One of the difficulties of sequels—or installments of franchises, to speak shudderingly, for all that it promises, in today’s parlance—has been the need to top the original. Usually, that means giving us more of what the original did even if not as well. With its title alone, Jurassic World, the fourth movie in the Jurassic Park series, seems aware of this. Not only has a park transformed into the world, but given the amusement park overtones of the film’s setting, one can’t help but think of Disney, which opened Disneyland in 1955 on a paltry 160 acres (the park itself occupied only about 60 of them) that has expanded over the years to about 500 acres, and Disney World in 1971, now covering over 27,000 acres.
Jurassic World continually nods to, and winks at, its status as a franchise—merchandise litters the visual landscape of the movie like errant facial hair at Burning Man. Even the premise of the movie comments on its own premise: faced with flagging attendance due to the public’s boredom with seeing the same old dinosaurs, scientists at Jurassic World create a new, more dangerous predator, the most dangerous ever seen—the Indominus rex. And here we are, sitting in the theater, just as the spectators at Jurassic World are, returning to a franchise we’d thought had expired in 2001 due to lack of interest, biding our time with the movie’s “plot” until the Indominus rex appears.
While we’re waiting, of course, it doesn’t hurt to see some other nastiness, appetizers for the main course, horrors d’oeuvres if you will, and Jurassic World serves them, mainly in the shape of a pack of velociraptors who are in the thrall of raptor-whisperer and former Navy man Owen Grady—the always quirky and charming Chris Pratt of Parks and Recreation—and a Shamu-like Mosasaurus, that leaps out of a water tank for fish treats, though the fish it gobbles up aren’t mackerel, they’re great white sharks.
That the Mosasaurus is intended to keep us occupied until the Indominus rex goes on its rampage is, unsurprisingly in such a self-reflexive movie, also underscored by action in the film. Ostensibly, the movie is about two adolescent boys, Gray and Zach Mitchell, who are sent to Jurassic World to be shielded from the horrible spectacle of their parents’ impending divorce. Once at the park, they’re to be watched over by their aunt Claire who, it turns out, is too busy to tend to them, so they’re left on their own. Zach, the older of the two boys who is showing an interest in girls, is bored at Jurassic World. Sitting at the Mosasaurus show, Gray excited about the prospect of seeing the marine dinosaur, Zach has his face glued to his smart phone until the Mosasaurus leaps from the tank and takes out most of the shark with one snap, his reentry into the water splashing just about all of the spectators. That got Zach’s attention, just as it got ours. Finally, some carnage.
It’s hard to know what to make of this relentless self-awareness. On one hand, it feels like satire—it uses its own status as film product to mock the very industry it’s a part of. But there’s the rub. Once old Indominus rex appears, the satire goes out the window and this becomes a conventional monster-on-the-loose movie, making the self-awareness come across a bit smug and cynical, as if the film were telling us, “Yeah, we know it’s stupid. We know you’ve seen it before. What are you going to do about it?”
Not a lot, I suppose, because as stupid and familiar as it is, there is something fundamentally satisfying about watching a giant monster run amok. I think it’s no mistake that the movies keep coming back to this formula, from King Kong to Godzilla to, well, Jurassic Park and all the other imitators, sequels, and remakes in between. The marauding dinosaur in Jurassic World is no different, though by this point the monster rampage has become a bit of cinematic comfort food. Still, it almost distracts one from the myriad of undeveloped or unpursued plotlines that abound in Jurassic World—the divorce has no presence after the beginning of the film and Zach’s interest in girls is just that. No development is needed apparently. Nor do we need to know much about Owen Grady except that he knows a lot about his little pack of velociraptors and moves through the world with the excited engagement of a boy playing out adventures in his backyard. It’s little wonder the Gray and Zach are drawn to him. Both have barely emerged from the world that Grady seems to occupy.
So if its lack of clarity about what its plot is—beyond the Indominus rex getting loose—as well as the screenwriting credit, which is attributed to four people, suggests a script written by committee, stitched together like Frankenstein, so, one could say, is the Indominus rex itself, made up of various traits from the scary dinosaurs of previous Jurassic Park films, out-of-control and come to attack its creator, much as this movie seems to want to do to those sitting in the Cineplex, who want to be shaken awake but, like Zach Mitchell, don’t want to take the energy to do it themselves.