Dreams of the Fifties

Channeling Steven Spielberg, Jurassic World sets the “bad” forces of social upheaval against the “good” traditional values.

Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard in Jurassic World. Chuck Zlotnick / Universal Studios

I saw Jurassic World in the multiplex with an enraptured audience that burst into applause at the end, which doesn’t happen very often these days. The film’s appeal has generated a record-breaking worldwide gross of $987,200,065 so far, attesting to the perennial joys of seeing state-of-the-art CGI dinosaurs stomp around killing people.

There are certainly some quality dinosaur rampages in the film. Many characters get established early on as despicable types and therefore ideal dinosaur chow, allowing the viewer to look forward to their grisly deaths with enthusiasm.

In a Sea World-esque scene in the film, a Jurassic Park stadium crowd is entertained by the sight of a gigantic amphibious dinosaur leaping out of a tank and chomping a great white shark dangled overhead as bait, looking no bigger than a tuna fish by comparison. If that doesn’t make you want to see dinosaurs eat people, I don’t know what will.

Of course, if you’re not siding with the dinosaurs, you probably won’t enjoy the film much. You’ll find yourself in the predicament of Rene Rodriguez of the Miami Herald, who writes, “There’s something deeply wrong with a film that expects you to shed tears over digitally created prehistoric creatures and rubber brontosaurus heads instead of rooting for, you know, people.”

Though if you feel that way, why would you watch any part of the Jurassic Park franchise, which was always a celebratory fantasy of the dinosaur as resurrected apex predator, knocking us unworthy bipeds off our lofty perch?

Rodriguez refers to the most poignant scene in the film, the death of the Brontosaurus. When I heard about it, I almost decided to skip the film. Who wants to see the gentle giant of the dinosaur world die?

But there’s a logic to it. Jurassic World features a terrible, scientifically engineered dinosaur called Indominus Rex that represents all the supposed ills of the contemporary human world in one kill-crazy monster. Just to show you how bad the beast is, its first slaughter is a whole herd of Brontosauruses. After that, nothing and no one is safe. It’s like Psycho multiplied, with a herd of Janet Leighs butchered in a dozen showers simultaneously.

In Jurassic World, Indominus Rex is the brainchild of the Jurassic Park Corporation, which is under pressure to keep profits high by providing ever bigger, scarier dinosaurs to the easily bored public.

This is, of course, a highly reflexive plotline, mirroring the dilemma the Jurassic World filmmakers themselves faced: writers Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Derek Connolly, and Colin Trevorrow; director Colin Trevorrow; producers Frank Marshall and Patrick Crowley; and above them all, franchise creator and executive producer Steven Spielberg. They had to keep profits up by creating a film sequel for easily bored audiences who want bigger, scarier dinosaurs rendered in better CGI (plus some animatronics).

Jurassic Park as a franchise has always been wildly cynical, starting from the first installment that seemed to glory in its synergistic business practices, making willing suckers of the audience. Look, it’s a Universal Studios movie about a theme park that uses people’s love of dinosaurs to sell them crappy merchandise! And after we watch it, we can go to the Universal Studios Orlando theme park to ride the Jurassic Park ride, and buy some crappy merchandise!

We’ll pass lightly over the fact that the first Jurassic Park movie was also pretty crappy, despite the presence of Spielberg, protean cinematic genius. The thing still clunks along like an old jalopy when there are no dinosaurs or Jeff Goldblum onscreen. And even the dinosaurs, representing cutting-edge computer technology of 1993, look a bit dubious now.

But Indominus Rex was designed to reinvigorate the franchise and make us forget earlier mediocrity, as well as current mediocrity. A gigantic white female of mysterious genetic make-up and unparalleled ferocity, she resembles a streamlined Tyrannosaurs Rex. She’s introduced skulking around in the flora of her jungle enclosure, ratcheting up our eagerness to get a full view of her in action. Still, we don’t have to wait very long for this she-monster’s inevitable escape to lay waste to the tourist population on the island.

But the price you pay for delightful dinosaur carnage is, as always, dwelling in the Spielberg-patented world of regressive gender roles and worship of the white middle-class nuclear family. Way back in the 1980s, Spielberg started designing retro plots and characters that resurrected 1940s and ’50s pop cultural forms (most obviously, the Indiana Jones series) or reinforced their values and attitudes, and the immense popularity of his nostalgia films has guaranteed endless repetition and imitation. We’re nostalgic for Spielberg’s nostalgia films, see.

Personally, I’ve always wondered, if you’re going to get nostalgic and loot Hollywood movies of the 1940s and ’50s, why not take the good stuff, like screwball comedy and film noir and Looney Tunes cartoons, instead of cheesy action-adventure serials, syrupy romances, and the type of sci-fi movies that make the American nuclear family the be-all, end-all of the universe?

Answer: because you can’t make zillions looting what I consider the good stuff.

So here we go again with the “badass” action hero who rides a motorcycle, makes quips before leaping into danger, and poses in awesome silhouette, enabling us lesser mortals to look upon him and gasp in wonder. In this film, he’s named Owen Grady, and he’s played by Chris Pratt, the rumored replacement for Harrison Ford in the upcoming Indiana Jones film.

Bryce Dallas Howard plays Claire Dearing, the icy career woman in tight business clothes and spike heels who must get mussed up, sexed up, and softened up by calamity and proximity to the hero’s gym-toned pectorals in order to be redeemed. Versions of this character were central to American movies of the 1950s and 1980s, but she never totally goes out of fashion.

Icy Career Woman also has to recover her maternal instinct, so there are two children in constant peril, her nephews Zach and Gray (Nick Robinson and Ty Simpkins). The kids are not only menaced by dinosaurs, but also by their parents’ imminent divorce. Becoming a child of divorce in a Spielbergian world is almost as bad as being gnawed to death by velociraptors.

I admit I kind of enjoyed the relentless way the narrative was worked out Spielberg-style, in terms of the “bad” forces of social disequilibrium vs. the “good” forces of stable, traditional values. The “good” is chiefly represented by Owen Grady, the muscle-bound manly man standing tall for heteronormativity with his 1950s-vintage sexual come-ons to the uptight heroine: “Where shall we ‘consult’? In my bungalow?”

He’s the rocklike center surrounded by characters representing factions of society that have spun out of control, including:

  • the career woman — power-seeking and non-nurturing;
  • the billionaire CEO who talks big but can’t do manly stuff like fly helicopters properly (Irrfan Khan);
  • the mad scientist working in secret and incurring no consequences from his lab creations, which always run amok (B. D. Wong, the grand old man of the franchise);
  • the nutso military man who wants to weaponize dinosaurs because, presumably, he wants to weaponize everything (Vincent D’Onofrio);
  • the park patrons — frustrated consumer-culture masses that always want “more teeth” in their entertainment.

Indominus Rex represents all the bad factions in a super-symbolic way that made me laugh and laugh. She’s a cold-blooded asocial female, fostered by corporate hubris, engineered by Frankensteinian science, exhibiting “killing machine” aggression, and acting as the Id-like compensatory fantasy of a powerless mass of humanity.

Indominus Rex is a wonderful, all-purpose Spielbergian monster, raised in total isolation, “unsocialized” — without, say, a nuclear family to teach her good values, or a proper alpha male around to create a stable home life. But in order to defeat her, Grady must use his singular ability to understand dinosaurs — and women — making female dinosaurs a real specialty of his.

It’s never clear why Grady is supposedly so skilled at communicating with dinosaurs. All we find out is he’s an ex-Navy man, not even Special Forces, the usual career identification that gives male characters magical powers in action films. But the implication is that there’s nothing a regular American guy who lifts weights and holds onto World War II–era values can’t do.

Grady brags about his ascendancy over the raptors he trains. He claims it’s a relationship based on respect, but it’s actually based on treats — he gets them to “stay” by withholding food, same as with dogs. Grady’s relationship to the raptors is interestingly inflected by gender. Introducing the raptors to the boys, for example, he says, “And that’s Blue. She’s the beta.”

“Who’s the alpha?”

Chris Pratt as Grady pauses for effect and channels Indiana Jones: “I AM.”

Later, Blue will have to decide between allegiance to Owen Grady or to the top female predator on the island, Indominus Rex.

If you can’t guess which alpha she’ll choose, you haven’t seen enough Spielberg movies. Quick, to the multiplex!