Why I Feel Empty Watching Jurassic World
As of this writing, Jurassic World has surely crossed $600 million worldwide, so anything I say about what I felt like the movie got wrong can instantly be rebutted with a clearing of the throat. And I'll shrug and say, "Yeah, you're probably right." But I actually find myself in this position a lot--a movie that everyone seems to love that I felt empty during. It's hard to figure out after one viewing why that is, so I decided I would come up with a solution. And I started with the approach that I love Jurassic Park. So why don't I love "Same Thing Only Bigger Part 4?"
A little background on my experience with Jurassic Park: it was released June 11, 1993, which is 22 years and 1 day before Jurassic World. And 7 days before I started working at a movie theater--so June 18 has a weird "anniversary" or "birthday" feel for me. The movie that opened then? Last Action Hero, which was engulfed by Jurassic Park's second weekend. Starting out as an usher, I would walk into Jurassic Park many times over the course of its run and watch the scene where the T-Rex eats the lawyer...introducing myself to what became a favorite pastime of mine while I worked in movie theaters: crowd reaction. That scene never failed to draw gasps and uneasy laughter.
I have a bit of a hypothesis when it comes to movies like these, that when filmmakers make sequels or clones of something successful, they try to hit on all the high points people really liked from the first one, forgetting that there are other building blocks that make those moments truly pay off. A lot of it comes down to character.
In Jurassic World, there are virtually no characters you care about. There might only be one character you really care about and it's because you liked Chris Pratt on "Parks & Recreation" and Guardians of the Galaxy. Everyone else could get eaten by the dinosaurs and it wouldn't effect the story in the least. In Jurassic Park, most of the characters in the story would leave a significant dent if they got killed.
I'm going to compare the characters from Jurassic World with Jurassic Park, and I'm not saying that each character from World is a stand-in for each one in Park, but it's a simple illustration as to why Park's characters are more interesting and a more successful movie. And look, Park doesn't exactly have complex characters in any way, but they are good enough for a story involving, "Whoa look at those dinosaurs!"
I'll start with World's Bryce Dallas Howard, who is the second lead "Claire." I compare Claire most closely to Park's John Hammond (Richard Attenborough), mainly because on the very day the action hits, her nephews are coming in while she runs the park, much like Hammond's grandchildren did in the first one. What is it that Claire wants and needs? I don't know...she's a workaholic? What is it John Hammond wants and needs? He's starting a new business and he wants the people he brought out to his park to have their breath taken away. He wants everyone to have a transcendent experience. And his grandchildren end up being potential fodder for the entertainment complex he created.
Speaking of the grandchildren, Lex (Ariana Richards) and Tim (Joseph Mazzello) each function to turn Alan Grant (Sam Neill) around on the idea of kids, a source of tension between he and his girlfriend Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern). Tim's "thing" is he knows dinosaurs, something that's been copied with every kid in the Jurassic Park series, and World is no different in its depiction of Gray (Ty Simpkins).
Mainly, Tim is a mini-challenger to Grant, tearing down Grant's theories on dinosaurs and on kids in general. Gray hangs out with his brother Zach (Nick Robinson) and cries a little bit that their parents (Judy Greer and Andy Buckley, very briefly in the movie) are going to get divorced, all while evading Claire's couldn't-care-less assistant Zara (Katie McGrath).
Meanwhile, his older brother Zach is a teenager and is...really into girls. His counterpart in Park, Lex, is a "computer nerd" who has an amusing sibling rivalry with her younger brother. Lex and Tim's small roles and tiny bit of knowledge are important to the story. Gray and Zach's characters are simply "kids in peril," and because they never form a relationship with their aunt and their parents are off-screen most of the time...should they die, it will mean nothing. Even with the movie's beginning scene establishing the mother's relationship with her sister...it's not enough.
The human villain in this movie is Hoskins (Vincent D'Onofrio). He's the Dennis Nedry (Wayne Knight) of this movie, attempting to make huge bucks by taking dinosaurs off the island. Hoskins is a higher-up for the InGen crew, hoping to take Owen's (Chris Pratt) early-stage trained Raptors and sell them to the military. In Park, Nedry's motivation is clear and is the entire reason for the movie's plot--not paid to his satisfaction, he uses his position as a computer programmer to shut down safety features of the park while he attempts to smuggle dino embryos off the island. His motivations lead to all of the action onscreen.
Meanwhile, in World, Hoskins is going to take the Raptors, but then when the movie's big baddie Indominus rex starts wreaking havoc, he sees an opportunity to publicize their abilities before he takes them off the island. He is not responsible for the action at all...just a bad guy looking to capitalize on something that naturally happens anyway. There's a line in Jurassic World when someone yells, "You wanted this to happen, didn't you?" Yeah, maybe...but he wasn't ultimately responsible and it feels hollow.
That brings us to our hero--in Park, there are several--Alan Grant and Ellie Sattler both know their stuff, and Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) serves as comic relief while dropping knowledge bombs on the audience. We believe in Grant's dinosaur knowledge to lead the movie's action, we feel the concerns Sattler has about the park as the movie's emotional center, and Ian is so annoyingly right all the time you gotta love him. Any of these characters get knocked out and you're feeling it in the theater.
Jurassic World's Owen is a cross between Grant and the game warden Robert Muldoon (Bob Peck). Muldoon is one of the great supporting characters in Park, basically the Robert Shaw character from Jaws but never quite makes it to Quint status in the movie's overall presentation. Muldoon isn't a scientist, but he has more respect and love for the animals than anyone in the park. So that's Owen, and even though he serves virtually no other function than "hero," he's the best character the movie has by a mile.
Add a couple of other Park characters, Samuel L. "hold on to your butts" Jackson's Ray Arnold and greedy lawyer Donald Gennaro (Martin Ferrero), then you have a well-rounded group of characters. Gennaro is probably the most one-note of the group, so the cheap thrill of seeing him get chomped by the T-Rex is fine: we never see him that long to really care about him anyway. I'd compare his character to the assistant Zara in World. The problem is, should Zara somehow meet a horrible fate, it's hard to justify feeling even a cheap thrill because her character is practically nothing. Her undefined motivations have nothing to do with the story. Arnold's role is basically filled by two somewhat-familiar comic actors in World, Lowery (Jake Johnson) and Vivian (Lauren Lapkus), but they have nothing to do with the action, unlike Arnold.
That brings us to the dinosaurs themselves, which are, to quote the crusty old pirate from The Simpsons, all "remorseless eating machines." Mosasaurus is basically Shamu at SeaWorld, and her best feature is that she's in water and eats large things. The Indominus Rex is basically the T-Rex all over again, only a serial killer with secret dino DNA that makes her even more dangerous--we see her exactly as we see T-Rex in the first movie: being fed, and looking for a way out. The smarts that this dinosaur displays while caged are amazing...once she's out, those smarts are forgotten and she's just the Grim Reaper.
The Raptors, somewhat trained and unlikely, uneasy allies--are never as cool as the promise of trained Raptors could be, which is both true to the series' philosophy that "you can't control nature" and also disappointing to the potential of the movie, considering that the line is already crossed when we see Owen controlling these things like Cesar Millan.
And there's a big sequence involving pterosaurs, but you know...they fly and grab people off the ground and stuff. I feel like now, the dinosaurs basically have that one trait of killing...while in Jurassic Park, we had dinos with character--remember the Dilophosaurus that attacks Nedry? Poisonous, frightening, all while being weirdly playful. You could see the Raptors' intelligence as they tried to figure out their new world--in the latest movies the Raptors' intelligence is understood but they rarely do anything that underlines it.
T-Rex is basically the "remorseless eating machine" in Park, but at least you could justify it by saying, "The poor bastard is hungry and tired of eating goats all the time." He also offers the movie amazing suspense, which is a great testament to Steven Spielberg and all he brings to the table. In World, the Indominus is simply a killer showing up randomly wherever the heroes show up, and there's never much suspense involved with it, especially since the movie abandons the "hyper intelligent" angle that could have set up some really awesome action pieces. Instead, it's "heroes hiding behind a thing and hoping the Indominus doesn't see them" ad nauseum. Its motivation is that it was raised in captivity by itself and it turned psycho. It's simply a monster that must be killed. Even last year's relatively well-received Godzilla gave motivations to not only the title character but the two MUTOs while they all clash onscreen.
Character motivations are important, and why a lot of the times the action in Jurassic World feels so empty. The movie offers an illusion of excitement by bringing us a few action-packed scenes, but hardly any of those scenes are built on character. Look at something as simple as last month's Mad Max: Fury Road, which has very little story in the text, a lot of story in the subtext, and an amalgam of interesting characters all with different motivations driving the action, and it makes sense why that movie hits on all cylinders when cool stuff happens on screen. I don't know if this is the answer all the time, but it's certainly one of the main culprits and why, in the face of a super popular movie everyone likes, I'm left cold.