The Charms of The Lost World

Rotten Tomatoes has Jurassic Park at 92% fresh, in contrast to the rotten 53% of The Lost World and even worse 49% of Jurassic Park III. Clearly, among most critics there’s a widely agreed-upon loss in quality between the first film and its sequels–and audiences generally agreed as well. But while I recognize that The Lost World isn’t as good a movie as the original, I’m with the 53% of critics who had a generally favorable impression of the first sequel.

Part of my fondness for the film is pure nostalgia. I was only 8 years old when the movie released. By this point, I’d watched Jurassic Park many times on home video and played even more hours with an assortment of tie-in toys; I’d read the sequel novel by Michael Crichton (although, curiously, I wouldn’t read the original until a few years later); and while I no longer remember the particular entertainment magazine, I remember flipping through glossy photos of the actors, sets, and dinosaur animatronics while reading behind-the-scenes details in advance. While I had been very interested in Jurassic Park, I was a bit too young for it when it came out; I just loved dinosaurs, but the movie was initially a little too scary for me (I vividly remember covering my eyes the first time during the kitchen scene), and I certainly didn’t get to go see it in theaters. I was primed to love the newer movie in the full, over-eager way a kid can love anything, and with a nearly quadrupled promotional budget over the original, Universal was clearly doing everything in its power to burrow brand recognition and excitement into every young person’s head.

As I’ve aged, my views about the movie have shifted, but I’ve never been able to regard it too harshly. For what it is, it’s a lot of fun: a big, prehistoric safari for the first half that shifts to something resembling survival horror and ends with a King Kong– or kaiju-style monster rampage through San Diego.

The cast is truly great, too. Jeff Goldblum’s return as Ian Malcolm, now the lead protagonist, offers a new spin on the character, who has gone from rock star to worn-out dad. I like that the movie inverts his role within the narrative, especially as it builds on the trauma he endured at the park. I also like that Malcolm is prominently confronted by the consequences of his former cavalier attitude toward women and relationships. Then there’s Julianne Moore, who’s great in everything, as not only an adventurous paleontologist but a sort of maternal force: Sarah Harding argues that dinosaurs nurtured their young and views the island as a way to test her views, she’s supportive of Kelly in a way that Ian isn’t, she attempts to care for the wounded juvenile tyrannosaur, and she protects Kelly when the adult tyrannosaurs show up in the camp site. Pete Postlethwaite is shockingly sympathetic for a poacher, with his wearied no-nonsense attitude in working for yet another rich idiot, his concern for the injured, his focus on problem-solving and willingness to set aside a grudge, his quixotic quest to be the best hunter on the planet, and his eventual separation from the mercenary lifestyle that all together suggest an inner nobility guided by self-imposed rules of honor, like some modern-day knight. Richard Schiff plays loveable tech geek Eddie Carr, completely out of his element but a downright good guy who sacrifices his life for his colleagues (in a truly horrific death that deeply disturbs me every time–I find myself screaming, “Eddie’s a hero! He deserves better!” on just about every viewing); Peter Stormare has a notable side role as Dieter, the asshole second-in-command for the poachers; Arliss Howard is an anti-Hammond whose snide and overconfident façade that barely covers a weaselly inferiority complex is easy to hate; Vince Vaughn plays his usual laid-back-bro-with-a-heart-of-gold; and Richard Attenborough’s single appearance in the film is scene-stealing.

The Lost World also has a little more darkness and moral complexity than the original. After all, it confronts the audience again and again with the proposition, are the heroes even the good guys? Hammond sends Sarah off alone to an island full of lethal prehistoric animals, which just isn’t smart regardless of her survival skills on the African savannah, and he dispatches the remainder of the team without even adequately informing them of the risks–for instance, that another, and much better funded, InGen team would soon arrive to pillage the place. To be fair, he clues in one member of the team, but of course Nick Van Owen is a saboteur and eco-terrorist who’s willing to put others’ lives in danger for the sake of freeing the dinosaurs, and he doesn’t bother to fill anyone in until things get set in motion. Sarah and Nick make several decisions that compromise the safety of both teams: freeing the dinosaurs in the camp, taking the juvenile tyrannosaur with them, keeping the bloodied clothing instead of discarding it so that the tyrannosaurs are all that much more easily able to track them, and taking the bullets from Roland Tembo’s gun. Sure, most of these actions were inadvertent, but it’s also true that most if not all of the deaths can be traced to their choices. Of course, it’s still easy to root for them since they care about the dinosaurs and we know them better than the hunters. And who really wants to cheer for poachers, even commanded by someone as charming as Pete Postlethwaite, when the scummy Peter Ludlow is writing their checks and some of them, like Dieter, are just vicious, uncaring, and brutal? (Whether we should actually devote so much to conserving species brought back from extinction after dozens or hundreds of millions of years is another question entirely that this film doesn’t really wrangle with; Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom at least engaged with that debate but quickly backed away from it.)

Then of course the dinosaurs themselves are great. I love the speculative socialized and nurturing behaviors shown. Would Stegosaurus really have cared for its young like that? It doesn’t matter; it was still some fun behavior to model, a nice counterpoint to dinosaurs as dumb and slow brutes, and the animatronics and computer animation that brought those stegosaurs to life is really something else. In general, the special effects look even better than those in Jurassic Park, showing some impressive updates in technology in a few short years, and all of the returning dinosaurs get a bit of a makeover even as a few new critters make their appearance. And while the Compsognathus / Procompsognathus amalgam is maybe a bit of a miss, most of the other new additions seemed rather true-to-life for the time. Plus, in 1997 paleontologists were only beginning to discover more and more feathered dinosaurs, so it was fair enough (probably) to leave them all scaly.

There are things that I truly don’t like about the movie. The pacing is a bit all over the place, as the plot moves forward in fits and starts, and the San Diego sequence, while exciting, feels like it belongs to a different movie (of course, if you think of the whole movie as an homage to King Kong, which surely would have been in Steven Spielberg’s mind, then the final act makes more sense). And that San Diego sequence offers a tantalizing possibility but in some ways doesn’t go far enough; dinosaurs on the mainland would have been a practical way to move on from the repeated trips to remote islands for similar survival stories, and it wouldn’t be until Fallen Kingdom that the franchise finally took advantage of this. Not that all of my complaints lay in that final section of the film, but also, I can never wrap my head around the logistics of how the Tyrannosaurus buck broke out of the cargo hold, killed everyone, and then was once more trapped; an explanation could exist, and perhaps it would even be something that would satisfy me, but the bizarre appearance of the ghost freighter has always invited the question of what exactly happened–and I don’t think of myself typically as the sort of doofus yelling “plot hole!” just because something’s not explicitly depicted onscreen. Then there’s the one really bad casting choice: Harvey Jason, an English actor, plays Ajay Sidhu, the Indian assistant to Roland Tembo, and it seems to be a textbook example of brownface.

Other than that, though, I wouldn’t say that The Lost World is a bad movie. It’s just tonally different from Jurassic Park. It’s not about the same things, and its recurring characters are (appropriately) different than they were before. This is an adventure movie, a spiritual successor to movies like the original screen adaptation of The Lost World in 1925, or King Kong in 1933, or any of the kaiju movies spawned out of them. It’s part monster movie, part safari adventure, and it maybe feels a bit disjointed because of that. Or maybe it’s because The Lost World is a crueler movie with a less-clear moral center than its predecessor. Doesn’t make it bad, but it does make it difficult to categorize. It’s rough around the edges, more inclined to brutality than awe, with deeply flawed characters filling the roles of protagonists and antagonists. It’s an interesting experiment for such a damn big blockbuster movie. And I’m still charmed by it.

Jurassic Park: Book vs. Film

It’s common knowledge that the book is always better than the movie. Except for when it isn’t. Jurassic Park is a fairly unique case, in that the movie is an incredible achievement and is distinctly superior to the book, and yet in adapting from print to screen, it takes some liberties and changes some characters and plot arcs for the worse. While I do believe that the best version of Jurassic Park exists on the screen, there are some notable caveats that go with that statement, and depending on your storytelling priorities, it’s perfectly reasonable to favor the book. It’s sort of a tie, then, isn’t it?

Below are the elements I favored in each version.

Better in the Film

  1. Almost all of the characters. Except for the case of Gennaro (made into a symbol of corporate greed and embodied primarily by cowardice) and Nedry (who remains a fairly simple bumbling villain, and yet another character motivated by greed), they’re all more human and complex.
    1. Hammond is refreshingly reformed, not a simple corporate bad guy or “evil Walt Disney” like the book, and I think his realization over the course of the film that the park was a bad idea, his recognition that his consultants’ concerns about power, control, and chaos were right, provides a fantastic character arc that also serves to reinforce the central theme of the movie in a better and more subtle way than the preachy lectures from Malcolm in the novel; this also provides a nice setup for Hammond’s reformation and attempt to get the dinosaurs left alone that motivates him to act in The Lost World.
    2. Grant has a fantastic new arc, becoming more comfortable with children and developing paternal characteristics that had otherwise been lacking and suggest a likely improvement in his long-term relationship with Sattler (and so I’ll never really forgive Jurassic Park III for bringing the two back as exes, with Sattler having found another partner to start a family with).
    3. Speaking of Sattler, the sensitivity and fearful resolve brought to the role by Laura Dern make for an improved character over the more generic Action Hero Woman defined solely by beauty and nerves of steel in the book.
    4. Malcolm is made to be hipper and funnier, somewhat less a boring know-it-all, in part thanks to far fewer speeches and in part due to the magnetism Jeff Goldblum naturally produces.
    5. Switching the relative ages of dino-nerd Tim and scaredy-cat Lex, and then making Lex a computer geek, makes Lex far less annoying and gives her something practical to do while retaining Tim’s function in the story. Helpful, endearing kids–who are still kids and require protection–make Grant’s arc even more plausible and, more importantly, make it easier for the audience (or at least me) to care when the kids are imperiled. (I literally gasp every time I watch that Explorer slide over the edge with Grant and Lex barely grasping the line to safety in time.)
  2. The design of the park is gorgeous, the sets are amazing, and it looks better than I could have imagined from reading the book alone. In fact, the book makes the park seem smaller, in a way, even though there’s a more involved tour and then the extended river raft sequence to show more of it and more of the dinosaurs in it. (Tough to beat the lush Hawaiian ridges in the background of the film for making the island and park seem enormous.)
  3. The movie focuses on a smaller set of intense action scenes with plenty of smaller character moments in between. The book is too much a run of threat after threat, with virtually no character development (I’ll talk in the next section about the cool moments of meandering the book gets into, but they’re not there for character development).
  4. The movie really nails moments of awe. In the book, there’s more sickening dread throughout. Whereas the movie still opens with the Velociraptor attack, it then shifts to introducing our characters, and when we get to the island, we get the cool Brachiosaurus scene. The book lingers on moments of horror, characterized by the introductory scene in which a maimed man is brought back to the mainland to die, followed by a prolonged subplot about several Procompsognathus that have escaped to the mainland to prey on infants.
  5. The movie ends with a sense of hope and renewed purpose. The book ends on a darker note, with a much higher body count, the island napalmed, predators escaped to the mainland, and the surviving protagonists held prisoner.

Better in the Book

  1. Gennaro is done a great disservice in the film by combining his character with Ed Regis and killing him off early. I really like the Gennaro of the book. He’s still representative of corporate greed and irresponsibility, but he’s frankly not a bad man, and he’s provided an opportunity for reluctant redemption. Gennaro’s also the book’s everyman and therefore makes for the most relatable viewpoint character, in contrast to the author’s mouthpiece that is Malcolm or the Action Heroes of Grant and Sattler.
  2. There is not a single best version of Muldoon, but the book’s version has some strong points in his favor. I love Bob Peck’s portrayal, but I also like the older, alcoholic, roguish figure of the novel. I also enjoy Muldoon’s meatier role, as he becomes centrally involved in the subplot of attempting to get the park back online, doing things like tranquilizing the adult Tyrannosaurus, finding Nedry’s corpse, and distracting the raptors when attempting to restore power. And there’s the fact that Muldoon makes it out alive in the book. I do prefer the film’s treatment of death–anyone and everyone is at risk, and even though the body count is lower, it’s not the simple use of violent death as moral consequence that Crichton tends to employ in his books. Still, Muldoon’s a character I want to make it off the island; he knew better, and he actually paid attention to the threat the dinosaurs represented. It’s especially humiliating for the film version of the character in that he’s taken down by the dinosaurs he’s supposed to know and respect/fear.
  3. The dinosaurs in the book are more accurate, at least for the time of publication. The film takes too many liberties with some of its dinosaurs, though they are still mostly quite realistic (again, for the time of release) and certainly dynamic in a way that most audiences hadn’t seen before. Even the weird divergences in the book, like Velociraptor actually being Deinonychus, are explicitly discussed, and the speculative behaviors presented for some of the dinosaurs are exactly that–speculative, not necessarily inaccurate.
  4. The book actually answers the questions raised by its central mysteries. The movie never explains why the Triceratops keeps getting sick (nor does it even bother to suggest that Sattler is right) or how the Velociraptor were breeding without notice or able to escape their confinement to lay eggs in the park. The novel simply had more raptors, so it was easier to imagine them secretly disappearing at night in small numbers, but the movie has only the three, so it’s a little harder to imagine that no one would ever notice (then again, they had a skeleton crew to run the park, even more so in the movie).
  5. The book also spends more time fleshing out how the park is run and staffed, how things go to hell and how systems are restored, and even what the dinosaurs really are. I liked the moments spent with Muldoon, Wu, and Harding and the more behind-the-curtain elements that their stories, and Hammond’s, provided. While I’d never want to see a movie remake of Jurassic Park, which is more or less perfect as is, I really wouldn’t mind at all a television series that adapted the novel and mirrored its more meandering pace and curiosity about every element of how this park could possibly exist. Spielberg rightly focused on the awe and spectacle, but I like Crichton’s intense focus on rationalizing everything, on making it seem real, like an incident that had actually occurred. Crichton was interested in the infrastructure and logistics of it all, and I suppose I am too.

A fairly neutral point is how each version left the state of the fictional universe for potential sequels. Certainly sequels are never necessary, but we’ve certainly had plenty of sequels nonetheless, and it’s interesting to consider how the changed landscapes at the conclusions of the original stories impacted what later stories could reasonably be told.

The book closes off any option of a return to Isla Nublar, given its dramatic napalm bombing finale. However, it does leave the dangling thread of some of the dinosaurs having reached the mainland–at least some Procompsognathus and what is suggested to be Velociraptor. That might have been a rather limited scope for a sequel, but you’d immediately be in a world where dinosaurs were coexisting with remote human populations, and that could have been interesting. I’m rather glad we didn’t see that sequel, though, because I don’t think I’d much care for such a scenario where there were only a few small theropods left. Sure, it could have been an interesting story about preserving and containing de-extinct and now endangered life that was nonetheless an invasive species, but I bet it would have been more a monster narrative about killer dinosaurs.

Ultimately, it was the better choice for Crichton to abandon this subplot. And, given his interest in a plausible prehistoric park and in the nuts-and-bolts infrastructure of it, the existence of a Site B makes a lot of sense and is a good starting point. It doesn’t feel like a do-over, but more a reflection that Jurassic Park would have required considerable facilities for genetics, manufacturing, incubation, and raising the young dinosaurs that likely would have to be larger than the infrastructure suggested even in the book’s version of the park. It’s a natural development. I’m also hardly alone in finding that Crichton’s best stories tend to borrow themes and structures from classic literature, so it shouldn’t be surprising that he turned to perhaps the most signature adventure story of humans stumbling upon a lost prehistoric land for the sequel, lifting even the title of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World for his novel. Once more, Crichton spends a lot of time on nuts and bolts, building out a plausible sequence of events for the characters to discover this lost world and articulating a coherent explanation for its existence and abandonment. But the plot itself suffers, and he reuses character types from Jurassic Park, down to bringing along two kids. Truly, once the team gets to the island, the plot takes a backseat to a series of mostly disconnected action set pieces, interesting speculative dinosaur behaviors, and long-winded philosophical debates among the protagonists. The central mystery on the island–how can the ecosystem support so many carnivores?–is not especially interesting and keeps getting derailed by the next action scene. And the central antagonists are just bumbling poachers, as Crichton apparently felt it necessary to bring the BioSyn corporate antagonist behind Nedry back into the mix in a rather mundane way. Perhaps the most unusual carryover from the first book is the return of Ian Malcolm, a character who was quite dead. While a bizarre choice, I imagine this was an acquiescence to audience interest and the very living version of the character in the movie. It might perhaps be another nod to Arthur Conan Doyle, who in addition to writing The Lost World was of course the creator of Sherlock Holmes, whom he once killed off and later brought back.

Spielberg and screenwriter David Koepp had their own loose ends they could have followed up on. After all, there’s no mention of bombing the island. There could have still been dinosaurs on Isla Nublar. Perhaps InGen could have sent in a team to try to control the situation, encountering new threats and exploring previously unseen areas of the park. The mysteries left unanswered in the film could have been addressed. And while the lysine contingency would have gone into effect with the absence of human intervention, the animals’ continued survival would have been another mystery to answer–after all, that was another question left to address on Isla Sorna either way. While they largely scrapped the broad adventure plot of Crichton’s sequel, they did pull in several of the characters, a few of the action sequences, and the broad concept of the second island, so Nublar was left neglected. Of course, the films did eventually get back to Isla Nublar and a reorganized park, but in the process, they left the fate of the dinosaurs on Isla Sorna in shadow. Why was the volcanic eruption on Isla Nublar a potential threat of re-extinction for the dinosaurs if they were thriving on Site B? The only for-certain explanation, provided in ancillary materials like the Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom Survival Guide, is that the animals were relocated from Isla Sorna to the new park on Isla Nublar. Were they all moved? How did InGen get around the apparent preserve status set up for Isla Sorna after the events of The Lost World, especially if they completely depleted the newly established ecosystem in the process? Regardless, it would have been nice if each film didn’t act as though there was only one island with dinosaurs on it, that island being whichever one was the focus of that given film.

But now I’m way off topic. The bottom line: there are a great many things I like about both the book and movie version of Jurassic Park, and I’m glad they both exist.

Terra Nova deserves a fresh start

Every now and then, I think to myself that it would be nice to see Terra Nova returned or rebooted. You might not remember, or even heard of, Terra Nova. It existed for a brief while in 2011. I remember quite a lot of buzz for the expensive production, time-traveling shenanigans in the plot, dinosaurs, and involvement of Steven Spielberg as executive producer and Stephen Lang in a role that was basically a more mysterious, less evil version of his character in Avatar. Despite that, it became a convoluted mess that was cancelled after a single season, after a total of 13 episodes.

The basic premise was cool: humanity now lives in a worsening environmental apocalypse of its own making, but a new hope arises when scientists discover a way to travel into an alternative past corresponding to the Cretaceous Period. As far as anyone knows, you can go back, but you’re stuck there. They’ve been able to verify that activity in this other time stream does not affect the present, so there are no A Sound of Thunder ramifications to worry about. Humanity has a second chance at a future by going to a past that preexisted us. There are a variety of ecological threats to worry about from the native flora and fauna, but there’s just as much tension in the conflict between the cult-like loyalists to Lang’s militaristic compound leader and the rebel cell that splintered off from the main group and disappeared into the jungles.

What great potential! (And one utilized elsewhere since as an RPG setting.) Unfortunately, the show tried to be something for everyone. While the above would have been more than enough for several seasons of television, elements of different genres were cobbled together to try to catch as many eyes as possible from the start. The central viewpoint characters are a family escaping from the future to live a life free from its population-control laws (mom and dad had a third child). The hot-head father becomes top lawman to the colony leader. The mother is a doctor much needed by the community. The three kids, ranging from teens to a plucky young child, have their own assorted adventures. Focus could shift episode to episode, and even within a single episode you might have teen relationship angst intermingled with a prehistoric murder investigation. The two-parter first episode jumps between the complicated politics of the future and the past, the awe-inspiring nature of the prehistoric world, and some bizarrely low-budget teen slasher horror (literally, the dromaeosaurs in the show are called “slashers”). Within this oh-so-short first season, we even have a former love interest to come between the mother and father (never mind that they love each other so much, they staged an elaborate escape into the past just to preserve their nuclear family). On top of this, the conflict between the colony and its rogue faction is played up for maximum mystery, creating a more convoluted and opaque interrelationship than necessary and setting up a bizarre situation in which the officially sanctioned colony represents more of an isolationist, eco-friendly group while the rebels are actually working for the corporate interests controlling access to the time stream.

I haven’t watched the show in years because I know its flaws too well. Jumbled plot and mismanaged tones aside, it manages to look like over-produced yet still unconvincing television. The dinosaurs in particular look like obvious digital inserts, easily topped by the computer graphics, animatronics, and puppets used to bring Jurassic Park to life 18 years before this show. The dialogue and some of the performances could be just as unbelievable. Even if you can sit through it, you’ll be disappointed with an ending that sets up even more mysteries and leaves plenty of loose ends to never be resolved.

But, again, that premise is incredible! I’d love to see a show that doubles down on the premise, that focuses on a colony eking out a frontier existence in a world it should never have been a part of. The combination of post-apocalyptic politicking, prehistoric creatures, and environmental themes provides storytelling favorably comparable to Xenozoic. And the parallel-time-stream-traveling offers a unique explanation for how humans and dinosaurs could coexist, outside of the cloning route of Jurassic Park or the techno-magic implications of Xenozoic or The Dinosaur Lords.

If I were given the choice to continue or reboot Terra Nova, I think I’d do a prequel-as-reboot by focusing on the second generation of colonists to arrive. The colony is barely established, so there’s plenty of work still to be done in getting things running smoothly, but we have an outsider’s perspective to follow among the new arrivals, an outsider who finds this functioning community so devoted to the mythic figure of a former military man who managed to survive by himself for months before anyone else arrived. I wouldn’t mind a family focus at the center, but no bloated backstory. And if you go the family route, I’d rather the family actually be bonded so that they want to support each other and we have people to clearly root for. Teens will be teens, but the level of unnecessary drama combined with bad dialogue made it difficult to care about the cast of characters. By having the story start in the early days of the colony, we don’t have any rebel cell or mystery corporate interests; the central drama would simply be dealing with this totally alien world. You could bring in tension as later arrivers gradually grow resentful of the iron fist of the compound leader. That in and of itself is enough of a reason for a faction to revolt, without shady corporate tactics involved. I think a more interesting divide would be between those who believe they have the right to continue this colony and others who come to believe that this is still unnecessarily exploitative, with humanity following a path that will eventually doom this world too; perhaps they want to destroy any presence of a colony at all, or perhaps they want a way to teleport everyone back to the future and to shut down the time stream for good. Terra Nova dabbled with the idea that maybe our protagonists were working for the bad guy, but it eventually backed away from this, doubling down on the idea that the rebels were dishonest and basically evil. I’d push the cast-aside idea further; it’s not that the leader is evil, but he enjoys the control he has, and he has a settler mentality, intent on exploiting this world even without a clear corporate beneficiary.

Sure, if you could get past the rebooted season, you could layer on additional plot points. You could tell adventure and exploration stories, war stories, time travel stories, stories of corporate greed. You could have plenty of interesting real and speculative prehistoric plants and animals. You could run in a variety of directions, even time jump to set up a society that is more entrenched, to follow different characters. Heck, you could evolve from a rough-and-tumble frontier to a sprawling metropolis at the center of linked communities, complete with Dinotopia-style human-dinosaur symbiosis. But if you try to do too much too early, you don’t have likeable characters, and you keep throwing on more elaborate and unnecessary mysteries, you’re going to tank any show. Terra Nova already proved that. I wish that the premise had another chance, though.

My Favorite Stories of the Decade

Well, this is over a month late, but I wanted to reflect a little on the media I’ve consumed over the past decade. It’s hard to think about this clearly; my memory doesn’t work linearly enough to easily track the different stories I’ve come across over the past ten years. It’s wild to me that I’ve been out of high school for so long that it’s been almost 13 years now, but at the same time, it feels like it’s been even longer than that. A lot of my tastes and opinions have evolved considerably since my late teens and early twenties, which feel sort of like a single, solid lump of time, even though we’re talking about a period as long as almost two decades ago and as recent as 6 or 7 years ago. Many of the stories that defined my early adult sensibilities were first encountered during that period. I didn’t even start reading comics until late into high school or early into college! These shifting memories are even more complicated because on many occasions, I’m not encountering a film or book or game until years, or even decades, after its release.

I haven’t had this blog long enough yet to say that I really have traditions, but I do like to post a start-of-the-year recap of my favorite games I’ve played in the past year. Since we’re entering a new decade (even though this blog hasn’t been around for nearly as long), it seemed like a fun opportunity to look back over a longer period. But this site is, if nothing else, an ongoing catalog of What I’m Into Now, and that’s bigger than just video games. If I’m writing about any single thing on this site, if I could encapsulate what my mission is here, it’s to record how I react to stories across various media.

So, for a look back over a decade, I wanted to do more than just my favorite games. What were my favorite stories across video games, books, films, and television shows? But I have to then consider how I’m narrowing that list. For my video game retrospectives, I normally include all games I’ve played within the review period. I could simply include all stories I’ve experienced for the decade, but that’s just too broad, and too susceptible to inaccuracy. When did I really first watch this movie, or play that video game? What if I’d read something in my childhood but rediscovered it as an adult and fell in love? Is it fair or useful to compare an established classic with a new, unproven work?

What I settled on was a data set that only included works published within the past decade, from the start of 2010 through the end of 2019. Whereas my year-end reflections encompass five games, a list of ten favorite stories seemed appropriate for a decade–ten stories for ten years. That number becomes more interesting if I actually make it only one story per year. I’ve only been writing this blog for a few years now, and I’ve thus written more about (and paid more attention to) stories I’ve encountered in those last few years, and therefore my list would naturally lean heavily toward the last few years of the decade. To counteract this, I’ve decided to include only one favorite for each year, although I’ve allowed myself some latitude with television and have still included some runners-up for particular years.

With those rules in mind, here’s my current list of favorite stories from the 2010’s. Whether that list would be the same in another month or year or decade remains to be seen…Regardless, let’s get to it, starting with 2019 and working our way back to the beginning of the decade.

2019: Kitbull (Rosana Sullivan)

This is such a touching story. Beautiful animation, and it’s absolutely heartbreaking. Some people might view it as a little too saccharine, but I am here for it. I like short fiction, and this is a cute and compelling short film that demonstrates how a minimalist story can communicate something much bigger than its individual moments.

2018: Christopher Robin (Marc Forster)

Look, I loved Winnie the Pooh as a kid. The characters have always held a special place in my heart, and I’ve never really let go of that. Christopher Robin is to Winnie the Pooh as Hook is to Peter Pan. The cynical view would be that this movie is a nostalgia grab. But I still found that the movie spoke to me, aided by excellent performances and lovable interpretations of the stuffed animals. This is the kind of movie I could contentedly watch again and again.

Runner-Up: BlacKkKlansman was funny, challenging, and different. It offers wacky performances and outlandish storytelling with sadly too many truths and connections to reality. Probably the better film of the two I’ve indicated for 2018, it’s also one that I’d be less likely to return to.

2017: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Nintendo)

2017 was absolutely the hardest year for me to isolate a single favorite. At the end, I’ve picked one, along with three runners-up. My favorite (for now) was The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. It might be my favorite video game of all time. It actually made me interested in Zelda. It had just enough characterization and backstory to keep me invested, but the story was so pared-down that you were often making up a narrative as you played through the game. More than any other Zelda game I’ve even attempted to play, this was the game that really showed the joys of exploration. That included exploring the world, but also exploring alternative options to combat and to puzzles. I just want more of this! I can’t wait for more news about the Breath of the Wild sequel.

Runner-Up: Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Rian Johnson). I’m personally pleased that this list isn’t overrun with Star Wars stories. I picked The Last Jedi because it made some of the boldest choices since The Phantom Menace and The Empire Strikes Back before it. Each of these films took the franchise in a new direction and did new things with how these movies are made and what they mean, for better or worse. At the same time, no Star Wars is perfect. And for many, I just named the best and the worst of the franchise in comparison to The Last Jedi. Even setting aside the bigoted trolls, this film has resulted in a deep divide among fans and general moviegoers. For me, I love this movie and think it’s one of the better-made, more interesting Star Wars films, but it is a slower-paced movie with a clunky middle section, and as a result, I’ve always preferred The Force Awakens as a film to watch over and over again. After The Rise of Skywalker, I now feel that The Last Jedi was the pinnacle of the sequel trilogy. This isn’t some wildly experimental film, but it really highlights how safe J.J. Abrams played it with the other two movies.

Runner-Up: Star Wars: From A Certain Point of View. This was a collection of short stories that retold various moments of A New Hope from the perspective of supporting characters. It helped fill in moments in the new canon, even while remaining a sort of canon-lite bit of storytelling given its dependence upon, well, subjective viewpoints. This had a lot of strong writing, too. “The Kloo Horn Cantina Caper” by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Matt Fraction remains my single favorite bit of Star Wars writing ever.

Runner-Up: Kita Kita (written and directed by Sigrid Andrea Bernardo) is a weird, subversive, surprisingly sweet rom-com about two lonely Filipino expats living in Japan. The third act takes such a surprising twist that is initially absurd and ultimately sentimental, and it is that third act that makes the film. It’s a rom-com that stayed with me after watching, and I think it’s worth holding out as special for that reason alone.

2016: A Fox In Space (Matthew Gafford)

This fan production by Matthew Gafford attempts to retell the Star Fox story with a more “mature” perspective, plenty of humor, and an animation and sound design that echoes cartoons of decades past. So far, besides several in-production clips, only one episode has released. I don’t remember how I even found out about it. But I’m something of a Star Fox fan, and I’ve always thought that it would be fun to see an ongoing cartoon or comic that really mined the setting and characters while providing a more compelling narrative and a deeper lore. This fan pilot does that, whether or not we ever get a full second episode or beyond.

Runner-Up: Zootopia (written and directed by Byron Howard and Rich Moore) is another movie that I can just watch again and again. It’s sweet and funny. It’s a little overly broad in its allegories about race and class, but it still has something to say for a younger audience (especially in that even a good person can hold prejudices they have to work to identify and overcome, and experiencing discrimination in one area does not mean that you can’t also benefit from privilege in other ways).

2015: Bridge of Spies (Steven Spielberg)

I love Tom Hanks. I love Steven Spielberg. I love a good movie about an attorney working within or against the system to attempt to do good. I love spy stories, especially Cold War spy stories. How could I not love this movie? I hadn’t thought about it much recently, but my wife brought it up recently as one of her favorite movies of the past decade, and I found that I agreed.

2014: The Lego Movie (Phil Lord and Chris Miller)

Instead of a boring licensed-product kids’ movie, The Lego Movie was wild, raucous fun, loaded with a goofy, sardonic sense of humor and altogether too many references to the wide number of franchises that Lego has worked with. Lord and Miller are such a creative writing/directing team, and this movie has some tremendous voice acting performances. And The Lonely Island’s “Everything Is Awesome” is just such an ear worm, even while representing the bland consumerist society that we should work to shake ourselves free of. This is a movie layered in irony and contradiction; that a Warner Bros. production even attempts to interrogate some of the hypocrisies and fallacies of the very culture the studio and the Lego toyline are a part of is really something.

2013: A Natural History of Dragons (Marie Brennan)

I think I somehow got this eBook free through some sort of promotion. Or maybe it was just heavily discounted. I didn’t seek it out, and I didn’t know what I was getting into. It won me over quickly, though. I was often chuckling at the witty language from the first few pages, and the story moved along at an exciting pace. This book is fantasy filtered through a contemporary reaction to Jane Austen and H. Rider Haggard. This book was so clever and original. I’ve never moved on to the later books in the series, but I’d always be happy to recommend this first book.

Runner-Up: Pacific Rim. Guillermo del Toro always makes interesting, unique genre films. Pacific Rim was such a fun movie, a joyous homage to the very Japanese staples of kaiju and mechas. Still, it’s a light, airy romp; it’s not much deeper than face value. I think it’s a lot of fun, and it stuck with me. That’s enough!

2012: Mass Effect 3 (BioWare)

On my first completion of Mass Effect 3, I thought the ending I chose was tragic but fitting. I chose Synthesis. It felt right, after all that I had come to learn about the relationship between synthetics and organics over the past three games. It felt like a satisfying conclusion to the evolving storylines and character relationships that had begun with humans shooting Evil Synthetics back in the original game. I liked that I still had a choice, but with the way I’d played Shepard, with how I’d interacted with so many synthetics and even bonded with a few, with how we’d brought peace between Geth and Quarians, this final decision felt like the right choice.

I liked the fusion of gameplay elements from the first two titles. I liked the exploration, the resource-gathering, the sense of a desperate fight against an overwhelming opponent. I liked fleeing from Reapers across the galaxy as I tried to reach out to new worlds.

I was shocked to realize that so many people hated Mass Effect 3, and that so many people hated it because of how it ended. Of course I’d love a happily ever after for Commander Shepard, but he became a part of everyone in the end; he became an epic hero to always be remembered. And that ending felt like an ending made for me; everyone played a slightly different character, with a different gender and appearance and background and set of personality traits. Their choices and experiences were all slightly different. We had to end it somehow, and the few choices available felt thoughtful. I saw the conclusion as beautiful and meaningful, more than Shep somehow managing to kick All The Reaper Ass would have been.

Regardless of how contentious the ending proved to be, this story was deeply affecting to me and felt like a satisfying conclusion to the saga.

2011: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (Bethesda Softworks)

It’s kind of wild to realize that it’s been almost a whole decade since we last had a new main title game in The Elder Scrolls franchise. This might be my wife’s favorite RPG. For me, I appreciated the return to the weird that made me love Morrowind so much, that felt lacking in Oblivion.

The two factions in the great civil war that centers much of the game are both despicable, more flawed than honorable, and it’s easy to simply stand apart from them. Underneath the senseless violence that straddled a war of religion and a war of secession, there was a larger existential threat brewing that most people in the state of Skyrim were oblivious to or refused to care about. In a way, that works as a nice allegory for contemporary society and the impending existential threat of climate change.

I’ll be honest: I’ve never finished the main story. My wife has, but I couldn’t maintain interest. I spent dozens of hours in the game nonetheless, wandering the world, uncovering secrets, fighting monsters, taking on jobs, making friends. Once more like Morrowind over Oblivion, the game was at its most fun when you were making your own stories, not worrying about the main plot, and it didn’t try to keep shoving that main plot in your face like Oblivion did with its Oblivion Gates. Then again, I’ve played through the main stories of Morrowind and its expansions at least a couple times because they were so engaging and weird and ambiguous! Morrowind rewards textual interpretation, and I didn’t feel the same experimentation with ambiguity and competing narratives in Skyrim. And while Skyrim was weird, it wasn’t quite as original as Morrowind. The fourth title clung to The Lord of the Rings, and the fifth to Conan the Barbarian, but the third pulled from everything and in so doing made something that felt wholly original.

My feelings about Skyrim are complex, but I still lost myself in that world for hours and hours on end.

2010: Adventure Time (Frederator Studios, 2010-2018)

Adventure Time almost spanned the whole decade, but it started in 2010, so it’s standing in as my favorite for that year. It was quirky, irreverent, fantastic, bizarre, and funny, and it managed to tell so much story in so little time. Aimed at kids, but with interesting concepts (especially in the later seasons) and a strong focus on the complex emotional bonds and fluid relationships shared between the characters, and a tendency to reward attention to detail, it was just as fun for adults. Plus, it’s loaded with references to anime, old cartoons and video games, and Dungeons & Dragons. It refused to be just any one thing, and even by the end of the series, it juggled beauty and horror and an epic scope with sweet character moments and silly gags. It was great.

Now that I’ve reached all the way back to 2010, please let me know what your favorite stories of the past decade have been!

Review – Jurassic World: The Evolution of Claire

The Evolution of Claire (Jurassic World)The Evolution of Claire by Random House

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The Evolution of Claire is fairly small in scope, intimate even, especially for a title set in the Jurassic Park–excuse me, Jurassic World–franchise. Author Tess Sharpe details a nineteen-year-old Claire Dearing’s summer internship on Isla Nublar for the Masrani Corporation, in the final months before the new park would open. While there are many misadventures and some moments of wonder as the interns interact with dinosaurs in the park, the central focus of the novel is Claire’s budding romance with another intern. A B plot is a series of mysterious happenings around the facilities that seem somehow connected with a fabled class of Phantom Interns from the year before. The central culprit behind those happenings is a spoiled, mysogynist intern who is so obviously villainous and yet so obviously not the true antagonist that he’s basically Red Herring from A Pup Named Scooby Doo.

So it’s a YA novel with dinosaurs. It was a fun read. There were issues with continuity that sometimes annoyed me. I would have enjoyed more about the creation of the dinosaurs (Sharpe seems aware that mosquitoes alone would be insufficient for this resurrection miracle, yet never references potential alternative DNA sources–even Crichton’s original book, and the recent game Jurassic World: Evolution, at least refer to bone fragments and other potential alternative sources). Isla Sorna is mentioned, and it’s suggested that most if not all of the animals were to be moved to Isla Nublar (after several had been thinned out by poaching), but this plot thread still feels nebulous. The interns freely hop between radically different assignments, like security, genetics lab work, and vet work, though most of them are not qualified. The interns themselves seem rather young for such a selective and intensive program, having only completed a semester of undergrad, although maybe that’s commonplace among the hyper-competitive. There were some good dinosaur moments, but I wanted more dinosaurs in general; Brachiosaurus and Triceratops got spotlights, Tyrannosaurus had its moment, and there was a big showdown in the climax with an angry Velociraptor, but other genera had fleeting glimpses or name drops if they appeared at all. With so many dinosaurs to choose from, so many dinosaurs we know were at the park, it’s disappointing that the author settled on the highlights of the original film. And while Claire is no specialist and therefore doesn’t necessarily know how to interpret what is happening, there’s a general lack of detail that is disappointing in contrast to the rather specific world-building found in the Crichton books and Spielberg films (the latter show that depth does not need to bog down the story with exposition). So there are things that I would have preferred to be different, but nothing that ruined the reading experience.

There’s a good deal of melodrama, particularly in the last third of the book, but there’s also a lot of authentic depiction of trauma and grief in those moments as well. I’m not sure that I would have made the decision to have yet more death at this park before it even opened if I were making narrative choices here, yet it does do a lot to provide a clear character arc for Claire that extends through both of the films in which she appears. Over the course of the book, we see her go from an ambitious, bright-eyed optimist who is truly amazed by the creatures she encounters to a hard-edged, jaded young woman who sees protecting people from those same creatures as a driving purpose. It’s more complex than that; I was truly impressed with the character development, which really helped explain who Claire was and made clear why she would make the decisions that she did in Fallen Kingdom. Most surprisingly, the book does a lot to renovate Dr. Wu’s appearance; he’s driven, but his ambitions are motivated at least in part by his coping strategies for the loss of close coworkers at the first park. It’s a more effective portrait than the mad scientist of the Jurassic World films.

All in all, this isn’t a bad book by any means. It’s light and enjoyable. It’s not really what I would want out of a book in this franchise. But it does character development better than Crichton ever did. With expectations accordingly set, the average Jurassic World fan should be able to appreciate the experience.

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