh) and meteorologist Allison (Sarah Wayne Callies). It has been a year since they have scored a success, so with money running out, they have come to the area badly in need of some spectacular shots, such as within the eye of a tornado. Chief among the second group is Silverton High School assistant principal Gary (Richard Armitage), debating with Principal Walker (Scott Lawrence) about canceling the graduation ceremony because of the bad weather reports. Walker nixes this, a decision that, of course, will put the lives of hundreds of students and parents in jeopardy. Gary has two sons Donnie (Max Deacon) and Trey (Nathan Kress), skilled in videography. Donnie has been admiring fellow Kaitlyn (Alycia Debnam Carey) for a long time from a distance, and amidst the life-threatening storm the two of them will be thrown together.

The special effects are truly awesome, combined with an impressive soundtrack and big screen that seems to place us in the midst of the turmoil. Having once taken shelter in a basement while a much smaller tornado passed too close for comfort, I can testify to the authenticity of that sound track! Roofs are torn off buildings; a fire breaks out at a demolished gas station where one of the funnels sucks up the flames, creating a blazing column reminiscent of the fiery pillar that guided the children of Israel in the wilderness of Sinai—although there is nothing benevolent about this one. Bricks, pieces of mortar, garbage cans, cars, and who knows what else are flung about. When the roof of the high school is torn away, the people have to cling to the locker handles and one another to prevent being sucked out of the building. At an airport airliners take to the air, but not under their own power. Massive tractor-trailers are whirled aloft as if they were Tonka Toys.

This is not a great movie, with its over the top sequence of bringing together not one or two, but four twisters, but it does deliver great thrills. Director Steven Quale, screenwriter John Swetnam, director of photography Brian Pearson, and production designer David Sandefur bring us as close to the real thing as I would want to go. This is one of those films that must be seen on a big screen to fully appreciate.

The review with a set of discussion questions will be in the Nov. issue of Visual Parables.

 

All Is Lost (2013)

Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 46 min.

Our advisories: Violence 2; Language 2; Sex/Nudity 0.

Star rating (1-5): 4

 I sink in deep mire,
where there is no foothold;
I have come into deep waters,
and the flood sweeps over me.

            Psalm 69.2

 Thy sea, O God, so great,
My boat so small,
It cannot be that any happy fate,
Will me befall,
Save as Thy goodness opens paths for me,
Through the consuming vastness of the sea.

            1st stanza of Bretony Fisherman’s Prayer*

AtWheel

A man battles for his life against the implacable sea and the storms that whip it into a frenzy.
(c) Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions Feature Film

What a contrast director J. C. Chandor’s film proved to be after my having rushed from a theater down the hall where I had endured the seemingly endless loud music and improbable heroics of the muscular Thor just 5 minutes before! In this film there is just one man, almost no dialogue, and a “set” that consists of a yacht, and then a covered lifeboat—and of course, the Indian Ocean. There is no back-story or flashbacks, no narration, and thus no subplots, just this simple story of an inventive man struggling to survive the sinking of his 39-foot yacht on which he was the sole person. We should add that the musical score, with a simple, haunting melody by Alex Ebert, contributes greatly to its impact.

At the beginning of the movie we hear a brief statement that includes, “I’m sorry. I tried. All is lost here except for body and soul,” obviously written by a man who has given up the struggle for survival. Then we are taken back eight days, during the latter part of which we see him write this note and place it in a jar in the forlorn hope that someone someday, somehow would find and read it. We are not told his name, just “Our Man” (Robert Redford) in the credits. On the first of those eight days Our Man wakes up when there is a bump and some noise. He discovers that his Virginia Jean has run into a large cargo container that somehow has fallen off a ship. There are already several inches of water on the floor, and more pouring through the large hole that the edge of the container had gashed into the hull of his yacht. He manages to place a crude patch over the large hole and to whittle the end of a pole so that it will serve as the handle for his pump, thus his being able to dispose of the seawater swishing around his ankles.

He dries out his radio, climbs the tall mast to reconnect a plug, and utters virtually all of the spoken dialogue in the film “This is the Virginia Jean with an SOS call. Over.” Actually, this qualifies as monologue, as there is no response. Just silence, punctuated by the sound of the wind. He is truly alone hundreds of miles from land. Opening the survival kit he finds a sextant, a manual on how to use it, and nautical maps on which he charts his progress. Everything he does is a struggle, but he shows little emotion, and says nothing—quite different from Tom Hanks’ character in Castaway.

The arrival of a storm proves to be the most dangerous of the many problems confronting him. The Virginia Jean is tossed about by the wind and waves like a toy, the boat being turned upside down a couple of times, throwing Our Man around like a doll. Quite a jolt to look out the cabin window and see, not sky but the waters of the deep! More water leaks in, so that when the storm passes, it becomes obvious that the vessel will not be able to stay afloat much longer. Thus he launches the life raft, much like the one in Captain Phillips in that it has a protective cover. He tethers the raft to the vessel and, over the next day or two transfers some supplies.

Our man has displayed a stoicism worthy of the originators of that philosophy. However, when he discovers that his large plastic jug of drinking water has been contaminated, he does become so frustrated that he cries out aloud the swear word that, had he said it twice, might have earned the film an R rating. Thanks to the survival manual, he does devise an ingenious method of obtaining water by use of the sun’s heat, a clear plastic sheet stretched over the cut-away jug, and a cup placed right under the sheet to collect the moisture that condenses. This produces just a few swallows at a time, but it keeps him alive, along with his cans of beans.

He uses the fishing tackle from the survival kit, but when he is about to pull in his catch, a shark suddenly rises up and snatches it away. An underwater shot looking up shows a dozen or more of these creatures circling about the raft. This is one in a series of events, including another storm tossing and turning over the raft, that eat away at his spirit.

Each day he takes a sighting with the sextant, noting his position on his nautical map. The current and winds are driving him a little farther north each day. Adding to his frustration is the failure of cargo vessels to spot him, even when he sends up signal flares. The first comes within a hundred yards or so, passing him by with no notice. The second almost rams him while he is sleeping, waking him up as it too passes by. Later when he spots the lights of a plane at night he takes an extreme measure, so desperate is he that it appears to be suicidal.

Our Man, so taciturn that his only spontaneous outcry is the “F” word, never utters a “fox hole prayer,” so secularized is he. He faces his impending death with the courage of a stoic who has done everything possible to preserve his life. While admirable, he is hardly the example that people of faith would point to as a model for dealing with death. Compared to such a person as Francis of Assisi, who during his last painful days spoke of “Sister Death,” his is a pitiable plight. (In the questions that follow we offer the possibility of using the film for a discussion of the subject so dreaded by a great many people, that of death, and of our own in particular.) Nonetheless, we admire both his inventiveness and his courage, and we leave the theater with a profound respect, for both the screen character and the great performance of Robert Redford. The Sun Dance founder demonstrates that even in advanced middle age he can still command the screen.

*The whole poem is available, along with Rembrandt’s painting “Storm at the Sea of Galilee” at http://nuslegion.blogspot.com/2008/06/o-god-thy-sea-is-so-great-and-my-boat.html

The full review with a set of questions for reflection or discussion will appear in the December issue of Visual Parables, which will be available late in November.

Gravity (2013)

Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 30 min.

Our Content Adviserories (1-10): Violence 2; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 2.

Our star Rating (1-5): 4.5

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Astronauts Dr. Ryan Jones and Mission Commander Mat Kowalski are stranded in space when debris destroys their space shuttle.
(c) 2013 Warner brothers

 Incline your ear to me; rescue me speedily.
Be a rock of refuge for me,a strong fortress to save me.

You are indeed my rock and my fortress;
for your name’s sake lead me and guide me,
take me out of the net that is hidden for me,
for you are my refuge.
Into your hand I commit my spirit;
you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God.

            Psalm 31:2-5

We see no evidence in this suspenseful space film that Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is a believer, but if she were, the above words of the psalmist might well have been her prayer. A medical engineer on her first shuttle mission, she is space suited up and teamed with another astronaut repairing a device on the Hubble telescope’s extended arm while the mission commander, veteran astronaut Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney), is enjoying using a thruster pack to propel himself around. This being his last mission, he regrets that he will fall short by a few hours of beating the space walk record of a Russian cosmonaut. The three are chatting with each other and Mission Control (voice of Ed Harris, a delightful bit of voice casting because he was one of the stars of The Right Stuff and Apollo 13), Matt repeating an old astronaut joke, “Houston, I have a bad feeling about this mission.” A few minutes later this turns out to be prophetic when Houston sends an emergency warning that a Russian station has blown up, the debris hurtling their way at 55,000 mph.  When Ryan is slow to respond to Matt’s command to stop her work and reboard their station, he yells at her to get moving. By then jagged bits and pieces of the remains of the Russian station are flying by them.

Thus, after a marvelous single shot scene lasting about 13 minutes, the roller coaster sequence begins in which the two struggle in zero gravity, first to connect with each other, and then to decide what to do when their station is destroyed, killing all aboard. The third astronaut out working with them also is killed. Ryan, already struggling with the nausea of motion sickness, has trouble when the long cargo arm of the station breaks loose, swinging her wildly around and around and around. When she extricates herself from it, she keeps spinning out of control. Thanks to the calmness of Matt, she overcomes her momentary panic, and at last he is able to connect with her. They are running low on oxygen, so he decides they must head for the Russian International Space Station which should have a shuttle to transport them safely back to earth. There follows a series of mini-disasters that could be regarded as confirmation of Murphy’s Law, “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.” Their contact with Mission Control is severed, so they are completely on their own.

This is one film that truly deserves that overworked expletive “Awesome!” Director Alfonso Cuarón, working with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and visual effects supervisor Tim Webber, as well as his co-script writer son Jonas, has produced a variation of the old survival film worthy of placing alongside of Cast Away and Life of Pi. And not since t he latter film and Avatar has 3-D photography been used so effectively—and is so essential to fully experiencing the film. For once 3-D is not a financial rip off to increase a film’s profits.

Thus Gravity is not a film to wait for until it comes out on DVD in order to save a few bucks. You owe it to yourself to see it on a large screen, with the 3-D really bringing you into the action. When Matt reaches out for a special wrench or nut that is floating toward you, you have to stifle the urge to dodge the gloved hand. There are spectacular, glorious shots of the earth and stars, but equally effective are the close ups of Sandra Bullock’s face, which might remind film buffs of the almost exclusive use of such close ups in Carl Theodor Dryer’s 1928 masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc. Ms. Bullock is fully up to the challenge of conveying through her facial expressions the gamut of emotions, ranging from nausea, fear, and near panic to relief and determination to survive. The camera at times seamlessly moves from the external or third person POV into her helmet so that we see her in extreme close up, and then it swivels so that we are sharing her perspective on her predicament. She also achieves the almost ballet-like motions of a dancer in the sequence in which, shedding her bulky space suit, she floats her way through a long corridor of a space shuttle. With the least amount of dialogue of any of her films, it is through her facial expressions and the movements—or lack of them when during her period of despair she assumes a fetal position –that she reveals what a consummate actress she is. If you appreciated Tom Hank’s solo feat in Castaway, you are sure to love her performance in this masterful film.

We are reminded at the beginning of the film that nothing can be heard in space, where there is no atmosphere to convey the sound. This makes the sound of Ryan’s labored breathing all the more effective, reminding us that her oxygen is in short supply. Her struggle to reach the ISS, and from there the even more distant Chinese space station, becomes an epic journey of the mind and spirit as well as of the body, a testament of human pluck and perseverance. Steven Price’s musical soundtrack stops at just the right moments so that the silence of space is emphasized all the more.

From one standpoint the coldness and indifference of space might lead to an atheistic outlook—what difference does it make if these two humans live or die out there almost four hundred miles from home? On the other hand, for those who believe, to quote from William Cowper’s hymn, “God moves in a mysterious way, his wonders to perform,” Ryan’s moment of hallucination might be the modern equivalent of Joseph’s life saving dreams early on in the Gospel of Matthew. Filled with despair at one point in the Chinese station so that she is resigned to death, Ryan turns down the oxygen to hasten the inevitable. But her hallucination awakens her to the clue for the possibility of survival that she had not thought of before, and she springs into action. Scriptures in many places suggest that dreams or hallucinations at times have an external, as well as an internal, source. Of course, there is no way to prove this, but then isn’t that what faith is all about? As Hebrews 11:1 puts it, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

Again, I urge you not to put off seeing this film, one that will no doubt be up for multiple awards, from Best Actress to all of the technical awards that the Motion Picture Academy offers. “Awesome!” really does sum up this film.

 The full version of this review, including a set of 9 discussion questions, will be in the November 2013 issue of the journal Visual Parables, available to subscribers near the end of October.