Like most prepubescent boys (and girls) in the early ‘90s, I was obsessed with Jurassic Park. I can still vividly remember the first time I saw the movie – perhaps my earliest clear memory of a movie theatre – clutching my armrests in fear as an attempt to transport velociraptors went horribly wrong. By the time I hit puberty, I’d seen the film a dozen or so times, and owned a swathe of Jurassic Park merchandise: collectible cards, books and toys. The film spurred a short-lived dinosaur obsession (again, like most prepubescent boys) while accelerating my burgeoning love of cinema.
By the time the sequels arrived, my enthusiasm had waned. Oh, I was fiercely excited for The Lost World after salivating over its trailer, but the final product left me disappointed. Unlike most Spielberg films – which carefully balance juvenile enthusiasm with a dark, serious streak of violence – the franchise’s first sequel was ungainly combination of too-dark and too-childish. The grim, abandoned Central American island had none of the wonder of Isla Nublar and was punctuated with horrific moments like Eddie (Richard Schiff) coming to the rescue only to be torn apart by a pair of T Rexes. But this seriousness sat uncomfortably with the numerous silly moments: velociraptors defeated by gymnastics and a T Rex unleashed into a populated city. (Granted, that last part was awesome, but it sat uncomfortably with the seriousness of the film’s first half.) By the time Jurassic Park III arrived in 2001, I couldn’t even bring myself to watch it in the theatre.
Safe to say, then, that I regarded Colin Trevorrow’s sequel, Jurassic World, with trepidation if not outright pessimism. Early advertisements – per Joss Whedon – displayed some outdated sexist stereotypes, while clips of Chris Pratt riding a motorcycle alongside apparently trained velociraptors had me more than a little sceptical. Trevorrow’s Safety Not Guaranteed was competent but hardly revelatory, so I wasn’t expecting any kind of auteurist flourish. When I sat down for the Queensland premiere on Wednesday night, I was prepared to spend two hours watching my childhood passion systematically dismantled.
To some extent, Jurassic World does that, just not in the way I’d expected. The film cushions audience scepticism by providing some full-bodied meta-commentary on adapting a beloved franchise for twenty-first century Hollywood. Set in a world twenty-some years after the events of Jurassic Park, where Isla Nublar now hosts a stupendously successful dinosaur theme park (named, yes, “Jurassic World”), Trevorrow and screenwriter Derek Connolly draw frequent parallels between the challenges of blockbuster filmmaking: film audiences and theme park attendees are increasingly inured to spectacle – they want them “Bigger. Louder. More teeth.” The blockbuster snake has turned and begun to consume itself – and how better to represent that than a gigantic sea creature tearing apart a shark. Spielberg’s Jaws has become quaint; irrelevant.
Ah, but not so fast – Jurassic World isn’t a cynical deconstruction of an earlier era of blockbusters, but rather an affectionate and entertaining homage to those films. These flashes of self-reflexivity don’t get in the way of offering a rollicking good time at the movies, though; Trevorrow hangs a lantern on the genre, but in doing so illuminates how expertly he mimics the masters. Specifically: Steven Spielberg and James Cameron. The story centres around the creation of a new dinosaur – “the Indominus Rex” – a creature spliced together from diverse DNA to, inevitably, wreak havoc on the crowded theme park. Just like the Indominus Rex, Jurassic World splices together the best elements of blockbusters of decades past – a little Aliens, a little Jaws, a little Terminator 2, a lot Jurassic Park (from which it steals dozens of scenes/shots) – to create a fearsome, if often ungainly beast.
This is fan service, pure and simple. Trevorrow knows he can’t match up to Spielberg’s original achievement – still one of the greatest blockbusters ever, in my opinion – as per this interview: “[Jurassic Park is] an incredible movie and this movie can’t be better than that movie.” That sense of (understandable) inferiority is apparent in the film itself – the mechanics of the Indominus Rex’s defeat are a metatextual doff of the hat to Spielberg’s original – but Trevorrow nonetheless does a fantastic job of zipping through the ‘90s blockbuster formula. He races through a narrative that embraces cliché as often as it subverts it, keeping the audience’s attention with a series of spectacular action sequences (velociraptors! Pterodactyls! Explosions!) with just enough downtime to reflect upon the stakes.
While I thoroughly enjoyed Jurassic World – I spent much of the last half hour with a dumb grin on my face – it’s clear that others aren’t going to be so quick to forgive its flaws. And make no mistake, there are plenty of problems. First and foremost, it’s often quite dumb, with many decisions making very little sense when you stop to think about them. Its themes of unchecked corporate greed and consumer apathy are familiar. The characterisation is shallow; it’s been attacked in a few quarters for the sexism of its depiction of park operations manager Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) and, in particular, her relationship with rugged velociraptor trainer Owen (Chris Pratt, playing a cross between Grant Muldoon and Ian Malcolm).
These arguments have merit, sorta. But the film is carefully constructed from clichés – clichés from a couple decades earlier – which, in my opinion, forgives most of these problems. Sure, I would’ve liked some cleverer banter between Claire and Owen, but they’re cast from the same mould as characters from those aforementioned Spielberg/Cameron films. Aliens –which this film draws upon frequently – was stocked largely with marine clichés, and it’s still a great film. Jaws’ most substantial female character is the girl who gets eaten by a shark while skinny-dipping. And let’s not pretend Jurassic Park avoided these problems either – Lex and Tim were surrogates for younger audience members rather than substantial characters. Kids watching Jurassic World today are going to remember it just as fondly as my generation remembers those films, and at least it goes to the effort of highlighting its silliness from time-to-time (see: the close-up of Claire’s high heels or that wonderful line “I have a boyfriend.”)
Analysis aside, the reason I liked Jurassic World is simple: it feels like a realisation of the film I imagined when I was ten years-old, playing around with an assortment of Jurassic Park action figures (it’s easy to imagine an Owen action figure, complete with a detachable leather sheath for his knife). It’s fun, it’s frightening, but most importantly it delivers on the promise of an actual dinosaur theme park. A theme park that feels real – populated with dinosaurs and enthusiastic attendees, sure, but also Starbucks and tacky merchandise and the like. It’s no Jurassic Park, but it made me feel some fraction of the excitement I experienced watching that film twenty-two years ago: and that’s a rare feat when it comes to modern blockbusters.