This year has been so disappointing that I almost talked myself out of attending the preview screening of Jurassic Park 3. But I am happy to say that the summer finally has an action movie that reminds me of those guilt-free, taut action-thrillers of my childhood. This one is made by people who really know what they are doing, people who don't let big budgets and box-office records compel them to create a bloated, over-the-top, self-important epic. This one just stomps in, does the job, turns around, and goes home in less than 90 minutes. There's nothing terribly unexpected in JP3, and it's profoundly unprofound. The CGI-osaur technology seems to have plateaued—(but how much more realistic can these creatures look?) Director Joe Johnston (The Rocketeer, Jumanji) focuses on delivering bone-jarring jolts similar to the best parts of the original film, and avoids the long, ponderous dialogue, exposition, and Darwinian sermons. Characters are developed just enough so we can root for them to succeed. The cast is an impressive list of talents, humbly giving themselves to the typical demands of brainless action. They give us a good anchor in the midst of special effects chaos. Sam Neil is especially impressive, bringing gravity and good humor that was missing from the previous sequel (which was overlong, not very scary, and full of failed jokes.) Also worth mentioning: a glowing but small performance by Laura Dern and a sure-footed and sympathetic turn by William H. Macy.
My friend and fellow critic Peter T. Chattaway pointed out something I had missed entirely: this installment has no villain, and yet it's still intense and involving. The action starts in the first minute, and never lets up. Johnston stages elaborate and exciting chases and one jaw-dropping fight between massive beasties. One in particular, the nasty Spinosaurus, is meaner than T. Rex and bigger even than Marlon Brando in The Score. Best of all, he finally gives pterodactyls, those beloved flying dinos, the action scene that dinosaur fans waited for in vain through the first two installments. Thankfully, this time the monsters don't wear out their welcome. Just as the script's idea-tank starts sputtering and you can hear the gears grinding to a halt, it's over. I was surprised to find myself grateful that Spielberg didn'tdirect this one—there are few squishy Hallmark-card moments, no big teary-eyed speeches, and no pulpit-pounding epilogue. Ride's over. Go back. Get in line again.
Is there anything meaningful to glean from such adventures? I'm sure somebody could come up with something, just like somebody could probably make a sermon illustration about a roller-coaster ride. But I can't fail to mention one moment that plucked a resonant chord—the sight of a cold-hearted, ravenous female velociraptor chasing down a human just because that human is carrying a raptor egg. I wonder if anybody anywhere will find it oddly touching that even a creature as brutal as this would care so much about the life of the unborn.
At this writing, no one else has posted a review. I'll share the usual "forum" next week.
Hot from the Oven
A 12 year-old Jeffrey might also have enjoyed Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, but probably for the special effects and very little else. Fantasy takes us to a ruined, futuristic Earth, in which humans struggle to survive after a meteor crash turns loose enormous, ghastly phantom aliens. Refugee humans, hovering about the earth in elaborate transports, debate how to regain the planet and destroy the alien menace. Their quandary becomes an argument about faith versus science and technology. The sneering General Hein wants to blow up the aliens with a big gun. But our hero, Dr. Aki Ross, with the help of the square-jawed Gray and the Obi-Wan Kenobi-like Dr. Sid, has a less violent proposition. She believes that Earth's life is dependent on a goddess-like entity within it, a "Gaia". If General Hein has his way, in destroying the aliens he will also badly injure the Earth's Gaia. She proposes instead that she gather various "spirits" whose combined power might cancel out the influence of the aliens.
Movie Parables' Michael Elliot addresses the film's technical achievement: "In what is undoubtedly a stunning … achievement, the makers of Final Fantasyhave succeeded in mastering the artificial reproduction of bad acting." He also suggests that the film's "fantasy" is actually part of an all-too-real occult belief system: "Gaia is not a name dreamed up for this film. It is a name that comes from Greek antiquity … the representation of the pagan belief of a 'mother goddess,' the earth as a living entity which nourishes and sustains its 'children.' Even though this is a concept which is unsupported by Scripture (in fact, it is in total disagreement with biblical truths), it nevertheless is an idea that has recently enjoyed a resurgence in popularity." He did appreciatehow the film uniquely suggests that "science and faith aren't completely at odds."
The U.S. Catholic Conferencecalls it "jumbled"—"The computer-generated characters with lifelike skin and body movements … are amazing, but the convoluted plot line is nearly impenetrable." Holly McClure at The Dove Foundation calls it "depressing"—"Although the computer-generated effects are amazing and it truly represents incredible filmmaking history, this dark and heavy storyline is for mature audiences." At Christian Spotlight on the Movies, Douglas Downs claims that the movie is "like that video game system you just couldn't wait to buy. The satisfaction comes quickly, but leaves just as quickly. … There are many elements of the plot that will disturb the 'true Spirit' within Christian viewers, and could continue to lead those who are not true believers down a deceptive and deadly path."
Preview's Paul Bicking is distressed by over the film's focus on spirits. "Gaia is the name for the Earth Goddess or Mother Nature in some New Age and pagan religions. [Dr. Sid] refers to the energy spirit returning to Gaia when a body dies. But he also refers to the alien planet's energy as Gaia. Several scenes show spirit forms leaving human bodies as the aliens devour their energy. A pantheistic belief, that all life has this 'spirit' energy, is shown as the saving factor. Although faith and self-sacrifice are key to saving the earth, these elements are not viewed from a Christian interpretation." Bob Smithouser of Focus on the Familyagrees: "The Bible exists in director Hironobu Sakaguchi's Fantasy (there's an allusion to Noah's Ark), but it's impotent and irrelevant. Instead we get the slickest presentation of eco-pantheism since Pocahontas."
I don't think there is any reason to panic about the pantheism on display here. Talk to your kids about it. Doesn't this movie do more to show the flaws of such a system than it does to recommend it? I don't think the movie is trying to win converts to pantheism; it seems to borrow some aspects of pantheism in an attempt to emphasize that when we hurt the natural world, we destroy something that is necessaryto our existence. For a Christian, there should be concern over anything that harms the environment that God created to sustain us. We should not idolize the environment or worship it; it is flawed and corrupt, like all creation. But it needs love, just as people do. Final Fantasy gives plenty of its own evidence that pantheism is an insufficient philosophy. After all, if the actions of naïve human beings can endanger the existence of a "goddess," how could that divine entity ever be worthy of worship, or be powerful enough to offer us eternal safety and comfort? In Final Fantasy's world, it's survival of the fittest, even among gods. Fortunately, there are other available models of how the universe works, models that explain more, give us assurance and hope, and offer a deity quite worthy of our worship and our service.
Among mainstream critics, who largely viewed the film's spirituality as mere fantasy symbolism, there was great enthusiasm for the animation and dissatisfaction with the story. The Chicago Sun-Times' Roger Ebert had some difficulty with the plot. "The aliens are strange creatures, made stranger still by the film's inconsistency in handling them … they seem to be physical and conceptual both at once. They defeat a human not by physically attacking him, but by absorbing his life essence. Yet they can be blasted to smithereens by … weapons. Maybe the human weapons are not conventional, but operate on the alien's wavelength; either I got confused on that point, or the movie did." Still, he is in awe of the film's technical excellence, for which it is definitely worthy of high praise. "In reviewing a movie like this, I am torn between its craft elements and its story. The story is nuts-and-bolts space opera … but the look of the film is revolutionary. Final Fantasyis a technical milestone, like the first talkies or 3-D movies." But Liz Braun of The Toronto Sun was not won over by special effects: "Animation breakthrough aside, the main thing about Final Fantasy is that it is really, really boring. Watching the computer-generated characters gets you through the first 30 minutes—you're completely out of the movie, of course—but after that it is difficult not to sit back and fervently hope that the whole thing stops soon." And Elvis Mitchell in The New York Times observes, "For every advance in the world of special effects, narrative is pushed back a few squares on the game board or, in this case, the circuit board."
Widely compared to the popular comedy Clueless, Legally Blondefollows the rise of a pretty airhead through an obstacle course of intellectual and romantic challenges.
Preview's Mary Draughon calls it "a delightfully funny, goofy comedy," but says the film is ultimately a disappointment because it includes some foul language: "It should be illegal to produce a film aimed at impressionable teenagers and then fill it with offensive language." I wonder, though, if a film set in these contemporary contexts would be at all convincing without occasional, realistically course language. Is it the artist's job to reflect the culture, or to paint what it should be? Bob Smithouserhas a similar complaint, but still favors the film: "Despite some convenient and illogically truncated plot turns, the good-natured story drew me in anyway. I enjoyed witnessing Elle's positive impact on the people around her. In a sea of Hollywood cynicism, Legally Blonde isn't too hip to uphold virtue. Even so, this fish-out-of-water comedy/courtroom drama still resorts to language and humor that will have families citing it for contempt."
Others raved about the film's star, Reese Witherspoon. Holly McClurecalls Witherspoon "perfect as the unstoppable and ever optimistic character that ends up influencing and changing the lives of people who cross her path." She appoves of the film's "ethical element" of honesty and intelligence "winning out" over judgmentalism. Michael Elliott says Witherspoon is "so consistently perky and genuinely funny that we don't have to buy into the story … we can just enjoy it for what it is. Her cheerful optimism is contagious and she has the audience rooting for her character as she works to establish herself as a serious law student." He also finds a simple but true principle at the heart of the whole endeavor: "People will often judge us on appearance or by some other superficial means, without giving us an opportunity to prove that there is more to us than meets the eye."
Mainstream critics are smitten by Witherspoon's performance as Elle. Bruce Newman at The Mercury Newsfound the cleverest description of all, calling her "a kind of Aaron Spelling Brockovich." Listen to Michael Wilmington at the Chicago Tribune: "Without Witherspoon this movie might be nothing but another lighter-than-air, formula-bound girl-power comedy. But with her, it's a delight. Clichés and one-note characters keep cropping up, and you can smell the ending and most of the plot twists a mile away. But it doesn't matter. Witherspoon is in almost every scene, and she makes them all snap and crackle. [Her] comic timing is immaculate, her persona irresistible. But it's her spirit and immersion in the part that really infuse the whole film and make it work. Like all the best Hollywood comic movie actresses, Witherspoon has that priceless quality of grounding her movies, making almost every scene shine." But for Kevin Maynard of Mr. Showbiz, one great performance does not a good movie make: "While Witherspoon gamely bounces from scene to scene, she's ultimately done in by lazy filmmaking. Aussie director Robert Luketic never establishes a discernable comic rhythm. Legally speaking, the script by Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith wouldn't even pass muster on a David E. Kelley series."
Three generations of best-in-their-class actors (Marlon Brando, Robert DeNiro, and Edward Norton) line up for a nuts-and-bolts heist thriller called The Scorethis week. Critics are split on the results. Some are transfixed by the film's effective suspense and solid performances. Others, well acquainted with the more memorable, over-the-top performances by the startling lineup, are disappointed by the fairly reserved, low-key turns here. And it's interesting that the film's finale, which seems unconcerned with the immorality of the heroes, doesn't quite sit right with critics outside the religious press. Usually, the Christian critics are those to blow the whistle, but right and wrong is right and wrong, and sometimes that's clear even outside of religious circles.
The U.S. Catholic Conferencereview says "the intelligent character-driven film combines engaging performances and wry humor, but lacks moral perspective as the criminals profit from their acts." Phil Boatwright at Dove explains that the movies used to show thieves either busted, unsuccessful, or redeemed in some way, but now things have changed, and audiences are rooting for the criminals. "[This] film definitely has the audience rooting for the crooks, hoping they escape the long arm of the law. What's the message being sent when rogues become the victors and those robbed are of no consequence?" Boatwright does note excellence in technical aspects of the film: "Frank Oz … proves he has the cinematic ingenuity of delivering a taut, suspenseful actioner. And DeNiro, Brando, and Norton are such pros that we in the audience can't help but be sucked into the story." But technical excellence does not a good movie make. "The film is so impersonal. We never really get to know the characters or what motivates them. Aloofness and mystery can be characteristic devices, but here they are just signs of lazy writing."
Michael Elliottsees a scriptural principle at work in the film, even if it does not portray the consequences of thievery: "Oz relies upon a familiar movie truism: there is no honor among thieves. Trust, or rather the lack of trust, is the major issue on display in this film and the single factor which threatens to bring the characters down. Misplaced trust can prove to be disastrous for the one who needs to rely upon that trust. And since the love of money remains the root of all evil, it would be inadvisable to ever place ourselves in a position where we must trust a person whose love of money is his sole motivation."
Mainstream critics were similarly split. The Chicago Tribune's Michael Wilmington finds it "terrifically watchable." But he too notices that the film loses something by its adoption of contemporary, amoral standards. "Good as it is … The Scorelacks the memorably bitter aftertaste of great heist noirs of the 1950s and '60s [which were] made under the old Production Code and were obligated to show that crime doesn't pay. That made them finish on a more tragic or pessimistic note—the essence of classic noir. The Score is a modern heist film: lighter and less moralistic. And though something is gained with the glossy new mechanics available to director Oz and his gang, something is lost too: the old darkness and pain." Without addressing the ethical issues, Ebert writes about how the film upholds a grand tradition, and calls it "the best pure heist movie in recent years" because of its non-showy, stick-to-business tactics. "It is very hard to write and direct a screenplay like this, where there can't be loopholes, where the key scenes involve little dialogue and a lot of painstaking physical action, and where the plot surprises, when they come, have been prepared for, and earned. These three performances are what they need to be and no more. It is a sign of professionalism when an actor can inhabit a genre instead of trying to transcend it." Rolling Stone's Peter Travers says most people will look at the cast and be ready "for the kind of movie that makes people say, 'I'd pay to see these guys just read from the phone book.'" He finds the movie, unfortunately, sub-par. "Sadly, any phone book would offer more jolts than this substandard caper flick. There's nothing you can't see coming … including the surprise ending."
I saw The Scoreover the weekend and, while there are few actors I enjoy more than DeNiro, and few young actors as surprising as Norton, I too saw the ending's twist long before it took place, and found the film's celebration of criminal acts unjustifiably heartless. The Score is sophisticated entertainment, a sugarcoated lie made very easy to swallow.
It would be easy to continue offering opportunity for readers to consider the challenging contradictions, strengths, and flaws within the movie A.I. (Artificial Intelligence). But we've got to move on to other things. So let me offer three last links: new reviews from J. Robert Parks at The Phantom Tollbooth (disappointed), The Chicago Reader's Jonathan Rosenbaum (intellectually inspired), and Peter T. Chattaway at The Vancouver Sun (pondering the deeper implications of why movie robots win our affections so easily).
Next week:What other critics are saying about Jurassic Park 3, as well as initial reactions to Julia Roberts and John Cusack in America's Sweethearts.
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Earlier Film Forum postings include these other movies in the box-office top ten: Cats & Dogs, Scary Movie 2, The Fast and the Furious, Dr. Dolittle 2, Kiss of the Dragon, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, and Shrek.
See also today's Film Forum bonus article, "Naked Truths | Critics weigh in on what makes nudity in film wrong, right, and R-rated."