It might be an understatement to say that I didn’t enjoy Jurassic World. I found it alternately boring and infuriating, a wasted opportunity. Despite that, it’s the one movie that I’ve thought the most about in the past few weeks. Partly it’s been hard to ignore, given its monumental box office run, but there’s something more to it than that. As much as I disliked it, I can’t shake the feeling that there might actually be more to the movie than I gave it credit for. I don’t mean to imply that Jurassic World is secretly great, because it’s not, but watching it I had the sneaking suspicion that writer/director Colin Trevorrow might have had a not-so-hidden message he embedded in the film through certain characters, scenes, and especially its climax. You see, I’ve never encountered a film that seems to hate itself more thanJurassic World.
(Caution: Spoilers Ahead!)
Jurassic World is a film at war with itself. It promises the pinnacle of visual effects and a classic story reshaped for modern sensibilities, while going out of its way to directly criticize and attack the very style of storytelling and filmmaking it embraces. Characters repeatedly take time to point out deficiencies in Jurassic World (the park) that could easily apply to Jurassic World (the movie), and the movie is full of the very things its characters make fun of and critique. The film opens with the promise of a fully realized dinosaur theme park, packed with tourists, lined with shops, filled with attractions, and about to unveil the first hybrid dinosaur, the Indominus Rex, designed to boost attendance and reenergize the fans. But almost immediately characters in the film start tearing all of these ideas apart.
The criticism starts with a control room technician named Lowery. He shows up for work wearing a vintage Jurassic Park shirt he bought off eBay, and when Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) reprimands him for wearing it (people did die at Jurassic Park, after all) he says that “the first park was legit” and didn’t need genetic hybrids, just real dinosaurs. In fact, Lowrey’s whole purpose in the film is to call out all of the negative things about Jurassic World. He makes fun of Claire’s plan to have a corporate sponsor for her new dinosaur, calling it “Verizon Wireless presents the Indominus Rex” (Lowrey suggests letting companies name the dinosaurs, giving us the Pepsi-saurus or the Tostito-don). The idea that this new park and new way of doing things is ridiculous is not limited to Lowery, however. Owen (Chris Pratt) balks at Claire suggesting the Indominus Rex was created to up the wow factor, saying “They’re dinosaurs. ‘Wow’ enough.” Dr. Wu later points out that there’s nothing natural about Jurassic World, that he wasn’t asked to deliver reality but instead to give something “bigger, scarier, cooler” and with “more teeth.”
In the universe of the film, it makes complete sense for these various characters to act as a voice of reason in the story, serving as a warning or a rebuke against the hubris of the mere existence of Jurassic World. In that way, Jurassic World is very similar to Jurassic Park, giving us a story where humanity’s pride and exploitation of nature and science leads to its own downfall. But once you take a step back out of the film, the characters’ criticisms start to sound like criticisms of the movie itself. It’s easy to view Jurassic World, the park, as a metaphor for Jurassic World, the movie. In many ways the film is doing exactly what the park in the film is doing, capitalizing on the fame and the name of the original film/park but giving us a new creation with “more teeth” in order to appeal to modern moviegoers/tourists, all while theoretically selling out in every way possible to make more money.
It’s funny to me to see articles praising the film for making fun of the idea of “Verizon Wireless presents the Indominus Rex” while simultaneously being one of the most overstuffed with product placement movies I’ve seen in a long time. After seeing the film I could have easily rattled off a dozen companies with prominent positions in the film (Verizon, of course, but also Samsung, Margaritaville, Pandora Jewelry, etc), while I struggled to recall the names of any of the characters. I chalked this up as poor writing in my review, and I stand by that, and it’s not a stretch to view this as the film being hoist by its own petard, but considered from a different angle this starts to look more like a frustrated writer/director attacking his own film.
It’s too easy to say that all of the corporate logos and signs in the film are merely there as a parody of places like Disney World, but that ignores the reality that both Universal Pictures and all of those companies who sold their logos to the film stand to make money off of the deal. I could easily be cynical and say that it’s just an example of Universal trying to have their cake and eat it too, wanting to make fun of sponsorships and product placement while simultaneously profiting from the very thing they criticize, but I’m not by nature cynical. An explanation that makes more sense to me is Colin Trevorrow using the critique of product placements to attack the very film he’s making. Trevorrow’s interviews and commentaries have led me to believe he’s a pretty clever, self-aware filmmaker, so I could easily see him becoming frustrated with the production demands to include product placement and adding in the ludicrous “Verizon Wireless presents the Indominus Rex” scene as a way to strike back against the studio bosses. I have no proof of it, but it fits with the self-hating nature of the film.
But it’s the Indominus Rex which is the focal point of both the film and the park within it. The film has an interesting idea behind it, imagining a world where dinosaur attractions are old hat, forcing the people behind the park to create something newer, bigger, scarier, cooler, and with more teeth in order to grab tourists’ attention. In the film it’s clearly presented that this was a horrible idea, as no one in their right mind would develop something like the Indominus Rex, or would fail to be awed by the sight of the “regular” dinosaurs. It makes the film less about finding out what happens next and more about waiting for the I-rex to escape and wreak havoc on those who dared to create it.
Colin Trevorrow pointed out himself that the I-rex is something of a metaphor for the film industry (in this interview), saying that it’s “meant to embody our worst tendencies. We’re surrounded by wonder and yet we want more. And we want it bigger, faster, louder, better…. We live in a cult of the upgrade now. There’s always something around the corner that will make whatever you think is cool right now feel obsolete. And I feel the Indominus Rex is the animal version of that.” From a filmmaking point of view, I’m sure the opportunity to poke some holes in the idea of “bigger, faster, louder, better” was what appealed to Trevorrow (formerly an indie director) and drew him to the film, and at the end of the interview when he discusses the fact that the I-rex’s design was leaked thanks to a toy preview you can hear his frustration with the modern state of cinema where nothing is a surprise and everything must seek to outdo what came before it.
All of which makes Jurassic World sound like some kind of satire, making fun of the industry by calling attention to the way it sells itself out in order to increase the bottom line. Except Jurassic World isn’t a satire, it is in fact the film that makes the most out of the very things Trevorrow seems to be criticizing. It capitalized on a familiar, popular property and added something “bigger, faster, louder, better” to get people talking and putting butts in the seats. The people behind Jurassic World aren’t the Owen’s or Lowery’s of the world, they’re the profit-oriented characters like Vincent D’onofrio’s, or the mad scientists without thoughts for consequences like Dr. Wu, or they’re the eager-to-please Claires. Jurassic World is the literal embodiment of Ian Malcolm’s line from Jurassic World: “You read what others had done and you took the next step. You didn’t earn the knowledge for yourselves, so you don’t take any responsibility for it. You stood on the shoulders of geniuses to accomplish something as fast as you could, and before you even knew what you had you patented it, and packaged it, and slapped it on a plastic lunchbox, and you you’re selling it, you want to sell it. Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”
In fairness to Trevorrow, he has little control over how the film is marketed and sold, and for all we know he may have had little control over the content/style of the film. We don’t know what his directive was, or how much interference he got from the studio. The resulting film could be 100% his vision, or it could be something cooked up in a corporate office, full of reheated ideas combined with the message of “bigger, faster, louder, better.” It’s not a huge step to imagine indie director Trevorrow battling against constant notes from the studio asking for more I-rex, more teeth, more action, more dinosaurs/sets/action that looks good in a trailer and can be turned into toys of all shapes and sizes. It’s that theory that hit me while I was watching Jurassic World, which was far more interesting than the film itself, but whether or not it’s true it’s easy to see the internal struggle of the film battling against the very thing it capitalizes on. And nowhere is that more obvious than in the film’s finale.
(Before I get to that, however, I have to detour for a second and suggest two changes that would have made the film infinitely more enjoyable, even if with the other problems I mentioned in my review I would never consider it a good film, even if it adopted these changes. Firstly, Vincent D’Onofrio’s character, who wants to sell Velociraptors or perhaps a mini-I-rex to the military, as well as that whole subplot, should have been completely removed. It’s not necessary to the story, it’s laughably stupid, and all of those scenes were painful to sit through. It could easily be sidestepped without derailing any of the rest of the film by having Dr. Wu flee the island with his research of his own volition, and coming up with a workaround in order to put Owen on a motorcycle surrounded by Raptors. Simply have a character say that they’re out of ideas for dealing with the I-rex, and have him resignedly raise his hand and say, “I have a really horrible idea.” People’s lives were at stake, it’s not out of line for him, knowing he’s the pack’s alpha, to consider even the worst possible alternative as a way to stop the I-rex.
Secondly, Claire’s damn heels. Enough has been written about them by others around the internet, but everyone seems agreed that the “growth” of the character in the film is completely undermined by the heels she wears. There are numerous opportunities where she could have found other shoes of some sort, but to me the most obvious moment was after she and Owen rescued the kids from the Pterosaurs on main street. There’s no reason at all that Trevorrow couldn’t have shot one minute of footage of Claire leading them into a store where she grabs some boots and drops the heels. Throw in a line where she says, “I actually hate these things, but the higher-ups wanted me to wear them. They said they’re more professional.” Owen could respond with a smile and say, “I’m surprised anyone could force you to do anything.” She smiles back, breathing some life into the otherwise flat romance aspect of the plot, and we get a nice shot of them hurrying out with the kids as the heels are left discarded on the floor. Then, the shot of her running from the T-rex wouldn’t have been so laughable. These are the sorts of story points in the film that have me doubting my theory that Trevorrow is as clever as I’d like him to be.)
Jurassic World’s finale makes no sense. While I have no problems with Claire deciding to try to lure the T-rex into a fight with the I-rex, the fight itself has no logic or even consistency within the universe. From an animal behavior standpoint, the T-rex and the I-rex have no reason to fight each other, and you only have to watch what happened to Ian Malcolm in the first film to know that the T-rex would more likely have continued to chase Claire rather than go after the I-rex. But the idea of a T-rex, a Velociraptor, and eventually a Mosasaurus teaming up to take down I-rex is simply ludicrous. Nothing we’ve seen in any of the four films up to this point would lead us to believe this is a likely end to the film. The T-rex, now 22 years older, has eaten at least two Velociraptors in its time, and still carries the scars from the finale of the first film. The Velociraptor, even if you assign it human or even dog-like characteristics, would be more likely to run than to get revenge for its dead siblings or protect its alpha from what are now two enormous predators. And the Mosasaurus has no reason at all to be simply hanging out by the edge of its tank ready to get in on the action. The only way the sequence works is as a metaphor for the film itself.
The key to the sequence is that we’re seeing not just any T-rex, but the original T-rex that terrified us back in 1993 before saving the day and chomping on the Velociraptors that had cornered our human heroes. The fact that this unlikely hero is not only the one to save the day, but in fact defeat the “bigger, faster, louder, better” creation is an obvious statement that in the end the original film will emerge victorious (in whatever way you might want to measure victory, other than box office take) over Jurassic World. This is no longer a critique of the modern state of the movie business, but a direct attack on this specific film, using a deus ex machina clearly pointing out that the original will always be the best, complete with a victory roar. It could have been any old T-rex if Trevorrow had wanted to make a point about the film industry in general, but the very specific use of a “character” we all know from Jurassic Park makes everything more pointed, even if most viewers might not have realized she was the original T-rex from the series.
Of course, the T-rex isn’t alone, and it’s here that Trevorrow makes some allowances for progress in film while still attacking the way in which Jurassic World viewed progress. The inclusion of Blue, is a nod to the sort of progress of the film industry we should be seeing. Instead of “bigger, faster, louder, better,” Blue as a character took a familiar idea and tweaked it slightly, turning one of the most feared creatures in the series into something new, not by “improving it” in a steroid kind of way, but by making it into something more clever, more emotional, and ultimately more interesting. Even the Mosasaurus, which is in fact bigger than anything we’ve seen thus far in the series, has a place, but the creature in the film has a grounding in reality. It wasn’t something created to sell the most toys, but was a natural progression of the storyline, and an attraction that made sense and fit into the rest of the park. Things can still grow bigger, faster, and louder, but they have to do so naturally, it can’t be forced. Jurassic World’s finale is the triumph of established legacy, natural development, and careful innovation over the idea that some smashed-together checklist is what people really want or need.
Jurassic World works much better as a self-hating metaphor than as a film to be enjoyed, but the metaphor starts to fall apart as the weeks pass since its debut. It’s clear that Jurassic World is destined to be the year’s biggest hit, and while the Indominus Rex might have eaten and destroyed the system and the people that led to its creation before ultimately being brought down by things smarter and more meaningful than itself, Jurassic World has by contrast turned those responsible for it into money-making heroes, setting up a future filled with what I imagine will be bigger and louder (and dumber and more boring) sequels. The Masrani’s, the Wu’s and the Hoskins’ of Universal Pictures have won, while Trevorrow, this metaphor’s Owen, moves on to something else. The self-criticism of the film seems to have fallen on deaf ears, both at the studio and among the audience. “More teeth” will continue to be the directive, and the money will keep rolling in, those of us that love Jurassic Park will suffer knowing how much better things could be, while the kids who don’t know any better will always wonder why we look back fondly on the movies of our youth while the movies of their youth fade into memory as just another big, loud movie. And while I might hate Jurassic World, I don’t know if I can hate it any more than it hates itself.