Jurassic World: Immensely satisfying, with a surprising message
If you are a big fan of the first Jurassic Park film, you’ve probably been waiting on pins and needles for the latest installment in the franchise, Jurassic World. After seeing the trailer, I felt very anxious: would this live up to my lofty dreams, or would it be another Jurassic Park III? I can now say with pleasure that I laughed, and gasped, and oohed and aahed throughout the movie. The chase and fight scenes are intense, the deaths are alternately hilarious or horrific, the scenery is gorgeous, and the soundtrack is sweeping.
Jurassic World is all about the park. You can tell this from the first moment you hear the recognizable (and beautiful) central musical theme. In the original movie, this music accompanied a personal moment of astonishment and wonder; we see Dr. Grant’s and Dr. Sattler’s faces change the first time they see the brontosauruses. It’s a lovely moment of character development, watching them witness something their hearts have longed for since… well, probably since they were Tim’s age.
In Jurassic World, that gorgeous music accompanies another first view of the park. Gray Mitchell, the younger of two fairly forgettable kid protagonists, battles crowds up a boat dock, through doors, and up an escalator to get a glimpse of what he’s been waiting for his whole life. But when the music climaxes and he finally sees the park, spread out before him, we don’t get a shot of his reaction. Our reaction, not Gray’s, is what the film prioritizes. Collectively, we wanted this place to exist since the first film, and now it does, and it is gorgeous: set like a jewel among the green mountains of Isla Nublar, the park has restaurants, hotels, research facilities, a monorail, a petting zoo, and lots of rides. Surprisingly, in this first view of the park, dinosaurs do not feature. This is one of the themes of Jurassic World; the dinosaurs are no longer special. The attraction is the park itself and its ability to mass-produce entertainment.
By making the park itself a sort of protagonist, the film sets us up for a gut-punch moment when the park begins to fail. The main park team, led by Claire Mitchell (Bryce Dallas Howard), has been working behind the scene to control its escaped dinosaur, the newly invented Indominus rex. We don’t learn until much later exactly which genomes got spliced into its DNA (which finally makes sense of that terrible line I made fun of in the trailer: “depends on what kind of dinosaur they cooked up in that lab”). But we know it’s immensely dangerous with capabilities, like camouflage and thermal regulation, that other dinosaurs don’t have. If they can just get this hybrid-dinosaur contained, there won’t be a scare or a news story and the park won’t have to close. The point of no return, although it coincides with a major character death, feels like a death in its own right. Jurassic World is over. Let’s just save the kids.
One of the final shots of the film also emphasizes the park’s ruined vision of grandeur. The T-Rex that has dominated this franchise (yes, it’s the same one throughout) stands on top of the helipad, surveying the evacuated park as the sun sets, and roars, the master of his own domain once again.
The T-Rex callback isn’t the only Easter egg in Jurassic World that references the original movie. There are tons of them and the film doesn’t shy away from playfully drawing attention to them. At the beginning of the film, Lowery, one of the computer geeks in the control room, is wearing a Jurassic Park t-shirt, bought on eBay for $150. Claire tells him it’s “in poor taste” because of all the people that died in the original park. The main lab is the Hammond Research Center, complete with a bronze statue of the man himself, holograms of raptors and dilophosauruses taken from the footage of the original film, and an educational video featuring Mr. DNA. There’s even a moment where little girls giggle “Yuck!” as they are slimed by a baby brachiosaurus, the “veggiesaurus” that delighted millions when it sneezed on Lex in the first film. I only wish we’d gotten a shot of some cracked glasses half buried by mud, or a rusty shaving cream can, in a nod to the unforgettable Nedry.
The cinematography also mimics the original film in playful ways. The initial approach to the gates, herds of gallimimuses running across a field, Claire waving a flare to attract/distract T-Rex: each of these reminds attentive viewers of a scene in the original. When the two boys, Gray and his older brother Zack, are attacked by the Indominus rex, he makes eye contact with them through the glass of the gyroscope, in a horrifying parody of the T-Rex attack on Tim and Lex in the jeep. But then Indominus tries to swallow the gyroscope, resulting in a hilarious moment where he’s gagging on a giant ball that is too big for his mouth.
And like the first death in Jurassic Park, in which the loathsome Gennaro gets snatched off the toilet by the T-Rex, there were lots of inappropriately funny moments in Jurassic World. My favorite was perhaps the first guy who got killed on screen. He’s cowering next to an SUV, fingering the cross around his neck and looking straight at the camera, and down come the jaws of Indominus. Gulp. Another character death, involving several pterodactyls and a mesosaurus — trust me, you’ll know it when you see it — was the most horrifying thing I’ve seen in a PG-13 movie. I was laughing because the other option was screaming. And the central chase scene in which Owen (Chris Pratt) leads the charge with a group of trained velociraptors was, as Gray and Zack say, “badass.” It was full of explosions and sweaty men meeting their bloody end in the jungle, like Apocalypse Now with dinosaurs. However, I never felt the creepiness that I felt in the first movie when we see the velociraptor learn to open the door or the scene in the kitchen when they are stalking the kids. There were lots of “whoa!” and “yikes!” moments, but no sustained suspenseful terror about an alien intelligence, despite the fact that Indominus is meant to be very smart.
Which is one aspect of Jurassic World that I didn’t feel sold on: Indominus’s intelligence. She was all bark and bite, constantly roaring or attacking, T-Rex style. I prefer the raptors as they cock their heads to the side and coldly calculate the opponent; it’s like they’re playing chess with you. Jurassic World does a great job, however, of setting up viewers to think that the raptors have been totally rehabilitated. Their first scene, as Owen feeds and trains them, makes you think that he’s in charge. Later, the kids stumble on the old visitors center and find the dinosaur mural from the first film; Zack, the eldest, caresses the face of the velociraptor as he walks by. This is all foreshadowing for the central confrontation, when the raptors reveal themselves to be more than just easily trained reptilian dogs. There are several such role reversals in Jurassic World, which is part of what makes it fun. I had thought, from watching the trailer, that I knew what the story would be; I was wrong.
Jurassic World does depend more on action than the original Jurassic Park. Granted, that movie also involved fighting and chasing, but as Emily Asher-Perrin points out, in the original, the dinosaurs are on screen for a total of 15 minutes. Twice that much time is given to discussions of the ethics of the bio-engineering happening on the island.
These discussions are part of what make Jurassic Park such a great movie. Not only do they prompt this kind of thinking in a viewer, but they also contribute to some wonderful character-building. I don’t feel like Ellie Sattler, Alan Grant, John Hammond, or Ian Malcolm are cardboard cutouts of scientists or entrepreneurs — although Gennaro is your stereotypical bloodsucking lawyer and, as such, dies first.
In this respect, Jurassic World’s characterization leaves something to be desired. While the characters still discuss the ethics of the whole dinosaur thing, I didn’t see much nuance to their characters. We meet the park’s likeable new owner, Simon Masrani, played by Irrfan Khan. He’s a wealthy everyman who, like John Hammond, isn’t too attached to the bottom line and who wants the park to be a great experience for its visitors. But we never get from Masrani an equivalently great monologue like Hammond’s about the flea circuses, which is too damn bad because Irrfan Khan, y’all.
Similarly, the central romance of the film between Claire and Owen is so stock action-movie romance that it’s almost laughable when played by these talented, charismatic actors. Claire is a control-freak with an Anna Wintour haircut and a laughably impractical outfit. I mean, I get that she has an office job, but white silk? In the jungle? Who does she think she is, Willie Scott in Temple of Doom? Owen, on the other hand, is a happy-go-lucky manly man who teaches Claire to “relax,” a sudden and unwarranted shift which is primarily signaled by her hair, now loose and wavy, and her outfit, now ripped and dirty.
I much preferred the romantic dynamic of Grant/Sattler/Malcolm in the first film: a settled, happy couple (and don’t get me started by saying that there’s no evidence that Grant and Sattler are together, I will RUIN you) and a debonair womanizer thrown in for sexy, harmless flirtation. There’s no “will they/won’t they” tension. Instead, the relationship tension is something smaller, more realistic, and correspondingly more tender: a couple deciding whether or not children are in their future.
But just because Jurassic World goes light on characterization doesn’t mean it’s light on interesting ethical quandaries, only this time it’s not so much man vs. nature as it is man and nature vs. capitalism. Lowery makes a joke early in the film about corporate sponsorship. “Why not just call it Pepsisaurus?” And the film is certainly making a point about that as Claire discusses Indominus rex with potential investors. Although it’s odd that a film highlighting and poking gentle fun at corporate sponsorship would also have such visible Mercedes Benz and Coca Cola product placements. Did Jurassic World just go meta on us?
There’s also the undercurrent of rampant consumerism in the plot via the creation of Indominus rex in the first place. This hybrid dinosaur has been engineered precisely because people always want more. The park visitors are bored with regular dinosaurs, so something new — “bigger, louder, more teeth” — is dreamt up. Owen, Claire, Masrani, and the leering Vic Hoskins (Vincent D’Onofrio) all debate the ethics of animal use. Hoskins wants to use the raptors as weapons, imagining them put to use in battle. “We own them,” he says to Owen. “Extinct animals don’t have rights.” His desire paints him as inhuman; he stares at the raptors hungrily, his fingers curling over the bars of the cage just as, a few seconds earlier, the raptor claws curled over the bars from the other side of the cage. Claire shares some of Hoskins’ inhumanity. She may not be as ominous as a raptor, but her insistence that the animals are corporate tools, ways to boost revenue, makes her seem similarly unfeeling. She is incapable of conceiving that animals have an inner life, chuckling at Masrani’s suggestion that you could tell whether or not the dinosaurs are happy by looking into their eyes. She refers to them as “assets” until Owen teaches her to see them as animals and to view them with compassion.
That’s one of the great ideas that the Jurassic Park franchise has maintained. “Animals are people, too,” as the saying goes. Even when the animals are trying to kill the humans, they are individuals that think for themselves. They have rights, desires, motivations apart from ours. Which is why I’m glad the T-Rex got the last word again. Silhouetted against the Costa Rican sky, he bellows out his pleasure at having some small part of the world left for the animals — engineered and natural — and free from human control.