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Film Review: Jurassic World

Jurassic World (2015; Directed by Colin Trevorrow)

Steven Spielberg’s 1993 summer hit Jurassic Park is one of the unquestioned cultural monuments of neoliberalism. The first real Clinton Era blockbuster in both chronological and ideological terms, Jurassic Park put the artistic prowess of its populist director to work alongside the latest technology in practical and computer effects. It tapped the childhood id of dinosaur fanatics young and old while running the extinct prehistoric creatures through the monster movie playbook, with interludes of visual wonder, Hitchcockian suspense, and corporate satire sprinkled in as well. It was effective in creating thrills and profit and in crafting iconic cinematic moments (the towering Brachiosaurs, the T-Rex in the rain with its footfalls creating ripples in a water cup, the creeping Velociraptors in the kitchen).

But more than anything, Jurassic Park advanced the neoliberal project of cynically and ruthlessly exploiting science, nature, society, and people while maintaining the progressive pose of conscientious concern at the dangers of capitalist excess and hubristic overreach. Jurassic Park tut-tutted about science playing God while captivating audiences by doing basically that; it’s both pro- and anti-science, but that science, positive or negative, is always primarily at the service of capitalist greed. Like so many slick products of corporate Hollywood, it bemoaned corporate products as slick and dangerous, especially when they tinker with the primordial sublimity of the natural world. Jurassic Park was neoliberal to the core in its simultaneous embrace and disavowal of shiny American corporatism and all the advantages and setbacks that system entails; it was a purported corporate critique with its own instantly-recognizable corporate logo. And audiences gobbled it up like a Tyrannosaur swallowing a goat whole at feeding time.

Jurassic World is fundamentally also about neoliberal corporatism, and shares a central enlivening contradiction in relation to that prevailing system with the first film in the dinos-run-amok franchise (The Lost World and Jurassic Park III were not all bad, but they’re not much adored for a reason, too). Where Jurassic Park was a sort of pre-emptive strike against neoliberal hubris, an attempt to strangle it in its crib, Jurassic World revisits the inherent modern Prometheus warning fable of a modern theme park populated by genetically-cloned prehistoric beasts as a fully-formed, adult entity. The movie brings that entity crashing disastrously down in the best disaster movie spectacle tradition, of course, but again does so in a way that reinforces not only neoliberal capitalist imperatives but creeping traditional gender roles as well.

Jurassic World is set two decades after that initial “containment failure” at Isla Nublar off the coast of Costa Rica (actually mostly Kauai, Hawaii; those epic establishing shots of the Na Pali Coast could be nowhere else). After the dinos’ corporate overlords learned practical lessons but not grander moral or ethical ones from the series of disasters in previous films, a working, inescapably contemporary theme park featuring live dinosaurs has been opened to the public on the island, and is attracting paying hordes. The casual, tie-less, helicopter-flying CEO of the transnational corporation that runs Jurassic World, Simon Masrani (Irrfan Khan), has popped in for a visit, and is ushered around by the focused operations manager Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard). Claire’s nephews (Ty Simpkins and Nick Robinson) are also visiting, but she’s pawned them off on her assistant (Katie McGrath) because she’s too busy running a theme park full of living dinosaurs to, you know, take them for virgin margaritas at TGI Friday’s or whatever she’s expected to do with them. Meanwhile, rugged ex-Navy badass Owen Grady (Chris Pratt in Serious Face Mode) is training velociraptors to respond to his commands, which the military-industrial complex as represented by park security head Hoskins (Vincent D’Onofrio) believes may have huge potential in terms of weaponized application.

The initial expositional tour of the park facilities is conducted concurrently by Claire as she guides investors through the experimental labs run by Dr. Henry Wu (B.D. Wong, the sole cast carryover from previous films) and via the awestruck gaze of the Nephews, who seem fine checking out the attractions without her. As a critical aside, they do have names (Gray and Zach or some other such suburban nomenclature), but I see little reason to refer to the boys as anything but the Nephews. They exist in a virtual side-plot of their own most of the time, and are only very thinly characterized. The movie intermittently remembers that younger Gray is a science nerd but doesn’t employ that part of his personality in any useful way, while elder Zach likes texting and girls because what else would he like? They’re worried that their parents are divorcing and talk about Sticking Together as Brothers and endure an insufferable Jimmy Fallon cameo but are basically only here to be young and frightened and in peril because if you don’t have that in this franchise, Spielberg won’t send you a Christmas card, I suppose.

Anyway, Jurassic World is a Disneyworld/Universal Studios/Sea World/zoo/museum hybrid with hotel resorts, monorails, a toney retail and dining pedestrian mall, and a corporate-sponsored “Innovation Pavilion” with holographic exhibits and a statue of the first film’s grandfatherly visionary boss/case study in caution from hubris, John Hammond. Claire compares the whole venture to the space program and indeed it’s all run from a huge control room straight out of NASA, although that budget-strapped agency probably wishes it had access to the funding resources at play on the island. It’s a gleaming testament to all that neoliberal capitalism can accomplish, marshalling science and finance and tourism and generalized profit-seeking of all kinds to grand, lucrative effect, selling pre-packaged wonderment to the masses for a hefty fee.

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Raptors, you’re being very Un-Dude.

Of course, this must all come crashing down. The fox in this particular monetized henhouse is a specially-bred new super-attraction called Indominus Rex, a Frankenwu’s monster of a mega-predator with a dangerous mixture of genes, a high level of intelligence, and violent behavioural pathologies resulting from being raised in captivity. The product of focus group research as much as genetic experimentation, the beast busts out of its paddock and wreaks all sorts of havoc, leading to a panicked evacuation and a hyper-militarized containment effort while Owen, Claire, and the Nephews alternately run for their damn lives and try to eliminate the threat in whatever manner possible.

The Indominus Rex is a symbolic hybrid as well as a genetic one, a primordial refutation of man’s purported mastery over nature with mixed elements of Mary Shelley’s reanimated monster, Godzilla, and Melville’s great white whale at play. But it’s also associated very clearly and troublingly with Claire and her representation of modern femininity. The half-glimpsed introduction of the Indominus includes an observation by Masrani that it’s female and white in colour, and it’s impossible to miss that Claire is likewise decked out in an all-white outfit as he notes this. Jurassic World views both the confident, self-possessed professional woman and the genetically-engineered all-killing horror of the Indominus Rex as equivalent aberrations of nature. Claire has not seen her nephews in seven years and brushes them aside in favour of her professional duties; their mother does the same at the cost of her marriage, it’s implied, though she cares more deeply and maternally for her sons; the Indominus killed and ate its only family, a test-tube sibling. The inescapable message is that strong, independent females, be they human or dinosaurid, pose a danger to society when they discard their natural maternal instincts.

Claire’s narrative arc bends towards correct emotional socialization in this sphere, through teaming with the traditional male hero figure in the form of Owen (with whom she had a previous dalliance that is referred to in a cringe-worthy scene of swirling sexism between them), with his acrid stench of testosterone, to protect their makeshift family unit in the crucible of crisis. To Jurassic World‘s mild credit, this doesn’t happen in a manner precisely commensurate with traditional gender hierarchies, despite the anticipatory set-up. Claire is hardly a passive damsel in distress, sprinting away from therapods in heels (Claire wears the heels, not the therapods, although I like the image) and saving Owen from a vicious pterosaur with the butt and barrel ends of a rifle. Her formidability as a career-first woman transfers to a formidability in the milieu of action, it is implied; sprinkle in some belated maternal yearnings and you’ve got the perfect woman for a pack alpha like Owen.

The gestures towards traditional family connections in Jurassic World are ultimately as perfunctory as the movie’s critiques of neoliberal capitalism. The business and operational infrastructure of the theme park is a market-researched hybrid like the Indominus, a collaboration of corporate capital and administration, branded shopping, science and industry, and military contractors. It looks a lot like contemporary American capitalism, in other words, and all of it fails in concert to contain the “asset” when it gets out of control. This is a common contemporary perspective towards the power and authority of the neoliberal elite of Western democracies: just as assuredly as its buzzword bromides about consumer freedom and fulfillment mask exploitation and structural dissatisfaction, its professionalized expertise and mastery is frequently thrown into doubt by the basic unpredictability and unmanageability of our world.

Jurassic World visualizes this breakdown in a chaotic sequence on Jurassic Boulevard, as a flock of pterosaurs escape their domed aviary and descend predatorially on terror-stricken tourists (there’s a funny fleeting bit of one guy at an al fresco bar rushing to safety while carefully trying not to spill the tropical hi-balls in each hand which should not pass without mention). It’s a clear homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, an image of nature judging humanity’s trespasses from above and dispatching winged avengers as punishment. The attack of the birds in Hitchcock’s film has often been interpreted as being infused with vengeful maternal energies, an oedipal balancing on the part of the natural order when faced with the irruption of a strain of femininity whose motivations are other than biologically-grounded. There’s an element of that at play in Jurassic World‘s version of the scene, although the punished transgression of the natural order is on the part of corporate capitalism, of which transgressive modern femininity is couched as a mere symptom.

This interpretation is strengthened by the film’s tremendously silly but undeniably rousing climax, also set on that same half-destroyed commercial strip. Owen, Claire, and the Nephews team up with the lead raptor from the trained pack and a released T-Rex to bring down the rampaging Indominus at last. It’s a delirious fan-fiction turn in the Jurassic Park universe redolent of the popular rehabilitation of Kong or Godzilla as heroic figures rather than as destructive villains as per original intent, fulfilling geek wishes as the iconic classic dinos from the original film subdue the unnatural hybrid animal that has existed only in CGI design. It’s also suffused with the franchise’s own marketing iconography, as Owen and the Nephews shelter in a souvenir shop with logo merchandise surrounding them and nearly suffocating them.

Jurassic World carries thematic notes of anti-capitalism run through a natural order filter, but the conscientious viewer would be well-served to heed the words of D’Onofrio’s Hoskins, who characterizes even enlightened neoliberal capitalism as operating on the survival imperatives of the Darwinian jungle. The tentative family unit of Owen and Claire is also forged on the premise of mutual survival of that sort. In Jurassic World, the setting, premise, and featured creatures are both prehistoric and modern, and so are the thematic and metaphoric implications of socioeconomics, power, and gender roles.

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