Early in Jurassic World, the film’s heroine Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) makes a trip to visit the raptor handler Owen (Chris Pratt), who for reasons best known to the filmmakers lives in a small hut miles from anywhere in an empty part of the island. Claire holds a PR-focused managerial job in the titular dinosaur park, which does a roaring trade exhibiting twenty different species of prehistoric beastie to the global public. She seems to pretty much run the show, but the owner of the park has specifically instructed her to get Owen to take a look at the containment facilities for the park’s newest attraction. The crowd-pleaser in question is Indominus rex, a genetically engineered super-dinosaur designed to be bigger, faster, and smarter than the stodgy old Tyrannosaurus (which is, like, so twenty years ago). Claire tries to explain to Owen than the idea behind the new creation is to up the wow factor. But Owen is scornful: “They’re dinosaurs, wow enough.”
We smile; we’re meant to agree completely. After all, this is a theme park where you get to see actual, real, live dinosaurs. It genuinely can’t get more “wow” than that. What kind of tourists could possibly become so jaded that dinosaurs were no longer enough for them? Except, of course, that the film itself is doing exactly what its fictional marketing execs are doing. It asks us to scoff at the need to create a creature more dinosaur than the dinosaurs, but the film’s basic tactic is to impress its viewers with how scary and cool Indominus rex is. Like the tourists on the screen, we’ve reached a point where we take dinosaurs for granted. To recapture the old thrill, the folks running the show have got to up the stakes.
It’s not a conscious irony: Jurassic World is mostly without self-awareness. Gratifyingly, however, it’s not really a cynical film. It’s too straightforward and earnest to be cynical. The film is riddled with thematic contradictions, and as a narrative it is a failure; but the whole thing is executed with cheerful ease and an honest sense of fun. This makes it rather less aggravating than it might have been. You can have some fun seeing Jurassic World, and although you’ll be laughing at it more than you’ll be laughing with it, you will be laughing good-humouredly. That’s down to the film’s attitude, and as the rest of this review will be devoted to explaining exactly how bad is the bad stuff, let’s be clear now that attitude makes a big difference. Jurassic World is not exactly satisfying viewing, but it does offer enough good gags and whackily stupid thrills to keep you enjoying yourself. That’s worth bearing in mind.
The plot is standard stuff: Claire has been entrusted with the care of her two nephews, whose parents have sent them on a weekend trip to the park so that they can spend quality family time with their aunt. Claire, however, is not the best at maintaining a healthy work/life balance, and leaves the kids to her assistant while she frenetically carries on with her daily scramble. Then Indominus rex breaks free of its enclosure (of course), chaos ensues, the kids get lost in the wild, and Claire enlists Owen – with whom she has a lot of sexual tension going – to help her get them back. Cue the same kind of thing we’ve seen in all three of the previous movies. Dinosaurs show up, dinosaurs attack people, people get away, rinse, repeat.
We don’t care much about any of these characters, however, because the screenplay’s approach to characterisation consists of giving everybody a single personality trait and then constantly reminding us of it. Case in point: of the two kids, the younger one is nerdy, as is shown by the fact that he is constantly spouting factoids about whatever happens to be on the screen. (The choice of topics is quite indiscriminate, so we get no sense of his having individual interests or preferences; we’re just meant to recognise that he Knows Stuff.) And the older one is insecure and hormonal, as is shown by the fact that he acts really detached and is constantly staring at girls. There’s really not much more to it than that.
It’s when we turn to the film’s attempts at “statements,” however, that things get really knotty. The contradictory attitude to the super-dinosaur turns out to be emblematic of this film’s recurring problem: again and again, Jurassic World wants to have it both ways. The outstanding example is how it handles the military subplot. Vincent D’Onofrio shows up early on as a representative of the American military who wants to weaponise the raptors: “Imagine if we’d had these puppies at Tora Bora!” he exclaims with glee. The idea is obviously both vicious and foolhardy, and Owen tells him so. Indeed, he takes an unambiguous moral stand on the issue, and the audience is expected to back him up wholeheartedly. And yet later in the film, when the raptors-as-attack-dogs plan goes ahead (come on, you knew that was going to happen, right?), it takes about two lines of dialogue to convince Owen to get on board with it and ride out on a motorcycle with the raptors. No further word of objection is uttered. Character and thematic consistency be damned – it makes for a cool action sequence, and we wouldn’t want our hero to miss out on that.
And then there’s the rather lame attempt at a progressive stance on gender roles. The film wants Claire to be a strong female lead, and so it gives her a decisive part to play in the story. There’s even a scene when, in a probably deliberate inversion of the standard action movie trope, the lead female saves the life of the lead male, who then kisses her in a fit of grateful passion. But the whole effort is half-assed, because the film still makes Claire an essentially silly and laughable character – scatterbrained, unreflective, un-self-confident, and in any kind of physically demanding situation, completely out of her depth. Owen, by contrast, is self-assured, perceptive, full of wisecracks, and capable of handling himself in just about any situation. (But you knew all this when I said he was played by Chris Pratt, right?) Don’t be fooled, folks: we’re in firmly traditional gender-political territory here.
There is one final disappointment: one thing that leaves you, even while you laugh and grin and walk out feeling that it was kind of fun, with a stale taste in your mouth. At heart, the Jurassic Park movies have always been basically about the unpredictability of the natural world. Their cautionary message is that we cannot tame the wild; nature is chaotic and it will not be subjugated. Jurassic World turns away from this message. In this film, when a dinosaur gets loose and starts killing people, it’s a dinosaur engineered by humans – not a part of nature, but an artificial creation. When it goes on the rampage, therefore, this is not a caution against seeking to contain nature; it’s a caution against attempting to modify nature. Meanwhile the raptors – real, natural, “original” dinosaurs – voluntarily ally themselves with the hero and start fighting alongside humans. The implication, if you stop and think about how the film sets this up, is that the park would have been quite safe if only it had stuck to natural dinosaurs. Thematically, that’s a sad place for this franchise to find itself. In the original film, Jeff Goldblum told us that “life will not be contained.” That film vindicated him. It’s hard not to wish that Jurassic World would do the same.