Jurassic World: The Devolution of Wonder

Having established in my inaugural piece that I’ll largely be using my shiny new digital soapbox to dissect films with little immediate relevance, I’d like to dedicate the next few pages to a movie that filled me with fear and loathing upon release and continues to gnaw at me today.

That movie is 2015’s Jurassic World, a soft reboot of the Jurassic Park franchise that spent its opening weekend grossing a cool half-billion and the remainder of its theatrical run somehow convincing an entire planet it was something worth seeing.

After the logical yet disjointed walkathon-turned-Godzilla-homage that was 1997’s The Lost World and the poorly-rendered incremental snooze-fest that was 2001’s Jurassic Park III, the series returned to Isla Nublar and its theme park roots with Jurassic World for a brand new adventure that, not unlike The Force Awakens, basically repackaged its first one, minus all the emotional resonance.

With Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom slated for a 2018 release and seventeen additional sequels presumably in the pipeline after, we can safely place Spielberg’s dinosaur franchise alongside Star Wars, Marvel, and DC in the “There’s No Bloody End in Sight” category – which is just fine for this critic, because it gives me plenty of ammunition for the Internet rage-fests my friends have become so fond of.

Now, I’ll be honest, I didn’t actually hate Jurassic World – I just didn’t think it was good (probably because it was dumber than a lobotomized stegosaurus). Still, there were a few halfway redeeming elements in the mix I’ll admit sort of appealed to me, which I will delve into first.

Join me, won’t you?

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Got nothin’ better to do with my day…

ALLEGORY FOR THE ENTERTAINMENT INDUSTRY

Yes, I get that Jurassic World is supposed to symbolize corporate excess and the escalation of mindless spectacle in the film industry – an insight I’m not claiming to be the founder of – and in a less stupid movie that theme might have actually been effective (instead being lost in the seas of irony).

Soon after we’re ushered through the marvelous ‘Animated for Playstation 2’ gates and dazzled with the wonders and sophistication of the titular world, it is explained through the subtlety of exposition that Joe and Jane Public have already grown bored with plain ol’ garden-variety dinosaurs. They’ve seen all there is to see, screamed at all there is to scream at, purchased the ‘Here the geese chase me’ t-shirt, and are now demanding bigger thrills and terrors – which is probably exactly what would happen in such a world. Ted hit the nail on the head when its curiously Patrick Stewarty-sounding narrator stated that eventually the world would just stop giving a sh*t about a magic living, breathing teddy bear, so it stands to reason that they’d do the same with cloned living, breathing dinosaurs.

Both the brains behind the movie and the park fully realize this, because this is the 21st century and we’ve evolved to have embarrassingly short attention spans and an inexplicable cultural affinity for Jimmy Fallon. Thus, the park’s upper echelons have determined that newer, bigger, scarier, genetically-modified dinosaurs are the way of the future, because evidently no one learned a thing from the first three entries in the series.

Enter Indominus rex, an abominable mashup of Tyrannosaurus rex and Velociraptor DNA that has the power to turn invisible on command, because one of this script’s four credited screenwriter’s was apparently Spielberg’s six-year-old grandson.

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This escalation is, of course, meant to symbolize the current state of the film industry, where Joe and Jane Viewer have become bored with the simple character-driven, heartfelt stories of yesteryear and demand newer, bigger, and less grounded thrills. I get it, and bundled with an actual story and three-dimensional characters it could have been effective. Unfortunately, the movie itself is just another example of the noise, excess, and mindlessness it was attempting to critique. With this in mind, Jurassic World was essentially 2015’s own Indominus rex – a loud, focus group-directed, corporate asset intended to give audiences a quick thrill without much thought invested beyond reaching a financial target.

Universal really should have seen the irony – especially since they also have a vested interest in the theme park biz – but alas, their best intentions became lost in dull exhibitionism and their movie ended up embodying the very thing it was trying to decry.

THE LAZINESS IN A GARUANTEED RETURN

I’ll also give Universal props for their sheer business acumen. As an old mentor of mine used to say, “This ain’t show art, it’s show business,” and a damn lucrative business the Jurassic franchise is.

Jurassic World wasn’t so much a movie as an assembly-line product with a beloved brand label slapped across the front packaging, designed by a team of marketing experts to appeal to every possible demographic and pull in a billion dollars worldwide in just shy of two weeks (to lather on even more irony, Dr. Ian Malcolm alluded to such a mindset in the first Jurassic Park). In that regard it succeeded, and I’m more or less forced to applaud it for that, in the same way I kind of applaud Trudeau for managing to slip into office on the strength of his haircut.

Of course, the problem with applauding World for being a financial hit without containing any semblance of Story is that I’m praising sheer corporate laziness. You see, it is possible to make a quality film that is also lucrative – just look at The Force Awakens (which was good, not great, but a commercial goldmine nonetheless). However, it’s as if everyone involved in Jurassic World knew that it was going to sweep the box office based on its name alone, so no one put forth any effort beyond the initial pitch of ‘dinosaurs go wild.’

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This movie is like that smart but lazy kid in high school who goofed off the night before the midterm because he knew he’d be able to pass with a C, when he could have mustered some effort, studied his buns off, and pulled off an A+.

I could rant for hours about how this movie failed on a narrative level, but first we must understand how and why Jurassic Park succeeded.

Still reading?

Yeah, me neither…

A MATTER OF CHARACTER:

When I was in screenwriting school, one of my dear mentors used to affectionately impart to me this invaluable tidbit of wisdom: “Listen up, idiot! How many times do I f***ing have to tell you?! It’s all about Character!”

I’d argue that Character is the most pivotal Story element in any medium, and Jurassic Park is no exception. When you strip away the cool dinosaurs and the memorable sets and the stirring score and the pulse-pounding chase sequences and the sexy Jeff Goldblum open-shirt shots (wait, what?), what have we left?

Characters we care about – otherwise known as the missing ingredient of Rogue One.

See, the original Jurassic Park is not just a mindless monster movie any more than Jaws is a generic fishing movie. The beasts in both films might sell the story and occupy the promotional artwork, sure, but underneath those embellishments we have a story that works because its characters are real.

Take John Hammond for example – the park’s founder.

Fashioned as an eccentric, grandfatherly Walt Disney figure, John Hammond’s sole motivation in life is to delight and entertain. He is a circus showman, a visionary entertainer, a purveyor of wonders never before witnessed – essentially a giant kid who wants to wow the world with his dinosaurs, because I suppose owning a petting zoo like an average schmuck would just be dull.

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But like anyone who’s played Zoo Tycoon for more than five minutes, he ended up violating the very laws of nature and playing God. After showcasing the might and splendor of his park, he hosts his guests for lunch and cheerfully dismisses their rational objections to the consequences of giving Mother Nature the middle finger. After all, he’s not in this for money or power – he just wants to put a smile on people’s faces. This, of course, is before Newman cuts the power and all hell breaks loose.

The turning point in his arc lands midway through the Second Act when he shares ice cream with Laura Dern in the deserted visitor’s center. With lives already having been lost and his grandchildren’s fate in doubt, he wistfully reminisces on his first attraction – a simple flea circus. All he wanted to do was delight children and families with his attractions, he says, and for a brief moment he even attempts to convince himself that his vision is still feasible once all the kinks have been ironed out. Of course, Laura Dern brings him to his senses, and he begins to see that his dream is not worth the death and mayhem he’s reigned down upon those he loves most.

By the end of the film he is broken and contrite, acknowledging that his vision is a disaster and must not be endorsed. Before stepping onto the rescue chopper, he gazes over his ruined dream one final time before abandoning it forever, his arc complete and his character file closed.

By contrast, I don’t even remember who was running the park in World. Was it Bryce Dallas Howard or the guy who perished comically in the helicopter crash? Boy, what an arc he had – trying to fly a helicopter and then dying in it! Admittedly, this is infinitely more compelling than any character’s journey in a Roland Emmerich movie, so I guess I can give World another point for that.

Now consider Dr. Alan Grant – our protagonist.

As evidenced in his opening scenes, Grant is brilliant, introverted, and old-fashioned. As a character he is enamored with dinosaur fossils (stuck in the past), contemptuous of computers (fearing the future), and awkward around children (slightly inhuman). His methods are old-school and tedious, which essentially fast-tracks him to becoming a fossil himself in the face of Hammond’s miracle work in the park – after all, who’s going to care about dusty old bones when they can see a real flesh-and-blood dinosaur for the mere admission price of $40,000 USD?

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Of course, his primary role in the film is in service to the well-being of Hammond’s grandchildren, Lex and Tim, an automatic source of conflict for his comparatively reserved character. Naturally, he is initially disinterested in their company, but gradually grows to care for them as the stakes raise and their survival becomes paramount. It is he who moves to rescue them during the T-rex encounter and ushers them to safety when all others flee or get maimed. His pivotal scene occurs soon after this sequence in a great tree, where he humours Tim’s jokes, eases Lex’s fears, and discards his trusty raptor claw fossil, effectively symbolizing his transition as a character – he is letting go of his love for dinosaurs and stepping into his humanity.

Along the way we are granted small, fun moments that serve his arc, notably the scene where he feigns electrocution from the powerless perimeter fence. His grin at Lex and Tim after says it all and calls back to his torment of the chubby kid from his first scene – he’s beginning to like children now, but isn’t above messing with them for a laugh. Simple human beats like these are critical for emotional investment in the character, and here they blended flawlessly.

The final scene on the helicopter shows Lex and Tim sleeping contentedly on his shoulders while Laura Dern looks on, giving him a knowing smile that he reciprocates. The credits are about to roll and his journey is complete – instead of going extinct as he feared, he evolved. That’s an arc Noah would be jealous of, kids.

Conversely, Jurassic World serves up the normally lovable Chris Pratt (character name either Owen, Otto, or Kevin – don’t recall). His character is beefy, endlessly quippy, and drawn romantically to polar-opposite Bryce Dallas Howard – because that’s what the script says, dammit.

…And that’s it. He has no personality, no arc, no goals, nothing to overcome, and no substance. Sorry Chris – I’m sure Anna will take you back if you ask her nicely.

Park’s supporting cast also stood out memorably, while World’s behaved more like sitcom characters than real people (this is a nitpick, but does every character have to deliver the snappy Aaron Sorkin-esque dialogue?)

Dr. Ian Malcolm’s rock star swagger, chaos theory commentary, and open-shirted glory are still burned into our minds and hearts today, while Nick Miller from New Girl seemed to have been cast as an ill-conceived inside joke.

Wayne Knight and Martin Ferrero (the shifty lawyer for you non-cinephiles) are unforgettable as slimy, unlikeable, and cowardly weasels who earn their satisfactory demises. Conversely, I had to be reminded that Vincent D’Onofrio starred in World as “Ubiquitous Militaristic Bad Guy #1,” a role the Academy should be ashamed of for overlooking in their nominations.

Laura Dern shines through as a strong, capable survivor who isn’t afraid to call others out on their bullsh*t, but Bryce Dallas Howard is blandly type-A and should probably consider other career paths.

Siblings Lex and Tim banter and behave like real children and, through their time with Dr. Grant, compel us to care about their survival, while the two children from World whose names I can’t be bothered to remember bicker until they don’t and are sad about their parents’ divorce until they forget to be.

If we don’t care about Character, it’s rare that we’ll care about Plot. And on that bombshell –

PLOT: WHERE THINGS GO TO HAPPEN

There are few good films that can engage us on the strength of a plot populated by uncompelling characters (perhaps the original three Bourne films, but that’s a matter for another time).

Having established that Park’s characters were effective and World’s might as well have been cardboard cutouts for all the charisma they exuded, we will now see if World’s plot was able to rise to the occasion and save Story (spoiler – it wasn’t).

I’ve heard it said that World is a carbon copy of Park in the same way that The Force Awakens lifted its plot from the first Star Wars (and from the look of those latest trailers, Last Jedi seems to be taking its cues fairly heavily from Empire). While this might technically be true strictly on a premise level – i.e., there’s a park with dinosaurs in it, the dinosaurs get loose, hijinks ensue, Spielberg cashes a cheque, and fin – the fact of the matter is that Park gives its audience much more to chew on than World, because Park wasn’t just a mindless dinosaur escape movie. Park enhanced its basic dinosaur premise with real character moments, a story that developed freely and naturally, and poignant themes of controlling nature, over-reliance on technology, and the wonder of creation. It was directed with attention to detail and respect for the special effects available to it at the time.

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Also, this.

World, on the other hand, had comparatively little to offer besides its basic dinosaur park premise.

For example, like many of Spielberg’s early films, Jurassic Park imbued a sense of wonder and adventure into its narrative. Before 1993, dinosaurs had never been seen on the silver screen on this scale nor had they looked so amazing (unless you count Roger Corman’s immortal Carnosaur, which clearly unfurled the red carpet for Spielberg). Spielberg knew that Grant and Sattler weren’t the only ones who’d be seeing that Brachiosaurus for the first time and directed that scene with a sense of majesty and grandeur. Though the CGI may be a little rough around the edges by today’s standards, it’s still as moving as it ever was because we buy that these characters are wonderstruck. We are invited to share their awe in the first half of the film and come to know their terror in the second.

This sense of wonder and awe is devoid from World, because those effects and visuals that once inspired us no longer do. In an age that can show us Decepticons trashing Chicago, Godzilla trashing San Francisco, and Superman trashing Metropolis, few things are able to dazzle us anymore. The park patrons in World are bored with the attractions that were once groundbreaking, and so are we (hailing back to that theme of excess that really should have worked). Case in point – where it was once enough for a hungry, instinct-driven T-rex to pursue our heroes in a Jeep before tiring out, now an antagonistic carnivore must be able to turn invisible on command, possess a genius-level intellect, and also be a murderous psychopath who kills for sport. Have we truly become this bored with films?

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Moving on, Park allowed us to time to process information and gave the plot room to breath. Do you recall the ‘boring’ scene where the characters have lunch after the raptor presentation and simply voice their opinions and convictions before the real action starts? That was a great scene, and nobody even made a joke or did anything wacky. If that scene had been scripted today, say, in an Avengers movie, it would probably be ‘hilarious’ and filled with rapid-fire dialogue so as not to put attention span-deficit viewers to sleep. Again, have we truly become this bored?

Granted, in World, Chris Pratt voices his misgivings over the Indominus rex early and often, but because there’s literally nothing else to his character besides being a macho slab of beef who likes booze this can’t really count as character development. Literally anybody could have voiced their dissent over the sociopathic dinosaur, so maybe it shouldn’t have been the character who was otherwise gung-ho about jumping in the ring with a pack of raptors. Even if this served Pratt’s character effectively it wouldn’t have mattered, because from that moment on the plot is almost exclusively devoted to the Indominus rex escape with little regard to anything else.

Park is not overeager to just get to the ‘good parts’ – it takes its time escorting the viewer through the narrative, allowing us time to enjoy the journey we paid to see. When it does lift the curtain on its climax, it treats us to a tense cat-and-mouse sequence involving Lex, Tim, and two raptors that gives me chills to this day. Sure, this eventually gives way to the iconic and well-timed Tyrannosaurus rescue (or, T-rexcue – your portmanteau for the day), but here the characters and direction are the focus of the sequence, not the spectacle of the dinosaurs fighting. They’re merely the icing on the cake of an otherwise effective finale.

World’s climax, on the other hand, kicked off halfway through the movie and kept heaping more absurdity onto the dumb-wagon, dragging the bruised and battered viewer through a swarm of pterodactyls, past a motorcycle chase, and into a mind-numbing showdown between the Indominus rex, a T-rex, a raptor, and something that looks like a cross between a giant alligator and Satan’s goldfish. Have we truly become this—oh, hell with it.

This mindless fist-fight between prehistoric contenders is indicative of the common trend of placing special effects center stage to compensate for a script with nothing going on. Jurassic Park may have broken new ground with its computer-generated imagery, but it still had the good sense to respect it, relying primarily on the tried-and-true animatronics and puppets that still hold up today. The completely digital shots were used sparingly and only beyond the limits of what could be created practically, and all in service to the story at hand.

Jurassic World, while not quite as nauseating as a Transformers movie, was still overblown, putting the focus on the finest visual effects Universal could generate without any emotional anchors to make us care about them. Need I remind everyone of the words of George Lucas (uttered back when his name still lent itself to artistic integrity) that “a special effect without a story is a pretty boring thing”? The fact that he went on to make The Phantom Menace after saying this doesn’t make the words any less true, just horribly ironic.

In the absence of credible characters and a plot with anything interesting to say, we are forced to conclude that Jurassic World is indeed a boring thing. Not that I ever wanted it to be flawless, mind you, but when Character and Plot serve Story effectively we as the viewer are actually willing to forgive a certain level of inconsistencies and plot holes.

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Like this one

DEATHLY IMPACT:

This is more of an observation before I wrap up, but I’d like to note that the death toll in Jurassic Park consisted of only five people. That’s right – five. I counted. The death toll in Jurassic World, on the other hand, tallied into the hundreds, if not thousands. Why is this worth noting, you ask? Because it goes back to the matter of compelling characters versus cardboard cutouts.

Each death in Jurassic Park had an impact on the plot because every character resonated on a personal level or affected the story through their death.

The gatekeeper in the opening scene is killed while transporting a Velociraptor (tragic), and we are reminded of his death several times throughout the First Act. In fact, the lawsuit from his family is the catalyst for Hammond bringing our heroes to Isla Nublar to endorse the park for his investors in the first place. The gatekeeper’s death was no small thing, and the other deaths throughout the film are equally impactful.

Gennaro the Lawyer was eaten while cowering in a bathroom stall (comeuppance); Newman was coated in tar and devoured by a jungle lizard (just desserts); Muldoon the Hunter was outsmarted and outmaneuvered by the raptors he was hunting (irony); and Samuel L. Jackson is presumed to have been eaten while off on a smoke break (perhaps the only death to be undercut).

In Jurassic World, the destruction is so dizzying and excessive it loses all impact. Observing multitudes being picked off like mice in a python aquarium is nothing more than noise unless we have some reason to care about who’s being picked off, no matter how extravagantly their deaths are shot. Speaking of which, consider the tastelessly awful manner in which Katie McGrath (Bryce Dallas Howard’s assistant) perished.

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Illustrated here in this simple flowchart

As you can see, this is the only death that actually stood out to me because it was so comically over-the-top I half-expected the Benny Hills Theme Song to start playing — before I remembered that it wasn’t supposed to be funny. Tell me, why does the lovely assistant who’s just trying to do her freaking job deserve to die like she’s in a primordial pinball machine? If Vincent D’Onofrio’s character had met the same fate perhaps I wouldn’t have had such as issue with it… but then again, as I can’t actually recall if or how he died, maybe he did. The point is, I refuse to Google and check.

Anyway, losing five people you know personally resonates more than a multitude of faceless casualties, no matter how dramatically they bite the dust. This again ties into the loss of wonder and demand for bigger thrills in today’s movies. Five deaths aren’t enough to register as a tragedy anymore – we need to see five thousands deaths to produce the exact same effect.

WHAT WAS THE POINT OF IT ALL, ANYWAY?

One of the primary themes of Jurassic Park is that one cannot hope to bridle nature any more than one can convince Trump to deactivate his Twitter account.

The problem with continuing the Jurassic series is that this theme was tied off effectively in the first film, which leaves me with but one question: where else can the story go? The answer, dear readers, is nowhere intelligent.

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The Lost World, for all its numerous faults, took the story in at least a logical direction – of course InGen would try to salvage its investment and ferry its dinosaurs off the island, but the result was less than thrilling because thematically there was nothing further to say. Then Jurassic Park III stomped into theaters with little fanfare and even less to say and can now be found in the $5 bin at Walmart. Now, Jurassic World rolls up with a fresh paint job and decides to pose the pseudo-intellectual question ‘What would have happened if the park had opened as planned?’ The answer is exactly what we expect, because Jurassic Park already answered it – chaos and death. There is nothing presented in World that Park didn’t already cover more effectively, and the new themes it did attempt to present were lost amid empty spectacle. Ultimately, it feels more like a college freshman’s essay entitled “What Would Have Happened if the Titanic Hadn’t Sunk on Her Maiden Voyage?”, with the single-sentence answer being ‘She would have sunk on her fourth voyage after colliding with a bigger ice berg.’

This is the problem with most sequels of self-contained films, but it merits mentioning because it really does prove how pointless this whole thing was from start to finish.

CONCLUSION:

Jurassic World, while commercially successful, is ultimately a hollow and soulless venture that only infiltrated the hearts of its audience on the strength of pure nostalgia for the original.

To date the only argument anyone has ever made for this movie being worthwhile has been “It’s a stupid movie – just shut your brain off and enjoy yourself!”

News flash – stupid things aren’t enjoyable. Perhaps with interesting characters and an actual dose of effort injected into the batter, it might have been something better, but sadly it’s too late to ever know. Though the rest of the planet may herald it as a rejuvenation of the franchise, the best I can say about it is that I didn’t hate it and it wasn’t nondescript like JPIII.

As a final nitpick, I was tremendously irritated with the final exchange between Bryce Dallas Howard and Chris Pratt, in which the former asks the latter what they’re going to do now that the park is (again) in ruins. Fully expecting Pratt to reply with the obligatory “I guess we’ll have to… evolve,” I was crestfallen when he merely said something along the lines of “We’ll figure it out.”

This completely flat, unenergetic response registered the same feeling in me as the movie in which it resides – utter disappointment.

3/10

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