Jurassic Park thrived on juxtaposition, cramming contradictions together and marveling at the inevitable mayhem. Incompatible eras, species, and ecosystems inhabited the same space, separated by flimsy, porous fences destined to be torn down. The beauty of this alchemy is its utter lack of cohesion, the totality of its failure, and the overwhelming obviousness of this certainty. But, more to the point, JP is a film about contrasting seemingly incompatible ideas and ideals. Can we have our entertainment and criticize it simultaneously? Where do progress and ambition end and dissolution and denigration begin? And, is a twisted Darwinian, pseudo-Marxist Blockbuster possible?
In many ways, Jurassic Park is the blockbuster film for the generation coming of age in the early ’90s—one of those rare occasions when the evolution in technology takes a leap forward and audiences are left trying to reconcile the gap between what they felt was possible and what became possible before their eyes. What often gets overlooked though is how JP was marvelous for subtly undermining its very ambitions. The film had all the modern blockbuster trappings, and was conceived around the extreme synergy potential of its premise, fully realized with theme park attractions and action figures for every species. But, I’ve long been fascinated with how JP’s narrative so consistently and thoroughly critiques the very concept and desire behind large scale entertainment.
The film’s first act hinges on a string of roundtable discussions. The spectacle is delayed, and this delay is felt, becoming a point of contention that characters themselves get antsy about. Every move is questioned, and the very concept behind the park is at stake from the get go. “Before you even knew what you had,” chaotician Ian Malcom pontificates, “you packaged it and slapped it on a plastic lunchbox.” Later, this is directly confirmed as we glimpse the gift shop lined with trinkets just waiting for opening day. The whole crux of the plot is that the park is being focus grouped—by experts in the field to sign off on its veracity, by a lawyer to speak to its investment potential, and by kids to test the appeal to the “target audience”. Simultaneously, the value of the park is being judged in three different directions—cultural merit, scientific exactitude, and monetary value—that are pitted against one another as potentially contradictory by film’s end, despite the packaging. One could say that the park itself is a metaphor for blockbuster entertainment—an amusement built around awe, where violence and devastation are at least part of the draw, and where you can recreate and experience the seemingly impossible in a visceral, ill-conceived ride.
This is territory Spielberg has long been interested in, but it comes to the surface with such clarity in JP. He is concerned with the desire behind such creations, with the cost, with the technology and its constant advancement, and with the culture that demands such attractions. All these concerns exist both inside and outside the film. JP touches on all these signposts in the creation of the spectacle of the park, but the film itself is a benchmark that, at the time, took the logical next leap in the genre and in the blockbuster form. JP was a moment when Spielberg slyly reverted to a “creature feature” to reference, deconstruct, and take stock of that which he helped usher in—the blockbuster era grown from the studio system of the mid-1970s.
He does this throughout Jurassic Park, emphasizing viewing screens to signal his reflexive goals. (Best of all, he includes a rotating theater in the education center where the editing sequence merges the diegetic screen with ours and park-creator John Hammond is a character in both). Of course, this is intertwined with the discussion of technological progression that also runs through the narrative, as many of these vantages are made possible through computer technology and advanced large-scale surveillance systems that run all over the park, and the spectacle we are viewing turns on the draw of cutting-edge innovations. “Spared no expense,” becomes Hammond’s running catch-phrase and its progression is illuminating—first stated with ebullience, then with reservation, and, finally, resignation.
All this brings me to Jurassic World, the long-delayed fourth installment in the Jurassic Park franchise, this time helmed by Safety Not Guaranteed director Colin Trevorrow. Jurassic World picks up over twenty years after the tragedy of the initial park testing. Improbably, a successful dinosaur theme park has been built on Isla Nublar and it has thrived. But, year-over-year revenue demands and increasing costs (not to mention interventions from outside interests) apply continual pressure to go bigger and maintain the appeal for the general public. So, they start creating genetically modified dinosaur hybrids that are larger, more aggressive, and more impressive, with amplified predatory traits sure to wow audiences of the future.
Park is nicely integrated into the world of World, including some fine sight gags—especially, some reappropriated paraphernalia that is given a twisted, 2015-appropriate afterlife that connects with the merchandising undercurrents of the first film. The preponderance of screens is another area that has been translated from Park to World. A larger cheering section monitors the vitals and surveils the proceeding all over the island from the high-tech control room able to monitor nearly every inch from any angle. It’s a far cry from the modest, grainy technology in the Park control room, that the characters spent much of the film trying to reboot, but a necessary holdover that maintains some of the feel and themes. The scale and sleekness of blockbusters has definitely changed over the last two decades and World competently reflects this.
World expands on and plays off Park, but it often feels like subtraction by addition. To its credit, World picks up at the point of diminishing returns. Dinosaurs are no longer scary and sexy in the world it constructs, and complacency has set in once again. In its set-up, it comments on the nature of sequels and charts the blockbuster era as it has existed post-JP. The problem is that the shock, awe, and terror is difficult to cull from this baseline, and the resulting film fights an uphill battle against both the long-shadow of the past and the very mechanisms it capably sets up as themes. Not much new is found along the path—the fragile control of the park shatters, everything goes horribly awry and extreme, desperate measures expose the human folly inherent. World does well to focus on the mounting demand from audiences, the bottom line, and the dangers of corporate expansion. The desire for bigger, better, and badder has a breaking point and it admirably seeks to find it. But this is squeezed down into a series of black-and-white battles. The ruminations don’t resonate like in the first film; the ambiguous conversations on progress are long over and replaced with clear boundaries destined to be disregarded, rather than a blurry line between ambition and hubris.
Park too was brilliant in its construction. JP was cleverly structured around a varying threat while keeping things dispersed—the philosophy of human ingenuity dominates the first act, the T. Rex the second, and the Raptors the third, but the danger and the wonder of the environment remains palpable. This is not really the case in World because there is one big-bad and the threat of this beast is simply increased as it gets closer to its destination, and as plans to thwart it either fail or totally backfire. Part of Park’s brilliance is its simplicity and how it reduced and minimized. The central group was small so we got to know each person embroiled in this escalating disaster. World ups the potential catastrophe count into 5-digit territory while still following a bunch of dispersed principles. The addition of thousands of patrons waters down the action, placing characters with names in crowds that provide thousands of other targets to distract the danger. A series of red-shirt-mission scenes function similarly, fulfilling the dino-action quota while providing control room breaks for the headliners.
For all its technical marvel, JP was also a lesson in staging and old-school filmmaking technique. Many of the more memorable, gruesome deaths occur off-screen, or are obscured, allowing the mind, and our cultural collective unconscious, to fill in the gory details. Case in point: Nedry’s screams as the jeep violently jostles from the force of the Dilophosaurus, or Muldoon succumbing behind swaying foliage, the camera quaking from the shock waves, or the cold open where a worker is dragged into a box facing away from us, torn apart from the bottom up as he steadily slips from view. It’s all powerful filmmaking where the staging and implication and the details fill in the gruesomeness. The most effective sequences in World are built around times when we can’t see much—a barely glimpsed patch of flesh behind dense foliage, a shark dangling above still water, characters cowering behind flimsy cars eyeing small pieces of a mega-size beast stalking within reach.
Largely these are eschewed in the last third of the film as effects dollars teeter toward CGI-set-pieces. While Park set the bar for special effects with some show-stopping sequences, upping the stakes for modern blockbusters, World shows the strain. The dinosaurs are too fluid and lack life. The mud oozing around an expertly framed animatronic foot in the centerpiece rain storm T. Rex attack in Park is a detail World doesn’t elicit. The physicality of the environment is sorely missing. Impact tremors and snapping cables, periods of suspense and dread built out of anticipation and thwarted expectation; this is what Park delivered in spades. It had a B-movie, monster flick heart, but it had a soul built on classical visual storytelling.
“Maybe progress should lose for once,” is the already often quoted line of dialogue from World that simultaneously functions as an epitaph for the franchise. It works on multiple levels—narratively, technologically, and structurally, as well as in terms of scale. At heart, these films are about capitalism collapsing and the franchise itself mirrors this strain over time. It’s a strange meta-industrial commentary on the entertainment industry. In the process, rather than setting the new standard, World is the endgame for what Park helped initiate and amplify. Everything is glossier, smoother, larger, and faster. Everyone is more tightly squeezed into their boxes and arcs; just follow the straight and narrow to the finish. It’s possible someday it will be argued that the routine nature of Jurassic World—its insistence on thin characterizations, piling on of rote subplots, and predictable pacing—fits into a grand-design analysis of decades-long franchises sagging under the weight of expectation. The film often prods the audience to not take it too seriously, but it seems to simultaneously want to thrill and awe. Unfortunately, World exists past the point of contradiction, where the balance that was so capably achieved in the original is too far tipped. And, Bryce Dallas Howard’s cold executive, Claire, traipsing through the jungle and outrunning a T. Rex in her high-heels is a far cry from paleobotanist, Dr. Ellie “We can discuss sexism in survival situations when I get back” Sattler, and is definitely a loss for progress.
This article was written by Oliver O’Sullivan, a writer for dusk magazine.