Battle at Big Rock (2019)

2019 #127a
Colin Trevorrow | 9 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.00:1 | USA / English

Battle at Big Rock

Surprised-announced by co-writer/director Colin Trevorrow on Twitter just a week ago (although, reading about it after the fact, it seems dedicated fans were already aware something was coming thanks to that regular modern blockbuster spoiler source: action figures), Battle at Big Rock is a short film entry in the Jurassic Park/World franchise, which premiered on the US FX channel on Sunday night (early Monday morning for us Brits) and is now on YouTube.

Set one year on from the cliffhanger-ish ending to the last film, Fallen Kingdom, this short presents a vignette in the Jurassic world that will help bridge the gap between the previous feature and 2021’s third/sixth instalment. But aside from that large franchise-minded goal, it’s also a chance to see some different characters have a different kind of encounter within the films’ universe.

Well, I say “different” — dinosaurs fight dinosaurs until humans are caught in the crosshairs, then a big toothy dinosaur goes after said humans. The real difference is that this happens to just an ordinary family out on an ordinary camping trip in California, not people who’ve chosen to go to a remote island filled with giant prehistoric lizards. Of course, they’ve decided to go camping in a region where it’s known a bunch of the aforementioned giant prehistoric lizards escaped a year ago and might be roaming about, but whatcha gonna do? When you gotta go camping you gotta go camping, I guess. Also, they’re not white, which is a notable characteristic in this franchise, unfortunately. (That lack of representation across five feature-length movies is hardly rectified by one short, but I’m certain it was part of the intention.)

A family-sized snack

What Battle at Big Rock lacks in originality it makes up for with brevity. This is a concise hit of dino action, cramming many of the franchise’s familiar thrills into a sub-nine-minute package. It also looks great for a short film. Yeah, sure, it still has the backing of Universal Studios — this isn’t exactly an indie production — but it’s not got the full weight of a theatrically-released blockbuster behind it, either. Nonetheless, it manages to include two species of dinosaur, one achieved via a mixture of CGI and a genuine animatronic, and adventure-movie set-piece-level action. It all looks mighty pretty too, although the nighttime fire-lit photography is no doubt partially about hiding the budgetary limitations.

Indeed, the film’s production is possibly its most impressive aspect. It was actually shot back in 2018, so they’ve kept it hush-hush for the best part of a year. And it can’t be easy to keep quiet a film shot on location, and outside of moviemaking’s usual stomping grounds, in Ireland, where apparently there’s a grove of trees that look exactly like a North Californian national park. Presumably the real deal was a no-go because they’d’ve been spotted even more easily there; but, equally, you’d think a big American production team rocking up in Ireland would attract attention — especially when they had a giant animatronic dinosaur in tow. Maybe the locals just presumed it was Game of Thrones

Anyway, the end result is a success, both as a little burst of dinosaur action for those of us who enjoy such hijinks, and as a tease for events we’ll see in the franchise’s next major instalment. Rumour has it the short’s budget spiralled beyond the limits Universal originally set, but, considering the ill-will generated by the underwhelming Fallen Kingdom, I’m sure they’ll consider the audience’s re-stoked interest (a sentiment I’ve seen expressed repeatedly across social media today) to have been a worthwhile investment.

4 out of 5

Battle at Big Rock is available on YouTube.

Jurassic World (2015)

2015 #154
Colin Trevorrow | 124 mins | Blu-ray | 2.00:1 | USA & China / English | 12 / PG-13

22 years ago, Jurassic Park was the first film I saw at the cinema. I was still of an age when all boys seem to find dinosaurs awesome, and of course everyone was talking about this spectacular film and its groundbreaking effects. Plus it was from Steven Spielberg — it feels daft I’d’ve known that at the time, but I was already a certified fan of the Indiana Joneses, so maybe. Either way, I was suitably awestruck, and have always been a little pleased my first big screen experience was such a good movie.

It seems now that I’m of a generation which has secretly held Jurassic Park in a level of esteem that earlier generations had for, I don’t know, Star Wars, maybe. Secret, that is, until Jurassic World came out this summer and, quite to everyone’s surprise, blew all predictions out of the water with the largest opening weekend gross of all time, both in the US ($208.8m) and internationally ($315.6m), totalling the first time a film grossed more than $500 million in one weekend. It ultimately passed The Avengers to be the third highest-grossing film of all time, taking in 40 days what the Marvel team-up needed 133 to achieve.* It was largely well-reviewed too, albeit with some dissenters, so it had a lot to live up to.

For me, it met that watermark. Okay, the plot is fundamentally a rehash of the first movie, but the devil is in the details, and in my book Jurassic World does enough new to shrug off any kind of “stealth remake” allegations. What it does definitely retain is a faithfulness to the Spielbergian tone of the first movie — a stated goal of director/co-writer Colin Trevorrow, and one I feel he’s absolutely pulled off. There’s adventure, humour, a sense of scale and wonder. Even the music’s right: in the same way his theme to Star Wars is the herald of a classical epic, and his theme to Indiana Jones is a call to adventure, John Williams’ equally-peerless theme to Jurassic Park is an ode to wonder, and composer Michael Giacchino deploys it wisely here, saving it for key moments when that sense of awe is front and centre once again. Even some of the film’s ‘problems’ aren’t, in my eyes. Does it spend too long wandering around the park before the big action starts? Not for me… which I guess is a viewpoint that comes with all the caveats of my opening paragraph. I rather suspect this is a movie that was very literally made by fans, for fans.

In that respect, I saw Jurassic World as a movie that was eager to please its audience. It may not always fully conform to logic, and some of its plot developments may be a little far-fetched for some, but it’s been crafted in a way that’s designed to tickle the fancy or scratch an itch among a spectacle-and-fun-seeking blockbuster audience. Sure, the film was greenlit to make loadsa money — what sequel (heck, what film) isn’t — but that doesn’t mean the people who were actually writing, directing, filming, designing, CGI’ing, and everything-else-ing the movie didn’t have pure intentions. Goodness knows how Trevorrow — whose sum total previous directorial experience is an overrated indie rom-com with a vague, underdeveloped sci-fi element — landed this gig, but he does a bang-up job with it. No wonder they’ve given him the keys to a Star Wars saga movie. (That’s a helluvan escalation across just three films, though! Has any other director ever shot so high so fast?)

I realise this review is a bit of a vague gush of praise, so one element that particularly intrigued me was the decision to shoot the film in a 2:1 aspect ratio. There’s some detail on the reasoning here (as well as general information on shooting choices, like the types of film and digital photography used), but essentially it was a compromise between Trevorrow and DP John Schwartzman favouring the blockbuster-standard 2.4:1 (so as to not look like a TV programme) and producer Spielberg wanting 1.85:1 (to favour the dinos’ height). I can’t speak to how it worked in cinemas, but 2:1 is actually a really pleasurable ratio for home viewing. Some 1.85:1 movies do just feel like big-budget TV episodes nowadays (which says as much about how far TV has come, in terms of its visual style, as it does anything else), but 2.35:1 can feel a little too wasteful of screen real estate (as a believer in presenting films in their original ratio (as we all should be) you tend not to question it, but looked at objectively, 2.35:1 on a 16:9 telly is kinda silly. (Not that I’m advocating those daft-looking 21:9 TVs they made a couple of years ago, mind.)) I’ve no idea if 2:1 is likely to catch on more widely (I bet Vittorio Storaro hopes so), but I would quite like if it did.

I kind of felt like Jurassic World plugged directly into whichever part of the brain is responsible for pleasure and just downloaded itself there. I know it’s flawed; even as I was watching it, there were bits that made me go, “really?” Consequently, this review was originally pegged with a four-star rating — no doubt in part influenced by all the other not-completely-praise-filled opinions out there. But, thinking back on it, I just enjoyed it. I think I’ve outlined the main reasons why that was the case, and why I’m able to put aside the niggles. Maybe I’m going soft? (See also: my reviews of poorly-received 2015 blockbusters Tomorrowland and Terminator Genisys.) On the bright side, I watched Jurassic World and had a really good time — that’s what blockbusters are fundamentally for, isn’t it?

5 out of 5

Jurassic World placed 12th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2015, which can be read in full here.

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

* Obviously The Force Awakens has already obliterated most of these records (but not all of them). Nonetheless, Jurassic World’s still-phenomenal success remains part of an extraordinary year for Universal, who have also had two other films (Furious 7 and Minions) surpass $1 billion in 2015. They even broke the previous record for full-year studio gross (Fox’s $5.53 billion) in August. They’re not normally so successful (their best result in the ‘studio league table’ for the past decade was third, but they’re usually fifth or sixth), and I rather like Universal — possibly just because of their awesome logo and fanfare, possibly because of their cool theme parks, or possibly even because of their rich history of great movies — so this story has made me unduly happy as it’s developed since the summer. ^

Safety Not Guaranteed (2012)

2015 #81
Colin Trevorrow | 82 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

WANTED. Someone to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. You’ll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. Safety not guaranteed. I have only done this once before.

Safety Not GuaranteedThe debut feature from the director of all-conquering box office behemoth Jurassic World, Safety Not Guaranteed is a small-scale indie comedy that may or may not have a sci-fi twist. Inspired by a real newspaper ad (actually written by a bored editor), this fictional version sees three journalists from a Seattle magazine tracking down the guy who placed the ad in order to find out the true story behind it.

Despite the unique-sounding premise, much of the film plays as a pretty standard indie romantic-comedy-drama. You’ve got Aubrey Plaza as the girl who never quite fit in; Mark Duplass as a geeky loner with a heart of gold who (spoilers!) she falls for; Jake Johnson as a thirtysomething returning to his small hometown after years in the big city to reconnect with a lost love… If it’s beginning to sound like a checklist of indie plot points then, well, it’s not that bad — this isn’t Indie Movie. While none of the story threads unfold with as much uniqueness as the initial set-up promises, and do occasionally nudge towards thumb-twiddling familiarity, they’re not so rote as to be a total write off. Towards the end, it’s even managed to build up enough steam to offer an effective and somewhat affecting final act.

Trevorrow’s direction is solid. There’s nothing wrong with it, but equally I saw little to mark it out from any other low-budget indie dramedy. I don’t see what here particularly earnt him the instantaneous fast-track move to mega-budget blockbuster-making — directors who previously made that leap at least had the courtesy to go via a mid-budget feature or two following their dirt-cheap debut. Not a DeloreanMaybe I’m missing something, I don’t know, but where other directors currently making a similar transition (Gareth Edwards, Josh Trank, Duncan Jones) showed some signs of a reason for the upgrade in their debut and/or sophomore features, I can’t fathom what singled Trevorrow out. He seems to have done alright with it though, so never mind.

Safety Not Guaranteed has enough tweaks to the expected format that fans of the genre will lap it up (as evidenced by any online comment section you choose to check out), and I guess casual viewers who are predisposed to its particular set of traits will like it more than they like other examples of the same; but, the closing moments aside, I don’t think it’s anything like as unique as some people seem to think it is.

3 out of 5

Safety Not Guaranteed is on Film4 tonight at 12:10am.