I have to confess: I was unashamedly excited about the release of Jurassic World. In fact, they had me at the sight of that Mosasaurus eating the dangling shark. And, given my expectations, the film didn’t disappoint. While not nearly as brilliant nor as terrifying as the original, I still found Jurassic World to be an intensely entertaining action film with enough pop culture philosophy to give me something to think about while I was watching.
The film takes place in the same universe, and on the same island, as the 1992 film, with the original park largely abandoned and a newer, glossier, and fully function park now in its place. Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) is in charge of drumming of financial investments, while Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) is a raptor trainer and expert. When the incredibly intelligent Indominus rex–a genetically created dinosaur–escapes its enclosure, it sets off a chain reaction that seals the fate of several people on the island, including park owner and John Hammond disciple Simon Masrani (Irrfan Khan) and Vic Hoskins (Vincent D’Onofrio), the chief of security. Meanwhile, both Claire and Owen attempt and succeed in rescuing Claire’s nephews Zach (Nick Robinson) and Gray (Ty Simpkins). In the end, the I. Rex is defeated by the combined efforts of the humans, the T. Rex, and one of the raptors, before being definitively devoured by the park’s resident Mosasaurus.
At times, the film seems to struggle with the legacy of its predecessor. Though it largely ignores both The Lost World and the more reductively titled Jurassic Park III (leading to this particular author to refer to it as a “selective sequel”), the original film looms large. The founder John Hammond is alluded to (including in the name of a building), the sweeping and triumphant John Williams score is often in evidence, Zach and Gray stumble on the ruins of the original park (where they manage to jumpstart one of the old jeeps) and, perhaps most notably, it is the T. rex and a Velociraptor, the original villainous dinosaurs, that manage to take down the I. rex, the most visible and dangerous sign of the park (and the franchise’s?) increasingly hubristic ambitions.
Further, it is precisely its allusions to its predecessor that threaten to undermine the stakes that this film raises. All told, Jurassic World is much less terrifying than Jurassic Park, precisely because it takes place in a fully-fledged theme park with all of the resources that such an institution can command. Despite the truly frightening I. rex and its chaotic reign of terror, as well as the dive-bombing pterosaurs–which are inadvertently released when the Indominus careens into the aviary–the body count of fully-fleshed-out characters is actually relatively small compared to the original. What’s more, there are few moments in the film where it feels as if everything could fall to pieces; the closest is when the I. rex manages to establish itself as the alpha among the raptors. Yet even then we are never made to feel as if the main characters, nor indeed most of the hordes of people currently visiting, will not escape. Paradoxically, it is precisely this mass of human bodies that keeps us from ever truly feeling a sense of genuine fear or existential angst.
To give credit where credit is due, however, it is worth dwelling for a few moments on what makes the Indominus rex (despite its silly name, which even Owen Grady mocks), such a terrifying creation. In many ways, the Indominex Rex emerges as a terrifying female id that the film struggles (sometimes unsuccessfully) to contain. From the first sinister images of the baby I. rex clawing its way out of its shell to the chilling revelation that she ate her sibling, the film seems intent on showcasing a specifically gendered dangerousness to this genetically modified dinosaur. What’s more, her confinement and lack of socialization ensures that she does not possess a fully refined sense of her own place in the food chain, and it is even hinted that human DNA may be part of her make-up, given that she begins hunting for sport rather than for food (after all, humans are one of the few species that does so). In that sense, she is like so many other inscrutable (and therefore dangerous) feminine energies that haunt the horror film. Who could ever forget the monstrous mother of Alien or the radioactive maternal MUTO in the most recent Godzilla? Or, for that matter, the “clever girl” Velociraptor in Jurassic World? Clearly, the blockbuster cinematic imagination remains haunted by the dangerous undisciplined power of the feminine.
In that sense, she finds her human counterpart in Claire, whom the film also seems intent to punish for daring to be so focused on her career rather than on her family (for instance, she cannot say with any certainty how old either of her nephews are). A key component of this transformation is her growing realization that the dinosaurs are actually animals rather than mere assets, an illumination brought home when she encounters a dying Apatosaurus (which, by the way, is probably the saddest animal death since Little Foot’s mother died in The Land Before Time). The film seems intent on bringing her back into the fold of the traditionally feminine and maternal, by showing how her nephew’s endangerment (and the death of her assistant) is due in large part to her being too busy to properly care for them. Again, however, we have to give credit where credit is due, for it is ultimately Claire who releases the T. rex and thus triggers the ultimate battle that vanquishes the I. rex and saves Owen, Zach, and Gray.
In the end, I’m not entirely sure how seriously I take the film’s avowed criticism of our current obsession with with making things bigger and better. Nor am I entirely comfortable with its rigorous heternormativity and almost frantic recuperation of the nuclear family (everyone is reunited at the end, and Owen and Claire walk off into future happiness). Still, there is something profoundly wonderful about the film’s final scene, in which the triumphant T. rex roars out its triumph over the ruined park, a potent reminder of the limits and the destructive potential of human hubris.