I had a more complicated reaction to Jurassic World than I expected to. A lot of people seem to be writing off the film as another run-of-the-mill blockbuster unworthy of strong opinions in either direction. The thing is those people aren’t wrong. Jurassic World is decidedly unessential. In a lot of ways it’s the kind of movie naysayers often accuse Marvel of making. A noncommittal pre-vised mess with too many differing plans vying for dominance. Ultimately it all adds up to a whole lot of nothing. The movie is at times good, at times snickeringly bad, but at least it’s interesting.
I don’t love being negative about a new release, especially one with such a new director. I’d like to karmically offset some of the (hopefully constructive) criticisms I’m going to levy at the film with some initial praise. A large part of my confused reaction to this movie is clearly the involvement of Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silva. They wrote the new Planet of the Apes movies, and they were involved in the writing of this film. I would bet money that Rick and Amanda’s draft of the script is the source of many of the moments I like about the film. The problem is the rest of the film’s team didn’t understand the intent. This is a heavily pre-vised movie, I can recognize the sticky-fingered signature that is their zooms anywhere, and while their typical problems are on full display there was some work put into making the dinosaurs move like animals, and I thought it really added something to the proceedings. I’m going to say a lot of assumptive and unkind things about Colin Trevorrow going forward, unfortunately, but before I get there I’d like to say that he’s legitimately good at working with actors. The heightened and unhinged pitch of the performances sells the stakes in a way that’s uncommon in most current blockbusters. The most notable moment was a half-hearted misdirect involving a threat that never really left an area. It’s a bland trope ridden scene, but the when the woman on the radio warns the protagonists her voice cracks like she’s trying not to panic and for a second there I was worried Chris Pratt would die fifteen minutes into the movie. Now I don’t know if this style of performance is so prevalent in the film because that’s what Steven Spielberg would’ve done, but even if the reasoning is that….Super 8 the execution is pretty good. The cast, with the possible exception of the slightly out of place Chris Pratt, are all well chosen and give pretty effective performances. So there is good stuff here.
Now to undo all that positive opinion stuff by explaining why the crux of my argument is going to be that Colin Trevorrow didn’t understand the movie he was making. This might not be true. It’s possible that’s an over simple estimation, and that I’m greatly misjudging the writing abilities of Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silva, and misestimating the relationship Colin had with their script. Maybe the problems come from the studio side of things, with studio meddling weighing down the intent. Maybe no one involved in the process quite knew how to make the movie they imagined they were making.
HERE THERE BE SPOILERS because there is really no point trying to do a deep tissue estimation of where Jurassic World went wrong without spoiling it. However no part of the movie will surprise you, if that helps you make your decision. If not see the first paragraph of this review.
This movie is about blockbusters. Or at least at some point it was about blockbusters. With an almost satirical vehemence. Which would make sense, because the modern Planet of the Apes films are some of the least blockbuster tentpoles out there. They’re introspective and personal and tend to have low character driven stakes. So it kind of makes sense that those writers might sit down to write Jurassic World and scribe a whole movie about how Jurassic Park was the best way to do blockbusters right and the modern inclination to make things bigger and louder is almost despicable. This is a movie that defeats its big new corporate dinosaur by having the same T-Rex from Jurassic Park, a raptor, and a stand in for the shark from Jaws kill it. There’s a character (Nick Miller from New Girl) who literally says the park was more legit back when it was Jurassic Park. There are clear mockeries made of product placement, the soulless corporate approach to blockbusters, and the escapism all of that can bring. This comes with some legitimately smart, concise character work, some personal stakes, and some honest to god character arcs.
This version of Jurassic World might’ve been excellent. A subversive blockbuster carefully towing the line between aping and celebrating Jurassic Park and doing its own thing. An insightful and funny blockbuster with some personal stakes, good character work, and some interesting ideas. The thing is the movie was so wrung through the blockbuster machine that it became the very thing it was mocking. It became a film that tries too hard to deify Jurassic Park and Spielberg, leading to a nonsensical finale. It became a corporate product, a grey paste belched out by the studio system and garnished with a maraschino Chris Pratt.
Part way through the film, the main character, the aunt of the two kids in the movie, is freaked out and asks Chris Pratt to find them. She describes the first kid as “high school age” and starts describing the younger kid in a similar way. It’s an elegant summarization of her character rolled into a brief moment of dialogue, conveying important information without belabouring the point and setting up a character arc. Chris Pratt’s immediate response is to exclaim, “You don’t know your nephews’ ages!?” It feels for all the world like someone thought the point of that line had to be explained, and in the most ham-fisted way possible. That’s this movie in a nutshell. A good idea immediately followed by something that undoes it. Something that doesn’t quite understand why it was a good idea. It’s like the movie does something well, and then like a self-satisfied and simple puppy gently shits itself in excitement. Not content with a shot of Chris Pratt motorbiking with raptors, this movie has to have several characters comment on how cool it is. “Awesome” the We3 reject general pseudo-villain exclaims. “Your boyfriend’s a badass,” one of the kids offers. Forgive me if I’m not onboard with you fellating yourself movie.
That was all a bit harsh on my part, but that sort of self-congratulatory patter brings back the trauma-memories of Michael Bay movies. Based on interviews it seems like Colin Trevorrow at least understood the vague relevance of the film’s social commentary, even if he maybe didn’t quite grasp the deliberate subversive critique of blockbusters. However it seems like he didn’t understand how to convey that. The framework for a film about Jurassic Park symbolically killing off its weak imitator has in many ways survived unscathed. The last shot of the film proves that.
When asked about the reflection of cinema itself, Trevorrow’s response was this: “As you and I talk about it, it’s becoming more about the movies, but it was really meant to be a bit broader in what it was examining.” Trevorrow maybe just didn’t realize he was making a movie about blockbusters. Even then though there’s no excuse for how clumsy so much of this movie is. Maybe the more revealing comment comes later in that same interview:
There are many more pots on a movie this size. It was maybe a little easier for me because it’s part of my style to empower everyone to be creative and to invent. One of the first things I said when we got on set was, “I know you know how to do your jobs better than I know how to do your jobs – and know that I know that, and be brave and be aggressive in your suggestions of what we should be doing.
The trouble is that sort of approach can really sacrifice any kind of overriding vision. A movie without at least a few key overseers is a movie without a proper identity. It doesn’t work at that level.
Perhaps the lack of understanding of the self-commentary at the film’s core does explain why the Jurassic Park references feel so grating and contextless. In a movie about blockbusters the references back to the past film would make sense, they would help the random arrival of the original film’s villain feel more set-up, it would compliment the film’s themes. Instead we’re left with a movie that feels like it wants to be Jurassic Park instead of be about it. We see ruined sets left over from the first film, we see the iconic banner from the climax, we see returning characters, we see a character in a Jurassic Park shirt, the characters start up an old Jurassic Park jeep, we hear about Hammond constantly, we even see bits of the T-Rex skeleton from the old park’s lobby. The new park owner even quotes him. We get the previously described finale, where the T-Rex from Jurassic Park becomes the hero. Which is the most damning moment. Jurassic Park is a master class in set-up and pay-off, and Jurassic World should’ve imitated that to make the climax feel less out of the blue. Instead all these elements don’t feel like set-up or commentary. Everything from the cinematography to the musical cues to the lighting reduced intended commentary to hollow references to a better movie. Needless fan service that keeps the movie from finding its own identity.
Even past these core problems, the movie’s complete inability to understand its own themes, we have a mediocre film presented us in Jurassic World. To be perfectly frank the movie looks terrible. Leaps in modern technology have apparently regressed us to the point where no single shot of a dinosaur in this film looks better than Jurassic Park. Special effects are good now, so I’m often inclined to blame the direction for these problems. When one doesn’t know how to incorporate CG heavy elements they look flat and fake, constantly looking like either a backdrop to the characters or hilarious ethereal rubber creations. However Jurassic World is unique in that it made me reconsider this stance, I think the CG is plain bad. The textures are weird, the movements are too fluid (this is always the goddamn problem, look at animals they don’t move like that), and the CG elements are comically badly incorporated.
For a movie that apes Spielberg like it’s an Olympic sport (an Olympic sport that JJ Abrams and Gareth Edwards are killing at) it certainly eschews his approach to lighting, and it’s the worse for it. The entire movie aims for that over-bright “realism” that just robs the film of any atmosphere and perfectly lights CG creations best left in the shadows. The CG action is terrible, although one time comedically macabre. It makes this movie with overwrought emotional subplots feel goofy. It all adds up to a movie that feels schizophrenic. Laugh at this death, be sad at that one, hate the guys killing the murderous dinosaurs. Hate the guy proposing a plan the hero would suggest in 90% of films. It’s a premise that required consummate self-awareness passed by a team without any.
This is the movie equivalent of a copy of a copy of a copy of a photograph of a good photo.
In the end it’s group-grope made manifest. A movie that started with a good idea about the problem with corporate blockbusters that was then ironically passed by a hundred people who didn’t get it and were pretty sure the public would want more dinosaur maulings, jokes, and that Chris Pratt guy everyone’s talking about.