“No one’s impressed by a dinosaur anymore,” says Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard), head manager of the Jurassic World theme park, somewhere within the first hour of Jurassic World, the movie. She’s explaining why the park decided to breed a new hybrid dinosaur, Indominus Rex. The only way to increase profits and garner necessary corporate sponsorship is to make something bigger, badder, and louder.
Obviously, the line was not meant to escape unnoticed. Jurassic World is happy to explain a few times that you’re watching a bloated Hollywood remake, designed to wow your eyeballs and empty your wallet. You’re just like the faceless, nameless rubes in the movie that spilled their savings in an endless search for that next level of wonder, and who gawk and cheer at the spectacle. Some of them get eaten alive.
Jurassic World knows too much about its own flaws, and those of the machine that created it. When Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) declares that the massive, human-engineered Idnominus Rex is starting to figure out where it fits in the food chain, he seems to be talking about more than just the dinosaur. Likely the audience would have known by that point that the film had already laid waste to its competitors on opening weekend, devouring sales records. That only helped to drive the point home.
Yet, being subservient to the greater forces that created it is not enough; Jurassic World bows to Jurassic Park at every opportunity, too.
Early on, a conversation between Claire and control room technician Lowery Cruthers (Jake Johnson) about his Jurassic Park t-shirt and cluttered workstation stands in for an assumed real-world debate about the legitimacy of a sequel versus the original. Later, the two children (who we only know fleetingly – one of the more frustrating parts of the plot) discover the original welcome centre for the first Jurassic Park, including the remnants of the torn banner that unfurled from the ceiling in the first film’s final scene, and two of the original jeeps.
Those are only the most obvious. When blood drips down onto someone’s hand in Jurassic World, one drop goes one direction, and the second goes another, harkening back to Dr. Ian Malcolm’s – the gadfly chaotician – explanation of chaos theory in Jurassic Park. Speaking of which, Claire describes Lowery’s work area as “chaotic”, and his attempt to change one thing on it results in him almost spilling his large drink – another homage. And at least twice we see a book called “God creates dinosaurs” by Dr. Ian Malcolm. There is also a moment when a dinosaur is seen through a rearview mirror in hot pursuit of a vehicle.
And so on.
The most striking reference, however, is when Owen and Claire come upon a dying long-necked sauropod of some kind (a Brachiosaurus maybe). Again, just as the characters in Jurassic Park comforted an ailing Triceratops, Owen and Claire share a calm moment with the dying animal before a storm of activity hits. It’s a humanizing moment in both films, where the characters gain new perspective on what’s going on.
Prior to this point in Jurassic World, Claire is portrayed as an uptight technocrat who fusses over her presentation to money-grubbing corporate types, and sends her equally stiff assistant to watch over her nephews during their first visit to the park rather than spend time with them herself. We learn that she was never really one for kids. Crouched aside the dying dinosaur, Claire shows an emotion for the first time that isn’t fear or scorn – she experiences empathy with one of the living beings she’s helped create.
There's a reason Claire's epiphany happens when she actually touches a dinosaur. There is something to be said for the importance of the tactile, and the ability (or at least, for the audience, the perceived ability) to be able to reach out and touch something. Movies have always worked this trick. There's a reason we believe the urban legend that people dove out of the way the first time they saw a steam train barreled toward the camera. We understand the impact an image on such a giant scale has – not to mention the perspective it allows us. Movies make you feel present.
But, as it happens, this sense isn't all that common anymore at the cinema, despite the introduction of 3-D – in fact, if anything, 3-D works to undermine it. Modern movies, particularly action and adventure ones (with the notable exceptions, perhaps, of the new Bond movies, the Bourne trilogy, and the rebooted Batman series), tend to revel in the unreal, high-gloss fantasy realm of CGI. That’s a problem.
Alan Kirby writes that a feature of our ‘pseudo-modern’ culture is film that resembles a computer game, not least because so much of what we see is literally generated on a computer. It has changed how we create, and think about, films. “Where once special effects were supposed to make the impossible appear credible, CGI frequently [inadvertently] works to make the possible look artificial,” Kirby says. Cinema has “given cultural ground not merely to the computer as a generator of its images, but to the computer game as the model of its relationship with the viewer.”
In other words, it’s wholly virtual, in one of the simplest definitions: created via effects, but not existing in any actual form. There was plenty of CGI in the first Jurassic Park, too, and sure, Jurassic World has other moments where the humans touch the dinosaurs (though, in these instances, the animatronics are enhanced by cuts to computer-created shots). The difference is the first Jurassic Park put in time to build a world of which we were a part. It brought us from the one we know – where dinosaur bones are excavated from the ground – to the process by which long-buried remnants could create something new, to seeing that new something being born (and watching our heroes touch it), to wondering whether this amazing feat should have been performed, to, finally, running in terror. The CGI enhanced that experience; it wasn't the entire experience.
Jurassic World doesn’t bother with this. Knowing that it’s a replica, it doesn’t try to reestablish any of the authenticity of its original. It is merely but a copy, if slightly newer and shinier, and constantly eating itself.
So we’re never told why we should care about this world, except that we saw something similar once before. We’re deposited on an island we don’t really recognize, though we’re told we should because it’s the one we visited before. We follow characters that are never properly introduced, though we’re expected to identify with them because they are vaguely like others we knew. We’re shown dinosaurs that exist in the pursuit of profits.
Where in Jurassic Park, the human villain (Dennis Nedry) is driven by a human motivation (greed), in Jurassic World, the human villain – hot-head military man Vic Hoskins (Vincent D’Onofrio) – only seems to be there to foreshadow the inevitable sequel. If his presence were merely a plot device, it could be forgiven. But it’s not just a plot device; he’s there to offer comfort that further revenues will be generated from this franchise. They may as well have replaced him with a stock ticker, counting up profits.
It all combines to separate us from the film, and Claire and Owen touching the Brachiosaurus is not enough to bridge that void. Like almost everything else in the film, the moment is simple homage, and not much else.
Not long after they arrive at Jurassic Park, its creator, John Hammond, gathers his experts (and his lawyer) for lunch. They are still reeling from seeing the dinosaurs for the first time, and learning how they were created. Malcolm evaluates what they’ve seen.
“I’ll tell you the problem with the scientific power that you’re using here, it didn’t require any discipline to attain it,” he tells Hammond. “You read what others had done and you took the next step. You didn’t earn the knowledge for yourselves, so you don’t take any responsibility for it. You stood on the shoulders of geniuses to accomplish something as fast as you could, and before you even knew what you had, to patented it, and packaged it, and slapped it on a plastic lunchbox, and you’re selling it, you want to sell it.”
“I don’t think you’re giving us our due credit,” Hammond replies. “Our scientists have done things which nobody has ever done before.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Malcolm retorts. “But your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, that they didn’t stop to think if they should.”
Jurassic World commits the very error it explicitly warns against: it assumes dinosaurs don’t impress us anymore. Instead, it assumes we’re impressed that someone made a movie.