Friday, June 15, 2018

The Jurassic Games (2018) Review

Growing up on straight to video Full Moon movies and Cannon films schlock has instilled within me a pretty high tolerance for B movie cheese. While many might scoff at the bad special effects, poor acting, or generally low production values of say an Asylum film, I’m usually able to look past those technical problems as long as there’s an interesting story, well told, with characters I come to care about over the course of the narrative. Still, it is extremely rare that a low budget movie released directly to now VOD is good enough to break into my top ten for the year, and I didn’t anticipate it happening this year, that is until I saw The Jurassic Games. I heard about this one last year and it sounded like everything I could ever want in a movie - Jurassic Park meets The Hunger Games (or Battle Royale, or The Running Man, or Turkey Shoot, etc), and I am delighted to say that it lived up to my wildest expectations.

Do I need to recap the plot of this movie for you? It’s called The Jurassic Games and the cynical “this movie meets that movie” pitch structure is literally built into the title. Just go watch it right now. Seriously, I don’t even care what kind of movies you think you like or what your personal tastes are. Stop reading this review, go see this movie, and then come back when you’ve had time to change your pants after you stopped furiously ejaculating into them. The Jurassic Games is exactly what you think it is and exactly as awesome as you want it to be, and if you don’t like it, I’m sorry, but you need to just stop watching movies, because nothing is ever going to be good enough for you, and frankly you just don’t deserve good things in your life. It’s the Hunger Games, with god-damn, motherfucking dinosaurs in it. What more do you people want?

Of course, that isn’t entirely true. What I’m about to reveal about the premise of the movie might feel like something that completely ruins any fun to be had, and it almost did for me until every other aspect of the film was the best thing ever in the history of things. You see, the dinosaurs in this movie aren’t real. This isn’t a world where dinosaurs have been genetically engineered and brought back to life or just never went extinct. The dinosaurs are part of a virtual reality program, and I know the narrative purpose for this, to provide the film with just enough of a sliver of plausibility so that the audience can suspend its disbelief at least as well as in say, The Purge franchise. Still, come on, you just viscerally want these to be real dinosaurs chomping on people, and for most of the movie, this was the one big thing that was holding me back from calling The Jurassic Games an unqualified success even as every other facet of it had me hooked. And then the third act exploded awesomeness all over my face and waited until literally the last shot of the movie to completely justify the VR mechanic in one insane image, as if it were just flat out telling me to go fuck myself for ever questioning that it would.

Okay, so…the plot. The movie opens with a quote from one of my favorite George Carlin bits, about turning capital punishment into a reality show to distract the masses. The Jurassic Games is that, just in VR with dinosaurs. Murderous volunteers culled from death row are given one chance for a full pardon if they can be the last to survive for an hour in a place literally designed to kill them where dying in the game means an instant lethal injection in the real world, just before feeling the very real pain of being mauled by a prehistoric monster, or taken out by a fellow contestant. All of this is televised to a dumbed down populace with a few glimmers of resistance to what gradually appears to be a vaguely dystopian society, complete with Verhoven-esque media satire like commercials for convicted killer action figures and instant replays of hapless victims being thrown around in a T-Rex’s mouth. Again, I feel like I shouldn’t have to keep taking about this stuff to get you to see this movie.

This set up provides the perfect platform for organic exposition and character development. It’s a bunch of crazy archetypes thrown together into an even crazier situation, left to form alliances or fend for themselves and ultimately reveal who they are as people through action and dialogue, with any other necessary information and backstory filled in by programming inserts from the TV show they’re all on. As characters, the contestants are all fairly standard for this sort of thing - of course our hero is a guy who claims to have been wrongfully convicted, the one who seems innocent at first is really a sociopath, and the guy who seems like a raving hillbilly cannibal is a raving hillbilly cannibal. They’re the types you’d find in the videogame version of a story like this, but the movie goes out of its way to play with your expectations about them, either subverting them, or rewarding them just after it trained you to expect subversion.

For instance, the save the cat moment we get with our hero finds him rescuing a young woman from a hulking rapist, and because you know how movies work, you assume this is The Jurassic Games equivalent to a meet-cute, and we’ll eventually find out that if this damsel is guilty at all, it will probably be for something justifiable that we can forgive her for so that they can fall in love. Then she turns out to be a vicious, unrepentant serial killer, so the movie introduces another girl and you think that this one will be the REAL romantic love interest, and then she’s even worse! And the fact that the good guy is the one sympathetic character in a group of monsters isn’t just a shortcut for the audience to like him; it becomes a plot point as the viewers begin to root for him and his story of innocence becomes a ratings ploy, adding to the satirical side of the movie. Then you have the Pablo Escobar-esque drug kingpin who’s still trying to use his influence on the outside to blackmail people in the game by exploiting their families, or the Chinese dissident who has a freaking kung fu fight with three velociraptors in the maze from The Maze Runner. I feel like I should repeat that. There is a kung fu fight with three velociraptors in this movie. The guy even does that “come and get it” finger beckoning thing…to a velociraptor!

All of this chaos is presided over by The Host, played with smarmy abandoned by Ryan Merriman, whose face I was trying to place for the entire film until I realized I was remembering him from a cheesy Disney Channel Original Movie from the early 2000’s about leprechauns playing basketball. He’s easily the highlight of the movie, acting as the greedy, amoral narrator of events, and thankfully eschewing the weird stare acting of Wes Bentley’s similar role in the Hunger Games in favor of a clear homage to Richard Dawson’s Killian from The Running Man, by way of an even more dickish Ryan Seacrest. Given what kind of movie this is, it shouldn’t count as a spoiler to say that he naturally gets his own bloody and hubris-laden comeuppance in the end, but it is so satisfying when it happens, if only because he gears you up to hate him so well that you’re willing to ignore the fact that it goes against the anti-death penalty message of the movie to punish him with such a gruesome death, and because it represents the second or third in a series of five or six rapidly escalating payoffs in the final minutes.  

If I could say I had one major problem with The Jurassic Games, its that there’s a brief lull in the action late in the second act, where it begins to feel like the dinosaurs are almost superfluous to the story, or at least being somewhat taken for granted as a threat. There are several kills where the dinosaurs aren’t involved at all, which would be fine if it were characters killing each other, but then one of them gets eaten by a killer plant, or a swarm of giant bugs, and it kind of loses focus on the central conceit that drew me in, at least until the last third brings it all back sharply. Also, the VR element does present some unnecessary questions, like why they would insert Brontosauruses into the game. It’s the opposite of the problem from the Jurassic Park movies, where you wonder why they would risk re-creating dinosaurs that ate people; here you wonder why they would bother populating a virtual reality world with any dinosaurs that wouldn’t eat people. And all the players have collars that make their heads explode if they cheat or refuse to play, but if this is VR and the lethal injection happens seconds later in the real world anyway, wouldn’t you want a slower, pain inducing method of correction rather than a vaporizing instant death?

Overall, these are minor nitpicks, as the totality of The Jurassic Games is a nearly pitch perfect execution of a concept that would have been so easy to screw up by either being too self-aware and meta, or just too slap dash and unwieldy. There is a point towards the start of the film where all of the contestants are just dropped in, and they first see the dinosaurs and begin to grapple with the reality they are now facing, and the camera pans over to one of them who despite the terrifying thing in front of him, smiles to himself. Then a few seconds later, he’s the first one to be eaten, because this movie is so awesome that its willing to introduce an incredibly interesting character with one shot of his odd reaction, and then immediately dismiss all the potential this movie could have had with them, because it knows how great everything else is going to be, so it doesn’t even matter that he’s dead. If I was going to rate The Jurassic Games on a scale of “completely flaccid” to “painfully erect,” it would get a “my dick rips itself from my body and rockets into space.” Drop whatever you’re doing and buy it now. What in the VR dinosaur hell are you waiting for?!?

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