I’ve always been a sucker for dinosaur movies. I was raised on BBC’s Walking With Dinosaurs, and since then I have eagerly devoured any dino media, from Disney’s 2000 flick Dinosaur to the now-bloated Jurassic Park franchise. When I saw the marketing for Adam Driver’s new movie 65, I was instantly intrigued. A shipwrecked man battling dinosaurs in the Cretaceous period? That has my name written all of over it! While 65 does bring the dinosaurs (both historical and fictional), heart-pulsing action sequences, and a not-so surprising “catastrophic foreign object” on a collision-course towards Earth, it fails to develop much in the way of human emotion or interpersonal relationships. Even dinosaurs need character arcs.
Synopsis: On a far away planet called Somaris, a pilot named Mills embarks on a two-year exploratory space mission in the hopes of earning enough money to cure his ailing daughter Nevine. Months into the flight, the ship collides with an asteroid belt and crashes on an unknown planet, killing everyone but Mills and a nine-year-old cryogenic passenger named Koa. After locating the lone surviving escape pod on a mountain 15 km away, Mills and Koa set off on a journey towards rescue. As they make their way towards the pod, they soon realize that there are worse things to fear on this planet than the unknown.
My thoughts: 65 begins promisingly. Somewhere in a galaxy far, far away lies the planet Somaris, where Mills (Adam Driver) spends his last few days before a two-year space journey on a beautiful, sunset-lit beach with his wife and daughter Nevine. The parameters of this civilization aren’t clearly defined for the viewer, but what we need to know is simple: Nevine is sick, and her father will do anything required to save her, even if it means setting off into deep space to pay for her treatment. The “father leaves daughter to go to space” isn’t a ground-breaking plot by any means (see Interstellar), but it at least gives the movie a solid emotional foundation to build on.
Jump cut to space, where we see a futuristic ship (whose resemblance to a prehistoric shark can’t be coincidental) gliding through space. Mills is the only man awake; all the other passengers are in a cryogenic sleep. A collision with an uncharted asteroid belt sends the ship spiraling towards an unknown planet; the harrowing crash and its aftermath, with a vivid portrait of blood leaking from an eviscerated cryogenic pod, shows that the movie is can set a high bar for striking visual imagery.
The viewer’s first glimpse at this mysterious planet are some of the movie’s strongest moments. A murky, moon-lit bayou, home to some ominously slithering creature; the shattered ship, glowing blue neon against a dark and foreboding forest; a nest of crushed eggs as big as dinner plates, and a muddy footprint the size of a car. Without the aggressive dinosaur-heavy marketing, the first 10 minutes of 65 would have presented a haunting mystery for the viewer. Witnessing Mill’s horror as he finds himself alone on a hostile planet is thrilling stuff, even once the first velociraptor appears onscreen.
The dinosaurs in 65 look great, even if they follow the Jaws playbook when it comes to their monstrous behavior. The velociraptors are appropriately small, the T-Rex is appropriately large, and the pterodactyls have flair. As a less informed dinophile, I wasn’t aware while watching the movie that some of the dinosaurs shown onscreen were invented by the filmmakers (perhaps the unfamiliar alligator-snake-T-rex hybrid should have been a clue), but even if the dinosaurs weren’t realistic, the quality of the CGI was still impressive. Their massive claws, sharp teeth, and quick movements are given the full horror treatment, and some of the best scenes in the film, like a low-light cave fight with a bloodthirsty predator straight out of REC, come from watching Mills and Koa attempt to fight back against predators designed to kill.
Giving dinosaurs the horror treatment, however, doesn’t leave a lot of room for nuance. The dinosaurs are in constant attack- mode, and even though that’s thrilling from a horror perspective, it strips much of the realism from the movie. Mills and Koa are constantly fending off attacks from vicious dinosaurs, which leaves little time for the slower parts of a movie that could make it into something deeper than a dino-slasher flick. This leads to the movie’s main problem: its disregard for its characters.
Mills and Koa spend the majority of this 93 minute movie alone in the wilderness. It’s a screenwriter’s dream: unique setting (Cretaceous Earth), easy external conflict (constant threat of dino attacks), and compelling relationship dynamic (tough man and cute little girl). This is all perfect fodder for exciting interpersonal relationships, especially with Mills’ background as a father with an ailing daughter. Yet somehow, the filmmakers completely squander this screenwriting gold by making Koa speak another language! Yes, that’s right, in a movie with only 2 characters onscreen, one of those characters doesn’t speak English.
This decision is baffling, and it creates a much more simplistic movie than the premise could have delivered. Because Koa can’t speak English, she and Mills never have a conversation more complicated than “don’t eat this berry” or “RUN!!!” We never discover anything about Koa other than the fact that she’s 9 (the actress is 15 in real life, which is another head-scratching decision), she’s from the Upper Territories, she doesn’t speak English, and she is looking for her parents (who Mills says are waiting for her at the escape pod, instead of having died in the ship crash). Though Driver and actress Ariana Greenblatt have a nice rapport, and Greenblatt communicates a lot with her eyes, their dynamic is so underwhelming that it had me yearning for the emotional complexity of a movie like Aftersun or Logan. Father and daughter stories are movie gold, and it makes absolutely no sense why the filmmakers would prevent one of the movie’s two main characters from expressing any emotional complexity or explaining any backstory.
By limiting Koa, the movie also limits Mills’ character development. With no one to bounce ideas off of or conduct a meaningful conversation, he never grows as a character. We know from the beginning that he’s a devoted father, and by the end of the movie, he’s exactly the same as he was at the beginning. We don’t see him wrestle with any hard choices, nor do we get to see him react to Koa’s behavior in a meaningful way. I can only imagine how much better this movie would have been if Koa was given liberty to express her thoughts. How would she feel about Mills lying to her about her parent’s death? What are her thoughts on trusting her safety to a complete stranger? Besides some momentary tantrums and intelligible yelling, Koa’s feelings about these traumatic situations are a complete mystery. It’s a disservice to Koa and Mills, and it’s a disservice to the movie as a whole. It makes me wonder if the filmmakers, when presented with all of these possibilities, were too scared to attempt to realize any of them, and would rather go the safe route of focusing on the dinosaurs.
Final consensus: The focus on external conflict, from the ship crashing, to the dinosaurs, to the asteroid making its way towards Earth (yes these people have the misfortune to land on Earth the day before the asteroid hits), makes 65 into little more than an escapist thriller. While I enjoyed 65 for its stunning visuals and exciting action sequences, I couldn’t help but wish that they had taken a risk and focused just as much on character development as they did on T-Rex attacks. What Jurassic Park originally got so right was that it made a dinosaur movie that was really about sacrifice and love. The movie is about dinosaurs, and that’s about it. With 65, what you see is what you get.