All the Games

After a couple fits and starts, I finished Broken Age. This could warrant a full review, but everything I would want to say can be summarized as follows: excellent characterization, lovely plot that finishes a bit too abruptly, lots of cute little jokes, absolutely beautiful, BUT the gameplay is often frustrating in the worst traditions of adventure games. Two of those points bear emphasizing. One: the art is absolutely gorgeous! A series of screenshots are below, to hopefully support that claim. Two: the gameplay can be so infuriating!

So much of the time is wandering around the map, collecting random items from the environment, from dialogue choices, and from puzzles, then figuring out where the items might ultimately come into play. There’s a lot of backtracking and trading of random crap for other random crap. Sometimes it seems logical, or even obvious; sometimes, the use of an item for a given situation can seem clever. But most of the time, it just seemed arbitrary. The world and the characters were so quirky, lovely, and charming; the plot had some fun twists and pivots and re-connections; but the impact of those elements was lessened as I trudged back and forth in the most point-and-clickiest way possible. You ever find yourself faced with a frustratingly opaque game challenge requiring a specific solution, while you want to scream another, more apparent option? That’s so much of this game for me. Especially when there are so many characters to talk with, it was frustrating to see that being able to propose obvious solutions or to ask obvious questions was just stripped out. In short, the game felt…artificially difficult (or at least its second half did). In the last act, I frequently consulted a guide, increasingly impatient with the bizarro limitations put into place. If you played a lot of classic point-and-click adventure games, though, you might have a more positive experience.

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Besides Broken Age, I also played a couple of weird little indie projects that released to a lot of acclaim but basically passed me by until now.

Octodad: Dadliest Catch is zany and fun, with a surprisingly heartfelt and endearing story under the wacky Saturday-morning-cartoon premise. It’s a fairly short but worthwhile experience.

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Then there’s The Stanley Parable. This was fun, but I lost interest fairly quickly without exploring most of the branching paths and endings. I spent most of my short time with it forcing endings through disobedience. The narration was charming, but I thought the game a bit too clever for its own good (and really, exploring “choice” in a video game and in life has been done more subtly elsewhere, hasn’t it?).

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I also jumped back into Hotline Miami a little bit recently. This game’s just perfect at setting a mood. The jarring, twitchy controls. The bizarre cuts between levels. The splashy blood. The bright colors. The pounding music. The game honestly makes me feel a little ill and a little disassociated after a while, like I’m getting into the head of a psychopath–or as close as I’d want to be, anyway. Gamification of the violence drives home that disturbing feeling, too. It’s a surreal experience, and the gameplay and music provide a powerfully addictive combination. I’ve played the story once or twice, and I’ve also played individual levels on occasion. But I don’t think it’s a game that I could ever 100%–I’d have to spend too much time getting really good at really disturbing shit.

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Moving out of indie games, I’ve returned to Jurassic World: Evolution, as well. A recent update included a new challenge mode. So far, I’ve fiddled around with the easy mode, taking my time, having fun, then realizing in a panic that while I would probably eventually get to 5 stars, I was definitely not going to meet the par time. This could prove to be a quite challenging mode, especially working all the way up to Jurassic difficulty while meeting the par times, and it may or may not be enough to keep me in the game for a while (if only to try to return my status to 100% completion).

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Finally, I’ve been playing ever more of Star Wars: Battlefront II. The 2005 edition, of course. It’s just so fun and easy to hop into even if I don’t have a lot of time to play.

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And that’s all for games. The final post, on television, will follow tomorrow.

All the Books

I’ve finally allowed myself to learn to love audiobooks. They’re great for providing something for me to focus on when otherwise doing a fairly mindless or boring task. But since my multitasking ability sucks, I’ll only listen to things that I’m okay with missing something in. Listening is just not the best way for me to absorb a story (and I’ll never accept that it’s comparable to reading; they’re just apples to oranges–oral storytelling is great, but it is different than written storytelling, and this is real estate in the general vicinity of a hill I’m willing to die on).

Truly, the credit for my newfound acceptance goes to the Indianapolis Public Library’s collections and the accessibility of the Overdrive and Hoopla websites and apps. I’ve already made it through a couple books despite the recentness of this change of heart.

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The first audiobook I experimented with was William Shakespeare’s Star Wars: Verily, A New Hope, by Ian Doescher. I enjoyed the stageplay feel, with a few different voice actors narrating the book. The sound effects were great. I was tickled by the human pronunciations of R2-D2’s whistles, and his internal monologues were a weird diversion. Nonetheless, the novelty wore off quickly enough for me. It’s hard to suggest that this has much merit on its own, after all–it’s entirely about the gimmick of combining Star Wars and Shakespeare. The saturation in pop culture and melodramatic nature of the two draw comparisons, and Doescher obviously put a lot of effort into emulating Shakespeare’s style, but it’s basically what it says on the tin, good for a bit of amusement and nothing more. Still, the production value of the audiobook was so good that I could listen to another in this series.

Star Wars: The Old Republic: Revan was second on my list. My first observation: it has too many subtitles. The audiobook brought life to the story, and it really showcased how good Drew Karpyshyn is at describing action. The narrator’s decisions regarding voices were somewhat disappointing. Revan sounded like bored Batman, even though he was written in the book as a sort of funny guy who was quick to quip and often contemplative. The Sith Lord Scourge sounded like angry Batman. And the female characters–Meetra and Bastila, for instance–typically sounded like man-doing-a-high-pitched-voice (which is, after all, what was happening), so I think the emotional resonance of their characters suffered.

Despite enjoying the action sequences, I don’t like what this book did to Revan and the Jedi Exile. For one thing, it shouldn’t have defined who they were. The KOTOR games were stories set in the distant past, a fable even in the context of the old EU canon. There was no need to have a “canon” series of events–these games thrived on player choice and the consequences of those choices.

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But even accepting a “canon” version of events, it’s icky to have a story where the Jedi Exile acts like a subservient cheerleader of Revan and ultimately dies for him, becoming a Force ghost to keep him alive. Also, these are characters players have a lot of connection to–their tragic ends here are a let-down and seem to exist only to raise the stakes of The Old Republic and make that game seem EVEN BIGGER, LOUDER, AND BETTER THAN THE ORIGINAL (reminds me of the decision to kill off Newt and Hicks in Alien 3). Finally, the game seems to retcon things a little bit, once more in the service of making The Old Republic more important. For instance, and most significantly, the Sith Emperor’s Force-devouring evil is presented as this colossal threat that would even shift Sith to become Jedi allies–but isn’t that reflective of exactly who Darth Nihilus was and what he was up to in KOTOR II?

I liked the similarly over-subtitled Star Wars: The Old Republic: Fatal Alliance (by Sean Williams) when I read it years ago, but in retrospect, I cannot be sure if I was just more into the “edgy” take on Star Wars being offered by the writers of The Old Republic game and media push than I would be now.

The one Star Wars story of the bunch that I really enjoyed was something I read rather than listened to: an ebook version of Star Wars: The Prequel Trilogy: A Graphic Novel (yet another work with too many subtitles). The artwork is clean, colorful, and emotive. Best of all, it’s a masterclass in efficient editing. Each of the films is stripped down into a much tighter, action-packed core. Extraneous fight scenes (and the infamous podrace) are cut down considerably or even (as in the case of the starship fight over Geonosis between Obi-Wan and Jango) cut completely. Some quirky bits of dialogue and some genuinely good character moments get left on the cutting room floor, but almost everything felt improved by the omission. Some things I wish they’d been willing to cut even further. They opened late and ended early on a lot of moments, and yet midi-chlorians remain in, and Anakin’s admission that he killed even women and children in the Tusken Raider village stays as well. Still, given the source material that the graphic novel is operating from, this is probably the best format that I’ve seen the prequels in so far. The weird thing is that this collection seems to have been made with a crew big enough for a small film–it’s difficult to attribute to only a few individuals.

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I also read an ebook version of Dark Horse’s Age of Reptiles Omnibus: Volume I by Ricardo Delgado. The art was gorgeous and dynamic. So much was packed into each panel, and there was such a strong flow from panel to panel. Motion was clearly conveyed. There was a buzzing energy that propels you onward. This comic series appears to have a well-deserved reputation for its entirely visual storytelling. Motivation and emotion are clearly conveyed through dinosaur body language and action. There is no dialogue (obviously–they’re dinosaurs), and there are no descriptive sound effects. All storytelling happens through the art alone. My major criticism would be that the stories are a little too focused on nature red in tooth and claw, but we do see other aspects of the dinosaurs’ lives. The Journey was the most satisfying story (the image here comes from it), epic and yet also somewhat mundane, a slice-of-life story nonetheless replete with death and violence.

That’s it for the books. Next: all the video games.

Ghosted

My wife and I binged Ghosted over last week. We both liked it, though it was flawed. A lot of what we liked about the show came down to the charismatic and very funny people in the show, especially the core cast:

  • Adam Scott (who is of course excellent on Parks and Recreation and The Good Place) plays Max, a paranormal true-believer and disgraced physicist who everyone assumes is crazy;
  • Craig Robinson (who is such a scene-stealer in The Office) plays Leroy, a stubbornly skeptical former LAPD police officer turned mall security turned paranormal investigations special agent;
  • Amber Stevens West plays Annie, an over-eager weapons expert, perpetual second-in-command, and type-A personality;
  • Adeel Akhtar plays Barry, a nerdy, socially awkward scientist who alternates between self-awareness and a complete misreading of any social situation; and
  • Ally Walker plays Ava, the director of the unit.

The writing, unfortunately, is never worthy of the actors. The laughs are too broad, too safe, and too sparse. And the show can never really decide what it wants to be, leaning between sci-fi parody and office dramedy. It’s a real waste, because the promise of the show is that it will gloriously lampoon the paranormal drama subgenre of shows like The X-Files or Fringe (confession: despite repeated recommendations from friends, I’ve never watched Fringe). The show even directly references The X-Files at one point, when Leroy compares Max to Mulder, and Max, the super-nerd, says he’s unfamiliar with the show. (In point of fact, Max is a good match for Mulder, but Leroy’s cop background and too-stubborn-skepticism read more like Doggett than Scully.) Yet there is very little evidence that the show’s creators have that much love or interest in the genre of shows they’re spoofing, or even in the paranormal more generally.

You can buy into the wackiest X-Files episode because everything is taken so seriously on-screen. And even when that series mixed things up and developed its own mythology, it was clear the writers had done their homework. They knew the paranormal topics they were riffing on; they knew the conspiracy theories. There was an intimate knowing, even in the show’s self-parodying episodes. The X-Files laughed with those lovably nutty ’90s conspiracy theorists, not at them.

But Ghosted never takes any idea very seriously at all. Ideas are thrown at a wall, and most of them slide away to nothingness. Random monsters are tossed up, and an arbitrary answer is arrived at by episode’s end, if at all. Sure, it’s a type of parody, but I would’ve loved to see Ghosted really dig in and laugh at the weirdness, bringing that paranoiac subculture back into the light, pimples and all. Maybe the show’s creators have decided that conspiracy theories just can’t be loved anymore–and given the 9/11 truthers and the birthers and the Sandy Hook false flag assholes, I get it. The heart of the conspiracy isn’t a toothless grey alien whose truth or fiction ultimately does not matter; now the theorists are malicious, challenging reality itself, spitting in the face of empathy or common decency. But then why do this show at all? (In contrast, The X-Files reboot chose to engage directly with contemporary conspiracy culture…to admittedly mixed results.)

The creators never did seem to figure that out. We start with Max and Leroy being abducted by the shadowy Bureau Underground, a secretive federal agency devoted to the investigation of the paranormal. They’re immediately thrown into a bizarre plot involving multidimensional theory and alien abductions, and by episode’s end we have two mysteries: what happened to Max’s long-missing but now-rediscovered wife, and why did the agent we last see abducted by aliens specifically ask the Bureau to recruit Max and Leroy? The pilot is shaky, and not terribly funny, but it has a good sense of direction and intrigue.

Almost immediately after that, the show pivots to mostly monster-of-the-week episodes. Unfortunately, rather than leaning into that format, the episodes minimize the monsters and give story resolution little focus in favor of trying to convince us that Max and Leroy are actually good guys with good chemistry, something hard to do when they’re often emotionally removed or catty for comic effect. Still, that try-hard effort paid off, and I started to love them both, plus the fairly small regular supporting cast.

And then, boom, right around mid-season, the show radically shifted in tone and style. Where we’d mostly had monster mysteries filmed with fairly static single-camera scenes, we shifted to a goofy office comedy about a group of screwups, suddenly with a lot more dynamic, reactive shots zooming in or panning over knowingly to observe particular character reactions. Tonally and visually it shifted from “funny X-Files” to “weird Parks and Rec.” And the show received a soft reboot: now, the shadowy organization is actually just an embarrassment rather than a secret, the top boss is demoted and gradually loses her cool (if not her sanity), the new boss is a petty and boring bureaucrat, and the gang (which has expanded to include other minor office-admin-type characters not really present before the reboot) spends more time worrying about whether they’ll keep their jobs during a paranormal drought rather than actually hunting monsters. The central mystery shifts to who bugged the Bureau’s office and why, with Max’s wife and the missing agent shelved as virtually nonexistent concerns. And Leroy and Max, who had been portrayed as newbie agents given the worst gigs early on, are suddenly the central agents, without any explanation for this shift.

So suddenly we have a lot safer narrative and style (especially in light of the success of shows like Parks and Recreation and The Office). And most of what I was interested in had been stripped away. Instead of low-level subordinates barely able to see any of the cool secret operations and paranormal activities afoot, Max and Leroy are suddenly the star–and only–agents. Their kidnapping in the first episode now makes very little sense, especially if the Bureau is not an ultra-classified organization. There’s even a bizarre reorientation of romantic pairings, which frankly would have been fine if it didn’t play out so cruelly and trivialize so much of the character development from early on. And the mysteries motivating the show dissolve for a bureaucratic narrative. But there’s some really soft commentary on the Trump administration, I guess?

And then, like a slingshot, the season ended with the sixteenth episode in a hard reset. Suddenly, the status quo of the first half is restored. Ava’s back in charge. Max and Leroy, who had just been fired, are back on the force. The Bureau is back to its normal sprawling operation, with Max and Leroy the least and worst agents in the organization. And the show refocuses hard on the original mysteries, advancing the plot somewhat!

What the hell happened? My wife believed that the multiverse elements of earlier episodes were involved, that the middle episodes actually represented another timeline or reality. But there’s no setup for it, no explanation of the shift, no clue to the audience other than the jarring change in tone and style. And the show hadn’t really been very clever up to that point, didn’t really demand serious thinking–I simply doubted the show was smart enough to do that, and trying to pull off a reveal like that at the end (without ever being explicit) would be bizarre.

The truth turned out to be quite mundane. You see, Ghosted has been canceled. The mid-season shift, as it turns out, maps directly with Fox’s order of additional episodes and mandated change of showrunner from Kevin Etten to Paul Lieberstein. Even the bizarre springback finale is easily explained by the fact that it was to be a part of the original lineup of episodes until Fox postponed it to air following the extended seasonGhosted probably wouldn’t have been a great show anyway, but Fox mismanaged it to hell.

I’d love to see this show get continued on a streaming service, picking up from the mid-season story and ignoring the rest, or alternatively seeing reincarnation in some spiritual successor that more carefully pairs paranormal mysteries with comedy. But I haven’t been this disappointed to see a mediocre genre show get canceled after the first season since Terra Nova.

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.

Review: How It Ends

Netflix’s new film, How It Ends (written by apparent newcomer Brooks McLaren and directed by David M. Rosenthal), is a tense survivalist narrative that can be summarized as a post-apocalyptic road trip. It’s fun, and if you already have a Netflix subscription, it’s worth the watch.

The film starts by introducing us to Will (Theo James) and Sam (Kat Graham), a young professional couple who are having a baby together. Shortly after learning it’s a boy, Will leaves Sam at their new home in Seattle to visit Sam’s parents in Chicago. This trip comes with an ulterior motive: he is asking Sam’s father, Tom (Forest Whitaker), for his blessing to marry her.

Tom is a former military man and severe. His wife, Paula (Nicole Ari Parker), attempts to mediate an increasingly tense dinner, but to no avail. The two men are at each other’s throats by the end of the night, and Paula asks Will to leave. The following morning, Sam calls Will, disappointed in the outcome of the evening–but while on the call, something strange happens in Seattle; there’s a mysterious rumbling, Sam notes that something’s wrong, and then the connection’s cut. Soon, all flights are canceled at the airport, and there’s a news report that they’ve lost power all along on the west coast after some sort of earthquake; almost immediately afterward, they lose power in Chicago, too. And not just power, but cellular and GPS networks all drop out.

Will returns to Tom and Paula. Paula goes to a safe place with family friends, while Will joins Tom in a cross-country journey to get to Sam. Fairly early into their adventure, after a major crisis, they take on one more party member: Indian reservation mechanic Ricki (Grace Dove), whom they hire on to make sure their car keeps running. From then on out, the movie becomes about the group’s efforts to get to the west coast as society continues to crumble around them.

In many ways, How It Ends reminded me of post-apocalyptic fiction like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road or Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the SowerParable, in particular, with its gradual societal collapse, and its prominent roadway forest fire scene, seems like an obvious source of inspiration for the film.

The actual cause of the catastrophe here is never explained. We are given some theories, some suggestions, but nothing really makes sense. We’re kept in the dark throughout, just as our characters, who are not in any position to even stumble across the bigger picture.

The movie’s strengths rest in its relationships. From the very first moments, I thought that Will and Sam had great chemistry, and I was invested in them, though to be frank, Kat Graham radiated a lot more personality even in her relatively few scenes, and I would’ve preferred a movie with Sam as the protagonist over Will. While Will is initially a fairly blank, bland personality, the archetypal fit young white male action protagonist, he grew on me over time–we’re shown that he’s intelligent, a skilled negotiator, and quick to adapt, while also being sensitive and sympathetic. Tom, in contrast, is such a belligerent hardass that it took longer for me to like him, but his survival skills and constant control over the chaos make him important to the success of the quest. And as time passes, he softens and becomes more humane to Will. By the end, they have a very touching relationship with Tom as almost a surrogate father.

My favorite character was Ricki. She thinks she’s tougher and more prepared for the outside world than she is; while she’s fleeing a hard life, she finds that the collapsing society all around them is far sicker and more grotesque than anything she anticipated. Her presence in the story is a trembling light, as she brings a naive positivity. Will becomes sort of a moral balance between the hard-nosed pragmatism of Tom and the too-trusting faith of Ricki. To survive, Will leans more and more in the direction of Tom, even as Tom is softened somewhat by Will; in the end, that shift means that Ricki eventually finds herself in a situation that she can no longer tolerate. Her outcome is a sad question mark.

My major complaint with the movie is that it ends far too abruptly. I’d be fine if we never really understood what was happening in the broader scheme of things, but we basically end in the middle of the action. We don’t know what will happen to the characters, in the next two weeks or even the next two minutes. It was jarring and felt more appropriate for a mid-season television episode’s finale than the conclusion of a film.

If “character-focused post-apocalyptic road trip thriller” sounds like something you can get behind, though, you should check it out. It’s not perfect, but it’s…a good ride.