Film Review: THE MARTIAN

You may remember how much I loved THE MARTIAN by Andy Weir, the novel about an astronaut accidentally stranded alone on Mars, forced to become a sort of Science MacGyver in his efforts to survive, while his crewmates and NASA and basically all of humanity band together in a heroic and desperate attempt to rescue him. This book was amazing. Absolutely my favorite book of the year, and probably one of my favorite books of all time.

You may also remember that the reason I read the book was because I’d seen the trailer for the movie, which also looked amazing. And after reading the book, I was even more excited for the film. It looked like it would be a faithful adaptation that really captured the spirit of the novel — but of course, trailers often lie. So. Did it hold up?

This is going to be part film review, part compare and contrast with the book, because although the movie totally stands on its own, I find it really difficult to talk about it without referencing the source material. I’ll hide all spoilers, so don’t worry if you haven’t read or watched yet.

Let’s just get this out of the way up front: I loved the movie. Loved. I thought it was one of the most faithful book adaptations I’ve seen in years, the visuals were stunning, the casting was terrific, the writing was tight, the pacing was solid, and the humor, optimism and collaborative, heroic spirit of the book were all wonderfully represented. So. Even though I’m going to get critical in a minute, keep in mind that it’s the criticism of a true fan who enjoyed this movie and wants to watch it a dozen more times.

First, let’s talk about things I think the movie did better than the book. The big one is character. Watney aside (Matt Damon/Mark Watney is a category all his own), I cared about the characters in the movie — the Hermes crew in particular, but all of them to varying degrees — far more than I did in the book. One advantage to seeing the movie trailer before reading the book was that I was able to picture the movie cast as all the characters as I read. So although I’ve heard a few people here and there say Matt Damon was not “their” Mark Watney, for me, he was Mark from page 1.

It also helps (or maybe hinders, if you read the book first and pictured a character totally differently) that there is almost no physical description in the book for any of the characters. We are given names and genders and personalities, occasionally ages, but that’s it. No skin or hair color, no ethnicity beyond what’s implied by their names, no body types or backstory. So when it came to casting, there was a lot of leeway to cast the person who best embodied the character, and personally, I thought that worked out in the movie’s favor.

The vast majority of the cast was tasked with the daunting challenge of fully fleshing out their characters with relatively little screen time, and they managed it admirably, giving the non-Watney scenes an even greater depth and humanity than they had in the book. Whereas in the book, my heart was on Mars with Watney, making me anxious to return to him anytime the point-of-view would switch to another character, in the movie, I was fully invested in every scene, not just those on Mars with Watney, but on earth with the NASA team and in space with the Hermes crew. With an ensemble cast like this, it’s hard to call out individual players without it turning into a laundry list, so suffice it to say, everyone brought their A-game to this production.

The Hermes crew, ltr: Matt Damon, Sebastian Stan, Jessica Chastain, Kate Mara, Aksel Hennie, Michael Peña

The movie was also able to drive home the physical deterioration of Mark Watney in a way I never fully felt with the book. It was one thing to read about how he had to severely cut his rations in order to stretch them, but another to see him go from a clean-shaven, muscular guy at the beginning of the movie to a bushy-faced, skeletal figure covered in malnutrition bruises by the end. His transformation really underscored the brutality of passing time in a far more tangible way than reading about it could.

Also, while I loved the [highlight for spoiler: final rescue scene by the Hermes crew] in the book, in the movie it was extended, and thus felt both more harrowing and heroic to me. I also really enjoyed that the movie ended the equivalent of a few pages past where the book ends. It gave the story and the characters a better sense of closure, and viewers a greater sense of satisfaction.

Oh, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Matt Damon’s fantastic performance as Mark Watney. I don’t think he was better than the book, per se, but he totally embodied the Watney in my brain, from his grim optimism, to his nerdy, irreverent, and sometimes fatalistic sense of humor, to his conversational and accessible way of talking about sciencing his way out of certain death. While I’m sure there are other great actors who could have played Watney and done the character justice, I can’t imagine anyone portraying him better or more true to the book than Damon. He was my Watney, from the first minute to the last.

Matt Damon as Mark Watney

However, there were some aspects in which I think the movie didn’t fare quite so well. Even though the movie runs long for Hollywood, at 141 minutes, it never felt like it had enough time to fully convey just how perilous Mark’s situation was. Like in the book, the movie sticks solely with Mark on Mars for his first couple weeks of isolation, but it never really has time to build up that sense of profound loneliness and desperation before cutting to NASA. And from then on out, by constantly cutting between Mark and NASA, the movie is never fully able to make us feel that every minute of Mark’s life is teetering on the edge of complete and utter failure, because we can see NASA working the problems and coming up with solutions — seemingly, almost instantly.

I don’t want to say the film felt rushed, because it didn’t. The pacing was, as I said before, solid. But in adapting the story from the book, it had to lose a lot of small scenes that, while not integral to the plot, may have been helpful for the tone. [Minor spoilers follow, but nothing that’s not in the trailer.]

We see Mark having to make soil to grow potatoes, but we never understand just how hard or unlikely that process is, or how long it takes. We never become emotionally invested in those potatoes, like I did reading the book. When [spoiler: the HAB airlock explodes and Mark loses all his crops, it doesn’t have nearly the impact of that scene in the book, where it felt almost like the death of a beloved character.]

Mark faces many of the same problems he does in the book — lack of water, lack of communication, extreme cold, limited battery life for his equipment — but instead of getting stuck, instead of feeling like he’s run up against an insurmountable obstacle, instead of being struck over and over with that sense of imminent failure, his problems are often solved in the very next scene. Sure, the timestamps may tell us that a few days (or Sols, as time is measured on Mars) have passed, but for the movie-going audience, it was only a minute or two. While in the book, he spends multiple chapters prepping [spoiler: for his 2-month drive to the MAV], building up a huge sense of anticipation in the reader as he details everything that could go wrong, in the movie, he conceives his plan and then — time jump! — executes it.

Matt Damon as Mark Watney

At that point, a friend leaned over to me in the theater and whispered, “I doubt it felt that quick and easy for him.” And that, I felt, was an unfortunate theme throughout this movie. While the actors did an amazing job of showing us how worried and conflicted they were, and while we could see Mark putting up a wall of humor to push away the hopelessness in every one of his scenes, without the time to really linger on each setback Mark and NASA faced or to mourn their failures, their problems never felt impossible. The solution was never more than a scene or two away.

So while the movie didn’t need [spoiler: Mark hiding in the Rover with no idea what to do when he realized he’d accidentally turned the HAB into a bomb, or shorting out Pathfinder and losing his only means of communication, or rolling the Rover on his way to the MAV], by losing all those moments where Mark had to pause and really face the question, is this what kills me?, I felt like the movie never quite managed the overwhelming part of “overwhelming odds.” There were odds, sure, and I believed them. But overwhelming? I never thought it got there.

Also, this is not really relevant to anything, but I was pretty bummed that we never got Watney measuring things in units of pirate-ninjas. Just needed to state that for the record.

All that said, I still think this was an excellent film, and a wonderful adaptation of the book. Plus, in a story landscape littered with supervillains and antiheroes, this is one of those rare stories with no bad guy. I love me a good villain, but this is a tale of Man + Science (+ Duct Tape, really) vs. Nature, and really, that is fully enough. It is hopeful and optimistic, both in its vision of what humanity might someday be able to accomplish, and in its characters, who push themselves beyond their limits to help one another. So while it may have a few shortcomings, as all movies do, I can still fully endorse it for what it is — a beautifully told, riveting, inspirational tale of survival, cooperation, and loyalty, peppered with humor and science, IN SPACE.

Really, if that doesn’t get you to the theater, I don’t know what will.

Review: WALK ON EARTH A STRANGER by Rae Carson

It’s no secret that I loved Rae Carson’s GIRL OF FIRE AND THORNS trilogy, so when I heard she was beginning a new fantasy trilogy — a historical fantasy, set during the California gold rush — my fingers immediately began itching for a copy. Fortunately, I had a friend who generously offered to loan me her ARC (once she was finished reading, of course — there is generous, and then there’s just plain ridiculous), so I was able to read WALK ON EARTH A STRANGER a few months early.

And guys, I didn’t even think it was possible, but if the first book is anything to go by, I think the Gold Seer Trilogy may be even better than GIRL OF FIRE AND THORNS.

I know. Take a moment.

The Plot (from Goodreads):

Lee Westfall has a secret. She can sense the presence of gold in the world around her. Veins deep beneath the earth, pebbles in the river, nuggets dug up from the forest floor. The buzz of gold means warmth and life and home—until everything is ripped away by a man who wants to control her. Left with nothing, Lee disguises herself as a boy and takes to the trail across the country. Gold was discovered in California, and where else could such a magical girl find herself, find safety?

Walk on Earth a Stranger, the first book in this new trilogy, introduces—as only Rae Carson can—a strong heroine, a perilous road, a fantastical twist, and a slow-burning romance. Includes a map and author’s note on historical research.

My Thoughts:

Before I dig into my thoughts on the first book in Rae Carson’s new Gold Seer Trilogy, let’s discuss genre for a minute. While WALK ON EARTH A STRANGER is being marketed as a fantasy, and while the opening chapter firmly establishes Leah Westfall’s ability to magically sense the presence of gold, once you move past the events that set Leah off on her cross-country journey, I was surprised to find that the majority of the book reads like a straight historical. Who knows, maybe future installments in the series will play up the magic more, but going off of just this first book, it feels a bit more accurate to call WOEAS historical fiction with some magical realism elements, rather than a fantasy

That said, even though I’d been prepared for a fantasy, I was not disappointed in the slightest to find magic missing from the majority of WOEAS. Leah — who starts going by “Lee” early in the book, when she disguises herself as a boy — is an utterly compelling narrator, and Carson’s prose is simultaneously lush and gritty, masterfully evoking the visuals and sounds and smells of a late-1800s America. The staggering amount of research that must have gone into this novel is evident on every page, immersing the reader in the endlessly beautiful — yet unforgivingly harsh — American frontier.

Though the ensemble cast seems kind of sprawling at first, Carson skillfully manages to develop her characters into fully three-dimensional people after surprisingly little page time. It didn’t take long before I was rooting not just for Leah, but for the families and individuals traveling alongside her. I won’t name names, because some characters have pretty impressive arcs (and some, um, die), but suffice it to say, Leah isn’t the only one who ends the book loving these people like family.

For those of us who grew up playing the video game Oregon Trail, Leah’s journey will come with a distinct sense of nostalgia. While (spoiler alert) Leah never hunkers down for days on end to shoot squirrels, she, along with her fellow travelers, must ford rivers, maneuver covered wagons, manage sick oxen, and battle disease (although not quite as much dysentery as I remember from my Oregon Trail days). Though the wagon train’s trek to California moves agonizingly slowly, the plot never does. Carson is a master of infusing her story with moment-to-moment tension, and even when the characters were sitting still, I found myself flying through the pages.

As with Carson’s first series, [what I suspect will be] the main romantic subplot doesn’t get much exploration in this first book. While there are hints, this is a story of survival and endurance, not romance. However, as a fan of the slow burn, I thoroughly enjoyed the foundations that were so thoughtfully laid in this book, and I think that even readers who prefer a lot of swoon in their fiction will find that, while sparse, there are enough tidbits in this book to carry them through to the next one.

Overall, I found WALK ON EARTH A STRANGER to be a beautiful, vivid, and compulsively readable portrayal of life in Gold Rush-era America, with just a dash of magic. I unequivocally loved it. Whether you are a lover of fantasy or historicals or simply a good story well told, I think you’ll love it, too.

Review: FOOL’S QUEST by Robin Hobb

Oh, FitzChivalry Farseer and my Beloved Fool, how do I love thee, let me count the ways.

*looks at bookshelves*


Apparently at least eleven books’ worth.

Wait, don’t run away! This is my favorite fantasy series — and one of my favorite series, period — of all time. Of all time. Yes, it’s hefty, but don’t worry, I’ll help you through it. And if you love richly built fantasy worlds, complex characters, strong friendships, magic, and dragons, I promise you, it’s worth the time commitment.

First, some basic orientation. Robin Hobb’s FOOL’S QUEST is clearly not a standalone, but the second installment in a new trilogy (beginning with FOOL’S ASSASSIN) that follows two other trilogies, starting with ASSASSIN’S APPRENTICE, where we meet main protagonist Fitz as a young child, and ending with FOOL’S FATE, where we leave him as a grown man. Plus there are two other companion series set in the same world — the brilliant Liveship Traders trilogy (starting with SHIP OF MAGIC), and then the Rain Wilds Chronicles (which I have to admit I haven’t finished yet — I’m working on it!). The companion series are not necessary to read and understand the Fitz books, but they very much enhance the experience.

That’s fifteen books thus far set in this world. And counting.

If you’ve never read any of the books set in Robin Hobb’s Six Duchies and its surrounding lands, fifteen books is a pretty daunting number. As this is my favorite fantasy series of all time (I may have mentioned this), I personally think it’s worth the effort to read all of them (Rain Wilds Chronicles, I will conquer you), but if that’s just way too big an undertaking for you, then you *only* (heh) need to read seven books to understand the events in FOOL’S QUEST. They are:



And then the first book in the new Fitz and the Fool trilogy: FOOL’S ASSASSIN.

These books all share a protagonist — FitzChivalry Farseer — and proceed chronologically throughout his life, each book building off the events of the last. There’s really no skipping around if you want to read about Fitz — sorry — but at the same time, I cannot overemphasize how much I enjoy reading about Fitz. Like many high fantasy series-starters, the first book in each series takes a little while to really get going, but once it does, hoo boy.

(If you wanted to read the two companion series, they each stand alone, but Liveship Traders falls between the Assassin and Tawny Man trilogies, and Rain Wilds falls between Tawny Man and Fitz and the Fool.)

Try as I might, there’s really no way for me to review the fifteenth book in an ongoing series without spoilers for the preceding books, so if you haven’t read them, proceed with caution. I’ll try my best not to be too spoilery, but even the broad strokes give away some major developments of the other books in the series. So. Continue at your own risk.

With all that out of the way, let’s get to my thoughts on Fitz’s latest adventures in FOOL’S QUEST (Fitz and the Fool #2).

The Plot (from Goodreads):

Acclaimed and bestselling author Robin Hobb continues her Fitz and the Fool trilogy with this second entry, following Fool’s Assassin, ramping up the tension and the intrigue as disaster continues to strike at Fitz’s life and heart.

After nearly killing his oldest friend, the Fool, and finding his daughter stolen away by those who were once targeting the Fool, FitzChivarly Farseer is out for blood. And who better to wreak havoc than a highly trained and deadly former royal assassin? Fitz might have let his skills go fallow over his years of peace, but such things, once learned, are not so easily forgotten. And nothing is more dangerous than a man who has nothing left to lose…

My Thoughts:

I can’t tell you how excited I was when I found out Robin Hobb was writing a new series about Fitz and the Fool. While we left both characters in a pretty satisfying place at the end of FOOL’S FATE, I’d come to love these characters like family. I missed not being able to journey alongside them on their adventures. So although I had no idea what to expect as far as a conflict for a new series — the main conflict in both the Assassin and Tawny Man series is pretty handily wrapped up at the end of FOOL’S FATE — I was eager to return to the world of the Six Duchies.

Like the first books in most of Hobb’s preceding series, the initial installment in the Fitz and the Fool trilogy, FOOL’S ASSASSIN, takes its time ramping up. I very much enjoyed it — by this point in the series, my overwhelming fondness for FitzChivalry Farseer means that I’m totally cool following him through a series of quiet and mundane tasks, whether it’s managing his estate or dealing with his children (mostly because Fitz has gone through so many dark times that I’m beyond pleased that he has an estate, or children) — and this sort of slow grounding process is necessary to re-establish the reader in Fitz’s world and remind us of the events that led here — but as far as action goes, it’s not until the final act of FOOL’S ASSASSIN that we really see things take off.

Not so with FOOL’S QUEST. Again, this is pretty well expected for each of Hobb’s series: Book 1 spends its time meticulously setting up an intricate pattern of dominoes, then Book 2 blazes in and knocks them all down, leaving the reader in a mess of perfectly executed chaos. FOOL’S QUEST was no exception to this. It hits the ground running, picking up right where FOOL’S ASSASSIN leaves off, and pushes the plot forward at a determined pace, never feeling rushed, but never letting up, either. High fantasy tends to run long in pages, but while reading FOOL’S QUEST, I found myself lamenting that there were *only* 500, 400, 300 pages left to go.

You know that feeling when watching the extended edition of The Two Towers, and it ends and you simultaneously realize, “wow, that movie was three and a half hours long,” but also wish it didn’t have to end? That’s the feeling I had reading this book. Though I was aware of its heft, when I turned the last page, I wasn’t anywhere near ready for it to be over.

Unlike FOOL’S ASSASSIN, which focuses almost entirely on Fitz and his life far away from Buckkeep Castle, FOOL’S QUEST returns him to his old stomping grounds, where we finally get to catch up with beloved (and Beloved) characters of the past. The Fool is there, of course (I was surprised at how little The Fool was in the first book, given its name), just as mysterious and tragic as ever, along with Chade, Kettricken, Dutiful, Elliania, Nettle, and a host of minor characters whose inclusion made it feel like a true homecoming not just for Fitz, but for the reader. There are even some cameos from characters from the Liveships and Rain Wilds books, whom I hope we see more of as the story progresses.

Although this series of series has always tied together beautifully, to me it’s always felt kind of like a quilt, with clearly distinct pieces coming together at the edges and making up a whole. The Fitz books overlapped with Liveships, which overlapped with Rain Wilds, but they were all still their own separate entities. But in FOOL’S QUEST, for the first time, it began to feel more like a tapestry, with the threads beginning to weave over and under and through one another. It’s possible this won’t come to fruition, and that this Fitz series, like the other (brilliant) books before it, will end up more or less self-contained. But I kind of doubt it, and look forward to seeing how Hobb continues to tie this massive world and cast together.

As with every one of Hobb’s preceding books, in FOOL’S QUEST you can expect a host of fully realized, complicated characters, lush worldbuilding, achingly gorgeous prose, vivid emotion, catastrophic stakes, and thrilling action. But for me, the relationships between the characters are what shine the brightest. Fitz’s friendship with The Fool is, of course, the Catalyst on which the whole story pivots, and always has been. Watching these two characters who have been through so much together interact and trust and plead and betray and forgive is a truly beautiful, frustrating, heartbreaking, uplifting experience.

Contrasting that is Fitz’s relationships with his daughters, where he is not a Catalyst, but simply a father, with all the expectation and disappointment and responsibility that brings. Watching Fitz try to navigate fatherhood, after watching him grow up and struggle and fail and triumph, is both rewarding and agonizing. I want nothing but the best for Fitz, but both fate and his own shortcomings are constantly getting in his way. I want to take him by the shoulders and shake him and hug him, maybe at the same time, which for my money is one of the hallmarks of a truly excellent protagonist.

I could go on for ages, but suffice it to say, all of Fitz’s other relationships are similarly complex and well-drawn. Each feels like fully realized person, and the way Fitz interacts with each person he encounters is wholly authentic and honest, whether he’s fighting to the death or gently caring for a traumatized stable hand. Though the sweeping plot of FOOL’S QUEST is every bit as intriguing and suspenseful as Fitz’s quest to aid King Verity against the Red Ships Raiders, or traveling to Aslevjal island to slay a dragon, it’s these relationships and interactions that are the true meat of this series.

Ultimately, this isn’t a recommendation for this one book — if you’ve already read the preceding 7-14 books, you probably already have a pretty good idea if you want to read this one — but for this series, and every series about FitzChivalry Farseer. If you’re not sure if fantasy is your thing, or you’re hesitant about picking up the first book in a series that is so sprawling, let this be your assurance that this is a series that only gets better as it continues. It’s worth the time, it’s worth the investment. Fitz and The Fool are two of the greatest characters I’ve ever read, and as long as Robin Hobb sees fit to keep writing books about them, I’ll be the first in line to read them.

Review: THE MARTIAN by Andy Weir

A few weeks ago, the trailer for the upcoming sci-fi film The Martian released online. Look, here it is. Watch it. I’ll wait.

Looks pretty great, right? I saw it was based on a book. “Should I read the book?” I wondered aloud on social media.

Then social media nearly peed itself with enthusiasm. “YES,” everyone said, “READ THE MARTIAN.”

Okay, I thought. It had been a while since I’d read any adult sci-fi that really engaged me as a reader, and I was way overdue for something good. So I ordered the book, and waited eagerly for its arrival.

And dude.


The Plot (from Goodreads):

Six days ago, astronaut Mark Watney became one of the first people to walk on Mars. Now, he’s sure he’ll be the first person to die there. After a dust storm nearly kills him & forces his crew to evacuate while thinking him dead, Mark finds himself stranded & completely alone with no way to even signal Earth that he’s alive—& even if he could get word out, his supplies would be gone long before a rescue could arrive. Chances are, though, he won’t have time to starve to death. The damaged machinery, unforgiving environment or plain-old “human error” are much more likely to kill him first. But Mark isn’t ready to give up yet. Drawing on his ingenuity, his engineering skills—& a relentless, dogged refusal to quit—he steadfastly confronts one seemingly insurmountable obstacle after the next. Will his resourcefulness be enough to overcome the impossible odds against him?

My Thoughts:

THE MARTIAN is, hands-down, one of the best books I’ve ever read. I don’t mean “best” in a technical sense — although I don’t think it has many faults in that arena either — but in a couldn’t-put-it-down, laughed-out-loud, recommended-it-to-everyone-I-knew, still-thinking-about-it-weeks-later sense. I loved it so much it’s hard to write a review without devolving into incoherent squealing noises, but I shall try.

The appeal of THE MARTIAN hinges almost entirely on its main character, Mark Watney. The vast majority of the book is his first-person journal entries, where he describes his efforts to survive alone on a hostile planet, for years, using accommodations and supplies meant to last a month. This is a dangerous device, because if the reader doesn’t like the main character, there’s literally nothing else to focus on. Mark is it, at least for the first significant chunk of the book. Take him or leave him.

Fortunately, Mark Watney is the kind of character I could read forever. Though most of his narration is spent breaking down the science of survival (soil cultivation! structural engineering! making water out of rocket fuel!), which sounds like it should be the most tedious of subjects, I was riveted from the first page to the last. He had a way of describing even the most complex processes in ways that were not only easy to follow, but exciting and, against all odds, funny. Never in my life would I have thought I could be so invested in potato farming, or laugh so hard at the woes of a man caught in such dire circumstances.

There are no bad guys in THE MARTIAN, and it doesn’t need any. There is only Mark (and, eventually, NASA) versus Mars. Since Mars is always present, and always deadly, the tension stays ratcheted up throughout. Life on Mars may be monotonous for Mark, but for the reader, there are no dull points. Everything Mark does is a matter of life and death, all told through a lens of determination, scrappiness, and wry (occasionally profane) humor.

Science is practically a main character in THE MARTIAN, but author Andy Weir — through Mark — breaks it down into language that was completely accessible to me, a total layman. Even though practically every page contains Mark working through calculations, conducting chemistry experiments, or engineering unorthodox solutions to his problems, the narrative never felt bogged down by it, nor was I ever confused. Everything from the technology to Mark’s methods to NASA’s reactions were all presented in such a compelling and believable way that I occasionally had to remind myself that this was science fiction, not a true story.

THE MARTIAN is everything I want in science fiction. High stakes, excellent pacing, unexpected humor, an amazing premise, smart yet accessible science, and fully realized characters that I miss once the last page is turned. It easily launched itself to the top of my list of favorite books, and is a story I look forward to re-reading many, many times. 100 out of 5 stars.

Jurassic World: Trying yet again to recapture the magic of Jurassic Park

I’m beginning to think that Jurassic Park was lightning in a bottle.

This weekend, Jurassic World will stomp into theaters like a rampaging T-Rex, the third in a series of heretofore disastrous sequels attempting to recapture the magic of Spielberg’s original dino-masterpiece. But while it comes closer than either of its predecessors to giving me what I wanted in a Jurassic follow-up, it still fell far short of the jaw-dropping wonder of the first film. And after two cringe-worthy sequels and one lukewarm one, I’m starting to wonder if Hollywood should just stop trying.

Lots of Jurassic World winds up feeling like a dull shadow of Jurassic Park, like someone studied the original film, making notes of random plot and character points, and then tweaked them for this movie without considering what purpose they served in the original.

Oil-and-water child siblings shuttled off to spend time with a detached non-parent relative (dressed, inexplicably, all in white) on a remote island filled with dinosaurs? Check.

A rugged, outdoorsy type cautioning the park-runners that they don’t have enough respect for what they’ve created? Check.

A starry-eyed park owner with deep pockets, little sense, and fluffy, sugar-coated idealism? Check.

A dude intent on stealing the dino-technology for his own nefarious and greedy purposes? Check.

A giant, carnivorous dinosaur attacking kids trapped in a vehicle? Check.

A character running from a T-Rex while holding a flare, an oh-crap moment of we’ve-underestimated-the-dinosaurs’-intelligence, a quiet moment with a long-necked herbivore, scientists failing to consider the implications of splicing dinosaur DNA with not-dinosaur DNA, trapped kids being menaced by raptors, an 11th hour out-of-nowhere dino hero moment — check check check check.

And yet, while the Jurassic World filmmakers did not make a bad movie by recycling so much of the original, they really missed the mark on what made it special. Jurassic Park was groundbreaking in its effects, sure, but it was also smart in its storytelling. There were far more forces at work than just Dinos Gone Wild, though that seems to be all the sequels remember.

It had the hubris of man, embodied in John Hammond and Dennis Nedry, trying to force the narrative along according to their will.

It had the pitting of science versus nature, as a paleontologist, a paleobotanist, and a mathematician (chaotician, chaotician) are forced to come face to face with things that, until now, they’ve only been able to study in the abstract.

And underneath it all, chaos. This was the entire point of the Ian Malcolm character — to give voice to the chaos undercutting everything they tried to do. Malcolm was there to point out that no matter how much control humans may think they have, there will always be something they haven’t accounted for, because they can’t. It’s easy to overlook in all the black-leather-Jeff-Goldblum-stuttering-and-swaggering amazingness, but over and over, Malcolm warns the group that the very idea of the park is, in its essence, flawed.

“The kind of control you’re attempting simply is…it’s not possible. If there is one thing the history of evolution has taught us it’s that life will not be contained.”

“The lack of humility before nature that’s being displayed here staggers me.”

“Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”

Interestingly, it’s Ellie Sattler, not Ian Malcolm, who sums up the main conflict of the first film toward the end, in a conversation with John Hammond. “When we have control,” Hammond begins emphatically, envisioning how next time, he’ll be able to open the park without problems — then Ellie interrupts, “You never had control, that’s the illusion!”

And it was this thread — this smart, scientific approach to chaos, to humans being forced to admit they could do nothing but watch as things spiraled out of control, and how each time the humans desperately grasped at a way to pull things back together, something else went wrong, to the point where they ultimately had no choice but to admit defeat and flee the island — that made the first movie so thrilling to watch.

In a film that is universally praised for its groundbreaking effects, it’s easy to assume that the spectacle is what made it great — and three times now, sequels have tried to capitalize on bigger spectacle — but without that slow crumbling of control; without the gradual realization of the humans that, no, there is no mastering what’s gone wrong here, there is only, at best, surviving it; without that underlying, razor-edged tension of  watching characters struggle for better circumstances while knowing, deep down, that things will only get worse, you’re left only with special effects and screams. Which may be visually cool, but it isn’t interesting.

This is Jurassic World‘s main misstep. All throughout, despite the glossy effects and big-budget action, it feels too controlled. Both the park itself, and the structure of the film surrounding it. Even though you have Chris Pratt’s character, Owen, darkly warning Bryce Dallas Howard that they shouldn’t be cooking up their own dinosaurs, it turns out to be a bad idea not because the dinosaur is a dinosaur, and thus unpredictable, but because the dinosaur is smart. And while yes, the raptors in the first film proved to be smarter than the humans thought, it wasn’t their intelligence that made the first film terrifying; it was the idea that the humans have no idea what they’ll do next.

All throughout Jurassic World, the dinosaurs are predictable and controllable. Yes, their Frankensteinian creation winds up getting loose and chomping up people and other dinosaurs left and right, but they can see where it’s going, they can shuttle park attendees around to keep them (mostly) out of harm’s way, and throughout the film they never doubt that if they can just subdue that one dinosaur, everything will be fine again.

As for the other dinosaurs — the ones whose survival instincts trumped every effort of man to control them in the first movie, and became exaggerated monstrous versions of themselves in the second and third — they remained either docile in their cages, or were let out only to do exactly what humans wanted them to do. Sometimes they get a bit out of line (the scamps), but even then, they were really only a threat to people who didn’t take the effort to truly understand them.

If Ian Malcolm had died in the first movie the way he did in the book, Jurassic World would have him rolling over in his grave.

Chris Pratt’s Raptor Gang, while a cool action sequence, totally undercut the entire point of the first movie, which was that no matter how much humans might think they’ve mastered nature, they haven’t. Instead of being unwieldy instruments of chaos, the Jurassic World dinosaurs are tools: pets and weapons and rides and blunt objects. The humans are caricatures of the characters in the first film, and as such, it was hard to invest in any of them outside the main quartet, who — though they spent much of the movie’s 2-hour run time cowering and running and screaming — never felt like they were in any real peril.

Jurassic World is not without its good points. Unlike the last two sequels, there are no cringe-worthy, eye-rolling moments of pure inanity. There are snippets of humor, mostly courtesy of Chris Pratt, who can’t help but have great comedic timing even with a mostly wooden script. There are some amazing effects, and as far as shot-for-shot beauty goes, this is probably the most visually stunning of the bunch. There are some sweet moments between the two kid brothers, and Bryce Dallas Howard’s Claire goes from being stiff and distant to genuinely root-worthy. And though the movie’s spectacular, dino-violence-filled climax is not necessarily shocking, it is still pretty darn fun to watch.

But while the original Jurassic Park felt like intelligent, taut, truly frightening science fiction, Jurassic World is simply a summer popcorn flick, with dinosaurs. It won’t make you think, it won’t scare you, it probably won’t even get your pulse up, aside from a few jump scares. It won’t give you any great one-liners to quote over and over for the next two decades, or any characters who will stick with you like friends. But it will entertain, and make you smile, and give you ample amounts of gorgeous CGI and thrilling action sequences.

And maybe, if the original is lightning in a bottle, that’s the most we can ask of a sequel.

Here’s my Drive Through Movie Review of Jurassic World that we filmed right after seeing the movie, in which I couldn’t quite pull all my thoughts into coherent words yet, but I did try to imagine what a Goldblum-T-Rex hybrid might look like.