Here is a chronological list of the films I saw in 2015 about people surviving and/or being rescued from harsh physical environments and traumatizing psychological prisons
Wild (Jean-Marc Vallée, 2014)
BlackSea (Kevin Macdonald, 2014)
Unbroken (Angelina Jolie, 2014)
Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, 2015)
Everest (Baltasar Kormákur, 2015)
The Martian (Ridley Scott, 2015)
Z for Zachariah (Craig Zobel, 2015)
Room (Lenny Abrahamson, 2015)
The 33 (Patricia Riggen, 2015)
No Escape (John Erick Dowdle, 2015)
In the Heart of the Sea (Ron Howard, 2015)
And in 2016:
The Revenant (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2015)
It’s overwhelmingly apparent that I prefer film stories about people fighting to survive in forbidding natural or socially constructed environments that continuously pound them into submission. Beginning with Black Sea, Kevin Macdonald’s underrated and claustrophobic thriller about a misfit crew of Nazi-treasure hunters aboard a submarine, and continuing straight through to In the Heart of the Sea, director Ron Howard’s ill-fated attempt to bring Melville’s Moby Dick origin story to life, I found myself time and again drawn to films about Nature’s punishing power over all of us and how, in the most extreme of cases, the human spirit and body are put to the ultimate test. Two docudramas came and went this fall, but I couldn’t escape them: Everest, about a deadly tourist expedition to summit the tallest peak in 1996 (you know, the one that writer Jon Krakauer participated in), and The 33, which related the events leading up to the miraculous rescue of the titular Chilean coal-miners trapped inside their workplace for over two months in 2010. As a food film scholar, I was greatly intrigued by a middle sequence in the film, in which the protagonists imagine that their wives, girlfriends, and other loved ones have prepared them a gorgeous feast of home-cooked meals when in reality the miners sit down to tuck in their last heavily rationed “meal” of canned tuna and cookies.
This extreme survival-centered category of film story also indexes other 2015 releases, including post-apocalyptic pictures like George Miller’s instant cult classic actioner Mad Max: Fury Road and the under-seen chamber piece Z for Zachariah. Along with its extreme setting, amidst a community subjugated under one water- and food-controlling dynasty, Fury Road blends in that other narrative thread I love to watch: the rescue film. While the titular character does whatever he can to survive in the desert—even if it means taking the passenger seat and assisting true hero Imperator Furiosa on her quest to save young women from lives spent as sex slaves under her family patriarch—the whole world rallies behind the astronaut Mark Watney, long presumed dead but in actual fact still chugging along as the first pioneer on the Red Planet in Ridley Scott’s crowd-pleasing sci-fi epic The Martian. I wanted to like this film more than I did. Where many saw a hilarious comedy with a captivating lead performance by Matt Damon, I saw a dreadfully unfunny and charmless one-man show starring one of the most overrated actors working today. It didn’t matter, though. I had to see it, as a “hard sci-fi” film fan (more on that in part two) who has dreamed more than once of what life is like elsewhere in the universe.
Of course, I never could have made this observation about my moviegoing preferences and habits if these films hadn’t all appeared at once. What happened this past year (or in the years prior, while these films were in development) that so many films about survival and rescue were released? Are they a response to an underlying fear that this country is turning to shit again, what with the United States entering its fourteenth year of the longest war it has ever waged, the rampant political discord in Congress, the emergence and threat of the Islamic State, and so on? Like the disaster movies of the 1970s, which were so prevalent as to form the genre’s so-called “golden age” as they addressed the anxieties of the Vietnam War, Watergate, and overall distrust of political authority and therefore its inability to keep Americans safe, do the films of 2015 also point to something that is taking place on the national or world stage?
Dystopias like those depicted in Fury Road and even the effective B-movie thriller No Escape, which is set in an unnamed Southeast Asian country and charts one American family’s fight for survival during a violent coup d’etat, have seemingly always been in fashion. However, this cannot explain 2015’s collective fascination with stories of survival and rescue. Most of the films are not dystopian sci-fi pictures. At this time, I cannot offer any full-fledged theory that may explain this phenomenon, only speculation. Aside from their sometimes flashy special effects, these films represented a more conservative style of film storytelling, harkening back to a bygone age of cinema. Beginning with Angelina Jolie’s bloated endurance test Unbroken (released at the end of 2014), which was probably meant to resemble a John Ford, Frank Capra, or William Wyler WWII war movie but actually recalled a Clint Eastwood picture about the triumph of the (American) spirit in the face of (excessive) adversity, this film story trend is meant to induce spiritual and emotional uplift in audiences. Just look at the raging success of The Martian. At times lauded and scrutinized for its diverse cast and for presenting that up-and-coming economic and political threat, China, as a congenial U.S. collaborator, everyone practically guaranteed that filmgoers would leave the theater feeling warm and fuzzy, a little light on their feet. This is a utopian vision of the future of film storytelling, and it is in stark contrast to the cynicism of The Hunger Games and Divergent film franchises and any Avengers or X-Men movie currently showing on a screen near you.
This is a Special Report from the desk of a Jurassic Park superfan.
Jurassic World (Colin Trevorrow, 2015) is a product of its time. And by that, I mean our time. The age of bloated superhero epics that tell the same origin stories over and over—even when they’re all gathered together to “save” the world again. Because what could be better than having one superhero in a movie? Six of them, that’s what. It’s also the age of flying cars in straightforward action pics, not science fiction fantasies set in the near-to-distant future. Because how could a stunt involving cars rushing through a tower be more awesome? If it blasts through two towers!
If audiences were clamoring for bigger, meaner dinosaurs to rampage through the park, ripping people to shreds or eating them whole, then Jurassic World doesn’t disappoint. (And apparently this is exactly what the spectators wished for; Jurassic World has raked in over $524.4 million worldwide during its opening weekend alone, becoming the largest opening weekend ever.) It is big, loud, and out of control. It is Jurassic Park on steroids, and I can’t imagine that anyone is comparing the reboot of the franchise favorably to Steven Spielberg’s 1993 classic. Jurassic World, unlike its predecessor, is deeply mired in cynicism and devoid of any sense of wonder. It is horrifically violent but not at all scary. Jurassic Park is a cautionary tale about what you should not wish for. Jurassic World is a war movie. This essay is littered with spoilers, so keep out if you want to stay safe!
The most interesting aspect of Jurassic World is its cynical commentary on today’s movies. But first, some back story: the protagonist, Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard), is the top executive of the Central American theme park situated on Isla Nublar (the same island off the coast of Costa Rica that once housed John Hammond’s Jurassic Park), and she spends much of her day trying to woo corporate sponsorships for new park attractions. When we first meet her, she is on her way to securing an endorsement from Verizon Wireless. But what is it for? In order to attract more new and repeat visitors, Dr. Henry Wu (BD Wong, the only actor returning from any of the original three films) and his team of InGen lab scientists have engineered a brand-new dinosaur, Indominus rex, whose full genetic makeup is classified information.
When the beast inevitably escapes its containment barrack by tricking the computer-controlled thermal sensors and guardsmen into believing that the dinosaur has clawed its way out, it is a good thing that raptor whisperer trainer Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) is on hand to help Claire contain the escalating situation. A former Navy man, it is unclear how Owen has wound up on the island, and he is incredulous as to why simply having living, breathing dinosaurs on display isn’t enough for Jurassic World’s owner, the oil and telecommunications tycoon Simon Masrani (Irrfan Khan). Why would he condone creating an animal no one knows or understands, Owen wonders. Claire tells Owen that people—nay, focus groups—have expressed renewed interest in the park if Jurassic World can produce a bigger, meaner dinosaur, something they haven’t seen before, thereby echoing the movie studios’ persistence to churn out mind-numbing entertainments with high but unremarked upon body counts and copious stunts and explosions.
The problem is that Indominus rex (whose ridiculous name, Claire insists, is supposed to be easy for people to pronounce) is too familiar to be genuinely awe-inspiring. Director Steven Spielberg and his team waited more than at least thirty minutes to show the Tyrannosaurus rex in Jurassic Park, figuring its appearance was all the more shocking because, like his Jaws (1975) before it, the weight and menace of the so-called “King of All Dinosaurs” had been sensed and all but completely understood by characters and film viewers alike until that crucial set-piece. Indominus rex appears much earlier in the new film, and to give credit where credit is due, it is so big that it hardly fits in most frames. Part T. rex, part tree frog, and part Velociraptor among other unnamed species, Indominus rex mostly resembles the “tyrant lizard” with the shape of its head and its short arms (although it does not always move upright through space). The creature’s long, bumpy back recalls that of Godzilla, and its pinkish gray flesh reminded me of The Blob (Chuck Russell, 1988), only less like Pepto-Bismol. When he sees Indominus rex for the first time, Masrani is stunned at what he calls its “white” skin. Claire senses his disapproval, but he insists that he loves it. Unfortunately, the designer dino isn’t easy to spot amongst all of the green vegetation in the park and eventually rips the under-the-skin homing device out of its flesh.
Although there is a lot of Jurassic Park in the DNA of Jurassic World, the new film proves that the original never could be made today just as it was over twenty years ago, thereby making Jurassic Park even more special. For starters, in 1993 it was more than acceptable for the action-adventure picture’s heroic star to be a middle-aged scientist, because his understanding of dinosaur anatomy and behavior prepared him to outsmart the prehistoric predators. In today’s movie, we need a muscle bound hunk with Magnum and Blue Steel looks to protect people—and by extension, the audience—from the fierce predators. Owen’s expertise as a man of action, a raptor wrangler, seemingly far outstrips Dr. Alan Grant’s (Sam Neill) paleontology background, even though we (and presumably Owen himself) don’t understand to what end he is training those raptors. In fact, Jurassic World disengages with science almost completely, relegating paleontology as a thing of the past when Claire says to prospective sponsors that the park’s scientists have learned more from advances in genetics in the last twenty years than they have ever learned from hundreds of years of “digging.”
Establishing shots of Jurassic World’s attractions demonstrate how marginalized paleontology, scientific inquiry, and even history have become. Inside the Visitors Center, a hologram of dinosaurs takes center stage, replacing the full skeletal reconstruction of the T. rex from Jurassic Park. Off to the side, children play in what is effectively a sandbox, pretending to unearth dinosaur bones. Even the crackpot science of the 1993 film is only referenced in an updated interactive computer screen showcasing Mr. DNA (the cartoon narrator of the behind-the-scenes lab tour in Jurassic Park) or in the massive amber-laden design of the shops at the park’s entrance. Just as he feared, Dr. Grant and his kind have been forced into extinction.
For fans of the original based on Michael Crichton’s 1990 novel of the same name, it is easy to recognize that the raptors still sound the same (like geese) in Jurassic World, that they’re still featherless and too big according to the fossil record. The distinctive font for the movie and park logo (what is it called anyway, “Jurassic Park?”) is the same, only it is now Terminator steel in color, highlighting its militaristic narrative that I will come to later. In keeping with early twenty-first century trends to be more environmentally conscious and sustainable, it’s comforting to know that the gates to Jurassic World contain repurposed wood from those of Jurassic Park. Upon entering the control room for the first time, Claire chastises computer security expert Lowery (Jake Johnson, the only source of comedy in the whole picture) to clean up his workstation littered with small dino figurines in much the same way that John Hammond (Sir Richard Attenborough) called out Dennis Nedry (Wayne Knight) for his slovenliness in Jurassic Park. The narrative conduit through which Jurassic World raises the emotional stakes also concerns the top executive’s relatives. While their parents hash out the details of their divorce, brothers Zach (Nick Robinson) and Gray (Ty Simpkins) travel to the tropical paradise to be reunited with their aunt, Claire, after seven years or so apart. She is too successful and busy to show them around personally, and so Claire assigns her assistant Zara (Katie McGrath) to look after the boys—before they ditch her in a crowd and subsequently go off-road in the park, to their peril.
Unlike Tim (Joseph Mazello) and Lex (Ariana Richards), John Hammond’s grandchildren who survived a vicious T. rex attack, electrocution by high voltage cables, and a group of raptors’ stealthy predation in Jurassic Park, the moody teenager Zach and his dorky dino-loving younger brother Gray are passive, ill-developed characters. In this day and age, it seems both outdated and highly implausible that parents would even attempt to keep their divorce secret from their teen and pre-teen children. Keeping the boys’ parents off the island until the whole family finally reunites after the big, bad dinosaur has been vanquished oversimplifies the narrative and likely keeps production costs low, as if that is a real concern (the producers of Jurassic World undoubtedly followed Hammond’s maxim to spare no expense). To add insult to injury, the script’s old-fashioned sexist gender politics actually calls for the boys’ mother Karen (Judy Greer, wasted), when accused of sounding like her mother, to point out to her sister Claire that she’ll understand how right their mother was when Claire has her own children. Claire corrects her with, “If I have children.” Karen settles their dispute with, “When.” During this exchange, I leaned over to whisper to my sister that the four screenwriters can’t write dialogue between two women, let alone sisters. Why is Karen/the filmmakers so intent on defining Claire in terms of her willingness and ability to mother children?
In fact, much has been made of Jurassic World’s representation of women, much of it centered on Claire’s outrageous superhuman ability to outrun dinosaurs in high heels. In her New York Times review, film critic Manohla Dargis laments that Claire “mostly just schemes and screams, before Owen melts her like an ice cube on a hot griddle.” More like a Megan Fox character in any of the Transformers movies, with her permanent sheen of attractive sweat, Claire is a far cry from the intelligent, heroic paleo-botanist Dr. Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern). Those are some tough shoes to fill: Ellie wasn’t afraid to stick her hands into mounds of dino dung or call out Hammond’s sexism in Jurassic Park. More troublesome than Claire and Owen’s romantic subplot, which Joss Whedon deemed “70’s era sexist” once a clip from the film was released online over two months ago, is how Jurassic World tortures another female character. Sure, Zara may not be that interested in keeping an eye on Claire’s nephews—she’s too attached to her phone and likely believes babysitting is beneath her (is she wrong?)—but does she deserve to die such a violent and traumatic death? About midway through the film, amateur helicopter pilot Masrani fatally crashes into the aviary, thereby inadvertently releasing swarms of Pteranodon and Dimorphodon into the park and allowing them attack visitors. Two or more play a game, passing Zara back and forth before one drops her in the pool of the gigantic Mosasaurus. This act seals her fate to wind up as an even smaller bite-size snack than the shark from Jaws, a feeding demonstration that memorably plays out like a Shamu show at Sea World in the Jurassic World trailer.
But Jaws isn’t the only piece of film history gobbled up in Jurassic World. As part and parcel of the film’s commentary on the outlandish and out-sized spectacle of today’s movie entertainments, Jurassic World also deconstructs its studio’s theme park attractions. Literally. Jimmy Fallon, the star of NBC’s The Tonight Show, makes a cameo appearance as the host of the Gyrosphere off-road experience, thereby reprising his role as the video guide of Universal Studios Hollywood’s Studio Tour. His comic hijinks shot in a studio laboratory and broadcast on the re-envisioned tram’s video screen turn glitchy once Indominus rex attacks Zach and Gray in their Gyrosphere vehicle. Contrary to Fallon’s claims, indestructible this technology is not. This is also how the only truly awe-inspiring sequence in the entire film concludes, with a callback to the T. rex’s attack on Tim and Lex’s electric-powered Jeep. Zach and Gray’s safari adventure, rolling around with stampedes of Apatosaurus, Parasaurolophus, Stegosaurus, Triceratops, and others, recalls the moment in Jurassic Park where Drs. Alan Grant, Ellie Sattler, and Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) see the Brachiosaurus for the first time. But the Jurassic World sequence is heavily edited and too closely framed. The sense of wonder so prevalent in Jurassic Park (look! living, breathing dinosaurs!) is completely absent in Jurassic World, and composer Michael Giacchino’s reworking of John Williams’s iconic score even fails to move. It just doesn’t feel earned.
Universal puts more of its properties through the ringer, as well. Whereas the more natural landscape of Jurassic Park was sparsely populated with brutalist concrete buildings, Jurassic World strikingly resembles Universal City Walk by way of Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Its Disneyland-like Main Street U.S.A. is lined with shops that anyone would recognize from a standard suburban American mall: Starbucks, Jamba Juice, Pandora, etc. Other than visiting to look at dinosaurs, there is nothing special about this place. The only mention of what I would consider an extraordinary experience on offer at “Downtown Jurassic World” is the quick advertisement on the loudspeaker for a Chilean sea bass dining experience, which references a lunchtime meal in Jurassic Park that no one actually partakes. They’re all too busy discussing whether or not Jurassic Park should exist. There is no such philosophical reflection in Jurassic World.
Given what I’ve read about Michael Crichton’s literary oeuvre and his political ideology, I imagine that he would gleefully applaud the rampaging dinosaurs’ destruction of this tasteless, highly corporatized place. In its pursuit of dollars and sponsorships, the telecommunications conglomerate that owns Jurassic World (remember, Comcast owns Universal), brings about the end of civilization—the wild animals in the zoo, particularly the little-understood hybrid—fight back! (Control is an illusion, or so said Dr. Ellie Sattler.) The rampant commercialism and excessive consumption on display throughout Jurassic World gets it most exacting and seemingly innocuous indictment not in the very unsubtle product placements strewn throughout (featuring the likes of Mercedes, The IMAX Experience, and Samsung) but in various characters’ drinking soda from oversized Jurassic World paper cups. As such, those film spectators in the theater sipping Coke or shoveling popcorn into their mouths from Jurassic World tie-in merchandise containers are somewhat implicated in Jurassic World’s expensive socio-biological experiment in entertainment gone so horrible wrong. After all, the next best thing to actually being there is feeling immersed in the park’s material culture. The movie’s website outwardly projects a real-life presence for Jurassic World, giving weather forecasts and “real-time” approximations for various attractions’ wait times. Visitors can even refill their souvenir cups for only 99 cents at filling stations throughout the park. The spell is broken, however, once you click “Get Tickets” and you’re rerouted to a Fandango-like website listing movie times in your vicinity.
As a Jurassic Park superfan, I admit that I would love to own a t-shirt from the movie (and by that, I am referring to shirts that were featured in Jurassic Park and were subsequently available for purchase in the real world). Jurassic World blurs this line between diegetic and real-world marketing when Claire reprimands computer security expert Lowery for wearing an original Jurassic Park tee, labeling it in poor taste to promote a park where people lost their lives. She therefore negatively judges people’s continued morbid fascination with Jurassic Park. He beams that this collector’s item only set him back $150 on eBay, a steal when they usually go for $300. Of course, this line from Claire comes across as highly hypocritical: is she not profiting now from the disaster of Jurassic Park? As for Lowery, my sister doesn’t understand why a dino-loving guy who ironically wears a Jurassic Park tee would work there, either. My only guess is that he represents the Jurassic Park aficionado that so many of us are and that he wants to prevent a similar disaster from ever happening again. But too bad. He can’t.
Of course, what brings Jurassic World personnel to its knees is another inside job. Whereas computer programmer Dennis Nedry wreaked havoc in Jurassic Park when he shut down the power in order to get away with a canister of dinosaur DNA for personal profit, Dr. Henry Wu and a U.S. military contractor named Hoskins (Vincent D’Onofrio) scheme behind Masrani and Claire’s backs to design Indominus rex with technological advancements that make it imperceptible by all known combat weapons currently used in the field, including thermal sensors and drone radars. In other words, disaster was bound to strike Jurassic World because Wu and Hoskins engineered it just so. As I stated before, when we meet Owen, alpha papa to a gaggle of raptors, it is unclear as to what he wants to achieve with the trained predators who were arguably the principal villains in Jurassic Park. As luck would have it, he fulfills some sort of destiny to rein them in in order to hunt down Indominus rex at Hoskins’s insistence. Besides, only Owen can do it well.
Once Indominus rex escapes its ill-suited cage, Jurassic World leadership does everything it can to track the dinosaur down, all while keeping its grave breach in security a secret from thousands of visitors. It is worth noting that most of the beast’s victims are people of color, beginning with a Hispanic park ranger and following through to an Asian-American special forces commander and members of his diverse team. In order to protect their expensive “asset,” leadership only allows the group of deadly operatives to pack tranquilizer guns. What’s worse is that they are barely mourned. In the control room, Claire, Owen, Masrani, Hoskins, and others watch each soldier’s computer-represented lifeline go limp, one at a time. This is in stark contrast to Claire’s tearful reaction to witnessing the death of an Apatosaurus, clawed down by the Indominus rex, while on her way with Owen to the northern section of the island to rescue her nephews. This moment obviously recalls the scene in Jurassic Park wherein Dr. Ellie Sattler investigates which plant likely ails the poisoned Triceratops. But again, it rings so false. Apatosaurus, I hardly knew ye!
The last third of the movie goes beyond the conventions of a traditional monster movie; it becomes a war picture. Despite Wu’s earlier pronouncement to Masrani, who wonders who signed off on Wu’s creation (it was you, Masrani, duh), that Jurassic World and presumably its 1993 antecedent were “never natural,” Hoskins insists that war is a part of nature, as if his field test is a natural progression of the wars in Afghanistan and against ISIS in Syria. In much the same way that a hungry shark interrupts Samuel L. Jackson’s rousing speech in Deep Blue Sea (Renny Harlin, 1999), a raptor charges at Hoskins, allowing Owen, Claire, and her nephews a way out. Eventually, Gray surmises that the surviving raptors simply don’t have enough teeth to take down Indominus rex, which lends Claire her one opportunity to enact a true, heroic gesture: she orders Lowery to open the T. rex’s compound, which, it must be said, resembles a soundstage on a studio backlot. Still in heels, Claire outruns the King of Dinosaurs on her way back to Owen and the boys. According to Manohla Dargis, “the heels are just silly and a distraction given that they’re nowhere near as insulting as the rest of her.” I’m not a Claire apologist (or, more accurately, a defender of the scriptwriters), but it is undeniable that Claire—and not Owen—bravely leads the T. rex to Indominus rex. The dino battle isn’t particularly noteworthy except for the nostalgia-tinged emotions it elicits in the film audience. Our one-time villain T. rex may die? Thankfully, the Mosasaurus emerges from the water, bites Indominus rex, and plunges the dino mutt into its tank. The last shot of the film features the T. rex roaring outside the control room, announcing its return to the top. There will likely be another sequel, because the park leadership still will not have learned its lesson. After all, Dr. Wu got away with the dino DNA.
Before Jurassic World began, I came to a strange but wonderful observation: unlike other franchise reboots of the year (Mad Max: Fury Road and Star Wars included), it’s highly probable that everyone in the packed theater—kids, teens, and adults—had seen the original blockbuster on which Jurassic World is based. The new feature may have expanded the universe of the earlier film, completely loping off its two sequels, but it didn’t use Jurassic Park’s intelligence, sense of humor, or incredible imagination. However, it’s still worth visiting in the same way that one should experience a Disney resort from time to time. What new monstrosity will they cook up next to make you long for the awesome theme park experience of your childhood?
I hate to sound like a broken record, but I’m not one for inspirational teacher/coach movies. For starters, these films usually revolve around a coach searching for redemption, beginning with Gene Hackman’s Norman Dale in Hoosiers (David Anspaugh, 1986). As the Ur-text of this kind of film, Hoosiers popularized the subgenre. Other notable entries in the canon include The Mighty Ducks (Stephen Herek, 1992), Cool Runnings (Jon Turteltaub, 1993), We Are Marshall (McG, 2006), and Glory Road (James Gartner, 2006). There are some exceptions to the trope of the white male savior coach, though: Remember the Titans (Boaz Yakin, 2000), starring Denzel Washington, who later went on to direct himself as an inspirational college professor in The Great Debaters (2007), and Coach Carter (Thomas Carter, 2005) both cast African-American actors as the students’ tough but fair role models. Even though a sports backdrop predominates in this field, there are films that are about teachers effecting change in the classroom, some more successfully than others. Thanks to Dead Poets Society (Peter Weir, 1989), we all learned to quote Walt Whitman and seize the day. The Emperor’s Club (Michael Hoffman, 2002), also set at a tony boarding school, is a bit of an outlier, for it exposes how an honorable classics teacher failed to impart the importance of living a life with integrity on one of his most difficult students. Then, of course, there are the two most recognizable woman-centered inspirational teacher films: Dangerous Minds (John N. Smith, 1995) and its apparent remake Freedom Writers (Richard LaGravenese, 2007). Remember “Gangsta’s Paradise”?
However, I’d like to recommend a new and welcome entry in the subgenre: this year’s Spare Parts, directed by Sean McNamara and written by Elissa Matsueda. (Did you think I was going to say McFarland, USA?) Based on Joshua Davis’s 2005 WIRED magazine article, “La Vida Robot,” it tells the story of four Mexican-American teenagers living in Phoenix who, with a little guidance from their teacher, enter a prestigious underwater engineering competition and blow everyone away with their expertly designed ROV (remote-operated vehicle), constructed for only $800—a tenth of their competitors’ average operating budget. Fronted by funnyman George Lopez, Spare Parts resembles Stand and Deliver (Ramón Menéndez, 1988) in that a Mexican-American teacher guides the at-risk students in developing practical STEM-related skills. However, Spare Parts also recalls Race the Sun (Charles T. Kanganis, 1996) and October Sky (Joe Johnston, 1999), simply because of its emphasis on the students’ coming-of-age while learning to work as a team to build mechanical vehicles or rockets. (It is also worth mentioning that in Spare Parts’s closest antecedents, the inspiring teachers were both women.)
Here, the real-life robotics club mentors Allan Cameron and Fredi Lajvardi, both science teachers at Carl Hayden Community High School in West Phoenix, combine to form Dr. Fredi Cameron (George Lopez), an engineer who has difficulty keeping a job longer than three months due to some emotional trauma that he experienced years ago (I won’t spoil what it is, though you can probably already guess). Desperate, he takes a long-term substitute-teaching job, and the persistent Oscar Vazquez (Carlos PenaVega), a member of the local ROTC, convinces him to sponsor the school’s robotics club. Having been denied the opportunity to serve in the armed forces based on his undocumented immigration status, Oscar believes competing in the underwater robotics competition is his ticket to college. Rounding out the group are Cristian Arcega (David Del Rio), the bullied brainiac; Lorenzo Santillan (José Julián), the trouble-making mechanics-whizz; and Luis Aranda (Oscar Javier Gutierrez II), the muscle. Mild-to-major spoilers follow.
I didn’t understand much about the technical aspects of their project, but it doesn’t matter. Spare Parts is a winning underdog story because of its characters, whose development eschews caricature and stereotypes. Each member of the group has his own set of challenges that make for compelling drama, especially since there aren’t many films about the lived experiences of undocumented child immigrants. Oscar is so ashamed that his path to serving in the US Armed Forces hasn’t panned out that he keeps his rejection from the program and his participation in the club secrets from his mother (Alessandra Rosaldo). When she learns the truth from Oscar’s math teacher Gwen (Marisa Tomei), she confronts Oscar and rightfully points out that, even if the competition grants him opportunities in engineering, no company will hire him without his “papers.” Throughout the film, Oscar lives in fear that the ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) will detain and deport him and his family. After receiving a tip from the recruiter, he avoids returning to his family’s house, afraid that he will never be able to go home again. He also breaks up with his girlfriend, Karla (Alexis PenaVega), believing that his undocumented status is a burden, an impediment to their living peacefully.
Cristian appears to be the only man in his house, and he longs to attend a father-son science program with Dr. Cameron. It’s heartbreaking when Dr. Cameron declines, unsure of himself as a father figure. The greatest obstacle to Cristian achieving success, however, is poverty. His family is dirt poor, and he lives alone in an unheated shed outside of the family’s trailer. We do not glimpse his living situation until halfway through the film, because the home lives of Oscar and Lorenzo take precedence.
As the older brother of a budding juvenile delinquent born in the United States, it is Lorenzo’s responsibility, per his stern father’s request, to always look out for Ramiro (Ray Aguayo) or to take the blame for any of Ramiro’s misdeeds. The message that Señor Santillan (Esai Morales) is sending to his son is that his own life doesn’t matter—he’s not meant for anything else. The father would rather have Lorenzo deported—separated from the family—than an American-born son with a police record. Dr. Cameron steps in to mediate the conflict growing between Lorenzo and his father after Lorenzo stops Ramiro from robbing a convenience store. When he hears of what has happened, Señor Santillan only cares if Ramiro was arrested (he wasn’t) and resents that Dr. Cameron tried to meddle in his family’s affairs. Like Oscar, Lorenzo must now fend for himself, in fear of deportation (cops or ICE agents saw him leave the scene of the attempted crime) and kicked out of the house for not looking after Ramiro properly. Why Señor Santillan never thinks that it is his responsibility to keep his son out of trouble is beyond me, and why doesn’t Ramiro ever consider that his actions have severe consequences on his father and brother?
Luis, the only US citizen of the four, is the least developed character. A gentle giant, the rest of the group admittedly uses his stature and strength to lift and set down their 100-pound rover into the pool. Luis struggles to understand how people perceive him. He asks his mother if he is stupid or just quiet, and she answers that only he can reveal who he is. Her encouraging riddle flummoxes him, but it is apparent that the group project and the competition’s requirement that all members present on the technology that they used to make their ROV certainly lift Luis’s confidence, thereby proving to himself and everyone else that he is a capable team member.
Spare Parts is smart and poignant, dramatizing certain elements of the true story for socio-political effect. For example, while Cristian and Lorenzo design the proof-of-concept model using the spare parts found in Dr. Cameron’s science lab, Oscar sets out to raise money for critical missing pieces. He solicits funds from local businesses and banks and is repeatedly turned down. Upon witnessing the ease with which servicemen receive a loan, Oscar astutely pulls his uniform out of the closet and successfully obtains $100 to help with the project. This demonstrates that, given individual prejudice and institutionalized racism, sometimes people of color are not taken seriously, as citizens deserving of respect, unless he or she is in uniform. Later in the film, the team drives to a motel where they can test the rover in the pool. But before they begin, fun hijinks ensue as they push Dr. Cameron into the pool. Eventually everyone is in the water, splashing away, being the kids that they really don’t have the privilege of being at home. While no character’s life situation is representative of every undocumented immigrant who arrived in this country as a child, Spare Parts effectively draws out the inherent drama of their situations in order to instill empathy in the audience.
It should be no surprise that Spare Parts is also very funny, given George Lopez’s headlining presence. Once the team arrives in Santa Barbara for the competition, where they enter the college-level contest (Dr. Cameron thinks that if they lose, it’ll be a greater accomplishment to come in last among the likes of MIT and Stanford), they discover that their waterproof case leaks and resolve to find a quick, absorbent solution. Lorenzo suggests using tampons, and watching him build up the courage to ask a woman in the grocery store for help in choosing the right one (no applicator!) is hilarious. According to Davis’s article, this really happened, despite its seeming provenance from a teenage sex comedy.
In fact, Spare Parts ends triumphantly, but not without suspense. Like I said, I don’t really understand all of their techno-speak, but watching them complete the rover’s underwater obstacle course was a nail-biting ordeal. The team impresses the judges with their oral presentation, self-evident mastery of the material, and innovative and spendthrift design. I don’t want to spoil everything for you, so I urge you to check out the film. It may have taken some liberties with the original story, but as an inspirational teacher/coach movie, Spare Parts blazes a new trail and winningly focuses on the realistic trials and tribulations of the students.
I’m not really one for documentaries, and I almost never run out to see them in the theater. However, this week I made a rare exception for The Salt of the Earth (2014), winner of the Special Jury Prize at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival’s Un Certain Regard selection and nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. In it, German director Wim Wenders explores the life and work of social documentary and environmental photographer Sebastião Salgado, whose haunting black-and-white images have bridged cultural, ethnic, and socioeconomic barriers for over four decades. Trained as an economist, Salgado first made the switch to photography after commandeering his wife’s camera. He started as a photojournalist, but The Salt of the Earth focuses on the self-assigned projects Salgado undertakes for years at a time. He’s been a witness to the human condition everywhere: photographing the Rwandan genocide, the end of the Persian Gulf War, Sudan, and all around South America.
The subject’s son, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado (who shares the director’s credit with Wenders), shot the scenes of the photographer and UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador in the field—in the Russian Arctic capturing polar bears and walruses with his camera or in the jungles of Papua New Guinea, getting to know the isolated native people and their way of life. In voiceover, Juliano narrates that journeying with him to the Arctic was the first time that Juliano had ever gone on assignment with his father. Although the color landscape photography is starkly beautiful, the more plentiful sections of Salgado the Elder reflecting on individual photographs from his oeuvre were more engrossing. (It’s also curious that beyond seeing Salgado at work or discussing it in hindsight, we don’t ever learn much about his process, aesthetic choices, or the nature of his collaboration with his wife Lélia. Why does he shoot in B&W? Who are his artistic influences?)
The Salt of the Earth is captivating in the same way that Salgado’s images are similarly evocative, painful, and compassionate. They demand your attention, but they also picture deeply private and traumatic events in the lives of Salgado’s multifaceted subjects. At just under two hours long, the film documents a good chunk of Salgado’s portfolio. His Portuguese-accented French makes it easy to get swept up in the photographer’s stories, which animate a film that is largely a slideshow of the pictures he has made over the years. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then he poetically fills his images with details about the people he met, the horrors he saw, the work of humanitarian aid workers he observed. He confesses that what he witnessed in Rwanda and in the neighboring Congo (where thousands of survivors fled before being forced to return home) affected him so deeply that he began exploring nature and wildlife photography as a way to move on from the trauma.
The documentary, like Salgado’s work, is both very subtle and deeply profound. I had no idea that his greatest achievement may be what he and his family have created in their corner of Brazil’s Atlantic Forest. Having grown up on his father’s farm, set in a lush subtropical paradise, Salgado was devastated in the 1990s that his childhood home had turned into a dry wasteland, unable to maintain life due to advanced natural degradation, rampant deforestation, and unchecked exploitation of natural resources such as iron ore. Lélia innocently suggested that they simply plant trees to rejuvenate the land. Seventeen years after establishing the Instituto Terra, the land is green again, populated with millions of trees, numerous animal species once threatened with extinction, and vibrant, free-flowing natural springs. It is remarkable what they accomplished in just fifteen years, and it is extremely touching that the Salgado family gifted the land to Brazil’s national parks service so that everyone may enjoy the family’s Private Natural Heritage Reserve.
I broke out in tears when, at the end of the film, Salgado reminisces about the transformation that his father’s Fazenda Bulcão (or Bulcão Farm) underwent, at peace with the notion that the land has returned to its robust natural state and should remain that way long after he is gone. What a beautiful way to accept the transiency of our existence. And what a legacy.
Considering that Salgado has seen—and shown us—the best and worst that people have to offer, The Salt of the Earth ends on a hard-won, optimistic note. The coda is also poignant because it was virtually the only scene in which Salgado speaks his native language. In the beginning, it had puzzled me as to why he was always speaking French. (He and Lélia moved to Paris in the late 60s or early 70s, and they are still based in the city where they raised their sons.) Eventually, it dawned on me that he likely spoke French so that his interviewer, Wim Wenders, could understand him. This delighted me to no end, for I have a tremendous soft spot for scenes and/or whole relationships played out between two or more people who are speaking a language that isn’t the mother tongue to either one of them. So, it was startling but oh-so poetic that Salgado should speak in Portuguese at the end, signaling a homecoming after decades abroad, circumnavigating the globe in search of humanity.
Hector and the Search for Happiness (2014) came and went late last summer in limited release, but I don’t recall it ever coming to a theater near me. Which is just as well, because it is horrible. Ostensibly a comedy, the biggest laugh that the film story elicits occurs when a French woman struggles to pronounce the word “happiness.” The titular character, though embodied by Simon Pegg (one of my favorites), and all those who surround him are so criminally underdeveloped that it is difficult to care much about anyone in the film except in a more theoretical way that the filmmakers don’t support. What’s worse, the representation of the bored British psychiatrist’s journey around the world to find out what makes people happy paints multiple far-flung cultures in broad, caricatured brushstrokes. There is virtually no cultural specificity in any of the places that he visits, and when director and co-writer Peter Chelsom and crew attempt to add critical dissections of serious impediments to people’s general health and well-being in these places, these issues are wiped under the rug, never to be disturbed again. In case you are new to Hector and the Search for Happiness, be warned that I am going to spoil it now. And while you’re at it, take a peek at the film’s trailer to see how much potential the filmmakers wasted.
I have not read the original source novel by French psychiatrist François Lelord, but apparently its raison d’être is to educate a general readership about the psychology of happiness and to offer tips on finding it in everyday life. This explains why, after almost every interaction with someone throughout his international adventure, Hector jots down in his journal maxims such as “Happiness is knowing you’re alive” and “Happiness is not always knowing the full story.” These words are scrawled across the screen in order to keep a running tally of all the lessons learned, as if the film is a PowerPoint lecture. Hector also fills the pages of his notebook, which sexy and domineering girlfriend Clara (Rosamund Pike) gifted him upon his departure, with cutesy doodles of what his childish imagination encounters abroad. The main lesson he must learn is that losing Clara, even though she smothers him with a routine (always the same breakfast; she clips his toenails and packs his bag), would make him really unhappy. That’s right: he goes on this purportedly life-changing adventure only to realize that he likes his life just as it is. Although the couple’s Skype conversations widen the chasm between them more and more throughout, as the film drags on, there is never any doubt as to the fate of their relationship.
And this is why Hector’s first stop in “China” is so perplexing. He never gives any reason as to why he starts there (and isn’t it the tiny kingdom of Bhutan that is regularly cited as the happiest place on earth?) or what he is going to do once he arrives. But Hector doesn’t need a plan when he has filthy rich businessman Stellan Skarsgård to act as his guide in an unnamed Shanghai. It truly boggles the mind as to why Skarsgård’s Edward, so annoyed by Hector on the plane ride over from London, would take the ridiculous man under his wing and show him a good time. For, unbeknownst to Hector, Edward has secured the services of a prostitute named Ying Li (Ming Zhao) to keep Hector company in the nightclub and beyond. Although Clara gave Hector permission to fool around while on his trip, he winds up falling asleep before Ying Li can even get into the bed. At lunch the next day, believing he’s falling in love, Hector discovers the truth when her pimp whisks her away. Hector tries to do the honorable thing and stand up to him, but, despite calling her john “nice,” Ying Li hits Hector on the head and rides away. She doesn’t want his help. So in one fell swoop, Hector goes from ruminating that perhaps happiness is being in love with two women at the same time to realizing that he’s happier not knowing Ying Li’s full story. I never expected the film to engage the topics of prostitution and sexual tourism in Shanghai, but since the filmmakers did, I find it morally reprehensible that Hector, a psychiatrist, would find it so easy to disengage. It’s not as if Ying Li was happy to see her pimp, to return to her life as a sexually exploited woman. She seemed confused as to how she felt about Hector, as if wondering whether or not he could provide an escape. I wouldn’t have wanted to see a film about a white male tourist “saving” a Chinese prostitute. Nevertheless, I didn’t like how the experience of falling for a woman, no matter her profession, had exactly no consequences on Hector’s outlook other than admitting he rather just be ignorant of the circumstances of her life.
But it only gets worse. From Shanghai, Hector treks through the Himalayas to a remote Buddhist monastery. No one mentions the place by name, but it is easy to assume that he has entered Tibet, to seek the advice of Togo Igawa’s Old Monk (the filmmakers couldn’t even give him a name), who mainly just speaks in rhetorical loop-de-loops to help Hector arrive at the lesson that always avoiding things that make you unhappy is no surefire way to attain long-lasting happiness. He spends all of five minutes there, without ever contemplating how the Chinese government’s suppression of Tibetan statehood might affect the happiness of the people living and working there.
Then he moves on to “Africa.” I found this section the most offensive, beginning with the filmmakers’ failure to name a more specific region or country. Perhaps they left the place intentionally unidentified so as to not incur the wrath of people and governments of a particular place or area. But this lack of cultural specificity effectually purports that Hector’s “Africa” stands in for a whole continent, dominated by warlords foreign-born and native alike, backward villagers who travel with their chickens on prop planes, and “Western” organizations that provide humanitarian aid. In fact, Hector spends two weeks helping his medical school friend Michael (Barry Atsma) at the clinic he runs with his African boyfriend. Embarrassingly, it takes him a full two weeks to recognize that Michael and Marcel (Anthony Oseyemi) are romantically involved, coming to the delightful conclusion that “Happiness is when you are loved for who you are.” Unfortunately, just as Michael’s work is merely the conduit through which Hector can explore “Africa,” the former’s sexual relationship with Marcel exists purely as a way for Hector to learn this widely shared belief. Hector doesn’t seem to care about the challenges that the mixed-race, homosexual couple—his friends—must face in this setting. And nor do the filmmakers.
Hector continuously acts the fool, and he even comes to the aid of a local warlord named Diego Baresco (Jean Reno). Despite warnings from Michael and Marcel about warlords in the area, Hector proves his goodness to Baresco, who suspects him of working for an international peace-keeping outfit that swoops in only to leave before seeing their work through. Hector reviews the prescriptions that Baresco’s beloved wife takes and makes revisions to her regime, thereby instilling some peace of mind in Baresco. They get drunk together, and on his ride back to the clinic, Hector fails to recognize that his taxi cab has been hijacked by two armed rebels, because all black men look the same to him. He’s soon taken hostage, destined to rot in a cell with one rat as his friend. It’s unclear as to how long he is held captive, and of course we have no idea what the rebels seek to accomplish with their violent acts. We’re just supposed to accept this, because isn’t that what happens in Africa? According to this film, white European and American tourists go missing all the time and are swept into guerrilla warfare. Hector uses Baresco’s pen to negotiate his release, for his captors fear retribution from Hector’s powerful “friend.” They abandon Hector on a country road, and “Happiness is knowing you’re alive” is emblazoned on the screen. Yes, absolutely, but did we need such an extreme scenario to demonstrate this? Especially since nothing becomes of it? Hector doesn’t suffer any post-traumatic stress, and we never witness Michael’s or Marcel’s worry over Hector’s abduction. Before moving on to Los Angeles to meet his former med school flame Agnes (Toni Collette), Hector experiences the gloriousness of sweet potato stew, which a baby-swaddling woman on the prop plane promised to prepare for him once they landed safely in “Africa.” It’s supposed to be physically and emotionally fulfilling, but we viewers never see it. The filmmakers can’t even commit to showing us a traditional “African” dish.
In Los Angeles, Hector takes part in Professor Coreman’s (Christopher Plummer) neuroscience study to map emotions such as happiness, sadness, and fear across different parts of the brain. After breaking up with Clara over the phone because his traveling to Los Angeles has finally signaled for the couple that Hector still longs for Agnes, Hector exhibits all three emotions in the scanner, lighting up Coreman’s screen with a rainbow of colors that the professor has assigned to each emotional state. Is this the payoff we’re supposed to receive from Hector and the Search for Happiness? What makes Hector special is his ability to feel happiness, sadness, and fear at the same time when recalling a wide range of events in his life? Having been rebuffed by Agnes, a happily married psychologist with a third child on the way, Hector determines that he must get back to London to be with Clara. As I said before, they live happily ever after. He’s more emotionally available and compassionate towards his patients, and Clara finally realizes that, yes, she wants to have a baby with Hector.
The one bright spot in this mess is the chemistry between Simon Pegg and Rosamund Pike. Although their relationship isn’t exactly desirable (she takes great pride in clipping his toe nails!), they have an appealing, silly rapport in scenes where they interact in person. In fact, most of their exchanges occur over video conferencing calls. Notably, Hector and the Search for Happiness may be implying that staying connected through this kind of technology is no substitute for human contact (when Hector tries to tell her that he’d been kidnapped, she fails to register the gravity of the situation). Even phone conversations do not go well between them. There is simply a lack of communication between the lovers, and isn’t that a definite sign of their incompatibility? Clara cannot make up her mind regarding Hector’s up and leaving her for an indeterminate period of time. Hector needs to leave the person he loves in order to realize that happiness lies in a life made with her. This is not an earth-shattering revelation, especially since we watch him come to this conclusion under the most ridiculous of circumstances. As I said before, I am a huge fan of Pegg’s, and it was disappointing to see him attached to such bone-headed and culturally insensitive material. I wonder what attracted him to it in the first place: Hector’s childhood love of The Adventures of Tin Tin, maybe? Then again, shooting a film about happiness around the world does sound really exciting. If only the film wasn’t so concerned with checking off the lessons in the original source novel and instead let the characters interact with each other in more plausible, organic ways.