Jurassic World: It’s No Wonderful Life (PG-13)

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“Oh, my God! We finally, really did it! You maniacs….Ah, damn you! God damn you all to hell!” The righteous invective Charlton Heston bellows in the final moments of The Planet of the Apes seems similarly suited to the resurrection and public opening of Jurassic Park. Bewilderingly, though, Jurassic World (both the film and the revamped, retitled tourist attraction) opens with park operations in full swing as a matter of course—gift shops fully stocked, thousands of paying customers streaming onto the island, umbrella drinks blending in the Margaritaville™ restaurant, and nary an echo of Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) and the perfunctory mock-outrage he was oozing in Jurassic Park even before the T-rex started chewing on him: “your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”

However, the conflict of Jurassic World turns on the fact that the secret to the park’s rebirth—the PR miracle of short memories—is proving to be a double-edged sword. While the general public has forgotten about those poor rich kids who were almost eaten by velociraptors, and the T-rex that got loose in San Diego, they also seem to have forgotten how impressive and wonderful it is that dinosaurs exist at all. The park supervisor, Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard), is having an increasingly difficult time courting corporate sponsors who demand sexier attractions with “more teeth.” Kayaking past stegosauruses or sitting in the splash zone as a giant mosasaur gulps sharks out of the air a la Shamu can only stimulate the twenty-first century middle class’ stunted sense of wonder for so long. The solution? The boys in the Jurassic World lab have spliced together a mysterious cocktail of genes to create a totally new species and, because park-goers can’t be bothered to learn any more complicated, properly scientific names, dubbed it the “Indominous Rex.”

Part tyrannosaurus, part raptor, and part Predator—complete with protruding barbs and the ability to rapidly camouflage—the Indominous quickly proves big enough and smart enough to bust out of its cage and start skipping lines all over the island. While Claire tries to keep the breakout quiet, her visiting nephews, Zach (Nick Robinson) and Gray (Ty Simpkins), go AWOL in the park. She turns to Owen (Chris Pratt), the ex-Navy man who works at the park turning velociraptors into bloodhounds, to find the boys before her newest attraction does.

Director Colin Trevorrow (Safety Not Guaranteed) has tweaked the Chris Pratt recipe effectively; delivering a performance that is less Andy Dwyer and more Han Solo than his Guardians of the Galaxy character, but just as winning. Owen is tough, we know, because he drinks beer and works on his motorcycle, but he is a welcome departure from the typical hardboiled badass. In fact, in one of his earliest on-screen appearances, he is ribbing the tightly wound Claire for her emblematic fear of long-term romantic commitment. An action hero looking for stable monogamy is one of the few true surprises in a movie constantly laboring to excite a bored audience and update the familiar conventions of earlier installments.

It is tempting, at points, to view Jurassic Park as an allegory of the movie’s own creation. The fourth picture in the Jurassic franchise, World represents a well-conceived dream that descended into a painful quagmire of sequels and is now looking to stage a comeback. Richard Attenborough’s John Hammond, Jurassic Park visionary and founder, has left the picture and handed the reigns to a younger generation. Likewise, Stephen Spielberg has moved from the director’s chair to being only one of six executive producers and, on screen, it is unclear how deep his involvement with the newest installment was. If our allegory of choice was the Parable of the Talents, Trevorrow and the new guard of Jurassic creatives would be caught awkwardly between the servant who risks his master’s money for gain and the one who buries his talent. On the one hand, Jurassic World plays it safe by recycling conflicts and set pieces, character tropes, even whole scenes, from the original film (Spielberg is, after all, a master who reaps where he has not sown).

On the other hand, the creative minds behind Jurassic World, like those behind the titular theme park, obviously fear that the old methods won’t work on new audiences, and have spent widely in hopes of lending them new sparkle. Mechanically, this looks like near-total abandonment of Spielberg’s physical models and animatronics in favor of CG creatures. The trade off allows for bigger, louder dino action, but subtly saps the tangible terror of the Jurassic Park creatures, which seemed to be close to, present with the characters in the realest sense. One longs for and gets little of the close-shot tension of Park’s kitchen scene or “clever girl” ambush. Dramatically, this means ramping up the death tolls from previous films (which, historically, never exceeded six or a dozen, and almost never included dinosaurs). It means throwing together six or eight dinos and a cuttlefish into a single super-species devised to tantalize ticketholders. And after going to all that trouble, Trevorrow can’t seem to conceive of his Magical-Mystery-Tour of a dinosaur doing anything more shocking than killing other dinosaurs “for sport.” That is, of course, what most five-year-olds assume about all dinosaurs, even the herbivores.

Jurassic World actually spends a good deal of time and energy humanizing the dinosaurs and exploring relationships between them. A chorus of warning voices throughout the movie urge unfeeling corporate types to think of the park’s dinosaur inmates as animals “with feelings” rather than abstract “assets.” Any who resist that way of thinking either change their minds or die horribly before the credits roll. Owen’s pack of trained velociraptors have names, distinct personalities, and fierce personal loyalties; they are presented, at moments, as the heroic extensions of the man who trained them. Owen and Claire even have an Apatosaurus die slowly and dolefully in their arms after the Indominous rex attacks and leaves it for dead. Trevorrow paints the act as the height of villainy, and it is here that Jurassic World seems to attempt a T-rex bear hug on two contradictory beliefs.

As it becomes clearer what the new I-rex is capable of, Owen begins to question the morality of creating a dinosaur hybrid. Nature, he opines, shouldn’t be monkeyed with. Hoskins (Vincent D’Onofrio), the opportunistic head of the park’s paramilitary contingent, offers the stock rebuttal that in the evolutionary process, might makes right—“struggle breeds greatness.” We get the movie’s judgment on this screed when, in the final act, a raptor interrupts another of his monologues on the same subject: “Millions of years of evolution…what did we learn? Nature is the gift that just…Oh sh—!” Elsewhere, though, Dr. Wu (B.D. Wong reprising his role from the original), the scientist behind the Indominous rex, carries the argument further. Without genetic tampering, he contends, none of the dinosaurs in Jurassic World would exist. Their resurrection required the mingling of modern amphibian DNA with the original dino-material. What is nature, then, but what man makes of it? Or, at the very least, why can man only dictate the course of nature up to a point and no further? And where is that point? The audience eventually discovers a plot by Wu and Hoskins to weaponize the Indominous species for profit, and we are saved from having to wrestle with the uncomfortable consistency of their logic. Their logic is uncomfortably consistent, though Trevorrow is intent on presenting it as the logic of villains.

Their logic is also wrong, of course, but Jurassic World is blushingly unable to articulate just why. In the current historical moment, it seems the whole world is unable (or unwilling) to articulate why. Why should the line determining what is decent, what is natural, be drawn to include the dinosaurs that existed once upon a time, but not the ones man might be able to cook up now? Why, indeed, should the genders and orientations we are born with be privileged over those furnished by preferences and procedures? How is Nature so qualitatively different from what we are able to make Nature into? They aren’t questions without answers. The answer, though, is precisely what audiences of Jurassic World—the park—and Jurassic World—the movie—grow less and less capable of: wonder.

G. K. Chesterton put these very pieces together when he wrote that, “keeping to one woman is a small price for so much as seeing one woman. To complain that I could only be married once was like complaining that I had only been born once. It was incommensurate with the terrible excitement of which one was talking. It showed, not an exaggerated sensibility to sex, but a curious insensibility to it.” To complain that I could only have twenty species of dinosaur in my theme park is like complaining that I could only marry women (let alone one woman). It is incommensurate with the terrible excitement of which one is talking. It shows, not a desire for more things to wonder at, but a curious inability to wonder at anything.

As is really the most typical—the most natural—way in the deeper things of man, Jurassic World manages to intuit what it is incapable of articulating. When the dust and the teeth have settled, the park holds no more mystique for the audience or for the characters. Owen and Claire, however, have not—as so often and so easily happens in summer blockbusters—exhausted the mystique of one another. “So now what do we do?” She asks him in the movie’s final moments. “Probably stay together,” he earnestly replies, “For survival.” There is at least one thing that is too wonderful for me, yea, which I know not: the way of a man with a maid.

Sean Johnson

Sean Johnson is an Oregonian teaching great books in Florida. He cooks almost as well as his wife, and his son’s middle name is Zossima.

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