“They’re dinosaurs. Wow enough.” – Jurassic World

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(full spoilers)

So, I‘ve been to Disneyland twice in my life.

The first time, during one of our first big family Summer holidays was amazing. My eight or nine year old brain was knocked clean out the side of my head by the rides, the displays, the merchandise, the technology, the sheer brandedness of the experience: even with that snazzy unfolding map (which I still have in a drawer somewhere) in your hand it felt like there was something crazy cool to discover around every corner and no way you could ever see it all (certainly not in the two days we spent there). I was absolutely floored.

The second time we went to Disneyland, a few years later…was pretty good too. It was cool to see how the attractions and shows had been tweaked and updated, to see the new additions and installations, and to revisit some of the features I’d really loved the first time.

I’m sure I had a lot of fun on that second visit, but somehow the memories from our first trip are ten times more distinct in my mind.

You can probably see where I’m going with this…

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Picking up twenty years after the original film, Jurassic Park has been reopened and rebranded as Jurassic World: after years of misfires and dino-massacres, John Hammond’s dream park is finally open to the public.

During what begins as a business-as-usual day at Jurassic World, park administrator Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) is struggling to fit time into her packed schedule to spend time with her visiting nephews (the kid from Iron Man 3 and the kid from Boardwalk Empire).

Oh, and Chris Pratt is also hanging around with his team of trained velociraptors to provide Sexual Tension, motorbike action scenes, and scowls.

Audiences have become slightly desensitised to the wonder of actual real dinosaurs resurrected from out of the depths of time, so the park’s marketing department have cooked up a new attraction: a genetic hybrid super dinosaur…which of course soon gets loose and starts chompin’ on people.

Jurassic World is, as you’d expect, a film that feels a lot like Jurassic Park. Like, a lot.

There’s a definite sense that the old formula is being tweaked and reworked, the old rides with shiny new exteriors:

There’s the two kids lost in the park, one a hormonal teen and the other a dino-obssesed little boy.

There’s the authority figure who really isn’t good with kids (or at least thinks they aren’t), and yet heads out to rescue them.

There’s a cool guy who’s got a better handle than most on what’s going on cos he understands chaos theory/ animal psychology.

There’s the kindly billionaire who’s a little bit wilfully blind about what his company actually does.

There are some comic relief computer nerds, and the skeevy corporate guy who wants to monetise the dinos/sell them to the Army.

The heroes connect with the dinosaurs/nature by nursing and bonding with a sick/dying herbivore dino.

At some point a big dinosaur breaks out of its paddock, and the group find themselves hunted by the giant predator, as well as by the littler, cleverer velociraptors.

It all comes to a head in the park’s main tourist area with a showdown between the raptors and the bigger dino, while the humans look on/make their escape.

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Okay, okay so the many similarities with the original Jurassic Park are obvious (you might even say it’s an unoriginal and predictable beat-for-beat retelling of a much better movie, but c’mon where’s the fun in that?)

So if we’re being charitable, what does Jurassic World do differently or add to the mix?

The first is a slightly meta twist: just as we as the audience aren’t as impressed by the CGI dinosaurs as we were in 1993, the visitors to the park have become desensitized to the wonder of dinosaurs being back in the world in the twenty years since they were first resurrected.

As Claire tells her investors/ the audience in her opening scene: “Let’s be honest: no-one’s impressed by a dinosaur anymore. Twenty years ago de-extinction was right up there with magic. These days, kids look at a stegosaurus like an elephant from the city zoo.”

It’s the Habituation Principle at work: the human brain is really good at paying attention to bad and potentially dangerous things, and pretty bad at having sustained attention for the nice, pleasing, wondrous things in life.

After a while you’ll tune out the feeling of comfort, but it’s very difficult to tune out pain. We become habituated to positive stimuli: give it a few months or years, and even the most wondrous things start to seem commonplace to us.

Quite cleverly, even the film’s structure works to play up our/the park-goers habituation and desensitization to the amazing things Jurassic World offers: The film-makers seem to go out of their way to intentionally make the park’s introduction seem slightly humdrum:

The kids have arrived on the island by the 3 or 4 minute mark and the iconic park gates are passed through in a split-second cut, with no dramatic pan up or rising instrumental score.

We pass through the most recognisable symbols of the park with literally no fanfare.

When the iconic score does finally fade up… it’s on a shot of the pool and resort area. Huh. It’s a nice view and all, but…huh.

I was a little phased by these choices at first, but in retrospect it’s a really clever way to play up and inspire in the audience the desensitisation/habituation that is so tied in with the film’s themes.

The Habituation Principle is something that evolved because if our ancestors had sat around admiring the wonders of nature, art and life all day, they could have failed to notice a passing predator, and been left as easy pickings.

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And speaking of predators, the big monster of this film is Indominus Rex, a giant genetically engineered super-hunter with a list of extra powers: camouflage, thermal vision, and the ability to control its body heat (that one turns out to be surprisingly important.) And it’s very, very intelligent.

The Indominus is presented as the disastrous outcome of A) the park designers attempts to commoditise nature and B) the audience’s habituation to the wonder of the original film’s dinosaurs.

As Claire says, “The park needs a new attraction every few years to reinvigorate public interest, kind of like the space program. Corporate felt genetic modification would up the wow factor.”

Just as the new monster-dino is added to the park to keep the public interested, the Indominus’ role in the film is to attract us, the audience, back to a film franchise that’s had better days. – “It’s like the T-rex from the first film, but it’s bigger and smarter and it’s got super-powers!”

The film’s monster is a literalisation of how desensitized we’ve all become to special effects creations in the last years.

So when it’s ultimately overcome by the “classic” dinosaurs – the returning stars that are the T-rex and raptors, it feels like the original wonder we felt at these creations (a mix of CGI and lots of practical effects work) is coming back to triumph over the current “make it bigger and cooler” totally CGI special effects blockbusters.

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Ok, technically the final kill actually goes to the Mosasaur, a new dino introduced in this film – but I’d actually argue that since it is an authentic dinosaur, it gets a pass.

Also, that first moment when the Mosasaur rears up out of the water, the first dinosaur we see in the film, it’s massive bulk filling the screen, was the only moment in Jurassic World that gave me the same sense of scale, the same almost-awed split-second thought: “Holy shit these things are massive and we’re tiny” that was such a part of the original film’s appeal for me.

If any of this new film’s creations represent a passing of the torch to a new generation of honest, wondrous, real-seeming and awe-inspiring dinosaurs, it’s the Mosasaur.

But back to our villain: In the early going, the film does a good job establishing its Frankenstein’s monster of a dinosaur (Franken-dine?) as a threat: that first “oh, shit it’s in there with them” trick/con it pulls is great, as is the “No, there’s five dinosaurs” reflected-teeth-in-the-glass shot.

But even though it’s menacing at first, the Indominus Rex starts to lose effect towards the end – I think because we never see it kill a named character.

By contrast, in the first film the T-Rex killed the slimy lawyer guy and (seemingly) Ian Malcolm, while the raptors killed Samuel L. Jackson’s character and Muldoon the “clever girl” guy. We knew those dinosaurs were a danger.

It would have been an appreciated twist if the Indo had killed Chris Pratt in the last reel, both to give its reputation as a killer a boost and to give Bryce Dallas Howard’s character a chance to step up and prove herself.

(Another strike against the Indomo’s rep? The kids shake off the trauma of their encounters with it really quickly. Like, comically quickly. Seconds after escaping the monster by jumping off a waterfall, their first encounter with deadly beast hunting them alone through the jungle, their reaction is “We jumped. Awesome!”)

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And speaking of Claire, she’s pretty clearly the protagonist: filling the Sam Neil role of the adult who’s no good with kids, but still goes out into the wilds to save them. Her arc is a fairly basic “chilly corporate lady learns to loosen up” story that doesn’t get much time to develop.

The big theme here is a contrast between nature and control: when the film opens Claire is a hyper-scheduled business type who doesn’t see the park’s dinosaurs as living animals but only as “assets”.

As things inevitably go wrong and she is repeatedly told things like “The key to a happy life is to accept you’re never actually in control”, Claire ends up shifting her perspective and conceptualising the dinos as animals – which gives her the idea of letting the t-rex out of its pen to fight off the Indominus.

(Another hint the film and Claire’s arc is all about control and its loss? The villain is literally named “Indominus” – as in, Latin for “uncontrollable.” – Also, that’s a terrible name for a dinosaur you really hope you can control. Seems like tempting fate…)

Claire’s move from cold/corporate/control-obsessed to maternal/natural/understanding-of-dinos/kissing Chris Pratt is kind of hilariously illustrated by her costume change over the course of the movie: when she rolls up her pure white blouse-dress and starts showing a bit of chest, we know she’s completed her character arc!

So in the end, Claire has accepted the uncontrollability of nature, and the old mostly-practical effects dinosaurs have triumphed over the shiny new genetically engineered CGI one. But more than that, we’ve revisited the plot-points and structure of the original film all over again: our metaphorical second visit to Disneyland.

Jurassic Park was a hugely formative movie for me, and I’m sure my memories of it will stick with me for a long, long time.

Not sure I can say the same for Jurassic World, though….

 

 

Stray Thoughts:

  • A fun nod to all the “Well actually, dinosaurs probably had feathers” articles of the last few years: “Nothing in Jurassic World is natural! We have always filled gaps in the genome with the DNA of other animals, and if their genetic code was pure, many of them would look quite different.”

 

  • Judy Greer is old enough for the “frazzled mother of teenagers” roles now? There’s none of us getting any younger…

 

  • “We have an attraction.” “That’s not what you said the last time I saw you.” – Heh.

 

  • Mister DNA had a cameo!!! So this film gets a 10 out of 10 from me.

 

  • “Think it’ll scare the kids?” “The kids? This’ll give the parents nightmares.” “Is that good?” “It’s fantastic.”

 

  • “Oh no, I have a boyfriend.” – okay, that’s a pretty funny joke. But didn’t they do the same joke with Lauren Lapkus’s character in Orange Is The New Black too? I guess that’s just her thing?

 

  • There’s a baby dinosaur petting zoo! Jaysus, those poor baby dinos, having toddlers pull and drag out of them all day long…

 

  • “Some people think that robots are the future. But nature gave us the most effective killing machines 75 million years ago. And now we know they can take orders.” – Sooo um, why aren’t armies using lions instead of drones in all our wars then?

 

  • “It can camouflage!!!” – stop shouting exposition and run, security guy!

 

 

About the Author:

A lifelong TV addict since his first episode of Sesame Street, Cian Sheppard works as an English teacher in Germany and thinks you look very nice today.

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About English Den

Experienced, qualified and professional English teacher working in Warsaw, Poland. Interested in pop culture, and using pop culture to teach languages. Available for private or in-business classes. International classes also available on Skype. Contact Cian.shep@gmail.com for further information.
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