Jurassic World is one of those rare sequels of such colossal letdown it makes me question not just why it exists, but why the entire industry of franchised sequels exists. (Other than making kajillions, a point I’ll return to below.) If the first sentence of this review made you groan and brace yourself for another laundry list of all the ways Jurassic World is 1) sexist 2) scientifically inaccurate 3) nonsensical, don’t click away just yet. I’m not here to rehash those points. The movie is all those things, but other fine people have already covered that ground.
I’m also not saying franchise sequels’ quality is always inversely proportional to the rising number after the title. Lots of franchises have fine sequels that build well on their original films (The Dark Night, Terminator 2, Aliens). In some cases, the sequel can even validate the original (Mad Max: Fury Road).
Hence the true sin of Jurassic World–a franchise sequel that takes the opportunity to engage with the existential themes of Jurassic Park and turns it into a four-year-old’s play hour smashing plastic dinosaurs together.
I love Jurassic Park on several levels: the palpable sense of wonder as the characters have their first encounters with living dinosaurs; the questionable wisdom of creating life for our amusement, however innocent John Hammond’s motives; the terror and helplessness of the characters as the park’s carefully orchestrated controls break down and they realize they are no longer at the top of the food chain; and most of all, how they rally to the situation and just manage, with cooperation and grit, to escape by the skin of their teeth. Jurassic Park refuses to conclude with a comfortable reassertion of control. Its message is that the raw force of nature is not something to be controlled but at best coexisted uneasily alongside.
Set twenty-some years after the events of Jurassic Park, Jurassic World retcons The Lost World and Jurassic Park 3, establishing itself as a sequel to the first movie. Isla Nublar has become a multi-million dollar resort and amusement park that draws hundreds of thousands a year with the prospect of seeing living dinosaurs. Except for a few rough interactions between the ice-queen corporate executive, Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard), and her adorable nephews (Claire would be a great mom if she just tried, you guys), the first twenty minutes of the movie are a delight. I loved seeing Mosasaurs shown off in Sea World-style performances (warning: first fifty rows will get wet), and baby protoceratops saddled up like prehistoric ponies in the “Gentle Giants” petting zoo. The cynical technician wearing a Jurassic Park T-shirt and pining for the authenticity of the original park is a stroke of diabolical brilliance.
And that’s where Jurassic World almost had me. The first act dives pretty unflinchingly into the same territory of profiting off resurrected dinosaurs, offering a strong critique of the commodification of the natural world for human entertainment. If the failure of John Hammond’s vision in Jurassic Park made us wonder what could have been, Jurassic World lays bare the banal reality of a corporate attraction in which dinosaurs are just another product for consumption. And like any product, even living dinosaurs only hold the interest of a jaded public so long, pushing the corporate interests that run Isla Nublar to come up with new species to increase attendance rates.
This treadmill quest to attract visitors with what’s new and shiny leads to the creation of the Indominus Rex, a mishmash of dino DNA which embodies a kid’s fantasy of the ultimate prehistoric predator: larger and scarier than a T-Rex, and a better hunter than any “real” theropod. The Indominus is a perfect critique of what Jean Baudrillard calls the “precession of simulacra”: he argues that entertainments such as Disney World derive their hold over us by creating an artificial reality more interesting and engaging–seemingly more real– than life. Simulacra are copies of things that either never existed, or no longer exist. The Indominus is such a simulacrum–a copy with no original.
It was about here, as I primed myself in delicious anticipation of seeing the massaged user experience of Jurassic World fall apart, that it became an entirely different movie. All signs of intelligent critique halted in favor of bland action scenes that mostly felt like retreads from Jurassic Park. I have no problem with homaging an earlier installment in a series, but in a sequel you’re generally supposed to do something new. Though Jurassic World gives us new characters and a new threat, the sequences that stood out most were those basically lifted from the first movie. A slavering Indominus Rex trying to eat the gyrosphere with the two kids trapped inside is nearly identical to the T-Rex attacking the jeep in Jurassic Park. (And of course, no spoilers, it’s still the T-Rex that plays the starring role in the climax of Jurassic World.)
A scene where Claire and Owen (Chris Pratt) take refuge in the ruins of Jurassic Park is poignant for a far different reason than I imagine the writers intended: it reminds us of the quality of the original film. Jurassic Park is biting, suspenseful, scary, and fun. Jurassic World promises all those things and snatches them away, devolving into another big, dumb (and not all that fun) Hollywood action movie.
I found myself wondering if the sorry state of the back half of Jurassic World was due to executive intervention. It’s as if there was a more satirical script that took aim at the corporate interests driving Jurassic World before studio execs put the hammer down. Such a script would, after all, come uncomfortably close to taking aim at the bottom-line culture of the Hollywood film industry itself.
In a way, the fate of Jurassic World the film parallels the fate of the park: the dream of Jurassic Park–to give people a glimpse of wonder in the form of real, living dinosaurs–is repackaged by commercial interests into another consumable experience. The people cycling through Isla Nublar are still seeing living dinosaurs, but the experience is delivered through the same Disney World lens as any other commercial attraction. Until things go wrong, the dinosaurs might as well be animatronic puppets: they are still commodities created for our consumption, with no more staying power than the movie itself.