Even with Chris Pratt and his velociraptors, Jurassic World fails to thrill

Ryan Gilbey reviews two sequels: The Look of Silence and Jurassic World.

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The Look of Silence (15)
dir: Joshua Oppenheimer

Jurassic World (12A)
dir: Colin Trevorrow

This is the week in which dinosaurs walk the earth again in Jurassic World but blockbusters and franchises need not be the only sorts of properties to spawn sequels, as The Look of Silence demonstrates. The film is both a companion piece to, and a spin-off from, the bizarre and infinitely disturbing 2012 documentary The Act of Killing. In the earlier film, former gangsters and paramilitaries who perpetrated the 1965-66 Indonesian genocide reflected fondly on their part in the murders of between 500,000 and two million innocent people (intellectuals, suspected communists, ethnic Chinese). These recollections were all the more horrific for being boastful and even blasé. With the sound off, you would take them for old golfing buddies recalling their glory days on the freeway.

This brazenness was made possible by the power and influence they continue to exert in Indonesia. (They won.) The Act of Killing was remarkable but its perspective felt skewed: the victims were absent and ­implied, seen largely through their oppressors’ eyes. (As with the new film, a good chunk of those who helped make The Act of Killing could not be named.) Oppenheimer has said that while making the first picture, he knew he would go on to tell the grieving families’ side of the story in a separate work. In redressing that balance, The Look of Silence emerges as the more emotionally direct piece. Though more artistically conventional, it works in tandem with its predecessor, telling a parallel story dominated by one man’s suffering rather than by the people who inflicted it.

That man is Adi, a 44-year-old optometrist who was one of the many Indonesians to whom Oppenheimer showed footage from The Act of Killing as he was putting it together. Adi’s brother Ramli was hacked to death in 1965; it was such a protracted and public killing that it has become a symbol of all the atrocities committed there. Adi, born three years later and conceived as a replacement for Ramli, is first seen watching The Act of Killing on a TV set in a bare room. It is to this image that the documentary keeps returning, creating a literal as well as a thematic intersection between the two films. It also introduces the sort of analytical distance that can be helpful when addressing a subject marinated in pain and horror. The repeated shots of Adi’s patients and the emphasis on sight (“I don’t want to see this!” shouts a man who is shown evidence of his father’s brutality) remind us that the film is as much about the process of looking as it is about what needs to be faced in Indonesia.

Adi himself is a temperate presence. He goes to meet those involved in his brother’s murder, turning up with his optometry equipment (“Now look into the distance – is it sharper?”) and gradually steering the conversation around to their role in the genocide. It’s the opposite of small talk; it’s the biggest talk there is. But he repeatedly faces their inability to express regret. One old man, who was something prominent in the death squads, confesses that he only managed to keep sane by drinking the blood of his victims. Another threatens Adi, who has since had to move thousands of miles away with his family. The level of denial is staggering. “The past is the past,” says one executioner. “The wound has been healed!” Now there’s a metaphor to make you wince.

Although Oppenheimer remains off-camera, his subjects address him openly. “Joshua! Stop filming!” barks one when Adi’s questioning gets uncomfortable, and the son of a murderer upbraids him: “Don’t make trouble, Joshua.” But it is Adi’s per­severance that gives the film its momentum. He inches forward in his questioning, polite and even deferential, but also fearless. “I don’t mean to offend you but you’re trying to avoid your moral responsibility,” he says to one of the leaders of the Kopassus death squad. The key to his tenacity, and to the film’s tone, lies in that I don’t mean to offend you.

His face tilts this way and that like a satellite dish but its calmness is absolute. Infinitesimal changes register as shocking – a slight misting of the eyes, or the bobbing of his Adam’s apple as he listens to former killers mocking his brother’s pleas for mercy. Oppenheimer ends one scene by cutting to the abrasive shrieking of a hen, but there is no need for such shock tactics. Just because The Look of Silence is a quiet film, that doesn’t mean every corner of it isn’t filled with screams.

A few screams wouldn’t go amiss in Jurassic World. This fourth film in the series is a sequel in name alone: it features none of the original cast members, no evidence of the Steven Spielberg touch (he gets no more than an executive producer credit) and none of the flair that characterised the earlier instalments even at their weakest. What it can boast is an awe-inspiring miracle of nature, otherwise known as Chris Pratt. Oh, and a few dinosaurs.

Pratt plays Owen, an ex-navy man working at the Jurassic World theme park on an island near Costa Rica. The main attraction is the Indominus rex, a genetically modified hybrid, but Owen’s energies are focused on the velociraptors, whose trust he has earned with his caressing hands and soothing voice. He’s a real dino-whisperer.

His colleagues aren’t so at ease with their environment. Hoskins (Vincent D’Onofrio) plans to use dinosaurs in the military (“War’s part of nature”) and Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard), the park’s operations manager, is so out of touch with her feelings that when her own nephew hugs her, it takes her several awkward seconds to reciprocate. Through this portrayal of the only major female character as a frigid, work-obsessed automaton, we can carbon-date the picture’s sensibility to the Palaeolithic age. What are the chances that Owen, who wore shorts on his first date with Claire, while she brought an itinerary, will be the one to loosen her up? Sadly the film stops belittling her only when she finally picks up a gun and kills a velociraptor at close range. (She looks pretty fierce when she does it: was Howard imagining she was shooting at the screenwriters who gave her nothing to do but whinge?) In fact, Claire pulls off far more remarkable feats than that, such as outrunning an Indominus rex in high heels. She’s the one in heels, that is, not the dinosaur.

Earlier Jurassic Park movies were caught in a cleft stick; they needed to be scary but not too intense, or they’d exclude younger viewers. But you could always count on spectacle and suspense: think of the ­kitchen chase in the first film, the Winnebago dangling over the cliff in the second, the plane being rolled through the jungle by a sadistic Tyrannosaurus rex in the third. It’s a total dereliction of duty that the fourth film contains not one memorable set piece or image. (The closest it gets – a helicopter pilot stabbed mid-flight by the beak of a pterodactyl – is ruined by the director Colin Trevorrow’s shoddy framing.)

Wit is confined to incidental details: an automated announcement telling terrified, stampeding tourists not to neglect the gift shop on their way out, or a computer screen that shows the heart-rate of each security guard as they are picked off by an escaped dinosaur. But it’s not just the characters whose pulses are flatlining; it’s the audience’s, too. “We want to be thrilled,” says a visitor at the start of the film. Hear, hear. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 11 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Who owns the future?