“When We Have Control Again…”

by Matthew Cabe

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(Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures)

Like the Indominus Rex, Jurassic World’s latest attraction, Chris Pratt is a hybrid.

He’s part Dr. Alan Grant, part Dr. Ian Malcolm, and part Robert Muldoon. He’s also part Owen Grady, which means he’s not as awestruck as the paleontologist, not as smart as the chaos theorist, and more sympathetic to the preservation and quality of dinosaur life than the game warden. This is a credit to his talent and charm, both of which previously eluded me.

These characteristics turn Pratt into a tidy bundle of signifiers that help discern what Jurassic World is: a competently rendered pastiche that isn’t as awestruck (or awe-inspiring), isn’t as smart, and, oddly, is and is not more sympathetic to the preservation and quality of dinosaur life than Jurassic Park.

The result should be a lousy movie. But Jurassic World’s self-awareness makes it the next best thing to it’s, uh, indomitable predecessor, and as it works tirelessly to undermine its grandeur, it paradoxically becomes more and less successful than both Jurassic Park and Jurassic Park.

It’s one of the more postmodern films of 2015, and the most ambitious in that regard of the major studio releases. It’s also a movie that struggles to justify its own existence and, as a result, attempts suicide at every turn. Eventually, it succeeds.

22 years after Dr. John Hammond’s disastrous experiment on Isla Nublar, Jurassic World is open and doing relatively good business. Somehow control has been regained. Hammond’s InGen Technologies was bought out in 1997 by Simon Masrani (inconsistently portrayed by Irrfan Khan), the CEO of Mascom, a corporation that’s damn near the top of Forbes’ Fortune 500 list.

Masrani, like Hammond, is a populist who found a way to make the theme park affordable for the general population. This was achieved primarily through corporate sponsorship. The main thoroughfare is littered with eateries and gift shops the average viewer will know well. Leasing these establishments must’ve cost the corporations more than a pretty penny, thus allowing a slightly less than astronomical price for admission. It’s plausible, too, that the park simply has a coupon day.

Also littered throughout the park are references to the now laid-to-waste work done by Hammond and his team all those years ago. A tram carries passengers through a familiar gate. There’s a bronze statue of Hammond and holograms of dinosaurs (the poison-spitting Dilophosaurus among them) in the new Visitor Center.

Mr. DNA is present, as is Dr. Henry Wu (BD Wong) the InGen geneticist who brought the original dinosaurs to life. Oh, and the Tyrannosaurus Rex, like, the same one, is back along with her diet of goat meat.

But attendance is unsteady at Jurassic World after a full decade in operation. People are no longer wowed by the mere presence of Brachiosauri or Triceratopses. According to Bryce Dallas Howard’s character, Claire Dearing, the park’s operations manager who shows symptoms of OCD and a Spielbergian loss of childlike wonder, “People want more teeth.”

This is a very meta move by director Colin Trevorrow (Safety Not Guaranteed), who was aware that like the park’s attendees, moviegoers, too, would want more teeth.

So Dr. Wu and his colleagues cook up the Indominus Rex, a highly intelligent hybrid that’s got a little bit of the T. Rex, tree frogs, and cuttlefish tossed into its genetic makeup, as well as some secret stuff Dr. Wu refuses to divulge. The result is a camouflaging, bloodthirsty psychopath with the memory of an elephant and a penchant for showcasing its dominance.

Concerned by the I. Rex, Masrani asks Pratt’s Owen, a Velociraptor domesticator, to report on the security of the new animal’s enclosure. Owen is rightfully wary. It’s not long before the modified predator literally tricks the humans into inadvertently setting her free.

At this point the plot of Jurassic World becomes a mirror image of Jurassic Park. There’s the search for lost children, played by angsty Nick Robinson and mop-headed Ty Simpkins, respectively. There’s the ill-fated plan to return the park to working order, and the obligatory banter concerning man’s need to play God with little regard for the consequences.

There’s a love angle that’s in dire need of the two’s company, three’s a crowd tension of the original. And there’s even a scene in which the good ol’ T. Rex is lured by a flare, this time to a showdown with the I. Rex, an unavoidable metaphor for the unavoidable battle that will be waged over the merits of this film versus those of Steven Spielberg’s 1993 classic.

Spoiler alert: Spielberg wins. With a little help.

Two subplots never bolstered the film’s chances. One involves a divorce. The other involves more pilfering of dinosaur DNA. Both are ridiculously unnecessary.

But there is much to admire, too. The real joy is picking up on the homages not just to Jurassic Park, but to a slew of other movies. Jaws, Deep Blue Sea, The Birds, Birdemic, King Kong, Godzilla, and, lest we forget, two nods to the Spinosaurus from Jurassic Park III. Jurassic World knows it’s lineage.

It’s the nods to Jurassic Park, however, that are the most rewarding for audiences and for the film itself. Some are slyly subtle. Others are as subtle as a brisk slap across the face. These references work to remind us just how awesome Jurassic Park was and continues to be. As if we needed reminding. But they also prove that Jurassic World understands this truth and isn’t here to piss off any purists; it just wants to have a good time.

The most nostalgic geeks will appreciate Jake Johnson’s character purchasing an original Jurassic Park t-shirt on eBay for $150 and wearing it to work (a choice that is deemed insensitive by Claire, his boss), the return of Dr. Ian Malcolm in book form, a ritualistic burning of the “WHEN DINOSAURS RULED THE EARTH” banner, and a Jimmy Buffett cameo, which isn’t nostalgic so much as it’s absurdly hilarious.

What results is a movie that, despite a valiant effort, becomes strangely original in its own campy way and suggests a great deal about the increasingly excessive nature of blockbuster entertainment. At the end of the day, it’s gratifying to watch Jurassic World lovingly wink at as it continually mimics a film and theme park that allowed for its very existence, as well as its inevitable extinction. 

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