Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Cult-Movie Review: Jurassic World (2015)

The very best quality of Jurassic World?

This is one blockbuster movie that bites the hand that feeds it.

Certainly -- as the fourth installment of a billion dollar big studio franchise -- the obvious path would have been to play things safe, and not feature any kind of embedded social commentary in the film at all.

Instead -- and quite delightfully -- Jurassic World attempts to speak to our time, 2015, much in the way that Jurassic Park sought to speak to its historical context, circa 1993.

The substance of the commentary is entirely different, but both films possess it, and that’s quite possibly the best way to honor the source material.

Jurassic World isn’t about the irresponsible creation of life in the Age of the Human Genome Project, but rather the easy way that our species, mankind, can grow bored by that life, unwilling to treat it as anything other than a not so-exciting attraction.

There’s an old joke about this very idea. It goes something like this:

A person sees God for the first time, and is utterly wowed.

It’s God!  Amazing! Wondrous! Blinding! Fantastic! 

Then, that person sees God on a second visit.

Yeah, God is still cool. Maybe not like before.  But still very cool.

Finally, the same person visits God a third time, and you know what?  God’s no big deal.

Yeah, it’s God.  Ho-hum.

Wait, someone’s texting me….

This is precisely the philosophical terrain that Jurassic World contends with: our constant quest, our ubiquitous desire to find something new, to see something shiny. We can get bored with anything after a short time, even the Divine.

And dinosaurs too.

Yet in Jurassic World, the so-called attractions (or “assets”) bite back, and demand attention for what they truly are: miraculous, living, individual things. They aren’t just there for our amusement. They have lives, destinies, and desires too.

It's so easy to forget that.

In the era of cookie-cutter, generic blockbusters (see: Avengers 2: Age of Ultron), Jurassic World’s dedicated attempt to focus on this facet of the human race’s genome -- let’s call it a collective “meh” in the face of the wondrous -- renders the film both unique and worthwhile. 

Perhaps not on the same gonzo, jaw-dropping scale as Mad Max: Fury Road, but certainly enough for this reviewer to state the obvious; that a lot of fresh blood has been injected into this particular franchise.

Don’t believe, either, the critics who claim that this genre film is misogynistic. You shouldn't believe that any more than you should believe the sour puss male critics who said that Mad Max: Fury Road was anti-male.

Here’s the context for Jurassic World that the “misogyny” crowd doesn’t provide. 

Every single Jurassic Park film in history has concerned adults learning to parent children in their custody (if not their actual, biological progeny). The character who undertakes that journey in Jurassic World happens to be a woman.  Her name is Claire Dearing, and she is played by Bryce Dallas Howard.

Some critics would like you to see this development as deeply sexist in nature, noting that it is biased and sexist to assume a career woman like Claire must yearn deep down to be a mother. Yet the movie features no such yearning.

Instead, Claire steps up to take responsibility -- a key philosophical touchstone of the franchise -- in a pressure cooker situation. She takes responsibility for the children she must protect, and for the park that has gotten out of control.

She undertakes her parental responsibilities, just as Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill), Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum), and even the Kirbys (Tea Leoni, William H. Macy) all undertook the same journey in their respective dino adventures.

This is not a coincidence. This is by design.  

So why repeat the kids, parents and dinosaur mix?

Well, in the Jurassic Park franchise they all go to together in a very specific algebraic equation. 

In the face of cravenly irresponsible scientists, business-men, and military man, other people -- good people like the ones I tagged above -- get a first-hand lesson in the most important and immediate responsibility any of us will ever face: becoming a decent parent.  

Those who can become good, responsible parents are then ready to take on genetically-engineered dinosaurs.

The skill-sets are, in some way, one in the same.

Treat each “beast” (kid or dino…) according to its gifts or nature -- and with care -- and they won’t eat you for lunch.

Jurassic World reiterates the same theme to good effect and is absolutely not sexist “in a seventies” or 2015 way if you actually consider the context of all the Jurassic films.  

Yet I would recommend the film not the basis of how it remixes the old favorites, but rather how Jurassic World makes a trenchant point about the iPhone Era.  

This is a span in which something on our personal screens is always more interesting than what is actually in front of our noses in the real world.

The chaotic events that occur in Jurassic World are a wake-up call, then, for people to unplug -- or log-off -- and look up at the world before their eyes. In doing so, they might see things they haven’t tended to, like out-of-control children...or rampaging prehistoric animals.

“Extinct species have no rights.”

A fully functioning Jurassic World Theme Park will soon debut its new attraction: a genetically-engineered hybrid predator called Indominus Rex.

Meanwhile, a trainer, Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) has been wrangling a team of velociraptors, teaching the pack to respond to his commands. He is their “alpha.”

The park’s harried administrator, Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas 0Howard), meanwhile, must play babysitter to her sister’s two teen boys, Zach (Nick Robinson) and Gray (Ty Simpkins), who are visiting the theme park.

When the Indominus Rex escapes from captivity, an InGen military adviser, Vic Hoskins (Vincent D’Onofrio) believes he can use the trained velociraptors to take down the predator in what amounts to a field study.  

If successful, he believes velociraptors can be utilized in combat situations.

Owen and Claire team up to save Zach and Gray when the boys are reported lost in a gyroscope.   

Meanwhile, the boys stumble upon the old park, from twenty years earlier…

“You made them and you think you own them.”

The line of dialogue excerpted above marries the two key letimotifs of Jurassic World: parenting kids, and herding dinosaurs, essentially. 

In both cases, we have made “children,” and believe it is our right to control their destinies. They (dinosaurs and human children) are extensions of us, here for our pleasure and happiness, and governed by the rules we lay down. 

But if you’ve ever met a velociraptor, or a teenager, for that matter, you understand that -- in the words of Owen Grady -- this equation is not about control, but about honoring the relationship.

As Jurassic World starts, it’s pretty clear that the relationship between man and dinosaur has not been honored, save by Grady and his cohorts.  

For example, the Indominus Rex has been raised in isolation, without socialization, and Owen points this fact out to Claire. She replies sarcastically that the dino “needs a friend” and that maybe the park should “schedule a play date.”

What we have here is a total lack of honoring important relationships.

This idea is mirrored in the Mitchell family. Gray and Zach have not been told by their parents that they are planning to get divorced. Instead, Mom and Dad have retained lawyers and are taking steps to dissolve the family, but they have not informed the ones most impacted by their decision; their own progeny.

Again, is that any way to parent?  

It is, but it's abundantly selfish.

The theme park under Claire's command, Jurassic World is similarly selfish. The park's runners care more about product placement and profits than they do about the welfare of the animals in the park. 

Those animals, as noted above, are termed “assets.”  

That sure makes them sound like things, not living creatures, doesn’t it?

And it's easier to control a thing, than a person, or an animal.

And indeed, this is why the movie is not in any way sexist.  Claire -- at the start of the movie -- is already a bad mother or parent (like Victor Frankenstein, to provide a prominent literary example). Her children, however, are not human, but dinosaurs. She treats them no better than her sister treats Zach and Gray.  She moves assets around, but she takes no responsibility for the "life" under her authority.

So one can't claim that Claire yearns to be a mother in the movie, as she undertakes her journey with her sister's kids.  On the contrary, she is a mother from the word go. 

Instead, Claire learns to be responsible in her motherhood as she undertakes her journey. See the difference, and why it is significant?

In short order, we see just how empty Claire's world is, in terms of respecting the relationships with the wards. Jurassic World shows us the Samsung Innovation Center, a Starbucks, and reveals the promise that Verizon Wireless will present the Indominus Rex.  Every business worth its salt wants a piece of the dinosaur profits.  

But when those profits falls, the dinosaurs are blamed. Claire notes, for instance, that “nobody’s impressed with a dinosaur anymore.”  

The message?  

That the children are not good enough.  That the assets have somehow failed their parents.

Only a new child, one better than the old children, can fill the void.

And so irresponsible business joins with irresponsible science to engineer a new dinosaur that will spike profits.  Even the name “Indominus Rex” has been audience-tested. And the beast has been engineered to be “cooler,” with more teeth, with more awesome abilities (like natural camouflage) and a bigger “wow” factor.  

The whole idea is that a “normal” dinosaur no longer does it for park visitors.  They're bored.

They need the next fix, the next “cool” thing that can go viral on the Internet. What's the next product? The next thing to consume?

This is a tragic impulse in the human animal, but especially so for children, who lose the love and attention of their parents to siblings, or simply to the next "big" thing.

And don't make the mistake of believing this only happens in science fiction blockbusters. 

I can tell you for a fact that there are many parents out there who believe that by having another child, a new child, they will repair all that's wrong in the family. 

This idea of grasping for new, shiny objects, runs rampant in the film's scenes set at the theme park. For example, there’s a hologram in the Hammond Creation Center, another cool thing to ooh and aah over and draw the eye.

Or consider the stadium seating that can descend to the aquarium level.

But, once again, life finds a way, and before long, there is chaos in the theme park. The forgotten children take back by force the attention they've lost.

The only way to defeat the isolated monster child (I-Rex), in this case, is by pitting it against Grady’s velociraptors, whom he has treated with respect, and -- for the most part -- raised well.  

And -- to audience cheers -- the movie also trots out another old friend from Jurassic Park, one scarred and old, but still gorgeous as hell and ready to go to the mat against the pretender for her throne.  This creature has been forgotten, shunted aside for cooler attractions.  But as we see, she is still magnificent.

In the course of the film, Claire finally recognizes that she has not been honoring the relationships in her life.  

Not with her co-workers, not with Owen, and not even with her sister and nephews. So she makes a change.  She acts...responsibly. She sets the animal in Paddock 9 free.

By contrast, Grady is indeed wise and “a life-force” (as Joss Whedon tweeted...), but his character is monumentally uninteresting in comparison to Claire. 

It is Claire who takes on the Alan/Ian/Kirby role of parent who learns the error of his/her ways.  By comparison, Grady already knows everything he needs to know to be a good parent and a good dino wrangler in his first scene in the movie

 He doesn’t change or grow, accordingly.  He's right in his beliefs at the beginning of the movie, right at the movie's half-way point, and vindicated in his rightness at the denouement.  So, despite Pratt's efforts and inherent charms, Owen is pretty dull and stagnant as a character.

It’s Claire -- not Owen -- who does the changing and growing.  Jeff Goldblum and Sam Neill vetted this subplot too, so perhaps it is actually the opposite of sexist that this time around Bryce Dallas Howard gets to do so.

We have seen men take responsibility for their children and for the genetically-engineered dinosaurs on several previous occasions. Why can't a woman undertake the same character arc?  

And when she does, why do some insist it is sexist for her do so? If a man can take this journey (or men, accurately...), why is it wrong to send a woman on the exact same one?  Isn't that, actually, what equality is all about?

Moving on from these ridiculous social politics, the first hour of Jurassic World is pretty terrific.

It features an amusing tour of the park (including a dino petting zoo…) and plenty of scenes that help us understand how the theme park isn’t honoring the animals.  

And then, one of the best scenes in the film finds Owen and Claire encountering an injured dinosaur in the field, after the I-Rex break-out. 

Claire touches it gently, as it takes its last breaths.  She realizes that she has given too little thought to the idea that these assets are living animals -- with their own thoughts, their own purpose, and their own destinies.  

The scene represents a nice breather in the action that alludes to the original film (and a scene with a sick triceratops), but more importantly, it hammers home this movie's point. When you don’t treat life with respect and reverence, you are doing the opposite.  You are acting in a dishonorable fashion. 

That is exactly how Claire has lived. 

Her most meaningful and indeed heroic act in the last third of the film, involves the release of a dinosaur from Paddock 9, as I noted above.

Claire releases it to rescue her nephews, of course, but also as an act of honoring the animal.  She frees it and allows it to pursue its destiny as king or queen of the jungle.  It has been denied this fate its whole life; its place on the "food chain" (which Owen tags as a key element of dinosaur life).

That destiny becomes the film’s beautiful, valedictory image. The metaphor is thus clear: we can't cage our children, dinosaur or human, and chain them to our expectations . At some point, they must be free to do what they will.  The film's final image really captures that idea in a majestic, emotional way. 

I won’t lie and state that Jurassic World is a perfect film, despite its adroit handling of the franchise's ongoing  parenting/responsibility leitmotif.  It’s not. 

For example, Vincent D’Onofrio’s character is pretty two-dimensional and awful. He is handled in a less human fashion, even, than are the velociraptors…who are fully dimensional, especially Blue.  He does and says all the wrong things, and at all the wrong times.  He is a basic movie villain, and we anticipate his much-deserved death from his very first scene.

Similarly, there’s not enough suspense in the film's last act, after all the dominoes have fallen. The denouement is satisfying, and yet I walked away from a screening feeling that, at least a little, the film had not scared me sufficiently. 

I can understand not being able to repeat Jurassic Park’s sense of wonder.  It's an impossible act to follow.  

But I did hope for a bit more in terms of scares or jumps this time around.  I suspect I may feel this way because Trevorrow does not possess the neo-classicist visual approach of a director like John Carpenter or Steven Spielberg.  The film is smart and witty, but it is not patient, and the visuals don't reflect the story as meaningfully as they could, except in isolated instances (like the film's aforementioned valedictory image).

In short, the visuals simply do not feel as cinematic this time around, and I missed that element. There's not a single scene here as tense, or as meticulously constructed, for example, as the trailer-on-the-precipice scene of The Lost World (1997).

Still, Jurassic World (2015) ably incorporates all the key genetic sequences of the long-lived Steven Spielberg franchise and gives the juggernaut a solid face-lift. 

Jurassic World is better, frankly, than either of the two previous sequels, even if it’s not quite as good you might hope it to be. 

The film's leitmotif about honoring relationships -- whether with dinosaurs or children -- is powerfully-wrought, and a perfect corrective for our busy, eyes-on-iPhone-screens-at-all-times age.

In the final analysis, Jurassic World gets the job done, but without, precisely, the visual legerdemain Spielberg might have provided were he still in the director’s seat. 

It's a good sequel, but Jurassic Park (1993) still reigns in this Jurassic world.


  1. Excellent review, I never thought of comparing the way the dinos are treated with the way the kids are. True, the kids are in isolation, so they get angry when treated like that, same as the two kids in the movie who go out on their own, same as the dinos escape...loved your take on it. And also, that whole bullcrap about the movie being mysoginistic, these comments are beyond stupid, plus, what's wrong with a woman wanted or desiring to be a mother? Bah, most women and men want a child at some point in their lives...

  2. Thank you for your great comment!

    I agree with you, Francisco: there's nothing wrong with a woman desiring to be a mother, or a man desiring to be a father for that matter. My wife and I knew for a long time that we wanted to have children, at some point. It was important to us, but that doesn't put us in any kind of sexist box, so far as I'm concerned.

    So I don't get the misogynist argument here any more than I get the anti-male argument in conjunction with Mad Max.

    Have people really become that sensitive and touchy, even when viewing blockbuster genre movies?

    I guess the answer is yes. Joss Whedon actually started this brush fire -- I love him, of course -- but his tweet about Jurassic World being "70s sexist" was off-base, and started a whole silly debate.

    Worse, he hadn't even seen the film in its entirety, let alone considered the context of the Jurassic Park movies when he made his remark.

    I have interviewed the guy, and like I said, I love him, but that tweet was not his finest hour. And worse, given the plot-line of Avengers 2 vis-a-vis Black Widow, he kinda looks like a hypocrite. He would be hard-pressed to explain, I think, how JW is sexist, but Ultron is not.

    Again, I don't want to pick on him. I think he's an amazing and talented guy, and I have loved his work for decades. He holds a lot of power, however, and his words framed the debate -- unfairly I think -- about Jurassic World. I see it didn't harm the box office, however...


  3. John good review. This seems to be the real worthy sequel to JP (1993).


  4. Fantastic review and so refreshing to read someone who gets it. So annoyed with mainstream critics who are too lazy (or maybe simply not astute enough) to understand what this film was about. So many condescending and dismissive reviews out there.

    I said the same thing, the injured brontosaurus scene was the best in the movie and the most Spielbergian (and very moving). Claire finally understood what Owen was trying to tell her. These are not assets. These are live animals; living, breathing creatures with needs, and instincts, and desires, and yes, feelings.

    Yeah, I miss the visual poetry of Spielberg's direction. But I have come to accept the fact that modern (by that I mean younger) directors just don't have the the ability and/or training to coherent compose action scenes.

    But still, this film is a terrific piece of summer entertainment and did capture the spirit of the original much more so than either sequel. Loved Bryce Dallas Howard's performance and her character's arc. But most of all I loved that the dinosaurs were treated with respect both as animals and as characters.

  5. I

    I know what you mean by the film lacking the virtuoso grasp of visual storytelling. While the set pieces felt mechanically in tune with those of the previous installments, they also mostly felt just mechanical. Being able to stage clear dino-action without today's ugly default handheld, random coverage or clumsy editing is not the same as staging as much with an intuition for causation, spontaneity and juxtapositional power in scale.

    But then again, I mean, damn... that director Colin Tevorrow went from a low budget indie-romantic comedy debut, known only for its quirky character antics, to helming a production of this size and technical demand for his sophomore effort, the very fact that he delivered at all instead of fumbling into awkward punctuation and nonplussed attempts at showmanship (Nolan) or obnoxious over-stylization (Snyder, Abrams, Bay) is still a notable achievement in my opinion. I thought the gyrosphere sequence was inventive and I appreciate how the movie maintains a certain sinister natured intensity with graphic dino attacks and abrupt overkills (Claire's assistant, anyone?). Trevorrow can never quite match Spielberg's devilish sense of audience antagonism with ghastly surprises and gauntlets of deck-stacking dangers but he nonetheless honors it in presentation. The highlight suspenseful reveal belongs to the story-point of I-Rex's hidden DNA connection and while D'Onofrio's sneering military man villain was indeed rather lamely generic, I still dig how the movie nastily cuts short his stock monologuing with a winking bit of irreverence; Trevorrow employing such an obvious cliché just so he could snuff it out proportionately with primeval viciousness.

    I also think Jurassic World attains its own special moment of pure retro comic-strip adventuring (played fittingly straight) with the conceit of Owen as the "bwana man" to his raptors accumulating to a motorbike-led posse night pursuit through the jungle, scored by a tribal rhythmic safari march. Definitely a new spin for the franchise where, before, said raptors had been relegated to nemesis monsters; here, they've become scrappy hero sidekicks to the movie's Trader Horn (if only sporadically). I just thought that was plainly cool, is all.

    Likewise with the big showdown. I recall you criticizing Jurassic Park III for its indignant layoff of the beloved franchise heavyweight, T-Rex. Well, the old dog certainly gets his (or her—I don't think this movie was specific on the matter) comeback for the grand finale. I for one won't deny having my most base level of desire for all things dopey shit entertainment à la dinosaur battle royal shamelessly indulged. Yes, I invoked my mental fist-pump the moment when Claire gestures a Dr. Grant strategy with signature flare in hand as the T-Rex emerges from the shadows of its redwood coniferous biodome; in essence, from its own deep, dark prehistoric period to show the bully Indominus mutant a thing or two about a thing or two (how Claire then managed to outrun the 32mph clocked predator in heels ...whatever the fuck).

  6. II

    Some dialogue was mind-numbingly trite, the two kid characters never really registered for me, the whole 'military weaponizing' angle has long since been played [ironic note: this is a much a remake of Corman's Carnosaur, also from 1993, as it is a JP reboot] and Giacchino, well, tries. It wasn't Jurassic Park, obviously, but I do wholeheartedly agree that it surpasses the two sequels, while Trevorrow either equals or surpasses Joe Johnston in pulling off just a good ol' fashion dino-disaster movie spectacle.

    One last word on themes. Trevorrow does bookend the movie with a clever leitmotif visual. The franchise has always been, in part, about parenting, yes, but furthermore about the very evolutionary urge to breed. Such was the arc between Ellie and Grant as it later mirror's Grant's discovery that the animals of the original park had managed to breed via gender morphing. In this movie, the opening credits sequence is that of hatching baby raptor egg while the proceeding character arc sees the rebellious hero male, Owen, and the career-driven corporate female, Claire, coming together in communion and, by the closing scene, agreeing, without directly stating, to put aside their detached lifestyles in order to start a family of their own.

    With a $208 million opening weekend total, they'll sure as hell have the money to pay for good schools.

  7. Quoting a line from your review: "This is a span in which something on our personal screens is always more interesting than what is actually in front of our noses in the real world."

    Wow! So I am not the only person out there that has observed people recording events of importance on their phones. It's gotten to the point where they don't even watch and experience things, they just hold their phones out in front of their face and record everything.