Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park is one of the landmarks in populist blockbuster films. Like every child in the 90’s I watched that movie both in VHS and revival screenings. It was an adventure about a theme park populated with genetically re-engineered dinosaurs (brought to life with excellent movie special effects) and the concept alone was enough to thrill me as a child and even today fill me with child-like wonder; but I know that the craft behind Spielberg’s 1993 film was ultimately what makes it so effective even 20+ years after the fact. Nowadays, almost anything that can be imagined will be brought to life on screen, spectacle and imaginative concepts aren’t enough to carry a movie along anymore and modern audiences have become increasingly jaded and cynical with every passing summer movie blockbuster season. Couple that cynicism with Hollywood’s predilection for sequels, franchise-building and recycling old intellectual properties and the landscape for big-budget blockbusters are mostly embarrassing time-fillers of diminishing spectacle. To this, there was a golden opportunity for the fourth sequel in a 20-year old franchise that diminished with each successive feature. The opportunity was two-fold: they could skillfully bring back an aging-yet-respected franchise to a public increasingly obsessed w/ nostalgia OR they could respond in kind to the current state of blockbusters. Colin Trevorrow’s Jurassic World attempts to do both but fails to bring back any respectability to the Jurassic franchise yet it somehow, against all odds, succeeds as a self-loathing takedown of blockbuster filmmaking. This isn’t a review per se but rather a defense of summer 2015s biggest (it’s hit record-breaking billion $ marks) yet possibly most critically misunderstood movie in a long time.
Let’s get the easy part out of the way: Jurassic World is not a “good” movie. At best it’s actually clever and beyond entertaining in a sort of schlocky B-Movie kind of way, akin to a $100 million upgrade of one of those late-night Sci-Fi movies. Filmmaker Colin Trevorrow completely mishandles fundamental filmmaking choices such as cinematography, editing, script/dialogue, narrative framing and more for the majority of the screen time. This movie is kind of dumb on a conceptual level and even in terms of execution, so much so it’s actually kind of charming in a weird way. However there’s this rather blatant meta-narrative (metaphor) running through the movie that was far more fascinating to see unfold than any of the bonkers dinosaur action. In fact, the more I think about it, a lot of the initial reviews didn’t look deep enough past the much more obvious to point out filmmaking problems. See, if you read the whole film as a metaphor, it’s kind of brilliant. Jurassic World goes from schlocky attempt at Hollywood regurgitation into an angry commentary about slaughtering the simple majesty of the original Jurassic Park (and movies of its ilk) and showering it in blood (literally and figuratively). The movie takes the concept of the original movie of a park populated by dinosaurs and then it expands it into a gaudy Disneyworld/Universal Studios island resort. That alone should clue you into what this movie is trying to say. Even before the inevitable “everything’s gone to hell” moment, the park attractions in the world of the film is all about consumption, death, gore and destruction: spectacle.
Whereas the old Jurassic Park was all “look, a dinosaur!” here, they’re always eating, killing or roaming aimlessly, as a scientist character (played by BD Wong) mentions how they’ve been modified to fit people’s conceptions of them. Everything both in the fictional park of the movie and the movie itself screams out for attention and guile and in one sharply reflective scene sums up exactly how modern audiences react to blockbusters: in it, a goat is dropped into the pen of T-Rex in order to re-create one of Jurassic Park’s most famous/beloved scenes but as this is happening, one of our lead characters ignores the show to answer a phone call displaying utter apathy. Jurassic World knows just how jaded and cynical audiences are about its proceedings and refuses to let them off the hook even as it criticizes the things that made such sentiments possible. In the movie, attendance to Jurassic World is low (no doubt a jab at real world diminishing movie theater attendance) so in an effort to encourage tourism, the corporate overlords have commissioned the creation of their most ambitious attraction yet: a whole new dinosaur. The new dinosaur, called the “Indominous Rex” IS a representation of the movie we are all watching: it’s bigger, badder, and more dangerous but it’s basically the same old junk with way too many different clutters grafted on. Here is a creature and a film that probably, from a purist’s point of view, shouldn’t have been made at all as all the Indominous Rex can do is either fail at re-creating the original film’s set pieces or cause nothing but pain and misery in an attempt to “go bigger” than it peers. This is all pretty blatant in the movie, yet I couldn’t help but respect the sentiments of the film. It’s an astonishingly self-hating movie and I almost can’t believe it got made (aside from the limitless merchandising potential).
The blockbuster takedown even extends to the “characters” in the film as well. I’m saying “characters” in a facetious sense because what Jurassic World really has are archetypes used to forward its ideas. The closest the movie ever comes to a fully realized person in the movie would be Bryce Dallas Howard (not Jessica Chastain) as Claire, a smart business exec and the director of the in-movie park’s operation. Now much has been made of the movie’s dated (sexist) sensibilities as it pertain to her character but I would argue that there’s actually nothing inherently “wrong” with the character herself but rather how the movie regards her. The film frames Bryce Dallas Howard’s character’s cold professionalism as undesirable – she’s the “Ice queen” corporate shark who needs to learn to loosen up and/or work on a family with the help of a rugged man-but this is supported by NONE of the actual text of the film. In fact I would argue that those very character traits designed to make her seem unlikable are the exact traits that help her character throughout the movie. IFC.com contributor Lindsay Ellis already wrote a brilliant essay on this character and how “she’s too good for this movie” which I happen to largely agree with so I won’t stress that point much further. I would like to propose the thought that since Jurassic World is more about its own metaphors, then perhaps the sexist framing of Bryce Dallas Howard’s character is a parody of the way blockbuster movies treat women regardless of actual logic and human empathy. Interviews with Howard herself seem to suggest such a reading but filmmaker Trevorrow’s statements on the movie seem to run evidence to the contrary so the best we can do is judge for ourselves. Easier to judge is the character played by Chris Pratt, he’s a former Navy Seal turned dinosaur tamer the movie frame as such a generic “action hero” bore coasting on his good looks and weapons (he barely does anything proactive in the film)that he simply must be some sort of parody or metaphor. For instance one scene has two kids (Nick Robinson and Ty Simpkin) insisting on Pratt’s character kicking butt and keeping them safe despite never ever seeing him do anything. The framing of Howard and Pratt is the weakest aspect of the movie in terms of cinema, but it kind of works as a takedown of the expectations of action movie dynamics; kind of/sort of…
Jurassic World exists in that weird middle ground where if it were slightly smarter or better made it could easily have gone on to be an undisputed “good movie;” if it were slightly dumber it would be a schlocky B-movie classic alongside movies like Deep Blue Sea or Independence Day. The filmmakers simply don’t have the skills to let their biting and self-deprecating takedown of the modern blockbuster landscape actually work as a functional movie itself (let alone a better movie than the one it mocks). Jurassic World finds the whole concept of blockbuster reboots distasteful but never transcends that and instead coasts on the intriguing push and pull thematics. That strange dichotomy in the movie is still infinitely more fascinating than most of the movie’s peers however. So you can’t just “turn your brain off” to enjoy the thing as there’s something real to sink your teeth into harder than a computer-generated velociraptor munching on a nameless extra. And much like this year’s Jupiter Ascending or last year’s Lucy, the movie takes a turn for the ridiculous in ways that will have you both slack-jawed and wetting yourself during hard laughter. There’s none of the “awe” or “wonder” that the movie insists we audiences have lost sight of, but there is real bravado to the move towards campy silliness that’s reminiscent of the way how children (and some adults) would play with their dinosaur toys. Jurassic World is an anomaly: it’s questionably crafted, simultaneously too dumb to be taken seriously AND too smart for its own good and finally it’s both incredibly trifling yet strangely resonant/relevant. This bad yet fascinating movie shouldn’t exist but it seems, to quote a wise man (Jeff Goldblum) in the original Jurassic Park, “Life, uh, finds a way.”