Recommendation: Manila in the Claws of Light

What follows isn’t exactly a review; nor is it analysis. It’s just a recommendation of a classic film that I only recently discovered.

I had the pleasure of recently watching Manila in the Claws of Light, a 1975 Filipino noir film directed by Lino Brocka, produced and with cinematography by Mike De Leon, based on the novel of the same name by Edgardo Reyes and adapted to screen by Clodualdo Del Mundo Jr, and released in the midst of martial law under Ferdinand Marcos. In sum, it’s about the crushing oppression and despair experienced by the urban working class. Julio Madiaga (portrayed by Bembol Roco) is a simple fisherman who moves to Manila in search of his missing girlfriend, Ligaya Paraiso (Hilda Koronel), who was coerced by a strange outsider woman to move to the city with the promise of a factory job and education. Julio struggles to make ends meet as a construction laborer, encountering corruption and labor violations (including terribly unsafe working conditions) and discovering the worst slums of the city where some of his coworkers live. Ligaya, meanwhile, has been forced into prostitution. Julio most make desperate choices to stay alive, and yet we also see the working class friends he makes standing together in solidarity (mostly) to try to make it to another day. The film builds toward Julio finally rediscovering Ligaya, who is virtually imprisoned, with its final act devoted to a plan to escape. The entire arc of the movie is a series of tragedies, scenarios always worsening whenever the slimmest sliver of hope manifests.

The structure of the story is couched in intrusive flashbacks, especially in the first act, which can be disorienting and which reflect the protagonist’s exhausted, overworked frame of mind and his driving goal. Scenes of life on the streets of 1970’s Manila are bleak and powerful; at times, it almost feels documentary. The music is eerie, often anxiety-inducing, and frequently in jarring dissonance with the ambient sounds of the city, which typically crush in on the action. Manila’s streets constrict on the actors and audience as people swarm about with their own lives. Violence is commonplace and random. The few beautiful shots of city high-rises almost always frame them in the distant background, unreachable or uninhabitable by the core cast of characters. Public parks can be beautiful but also are threatening and clearly position Julio as out-of-place.

A few weeks ago, I’d never heard of the film. Now, it’s one of my favorite neo-noir works, up there with Taxi Driver and Chinatown. Thanks, Indianapolis Public Library system! This was a Criterion Collection remastered release of the film, and in addition to special features, it included a very thoughtful essay by film scholar José B. Capino regarding the movie and the director.

Manila in the Claws of Light is beautiful, disturbing, and intense, and I highly recommend it.

Review: BlacKkKlansman

I cannot imagine leaving BlacKkKlansman without a strong emotional reaction. In the film’s final moments, when it cuts from the narrative to footage of present-day racist gatherings and racist violence and finally ends in solemn silence, it felt as if a sobering pall had settled over the audience, who digested a few moments in silence before beginning to leave the theater. For me, white supremacist groups in America have felt so distant and ridiculous, not so much a threat as an absurd caricature, but this film portraying fictionalized events in 1970’s Colorado Springs reminded me of just how virulently evil and close and dangerous racism could be. I have remained perpetually disgusted with Trump’s administration, but I had the cooling distance of a native-born, white, middle-class American male, and with the never-ending string of controversies and scandals, most seeming more ineffectual and frivolous and unchanging, I stopped being so angry without ever realizing it. It’s a privilege to not be angry, to not be constantly troubled by the sudden confluence of blatant white supremacists and longstanding racist institutional structures, and this film reignited that anger and reminded me that a good portion of Americans don’t have the privilege of turning a blind eye to the never-ending racism in this country.

Some left the film confused–I know that. I overheard a discussion between mother and daughter, the mother hesitant and reserved in her evaluation of the movie, disbelieving. Some might be angry at the film itself, either for allowing nuance and complexity or for being too militantly activist. Others might challenge the factual events underlying the story (although any dramatic film actually trying to tell a story with any degree of artistic merit and structural cohesion will of course deviate from and embellish facts–it’s not a documentary). I’ve heard and seen some of these reactions emerging. The only sure thing is that people will react upon seeing it.

The film validates black anger and various black responses to a racist system and to individual racism, but it still credits those black people accomplishing good by working within the system rather than opposing it, and it recognizes white allies and other minorities who can work together and produce positive good in or out of the system, supporting or working in parallel with black activists. That was a fascinating trick, to simultaneously validate black anger against white people, to understand how someone could feel that all white people are bad, and yet to see that there are good white people who can be counted on to make a difference. Part of the success of this “trick” is that the film fundamentally recognizes that there is no single universal experience, that white people and black people don’t fit into monolithic demographic groups without any divergences or varied opinions and experiences. Even police officers are shown to inhabit a variety of attitudes, some compassionate and good, some obviously racist and power-hungry and evil, some subservient to additional power structures and punishing of those who push against them. But it’s still a trick that I can’t fully explain, because it’s not something revealed in a single moment. That nuance, the validation of the anger of many black people and the recognition of the range of attitudes among white and black people and among those within institutions of power in this country, might be what the film is about–one of the many things the film is about.

Other things the film is about: how individual and institutional racism are separate but serve similar oppressive functions and ultimately work together to mute or neuter progressive change; how a certain brand of conservative politics and religion, coalescing around a cluster of issues including crime, immigration, and entitlements, has given racism a reformed look; how certain politicians (irrespective of party or platform), from Wilson to Nixon to Trump, have directly benefited from playing to the concerns of white supremacists; how gun ownership and ready access to firearms is simultaneously a tool of white supremacists and a potentially empowering protective force for minorities; how even the most absurd, caricatured, cartoonish racism can be violent and dangerous and never really vanishes; and how even people with good intentions and admirable goals can still do terrible things (Stallworth starts the movie spying on the black power movement so that the police leadership can keep the minority population in check). That’s not an exhaustive list by any means, and it’s a combination of themes that are clearly intended by the creators and also inferred by my own viewing.

BlacKkKlansman is a film that sits squarely in the director-as-auteur tradition; Spike Lee’s fingerprints appear to be all over it. That said, I only know of Lee and his films by reputation, not familiarity, and so I can’t comment coherently on this or say what does or does not reflect his previous works. The cinematography was excellent (Chayse Irvin was director of photography), but this is definitely a film that benefits from careful editing and post-production. Posters, film clips, radio transmissions, music, and documentary footage flit between diagetic and non-diagetic. A particularly powerful moment flashes up images of a rapt audience reacting to a speaker, faces illuminated against a black void, showing the power of the speaker’s impact and the personal relationship between speaker and listener that is felt in a particularly moving oratory. The film is sometimes surreal, and its surreal moments develop an emotional authenticity. So even while the movie feels like an auteur production, it’s impossible not to easily recognize the influence of editing and the art, visual and special effects, and sound design departments in crafting a masterful whole.

The pacing is spectacular for the over-two-hour run-time. The dialogue is smart; it’s at times repulsively, unbearably hateful (which, in this context, is incredibly appropriate to show just how insidious and terrifying racism is), while at other times it’s charmingly, playfully light. No matter how dark the film gets, and it gets very dark, there is a lot of humor, and even some of the darkest moments can be funny, if uncomfortably or shockingly so. (Writing credits were given to Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott, and Spike Lee; the film was based on a book by the actual Ron Stallworth.) Interestingly, the plot feels very much like neo-noir: an investigator unravels a series of discoveries that result in a small win that is in turn ultimately crushed under the weight of institutional corruption and fails to produce lasting change. The comparisons are more numerous than that, but even in a nutshell, the noir influences are obvious enough. It makes sense: the narrative conventions of the genre work rather well for a story about battling against organized racism without ever really making a substantial dent. The local Klan by the end of the film has been somewhat defanged, but not deterred, and the organizational structure and political pressures in the police force cause efforts to curtail the Klan to be derailed just as soon as the undercover cops begin to make progress. They are too successful in stopping the worst of the Klan, such that the threat seems unimportant to higher-level officials.

And the film is full of fantastic acting. Most noteworthy are the leads (as is appropriate, I suppose). John David Washington has such natural charisma and a gleaming white smile, while his eyes alone are able to project such a range of emotions, even while the character of Ron Stallworth is often reserved or inhabiting a role. Adam Driver dripped sarcasm but always projected a heart of gold as Ron’s undercover partner Flip, and he has his own emotional arc as Flip finds himself reflecting more on his Jewish identity and how he has passed as “white” even as he burrows into the role of white supremacist to infiltrate the KKK. Laura Harrier conveys intelligence, passion, flirtatious charm, and self-righteous fury as Patrice, a black student union president, activist, and Ron’s romantic interest. Topher Grace is very hilarious as a young David Duke, and while I assumed he was just doing outright parody, the ending and very real clip of the current-age Duke made me realize that the performance was hilariously spot-on. And the cast of cops, activists, and white supremacists in supporting roles is deserving of note, as well–the supremacists in particular shockingly had a range of roles that, while all detestable and often idiotic, allowed at least local KKK leader Walter (Ryan Eggold) to seem charming and intelligent and almost-sympathetic. (I could say a lot more about the character of Walter–one of the interesting choices of the film was that it gives him a moment to explain why he’s a racist, but never explores it further; we don’t know if his history of violent encounters with black people is true or false, and ultimately it’s irrelevant, because nothing would support his racism. Actually, each of the characters represents something worthy of discussion about white supremacists, including the role of white women in these organizations.)

You may not like BlacKkKlansman. You may not agree with the film’s apparent messages. You may walk away with a variety of emotions or experiences that I cannot fully predict. But I’m sure that you will react. See it, and see it soon.

Review – 1898: Los Ultimos De Filipinas

This was a strange and interesting movie to come across on Netflix. It’s a war story, a psychological horror, and a fairly accurate (though biased) recounting of a unique historical event. The plot is easy to summarize: Spanish soldiers sent to garrison the town of Baler in the midst of the Philippine Revolution are besieged by Tagalog resistance fighters; cut off from the outside world and abandoned by the Spanish government, the defending troops continue to hold out months after the end of Spanish influence in the islands and into the early occupation by the Americans.

A Spanish-language, Spanish-produced film, 1898: Los Últimos de Filipinas (directed by Salvador Calvo; written by Alejandro Hernández) could have been a standard patriotic tribute. It could also have been a radical, anti-imperial production. Instead, it lands somewhere in the middle, reminiscent of works like Heart of DarknessApocalypse NowDances with Wolves, or The Last Samurai–works that criticize colonialist, imperialist, militant policies, primarily through the psychological impact on the (mostly white) individuals sent to enforce them, and only secondarily through often grotesque violence committed en masse against the oppressed indigenous communities. 1898 inherits the awkward tropes of these other narratives; whether that’s through familiarity or just the nature of anti-colonial narratives filtered through the lens of the former colonial power, I’m not sure.

I’ll miss plenty of the tropes, but I’ll target a few. We have a charming white male lead who is sensitive and artistic but who turns to opium and is physically and emotionally scarred in horrible ways by the war. And–for double our money!–we have yet another charming white male lead who defects to the natives (this happens early on, and his character decreases in importance, serving more as a representation of escape for the bulk of the soldiers still trapped inside their defenses). We have upper leadership acting in stubborn and stupid ways, fixating on patriotic fervor and a dogged belief in superiority over the natives to keep fighting past anything sensible. We have natives in three roles: the noble warrior, the tempting women who serve as a siren call away from “civilization,” or the faceless and nameless hordes who die in wave after wave. And we of course have a senseless conflict motivated by profits for an absent ruling class.

I shamelessly enjoy a lot of this genre of safe, white liberal fantasy about the White Guy Who Does The Right Thing. I recognize it’s massively problematic. I recognize how it often dehumanizes or denigrates native cultures, how these films could be better if they had a greater focus on the indigenous peoples themselves and if they were created by the surviving voices of those same indigenous peoples. I see how having a convenient narrative like this does less to actually challenge the American and European history of empire and more to soothingly whisper to white liberals that if only we had been there, we would have been different. I don’t approve of that, but I can’t help it that these sorts of productions are often really engrossing historical epics! And that’s the case here.

It’s also hard to set aside that this film is beautiful. When soldiers are approaching or leaving Baler, we often get lovely shots pulling back to show just how small and overwhelmed the soldiers are, just how ready the massive jungle is to consume them entirely. Visual allegories are frequently used without much, or any, comment: a crocodile snatches a dog, a spider slowly prepares its trapped prey. When in the “fort” (actually a fortified old church), shots are dark, tight, claustrophobic. It always feels as though the men are practically stumbling over each other, with too little room and too little light. Their faith fails, their health fails, their reserves fail, even as the building fails.

The performances are great too, and the characters in that fort are so varied and vulnerable. Luis Tosar plays Lieutenant Martín Cerezo, an officer forced to take charge after the premature death of their commander; he’s sympathetic, compassionate, and principled at first, but the strain of command and his desire for glory, with nothing back home to look forward to, corrupt him into a cruel dictator. The tempting force that leads him down that dark path is Sergeant Jimeno Costa (Javier Gutiérrez), a survivor from the original fighting forces in Baler and something of a half-mad Kurtz. In contrast, Vigil (Carlos Hipólito), the unit’s doctor, is a rational and empathetic counterbalance who unfortunately goes ignored (Vigil was my favorite character, portrayed with a subtle pathos under his stoic demeanor that gave him perhaps the most complexity of any character in the film). Carlos (Álvaro Cervantes) is the sensitive and naive artist I mentioned; Juan (Patrick Criado) is the defector-gone-native. Carmelo (Karra Elejalde), the town priest, joins the soldiers in the temple and is obsessed with preserving a history of what happens–even while introducing Carlos to opium and showing himself to be a thoughtful philosopher who is perhaps lax in his own faith. And critically, Teresa (Alexandra Masangkay) is a village singer and not-so-subtle spy who is derided as a whore but who also gives the Tagalogs the friendliest face.

While the Tagalog resistance is only rarely seen, they are gradually shown in a different light–in some ways, quite literally. At first, we only see the soldiers at night, charging recklessly at the defenses to be gunned down. I’ll be honest: the faceless, anonymous violence of the freedom fighters seemed so biased in its depiction against the natives that I was close to giving up on the film in the first third, but this improves quickly. When Juan defects, it is because he sees a Tagalog fighter dead on the ground, young and human and lifeless just like the Spanish dead. We gradually start to see more of the Tagalogs, still mostly at night and only from the Spanish perspective. The Tagalogs gradually make entreaties for peace, asking the Spanish to surrender, attempting to inform them about the status of the outside world–but the commanding lieutenant continues to disbelieve. And they do small kindnesses for the Spanish, offering short truces to bury the dead and delivering oranges when the Spanish stocks ran low, though the Spaniards do not show gratitude in return. The Tagalogs mostly move on with their lives, returning to village activities and training their men of fighting age to be more of soldiers. It’s a subtle development, not detailed directly, but by the end of the film the freedom fighters are a true army, with artillery, uniforms, and disciplined soldiers. The Spanish are shown to be the ones out for blood, fighting way past any point to do so. And in the end, the Filipinos accept the Spanish surrender and provide an honor guard out of the fort, proving themselves to be honorable and quick to forgive.

It’s not just a “happy” ending, either. It more or less reflects the actual outcome of the siege. That’s striking to me.

I don’t think we’re ever supposed to be on the side of the occupying force–other than that Spanish viewers might recognize them as military heroes from textbooks or something similar. One character says early on that the natives were fighting for their freedom, while the Spaniards were fighting to save an empire. Even that early on, we are surely meant to see the Spanish side of things while recognizing that between freedom and empire, there’s an obvious right side. We can sympathize at the suffering of the besieged Spanish forces, but even without ever centering the film on the Filipino resistance and villagers, my greater sympathies were always with them, dealing with an occupying force after the rest of the nation had already moved on to the next threat (unfortunately, yet another occupying force).

The premise of the film is simple enough, but its execution is close to masterful. The lack of a distinct Filipino counter-narrative is a detriment, but this movie is morally complex, thoughtfully disturbing, and often quite beautiful.

Bultar Swan Watch

I’ve been following 365 Days of Star Wars Women, which is exactly what it says on the tin: daily posts about the women in Star Wars–and not just the heroes and villains, but the actors, writers, producers, and film crew as well. It’s a fun way to highlight women’s representation in front of and behind the camera in a franchise that still leans heavily male both ways. I bring this up now because Bultar Swan recently got a post! I’ve written about my fondness for the character before…and it’s not often that she gets much notice.

20171001_150537I’ve reviewed the Powers of the Jedi Sourcebook entry on Jedi Knight Bultar Swan once more. It’s not just that such a minor background character had a write-up, though that was enough to get my attention as a youngling. What’s stayed with me about her is that she was a Jedi who was so familiar with violence and yet made a point to avoid killing in combat. The Jedi are depicted as quite willing to kill, despite Yoda’s admonition that a Jedi “uses the Force for knowledge and defense, never for attack.” It’s veering on an uncomfortable reduction of Chinese martial arts that Swan is written as notable for a unique fighting style “that required her to maintain physical contact with her foes to judge their next moves,” but that fits into the character profile of one who focused on defense and disarming attacks to subdue, rather than disable or kill, an opponent. She knew there would probably come a point in time where she would have to kill an opponent, and while she apparently did not take pride in her mortality-free combat record, she was concerned with how she would react to the taking of a life. She first apprenticed under Micah Giett and then Plo Koon following her Master’s death; when Master Plo mentioned the possibility of her one day joining the Jedi Council, Swan said that she would not be anywhere near ready “until she had more experience with life and the Force,” including understanding how she would react to killing an opponent, before she could sit in judgment over any other Jedi. To me, all the above made Bultar Swan the model Jedi, much like Obi-Wan.

But that opinion must not have been very popular, as she remained virtually unused throughout the years of Legends storytelling following her initial appearance in Attack of the Clones, in which she was portrayed by Mimi Daraphet (Power of the Jedi was published in the same year as the film). The closest to starring role for Bultar Swan was the first arc of the Purge comics. Written by John Ostrander with art by Doug Wheatley, the first story followed a group of Jedi survivors of Order 66 who met in a secret conclave to discuss what to do next; one of the Order had actually betrayed the location of the conclave to the Empire, so that her fellow Jedi would be forced to fight against Vader and hopefully destroy him in a final battle. Swan and Tsui Choi are close to protagonists–to the extent that the protagonist isn’t Vader himself. Swan and Choi argue against seeking revenge against Vader. When they are forced into battle anyway, Swan attempts to stop one of her Jedi by giving in to the Dark Side, and she is killed by her fallen compatriot when he refuses to back down.

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For me, Purge represents a disappointing appearance for Bultar Swan. She has little agency over the story, and she is quickly transformed into a martyr, killed off. I recognize that a story like Purge doesn’t allow for a happy ending, and almost all the Jedi had to be killed off somehow, but aside from highlighting Swan’s embodiment of the Jedi Code, it doesn’t really do anything with her as a character. She’s a prop to show Vader killing some last, desperate Jedi.

Bultar Swan also has a very brief appearance in the 59th issue of Star Wars: Republic (also written by Ostrander, with art by Jan Duursema). Unfortunately, she just provides a few moments of exposition as a subordinate under Ki-Adi-Mundi.

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The 365 Days post references one other Bultar Swan appearance: Clone Wars Adventures Volume 7, in the story “Impregnable.” I’ve never read it, but it turns out that it’s fairly cheap and easy to find online. I’ve ordered a copy. That’ll probably result in a short follow-up to this post somewhere down the line. But given that it’s Clone Wars Adventures, a pulpy action series modeled after the Genndy Tartakovsky cartoons, I don’t expect anything close to a deep examination of the character.

Finally, Wookieepedia informs me that Swan also appeared in the children’s series Star Wars Adventures. I’m not particularly desperate to track that down for what seems to be a minor appearance in a children’s book.

Of course, all of the above representations of Bultar Swan, except for Attack of the Clones, are now non-canon, Legends. The character could be written in an entirely different way now, if she ever really appears at all. Her only new-canon appearance so far is in On the Front Lines by Daniel Wallace. Her character is presented as young, inexperienced, and surprised to see opponents willing to fight back instead of surrender before a lightsaber. There’s nothing that suggests that the original interpretation of the character is invalidated, but I do get the impression that Swan still has a lot more growing to do in this incarnation. It’s enough to know that she canonically survived the battle and was able to recount it, for now.

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What happens to Bultar Swan after she gets a taste of war? Does she soldier on, like a loyal Jedi? Does she recoil at the taking of life? Could she at first be accepting but later rethink the Jedi’s methods as the droids are recognized as increasingly sentient? Maybe she would stay loyal; maybe she would eventually become disillusioned and leave the Jedi Order, like Ahsoka, or stay to attempt to reform it from the inside. Could she have survived the Purge? And if not, how did she meet her end? She’s an excitingly blank slate of a character with just enough motivation and just enough dangling plot threads to remain compelling to me. I really hope that some day she sees more use.

Review: The Making of Jurassic Park

The Making of Jurassic ParkThe Making of Jurassic Park by Don Shay

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is an enjoyable account of the making of Jurassic Park. It’s easy to forget how revolutionary the special effects were at the time, and this narrative really drives home those elements of the production. There are also a lot of great teases about the development of the screenplay from the novel to the final product, with three screenwriters (starting with Crichton himself) taking a swing at it.

This could have been a fairly safe narrative, but the hardships of production are described, often in detail, and there are at least hints of tension and conflicts (the shifting prioritization of stop-motion, animatronics, and CGI was an interesting dramatic narrative). And there were some quotes where the creative team could be surprisingly frank. My favorite, from screenwriter David Koepp: “Here I was writing about these greedy people who are creating a fabulous theme park just so they can exploit all these dinosaurs and make silly little films and sell stupid plastic plates and things. And I’m writing it for a company that’s eventually going to put this in their theme parks and make these silly little films and sell stupid plastic plates. I was really chasing my tail there for a while trying to figure out who was virtuous in this whole scenario–and eventually gave up.”

Visually, the book is packed with concept art, behind-the-scenes photographs, and astounding images of the visual effects development process. My parents got me this book as a kid (like Tim, and many/most kids, I’ve always had dinosaurs on the brain), and the book was always a delight just for the pictures alone. Amazingly, while I had skimmed many passages before, this was my first time reading it cover-to-cover (sadly, not the same childhood copy).

The book accomplishes what it sets out to do: it tells the story of the making of Jurassic Park. A longer, more robust, more complicated and detailed narrative would have been fascinating, and I would have preferred if the story had been told in pure chronological order rather than inserting details as they made thematic sense (as some of the conflicts and detours would be more apparent that way, and the whole project would seem less destined). Still, I enjoyed reading it and will continue to enjoy idly leafing through the artwork.

View all my reviews

P.S. The three screenwriters were: Michael Crichton, Malia Scotch Marmo, and David Koepp. Marmo’s version was ultimately unused, but she provided extensive feedback on Koepp’s version, which evolved into the final script.

A Jurassic World of Future Games

Jurassic World: Evolution is not a perfect game, but it’s fun. You could say that about many games in the history of the franchise. Many more, however, are just plain bad (or just plain  weird).

There are still game styles and narratives I’d like to see explored by video games set in this franchise, and I figured I’d throw those ideas out here.

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Jurassic World: Evolution

The smallest idea I have wouldn’t be for a new game. I’d just like to see Evolution added to. It would be nice to have more dinosaurs, to have feathered theropod skins, and to have some sort of DLC expansion that finally completed the plot of corporate intrigue that the game introduces but fails to develop anywhere. I’d also love the ability to design your own island maps, so you could keep randomly generating new challenges and new parks to build on. I lost interest in the sandbox mode fairly quickly…

Who knows? Maybe some of these elements are already in development! And now that Fallen Kingdom is out, there’s no reason that Evolution can’t go on to tell its own separate and complete story.

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Jurassic Park: The Game

The next idea isn’t a new game type, but a development on what came before. Telltale’s Jurassic Park: The Game came out to mixed reviews (I personally liked the story but was baffled by the changes to Gerry Harding’s character and found the focus on quick-time events infuriating and anti-cinematic), but I do think the idea of a Jurassic Park adventure game is solid. I would like to see adventure games that adapted the novels. The novels were a little meatier, with a few big mysteries to explore (in the first book alone, there were the dinosaurs on the mainland, the breeding populations and nest sites, and the cause of the Stegosaurus illnesses). They also had a series of scenes that I could easily see played out  as a variety of adventure game sets or mini-games. The books were driven by mysteries and punctuated by moments of terror. A game that was more cerebral (and that largely avoided quick-time events) could be a fun way to explore the plots, characters, and themes of the original source material. Plus, by inserting players into the roles of various characters, immersion would help carry some of the novels’ weaker characterizations.

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I’d also like to see a survival game set on Isla Sorna. Here too is a concept that is not truly unique to the Jurassic Park setting: the poorly received Trespasser did it in 1998, then there was the canceled Jurassic Park: Survival, and that seemed to have survived a while onward in the similarly canceled Jurassic World: Survivor. However, I’d like to see a game that offered minimal weaponry (the three I discussed above all relied on firearms pretty heavily) and that was more focused on exploring the world. Perhaps, rather than being focused on escape, the game could be about being a Sarah Harding-type researcher, there to study the dinosaurs. Unlocking codices describing dinosaur biology and behavior, perhaps recovering scattered Site B documents from old computers and file cabinets, and simply photographing the animals could all be soft objectives. In short, I’d like a game where the dinosaurs were animals and not just monsters to fear. And please, no more dinosaur survival crafting games!

Finally, I do have a more conventional, narrative-driven shooter in mind. In the wake of Fallen Kingdom, we now have dinosaurs spread across the western United States. These animals could breed, and it’s suggested that corporate and governmental interests might clone more dinosaurs across the globe. Putting yourself in the role of perhaps a small Southwestern sheriff as you attempt to defend a small town against dangerous new animals–or a member of a commando team sent to disrupt cloning facilities set up in a rogue nation–could offer some fun run-and-gun gaming. (Okay, that latter idea is basically Dino Crisis…)

None of these are truly wild departures from what’s come before. None are suggesting radical new game styles or narratives. But I hope they offer some interesting possibilities. I’d love to hear what you might want to see in a future Jurassic Park game!

For bonus points, though, allow me to suggest a sprawling open-world RPG where you are a lone wanderer, perhaps an ambassador or mechanic, making your way across the world of the Xenozoic Saga. Or, in short, make more Cadillacs and Dinosaurs!

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Cadillacs and Dinosaurs

Revisiting the JP Books

It has been a while since I last read the Jurassic Park novels. Believe it or not, I don’t always just rehash my same old interests over and over every time a new release comes out! I didn’t read the books when Jurassic World came out. I’ve read both Jurassic Park and The Lost World a few times, but probably college was when I last revisited them. Fallen Kingdom felt like such a fresh approach to the franchise, though, and at the same time, Evolution drew so heavily from the books. So read them again I did.

My biggest disappointment is that every time I reread these books, I like them a little bit less. Crichton always had such cool ideas with every book, but then execution typically followed the same action-horror formulas. Many of the characters just feel like repeats from other books, and it’s hard not to jump from, say, Jurassic Park to Timeline to Prey without getting hit repeatedly with déjà vu (I’m sure that Crichton’s Westworld would fit right in, but I have never seen the film). And the biggest flaw of Crichton’s books is that he tends to be self-righteously preachy and philosophical. While his messages vary, they often come down to a fundamental mistrust of scientific industry. And there’s typically at least one character to take on the authorial voice.

In Jurassic Park and The Lost World, the authorial voice character has been Ian Malcolm. Unlike Jeff Goldblum’s goofy mathematician/”rock star,” book Malcolm is a never-ending speechifying machine. He goes on and on about chaos theory, and frankly, it’s hard to want Malcolm to be right when he’s so pretentious, self-absorbed, and long-winded. We’re talking pages of monologue from Malcolm, especially later in the book.

But Jurassic Park makes many odd character decisions. Grant, for instance, is a gruff, outdoorsy, manly man who disdains more academic scientists. He’s positioned as the protagonist, and he does shepherd the kids through the park like in the film and helps uncover the truths about the breeding dinosaurs and their nesting sites. But he’s not very likeable. He’s an asshole to many of the characters and makes snap decisions about people, often choosing to dislike them. Plus, he’s incredibly belligerent toward Gennaro.

Now, that might seem like a weird complaint if you haven’t read the books. But Gennaro is actually Crichton’s everyman viewpoint character here. He’s smart, even though he’s not an expert in the scientific fields and so needs to get up to speed on some points. Even while his law firm is invested in Jurassic Park, he is quite willing to close it down if it’s unsafe, and he doesn’t fall for Hammond’s bullshit. He never gets caught up in greed, and he’s not a coward (the one to flee the T-rex attack is Ed Regis, PR guy for Jurassic Park). And he accepts responsibility for his role in enabling the place, often tagging along with Muldoon to handle some of the most dangerous tasks in attempting to restore order to the park. But Muldoon and Grant remain hostile to him basically the entire time.

Then we have characters reduced to the blankest of archetypes, ready for morally acceptable dino-snacking: Hammond is a sinister industrialist who cares little about the loss of life happening in his park, Regis is a slick corporate executive who proves to be cowardly and stupid, Wu is blinded by his scientific ambition, Arnold never really understands the complex systems he’s tasked with running, and Nedry is a greedy fat slob with very little motivation for being so easily corrupted. Basically all the characters are improved in the film.

Meanwhile, Sattler is Sattler. The other characters often look at her lustfully, or are surprised that she’s a woman. But she herself is incredibly competent, a Sigourney Weaver-type action protagonist. I think even Sattler is improved on-screen, though, because she’s allowed more emotional vulnerability and human reaction than she gets in the book. Interestingly, in The Making of Jurassic Park by Don Shay and Jody Duncan, Steven Spielberg is quoted as saying that the selection of an actor for Sattler “was a tough choice.” He added:

I never thought of Laura [Dern] in the context of Jurassic Park because I saw her as kind of frail and always being pursued by circumstances and men. I never envisioned her as a tough gal, like Linda Hamilton or Sigourney Weaver. But, actually, she didn’t need to be. She wasn’t required to play that kind of character in the film. Ellie is more of a brain–a paleobotanist who loves animals and plants and is pretty much a creature of the earth. And when I got to meet Laura and spend some time with her, I found that was pretty much what she was. So it worked out nicely.

The only character I genuinely prefer in book-form is Robert Muldoon, who is depicted at first as a hyper-competent park warden with years of experience but ultimately reveals himself to be a belligerent drunk under pressure. And yet he still manages to pull off some ridiculous feats–tranquilizing the tyrannosaur and blowing up a raptor, for instance.

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The Lost World ends up repeating many of the same plot points and characters. Seriously, most of the characters seem interchangeable with their Jurassic Park counterparts. The engineering professor Thorne is a gruff, physical, materialist character like Grant. Eddie Carr is a young, out-of-his-depth city kid like Ed Regis (he even has the same first name, while his last name bluntly echoes his role as mechanic); Carr, unlike Regis, is actually heroic, but he also meets a grisly fate. Dodgson returns to take on the direct role of greedy and corrupt villain that Nedry previously inhabited. Malcolm rises from the dead to be Malcolm again (his return from a very clear death in the first book echoes the return of Sherlock Holmes from death, which seems fitting given the heavy debt Crichton obviously owed to Arthur Conan Doyle’s own Lost World). Harding is the new Sattler. Kelly and Arby are the new Tim and Lex. Levine is…I don’t know who the hell Levine corresponds with, but he’s obnoxious as hell. In fact, Levine’s survival to the end and Carr’s death are supporting evidence for my theory that The Lost World was largely Crichton’s attempt to correct perceived errors in the original book–we move away from moralistic death scenes to having characters killed or surviving by random chance (even Howard King on the villain’s team really is a sympathetic guy after all and doesn’t “deserve” his horrifying death at the hands of the raptors).

I have to wonder why Crichton decided to focus on the characters he settled on. Grant’s absence is especially jarring. Book Grant escapes the Jurassic Park crisis more or less unscathed. He was quick-thinking and quick-acting. Sometimes his plans worked great, sometimes they backfired, and sometimes he survived by luck alone. But he kept persevering. He was always the scientist, even seeking out the raptor nest voluntarily when he could have stayed safely back at the control center. He was intrigued by the raptor behavior up until he was evacuated. Knowing there was another island would easily perk up the Grant of the novel and motivate him to launch another expedition.

Instead, we have Malcolm–a character Crichton had to bring back from the dead–in the main role. Film Malcolm was heavily traumatized by his experiences; book Malcolm suffered even worse and carried physical traumas for years afterward, so his willingness to look for and go to yet another island feels arbitrary. Plus, he’s now focusing on evolution and extinction events, trying to apply chaos theory to the subjects (yawn) and acting like an expert in a field he didn’t know anything about until after Jurassic Park. And then we have Levine, a sniveling, foppish nuisance, as a new paleontologist brought into the fold (who is far less likeable than Grant). Finally, Thorne takes on Grant’s physical traits and personality. So we now have three characters in Malcolm, Levine, and Thorne to represent Grant’s role as protagonist, paleontologist, and outdoorsman.

While I genuinely like Sarah Harding, I wouldn’t have minded seeing Grant and Sattler launching an expedition to discover a continued source of dinosaurs following the events of the Jurassic Park crisis. And since Harding is basically a stand-in for Sattler (young, competent, intelligent, attractive, and an expert in her field), Harding would become less necessary (although really, having more than one woman as protagonist wouldn’t be the end of the world, jeeze). And there were already dangling threads for a sequel in Jurassic Park that were never explored: we know that some animals made it into the mountains of Costa Rica and were surviving with targeted diets (and they were probably velociraptors and procompsognathids), and we know that InGen still had ample genetic materials at its main base in California.

I understand the impulse to have Dodgson return–he’d want to make good on his promises of dinosaur embryos in the first book, and he’s already an established villainous character. But his cartoonish brand of villainy, yet another evil corporate type, makes him an uninteresting character to spend time with. I liked the larger-scale InGen expedition to recover resources launched in The Lost World film–the villain wasn’t so much Peter Ludlow as it was simple corporate greed, embodied by Ludlow, yes, but existing regardless of what he did. Ludlow was just a guy trying to salvage his company; he was arrogant and greedy and too-slick, but he was just embodying the failings of an institution. He was his own person, not defined simply by greed, and he had ambition (now that I’m thinking about it, Ludlow is rather like the book version of Hammond, greedy and exploitative to a fault and lacking in empathy but not really evil).

In short, it’s like I said up top: I’m disappointed. Crichton had a lot of cool ideas, and he obviously had good bones to his stories for the film adaptations to have turned out so well, but both books fall short of greatness. They end up feeling more like pulpy sci-fi horror. And yet, ideas and scenes and dialogue keep getting mined from the books for each new installment in the franchise.

Now, what’s the point to all the above? Honestly, hell if I know. But let me know if you have anything to add, or if you disagree.