Jurassic World Isn't Sexist: It Hates Everyone In Equal Measure (2015)

In 1993, I was Tim Murphy from Jurassic Park. I lugged around Bob Bakker’s brick-like tome The Dinosaur Heresies, spoke to anyone who would listen (and even those who wouldn’t) about dinosaurs, and still keenly remembered the family trip to Questacon years earlier when the Dinosaurs Alive! exhibit toured.

The culmination of my young life’s hopes and dreams occurred at Greater Union Russell Street one cold evening in August of that year. I was handed a show bag that contained Michael Crichton’s book (I had already read it, der) and a badge that read “I Was One Of The First In Australia To See JURASSIC PARK”. My most vivid memories of the evening were a gentleman crouching behind the seat in front of him, shrieking, and a lady crawling up the aisle in hysterics.

There were considerably fewer shrieks at the Jurassic World premiere last night at Melbourne Museum’s IMAX, at least not of the blood-curdling variety, but oh boy is 11-year-old me equal parts pleased and relieved that 33-year-old me can report that Colin Trevorrow’s entry into the series is a hoot.

Twenty-two years since “the events of Jurassic Park” (both the film and the canonical in-film experiment), business is ticking over at Jurassic World. In fact “actual live dinosaurs” have become such a ho-hum, business-as-usual affair that brothers Zach (Nick Robinson) and Grey (Ty Simpkins) don’t seem all that jazzed to be shipped off to the fancy resort for their Christmas present.

Well, Grey perks up once the catamaran delivers them to Isla Nublar, which is now a fully-functional dinosaur-dotted resort, where kiddies can ride adorable baby Triceratops while mom and dad check out the branded Samsung Innovation Center or, probably more correctly, slug frozen margaritas under shaggy umbrellas. Zach and Grey’s mom and dad are not present: the boys are meant to hang with their aunt Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard), the park’s operations manager. But wouldn’t you know it, Claire is a workaholic who has little time to babysit the young dudes.

Instead, she’s finessing the launch of the park’s latest “asset”: a hybrid dinosaur cooked up by none other than Henry Wu (B.D. Wong, the sole Jurassic Park veteran present) that promises to sell enough tickets to line the already fat wallet of idealistic Masrani Corporation CEO, Simon Masrani (Irrfan Khan, hilarious). This news does not go down well with Owen Grady (Chris Pratt), a dashing ex-navy behaviourist who has been training the park’s Velociraptors to obey commands — to the delight of warmongering head of InGen security operations Vic Hoskins (Vincent D’Onofrio) — but who must now deal with a much bigger problem animal. You can guess the rest.

It’s very silly — strawberry-sauce-looking-blood-splatter silly — but like the park attendees getting high on overpriced fast food and Hologram Tupac-esque dino displays, it’s hard not to be drawn into its chintzy charms. And when I say “drawn in”, I do mean “laughing and applauding as tourists get torn apart by rogue Pterosaurs”.

It’s fun, and more importantly, it’s funny, which was also the thing that made Jurassic Park’s horrific moments all the more bracing.

Never has a “reboot” (it’s not, really) been more keenly aware of its roots: as though desperate to tell you it knows exactly what movie you’re thinking of every step of the way, Jurassic World is positively crammed with nods to Jurassic Park. (Hey, nice plastic dinosaur desk decoration, would you say it looks… chaotic?) Even Mr DNA shows up!

This tendency reaches a nearly evangelical crescendo of reverence when Zach and Grey stumble upon some original park architecture. But just as you think the film is getting too high on its own supply of hero worship, Jake Johnston (a nerdy park operator) turns up to make a joke about how he got his vintage Jurassic Park t-shirt on eBay for an exorbitant sum.

The film employs John Williams’ masterful original score as a handy emotional trigger so often that I started to wonder if they had somehow cloned 11-year-old me, who flogged the soundtrack non-stop both at home and on the school run throughout 1993 (and ‘94, and ‘95…), and installed her as music advisor. And given that score still, after 22 years, has the ability to reduce me to choking sobs within seconds, its use as the camera sweeps across the Rollercoaster Tycoon vistas of Jurassic World’s late capitalist wonderland felt occasionally Clockwork Orange-esque.

When the film is not saluting its venerable predecessor, camp is, mercifully, the order of the day: Trevorrow clearly realised it would be impossible to recreate the awe and emotional impact of the original film, and instead seems to more than occasionally huff from the same Nitrous oxide that fuelled the other dino movie of 1993, Roger Corman’s Carnosaur, though with regrettably less gore.

(Delightfully, a very much unauthorised “bookazine” released that year featured both Jurassic Park and Carnosaur, and, yes, I bought it.)

In a nice bit of fan service (shout out to the true Carnotaurus massive), the film employs a thrilling aspect of Crichton’s book The Lost World that was mystifyingly ignored by the previous sequels: a quirk of genetic splicing that really ramps up a particularly suspenseful sequence. It’s true, dinosaurs are dispatched here with an apparent impunity that may break the heart of your inner pre-teen dino nut, but the film lacks the outwardly mean-spirited animal cruelty of the film of the same name, in which mercenaries literally broke the leg of an adorable baby T. rex.

It would be remiss of me not to note that I said “Tell me about it, stud” aloud when, midway through the film, a control room door opened to reveal the leather-jerkin’d Pratt looking steamed about militarised dinosaur warfare (or something). Freed from the dipshit script of Guardians Of The Galaxy, he relaxes into his newfound matinee idol status here. May his career be long and his pay-cheques fat.

Some tiresome column inches — not to mention Joss Whedon’s feelings — have been spilled as to whether or not the film is sexist (though if there’s a Bechdel Test for dinosaurs, Jurassic World passes with flying colours). This “debate” centres mostly on the fact that Bryce Dallas Howard’s Claire doesn’t remove her sensible heels throughout the chaos, and that her foil is self-professed “alpha*” (*of Velociraptors) Grady.

Apparently these aspiring first-year gender studies students miss the many ways in which Grady is lampooned as near-parodic (he turned up to their date in boardshorts, and his “alpha” status is of course revealed to be as flimsy as any macho Cesar Milan-esque animal behaviourist’s), and the fact that Claire is, in her own way, perfectly capable.

For my money, a Strong Female Character would have been a misstep; instead, Claire’s “you go girl” brand of corporate triumph is skewered, as many of the gains of liberal feminism should be, as just another one of the cogs in the capitalist machine that will end up sending Jurassic World into “Chapter 11 on Monday”. And anyway, I like her: in one charming moment, Claire pushes her sleeves up and ties her silk shirt in a knot at her waist (a la Laura Dern’s Ellie Sattler), apparently surprised that Grady doesn’t recognise this as the international fashion signal for “let’s do this”.

It’s stupid to expect female superheroes to do roundhouse kicks and jump off buildings in heels; Claire is a corporate raider, she’s likely been running in pumps since college. As for the screaming, it is not inherently sexist to permit a female character to act scared in the face of certain and surely horrible death; in fact, I’d say it’s realistic.

Make no mistake: for all its campness, Jurassic World is still very much a blockbuster movie of its time.

The CGI is good enough; like most recent summer tentpoles, it suffers from the preposterous physics that have been ably skewered by people who know what they’re talking about. It’s a shame, since the legacy of practical effects maestro Stan Winston briefly looms large, quite literally, in the beautiful animatronics of his former coworkers’ Legacy Effects; in one especially affecting scene, Pratt tends to an ailing Apatosaurus, and I was not surprised to feel tears tumbling down my cheeks.

But moments of emotional heft are scant here, and the wonderment of the original film is wisely pushed aside in favour of a deliciously cynical treatise on everything from late capitalism and GMOs, to the military industrial complex and and corporate branding (“Verizon Wireless presents Indominus rex…”).

Forget the tasteful painted frescoes and high-end cuisine of Jurassic Park’s Visitor Centre, Jurassic World is a symphony of gaudy consumerism: it doesn’t matter whether or not the gear on sale here is heavy, it’s certain to be expensive. (D’Onofrio relishes a hysterical line about how war is what happens when theme parks sell drinks for $7.) There’s a Starbucks, a Pandora store — even a Margaritaville.

But as fun as it is to snort at this Grove-esque dino mall, of all the themes explored (a field day for a willing film theory student of the future), nothing is more expertly eviscerated in Jurassic World than big budget moviemaking itself.

The spectacle-sucking multiplex audience, represented here by the restless hordes of tourists, is given an especially good roasting; I’m not sure a blockbuster film has taken a big pile of shit on its audience this gleefully since Forrest Gump, “the Buzzfeed of 1994”.

The horrifying new hybrid-dino has been developed to inject a much-needed “wow factor” to the park, designed to dazzle a public who have been hammered into bored submission by the apparently déclassé spectacle of actual dinosaurs* leaping out of giant pools to eat endangered sharks. It is not the only shrewd comment the film makes on the business of franchise filmmaking: at times, Jurassic World seems to be offering a compelling argument against its own existence. (Perhaps it is, given Trevorrow has not agreed to direct the inevitable sequels.)

In this way, it’s delightfully subversive, or at least as subversive as a film that still offers moments of mindless spectacle — and a Velociraptor motorcycle gang — can be.

 

- originally published on Junkee, 2015