Our Dinosaurs, Ourselves: A Review of Jurassic World
by Gary Westfahl
If you are wondering whether or not you should see Jurassic World, here is this reviewer’s advice: either pay the exorbitant price of admission to watch the film in a theatre, or never bother to watch it at all. Viewed on a small screen, the way I watched the other Jurassic Park films, this fourth installment’s shrunken dinosaurs will not be impressive, and the flaws that have always characterized the franchise – shoddy science, illogical plotting, uneven acting, and clumsy pauses for ineffectual character development – will be magnified, making it almost impossible to endure. But when everything in the film is larger than life, accompanied by booming sound effects and marginally enhanced by 3D or the IMAX Experience, none of its weaknesses matter, as you will consistently be enthralled and entertained by the amazing spectacle of realistic dinosaurs thundering across the screen and interacting with human characters.
Since computer animation can now create all sorts of enormous creatures, the question to ponder is: why are dinosaurs so particularly fascinating? The answer may lie in a word that is repeatedly employed in this film: “control.” The billionaire who inherited the Jurassic World theme park from the late John Hammond, Simon Masrani (Irrfan Khan), explains that the secret to enjoying life is to realize “you are never actually in control.” Though employee Owen Brady (Chris Pratt) has trained some raptors to obey his commands, he insists that “I don’t control the raptors. It’s a relationship.” And when he complains about how the crisis of an escaped dinosaur is being handled, Owen is told, “You are not in control here.” The issue of control arises because, in the popular imagination if not Earth’s true history, only two groups of creatures have ever enjoyed complete dominion over the planet – dinosaurs, and human beings. Even though they were quite different from humans, they were also our prehistoric counterparts. If we did contrive, then, to bring dinosaurs back to life, they would inevitably compete with humans to rule the Earth. And such a conflict, on a small scale, is central to the Jurassic Park films: the humans strive to keep dinosaurs under control, but the dinosaurs get out of control, humbling and threatening their would-be masters.
As the dramas play out, each set of combatants enjoys a certain advantage: the humans are highly intelligent, but the dinosaurs have brute force on their side. But instead of a simple struggle between brain and brawn, each adversary interestingly endeavors to emulate their opponent’s strength. Instead of trying to outsmart the dinosaurs, the humans strive to overpower them with larger and larger fences and more and more lethal weapons (though only the film Pacific Rim [review here] takes the process to its logical conclusion by providing humans with the size and attributes of dinosaurs). Instead of trying to overpower the humans, the dinosaurs become more and more intelligent in order to outwit them. In this film, not only are the raptors smarter than ever, but its new species, Indominus rex, surprises its captors by displaying its own unexpected intelligence, as it conceals itself from thermal detection by lowering its temperature, removes the monitoring implant inserted into its body, and figures out how to kill an armored ankylosaurus by turning it over to attack its unprotected stomach.
The other surprising aspect of the film’s war between humans and dinosaurs is that audiences are routinely urged to sympathize with the dinosaurs: true, whenever a dinosaur is about to kill a purportedly beloved character, we are supposed to cheer when it is slaughtered, but everyone recognizes that the dinosaurs are not evil; they are only following natural instincts that were perfectly appropriate sixty-five million years ago. The film also strives to make Owen’s raptors likable, as they are given names and sometimes figure as heroes, and a dying apatosaurus deeply saddens Owen and his companion, park executive Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard). And without revealing any details about how the story ends, it is telling that the film’s final image powerfully suggests that the dinosaurs have ultimately triumphed, and that they will henceforth be in control of Jurassic World.
One reason to like dinosaurs and dislike people is that, more often than not, the people have despicable motives. The recurring cause of problems in the Jurassic Park films (and in other monster movies like the King Kong films and the Jaws films) is that people are greedy, more concerned about making money than protecting people and caring for innocent animals. And since, as Owen’s friend Barry (Omar Sy) ruefully notes, “people never learn,” they are still acting this way in Jurassic World. The park’s desire for profits is underlined by a barbed remark about charging “seven bucks a soda”; the Jurassic Trader is only one of many stores observed in the film’s park, all undoubtedly offering overpriced souvenirs; park employees constantly refer to the dinosaurs as “assets”; and one of them is criticized for regarding the creatures as nothing more than “numbers on a spreadsheet.” The film’s major villain – the enormous, predatory Indominus rex – was unwisely created by the duplicitous Dr. Henry Wu (BD Wong) solely because the park needed a new attraction to boost attendance, and it was being readied for display without a full awareness of its abilities, even though Wu recognized that “modified animals are known to be unpredictable.” Then, after it escaped, the crisis was not dealt with promptly and properly because park executives wanted to avoid a costly panic that would reduce their profits, and they did not want to kill a dangerous dinosaur that represented an investment of twenty-six million dollars. Even when they are compelled to inform visitors that vicious pterosaurs are about to attack from the sky, the park announcer blandly describes the impending calamity as a “containment anomaly.”
The irony in all of these attacks on corporate greed is that the film itself is so manifestly a product of corporate greed: of course, every Hollywood film is designed to make money, but only a few, especially avaricious producers will contrive to saturate their films with conspicuous brand names, obviously incorporated in response to financial incentives, and Jurassic World is filled with them. One of its first images is of youthful protagonist Gray Mitchell (Ty Simpkins) holding a View-Master; the rights to sponsor the Indominus rex are purchased by Verizon; in his helicopter, Masrani and his co-pilot wear Alpha headphones; when he’s thirsty, Owen drinks a Coke; while Gray and his older brother Zach (Nick Robinson) are trying to get the iconic No. 29 Jeep Wrangler from the 1992 film working again, they insert a Kawasaki battery; and in the streets near the entrance to Jurassic World, one observes the Samsung Innovation Center, a Pandora jewelry store, a Brookstone gift store, a Lego store, a Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville restaurant, and a theater advertising “Pterosaur: The IMAX Experience.” The list is not complete. In sum, if you want to get really drunk, and motivate yourself to watch Jurassic World on television, you can turn it into a drinking game – everyone takes another drink every time another plug appears on the screen.
Jurassic World does innovate by condemning another human foible, militarism. Its chief villain, Vic Hoskins (Vincent D’Onofrio), is obsessed with the idea that trained raptors could become the ideal soldiers of the future, and after the Indominus rex escapes, he initiates a crazy scheme to release the raptors so they can track down and kill the enormous menace. (Predictably, not only do they fail to bring down their target, but the released raptors then become menaces in their own right.) Audiences are supposed to admire Owen for his principled resistance to the use of his cherished raptors as weapons, but in this case, I think the film’s righteous indignation can be challenged. Wars themselves may be immoral, but employing trained animals in wars is a time-honored tradition; one of the trailers attached to the film is promoting the forthcoming film Max (2015), which celebrates a dog who assisted American soldiers in Afghanistan, and other animals like horses and elephants long participated in combat without any suggestion that the practice was evil. So, if we do ever bring dinosaurs back to life, and if we are still fighting wars, I see no reason why soldiers shouldn’t be allowed to ride into battle, say, on the back of a trained Tyrannosaurus rex as an organic alternative to a gas-guzzling tank.
There is nothing controversial about the film’s third foregrounded message, that family members need to be nice to each other. Gray and Zach’s parents are implicitly criticized for sending their children off to visit an aunt while they work out the details of their divorce, a decision that reduces Gray to tears once he figures out what is happening. His mother Karen (Judy Greer) worries about Zach and Gray being alone together because Zach is often cruel to Gray, and during their first visits to Jurassic Park attractions, Zach spends all of his time looking at pretty girls instead of talking to his brother. Karen also laments that her sister Claire has never had children, and Claire initially proves to be a thoughtlessly inattentive aunt, too preoccupied with business to escort her nephews through Jurassic World as she had promised. They soon get into trouble precisely because the distracted assistant instructed to accompany them loses track of their whereabouts. Asked to assist in finding them, Owen is dumbfounded to learn that “you don’t know how old your nephews are?” But in the end, almost everyone sees the error of their ways: while the film avoids becoming excessively maudlin by failing to suggest that Gray and Zach’s parents will be reconciling, they do travel to Costa Rica to reunite with their children; Zach assures Gray in an excruciatingly awkward scene that they will always be brothers, no matter what; once she finds her nephews, Claire announces that she will never leave them again; and after the crisis is over, she seems prepared to settle down with Owen and finally have her own children (perhaps to become the protagonists of Jurassic Park VI).
It is not surprising that director Colin Trevorrow and co-writers Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, and Derek Connolly felt compelled to include these moments of romance and domestic drama; they allow filmmakers to feel that they are making a real film, not a thrill ride, and using dinosaurs to promote family values seems like a foolproof crowd-pleaser (an approach also employed in the execrable 2014 version of Godzilla [review here]). But as calm interludes, one wishes that they had shown less of the characters’ cardboard personalities and more of Jurassic World itself: after all, this is the first film in the series that faced the challenge of depicting what sorts of rides and attractions a fully realized, functional theme park with dinosaurs would actually offer, and the result is quite an interesting place. First, since the park only offers a limited number of dinosaurs – fourteen species, an increase over the original eight – there would have to be some dinosaur-related attractions that did not feature dinosaurs. Thus, the park offers visitors the chance to play “Jurassic Tennis” and a golf course; Gray and Zach talk about going on the Spinning Dinosaur Eggs ride; we see children at the Digging for Dinosaurs playground using brushes to gently unearth realistic dinosaur bones; there is the aforementioned pterosaur film; and a display room includes a statue of park founder Hammond, holographic images of dinosaurs, and an interactive screen where an animated “Mr. DNA” (portrayed, the credits inform us, by the director) presumably explains how the dinosaurs were created. For the experience of interacting with dinosaurs, the Gentle Giants Petting Zoo allows children to pet tiny sauropods and ride on the backs of baby triceratops; we briefly glimpse people in canoes paddling down a stream filled with aquatic dinosaurs; and a rolling Gyrosphere enables Gray and Zach to travel alongside galloping dinosaurs. The larger dinosaurs have to be observed from a distance in various ways: people look at a Tyrannosaurus rex within an elevated log with a window; roaming dinosaurs can be seen from a monorail; and in a grandstand recalling a Sea World exhibit, crowds gasp as an enormous mosasaur leaps out of the water to devour a dead shark, and their seats are then lowered so they can see the dinosaur through a window, swimming underwater.
The Gyrosphere shows a humorous instructional video in which Jimmy Fallon assures park visitors that “your safety is our main concern”; however, since we hear these words coming from a Gyrosphere that Gray and Zach have abandoned because it had just been attacked and crushed by a dinosaur, it is suggested that the park’s “concern” is not entirely sincere. In fact, nothing about the park’s attractions really seems safe at all. All of the “Gentle Giants” may be perfectly tame, but they could still do some significant damage by stepping on a child’s foot; swimming dinosaurs could easily capsize a canoe; and the film later establishes that the mosasaur is capable of leaping out of the water and eating a creature standing near the shore, such as a human spectator. More broadly, the island home of Jurassic World is part of Costa Rica, a nation that happens to experience major earthquakes on a regular basis, and these might derail the park’s monorail or send that log plummeting to the ground to smash and expose its occupants to a hungry Tyrannosaurus rex. Even if human greed and aggressiveness does not complicate the picture, then, it would seem that Murphy’s Law would forever preclude the possibility of making recreated dinosaurs the centerpieces of an amusement park. (One might suggest as an alternative the use of robot dinosaurs, like those already featured at some theme parks, but Michael Crichton, author of the original Jurassic Park novel , also reminded us in the film Westworld  that advanced robots might not be entirely safe either.)
Yet the makers of Jurassic World, like their predecessors, manifestly were not interested in predicting a plausible future; rather, they needed a premise that would justify numerous scenes of people running away from dinosaurs, shooting at dinosaurs, and (very occasionally) petting dinosaurs, and imagining a future world where scientists raised dinosaurs to serve as theme park attractions proved an ideal strategy. This Jurassic Park film will surely prove just as popular as the first three installments, and it should inspire executive producer Steven Spielberg to pick up the pace in generating further sequels. (Only three sequels in the twenty-three years since the first blockbuster? What was Spielberg thinking?) In light of the perpetual popularity of dinosaur movies, it is very odd that during Claire’s first appearance, she declares that “No one’s impressed with a dinosaur anymore.” As of 2015, that clearly represents another prediction in this film that has not yet come true.
3 thoughts on “Our Dinosaurs, Ourselves: A Review of Jurassic World”
Great review. I missed John Williams.
Gary Westfahl is one of the finest film critics around, and Locus has him! His reviews are always intelligent and entertaining. Even if it’s a movie I have no interest in, Gary’s review provokes thought and points to earlier movies with similar themes.
Jurassic World is interesting. It is a spectacle, and afficionados of spectacle have got to see it first-run in IMAX and 3-D. Today’s high-end venues are not as cheap as they used to be, but I would not mind forking over the bucks and skipping the concession stand to catch a film in its best form.
The phenomenon of huge American films waggling a disapproving finger at avaricious and / or unprincipled businessmen is such a constant that I’d be shocked if there weren’t several doctoral theses in attempting to discover the roots of this persistent ironic occurrence.
The Jurassic Park films are notable for their spectacular and literal depiction of business at it’s most rapacious, where business people would not only sell their parents for a buck, but would use them as dinosaur chow.
Wouldn’t you love to sit down with an executive of Universal or Sony or Disney, give them a few stiff drinks, and then ask them direct questions about how business is depicted in their films? I certainly would, as long as the phrase, “it’s only a movie” was banned from the conversation.