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Non-Review Review: Jurassic World

Jurassic World is very self-aware.

Introducing visitors to the eponymous theme park, an audio recording assures them that the elevated train is passing through the original gates of the park. One of the techies working in the operations centre wears a “vintage” t-shirt from the original park – conceding that it might be “in poor taste.” Nostalgia is the name of the game, and the theme park basks in it. There are landmarks built to the amber that held the mosquito from the original film, and a giant bronze statue of Richard Hammond.

"Mommy's being blatantly emulated..."

“Mommy’s being blatantly emulated…”

So does the film. No opportunity for shout-out or homage is missed. When John Williams returned to work on Jurassic Park: The Lost World, he only broken out the powerful theme for very special moments – crafting a largely original score for the sequel. Not Jurassic World. It seems like every time a character does something, the theme blares. Open the gates? Theme blares! Drive through herd of dinosaurs? Theme blares! Open doors to balcony in resort room? Theme blares!

There is something relentlessly cynical about Jurassic World. The film is based around attempts at Ingen to build a designer dinosaur, one assembled from random bits of other dinosaurs. Nobody except the geneticists seem to know exactly what’s in it, but it doesn’t matter. It’s bits and pieces of what everybody’s seen before, and they’ll love it, right? The fact that Jurassic World basks in this meta-commentary hints at a sly subversive streak, but they film seems more smug than sophisticated.

Feeding time...

Feeding time…

The references to the classic films are exhausting. Two kids arrive to visit an estranged relative on staff at the park. Said kids eventually end up attacked by a dinosaur in an upside down safari vehicle. The main attraction is reluctant to show itself until it comes time to make a daring escape. The male and female leads arrive in time to get out of a car and tend to a sick dinosaur. The island is overseen by an eccentric billionaire. The heroes at one stage swap out their cool modern transport for a classic jeep.

There are updates, of course. The scenes are jumbled around. If John Hammond was Walt-Disney-by-way-of-Steven-Spielberg, then Simon Masrani is Charles-Lindburgh-meets-Richard-Branson. The interaction with the dying dinosaur is a result of a vicious attack rather than an illustration of how little the company understands their creation. There is no red flare to save the children, although it gets its own cameo later on. Still, these changes feel more remixings than innovations. The rhythm changes, but the notes remain familiar.

Something to sink his teeth into...

Something to sink his teeth into…

The original Jurassic Park remains a fetish object for Jurassic World. It was, to quote the techie working the operations console, “legit.” The electric fence from Jurassic Park gets its own knowing cameo, as does the visitors’ centre. Given the critical backlash to both of the sequels, this hero worship feels entirely appropriate. Jurassic World may not know what makes a good Jurassic Park film, but it can avoid the details that it thinks makes for a bad one. And so it hits all those beats.

(Which makes it all the more inexplicable that the climax hinges on one of the most maligned plot points from Jurassic Park III. If the film felt the need to incorporate elements from the last film, it seems odd that it would continue to humanise and anthropomorphise its dinosaurs. Those great beasts are all the more powerful when they seem disengaged from the affairs of the men who would harness them; “taming” and “humanising” the creatures – even in the most superficial of ways – seems to miss the key thematic point of the first film.)

"Who could have foreseen that genetically engineering a bigger and meaner dinosaur could backfire so spectacularly?"

“Who could have foreseen that genetically engineering a bigger and meaner dinosaur could backfire so spectacularly?”

There is a sense that Jurassic World is aware of all this. The film doesn’t necessarily bask in its status as a retread and remix. The scientific desire to stitch together some sort of designer “FrankenDino” from the best bits of all the others is treated as abhorrent. The last act of the film finds the more “legit” dinosaurs asserting themselves against this grotesque monstrosity stitched together from odds and ends. It seems like Jurassic World is pre-empting its own critique, acknowledging its gawdier impulses and turning them to spectacle.

This is all well and good, but it feels a little bit like the film is trying to have its cake and eat it too. The original Jurassic Park pioneered computer-generated imagery, but it lingers in the memory for its willingness to mingle that CGI with practical effects. In Jurassic World, even the heads of restrained dinosaurs are rendered by computer, rendering the world itself ethereal and intangible. Jurassic World feels unreal, but not the transcendental unreality that marked Spielberg’s original film.

The Kingpin's witness protection scheme was not working out precisely as he expected...

The Kingpin’s witness protection scheme was not working out precisely as he expected…

Part of the beauty of the original Jurassic Park was the somewhat eccentric nature of the leads. When it was produced, it seemed highly unlikely you could ground a blockbuster in the trio of Sam Neill, Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum. None of the trio seemed like an action star – making it all the more surreal when Goldblum was the actor to headline the first sequel and act as co-lead in Independence Day. Ian Malcolm is such a great character because he’s genuinely a third lead instead of just plucky comic relief.

The characters in Jurassic World feel like they are designed by focus group. Chris Pratt has charisma to spare, but he is very firmly in the mold of the modern manchild protagonist. Pratt’s character is a charming free-spirited womaniser who lives in what is generously described as a “bungalo” and who is also a member of a Navy detachment on the island. Pratt is a convincing manchild, but never really feels like an officer. He feels like a bunch of audience-friendly adjectives thrown together more than a character.

A flare for that sort of thing...

A flare for that sort of thing…

Still, the script serves Pratt better than Bryce Dallas Howard. Joss Whedon attracted some measure of controversy when he critiqued an out-of-context scene from film, describing it as “seventies era sexist.” He might have been jumping to conclusions based on a single clip, but there are some definite uncomfortable gender issues running through Jurassic World. Jurassic World retains its predecessors’ anxieties about science and technology, but throws in some rather uncomfortable assertions about motherhood.

Howard is cast as Claire, one of the park’s chief scientists and the one tasked with overseeing the new super-predator that the lab has “cooked up”, to quote Owen. The film repeatedly compares and contrasts Owen’s relationship with his pet raptors to the relationship between Claire and the super-predator. In particular, Owen derides Claire for not “imprinting” upon and emotionally bonding with her designer dinosaur. Instead, Claire remained removed and detached.

You cannot cage this beast...

You cannot cage this beast…

At one stage, Owen even offers a pop psychology explanation for how Claire created a dinosaur that – as Owen notes grimly – kills for “sport.” It seems Claire did not love and nurture it properly. This thread is juxtaposed with Claire’s personal failures as a mother figure. Her sister assures her that she needs to become a mother, while she completely fails to engage with her two nephews visiting the park. The movie is quite judgemental on this point.

When the two go missing, Owen notes that Claire can’t remember their ages. “You don’t know your own nephews’ ages?” he wonders, a point which the movie considers important enough to end the scene. The film seems to suggest that all of this might have been avoided if Claire was simply more maternal; if she had only shown that super predator some love, or if she had only made a point to spend some time with her young nephews on their trip to the island.

"Don't worry. We routinely test our scientists ethics, so we can fire anybody who wouldn't do something crazy like this."

“Don’t worry. We routinely test our scientists ethics, so we can fire anybody who wouldn’t do something crazy like this.”

Although the movie makes a point to stress that Owen enjoys a stronger maternal bond with his raptors, the film is hardly subversive. That is a failure on Claire’s part, rather than a triumph on Owen’s. When a character refers to him as “mother hen”, they receive a punch to the face for their trouble. Because Owen is a manly man who does manly things like riding motorbikes, punching guys and carrying a gun. The gender politics of Jurassic World feel more prehistoric than the dinosaurs.

Claire spends most of the movie waiting for male characters to tell her what to do. When her nephews go missing, she immediately seeks Owen’s guidance – not his advice. “I’m in charge out here,” he bluntly states and the movie seems to agree with him. During one key chase sequence, Claire panics until Owen shows up on his motorbike to tell her where to go. Even Claire’s big moment at the climax doesn’t come from her years of scientific knowledge or technical skills, but from a throwaway comment from her nephew.

There's life in it yet...

There’s life in it yet…

There are other scripting issues. Most notably, there is a strained nod towards relevance when it is revealed that Ingen is hoping to sell the dinosaurs to the military. Vincent D’Onofrio pops up in the role of the movie’s human antagonist, hoping to weaponise dinosaurs because somehow using raptors in a combat situation is a good idea. The script has no real idea where it is going with this, beyond the idea that weaponising scientific advancements is not a good idea.

However, inside of anything profound or insightful, D’Onorio is reduced to spouting hackneyed cliché. “Extinct animals have no rights,” he boasts when somebody brings up the sorts of ethical issues associated with this sort of research. Instead, the movie makes it quite clear that he is up to no good. In fact, there is some suggestion that he is more directly involved in the inevitable breakout than any of the other more foolish human characters in previous films.

"I got this."

“I got this.”

D’Onofrio gives Jurassic World a very obvious bad guy – something that the other Jurassic Park films never needed so pointedly. Even Pete Postlethwaie’s big game hunter in The Lost World was portrayed almost sympathetically and with nuance. The Jurassic Park films tended to suggest that mankind’s greed and arrogance were broad problems in which entire companies were complicit. As much as Jurassic Park acknowledged the failings of John Hammond, he was never a two-dimensional bad guy.

Jurassic World suggests that conspiracies are responsible for subverting wonder into terror. Part of this is undoubtedly simple storytelling mechanics. Jurassic World contains a fairly obvious sequel hook in its third act related to what exactly is happening on the island. However, it is interesting to wonder whether it reflects a broader social shift. Whereas Jurassic Park was a meditation on “chaos” – and Jurassic World nods towards the concept – the watchword here is “control.”

In the twenty years since Jurassic Park first appeared, do we feel a need to believe that all the horrors and atrocities in the world are the result of careful planning and clear manipulation rather than randomness and chaos. Jurassic World is set in a world where a dinosaur-based theme park has been operating so long that people could get bored with it. Whereas Jurassic Park suggested such equilibrium was impossible, Jurassic World suggests it takes effort to upset the balance.

The problems with Jurassic World are all very basic problems that should have been picked up at some stage in the writing. There are four credited writers on the script, but countless problems with the finished project. Director Colin Trevorrow is one of the credited writers, and he does a very good job at bringing the film to life within all the constraints. The dinosaur attack sequences are tense, when they aren’t drowning in self-aware irony. The spectacle is impressive, when the CGI is up to the task.

However, Jurassic World is a reminder that bigger is not always better, and that sometime mixing together individual elements of things that people liked will not lead to satisfying results. If only the writers had learned that lesson as well as the characters do here.

14 Responses

  1. Very interesting review.

    I’m not sure I’d quite buy the idea that Chris Pratt is entirely the modern manchild; he is too smart and capable and frankly too knowledgable – indeed his character relies far more on his brains than his brawn (to take an analogy to its logical conclusion he’s Pratt’s Indiana Jones to Star Lord’s Han Solo). Having watched the film I’m not sure his brawn ever actually accomplishes much. Yes, they do they play up his boyish charm but this is the same franchises that gave us serial womaniser (“I’m always looking for the next Mrs Malcolm”), sunglasses wearer/mathematician Ian Malcolm. If anything I think Pratt’s character resembles a gender flip of Dr. Sarah Harding (Julianne Moore’s character from the second film). She was also a stubborn, even reckless, behaviouralist.

    Likewise I’m not sure I agree on Bryce Dallas Howard’s character. Yes the motherhood angle is there, but again, that seems as much a gender flip from Alan Grant’s fear and dislike of children in the first film. What can come across as sexist in isolation is perhaps less so in the context of the film as a sequel, deliberately harkening back and inverting tropes to the first film. Even Claire’s saving the day by thinking on her feet seems a little subversive in our expectations – in a film where Owen is functionally the ‘brains’ by his exstensive knowlege of the animals it makes a weird sort of sense to turn the tables and make Claire the action hero(ine) who thinks on her feet and makes up the plan as she goes along.

    Still one aspect I think that did come across a little dodgy was the mean spirited treatment of Katie McGrath (I don’t mean forcing her to use an English accent.) Her character, Zara, seemed to be treated much more shabbily that Gennaro in the original film and with less cause. That might have stood out more because I’m a fan of the actress, but even so I admit her treatment was a little offputting.

    • I think that the difference is that Ian Malcolm is played as a much more dysfunctional (or at least less conventional) womaniser than Owen. There’s a sense of irony to Ian Malcolm that I think is lacking from Owen. I think that Malcolm is “charming, but more than a little sleazy” while Owen is just presented as “charming.”

      (After all, the first Jurassic Park stars the guy from The Omen III, a frequent collaborator of David Lynch and the guy from The Fly; the casting on Jurassic World is a lot more generic and safe. I caught Take Shelter again a few nights ago, and I’d kill for a Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain version of Jurassic World, even if that does unfortunately fall back into the “Bryce Dallas Howard is interchangeable with Jessica Chastain” meme.)

      I would be a lot more inclined to forgive the characterisation of Claire if the idea of unleashing the T-Rex at the climax were actually her idea, and wasn’t prompted by her nephew. And then she outruns the T-Rex in heels.

      Fun fact that somebody pointed out to me: Zara is the first female named character to be killed by a dinosaur in the franchise. It’s odd that it took four films for that to happen, if it’s true. (I can’t think of another example, but I might be wrong.)

      • Minor note on that last point: neither of the animals responsible for Zara’s death were dinosaurs, so the dino-related female death count for the Jurassic Park series is still zero. Sorry, palaeontology nerd.

      • Ha! Good spot. I may have to dutifully correct my nerdy friend.

  2. I love that D’Onofrio is cast in a throwaway part. That’s the sheer budget we’re working with here. A seven figure salary (I assume) to portray a character meant for Eric Roberts.

    • D’Onofrio is great, even with the terrible material.

      (Then again, even Eric Roberts can be quite good. The man is an Oscar nominee, and is very effective when used well. He was fantastic in The Dark Knight, for example.)

  3. “(Which makes it all the more inexplicable that the climax hinges on one of the most maligned plot points from Jurassic Park III. If the film felt the need to incorporate elements from the last film, it seems odd that it would continue to humanise and anthropomorphise its dinosaurs. Those great beasts are all the more powerful when they seem disengaged from the affairs of the men who would harness them; “taming” and “humanising” the creatures – even in the most superficial of ways – seems to miss the key thematic point of the first film.)”

    That’s even stranger when you consider that this is such a staple of Spielberg’s franchises. Jaws used a shark instead of a T-rex, but it was the same basic principle. Indiana Jones is about a man who hangs around powers far beyond mankind and who only survives because he knows enough not to fly too close to the flame. The Men In Black movies end with scenes showing that even the protagonists with their supposedly larger perspective have no idea just how insignificant they are. Etc.

    “Even Pete Postlethwaie’s big game hunter in The Lost World was portrayed almost sympathetically and with nuance.”

    Going by the chatter around IMDb and other places, I think it’s a very popular opinion that he was the best human in that movie. It probably helps that the “good guys” opposite him include a complete scumbag who causes most of the deaths in the movie and is inexplicably never called on his actions. It certainly helps if you’ve seen the deleted scenes.

    • I haven’t actually seen the deleted scenes. I’ll have to dig them out.

      I rewatched The Lost World a few weeks back, and Postlethwaite just steals the movie and refuses to give it back. (And I quite like Jeff Goldblum’s admittedly divisive performance style.)

  4. Why must people dislike Jurassic World? Can’t we all love this film?

  5. I also really liked this film. Yes some of the script was cliched, but even the cliched bits were fun. It’s probably the second best film in the series.

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