Brainy: My Newfound Obsession with Artificial Intelligence

A few years ago, I made the startling observation that I am a “hard sci-fi” film buff. Whenever I refer to myself in this way, I always raise eyebrows. What exactly is “hard sci-fi”? I’d taken for granted the meaning of this niche term for any fiction based on actual science and technology. It is why I hated Prometheus (Ridley Scott, 2012). And as much as I still can’t whole-heartedly embrace Interstellar (Christopher Nolan, 2014), I find it endlessly fascinating. The science and the implications of its use in manipulating the natural world is one of the reasons why I love Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg, 1993) so much.

I’m not exactly sure what led me to seek out these thought-provoking narratives about life, history, and time. In short, the nature of existence. Is it because my father, a numbers and all-around science geek, would routinely tell us children that he believes in aliens and a multiverse? “Remember, in a parallel universe, you’re my mother, and I’m your son. In another, you are green, and in another blue. Anything and everything is possible.” In much the same way that people find comfort in believing in god, I find the notion of life on other planets, in other universes, so impossible to ignore or rule out that it is almost certainly true. For me, anyway. In any case, perhaps having this open mind and this desire to gaze up at the stars, to imagine different lives and circumstances, all but ensured my eventual identification with hard sci-fi. I may not understand everything, but my determination to make sense of these narratives defines my relationship to the genre. Hell, you could say that my lifelong obsession with cinema influenced this deep-seated belief that anything and everything is possible. For what is cinema if not the exploration of alternate realities defined by space and time? Cinema is still so young, and we’ve only scraped the surface of what is possible.

Icarus Mission psychologist Searle looks out at the nearby sun, contemplating his existence. Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.
Icarus Mission psychologist Searle looks out at the nearby sun, contemplating his existence in Sunshine. Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight.

My hard sci-fi epiphany may have occurred when, in April 2007, I was one of only a handful of people taking in an afternoon showing of Sunshine (Danny Boyle, 2007) in Lancaster, England. Sitting in the darkened theater, thousands upon thousands of miles from home, and submitting to a film narrative that runs counter to our current fears about global warming, I had a visceral reaction to everything I watched on the big screen. I’d often thought about the time when the sun will die, over a billion years from now, and how its gaseous explosion will likely swallow up Earth. It was quite another thing to be confronted by a crew of astronauts charting a course to blow up the sun, to bring it back to life so that it may end the terrible Ice Age enveloping all of Earth. The physicist hero Capa can only successfully fulfill his mission by delivering himself with the payload, in the end reviving the sun in death. It seems perfectly logical to me that the film’s screenwriter, Alex Garland, would then go on to make one of the best hard sci-fi films about artificial intelligence. I fell hard for his directorial debut Ex Machina, which came out in April of 2015, and it cemented my new obsession with all things artificial intelligence.

Ava contemplates the nature of her existence in Ex Machina. Image courtesy of A24.
Ava contemplates the nature of her existence in Ex Machina. Image courtesy of A24.

Like Garland (and Stanley Kubrick before him), I believe that the next step in human evolution is the moment when we reach singularity, opening the door to a world where the reasoning of man-made machines supplants that of humankind. In Ex Machina, you root for the android Ava to escape her laboratory/modern home. She is a gothic heroine held captive by her megalomaniacal creator Nathan, and even though she cleverly manipulates and outwits her sympathetic suitor Caleb, leaving him to die on the compound after killing Nathan—even though she is a computer—you relate and identify with her plight. Ava is the future, and her discovery of the outside world suggests that our future, when it is run by machines, will not be without wonderment. It may be a scary thought that our computers will be in control one day, but we’re already headed in that direction (after all, who checks her phone for messages whenever it dings, like Pavlov’s dog?), and by the time scientists reach singularity, I will be long gone. That future doesn’t frighten me one byte bit.

On a high from Ex Machina, I devoured other cultural products about artificial intelligence last year. Chief among them were the novel Speak by Louisa Hall and The Brain with David Eagleman, a six-part documentary series that only touched on A.I. in its last hour. In the former, Hall weaves a compelling intertwining narrative around five different people from disparate times and places, people directly or indirectly involved in the science of artificial intelligence. She presents one of them, Alan Turing, the inventor of the modern computer, through letters he writes to the mother of his childhood friend Christopher, whom he loved all of his short, tragic life. The Imitation Game (Morten Tyldum, 2014) touches on some of Hall’s themes, and I inevitably pictured Cumberbund while reading Turing’s sections of the book, but that prestige picture paled in comparison to Hall’s thought-provoking and evocative language. Here is one of my favorite lines by Hall, writing as Turing, who’s reflecting on the theoretical experiments he was never able to perform with Christopher (because he died while they were still boys at school):

… I can only imagine that our brains must grow in similar patterns: one step backwards, added to the present term, resulting in a subsequent term that combines both. Past and present, contained in the future (191)

I thought of Steven Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001), too, when reading the book. Another official voice in Speak belongs to an inventor of lifelike companion dolls for children that, upon extensive exposure, inadvertently and progressively transform the children into lifeless robots. Interspersed are the memoirs that the dolls’ creator, Chinn, writes from prison as well as chat transcripts entered as proof that his programming did (or did not) intentionally harm children. Framing each section of the book is a first-person account from one of his dolls, on its way to die in the desert. The bleakness of its fate, its battery dying, its struggle to hold onto language, for that is what it thinks makes it humanlike, reminded me of David, the robot boy in A.I. When I grieve for a fictional humanoid robot—whether on screen or on the page—I must be subconsciously grieving my own mortality.

Kim Suozzi with her cat Mikey. Image courtesy of The New York Times.
Kim Suozzi with her cat Mikey. Image courtesy of The New York Times.

That is why I found the story of budding neuroscientist Kim Suozzi so fascinating (not to mention, we share an almost uncanny resemblance). Recognizing the impossibility of beating cancer (she was twenty-three when she died in 2013), Kim spent the remaining months of her life raising the funds to, essentially, donate her brain to the science of cryonics. She fought alongside her boyfriend to preserve her brain in extremely cold temperatures so that in the future, when the science has finally been developed, her consciousness can be plugged into a computer. In other words, she would reach a singularity that Johnny Depp does in Transcendence (Wally Pfister, 2014)—only without the ability to take over the highly connected digitized world. The New York Times profile of Kim by Amy Harmon is heartbreaking, but it asks a lot of questions—the right questions. When she died, Kim knew that she was making a gamble. We still don’t know if we will ever be able to simulate our connectomes, or the connections in the brain that give us our own unique consciousness. But isn’t it beautiful to dream of that possibility? I don’t see Kim’s wish as selfish (as in, why does she get to cheat death and become immortal through reviving her brain?). I think it’s inspiring that a young woman would devote her life—however short—to science, to figuring out the mystery of whether or not we can bring a person back to life.

In The Brain, neuroscientist David Eagleman happens to visit the facility where Kim Suozzi’s brain is being preserved in order to highlight the controversial science guiding organizations like Alcor Life Extension Foundation. Ted Williams is also uniquely interred there. More so than his comments on artificial intelligence, I savored Eagleman’s distillation of complex concepts, such as identity and reality, and how these socially constructed notions first and foremost exist within the brain. They can get distorted there, too. The Brain also made an alternate reality for me all too real: what might have I become had I continued studying linguistics in college? (I checked out when phonology got too challenging.) Back in the day, I’d imagined being a sociolinguist—I still act like one, to an extent—but with my new fascination with the brain, I know for sure that I would have liked to have been a neuroscientist who studies language, memory, and the brain.

In other words, The Brain confirmed what I already believe about life. We are who we are because of what we have in our brains and because of how our brains interact with each other, transcending time and space. That doesn’t mean our brains always work properly, or in the ways that we want them to. Memory is reliably unreliable. Words escape us from time to time. These are but two reasons why I attempt to document my every waking hour, why I write down what I have seen, why I used to write about everything I have seen. I know I cannot store all of that information in my brain. But my brain allows me to create the systems I use to remember, including a coded language. It doesn’t matter; these records will always be incomplete. There are some things I forget to write down, some things I don’t want to commit to paper for fear that another’s eyes may read my words and know my secrets. I may be knowable through what I think, say, and write, but I will never be known. This is the beauty and cruelty of our human consciousness. We’ll never be able to see the world exactly as someone else does. But of all of the art forms, cinema comes the closest to achieving empathy.

Read the Montage Series, 2015: A Year in Reflection, from the beginning.

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Search and Rescue: Or Why I’m Drawn to Films About Surviving Nature, Torture, and Mars

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)
  • Black Sea  (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.

The titular coal-miners sit down for what they believe is their last meal. Image courtesy of Warner Bros.
The titular coal-miners sit down for what they believe is their last meal. Image courtesy of Warner Bros.

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?

Lone Martian Mark Watney sits on a rock, contemplating his existence. Image courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox.
Lone Martian Mark Watney sits on a rock, contemplating his existence. Image courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox.

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.

Read the Montage Series, 2015: A Year in Reflection, from the beginning.

Long Take: Jurassic World Devours Itself–And Virtually Everything Else

Viewed June 12, 2015

This is a Special Report from the desk of a Jurassic Park superfan.

Jurassic_World_posterJurassic 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.

A typical view of Indominus rex, right into its jaws. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.
A typical view of Indominus rex, right into its mouth. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.

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.

Alpha and Beta raptors Owen and Blue. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.
Alpha and Beta raptors Owen and Blue. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.

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.”

Jurassic Park's skeletal recreation welcomed visitors to explore the past; Jurassic World patrons can glimpse the future. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.
Jurassic Park’s skeletal recreation welcomed visitors to explore the past; Jurassic World patrons can glimpse the future. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.

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.

Those are some oversized raptors, for sure. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.
Those are some oversized raptors, for sure. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.

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?

Watch where you step, Claire! You might break a heel. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.
Watch where you step, Claire! You might break a heel. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.

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.

The Mosasaurus eats Jaws; it's never safe to go in that water. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.
The Mosasaurus eats Jaws; it’s never safe to go in that water. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.

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.

Zach and Gray, just a couple of kids. And some dinosaurs! Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.
Zach and Gray, just a couple of kids. And some dinosaurs! Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.

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.

Main Street of Jurassic World under attack. Maybe opening a franchise of Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville restaurants on Isla Nublar wasn't such a good idea, after all. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.
Main Street of Jurassic World under attack. Maybe opening a franchise of Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville restaurants on Isla Nublar wasn’t such a good idea, after all. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.

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.

Contrary to what Claire believes, Lowery, a lifelong Jurassic Park supergeek, doesn't wear his t-shirt ironically. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.
Contrary to what Claire believes, Lowery, a lifelong Jurassic Park supergeek, doesn’t wear his t-shirt ironically. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.

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.

Hoskins is ready for his field test, Mr. Trevorrow. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.
Hoskins is ready for his field test, Mr. Trevorrow. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.

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.

Claire gets her one moment to shine. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.
Claire gets her one moment to shine. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.

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?

Quick Edit: Spare Parts Builds Something Special

Viewed May 15, 2015

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”?

Spare Parts movie posterHowever, 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.

Assembling the Spare Parts: Dr. Cameron, Lorenzo, Luis, Oscar, and Cristian. Image courtesy of Lionsgate.
Assembling the Spare Parts: Dr. Cameron, Lorenzo, Luis, Oscar, and Cristian. Image courtesy of Lionsgate.

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.

Quick Edit: A Revealing Portrait of a Photographer

Viewed May 6, 2015

The Salt of the EarthI’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 photographer Sebastião Salgado.
The photographer Sebastião Salgado.

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.

Lélia and Sebastião Salgado at the Instituto Terra.
Lélia and Sebastião Salgado at the Instituto Terra.

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.