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.