Jurassic Park captured the imagination of both children and adults alike by bringing to life long lost dinosaurs. Steven Spielberg blended together a chilling science-fiction tale with the majesty of living and breathing dinosaurs to create a cult classic. Twenty-two years later, Jurassic World is breaking box office records by stunning audiences with a fully functional dinosaur theme park. Sitting in the theater before the movie started, my date asked if I would go to that dinosaur theme park, and I responded, “Well, we now have four films telling us not to go.” Then the film started and Michael Giacchino’s score guides the audience through the incredible features of the theme park, from the dinosaur petting zoo, the herbivore river tour, and the Mosasaurus water show. At that moment, I leaned over and whispered, “Yes, I would go”. How could you not want to go? John Hammond’s dream is finally realized! But the bravado of Jurassic Park falls short in Jurassic World. The latter pokes fun at the idea of bigger and badder means better, but the film essentially embraces that idea in its narrative. Spielberg has the perfect formula for Jurassic Park, but its three sequels all flounder in their imitations. What has caused this devolution from a thoughtful and portentous story to a flashy summer blockbuster?
Storytelling is fundamental to what made Jurassic Park the successful film that it is. Spielberg is a master storyteller, who goes to great lengths for the believability and magic of a good story. In Jurassic Park, it’s evident that his first priority was telling a cogent story. In fact, there’s no one storyline for Jurassic Park; it all depends on how you look at it. This is the story of how John Hammond’s most profound dream crumbles before his very eyes. It’s the story of how Dr. Grant learns to appreciate and protect childhood. It’s also the story of how human hubris could cost humanity itself. It’s the story of how Dr. Sattler figures out what she really wants in life. It’s a story about how life, uh, finds a way. Use this story test on Jurassic World, and the outcomes are not as numerous. Jurassic World is the story of stopping a super dinosaur. That’s it. To be fair, it could also be the story of how Claire, after what seems like years of devoting herself to her job, suddenly realizes that she wants and needs children to fulfill her life and conveniently finds that possibility in the hunky arms of Owen – which is an all too familiar and lazy female character trope. The visitors of Jurassic World want a bigger and scarier dinosaur, and, judging by its incredible sales so far, 2015 moviegoers want a flashier yet shallower film.
A core flaw in Jurassic World’s storytelling deals with villainy. Jurassic Park did not have a villain, per se. Dennis Nedry was a greedy man, but even if his plans had come to fruition, it would not have caused the kind of damage that occurred in the film. The hurricane that hit the island was an unfortunate incident that certainly acted as a catalyst for many of the events in the film, but it was by no means a villain. The brilliance that Spielberg brings to the story is that Hammond and his geneticists were their own villains. They, like the creators of the Titanic, felt that they had a handle on every situation and outcome — that they were indestructible. Enter the selfish computer programmer and the tropical storm and it’s clear just how delusional they are. Their own hubris is the “villain”; they are their own downfall. This makes for a true science fiction story, portentous at heart, warning society of the danger of thoughtless technological advancement. Dr. Malcolm perfectly sums it up: “Yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.” Upon first glance, it appeared that Jurassic World was going to take a similar approach. Claire talks about how the park needs new attractions every so often and that kids want a bigger and scarier dinosaur with more teeth. When the Indominus Rex is introduced as a completely genetically engineered dinosaur, a brand new and original dinosaur species, it looks like hubris in genetics is the villain again, only ramped up a notch – which would have been a genuine story to tell. Instead, the film actually has villains, InGen’s Vic Hoskins and nostalgic Dr. Wu, who have concocted a laughable and contrived plan to create a genetic hybrid dinosaur army. It’s clear from the first moments of watching Owen interact with the velociraptors that he’s not in any position to control the dinosaurs, yet Hoskins’s resolve to use the raptors in battle doesn’t waver. Let’s say there ever is a plan to create a non-human army, wouldn’t the logical first step be to use animals that humans can already somewhat control? Dogs? Horses? That Jurassic World goes from zero to genetically altered super dinosaur is altogether idiotic and absolutely takes from the verisimilitude in the story. With this storyline, Colin Trevorrow puts the narrative secondary to the wow factor.
Another creative flaw deals with dinosaur screen time. Out of the 127-minute long Jurassic Park, dinosaurs appear on screen for only fifteen minutes. This caused a lot of uproar from moviegoers hoping to see more dinosaurs on screen. Because of this, writers included more dinosaurs in The Lost World: Jurassic Park, and the trend continued with Jurassic Park III and Jurassic World. In all my years watching Jurassic Park, I have never felt cheated of dinosaur onscreen time, and that is because Spielberg was economical with his time. Sure, at the time, creating dinosaur animatronics (auto-erotica, as Gennaro humorously calls them) and CGI dinosaurs was a challenge, but when dinosaurs are on screen, it’s meaningful. Dinosaurs are exploring their world without a cage, and humans are interacting with herbivores in astonishing ways. Spielberg is also showing the world just how smart these animals potentially could have been. That is what makes Jurassic Park so terrifying – you don’t know what these beasts are capable of. In the following films, there is a lot more dinosaur screen time, but there is also a lot more destruction for destruction’s sake. It’s as if the dinosaurs in the sequels are less animals and more pure monster. It makes for some suspenseful watching, but it makes for lazy and trifling writing.
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed Jurassic World. I love dinosaurs and it was exciting seeing the fully functional and, up to that point, safe dinosaur theme park. I imagined myself spending hours in the dinosaur petting zoo or kayaking down the river alongside sauropods and stegosaurs. If I ignore the deficiencies in storytelling and take the movie for what it is — a summer thriller — I can enjoy Jurassic World. And to his credit, Trevorrow truly ups the ante with the Indominus Rex. He’s a ferocious and intelligent dinosaur with long, grasping arms, capable of camouflage. The film gets increasingly hopeless when the Indominus Rex turns the raptors to his side. It seems like there is no winning scenario – unless you gang up the fan-favorite Tyrannosaurus Rex and velociraptor together and lure the Indominus to the water’s edge to unleash Chekhov’s Mosasaurus. An easy out, yes, but I was absolutely engaged and stressed out. Jurassic World was meant to thrill, and it accomplished its objective, though it falls short of Spielberg’s objective to tell a good story. This narrative devolution from Jurassic Park to Jurassic World directly reflects on the cinematic devolution over the past two decades.