Saturday, 18 July 2015

Jurassic World Sucked - Here's Why

Jurassic World Sucked.

(Here's Why)

I recently had occasion to Jurassic World, the first new movie in over a decade in the Jurassic Park film franchise, and one that in many ways serves as an homage to the original.

While it was overall an entertaining experience, in many ways the movie, well, sucked. In thist post, I'll explain why.

Because the movie is still relatively new, I should note that this post therefore has a

Spoiler Alert!!

The rest of my explanation, in which I cover why the film sucked, and those things it did well all the same, is below the fold.

(A Note on the "She-ness" of Dinosaurs: So far as I recall, the dinosaurs in Jurassic World, like those of Jurassic Park, were deliberately all engineered to be female. (One hopes that Dr Wu and his team were able to correct the erroneous DNA patching that allowed breeding among the dinosaurs in the first film.) As such, whenever I refer to a dinosaur (or flying/swimming reptile) individually, I shall use female pronouns.)

I'm not going to go over the problems with dinosaur science in Jurassic World: plenty of palaeontologists already have. Rather, I'm going to discuss some problems with the story.

What Sucked

Apart from the scientific suckiness (which the script waved off, not-quite adequately, with some of Dr Wu's lines when he argued in defence of his, shall we say, creative decisions with respect to engineering the movie's dinosaur antagonist, Indominus rex. (1)), the big story problems can be summed up as follows:
  • Owen Grady (Chris Pratt's character) was unimaginably incompetent in a manner which was completely at odds with his "dino savvy" character.
  • The Indominus rex was a ridiculous caricature of a "super"-dinosaur, rather than a terrifyingly plausible monster.
  • The park owner was inexplicably allowed to fly a helicopter into potential danger (mere days, if one recalls, after becoming licensed to fly helicopters at all).
  • Vic Hoskins, the human antagonist, was insufficiently antagonistic.
  • The Mitchell brothers were almost superfluous.

Let's examine these in more detail:

Owen Grady, Careless Buffoon

In scene showing that Owen Grady (the character portrayed by Chris Pratt) is "the raptor whisperer", training the Jurassic Park-style velociraptors, he shows a pretty good presence of mind with respect to dinosaur safety. "Don't turn your back to the cage," he warns the newest member of the raptor handling team, after saving him from being ripped to shreds.

In other words, Owen is supposedly possessed of a keen awareness of the dangers of dealing with dinosaurs (particularly predatory dinosaurs), and likely has the good sense not to just wander into a dinosaur paddock.

Yet not long after, when Claire (the park's operations manager) takes him to see the Indominus Rex and they find it doesn't turn up on their thermal imaging (along with ominous claw marks on the wall), he up and marches into the paddock without first verifying that she had, in fact, escaped.

While granting that sometimes people make blunders of similar magnitude in real life, there's a reason why the saying "truth is stranger than fiction" exists. What's more, when Claire and park owner Mr Masrani visit the Indominus paddock, there's a whole construction crew on site, beefing up the paddock, who could have witnessed an attempted (or successful) escape, as could have the local paddock supervisors (who would, I assume, have not been so deaf or blind as to miss a great dirty dinosaur climbing up the paddock wall. (2)

Despite all these considerations, we're expected to believe that Owen could not only be so foolish as to waltz into the paddock, but he could convince two other personnel to go in with him.

One might defend this plot decision as a way of showing off the cleverness of Indominus, but that leads to to reason number two of suckiness.

Indominus Rex, Supervillain

While in previous Jurassic Park films, all the dinosaurs were just, well, being dinosaurs, in Jurassic World the Indominus rex wasn't a dinosaur so much as she was a supervillain that happened to look like one. (Owen even says as much, with his line "That thing out there... That is no dinosaur.")

Just add some greenish feathers, and she'd be a dead ringer. They both have in common the nihilistic impulse to destroy. (Image credit Warner Bros.)

While Dr Wu is able to defend Indominus' camouflage capability (courtesy of cuttlefish DNA) and thermal concealment (courtesy of tree frog DNA), not even he can manage to explain the following:

1. Indominus takes a direct blow to the body (or possibly the knee, I can't quite recall) by an ankylosaur's massive tail club. Such a blow would have inflicted fierce damage on her, quite likely crippling her (even fatally so). Unless, perhaps, she had adamantium reinforcement in her skeleton, à la Wolverine from X-Men. Her rampage would definitely have been less impressive, what with her either hobbling and having trouble breathing (possibly with blood filling a lung), or being stuck in place courtesy of a smashed leg.

It's not that Indominus couldn't have won a fight with an ankylosaur: it's that she wouldn't last for long after getting her ribcage or leg smashed in by one.

2. Indominus lays waste to, more or less, an entire herd of apatosaurs. Here the scriptwriters ignored the kind of defences that adult sauropods possessed. A typical apatosaur is suggested to weigh anywhere from 16 to over 30 tons. By comparison, an adult tyrannosaurus rex, by more modern reckoning, has a mass topping out around 5 tons, although charitably we could say that 8-9 tons are possible (and are consistent with older estimates, matching those around the time of Jurassic Park).

In the film, Indominus is pretty close to the size of the tyrannosaur she later fights, so figure she's anywhere from 5 to 8 tons, say. At best, she's half as heavy as a small adult apatosaur. And there she is, by herself, taking on a herd of the things. Apatosaurs are hardly defenceless: their whip-like tails can cause fatal damage to attackers, and like almost all other sauropods, they are large enough to crush pretty well any predator beneath them.

The dangers of attacking herds of adult sauropods were hardly unkown to predators, who resorted to pack hunting and picking on the weak (the young, elderly, or sick) to bypass them. Indominus, supposedly grown without any of the benefits of what passes for theropod socialisation or experience in hunting much larger animals, would more likely have fallen afoul of the apatosaurs' formidable defences than slaughtered an entire herd of the things.

3. Indominus is supposedly so vicious and murderous as a result of her prolonged isolation (Owen is incensed that the only positive relationship she has had, he alleges, is with the crane supplying her food after moving into the paddock and eating her sister). She is isolated and anti-social, having missed on most of the opportunities she might have had for socialisation with other theropods (insofar as tyrannosaurs congregate in packs). Yet somehow she knew how to communicate with the velociraptors and turn them, temporarily, against Owen (and Hoskins' security team). Was she an evil genius? Did I miss a "Snidely Whiplash" 'stache or white cat?

To be fair, Indominus and the cat probably have a lot in common. (Image credit Eon Productions)

I suppose you could object here, pointing out that Indominus' "conversion" of the raptors was required for them to briefly turn against the humans. But the film showed that they still, fundamentally, viewed humans generally as prey (witness their treatment of both Owen and the "new guy" in their paddock early on), and could easily have been spooked or angered when the humans opened fire on Indominus, turning on them as a result, without requiring the socially-deficient Indominus to inexplicably be able to take over as "pack boss".

4. After escaping, her driving ambition, it seems, was to head for the Concourse/Visitor Centre/Main Street of the park. The script justifies this by virtue of her ability to detect body heat. However, it's not clear how, exactly, she was supposed to be able to see the concentration of people's body heat from the considerable distance between her paddock and Main Street. Nor is it clear why she would be so single-mindedly motivated to get there after having gorged on two people shortly after her escape. (Two adult males constitutes, more or less, the equivalent of four days' worth of eating for a dinosaur her size.)

5. She was depicted as having recalled where her subcutaneous transponder was located, clawing it out to set up an ambush of the security team sent to incapacitate her. But this raises the question - how would she know where it was? Was she awake when it was implanted? If so, who the hell would want to implant it? Not only is this a bizarre overestimation of Indominus' mental acuity, it was also under-used subsequently in the plot: her path towards Main Street was, it seems, charted well enough without the transponder on the island map.

It seems to me that a more plausible means of disabling the transponder (which, in fairness, if left active would have made it too easy to track her) could have been injury to the part of her body containing it when she made her escape (say, when she bust through the door of her paddock).

6. Less fatal to the film's characterisation of Indominus, but still an annoyance: what about all the glass and metal she bit into or ate? While tyrannosaurs could crush bone with their teeth (and presumably digest it safely), large chunks of glass or metal could still cause problems if swallowed, up to and including causing her to bleed out internally when they shredded her stomach or intestines.

(The reason I say this is less fatal is that it's quite plausible she didn't swallow chunks of glass or metal large enough to present such a hazard, at least based on my recollection. But I won't rule it out as a problem with the way she was presented.)

The bottom line is that Indominus' menace was thoroughly overwrought. She could have been brought down to Earth a peg and still presented a threat serious enough to force the evacuation of the park, especially after the velociraptors went rogue. (For starters, her ability to camouflage herself both visually and thermally would have made her a fearsome ambush hunter.)

Simon Masrani, Executive Pilot

If there is one decision more inexplicable than Owen Grady's decision to enter the Indominus paddock, it's park owner Mr Masrani's decision to personally fly the helicopter out to find and kill Indominus.

I mean, heads of state (or private-sector equivalents) out on the frontline had precedent, a long time ago. In the early 21st century? Not so much. Where were Mr Masrani's people reminding him that the park damn well had its own helicopter pilots? (For that matter, if the park Asset Containment Unit - the security team with the unenviable job of stopping rogue dinosaurs - didn't have its own pilot crew, why the hell not?) Supposing he insisted, out of a sense of personal responsibility, they could remind him that if he had to be held to account for Indominus, it would be in the civil or criminal trials that would inevitably follow the disaster at the park.

One might defend the screenwriters for getting him out of the way in order to make room for Hoskins' takeover of park operations, but it hardly required such a boneheaded move. He could have agreed to evacuate early on (after, say, the failure of the Asset Containment Unit to stop Indominus), or even acceeded Hoskins' request for operational control after the pterosaurs terrorised Main Street. (3)

Speaking of Hoskins...

Vic Hoskins, Superfluous Antagonist

The character of Vic Hoskins was clearly set up as a sort of antagonist: determined to demonstrate the military potential of dinosaurs (you might say he was in favour of "weaponising" them) despite Owen's objections, in cahoots with Dr Wu (a point which could have been elaborated further), and seemingly gleeful during the entire crisis, up until his own demise.

But Hoskins never actually does anything consistent with the role of an antagonist. While he does take over operational control of the park in the aftermath of Masrani's death (and during Claire's extended absence), it's hardly a "dick move": as the head of InGen security he could easily justify the action in light of the crisis situation. (I have above already suggested that Masrani could just as easily have granted Hoskins control.)

While Hoskins is said to be the one who comes up with the idea of sending the velociraptors out to track down Indominus, it could just as easily have been Owen (or fellow raptor handler Barry).

The closest Hoskins ever gets to playing the role of antagonist is when he discloses his ambitions for "military-grade" dinosaurs, as it were.

I think Hoskins was badly used as a quasi-antagonist. In my view, he could have been left out of the story entirely (allowing more time to develop Owen, or Claire, or Gray or Zach, her nephews) with little or no loss.

Alternately, he could have been made into more of a genuine antagonist, by arranging a "demonstration" of Indominus rex's capabilities. In Jurassic Park, the crisis erupts not because of incompetence, but because of sabotage; Dennis Nedry shutting down park security in order to steal dinosaur embryos for an aspiring competitor. Jurassic World could have had a similar origin for the crisis, without being too derivative, by means of Hoskins sabotaging the Indominus paddock security (perhaps by hacking it, as a demonstration of the vulnerability of the high technology he scorned in his speech to Owen early on in the film), with a view to making InGen piles of money in the profitable side venture of breeding dinosaurs for war.

The way Hoskins is presented in the film - in particular the way he seemed to be positively giddy at the chaos unfolding - such a move seems to me consistent with his character. It might also have made his scenes with Dr Wu make more sense - Dr Wu could have creatively interpreted the direction given him by Masrani, with respect to engineering Indominus, with some guidance from Hoskins.

In this view, showing off Indominus by effecting its escape and the subsequent crisis could plausibly have been too great a temptation for a more villanous Hoskins, who would hardly want her potential (as a prototype, if not as a "production-run" weapon) permanently wasted as a mere theme park attraction.

Mitchell Family Matters

I should like to say that if there is one thing Jurassic World did better than the original, it's the backstory/development it gave to the featured children, Zach and Gray Mitchell, as compared to Lex and Tim Murphy. (A good example would be their discussion of their parents' apparent plans to divorce.)

However, all the same it felt to me like they didn't get enough time on screen, nor were their personalities all that fleshed out. In fact, they felt positively superfluous.

(One particularly vexing detail was how often Gray was trying to see what was going on, despite their possessing VIP passes - would there not have been, say, a VIP area at each attraction allowing a comfortable view of the goings-on - like a box or suite, of the sort one might find in an arena? If I'm charging buckets of money for a VIP pass at a dinosaur theme park, that's the kind of perk I would add.)

In my view, the Mitchells could have been given more time on screen, whether by writing out Hoskins (assuming his character wasn't also revised), or by extending the movie a few minutes. As little development as Tim and Lex received in Jurassic Park, at least you didn't get the feeling that their storyline could have comfortably been written out of the film without much loss. As better-developed characters as the brothers Mitchell were, you did (or at least I did) get that very feeling.

What Was Cool

While the cool features of the film were insufficient to rehabilitate it from summer blockbuster mediocrity, they prevented it from being atrocious. (A resounding endorsement, I know.) Again, I will quickly summarise them, then go into more detail:

  • The tyrannosaurus was (literally) a veteran of the first film.
  • The homage, mid-film, paid to the original Jurassic Park.
  • Excellent meta-use of product placement.
  • Jimmy Fallon.
  • Trained theropods.

The Grand Old Dame of the Island

From this... (Image credit Amblin/Universal)

... to this. Only, you know, still a tyrannosaur. (Image credit ITV)

Towards the end of the film, it's strongly hinted that the tyrannosaur that Claire draws out of her (the tyrannosaur's) paddock to try and fight Indominus is none other than the tyrannosaur from the original film. (And by "strongly hinted", I mean to say that the only way to be more obvious would have required her to stomp out of the paddock holding a sign with words to the effect of "Remember me?")

As such, you almost have to consider her something of a grand old dame of the island, fondly recalling the days when she was tromping through visitor centres, free to eat whatever she pleased (including "that one time, when I ate a lawyer"), before all those whippersnappers came back and ruined it by building a new park. On the plus side, Alan Grant's complaint notwithstanding, getting fed goats on a regular basis probably beats the hazards of trying to hunt herds of (often quite dangerous) prey. You don't see tigers turning up their noses at meals at the zoo, do you?

And it was a nice homage to the end of Jurassic Park, having the grand old dame herself proclaim the triumph - yet again - of dinosaurs, standing on the abandoned control centre and facing the abandoned Main Street. (Although, it was a triumph made possible by human incompetence, much like human corruption made it possible in the first film.)

The only thing that could have made the tyrannosaur's cameo (as it were) better would have been to remove the gimmicky intervention of the mosasaur (a deus ex mosasaur you might say) at the end of her fight with Indominus, leaving the laurels of victory at her feet (and at those of her unlikely velociraptor ally).

Speaking of homages...

The Old Park

One thing I quite liked was the brief visit the Mitchell brothers, then Owen and Claire, made to the overgrown ruins of the visitor's centre from the original Jurassic Park.

What can I say? It pandered to my sense of nostalgia in just the right way.

Product Placement

I do not mean to suggest that product placement can't be obnoxious or pernicious in other contexts, but in Jurassic World quite a good deal of the product placement made perfect sense "in-universe", as it were. (Not all of it did, of course. But much did.)

Let's face it, in the 21st century, the kinds of corporate partnerships, sponsorships, exclusivity deals, and the like would naturally be part and parcel of a major tourist attraction. Especially one whose operating expenses include trying to feed and care for dinosaurs. (One imagines that feeding, say, the mosasaur, or cleaning up and disposing of ton after ton of sauropod feces daily, doesn't come cheap.)

The not-so-proverbial shit-ton... of, well, shit. (Image credit Amblin/Universal)
Starbucks, Pandora Jewellery, and Jimmy Buffet's Margaritaville (no, really!) in the park's Main Street retail/restaurant area? Why not?

The idea that companies, institutions, or fabulously wealthy individuals might be given sponsorship title as a reward for investing in the park also makes a great deal of sense. (I'm kind of curious, however, how Verizon ended up getting named in-movie as the potential sponsor for Indominus rex. Did their marketing person piss off a studio executive? Lose a bet? Draw the short straw? Offer an insultingly low pittance?)

(Image credit Verizon) Nothing says "Verizon Wireless" like...

... a genetically-engineered "super-weapon" dinosaur...
... that slaughters everything it encounters, am I right? (Previous & this image credit Amblin/Universal)

And, as the Washington Post article discussing the subject notes, including actual brands helps ground a film, adding plausibility and versimilitude.

Brands are all around us, after all, so it only makes sense that in what is meant to be a contemporaneous film, that brands be all around the characters. Yes, it was overdone in many respects - Samsung and Mercedes-Benz, in particular, are guilty of product placement overreach - but quite often the product placement was on the nose.

Jimmy Fallon

Because Jimmy Fallon, that's why.

Trained Dinosaurs
I quite like the concept explored in this film of training dinosaurs, as Owen Grady does with the utahraptors - I mean velociraptors (4). Social dinosaurs, such as herd-dwelling herbivores or pack-dwelling carnivores, could quite plausibly imprint on humans as their mother figures, and from there be trained. (One considers the immature triceratops allowing children to ride their backs, for example.)

One could argue about the specific pack structure the story gave to the raptors, taking into account their all being female and raised by humans, but the concept of trainable dinosaurs was a cool concept, and one of the reasons why the film was an entertaining disappointment, instead of a disaster.

The Final Word

So, now you see what, in my view, made Jurassic World suck, and what mercifully prevented it from being a total pit of suck. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it's been a bit wordy.

All that fancy-pants analysis aside, when it comes down to it, it seems to me that what Jurassic World was missing, more than anything else, and which would have held it back from cinematic excellence even if its other flaws were addressed, was an earnest sense of wonder. For all its flaws (and there are many), the original Jurassic Park film was able to convey, however briefly, the sheer wonder of encountering real, live dinosaurs.

What Jurassic World missed was an "It's... it's a dinosaur!" moment.

I'm not sure that it was possible for Jurassic World to have that moment, but - and I think this stands as the most damning testament to the film's cinematic weakness - I don't think the filmmakers even bothered to try.


(1) Dr Wu in the films is a lucky, lucky man. His character in the original Jurassic Park novel is eviscerated by the velociraptors, and spends his dying moments with a raptor eating his guts.

(2) Come to think of it, why didn't they have the ability, in the control room of the Indominus paddock, to check the location of her subcutaneous transponder? Why leave that capability solely in the hands of the main park control room?

(3) It's not clear why, but it seems like most, if not all, of the pterosaurs that escaped the Aviary headed straight for Main Street for the purpose of terrorising the people evacuated from the rest of the park. Given the scientific problems with the pterosaur attack, it's a stretch but I guess one could justify it in part by explaining that the Main Street area was closest to the ocean (and hence to the pterosaurs' likely preferred food - fish).

(4) It's hard not to harp on this point, especially now that it's clear that not only were they much smaller than presented in the films, but also feathered.

The small one, numbered '4', is velociraptor. Doesn't look quite the same as in the movies, does it? (Image credit Nerdist)

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