Summer is the time of the year that the culture industries dust off their old properties and take them for a spin to see if they still handle like they used to. Typically they don’t: sequels rarely garner the same enthusiasm, from critics or audiences, as successful originals.
Everyone knows this, so there’s something shameful about sequels, in spite of those rare cases when a fictional universe or charismatic character begs for further treatment. They reveal our cultural system as rooted in a craven search for profit, and insist on a certain level of cynical complicity from audiences. That Bernie’s corpse is fresh enough for another weekend requires some suspension of disbelief. (How you deal with this is up to you; I noticed quite a bit of booze smuggled into the theater for Furious 7.)
A plotline or relationship between characters can only be stretched so far before things begin to pull apart, producing a creeping sclerosis in most film franchises. The traditions of completed films weigh heavily on their sequels. Expectations are built in. Previously successful formulas are repeated, and calibrated up.
But subsequent highs are always a pale shadow of the first. The thicket of storylines and character romances, the accumulated profits and viewers, the legacy of all that work of production and consumption expended on previous film installments — it begins to gum things up. And so there’s the predictable fall in the rate of enjoyment, and profits, for almost every film franchise.
Our era has come up with a fix for this problem, something appropriately Schumpeterian in this age of destruction, creative and otherwise: the reboot. A reboot clears away past plotlines to breathe fresh life into sagging properties. Like a sequel, it asks for complicity from the audience, but part of that complicity is a selective forgetting of past developments. Stay loyal, but only to the brand.
The Jurassic Park franchise has, in some ways, had an easier time at this. As monster movies, the characters’ stories matter much less than the specific methods by which they are devoured. The only real consistency is that dinosaurs, resurrected with genetic engineering to populate a theme park, manage to run amok in the present day.
The first three films had little connection to one another narratively, allowing for a more flexible accumulation of sequels. This means that the fourth installment, Jurassic World, ends up somewhere between a sequel and a reboot: a shiny new cast and setting, but with self-conscious invocations of the glory of two decades past from which it struggles to extricate itself.
It’s an incredibly self-conscious film, in fact, eager to make the analogy between the spectacle of an amusement park and the spectacle of a summer blockbuster apparent to anyone unfamiliar with Disney World. “Consumers want them bigger, badder, with more teeth,” proclaims the exasperated operations manager Claire, describing the new asset class of super-dinos. It’s a line that could have been snatched from a meeting with a studio executive.
No one’s impressed at the sight of a Tyrannosaurus devouring a tethered goat (an actual park attraction pulled from the original film) after they’ve seen it a few times. The oodles of obnoxious product placements are waved away with this kind of snark: one character jokes that the bigger, badder dinosaur, the Indominus Rex, should be named Pepsi-saurus. I wonder how much Pepsi coughed up for that line.
If Jurassic World the theme park stands in for Jurassic World the major motion picture, then we’re faced with an uncomfortable situation. The park’s attendees represent us, the audience, and so our desires, communicated through focus groups and attendance figures, are implicated in the park’s disaster at the claws of I-Rex.
While I don’t think the audience is made out to be fascistic, as Christian Thorne suggests about Inglourious Basterds, there’s more than a little contempt for the hapless spectacle-consumers who are set upon by pteranodons (one guy deftly balances a couple margaritas as he flees). Director Colin Trevorrow makes this explicit in an interview with Entertainment Weekly:
We’re surrounded by wonder and yet we want more. And we want it bigger, faster, louder, better. And in the world of the movie the animal is designed based on a series of corporate focus groups. Like in the same way a lot of movies are. They sit a bunch of people down and they ask them, “What can we do to make the dinosaurs more entertaining for you? What would make you tell a friend to come to Jurassic World?” And their answer is, of course, “We want to see something bigger, faster, louder, more vicious; we want a killer.” And they get what what they ask for.
And it’s Trevorrow who gives it to us. That’s a lot of dissatisfaction from a novice director who got one of the most successful film of all time handed to him on a platter by Spielberg himself. Maybe Manohla Dargis is right, and it has something to do with the master’s outsized influence.
It’s a bit odd that Trevorrow goes on about the I-Rex being “synthetic” and “abominable.” After all, a character points out that all the dinosaurs are mutants created in decidedly synthetic ways. Or as Alan Grant says in Jurassic Park III, “What John Hammond and InGen did at Jurassic Park is create genetically-engineered theme-park monsters. Nothing more, and nothing less.” I wish, in our organic-obsessed times, we had been allowed to linger on the question of intervention in nature. Instead we’re hustled along to a shaky romance plot.
The performances are game but underwhelming. Chris Pratt hasn’t quite conquered his tendency to look like he’s going to burst into giggles in every scene, and Bryce Dallas Howard struggles to inject a bit of charm into a stereotypical frigid career-woman character.
Irrfan Khan got the only really interesting role as Simon Masrani, the park’s CEO. He seems modeled after Richard Branson — suit, no tie — a cool, compassionate capitalist, the kind of executive who interrupts revenue reports to ask whether the animals are happy. Jurassic Park was, at bottom, about the hubris of such rich dreamers (“a Herzog film for kids,” mused a friend).
Since the park is actually off the ground in this installment, I anticipated seeing a struggle between Masrani’s desire to appear down to earth and his fated role to pursue the park’s success, even as things start to go wrong — the contradictions of being, as Marx put it, “capital personified.” In fact, the irony of having a personal aesthetic of authenticity and integrity combined with a duty to deliver craven special effects thrills might have given Trevorrow an opportunity for self-reflection on his own creative role.
Instead, things go in a different, more rote, direction. After briefly indicting the audience and hinting at the absurdity of being a compassionate capitalist, the film swivels to introduce the real villain: private military contractors, who want to weaponize the dinosaurs.
It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, although the military’s got the budget to try to weaponize pretty much anything, including dolphins. More troubling, it plays like a PG-13 version of one of Hollywood’s most acclaimed sequels, Aliens, with all the sanitized action that implies. And there’s not a lot of room for moral questioning of these matters: the realm of freedom begins only where the realm of velociraptors ceases.
This is where things get a bit muddled, ideologically (or maybe more interesting, depending on your perspective). Initially, abominations like Indominus Rex are the fault of lazy, uncultivated audiences wanting cheap thrills. It is we who are guilty of the atrocities perpetrated in the name of wholesome dinosaur-oriented entertainment.
But then, suddenly, this is no longer true. It isn’t focus groups who created the homicidal beast, but military contractors working in secret, just waiting to snatch up some of these precious embryos. What initially appears to be the monstrosity of consumer demand is revealed as just another military prerogative.
It’s pretty well documented that the military and the CIA lend a heavy hand to film production — our spectacles are more or less open propaganda. What could be a more appropriate allegory for our own shameful times, when each new invasion is announced like a stale sequel, a fait accompli lightly repackaged for an audience who expected to consume it loyally, if a bit cynically?
If only Jurassic World were brave or clever enough to escape this pen, instead of resigning itself to lumbering along.