Warning: This piece contains spoilers
We all thought they were extinct. We all thought they’d never return. But they’re back. And this time they’re modified to be bigger, badder and louder.
I’m, of course, referring to “Jurassic Park” movies: a franchise that, by the time the sequel had come around, had almost completely ran out of steam—and was left gasping for fuel by the third. But this time co-writer/director Colin Trevorrow has pumped it so full of gas you’d think the movie was a vehicle from “Fury Road”—that is to say: mechanical, rather dodgy, and on a road to nowhere (unlike “Fury Road” itself which is, for the record, ace).
There’s a moment in “Jurassic Park” when Sam Neill, sitting in a safari jeep with Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum, is truly mesmerised; not only as a professional palaeontologist, but as a human being. He takes off his hat, stands up, and removes his sunglasses. We see the awe in his eyes. He grabs Laura Dern’s head and turns her attention to what has him so utterly compelled. She, too, takes off her sunglasses and stands up. Her eyes are almost as wide open as her jaw.
Cut to: a giant brachiosaurus. It stomps majestically over the landscape accompanied by John Williams’s euphonic score. The sense of wonder that Spielberg instils in this scene, the way the characters react with astonishment and humility, is beautiful. It’s cinema.
There is absolutely nothing in “Jurassic World” that comes anywhere close to this level of splendour. The movie has, however, got spectacle. It just isn’t spectacular. It’s all effect, little affect.
This is, perhaps, an unfair comparison. Not least in the fact that “Jurassic World” does not have the great Steven Spielberg in the directing chair, but that “Jurassic World” isn’t even interested in awe. It’s interested in being awesome. Lots of suited-up business execs grumble at audiences’ indifference towards dinosaurs these days, forcing the park’s scientists to create bigger, crazier dinosaurs with more teeth that the Osmond family. Yet despite all that extra bite, there’s nothing in this movie that’s anywhere near as thrilling as, say, the raptor raid in the kitchen from the original “Jurassic Park”. Nor is there anything near as gripping as the brilliantly constructed entrance of the Tyrannosaurus-Rex—a scene that’s simply a visual masterclass in cinematic suspense.
Wait. Maybe I shouldn’t keep comparing “Jurassic World” to “Jurassic Park”. Maybe that’s unwarranted. Maybe that’s just stupid. Well, no. I can perhaps see someone making that argument were it not for the fact that “Jurassic World” itself keeps making so many comparisons, nods and allusions to Spielberg’s original that at times it feels almost like a remake. The movie even goes so far as to stumble across the original set of the first movie—banner and all. Every time the movie made a call-back to the original (coaxing a T-Rex with a flare, dinosaurs seen running in the wing-mirror, appearance of that frilly-necked dinosaur that ate Newman… the list goes on) I just sat there wishing I was watching “Jurassic Park” instead. And when half of a movie feels like one big nod to another, I feel myself wanting to nod off.
And then we come to the characters. The two leads in “Jurassic World” are so thin you could feed them to Mr. Creosote and he wouldn’t even explode. He’d just wave a hand to John Cleese and mutter, “Too bland.” Bryce Dallas Howard plays Claire, the generic, cool, composed, corporate type that we’ve seen in a million other movies—who, incidentally, learns the dullest lesson in the Book of Movie Clichés for a character of this type: to stop concentrating on your career and instead spend time with your family (or even starting one of your own Claire; judgemental nudge, nudge). She also manages to run around in high heels the whole time—in ankles apparently made of steel—and strip off her torn blouse to sport a lavender tank top for the remainder of the movie (unlike Chris Pratt who has no problem remaining fully clothed throughout).
Speaking of Chris Pratt’s character (Owen), he’s just plain dull. No character development, no arc, no charm. Which is such a shame because: it’s Chris Pratt, the most affable guy in Hollywood. It’s as if, in order for him to become the Dino Whisperer, he had to supress his charisma. And his intelligence. (What was he training those raptors for at the start of the movie? Thought he hated the idea of militarisation. Was it for a show? But if it was, why do you need an ex-Navy guy for that? And the raptors aren’t even supposed to be that big of an attraction anyway. So why—ugh, forget it.)
Although, Vincent D’Onofrio’s character (Hoskins) is hilarious. If his character were a musical instrument it would have to be the humble old triangle: a really annoying, two-dimensional device that’s only capable of producing one note. He spends the entire movie having same the conversation with everyone he runs into: that they should militarise the creatures—a plotline that’s taken straight out of “Aliens” that made little sense in Cameron’s movie and makes even less sense here.
This is really “Jurassic World’s” biggest problem. Without interesting, well developed characters, there’s nothing to engage with. Even calling them “characters” is stretching it a bit. “Jurassic Park” has characters. “Jurassic World” has caricatures. And most are simply injected into the movie only to get picked off (the tubby security guard, the armed forces, random members of the public), and often cruelly, undeservedly and without any point. One death in particular is jarringly gruesome (#PrayForZara). I know being on your phone the whole time in the cinema is unforgivable, but being on your phone while watching two kids who’ve just been dumped on you by your boss only for them to ditch you and run away is hardly deserving of a death like that now, is it? Devin Faraci wrote an excellent piece about this very detail that’s worth reading in full over at “Birth. Movies. Death.”:
“This sequence probably takes just under a minute, but it feels like an eternity, with Zara’s screaming and gasping for breath adding a horrific element to it all. Also making the scene horrific: so much of it is played out in relative close-up; Zara isn’t snatched away and killed in the distance, we travel with her and we are in her personal space as she is tortured before being eaten.”
The movie, however, does cleverly satirise modern advertising, mocking the fact that big businesses own everything: “Verizon presents the Indominus Rex.” Although, this critique would have been more pointed if the movie hadn’t engaged in the type of blatant product placement you’d expect from a Bond movie. Claire walks around everywhere in the movie’s first hour with a Starbucks coffee cup and Owen sips a coke bottle at one point that makes “Jurassic World” look more like “Wayne’s World”—but with much, much less humour. The whole movie doesn’t just try to have its cake and eat it, it lowers it into a dinosaur enclosure and watches it get mauled.
In spite the movie’s (many) flaws, its defenders claim that being “dumb” is precisely why it’s so great. It’s a big, dumb blockbuster that would prefer it if you shut off your brain before going in, ate your popcorn and didn’t ask questions. This line of argument never made any sense to me. Since when was “being dumb” ever been considered a positive attribute? You wouldn’t apply this to any other art form. Nobody ever enjoys watching dumb plays at the theatre. Nobody ever enjoys engaging with dumb paintings or sculpture. Nobody ever enjoys listening to dumb music (well, not intentionally). So, aside from the so-bad-it’s-good factor, why would anyone like watching dumb movies? Treating blockbusters as intelligent works of cinema can only benefit blockbusters and the making of them. Treating them like “big, dumb movies” will only entice Hollywood to make more “big, dumb movies”. Demanding that blockbusters have good stories, good characters and are told in a competent manner (by men and women of all ethnicities) is something that should be embraced. After all, if you’re going to spend that much money, you’d like the bar to be set artistically pretty high, not low. And that doesn’t mean compromising on anyone’s level of enjoyment either. Movies like “Jurassic Park” show that enthralling, intelligent blockbusters are possible. Movies like “Fury Road” show they can be fresh, modern and exciting. “Jurassic World” has state-of-the-art visual effects but a tired, old formulaic narrative. Despite appearing modern, it instead feels prehistoric.