With Jurassic World’s 500 million global first-weekend box office take, it is already commonplace to glorify the return of a franchise that has been some combination of long-dormant and actively awful for almost two decades now. Championing its return to quality is not a new point, although it is an incorrect one. Jurassic World is a bad film. Not only that, it is peculiar and abnormal in its badness. A great number of corporate tentpole blockbusters are soulless and mediocre – look at Age of Ultron just a month post-release – but seldom are they bad in a particular and notable way. Corporate spending on audience-testing mandates that blockbusters will be spic and span, not necessarily good, but not disconcertingly or notably bad. They may be corporately bad, or bad in a sterile way, but not specifically bad, and not especially bad. Jurassic World does a great many things that are specifically, especially bad, and that is, if not a good thing per-se, at least an accidentally worthwhile one.
It isn’t all bad mind you. Director Colin Trevorrow exhibits a shockingly dexterous visual style for someone whose only previous directorial experience is an indie comedy (not traditionally the most visually expressive and exploratory of genres). There are moments of real visual wit in Jurassic World. At one point, a collage of flying pterosaurs invades a giant mass of people, the dinosaurs accompanied by an air-raid siren and photographed like the German Luftwaffe invading Britain in WWII. Slightly later, a giant door bangs and bangs and finally opens – we expect a herd of triceratops or something else – and we greeted instead to a running herd of humans reduced to the animals they are. A scene, by the way, that is the only point in the entire film where the smug undercurrent of the script – of putting humans back in their place on the food chain – really comes alive in any meaningful visual sense.
Yet all the visual style in the world can’t save an awful screenplay, and boy does Jurassic World boast an abnormally awful screenplay. Assembled like a patchwork of a dozen different central themes, Jurassic World wears its troubled production on its sleeve. At one point, within the span of minutes, the owner of the now-functioning Jurassic World theme park, Simon Masrani (played by Irrfan Khan), goes from “humble counter-point to cold Ice Queen manager Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard)” to “soulless corporate figurehead ready and willing to sacrifice everyone on his team for the success of his park”. A character shift that could have been a commentary on feigned corporate niceties, but the great many other haphazard shifts in the screenplay – not to mention how this shift in Masrani’s character is never explored again in the film – suggest it is really the more simple, elemental fact that a film with a screenplay re-written time and time again will not boast the surest, tightest, most sensible writing, or characters that wield well-defined identities.
Masrani does own Jurassic World though, and Claire does manage the park, and her two nephews Zach and Gray (played by Nick Robinson and Ty Simpkins) are visiting so that she can reconnect with her family after throwing herself into her job for so long. At the same time, the park is working on a new attraction – the genetically altered Indominus Rex (a great metal band, but no great shakes as a dinosaur) – that, as is no surprise to any of us, escapes and goes on a rampage throughout the park. At some point, Velociraptor trainer Owen Grady (flavor-of-the-moment Chris Pratt) becomes the film’s protagonist for wholly arbitrary reasons (probably his leather vest and scruff combination), and Owen and Clair, who have a history together, must rescue the two youths and put a stop to the reckless Indominus before it lets all the other dinosaurs in the park loose. The trouble is that stopping the Indominus may just require letting a few dinosaurs – namely Owen’s trained raptors – loose to fight it.
A plot that leads to a thoroughly unsatisfactory assemblage of episodes that never once coalesces into any functional narrative, something that doesn’t stop the film from trying to develop a handful of severely misguided thematic threads. The central one – a critique of audiences for always asking for newer, better, cooler dinosaurs and necessitating the creation of the Indominus in the first place – is spectacularly self-serving. Watching the film pettily mock its audience all while it gets the benefit of, say, 500 million dollars in one weekend for feeding them these newer, bigger, cooler dinosaurs is confused at best and offensive at worst. Never once does Jurassic World implicate itself or other blockbusters in the way they encourage and coerce audiences to feed on bigger stakes; it simply thinks audiences just crave this stuff like a drug, and that the corporate social forces of the blockbuster world are simply answering that call. Jurassic World never bothers to stop and consider the fact that it, and other blockbusters like it, might be the problem, and not the solution.
Which says nothing of the noxious, barbarically regressive gender roles of the film. The entire characterization of Claire – dressed in a frosty, soulless white to identify her as an Ice Queen – is as a stoic woman that fun-loving Owen must teach to loosen up. In the film’s vision, her cold identity is justification for her just needing a little romance with men, and a touch of children-to-care-for. She is cold, essentially, because she is a woman who cares about her job, and the film boasts a thick, venomous dislike of her, and by extension all women who are socially successful, for having jobs and not wanting to be a housewife and homemaker.
The gendered film is not helped by a bizarrely, baroquely uncomfortable death scene for a female side character who the film seems to think doesn’t want to take care of the two children, although the film’s short-hand for conveying her lack of care is showing one scene of her on a cellphone and assuming audiences will connect the dots to “silly women with their cellphones and modern technology, they just don’t care about kids anymore”. It is a death the film takes great joy in too, probably more joy than any other death in the film – any other moment in the film – and it is both singularly distasteful and emblematic of a far more copious and vocal problem with this film and blockbusters at large.