(Spoilers for both films, etc. etc.)
Jurassic Park isn’t the best movie in the world. It likely isn’t even the best thing that Stephen Spielberg has directed. And, although it ranks among my favourites, it doesn’t come close to the no.1 slot.
But JP, more than any other movie I know, is emblematic of what the moviegoing experience is all about – moreso than Star Wars or The Wizard of Oz. That’s largely a generational thing, however: both of those movies were dated home viewing when I was introduced to them. But I was old enough to see Jurassic Park in theater and be wowed by its groundbreaking special effects. And the fact that I was at the age where dinosaurs represented the zenith of coolness helped.
And perhaps the film can be credited with introducing me to an important paradox: that the things which inspire the most wonder can also be the things which inspire the most dread. This is the major tonal achievement of Jurassic Park: Spielberg’s dinosaurs are truly terrible in the older sense of the word, provoking both admiration and fear.
Anyway, you know the drill about the plot: A wealthy entrepreneur discovers a viable method of cloning dinosaurs and decides to open a dinosaur themed….theme park off the coast of Costa Rica. Due to a lawsuit over a worker death, he needs to get some experts to sign off on the park. During the weekend of their tour, the dinos get out and all hell breaks loose, etc. etc.
Much has been said about how the film’s premise acts as a metaphor for moviemaking itself: John Hammond, the entrepreneur, is a visionary who wants to wow and entertain people by producing something that seems to push the limits of the possible (kinda like what Spielberg is trying to do with the movie); but he has to deal with investors who are only interested in making a profit, and continually grates against all the complications that reality throws at him.
I’d tweak the metaphor and say that it fits better as a sci-fi twist on the whole Disney phenomenon. Sure, the explanation for how the dinosaur cloning works is pretty silly, but the question at the heart of it is pretty interesting: what would it mean for the entertainment industry to make use of genetic engineering? What does it mean to have life imitate art, literally?
Jurassic Park’s answer is to tell a cautionary tale about the dangers of frivolously using such power, but otherwise doesn’t plumb much of its depths.
One of the characters in Jurassic World remarks that the dinosaurs are engineered to look according to how people expect them to look, as opposed to how the originals would really have looked. While it’s kinda an ass saving moment on the part of the script, allowing them to have the unrealistic dinosaurs of the first movie As Science Marches On, it also comes across as a surreal version of, “the customer is always right”: the consumer’s desires and preconceptions literally dictate the shape of the natural world.
But now we’re talking about the other, fourth movie.
Jurassic World wears its heart on its meta-sleeve: much like the film it is named after, the Jurassic World theme park exists in a world where the accomplishments of the original Jurassic Park are old hat, and where there is a felt need to produce things that ramp up the wow factor while still being derivative of the original in order to keep cashing in.
You see, Jurassic World is a theme park which follows in the footsteps of Park, and has been open to the public for some time. And they need to keep opening new attractions to keep people coming. In this case, they create a new dinosaur, Indominus Rex. The fact that this is a dumb name is actually remarked upon and explained as being something easy for the kids to remember. Meanwhile, another character sports Jurassic Park memorabilia, and fondly looks back at it as a moment of real inspiration.
So this is to say that Jurassic World is brazenly upfront about the fact that it is a derivative work making use of questionable ideas and relying heavily on your dewy nostalgia for the original. I don’t let it off the hook for that, but I give it credit for being clever about it.
Although that does make me wonder where the clever ends and the stupid begins. For instance, there’s an action scene late in the movie which is a blatant ripoff of a similar one in Aliens. On the one hand it’s, well, a rip-off, but viewed through the “entertainment-as-reality” lens, it could be seen as an instance of the world becoming increasingly scripted according to Hollywood memes and tropes. But it’s probably just lazy.
And then there is the climax, which is the one really sublime moment in the film. But to fully understand it, you need to rewind back to the original for a moment.
The real star of Jurassic Park is the T-Rex. The scene where she makes her first appearance is the set piece of the movie, which can almost be said to follow a pyramidical structure where the first half builds up to it, and the second unwinds from it. And in it, Jeff Goldblum uses a flare to catch the T-Rex’s attention. Then, at the end of the movie, the characters wind up getting saved by the T-Rex when it shows up to chomp on two velociraptors that have them trapped. Nevermind that this sudden reappearance by it makes no logical sense: it’s too cool to not finish the movie with. All this is iconic now.
At the climax of Jurassic World, the characters realize that the only thing which can possibly defeat the Indominus Rex….is the T-Rex. The characters deliberately invoke the artifice of the original’s climax by summoning the T-Rex with a flare, in similar fashion to Goldblum’s character. And the guy who opens the Rex’s cage is the one sporting a Jurassic Park shirt. The raw materials of the original are, in a sense, ritualistically invoked by the characters.
What we have here is the fandom, for whom the lines and scenes of the original have become religiously memorialized, and for whom the merchandise is their consecrated paraphernalia. The T-Rex, mobilized by the fans, defeats Indominus Rex, who represents the crappy sequel. The fight itself is a suitably memorable monster slugfest; for a few minutes there I was a 13 year old again.
All this is making Jurassic World sound a lot smarter than it is: for most of the time it feels like a B-Movie content to nod and wink at you. It’s critically lacking in that sense of wonder and terror that the original had. And while the characters of the original were pretty simplistic, this gang is so flat that it’s not worth introducing them. But aside from one uncomfortably cruel death scene, I enjoyed its monster movie shlock.
But this raises perhaps the most dystopian question of all: what if such gene splicing technology fell into the hands of the fandoms? How would the Trekkies, the Bronies, the D&D nerds handle such dread power? I end with a quote from Gene Wolfe’s essay, “How Science Will Conquer the World for Fantasy”:
As every Churl knows, the genuine stuff of fantasy is monsters, trolls, elves, and unicorns. Particularly unicorns. It would be old (pointed star-spangled) hat for me to insist here that genetic engineering will soon permit any devoted hobbyist to put a narwhale’s tooth on a horse’s head. I have said that already in “The Woman the Unicorn Loved” and in a published interview.
Yet it is so. The technology is on our doorstep. If I may be permitted to repeat myself just once, Columbia now offers graduate training in gene-splicing. The will is certainly present-the World Fantasy Convention felt it necessary to ban unicorns from the art show, charging them with terminal banality. In the interview previously referred to, the interviewer (Joan Gordon) asked if I did not feel the genetic manipulators would use their knowledge to create mere kitsch and corn rather than recognizable mythical beasts. Alas, most recognizable mythical beasts are kitsch already, and corn, too.