Underwriting all the set-up and take-down is a basic confusion between namby-pamby finger pointing and a genuine moral: The carnage wrought upon all these extras and CGI monsters by this wow-factor Indominus Rex is, we learn with all stoic seriousness, our fault, because we're so easily jaded, as Americans, as an audience. By paying $$ to see this film we encourage this global irresponsibility! Why didn't we stay home and save the whales instead?
That old wow factor has sunk mighty low since 1993, when the first CGI Jurassic Park blew us all away, lectures this pointed finger. But before we can even defend ourselves, it switches on its headphones and starts blasting that John Williams saccharine 'sweep.' Shhhhhh. Mom! Get out of my room! PLEASE!
Naturally, we want this Indominus Rex to get loose --there wouldn't be a film without it. And having the pterodactyls and pteranodons attack the fleeing, fanny pack-bedecked tourists en masse is a lovely Roger Corman-esque event to which we're invited to cheer and jeer as--in Harry Lime parlance--the ants stop moving. Any why wouldn't we cheer? We hate ourselves, so please - have at these ugly American consumers waddling balefully away from the snow cone dispensary, alas, too slowly.
The problem is, we're supposed to find Bryce Dallas-Howard's uptight caricature of female executive control freak bitchiness cute and amusing as we just know sparks will fly when she butts heads with cool older brother natural dude raptor trainer Owen (Chris Pratt), the raptor trainer. Claire expects men and monsters alike to heave to when she pouts and stamps her corporation-gray heels. She's the type of person who uses the royal "we" when speaking as if ever-giving a tour to investors: "we'd like you to visit the tiger cage on your way out" she tells Owen, for example. Her sister (Judy Greer) is the same way, sending her two young boys off to Jurassic park to visit "Auntie Claire" and her monsters, freeing her up to divorce their dad without having to look into their wounded doe eyes (which is apparently their only genetic survival trait). Naturally busy-busy Claire fobs the boys onto an assistant and, naturally, they escape her. They break lots of rules, get lost, and Claire--dreading having to call and tell her sister she lost them, making her a de facto dad of great adventure)--will have to kick off those grey heels and come crawling back to the one man who can find them for her. Do I even need to mention that he and Claire went on one date awhile back and didn't get along because she brought "an itinerary" and her "diet wouldn't allow tequila"?
Owen's stock 'cool' traits aren't nearly as bad as Claire's stock bitch-in-the-boardroom control freak tics. Though she works at a dinosaur park, Claire clearly knows nothing about them other than how much they cost to incubate vs. ticket sales. Owen has to remind her that "animals raised in isolation aren't always the most sociable," though part of that line is, naturally, some hack writer's trite inference Claire needs to get laid.
Validating Camille Paglia's anti-feminist theories, Claire dismisses everything Owen says as sexist dogma, as merely a skeevy male's attempt to use nature to get into her pants. She calls the dinosaurs 'assets' and presumes rolling her eyes at Owen's survival tips will somehow bend the reality of nature to accommodate her, like a patient doorman angling for a tip.
The corporate (boo!) human villain this time is a military defense contractor (Vincent D'Onofrio) who wants to train raptors to sniff out and eat the Taliban, but hey--at least he tries to be friendly to everyone. Yet he's treated like shit by most everyone but $$-minded Dr. Wu. It's clear to anyone with any Paglian insight that Claire is the real villain of the piece. She's a regressive depiction of the successful working woman as desexed ball buster, blind to the dangers around her, dismissive of any man's attempt to protect her as just more sexist bullshit. Owen is given all the compassion: he notes 'these are animals' and what he has with them is 'a relationship.' He's the only one to call the killer dinosaur hybrid a "she" instead of an "it." You get the drill. He's the only employee of the park with any balls, foresight, intelligence, knowledge of predator pack mentality, or eye-hand coordination. Considering he can't be everywhere at once, it's amazing the park has gone a single day without falling apart.
Thank god for Chris Pratt, then, savior of three-dimensional humanity. Lord knows Hollywood's been needing a rugged but sensitive tough guy who is not Australian. Pratt offers belated proof that American masculinity is not an oxymoron. Despite dialogue homogenized into banal bytes by legions of overpaid writers, Pratt is able to convey naturalism without crunchiness, charm without narcissism, guts without indifference, cool without callousness, sensitivity without sentiment, and self-awareness without self-absorption. No non-Australian has been able to manage such a combination since Brando! And you can't even say he's sexist since he proved his ability to take orders from a bossy redhead back in 2012's Zero Dark Thirty!
Alas, there's only so much he can do to counteract the cliche'd overkill. Do I need to mention that when Claire comes to his trailer to ask for help, he's outside by the river fixing his badass vintage Triumph motorcycle in a T-shirt and jeans, while she's stomping around in the mud wearing unflattering (waist-hiding?) 90s business skirt/slacks combo and rocking terrible Prince Valiant hair?
|Pout at the devil: Claire demonstrates the 'hurt puppy eyes' method of leadership.|
At least the "you're playing God!" sermonizing is all leveled at the boo-hiss military guy (hairy arms, golf shirts and a big gold watch) and the dispassionate mad scientist (Asian) gene splicer, and even there the shamings is more along the lines of animal rights which is far easier to take (as a real man) than the 'awing baby chicks at the 4H Fair' malarkey - even if the lack of any real (as in not cliche'd 'stock') genuine character detail casts a sickly pall. One longs for at least one 'real' termite detail in at least one character!
We used to get some little bits brave actors would shoehorn in: Jeff Goldblum's relationship with his black daughter (in part II) for example, is full of little bits of business. I also like how Neill and ex-girlfriend Laura Dern are still friends even though she's married (to a different guy) with a kid (in part III). But here in the fourth film, we're at a whole new zenith of trite, as the casting director, costume dept., make-up, script, and actor are all presuming they're the only ones who are supplying the character's essence. It's not enough that the imbecilic glazed-eyed security guard doesn't notice the one dinosaur he's supposed to watch has disappeared from his cage, he's cramming a sandwich into his fat face right at the moment the dismayed visitors point it out and even then doesn't stop eating! Nor does he get his fat ass off his stool to check! Then there's the glassy-eyed slack-jawed handler who falls into the raptor cage; the guy running the hamster balls who can't just say "they're all present and accounted for," he has to add "it's my job" so you know he has not done it. Vincent D'Onofrio saying "if only we'd had these things at Tora Bora;" there's the Asian geneticist drinking green tea in a clear glass cup in a Bruce Lee style black sweater; and naturally the first person eaten is of Latino persuasion. Wouldn't want to break Jurassic tradition.
Latinos: first in the field; first to be eaten.
The most offensive--on my plate-- is the younger nephew of Claire, who has that face where a year ago it was cherubic (and no offense to the actor, who kicks ass when he has great Shane Black dialogue like in IRON MAN 3), who professes to love dinosaurs yet is clearly terrified of bending a rule, even in the company of his 'cool' older brother, whose smoky eyes (new from Coverboy mascara?) keep playing tag with gaggles of conveniently cute and similarly parentless girls, to whom, rather than try to play along and pick up a girl himself OR get shy and blush, the younger kid acts like Bambi watching his mom flirt with the hunters. In other words, older brother has to constantly remind younger that they'll always be brothers, in dialogue clearly written by an only child raised in a test tube.
I'm not asking for Long Day's Journey into Night (the benchmark for brotherly rapport) here, man, but it's not that fucking hard to write good sibling dialogue, even simple improv exercises might help. But that's the problem with 'big' movies like this, the director is rarely even in the same square mile of cords and gaffers; unions forbid touching dialogue written long ago by teams of hacks better at talking their way into jobs than actually listening to how real people talk. A good writer (or even producer) knows the more specific you are, the more universal the appeal; generalities work only in how equally they bore audiences of all nations and ages.
Not to harp this point but I keep imagining what a kick ass movie if the two brothers had a cool deadpan rapport - going into character like Vincent and Jules, albeit with whatever films they liked or something other than this 'on the nose' crapola. J.J. Abrams, Shane Black or Joss Whedon might have provided some dialogue like that or just letting the kids improvise. I know kids aren't allowed to play with cap guns anymore like my buddy Alan and I at the same approx. age, but they can't be this square... man. Just can't be.... but when they finally overcome their terror and feel exhilaration through zapping an attacking raptor as it tries to climb in the back of their SWAT vehicle, the kid's first exclamation is "I can't wait to tell mom!" What, is he gonna run in and tell her after he smokes his first joint... when he's 45?
Maybe their arrested maturity can be explained by the way mom (Judy Greer) calls them on the phone constantly, nagging them for not calling her the minute they got off the plane, the minute they got to the park, etc., asking if they're having fun while trying to guilt trip them at the same time; no matter what level of fun they do have, it's not enough and/or too much of the wrong kind. If they enjoy the park without her, they're ungrateful. If they don't enjoy it, they must not be trying, in order to piss her off.
There's other good moments: the comical punchlines and counter bytes/bites of the flying dinosaur attacks, all very indebted to Spielberg and Joe Dante. And Pratt practically does save the film as well as the day : "Your boyfriend's a badass." says the older brother. One can't deny that, what with Owen's driving a motorcycle into battle, his raptor squad racing around him; but actually being her boyfriend seems just too dangerous, maybe worse in the long term than being torn to shreds by a pterodactyl (I'm amazed I can still spell that word, it's been at least 40 years!). Claire's idea of parenting is to drive the kids to the dinosaur attack zone, then lock them in the back of a windowless truck and leave them there; don't even let them watch the take-down from a remote feed, which at that point is like one of those things where the returning Vietnam vet can't get a beer because he's only 20. That the brothers can even recognize Pratt's badassery is testament to their resilience, not hers. If they ever screw up bad enough they get sent to military school then maybe they'll finally have a fighting chance to be men. If not, they'll never fight again, except with the cleaning lady when she accidentally starches their socks.
Some gals at the typing pool might argue women have to be ball-busters in order to earn men's respect at the office, but that argument evaporates when you experience the magnificence of Anne Heche in VOLCANO (1997). Full of quick-thinking expertise, geologic insight, and decisive commands that arouse only respect and affection (no male ire whatsoever) from her crisis management de facto captain (Tommy Lee Jones). Heche's dialogue is so rich that we realize inept, ditzy, bitchy, uptight or dumb professional women characters are not a reflection on women's competence in the workplace but reflections of hack, lazy screenwriters who make no attempt to understand the field they're writing about. Rather than doing some actual research and ride alongs to absorb fact and the way real professionals in the field they're depicting actually talk, and then using their supposed writing skills to boil complex adult ideas down to engaging natural dialogue, these lazy hacks just write neurotic female 'experts' to hide the fact they don't know shit about the subject they've been paid to explore.
Part of the fault, naturally, falls with the way Hollywood coddles the children of the rich and famous. A lifetime of being beautiful, rich and connected has left them with no real idea of what life is like. Like any child with limited world experience, they confuse adulthood and seriousness with scowling and prohibition. That's how it looks on the outside, so that must be all it is. Being an adult female means keeping kids from eating candy for dinner, making them going to bed on time, and being an all-around meanie. Being a teacher means standing in front of a blackboard going 'yah-yah-yah' while you covertly try to IM your coke dealer under the desk.
I say to these writers and actors of professional working female characters: look upon Anne Heche in VOLCANO! And take some goddamned notes.
If you've already seen VOLCANO and thought 'meh' due to some of its more groan-inducing Crash-esque post-Rodney King LA healing incidents and the dimwit clingy daughter played Gaby Hoffmann, then I say look again, and ignore everything but the Heche.
She's so damn good in this film she had to be demeaned by a hostile media after some mental aberrations and substance issues that would have been forgiven with a wink were she a man (or the daughter of some major power player or icon). She should be as honored and A-listed as Robert Downey Jr. If she's not, well, it's because she's crazy and because the man is scared of her. And you can see why when you watch VOLCANO.
As a stoned consumer seeing this on a bored Saturday afternoon at the (those were the days) $3 theater in midtown-NYC, and as a fan of both Linda Hamilton and Pierce Brosnan, I had a great time watching DANTE. I just rented VOLCANO and watched it on the small screen and it was kind of meh, especially the racial healing bits and other bad choices.
Well.. what we wanted on the big screen in the late 90s is not the same as what endures as relevant in the 21st century post-9ll HD world. Rather than the DANTE's majestic adventure sweep, where every emotion we're meant to feel is broadly choreographed, VOLCANO's got that 'just another fucked day in NYC' kind of blue collar guy professionalism (transplanted to LA). A quick thinking big canvas disaster movie that tears through the real Los Angeles and its infrastructure, VOLCANO has enough well researched cliche-free back-and-forth between city department heads that it touches on the rattatat well-researched alive genius of Paddy Chayefsky's NETWORK or THE HOSPITAL. We get a kind of fast-thinking (or the whole thing falls apart into gridlock) curmudgeonly affection and good-natured combativeness between the doers at City Hall, Urban Planning and traffic control, fire and police depts, and so forth, that feels like the result of writers and actors having clearly spent time embedded in the actual rooms. This is an area where quick thinking order-givers are promoted due to their ability to stay cool in a crisis and mobilize team heads and be constantly inputting and computing results rather than freaking out while the fireballs fly. We also get to see the way their personal and family relationships suffer when there's no disaster to manage, as that same quick-thinking disaster management has trouble easing off the throttle, so to speak. But lucky for us, there's the biggest disaster ever this day, so overlapping dialogue flows past us so fast we have almost no chance to catch our breath or explain what's going on to someone else without hitting pause.
There's only one or two weak points in VOLCANO and alas, they're what most people remember: 1) a too on-the-nose (but effective) bit of Rodney King commentary as a cop tries to arrest a guy for being black while downtown LA is erupting around, then they work together to halt the flow, etc. 2) Jones' simpering little brat daughter who drags herself along in the car while he juggles the madness. Neither has bupkis to do with Heche's character, though. The city's national geologist spokesperson, Heche's character is mature, gutsy, engagingly written and acted, sexy and in the moment, loose and joyous and above all, competent. She's not the one fretting about some whiny brat. She's in the mix.
Its attempts racial unity and a trite daughter and her dumb last minute rescue aside, VOLCANO is the opposite of that kind of dopey raison d'etre; it certainly should have put Anne Heche in the same A-list company of Julia Roberts and Sandra Bullock if she wasn't already, but Heche got ground up in the machinery of Ellen and mysticism. None of her erratic behavior offscreen was as bad as Robert Downey Jr.'s from a similar period, but Heche is a woman, from a poor family, and 'out' (and then straight again - which pleases neither side) and suffering from a mental illness, which makes it harder to insure the production, as they don't know if you'll be able to survive the harrowing long hours, take after takes, and all the other crap that can shatter even the staunchest brains.
That's part of it, but I also feel the mainstream press is far warier of recognizing scary assertive talent in women. They like their female stars to be either stunning beauties with very little range (Megan Fox, for example), or else moms and/or daughters first, professionals second. They only recognize great acting if it occurs in "great" pictures of Oscar calibre. In a big budget disaster film, professional career women must be frigid bitches or weary cool widows with cute kids, just waiting for the right middle-aged hero to gentle them down off the ledge or take over the daddily duties. But this is not at all the m.o. of our cool professional played Anne Heche. So real life has to punish her in real life if the world of the film won't.
Here's a small example of her character's cool: Thinking of her co-worker vulcanologist girlfriend who was sucked into the flaming bowels of the earth under the La Brea tar pits while investigating disturbances down in the nearby sewers the night before, she looks at all the erupting lava and chaos in downtown LA-- the horror and devastation--and with eyes wide, she says sincerely, "Rachel would have loved this!"
I almost fell out of my chair with joy when I finally re-watched this movie last week and heard that line. Why is it that Heche is the only woman cool enough to say that kind of shit, EVER? Is it any wonder male Hollywood was threatened? There hadn't been a female character this resilient and ahead of the curve, this free of buzzkill mom morality, since FASTER PUSSYCAT KILL KILL. Usually a woman is left at home with the kids, there to make angry phone calls demanding husband return because he has "responsibilities here too. We need you here, too, David!" and then when he's in trouble or MIA calling the precinct or wherever and demanding they do something! If the wives end up tagging along they certainly disprove of heroism and any display of enjoyment in courting danger. Rolling their eyes like the volcano is somehow dad's fault, his excuse not to come home, they wrinkle their noses. Come home, David!
Heche's Anne is light years ahead of all that. Stunned but invigorated after her near death experience in the subway tunnels below the street, she hangs around in the thick of the eruption all morning, day, and night, not whining for Tommy Lee Jones' attention like his idiot daughter does, but doing her job, improvising, finding the path of the lava by watching a ball liberated from a looted toy store window, making calculations, etc. and barking them out super fast to Jones, who doesn't question them or give her shit about woman's intuition but merely reacts and mobilizes his team to follow her instruction without a second thought. There's no spare time to second guess whether her advice is just that of a girl... standing in front of a man... and asking him to evacuate the city blocks between La Brea and the Pacific ocean. There's not even time for her stamp her foot impatiently while he talks to someone else, "Tommy! Tommmeeee! I have something to say." Her understanding of the lava and his understanding of the city form a fluid machine where urgent calamity is responded to at a speed their opposite numbers in DANTE'S would never dream possible.
But a daughter's dumb decisions have little to do with Heche, who doesn't have a daughter to deal with. In fact, Heche is the one who rescues them all more or less, and though Jones has all the earmarks of the Dad of Great Adventure there's little of the annoying tics of the type, since the good aspects of Tommy Lee's character (he's able to stay cool and process loads of information during a natural disaster) are also the bad (he can't ever just relax and let someone else take over even for an hour or two). We generally loathe micro-managerial bosses but we know Jones is cool because his staff tease him about it and he just rolls with it. As with his back-and-forth with Heche, dialogue with the staff (including second-in-command Don Cheadle) is all believable, the jokes and banter and character etching deftly woven into the action and exposition, rather than the 'here's three pages of character banter and now three pages of exposition and now three pages of disaster management' lameness of DANTE'S PEAK, a film that can't chew gum and walk at the same time.
In the 90s I loved the effortlessly generated between mayor Linda Hamilton and coiffed vulcanologist Pierce Brosnan--I loved his Bond, and loved her Sarah Connor and it was the late 90s. In PEAK she made me want to date a mother of two and move to a cool house in the shadow of gorgeous Colorado mountain. VOLCANO seemed much too busy, too full of business (then again, I was probably drunk when I rented it). Now I don't get how I didn't get it then, or how I let a few Rodney King hand-holding "we are the children" moments rush me to snide dismissal. But now, on widescreen DVD it's DANTE that's unendurable; Brosnan especially seems much too handsome and composed to be believable as a roving geologist. Look at him up there, not a single fleck of ash in that hair, and baby that ain't snow outside. Hamilton's mayor meanwhile leans on her maternal sweetness to convince the town to blindly follow and believe everything Brosnan says, his immaculate TV looks carrying a kind of absolute law she's been waiting all these years to capitulate her mayoral authority to.
Maybe not, but it does show that big budget scripts aren't necessarily worth their money, and legacies (as in Howard's famous power player father) don't often bring much to the table beyond a tolerable actress with a pedigree (rather than a great one from a shadier background).
My guess? Heche has suffered (a rough childhood, unstable parents, etc.), Howard hasn't - that's why one is a great actress and the other just okay. Even after all the bodies are hauled away the next morning, Howard's Claire doesn't seem changed, sharpened by trauma, adrenalin, and exaltation; she just seem tired from being up all night and when she cries in the arms of her sister it's more exhaustion and relief--take the damn kids! Now if they get eaten, it's on you.
At the end of VOLCANO, on the other hand, Heche is exhilarated, turned-on. You can feel her blood surging in her veins, singing with life. That's my kind of crisis-handling bitch.
If only it was America's.