Jurassic World, directed by Colin Trevorrow; written Rick Jaffe, Amanda Silver, Derek Connolly, Colin Trevorrow; with Bryce Dallas Howard, Chris Pratt, Nick Robinson, Ty Simpkins, Vincent D’Onofrio, Ifrhan Khan, BD Wong, Omar Sy, Judy Greer.
It’s been 22 years since Steven Spielberg made “Jurassic Park,” adapted from the best-selling novel by Michael Crichton, and 13 years since “Jurassic Park III,” which Spielberg produced and Joe Johnston directed. Now comes “Jurassic World,” another Spilberg production, directed this time by Colin Trevorrow.
I can still remember that moment in “Jurassic Park” when Dr. Grant (Sam Neill), Dr. Sattler (Laura Dern) and Dr. Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) first see the dinosaurs roaming through the theme park built by billionaire John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) in pursuit of his fervent capitalist dream. We see the wonder in their eyes before we ourselves see the dinosaurs, and when Spielberg’s camera finally reveals the latter, the heroes’ wonder becomes our own – a moment of true cinematic awe.
Such awe is, of course, no longer possible. We have gotten used to the dinosaurs, a fact that already hampered the 1997 sequel “The Lost World: Jurassic Park” as well as “Jurassic Park III.” We know what they look like; we know how the ground trembles when they approach, or how they open their enormous mouths and shriek. In our minds they are by now part of a gallery of cinematic monsters, along with King Kong and Godzilla. They are no longer unique, and none of the movies after the first “Jurassic Park” was able to find a substitute for that.
If in “Jurassic Park” the dinosaurs were both frightening and charming (the non-man-eating ones, anyway, which Spielberg portrayed as potentially friendly to humans), with each new installment in the series they became scarier and lost their charm. By “Jurassic World,” all we have is a horror movie whose horror seems to have been implanted from the outside.
“Jurassic World” raises different questions of scientific ethics than “Jurassic Park” did. If 22 years ago it was cloning that dominated the movie’s explicit plot level, now the controversial issue is cross-breeding (mayhem erupts as a result of a new cross between two different kinds of man-eating dinosaurs, an attraction that is supposed to draw massive crowds to the already-packed theme park; capitalism, this series has claimed all along, is as insatiable as any prehistoric beast).
But the main difference between “Jurassic Park” and its three sequels is that it had both an external narrative and a subtext, and the latter is what made the first movie interesting. As the franchise grew, the subtext disappeared, and its presence in “Jurassic World” is no more than a plot element tacked on from the outside.
The “Jurassic” movies stage a clash between the primeval, expressed in the revival of the dinosaurs, and the eternal, the latter being synonymous with traditional family values. “Jurassic Park” was not really a movie about dinosaurs, though many would say so if asked. It told a story that was altogether different from that of Hammond’s theme park gone wild: the story of Dr. Grant, a paleontologist who does not like children and does not want to be a father. Early in the movie we see him respond brusquely to a child who asks questions about his work at a dig site; following that conversation he declares his intention to remain childless to his lover, fellow paleontologist Dr. Sattler, who smiles fondly at every child she meets.
As in all the best horror movies, the trauma in “Jurassic Park” was supposed to do more than frighten the heroes; it was meant to educate and change them. In the course of the movie, Dr. Grant finds himself alone with Hammond’s two grandchildren, teenage Lex and her younger brother Tim. In the course of their adventures – which include resuscitating Tim after he is electrocuted by a fence – Dr. Grant comes to show his protective, paternal side.
In the movie’s final scene, which completes the early one in which we saw him recoil from a curious child, Dr. Grant is sitting in a helicopter with his arms around Lex and Tim. Dr. Sattler, sitting across from them, smiles as if to say, “I knew you weren’t who you claimed to be.” (In classic Hollywood movies closing scenes often complete the opening, and in that sense “Jurassic Park” was a classic picture in its very essence). At the beginning of “Jurassic Park III,” by the way, we see Dr. Grant and Dr. Sattler again, now married and with kids of their own.
Families, and especially the presence or absence of fathers in them, have always been a central theme of Spielberg’s conservative filmmaking. The year 1993 marked a certain peak in this sense, since in it he made not only “Jurassic Park” but “Schindler’s List.” Although they are supposedly located on opposite poles of a schematic division between art and entertainment, and as shocking as it may seem to be comparing these two films, “Jurassic Park” and “Schindler’s List” actually had something in common. Not only were they both movies unfolding inside enclosed sites, but both followed the emergence of a symbolic father figure offering protection and salvation.
But there is another sense in which “Jurassic Park” is not simply “a movie about dinosaurs”; more accurately, it is a movie about female dinosaurs. The animals were cloned out of dinosaur DNA taken from preserved mosquitoes and combined with the genes of a certain frog that has the ability to change its sex and thus to self-fertilize. What can be more likely to cause male panic than females who no longer need males in order to breed?
In “Jurassic Park,” this panic joined Dr. Grant’s unease with fatherhood, and the result was a horror-adventure picture that managed to go far beyond the monster-movie niche into which it was born and to which it consciously alluded.
The ideological basis of “Jurassic Park” continued into the next movies. “The Lost World” brought back Goldblum’s Dr. Malcolm, this time accompanied by his teenage daughter. Their relationship, however, did not play much of a part and became only one in a series of bland plot elements, which this time also involved capitalist and military forces far more menacing and aggressive than the eccentric entrepreneur John Hammond (who returns in this movie, but in his eccentric way has changed into a capitalist with an ecological mission).
The damaged family unit returned full-force in “Jurassic Park III,” in which Grant joins a team accompanying a couple (William H. Macy and Tea Leoni) whose son has disappeared in a dinosaur compound (the sex of the dinosaurs was pushed to the sidelines in these movies, although on occasion, in them and in the new film, they are referred to as “she”).
“Jurassic World” continues the ideological debate of family, but it does so in a less articulate way. A couple struggling with marital problems send their two sons, teenage Zach (Nick Robinson) and his brother Gray (Ty Simpkins), to the dinosaur theme park run by their aunt, Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard), who parallels Dr. Grant in “Jurassic Park”: she is a caricature career woman who has no idea what you even do with children. Soon after her nephews arrive, she leaves them to fend for themselves.
It’s true that women in the previous “Jurassic” movies screamed constantly, but they, and the actresses playing them, were strong. In “Jurassic World” no such strength is in evidence, and aside from the gradual dishevelment of Claire’s well-kept hair, she does not seem to change at all (and continues to run along on her high heels even under the gravest danger). This tawdry thinness in the movie is not helped by the predictable, forced love plot between her and Owen (Chris Pratt). It’s not clear what exactly he does in the park, except for occasionally forming a spiritual bond with the dinosaurs.
Instead of Hammond, this time we have a new park owner (Indian actor Irfhan Khan), as well as a corrupt scientist (BD Wong) and a villain, Hoskins (Vincent D’Onofrio), who wants to use the park’s new breeding technology for military purposes. None of them is developed enough, so that when some of them exit the story under brutal circumstances, we don’t really care.
The worst flaw of “Jurassic World” is that it has no real peak moments; it cannot thrill or fascinate us. The fact that Claire’s young nephews spend much of the movie alone and in danger could have provided an emotional center focused on the bond between brothers, but Zach and Gray are such threadbare characters that their distress does not arouse any identification.
In contrast to the spectacular “Jurassic Park” and to some magnificent, entertaining moments in its two sequels, nothing about “Jurassic World” is magnificent or entertaining. It may have been made on an enormous budget and has more sophisticated special effects than the first movie in the series, but the result is somehow meager. Much more than the previous films, “Jurassic World” shows its roots in the B-movies of the 1950s, but without the typical wit of those low-budget pictures.
Clearly, “Jurassic World” is a summer product whose only goal is to make lots and lots of money – at the box office, in special rides added to actual theme parks, and through an entire industry of merchandising. The previous sequels were also like that, but they had something to offer viewers in exchange for their money. In “Jurassic World” even that goal, which the earlier sequels met with partial success, seems to have disappeared.
The audience, presumably of the same age as the two brothers onscreen, gets nothing more than the movie with all of its predictable components. There is not even an attempt to provide some added value that might make “Jurassic World” more than an elaborate theme-park ride. But if there’s a monster here, it’s not the one on the screen – it’s the industry that brought the movie into being.