Jurassic World is its own metaphor. It is bigger, more dangerous, and simultaneously more bland and disappointing than the original movie. It is the story of a monumental achievement brought back to life struggling under the weight of corporate influence. It is still a thoroughly enjoyable big-budget summer escape, but it falls well short of what its original creator dreamed of. Welcome to Jurassic World, spoilers to follow.
Jurassic Park raised the bar for special effects in a movie, ushering in the CGI age over 20 years ago. But its real strength was the story. We should not expect an equal technical leap, and in fact the filmmakers shot on film in part to capture a similar look to the original movie. But Jurassic World’s story is a disappointing mix of cliches and dinosaurs. JW spends the first part of the movie reminding the audience that nobody is impressed by dinosaurs anymore, almost accusitorially. Yet, as some have pointed out, the park is doing a booming business [about half of the average attendance of Disney’s Magic Kingdom]. And likewise, JW has been the biggest movie premier to date. The magic of dinosaurs isn’t gone, so why is the movie trying so hard to convince us it is?
Obviously, in order to prepare us to be amazed later. JP’s big reveal was the T-Rex. The audience is in the same position as the visitors: the promised T-Rex won’t show itself. JW calls back to the original, giving hints of the new Indominus Rex before the whole thing comes out of hiding. But it also tries to recapture the original feeling of seeing the T-Rex, absent from the movie, with a big reveal like a hero at the end. Oddly, this part actually works, showing that the T-Rex is, both in the film and metaphorically, trotted out on schedule to give the audience a thrill.
This connection between the park as place and park as metaphor is one of the strongest aspects of the movie. It is both an apology for the state of Hollywood blockbusters and justification that the audience is to blame. It is full of corporate influence, InGen in the movie world, and product placement and studios in the real world. Those influences, subtly or not, shape the park toward a money making enterprise. There is a new man at the head of everything, and he still has ideals that he tries to uphold. In the movie, that character crashes and burns. It would be harsh to apply that to the director, but it is not a stretch to say he falls short of the goal.
The overarching theme of JP was chaos. Time and again, the plan gets derailed. The Explorer vehicles are literally derailed when things start going wrong. Every attempt to make a correction has unforeseeable consequences, which is what makes the movie work so well. The lights wear down the batteries on the park vehicles. The security program shuts down the fences. Rebooting the program unleashes the raptors and stops the doors from locking. Just when the characters think they’ve solved the problem, something new pops up. Each temporary solution sets up the next problem, and the movie progresses like a line of dominoes.
In contrast, JW’s theme seems to be a lack of planning. Many of the problems should have been prepared for, but simply weren’t. Nobody planned for the I-Rex enclosure. Nobody planned what to do if it escapes. Nobody planned for how to handle a parkwide shutdown (or get people off the island). But these issues seem to fizzle out in favor of returning to the central conflict of Everyone vs. I-Rex. The crowds look unruly in the heat, but do nothing. The park security is easily wiped out by the I-rex with no consequence. And the potential problems in the enclosure are just a red herring when the I-rex escapes in a different way. The raptor cages have always had double doors, but not the giant raptor/T-rex combo? Lack of planning. In JP, failure kept sneaking into the system despite the protagonists’ efforts, but in JW the failures seem to be provided externally (as they, in fact, are).
Characterization is another big difference between the movies. In JP, Tim and Lex embody the wonder of the audience as they travel through the park. But in JW, the audience must deal with a teenager more interested in looking at girls than dinosaurs, and his younger brother with inconsistent autistic tendencies. The two are emotionally distant [maybe due to the parents’ impending divorce which has no relevance to the plot, but I’ll return to that issue later], but this aspect seems only there to set up one of their later scenes. The film does show a rare moment of depth, when the older brother (as a stand in for the audience) is shown starting to appreciate the park and the dinos, but immediately returns to his previous self in the next scene.
Leaving a safe area through a clear dinosaur breach during a park shutdown, does not paint the brother in a good light in any interpretation, and is another painfully contrived “mistake”. After a brief encounter with the I-rex, the brothers have a short learning-to-be-brothers scene, and are then rendered unimportant for the remainder of the movie. Contrast that with JP’s iconic kitchen scene, where the Tim and Lex, finally separated from all adults, must prove their survival skills before helping to restore power in the control room.
But the biggest character issue in JW is the portrayal of the female lead, Claire. Unlike Ellie Sattler, who confidently does her job as the equal of any man in JP, Claire is a major step back in portrayal of women. The film makes no attempt to hide the implication that women should choose children over a career. Here is where the parent’s divorce comes in again, with the kids’ mom practically telling Claire that she is incomplete without children. She spends the movie running in high heels, and her effort to look tough equates to “I might not be prepared for the jungle, but at least I’m wearing a tight shirt.” To its credit, the movie acknowledges how silly this is. Her climactic scene is her staring into a camera waiting for a man to do something. Even her relationship with Owen, a man with an almost parental relationship with the raptors, only develops after she sheds her corporate side. Some of this might be forgiven if the movie dealt at all with dinosaur parental relationships. But it doesn’t.
On the whole, JW is much more of an action movie than JP, which is more of an adventure. This is highlighted by the fact that they blow up a raptor with a bazooka. Instead of tense suspenseful scenes, there are over the top action scenes. While still entertaining, it takes the subtlety of the original and makes it into something more gaudy. But the plot overall suffers from too much focus on one big problem, the I-Rex, and a clear distinction between the Good Guys, (Owen, Claire, Jake Johnson’s character, and the kids) and the Obvious Bad Guys (Dr. Wu and Vic Hoskins, backed by the now shadowy InGen). Even Dennis Nedry from JP was a sympathetic bad guy. Sure, he was a jerk, but Hammond also screwed him and treated him like dirt.
One of few great dialog scenes is when Masrani confronts Wu. Wu nearly gets caught in what seems to be a rather obvious plan to weaponize the raptors (camouflage, thermal invisibility, military involvement), when Masrani asks who authorized it. Wu leaps at the chance to shift the blame to Masrani, and at that moment, the argument and perspective pivot, and Masrani realizes he’s no longer in control. This should have been the theme of the movie, the illusion of control and its loss.
Jake Johnson’s character wears a Jurassic Park T-shirt. [Where did they come from, if the original park never opened?] I would like to think that Jake, as an actor and fan of Jurassic Park, wore the shirt to set one day, and they decided to write that into the script. But even if not, the character’s choice to wear it captures what I felt as an audience member. I want to return to a place I visited long ago and loved. An island full of dinosaurs, brought to life as if by magic. But 20 years on, the dream has been twisted and refined into something safe and corporate that has to go bigger, faster, and scarier to thrill its audience. Jurassic World certainly accomplished that, spared no expense, but didn’t bring that spark of life that made the original such a classic.