When I was eight years old, I saw Jurassic Park for the first time. It was terrifying. At the time, I’d been hosting a sleepover for some friends, and while they huddled under blankets, laughing and shrieking and gaping wide-eyed, I’d had to get up and remove myself, traveling all the way from the front room to my bedroom at the back of the house. It was during the T-rex reveal scene, and the dread of its approach as perfectly encapsulated in that trembling cup of water had ratcheted my nerves to a near breaking point. I was still reeling from the velociraptor feeding scene, and I had to latch onto my mother during the velociraptor kitchen scene that would come later. The only reason I’d been able to make it through was because they weren’t screeching and screaming like the T-rex usually was. I could handle the horror of a slow-moving, barely-glimpsed velociraptor stalking its prey, its oversized killing talons clicking against the floor tiles, but I couldn’t handle the unbridled and simply unconquerable rage of a T-rex roaring. Even typing these sentences 20 years later, I’m filling with a creeping horror that simmers just below my skin.
Since then, no other movie in the franchise has come close to thrilling and terrifying me like Jurassic Park did. In every subsequent movie, the robotics or CGI weren’t convincing enough, the directing wasn’t nuanced enough, the script wasn’t plotted well enough, and the dinosaurs simply weren’t convincing enough. People died indiscriminately, and the dinosaurs found themselves in increasingly more ridiculous situations like bursting from a boat hold (that it had evidently already burst from) and terrorizing San Diego. The point of the movies became trying to capitalize on Jurassic Park and milk this cash cow for as long as Hollywood was able. Teaching the audience about the dinosaurs’ anatomy, understanding what made them tick, or displaying some rudimentary understanding of genetics all fell to the bottom of the hierarchy of what the movies needed to do. As a result, the movies got worse and worse, audiences cared less and less, and the franchise was finally allowed to die in 2001 with Jurassic Park III.
Until now. Until Jurassic World.
If you come into Jurassic World expecting nothing, you won’t be disappointed. The CGI is fairly advanced though too nuanced and idealized to really be convincing (the same problem Peter Jackson had in the Hobbit franchise), and the dinosaurs are beautifully crafted (at least in stills). Owen Grady’s (played by Chris Pratt) relationship with his four velociraptors is arguably the best part of the film and really the only thing I wanted to see. If it had been the focal point of the film, the movie as a whole would have been better. There was also plenty of violence which is a draw to some.
Unfortunately, that’s all you can say about Jurassic World. Its budget was $150 million, and it had no characterization, unconvincing CGI, terrible direction, and poor plotting. It premiered 14 years after the last Jurassic Park movie and 22 years after the first, and it had almost nothing to offer to either the franchise or audiences. It was, for all its marketing, budget, big name actors, and high-tech editing, an okay movie. Two out of five stars. Max.
Catering to corporate backers was a huge problem in this movie. The most lovingly rendered shots were ones where the camera slowly panned past the Mercedes-Benz logo or artfully lit up the characters as they talked about Verizon Wireless and Pepsi. An entire subplot was how the park was going to finance itself and getting corporate backers to attach themselves to the franchise (Let’s be honest: it’s a Goddamn dinosaur theme park that forces people to use only its transportation, hotels, and food while they’re there for an extended stay and has a 90%+ approval rate at any given time – they’re probably making bank.). Every decision was made by a mysterious board of directors who had the tacit approval of several governments. Other than the discussion of genetic modifications, perhaps divorce, and maybe the violence, there was nothing really upsetting, taboo, or controversial in this film (and all these things are pretty common nowadays). It reaffirmed gender roles and common film archetypes and managed to be bland and non-political. Not a queer person in sight and just enough people of color to keep people happy. All very safe.
When you remember the triumph that was 1993’s Jurassic Park, this assessment becomes even more upsetting. While there was certainly product placement in the first and subsequent movies, that’s not what I or most people remember best. The product placement didn’t fuel the movie, coopting the plot in an effort to cram in as much as possible. The audience also understood that there was a difference between good and bad corporations with the bad corporations needing to resort to as many tricks as possible to stay ahead of the good guys (but that they would ultimately never win). In Jurassic World, the good corporation was being run by a bad corporation and wasn’t all that good. Claire Dearing and most of the other employees at the park didn’t see the dinosaurs as animals deserving of kindness and compassion, and there was no ethics committee reviewing any of the genetic modification being done. Even Simon Masrani, the corporate executive with a heart of gold, was fueled by a desire to make things bigger, scarier, and cooler and only became involved in the park when something went seriously wrong (and even then his first thought was not for the safety of the park attendees but for the safety of his revenue stream). Until that moment, he never considered if what he was asking for was feasible, ethical, morally right, or within the budget. He just threw money at the problems and did as he liked. At best, he was irresponsible.
The best part of Jurassic World was the subplot of how we should treat animals, especially if they’re being used in a controlled environment. Rather than crafting a thin plot about a struggling family and bemoaning how hard it is to get corporate backing, that’s what the movie should have focused on. You could still have the Indominus Rex get free and wreak havoc. You could still have Claire and Owen going into the jungle. You could still have lost kids needing to be rescued/rescuing themselves. You could still have nostalgia points sprinkled throughout the film. But if the focus had been on people’s relationships with these animals and the struggle to keep their best interests in the foreground as opposed to a corporation needing to milk them for all they’re worth, this could have been a legitimately good film (And if you got a new director and writer. Colin Trevorrow was crap.). Instead, we got two white people shooting dinosaurs and then making out. Thanks, Hollywood.
Over the past 20 or so years, nostalgia culture has become the driving force of American entertainment, often to the detriment of decent story, plot, and characterization. We’ve become a culture that finds Family Guy the height of humor, reveling in its non-sequiturs that do nothing but cram in as many pop culture references as possible. Punchlines become remembering pop culture instead of commentary on it or even comparisons using it. It seems like just remembering something has become good enough and there’s no need to have standards.
That’s what Jurassic World is and that’s why it’s made over $690 million worldwide in its first week. Audiences want to go back to Jurassic Park, they want to see and interact with dinosaurs again, they want to remember the terror and excitement of the first time they watched that movie. That’s why we have so many sequels and remakes and why six out of ten of the world’s top grossing movies for 2015 come from a pre-established franchise. However, overwhelmingly, these movies aren’t that great. Overwhelmingly, people say they liked them (not loved them) and say they would watch anything from that franchise. People aren’t going ga-ga over the CGI, the plot twists, or the new characterizations. They’re just excited to see this thing they once loved again. It’s like getting the same breed of dog you had as a kid even if that dog isn’t particularly smart, affectionate, or trainable.
And, much like getting a dog that looks like your childhood pet but has the opposite personality, you’re going to be disappointed, sometimes bitterly so. That’s how I felt when watching Jurassic World. I kept waiting for the terror. I kept waiting for the anticipation. I kept waiting for needing to cover my eyes or excusing myself to “go to the bathroom.” It never happened. It never will, and that fact has traveled down through the past towards my childhood self, crouched on my shoulder, and whispered, “They’re not real, you know. There’s nothing to be afraid of,” and ever-so-slightly ruined my lifelong enjoyment of Jurassic Park. And all because Trevorrow and Universal Pictures thought product placement and catering to the backers was more important than a good story. Thanks, assholes.