So I saw Jurassic World a few days ago, and it’s finally processed that I have seen a 4th Jurassic movie. After the 14 year wait, it was somewhat surreal and heady an experience.
This isn’t going to be an easy thing to write. How do you unpack 14 years of expectations for a sequel to a movie you’ve seen 70 times over a 22 year period across 5 different formats?
Let’s do an obligatory plot summary, because that’s how these things go. It’s 22 years after the Jurassic Park incident. InGen has been purchased by Masrani Global, a megacorp of sorts, run by the son of a friend of John Hammond. Masrani have created and successfully run Jurassic World for ten years. There is now a whole generation of kids who have grown up not knowing a world before Dinosaurs (keep this in mind, I’ll return to it). In a bid to keep interest in the park high and increase profits, InGen create a designer dinosaur through gene splicing. Things go wrong, the dinosaur escapes and endangers the lives of everyone on the island.
Colin Trevorrow managed to land the gig of directing Jurassic World back when Brad Bird was still considered to direct Star Wars Episode VII. Being a newcomer with only a modest indie comedy under his belt, Trevorrow seemed like an odd choice for director. He insisted he was a huge fan of the material and paid his due respects, but other creatives have said that and churned out substandard product. The casting of a number of comedy actors also seemed somewhat strange, hinting at a potentially bizarre tone. Bizarre and uneven is ultimately what Jurassic World‘s tone is. It springboards from childlike awe and wonder, to the odd scene with suspense, to broad comedic jabs, to miscalculated and fetishistic mean spiritedness, with one kill in particular feeling like it wouldn’t be out of place in a horror movie if it were played for horror rather than petty spectacle.
It’s not entirely horrible though, the blue colour mix was toned down considerably. All kidding aside, in one or two scenes, the Indominus Rex makes for an interesting antagonist, if one that never gets given its dues, having abilities introduced and never seen again. Seeing the park fully functional during the opening moments made me feel a giddy joy I hadn’t felt while watching a Jurassic Movie since Jurassic Park. An initial exploration of animal husbandry, and behavioural science, with subtle commentary on the practice of keeping animals isolated in captivity to the detriment of the animal’s social development hearken back to the discussions of the futility of assuming control over a complex system no human had any intimate knowledge of that took place in Jurassic Park.
Beyond these brief moments the script is painfully cheesy and flatly written, with characters embodying outmoded stock types rather than feeling fleshed out or in any way compelling. The screenplay’s shallowness leads to awkward moments where attempts to give characters depth only ends up making them spout alternately contradictory sentences at the screen. Masrani, for example, alternates between a carefree billionaire who doesn’t give a damn about Jurassic World being profitable, and a Scrooge who doesn’t want a kill order put out on a dinosaur endangering countless lives because it cost $26 million to develop. It is somewhat awkward in hindsight when Joss (I wrote a movie in which it is accidentally implied a woman states her infertility makes her as monstrous as The Hulk) Whedon was on point with the movie feeling 70s era sexist. In what was an attempt to come across as an adventure serial like Romancing the Stone, Jurassic World‘s gender politics is distressingly retrograde. Brice Dallas Howard’s Claire is a workaholic prig what don’t need no man, who spends the entire movie in high heals, and whose character arc involves her realising she should settle down with a man and maybe having kids isn’t a bad idea. The majority of Jurassic World‘s world building is done through telling, and it is plagued with scenes where characters talk plot points and exposition at each other, rather than engaging as believable humans. In light of action movies that do exceptional amounts of world building and story telling visually through action, such as John Wick and Mad Max: Fury Road, it was disappointing to see such a clumsy approach to narrative. While Jurassic Park was guilty of this to an extent, it had the good sense to be witty and playful with its characters in its downtime, and often mined them for genuine pathos in the process.
Despite this, most of the principle players do a lot with what they are given. Chris Pratt does his best in a role that tasks him with being almost entirely serious, robbing him of the charm he displayed in Guardians of the Galaxy. Howard does her best to flesh Claire out into more than a stereotype. BD Wong and Omar Sy are magnetic, though criminally underutilised. Chief human antagonist, Vincent D’onofrio’s Hoskins is clearly having fun mugging for the camera as what amounts to a villain out of Captain Planet.
Now let’s get to the thing that bothered a number of Jurassic Park fans, the fact that the majority of the dinosaur screen time was created using CGI. For the most part, the CG looks amazing in terms of its rendering. There’s a level of texture and attention to detail that was not present in Jurassic Park, and anyone who says Jurassic World‘s CG is worse than Jurassic Park‘s would do well to watch Jurassic Park again. However, where Jurassic Park succeeded and Jurassic World failed is that it used its dinosaurs sparingly and for maximum emotional impact. Jurassic Park is 127 minutes long, and the dinosaurs are only on screen for 15 of them. Most of the dinosaur related mayhem takes place at night and in the rain, allowing for a certain roughness to the CG, something that you cannot get away with in harsh, bright, daylight. And while Jurassic World’s CG detail may surpass that of Jurassic Park‘s, there are times when animations feel a little bit off leading to Jurassic World falling further into the uncanny valley than the 22 year old film. With the increase in action comes an over exposure to the dinosaurs, making them feel more familiar and less threatening. As mentioned above, set pieces were created to create spectacle, rather than to elicit an emotional response, and it feels like a loosely connected series of scenes that looked cool in previz. The one scene where animatronics are clearly used turns out to be one of Jurassic World‘s emotional high points, a touching scene that mirrors the reveal of the sick triceratops in Jurassic Park.
Interestingly, there seems to be a slightly subversive quality to Jurassic World, as if it were a summer blockbuster that hated being a summer blockbuster. It plays up the inherent ridiculousness of a highly intelligent, genetically spliced together Frankenstein’s Monster of a dinosaur, and the audience demand for “Bigger, Louder, More Teeth”. There’s even mention of the Indominus Rex being put before focus groups to determine what it should be for maximum audience enjoyment. A character talks about how Jurassic Park was the real deal, and that product placement and corporate sponsorship is horrible. “Verizon Wireless presents the Indominus Rex,” Claire announces proudly, confirming she landed a sponsorship deal. Might as well go all the way and give the corporations naming rights for the dinosaurs after they took over sporting arenas, replies her co-worker, offering such choice options as “Pepsisaurus” (a thing that made me laugh, not because the joke landed, but because Gasosaurus is a thing).
Trevorrow has mentioned that he was inspired to go in this particular direction by the image of a teenage boy on the phone with his back to the glass of a t-rex enclosure, and to an extent the film follows through with its explorations of Hollywood triteness, and our increasing solipsism and disconnection from the grandeur of the natural world.
However, for all its lecturing about how people aren’t impressed by dinosaurs any more, only one character shows any disinterest. The majority of park goers seem thrilled to be there. The tropes it mocks (e.g. Claire being totally unprepared to travel safely in a dinosaur infested wilderness while dressed in fashionable clothing), it also plays straight (e.g. Claire running in heels for all of her screen time). It is stuffed full of product placement, including shots of vehicles driving that look like they were lifted out of car advertisements. What it makes passes at subverting, it also tries very hard to be. It wants to have its cake and eat it too. Jurassic World is a film without any unifying identity, trying to be too many things for too many people and never really succeeding at any one thing other than being the least terrible Jurassic sequel. And still being blue. For no discernible reason.
This is a movie aimed at people who have grown up with Jurassic Park being our Star Wars, while trying to service the needs of an audience that have not known a world of film making before Jurassic Park shook the world. Where Jurassic Park succeeded with sincerity and an overwhelming desire to please and engage its audience, Jurassic World is a cynical, undercooked commentary on itself as an action movie, a Jurassic Park sequel, and as a movie that was originally going to be about a gene spliced paramilitary raptor squad.
In a perfect world, Jurassic World would have leaned more heavily into its satirical and subversive elements. It could have made an excellent Paul Verhoeven movie. Instead, what we’ve ended up with is more Robocop (2014) than Robocop (1987).