Monday, June 22, 2015

Jurassic World

Jurassic World is a pretty bad movie.  What's interesting about it, however, is that the reasons for its badness are, for the most part, the reasons it should have been good.  With only a few exceptions, the ideas that went into Jurassic World, the fourquel-slash-reboot of Steven Spielberg's paradigm-defining 1993 blockbuster, are solid and interesting.  The basic premise of the movie--that twenty years on, people have come to take resurrected dinosaurs for granted, forcing the titular park's managers to concoct new, scarier hybrid species--is not only believable, but carries on the entertaining meta-component of the original movie.  In 1993, the embryonic CGI with which Spielberg brought dinosaurs to life was a shocking technological development, but nowadays filmmakers take abilities he couldn't even dream of as a matter of course.  Jurassic World's executives, then, stand in for every Hollywood producer who thought they could make up for the absence of a coherent story and interesting characters by throwing bigger explosions and more elaborate action scenes at the screen, but where the original Jurassic Park undercut its criticism of Hollywood by being a top-notch action-adventure film in its own right, Jurassic World plays right into the metaphor.  It is precisely the soulless monster that its scientists cook up in the lab--a hodgepodge of pieces from better, more exciting movies, without much personality of its own.

Jurassic World takes place in a world in which the dinosaur amusement park has been functioning perfectly for nearly two decades, the teething problems of the original movie swept under the rug to present an image of smooth control and good family fun.  This initially feels like an intriguing turn of the screw--the fact that instead of only a handful of people running from dinosaurs on Isla Nublar there are instead twenty thousand people in danger obviously creates enormous potential.  Jurassic World could have been a nerve-wracking disaster film, its characters concerned not only with saving their own lives but with protecting the thousands of people who are so inured to the film's premise that they don't even realize they're in danger.  Instead, the film largely ignores the park-goers.  Except for one scene in which they're attacked by a swarm of pterosaurs, they serve no function in the story, and in fact disappear for long swathes of it.  The climactic battle, between the genetically engineered Indominus Rex, a herd of velociraptors, and the T-Rex from the original movie, takes place mere meters from where all the park-goers are supposedly sheltering, and yet we never see or hear anything from them.  The meaty questions one anticipates, of the responsibility that the park's managers have towards the visitors they have invited, are never even raised--largely because they conflict with the film's central character arc, in which administrator Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard), has to learn to care less about her work (read: abandon the tens of thousands of men, women, and children whose lives she is responsible for) and more about her two nephews, who happen to be visiting the park.

Claire is another point on which Jurassic World's writers had excellent initial instincts, and terrible execution.  On paper, her arc is quite compelling.  A workaholic who doesn't know how to relate to children that she's been forced to care for, but who steps up when they're endangered?  Not only is that a thoroughly engaging story, it makes for a nice echo of Alan Grant's character arc in the original movie.  But where Jurassic Park wanted us to like Alan even before he decided not to let two innocent children be eaten by dinosaurs, Jurassic World seems to want us to hate Claire simply for not dropping everything to be with her nephews 24/7 (and let's recall, Alan genuinely dislikes children--he's introduced frightening one half to death--something that only a male character would ever be allowed to do while still remaining sympathetic).

A lot has already been written about Jurassic World's sexism, but its genuine dislike of Claire goes beyond a disgusting message (though it is undeniably that) and into incoherent writing.  The film can't seem to decide whether Claire is its heroine or its villain.  Her actual failures--signing off on the Indominus project to begin with, not evacuating the park at the first sign of trouble, abandoning her post to look for two children when she's responsible for the lives of thousands--are so severe as to seemingly make her irredeemable (the fact that Howard spends the movie wearing an impractical white business suit feels like a direct reference to the original movie's John Hammond, who is at best a misguided fool, and Claire lacks his redeeming visionary zeal).  But after introducing them, the movie largely ignores these flaws, either excusing them by telling us that Claire was merely following orders (so on top of being incompetent, she's a powerless incompetent) or, in the case of running off after her nephews, pretending that they are strengths.  Claire's actual problem, we're quickly told, isn't personal but professional, her need for control.  Again, in principle this is a good idea--the false belief that they can control nature is the besetting flaw of most Jurassic Park characters--but it's scuttled by its execution, and by the film's inability to settle on a tone where Claire is concerned.  On the one hand, Jurassic World genuinely dislikes Claire and wants us to feel the same.  Rather than a valuable lesson, her loss of control takes the form of humiliation, with multiple characters repeatedly informing her that she is incompetent and untrustworthy (despite the fact that she actually gets quite a lot done, including risking her life to finally kill the Indominus).  But on the other hand, she is its heroine, so even though, by the time the film ends, it feels as if the only way for Claire to redeem herself is to die, she rather unsatisfyingly survives to further confuse us in the sequel.

The reason for Claire's bizarre handling is that, for all the film's carping on relinquishing control, what Jurassic World actually wants her to do is to cede it--to a man.  Claire's fault isn't believing that she knows and can do things, it's believing that she knows and can do more than the film's hero, Owen Grady (Chris Pratt).  Once she submits herself to his judgment, she becomes a good character and thus worthy of salvation.  As infuriating as that is in itself, it only becomes more so the more we get to know Owen, who feels almost like a caricature of the masculine ideal--a brusque Competent Man who knows so much better than everyone else that he's incapable of communicating in any form except grit-toothed condescension, and whose emotional reactions are restricted to subtly different gradations of annoyance and anger (in one particularly striking scene, Owen watches as a park employee is eaten a few meters away from where he's hiding, and somehow manages not to express a single emotion in response).  And yet Jurassic World expects us not only to take Owen seriously, but to embrace him as a hero, despite the fact that he doesn't actually get anything done.  Claire tasks him with rescuing her nephews, but except for getting her lost in the woods searching for them, he accomplishes nothing--the boys actually rescue themselves.  And every actual progress against dinosaurs--killing the pterosaur attacking him, siccing the T-Rex on Indominus--is achieved by Claire, a fact that the film really does not want us to notice.  After Claire rescues Owen, for example, her nephews run over and inform her that they feel safer with him, even though they've only just met him and literally the only thing they know about him is that their aunt saved his life.

The fact that Owen is all talk did not, in itself, have to be a fatal flaw in the film.  Cinema is riddled with lovable rogues who are actually far less competent than they pretend to be (Han Solo, anyone?).  But, for reasons unfathomable to human logic, the filmmakers of Jurassic World cast Chris Pratt--an actor best known for taking a character who should have been insufferable and turning him into a lovable goof--and asked him to play a humorless tightwad.  Having done that, they then try to address the problem by pitting Owen against an even more humorless tightwad--Vincent D'Onofrio as the park's security chief Hoskins.  Hoskins is so impressed with Owen's ability to train the park's velociraptors to follow commands (which, for all the film's best efforts, never rises above a ridiculous idea that looks thoroughly unbelievable on screen--though it did yield up a delightful internet meme) that he wants to weaponize this ability, and is convinced that he can use Indominus as a weapon of war (again, so ridiculous that it's not even worth discussing--it's probably not a good sign that the only genuinely bad ideas in Jurassic World's story are the ones that have to do with the actual dinosaurs).  What this means is that the film's final act sidelines Claire, her nephews, and the twenty thousand people whose lives are still in danger in favor of a dinosaur-on-dinosaur fight.  And while, for the nth time, this seems like a good idea on paper, the execution is just a mess.  For all the film's best efforts, it doesn't manage to get us emotionally involved in a bunch of CGI velociraptors, and the fact that Owen himself is incapable of expressing emotion--even when his pets turn on him or are killed--makes the entire final third of the film utterly inert.

There's a very good movie buried somewhere deep in Jurassic World's heart, scratching desperately to get out.  Sexism is a big part of the reason why we didn't get that movie--when you genuinely dislike one of your heroes and are so invested in the other's awesomeness that you never allow them to behave like a human being, you're probably not going to produce a good work no matter what else you do.  But running even deeper than that sexism is an unwillingness to accept what the Jurassic Park films have always been about.  Jurassic World claims to be about relinquishing control, but it's afraid to do the same--like Claire, it wants to hand over control to a manly man, instead of recognizing that he's just as powerless as the other characters.  Without that loss of control, Jurassic World never achieves the tension, the fear, the horror of the original movie.  It's never in any doubt that our heroes will survive their ordeal--but whether we'll care if they do is a very different question.


Brett said...

It's rather depressing, isn't it? This movie was so desperate to pander and appeal to Jurassic Park fans that it retreads multiple sequences from it, but they apparently didn't grasp how the first one deliberately undermined its Competent Man character in the form of Muldoon's death, or that the best sequences were the ones where vulnerable characters were trying desperately to get away and hide from the dinosaurs. Not that the movie could've had a scene like the claustrophobic terror of the kitchen sequence in Jurassic Park anyways, what with Competent Man Pratt and Smart Godzilla.

This feels especially grating to me because just about any movie that hit the basic notes of Jurassic Park in its advertising was going to make a billion dollars because of nostalgia-driven parents taking their kids to see the sequel to the series they loved as kids. They had room to experiment, to actually do this right - and instead they squandered it, just like how the new Star Trek movies squandered it and (I'll give 50/50 odds) that the new Star Wars movie will squander it.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Good point about Muldoon. It's fairly obvious that Claire is meant to be a cross between Hammond and Grant (with Ellie Sattler's clothing choices, at least from the waist up), but Owen is clearly a copy of Muldoon, and as you say the film completely misses that the point of the original character is that he dies. The very idea that the revamped Muldoon is someone who can control the raptors, albeit imperfectly, seems to sum up how completely this movie has misread the original.

And yes, as you say, there are shockingly few moments in which the characters are scared and vulnerable. You can sort of see why from a storytelling standpoint - these are supposed to be professionals in an environment they understand and are used to, not tourists dropped into a situation that suddenly turns dangerous - but that only reinforces the fact that focusing the film so completely on these characters was a mistake.

Ryan Elliott said...

An aspect that bothered be about the film was its bloody-minded approach towards the dinosaurs. It seemed to take joy in depicting their deaths and racking up a body count, something that echoes what was ostensibly a flaw in Claire's character--that the animals were merely numbers to her (and for which Owen, in predictable mansplaining fashion, chides her). Yet even after lecturing her for this, the film itself has no problem establishing the pack of velociraptors only to decimate their numbers down to one lone survivor, showing a hillside covered in apatosaur corpses, or mutilating the T-rex in its climactic dog-fight (I was sure, before the final shot of it, that the rex had lumbered away only to die from its wounds). Jurassic World treats the animals at its center with Claire's own cold-hearted, by-the-numbers approach, enabled by the alibi that they are only CGI, after all. This seems to me a fundamental misunderstanding of its predecessors, one of which treated the reuniting of a T-rex family as a major conflict, and all of which ultimately rely on a fascination with dinosaurs as actual animals that really existed once, as much as on their potential as violent monsters to be quarantined or destroyed. One wonders if the film-makers would have reservations depicting more familiar, present-day animals in this same way.

Another troublesome thing is how determined Jurassic World is from a technical standpoint to idolize Owen's particular brand of masculinity. One of its tricks is a kind of goldilocks bait & switch whereby two other masculinities are established--one 'too masculine' and the other 'not masculine enough'--between which Owen is made to occupy a more appealing middle-ground. The 'too masculine' character is of course Hoskins, with his drive to weaponize the dinosaurs and with them enter into what is essentially global imperialism; and the 'not masculine enough' character is the control room's bespectacled Lowery, who is little more than the butt of a series of emasculation jokes. Not to mention the entire film is completely obsessed with the (biologically dubious) concept of the "alpha male", a hierarchy of domination and masculinities, and where humans (via none other than Owen himself) stand in relation to dinosaurs in this fashion. How else can one explain the deafening silence that stood in place of the obvious joke Hoskin's last line demanded, wherein he mis-gendered the raptor who killed him?

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I think that, beyond its obvious indifference to the fate of its animals, Jurassic World consistently misunderstands them, whether it's anthropomorphizing the Indominus by assigning it traits like malice and vengefulness, or confusing lizards with mammals when it posits Owen's ability to train the raptors and impose himself as their alpha (which, as you say, is a suspect concept in itself, largely discredited even in the study of wolves, where it emerged). One of the great things about Jurassic Park was that, at the same time that it recognized that the dinosaurs were not merely exhibits, it also acknowledged their fundamental alienness. Muldoon's "clever girl" to the raptor isn't meant to be a precursor to Owen forming a leadership bond with Blue. It's supposed to be an indication that such a bond isn't possible.

I've seen several reviewers point out that Jurassic World could have been a fictionalization of a story like Blackfish, where an animal deprived of social bonds and held in what were essentially torture conditions for the amusement of humans ends up, essentially, psychotic. There's some hint of that when Indominus is introduced, but it's soon abandoned, the film ultimately concluding that some animals are evil (Indominus, the pterosaurs) and others are good (Blue, the brontosaurs).

I have to admit that the scene where Lowery gets shot down by his colleague was my favorite in the movie, but you're right that its message is less "you're not entitled to kiss someone just because you're doing something brave" and more "this guy is too schlubby to pull off the move where he pulls a near-stranger into a kiss." As demonstrated by the fact that Owen does pull that move off, and that Claire gets her own way with Lowery by telling him to "be a man, for once!"

Chris said...

Read your review. Finally saw the movie today. Read your review again. Yegods, so true. I came out thinking Claire was hands-down the best character in the movie... except that indeed, the movie really didn't want to acknowledge it.

The thing that really stuck out at me, besides the sexism and the iffy grasp of the earlier movies' point about "control:" the Chris Pratt action hero thing is a disappointing turn away from the heroism I'd gotten used to in the franchise. Jurassic Park was filled with heroism - it just wasn't the Hollywood action star, jus' chillin' with mah raptors, "OMG your boyfriend's so badass!" type of heroism. The best moments in the movie were about extremely ordinary people, moved by the circumstances and by ordinary decency to do heroic things... whether it's Grant or Ian or Lex drawing dinosaurs away from their intended victims, everything Grant does to safeguard children he doesn't even like (at first), or even Muldoon himself - he doesn't get a Rambo moment, but he goes out when he's endangering himself (and ultimately it costs him his life) to protect Sattler and help save the other surviving humans. Instead of another fantasy about action heroes, we get a movie about characters doing things that basically anyone COULD do, but take quite a lot of courage, and that we can only hope we'd find it in ourselves to do in real life if we were in a similar situation instead of just sitting there petrified.

What's infuriating about Jurassic World is that it fits RIGHT INTO this kind of heroism - Claire has it all in spades, whether it's using herself as I-Rex bait or attacking a pterosaur to save her colleague, and the contrast with Owen's badass-but-doesn't-accomplish-jack-shit Hollywood Heroism is so glaring it's hard to believe it's not intentional. This movie really feels like it was originally drafted as a kick-ass Jurassic Park sequel that gave Claire her due, then was rewritten in order to cash in on the Chris-Pratt-as-the-new-Han-Solo thing... but rewritten by people who were too lazy or pressed for time to actually change the script in depth to reflect that, which is why so many traces of the original remain. (I have no idea how this movie was made; that's just how it looks from the outside).

In a more meta kind of way: you could probably write a thesis on the craze for Chris Pratt's character, both in-universe and in the real world, and what it means in terms of how as long as you *act* like an alpha male, people will idolize you even if you accomplish nothing.

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