Jurassic World is honestly kind of a bad film, but I love it anyway.
by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)
There’s this thing about irony: if you coat enough of your work in it, it can lead a critic to become genuinely confused as to where the intentional faults and flaws end and the unintentional ones begin. It’s honestly a pretty brilliant tactic, cos how am I supposed to know what is an intentional mistake and what isn’t when almost the entire point of the movie is being drowned in irony and satire? Especially when the film itself calls out in-universe its satirical and ironic aims and intentions.
Jurassic World is a film that swims in irony, perhaps too much for its own good, occasionally appearing to use that as a defence mechanism for the rest of the film. Is the fact that almost every last dinosaur is a never-quite fully convincing CGI effect a comment on modern filmmaking’s detrimental obsession with CGI or just a detrimental obsession with CGI? Is the film’s constant product-placement, that is even a minor plot point and a point of contention for one of the park’s staff members, a wink and nod to its blatancy in modern blockbusters, with its eventual destruction a cathartic blow to such a practice, or just blatant cost-subsidising product placement? Is the fact that the film really isn’t at all scary an acknowledgement that we’re no longer frightened by things that have become institutions, and the failure of the I-Rex to change that being a comment that you can’t just manufacture scary things by throwing a bunch of scary ideas in a blender and printing the resulting concoction, or just a failure on the part of director Colin Trevorrow?
Again, it’s difficult to know where the intentional faults end and the genuine faults begin. Is the fact that much of the movie is all about shaming emotionless Cylon Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard, not actually a Cylon) into understanding that these animals are animals, dammit, and not just numbers on a spreadsheet – as well as being shamed into realising that work should not be everything and that family, specifically visiting nephews Zach (Nick Robinson) and Gray (Ty Simpkins), are deserving of time and attention too a sly parody of such “women shouldn’t science or business” plots or just poor writing that ends up lapsing unintentionally into that area? Speaking of, is her relationship with Owen (Chris Pratt) a purposefully ridiculous demonstration of how fast, frivolous, and ultimately pointless these sorts of obligatory romances in blockbusters are, filled with awkward implications and such, as a “take that” to their continued existence, or is it just all of that with none of the parodic undercurrent?
I could keep going on and on and on – applying this same uncertainty to things like the film’s barely one-note characters, its sledgehammer subtle digs at the military, its unresolved plot threads that are just blatant sequel-teasing, the fact that Owen is quite literally portrayed and characterised by the film as The Greatest Human Being Who Ever Lived and whose sneezes can probably cure cancer – but hopefully you get the point. Since Jurassic World announces from practically the first frame that this is going to be a film with a meta-text about the state of filmmaking today running through it, it eventually reaches the point where one just has to question if it’s only doing so as a pre-cautionary defence in case everything went wrong; the equivalent of slipping on a banana peeling, falling, breaking six bones, and proclaiming, “Totally meant to do that!” I’m glad that we have another blockbuster, the second in two months no less, that wants to say something instead of just being pretty lights and loud explosions, but the sheer extent of its commitment (?) to this theme and message for much of the film’s runtime arguably does it more harm than good.
See, by traditional metrics and what we usually define as ‘good filmmaking’, Jurassic World is a bad film. Its characters are barely the definition of one-note, its dialogue is not corny enough to be corny, it’s not scary, the dinosaurs and the humans never give off the illusion that they share the same reality as one another barring one sequence that only serves to make that fact even more clear, there are some plot turns and developments that scream “last minute sequel-opening rewrite”, its desperate desire to be Aliens sometimes does it no favours (more on that in a sec), its extreme pacing means that there’s barely time for everyone to get their bearings before the I-Rex breaks free, and the Owen and Claire stuff – despite Chris Pratt being on a full-on “come on, come fall asleep on my abs” charm offensive – never works and never stops feeling token at best.
But, goddammit, do I love this friggin’ movie anyway.
Jurassic World is nonsense. Jurassic World is absolute nonsense and, goddammit, do I love it for that, because it is massive amounts of pure fun! That meta-text may sound like it drowns the film in humourless detachment, but it still bristles with pure glee at its various setpieces and ideas. That sprinter’s pacing is like the film is just desperately trying to get to them out of palpable excitement: “No, folks, seriously, there’s a moment where the I-Rex fights an Ankylososaurus! Hold on, I’m just gonna hit the fast-forward button so we can get there quicker! I can’t wait to see the look on your faces, you are going to flip!” In a way, it’s rather analogous to Zach’s character in the film, as the big brother who doesn’t seem like he wants to be here at all, but is not immune to the pleasures of seeing a Mosasaurus eat an entire shark in one bite.
This glee at being able to fling full-scale mayhem about the place does occasionally cross over into being rather mean-spirited – the Pteranodon setpiece is a load of fun but is tainted by one extended and really unnecessarily cruel death sequence – but mostly sticks on the right side of that line. Mainly by being Aliens. I’m not kidding, Jurassic World lifts so much from Aliens’ playbook that I’m expecting James Cameron’s lawyers to be sicced on Universal any second now. Precocious children? Check. A mother figure who puts herself in harm’s way despite wishing not to in order to keep those children safe? Check. One capable partner whom she eventually bonds with despite prior reservations? Check (minus the romance part in Aliens for we all know that no man can tie Ellen Ripley down). That same endless breathless rush from one setpiece to the next once the release valve is turned? Check, check, check!
Now, of course, these are all traits that are not specific to Aliens, but the similarities don’t stop there. There’s even a Weyland-Yutani equivalent in the form of InGen, a corporation who have got their mitts all over Jurassic World, even the parts that no-one else knows about, and who have really just the worst and stupidest ideas. Those raptors that Owen is trying to tame are being bred to become weapons of war, loyal and efficient comrades of soldiers in the field, whilst you gain absolutely no surprises for guessing that they’ve been involved in the creation of the I-Rex and that their refusal to be forward about what went into the thing is very bad for everybody involved. They’ve got a representative, played by the great Vincent D’Onofrio, who is such a smug asshole that you can imagine he drives his car to work on a personal make-shift carpet of baby seals. And there is even a setpiece in the film’s ridiculously fun final third that is so startlingly similar to the first Xeno ambush at Aliens’ halfway point that I’m still not sure that the projectionist didn’t just splice in some footage from that briefly.
This is sometimes to Jurassic World’s detriment, when it is being so blatant in its Aliens referencing that it distracts from the quality of the film itself, but it manages to get away with it by being Aliens in spirit, rather than in flesh. These are two films that share similar makeups and similar traits, but still feel fundamentally individual. This is still a Jurassic Park movie at its core, it’s got that same sense of wonder and the same sense of awe and spectacle, but it’s also a Jurassic Park movie that realises that trying to be just Jurassic Park again won’t work. The core can still be the same, but everything else needs a change-up. So why not take from the playbook of Aliens and go bigger, more action-packed, more crowd-pleasing, and fundamentally different, whilst not losing sight of the core of your series, instead of just doing the first film again?
Jurassic World is not a film that is going to win any awards for storytelling, or for character-work, or pacing, or thematic depth or anything of that sort. Again, take it on traditional merits for what we consider ‘good filmmaking’ and it’s honestly a mess and kinda terrible. But the film instead succeeds on something far more valuable to me: fun. Wonder. Pure entertainment. I don’t hold Jurassic Park up to the same unassailable nostalgic standard as most do, although I do still really like that movie, and even I felt my heart stir and soar at our first introduction to the new park as John Williams’ classic theme overtook the soundtrack. And when the film takes off the safety and goes all-out in the crazy, ridiculous nonsense, including an absolutely wonderful finale that aimed directly for my inner 5 year-old and did not miss? Oh, it is right up there with Mad Max: Fury Road for the most amount of fun I’ve had at the cinema this year.
So, in a way, I guess Jurassic World really is like a theme park. It’s emptier than it lets on, hides behind the “I meant to do that” defence for anything that goes wrong, and kinda falls apart if you think too much about it. But if you just sit back, let go, and allow the pure fun of the whole thing to overtake you, then nothing else matters because HOLY YES THAT LAST SETPIECE YES OH MAN! And, really, shouldn’t we all just let go and give into stupid fun nonsense a little more often?
Callum Petch was ready for the flight. Listen to Screen 1 on Hullfire Radio (site link) and follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!