Back Rowe Reviews
Real Time Movie Reviews from the Back Row of a Theater

2022

Jurassic World: Dominion (PG-13)

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Directed by: Colin Trevorrow
Starring: Chris Pratt
June 2022



Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!


Believe it or not, Ripley, this is the sixth movie based on Michael Crichton’s 1990 novel “Jurassic Park.” What’s more, this is the third movie in the Jurassic World trilogy—the supersized spawn of the Jurassic Park trilogy.

Jurassic World: Dominion opens in the same globetrotting manner as Crichton’s original book. From a giant locust swarm in South Texas, to the snow-covered Dolomite Mountains in Italy, to the forested Sierra Nevada Mountains, to the sweltering Mediterranean island of Malta, the movie covers a lot of territory. Sadly, despite its many exciting locations and events, the movie fails to blaze any new territory narratively.

The story eventually brings us to characters we know; Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) and Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) are raising clone girl Maisie Lockwood (Isabella Sermon). Much like Ariel from
The Little Mermaid or Hanna from the eponymous 2011 movie and 2019 TV show, Maisie wants to be where the people are. Owen and Claire are overprotective parents, but who wouldn’t be when every tech company on the planet would love to get their hands on Maisie, the first human clone? Oh, and pay no mind the raptors romping through the forest near Owen’s cabin. They're trained.

Jump to a reunion scene with Alan Grant (Sam Neill) and Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern). Ellie tells Alan she’s recently divorced—cue the love story. The doctors are invited to visit the top-secret genetics lab, Biosyn (what a pun! Bio-sin, i.e., messing with the natural world is a transgression).

At Biosyn, Alan and Ellie are reunited with another long-lost friend, Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum). They also meet the head of Biosyn, Dr. Lewis Dodgson (Campbell Scott). You might recall that name from the first
Jurassic Park (1993). He’s the one who paid Dennis Nedry (Wayne Knight) to steal the dino embryos and deliver them in a Barbasol shaving cream can. Picking up this loose narrative thread from the original film is one of the movie’s finest moments.

But the thrill of getting the band back together again soon wears off and we realize that Ian’s quirky sense of humor hasn’t aged well (unlike the svelte actor portraying him). Though the romantic tension between Alan and Ellie is sweet, it’s also terribly predictable with nary a complication to keep us guessing.

And speaking of predictable, the paint-by-numbers plot has a chronic case of ADD—its focus constantly shifts between sets of heroes. Regrettably for Owen and Claire, they’re frequently upstaged by the old guard…in their own movie. Plus, the action scene in Malta looks like it was borrowed from a James Bond movie, only with raptors feasting on tourists subbed in for hero vs. villain shootouts.

One of the central themes of these
Jurassic Park movies is the dangers of playing God, and “Genetics Gone Wrong” is front and center in the trilogy capper. Dr. Henry Wu (BD Wong) is up to his old tricks, creating giant locusts and other DNA-spliced creatures. Hasn’t he learned from his mistakes by now? Whatever the latest catastrophe is involving dinosaurs, you can bet Wu is at the center of it. As Ian rightly points out, “It’s always him!”

Of course, these films wouldn’t keep attracting large audiences without terrifying dinosaurs rampaging through amusement parks and gobbling up humans. Many of director Colin Trevorrow’s sequences draw too much inspiration from the earlier films, i.e., characters trying to hide from a large, carnivorous dinosaur behind an overturned SUV, a la the OG film. Though this movie sees the return of the dilophosaurus, the attack scenes involving these frilled creatures are nearly identical to those in the original
Jurassic Park.

Based on Alan’s theory that dinosaurs were more bird-like than reptile-like, some of Wu’s new GMDs (genetically modified dinosaurs) are avian in appearance. Unfortunately, a giant creature with feathers doesn’t evoke the same sense of dread that a “terrible lizard” does.

In the end, even the team lift of old and new characters can’t hoist
Dominion out of the swamp of failed creature features. It will go down as the worst of the lot.

However, depending on how current events play out,
Dominion’s warning of an impending global food shortage may give it unforeseen relevance.

So, now that we’ve had
Jurassic Park and Jurassic World, what’s next? Jurassic Universe?

Rating: 2 out of 4

Lightyear (PG)

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Directed by: Angus MacLane
Starring: Chris Evans
June 2022



Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!


Buzz Lightyear (Chris Evans), Commander Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba) and Rookie Featheringhamstan (Bill Hader) explore an unknown planet, but are forced to make a hasty departure when they’re attacked by vine creatures. Buzz can’t quite steer the ship over the top of a jagged peak and the vessel crash lands on the inhospitable world.

One year later, a small base has sprung up around the ship, constructed by the ship’s crew who’ve been roused from their suspended animation naps. These industrious colonizers also have designed an experimental spaceplane that might be able to achieve hyperspeed, which will allow Buzz to bring his crew home and complete his mission.

With each unsuccessful mission, Buzz returns to the base to find that everyone has grown older. When Buzz finally achieves hyperspeed, he comes home, not to pomp and circumstance, but to the grim reality that the descendants of his original crew have been wiped out by an army of malevolent robots.

Does that synopsis make
Lightyear sound kinda’ ho-hum and hard to follow for a kid’s movie? It is.

If you find the story difficult to track, try to understand the reasoning behind the movie’s “meta” introduction, which tells us that young Andy from
Toy Story (1995) first idolized his favorite toy (Buzz, not Woody apparently) by watching a movie starring the Space Ranger, and that “This is that story.” So, just to be clear, we’re watching an animated movie about an action hero that a kid in another animated movie once watched; and his toy, based on that action hero, becomes the co-star of four films. Somebody pass the Advil.

The opening sequence of
Toy Story 2 (1999) features a brief episode where Buzz takes out an army of robots and encounters the villainous Zurg. The action-packed sequence cleverly sets up the climactic confrontation and starts the movie off with a bang.

As exhilarating as the pulse-pounding preamble is in
Toy Story 2, I couldn’t have handled an entire movie in the same format and style. Though the story here isn’t nearly as pedestrian as the breakneck pace of the dramatized video game in Toy Story 2, there’s an overall campiness the film’s handful of decent character moments can’t quite overcome.

Lightyear serves as an origin story for Buzz Lightyear and a loose prequel to the Toy Story movies. It gives us more details about the way Star Command and its Space Rangers operate. However, despite some nifty weapons, like the laser blade, and sweet-looking ships, like the XL-15, much of the movie is a pastiche of other sci-fi franchises, particularly Star Wars and Star Trek.

Buzz’ mission logs are an obvious rip-off of the captain’s log in
Star Trek. Also, the visuals when the XL spaceship attempts to slingshot around a sun are remarkably similar to the slingshot sequences in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986).

Other than their bright yellow paint-job, the hulking Zyclops robots bear more than a passing resemblance to the super battle droids in the
Star Wars prequels. The capital ship Zurg commands is reminiscent of an Imperial Star Destroyer (the Arquitens Class command cruiser in particular). Buzz and his team come up with a plan to destroy the mother ship, which will deactivate all the robots. This plan is virtually identical to the one hatched by the Gungans and the Naboo to destroy the Trade Federation ship, which deactivates all the battle droids in Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999).

Aside from leaning on well-worn sci-fi tropes, the movie attempts to explore some adult themes, with varying degrees of success. The challenges inherent in colonizing an alien planet are addressed obliquely and the dome-like protection, called “Laser Shield,” prevents a lot of dramatic tension and potential action scenes.

Adding some literary heft, the movie weaves an allusion to
Moby Dick into its plot. After repeated failed attempts to reach hyperspeed, Buzz realizes his friends are getting older and are having kids and grandkids. At some point you’d think Buzz would stop, turn the mission over to a younger pilot and spend some quality time with his aging friends. But no, Buzz’ pride won’t allow that.

Breaking the hyperspeed barrier in his spacecraft is Buzz’ white whale. He risks everything to reach that goal. In the end, his obsession blinds him to what’s most important in his life.

Sadly, Buzz never gets to say goodbye to Hawthorne and his other friends because he’s off flying a mission when they pass away. It’s a poignant moment for the audience, as we place ourselves in Buzz’ boots and consider the brevity of life—if the movie has an emotional core, this is it.

Other than the secondary themes of obsession and growing old, the movie’s main theme, which is hammered home over and over again in the dialog, is Buzz’ independence.

Buzz isn’t very likable at the beginning of the film. He’s arrogant, controlling (he resists turning things over to an autopilot) and overconfident (Buzz’ overestimation of his piloting abilities is what causes the ship to crash, which is the inciting incident for the movie’s many complications). He makes condescending remarks about the rookie and ignores the young man’s frequent offers to lend a hand. In essence, Buzz is John Wayne in space.

Buzz’ narcissism is on full display when he makes mission logs. Dictated like a dramatic reading, these oft-embellished recordings are just to make him look good in the eyes of his superiors. Hawthorne calls out Buzz’ compulsion to record their missions and refers to his habit as “narrating” (not to be confused with “monologuing” in
The Incredibles). The fact that Hawthorne tells him no one listens to his recordings fails to dissuade Buzz from making log entries throughout the rest of the movie. Add stubbornness to Buzz’ list of negative character traits.

As was mentioned earlier, the movie’s writers work overtime to highlight Buzz’ independent nature. At one point, Buzz says, “I’m better off doing the job by myself.” Later, he says, “I’m always sure.”

Fortunately, Buzz comes to see the value of team. He gradually abandons his desire to control everything. He learns to accept the ideas of others and even delegates responsibilities he’d normally shoulder himself. Buzz’ loner leader turned team player story arc culminates with this admission, “I can’t do it alone. I need help.” Buzz’ transformative realization is also germane for the audience; we all need others in our life.

Lightyear is a disappointment on many levels. It contains the merest fraction of the movie magic that made the Toy Story franchise so wildly popular with kids, parents and critics alike.

Thematically, the movie is very adult; aesthetically, it’s very dark. There’s little levity, and only a few funny lines, in the movie. Plus, the hero isn’t very heroic for the first half of the film.

Though the production elements are top-notch, the story is lacking. I expect much more from Pixar (the quality of their movies has steadily declined since Disney bought the animation studio).

Still,
Lightyear is educational. It teaches us the proper way to make a meat sandwich. It references some real science too, like relative velocity and time dilation…pretty ambitious for a kid’s movie.

It also leaves us pondering the big questions about life and the universe.

Like, what’s beyond infinity?

Rating: 2 ½ out of 4

Top Gun: Maverick (PG-13)

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Directed by: Joseph Kosinski
Starring: Tom Cruise
May 2022



Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!


For anyone who’s seen Top Gun (1986), this film’s opening sequence will be an exhilarating blast from the past.

We witness jets landing on an aircraft carrier, tailhooks snagging arresting wires to bring the planes to a screeching halt. Then we see airplanes launching from the carrier; pilots are given the go-ahead hand signal by members of a highly-skilled group of technicians who serve as a pit crew for the jets. A triumphant fist pump accompanies each successful takeoff.

Then we hear the haunting strains of an electric guitar, which propels the regal power ballad “Top Gun Anthem” from the OG movie. Cue the goose bumps. The nostalgic opener culminates with a short sampling of Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone,” a song synonymous with the 80s movie.

The story begins with Captain Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Tom Cruise) working on a P-51 Mustang in a hangar in Mojave, CA. Living up to his name, Maverick has nearly been discharged from the Navy several times for insubordination, but he receives orders from his friend, Admiral Tom “Iceman” Kazansky (Val Kilmer), to return to the Top Gun flight school in San Diego, CA. In a top secret meeting with Admiral Simpson (Jon Hamm) and Admiral Bates (Charles Parnell), Maverick is informed that he’s been tasked with leading a mission into enemy territory to blow up an underground uranium enrichment facility.

Surprise #1: Maverick learns that his role on the mission is to teach it, not fly it.

Maverick is introduced to the elite pilots he’ll be training.

Surprise #2: One of the young men is Lt. Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller), son of Maverick’s wingman Goose (Anthony Edwards), who died in a training accident in the first film.

As Maverick puts the pilots through grueling training, with occasional breaks for teambuilding fun, Navy Intelligence learns some distressing news…

Surprise #3: The enemy facility will be operational sooner than anticipated and the mission has been moved up—ready or not, the pilots will be wheels up in seven days.

So, will Maverick’s young pilots have the right stuff to complete an impossible mission (Cruise’s other alter ego, Ethan Hunt, could do it without breaking a sweat), or will they crash into a mountain or be shot down by sleek fifth-generation fighters? Buckle up! There are plenty more surprises on this wild ride.

A number of elements made the original film a crowd-pleasing classic. A callow, cocky Cruise was certainly a box office draw for many. The realistic dogfights between U.S. F-14 Tomcats and Russian MiGs created an immersive experience that appealed to the arcade/Atari crowd. The ubiquitous soundtrack generated excitement for the movie all summer long, and even people who hadn’t seen the movie (like me…I wasn’t allowed to see it) could identify the film by its chart-topping hits.

Top Gun: Maverick has plenty of things going for it as well. For starters, its storyline is a bit more complicated than the straight shot plot in the original film. A more seasoned Maverick struggles to find his place in the new Navy; hotshot young pilots and modern fighter planes threaten his obsolescence.

Rooster’s inclusion in the team of fighter pilots forces Maverick to confront the lingering ghost of Goose’s tragic death. The young pilot bears a grudge against Maverick for delaying his entry into the Naval Academy; unbeknownst to Rooster, it was his mother’s dying wish. The movie gets ample dramatic mileage from this estranged relationship.

And speaking of relationships, Maverick is reunited with long-lost love, Penny (Jennifer Connelly). Though underdeveloped, their relationship is sweet without being saccharine. Also, Cruise and Connelly have far better screen chemistry than the dubious pairing of Cruise and Kelly McGillis in the original film.

The movie’s attractive young actors deliver fine performances. Of note are annoyingly overconfident Hangman (Glen Powell), quietly confident Phoenix (Monica Barbaro), and silent techie Bob (Lewis Pullman). And what highflying film would be complete without Ed Harris? He plays Admiral Cain in a scanty, yet significant role.

Aside from its star-studded cast, the movie’s success rides on its aerial combat sequences. The visuals in
Maverick far surpass those in the original film, and some of the aerobatic stunts literally take your breath away (with apologies to Berlin). But in the age of CGI, how real are the dogfights?

Much like Maverick, Cruise is well-known for pushing the limits. From the outset, Cruise insisted that the sequel should contain no green screen or CGI shots. It would be easy to cheat on the close-up cockpit shots, but even those were captured in-flight during real aerial filming sessions.

In addition to enduring a three month boot camp designed by Cruise, the young performers involved in flight scenes had to undergo g-force training to prepare them for the incredible pressures they’d experience when filming aloft. Added pressure was placed on the actors when, out of necessity, they became active participants in the filmmaking process.

According to producer Jerry Bruckheimer, “The actors also had to learn how to run the cameras because when they’re up in the jet they have to direct themselves essentially. They also needed to be taught about the lighting, cinematography and editing, as it is the once-in-a-lifetime experience.” Now that’s how you take amateur filmmaking to new heights.

Not every aspect of the film soars, though. Many could justifiably argue that the opener is a rip-off of the original and that the entire movie is a redux of
Top Gun.

As with the first film, character development in
Maverick is fairly shallow; other than Maverick, Rooster and Penny, most of the characters are cardboard cutouts with call signs. Also, with very few exceptions, the plot is patently predictable.

The movie’s theme of “old vs. new” is delivered with all the subtlety of an exploding rocket. In the words of Admiral Cain, pilots like Maverick are “headed for extinction.” Maverick is frequently referred to as “old man,” and one of the younger officers calls F-14s “old relics”—the inference is that Maverick resembles the planes he used to fly.

There are plenty of worn-out tropes here too, like when the motorcycle-riding Maverick races alongside a jet hurdling down a runway; a callback to a similar scene in the original movie. Another allusion is when Rooster sits down at a piano and bangs out Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Great Balls of Fire,” something his father had done, with him sitting on top of the piano, in the first movie.

Then there’s the slogan-happy dialog, i.e. the oft-quoted, “It’s not the plane, it’s the pilot.” Or the Yoda-esque, “Don’t think, just do.”

One of the movie’s strangest story points is that the enemy remains unidentified. Apparently in today’s political climate, Russia and China are off-limits when selecting bad guys for a story. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised since this movie was co-funded by Tencent, a Chinese company.

In a movie focused on fight and flight, character moments often take a back seat to action sequences. An exception is the touching reunion scene in the middle of the story; it’s one of the only moments where the film slows down long enough for a meaningful conversation to take place. Iceman invites Maverick to visit his home; the latter is greeted at the door by Iceman’s wife who says, “It’s come back.”

When Maverick enters Iceman’s home office, his rival-turned-friend is having a coughing fit. Iceman can’t speak; he must express his thoughts with the assistance of a computer. Iceman inquires about Rooster. When Maverick admits he’s at wits’ end with how to deal with the young man, Iceman types, “It’s time to let go.”

This sage and selfless advice, coming from a man battling a terminal illness (the fact that Kilmer has throat cancer lends the scene added poignancy), is the heart of the film. It’s a stark reminder of the brevity of life, something the pilots in the film are all too aware of, and an admonition to make the most of every moment.

Top Gun: Maverick is a dazzling roller coaster of a movie. It’s a worthy successor to the original film and has pushed the technology and aerial acrobatics to the next level. The gravity-defying, death-daring stunts should make this a crowd-pleasing, summer popcorn flick.

It’s regrettable that the pervasive swearing detracts from what otherwise is a pretty clean film. Despite its heavy dose of foul language, the movie is an entertaining thrill ride that should appeal to a wide audience, especially those with a need for speed.

The final scene shows Maverick and Penny flying off into the sunset. Is this symbolic? Will this be the end of Maverick’s story, or will he be back in the sequel…

Top Gun: Rooster?

Rating: 3 out of 4

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (PG-13)

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Directed by: Sam Raimi
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch
May 2022



Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!


Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness definitely resembles its name. It’s equal parts strange and mad. As if that wasn’t bad enough, everything in the film feels…off.

There are very few funny lines, very few meaningful moments and very few exhilarating action sequences in the movie. Then there’s the 60/40 split between scenes centered on Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Wanda Maximoff/The Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen). Strange had to share screen time in
Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021) too, but that movie was a vehicle for the wall-crawler in the red spandex suit.

Taking Strange’s screen time in
No Way Home and adding it to his screen time here, he almost gets an entire feature out of the two Multiverse movies. In short, it seems like Strange always ends up playing second fiddle to other characters in the Marvel panoply—he’s even sidekick to Wong, the Sorcerer Supreme (Benedict Wong), in his own movies.

As with the scribes of
No Way Home, screenwriter Michael Waldron barely scratches the surface of the creative potential of the Multiverse here. In one of the alternate realities Strange visits, you “go on red” when crossing the street…a pretty mundane change from our reality. Yes, the tree-strewn city is an interesting concept, but the Mustafar-like hellscape and LOTR-style tower, where the Scarlet Witch takes her throne, are derivative and uninspired.

The one part of the movie that was cleverly conceived was Strange and America Chavez’ (Xochitl Gomez) plunge through several planes of the Multiverse; in one reality they become sentient splotches of paint. Though skillfully realized, this short segment is reminiscent of when the Infinite Improbability Drive is engaged in
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (2005)—the sequence where the crew of the Heart of Gold is turned into hand-knit toys is bloody brilliant!

As portrayed in the movie, the Multiverse fails to tap into the vast expanse of possibilities inherent in its name. I’d go on a rant about the lack of wonder, awe and imagination on display in the film, but I couldn’t possibly top the incisive remarks I made in my review of
No Way Home (please reference it for a detailed drubbing of that movie’s mammoth mishandling of the Multiverse).

So, what’s this movie about? Good question.

The story’s character arcs are pedestrian and prosaic. Wanda must let go of her obsessive maternal instinct—she’s willing to destroy anything that prevents her from raising her two boys, including alternate versions of herself. Not very rational.

Doctor Strange’s integrity is called into question…will he turn to the Dark Side (a la, Anakin Skywalker) or will he prove to be virtuous, unlike many of his counterparts from other realities? As if there could be any doubt.

These ho-hum challenges for the central characters provide little opportunity for personal growth—this is as complicated as the film gets. I wish America, who has the ability to open star-shaped portals into the Multiverse, would’ve transported us into a more compelling story.

The secret group called the Illuminati, brings some much-needed energy and levity to the proceedings. The casting of this team of eclectic heroes is superb and offers more than a few surprises.

Multiverse of Madness squanders the solid handoff from the first film. Even the Doctor Strange spotlight episode in the animated series What If…? is superior to this film.

In the end, this latest foray into the Mediocre-verse is another indication of how the studio is failing to live up to its name.

Rating: 2 ½ out of 4