In 1993, a story was told of a catastrophic incident on Isla Nublar which claimed the lives of four people, all eaten by cloned dinosaurs that escaped from controlled captivity due to a failure of the island’s security system. The island was home to Jurassic Park, the ill-fated brainchild of John Hammond who, along with his genetic engineering firm InGen, discovered a technique by which dinosaurs could be cloned from ancient DNA strands preserved in amber. The disaster occurred during the visit of a group of scientists who were hired by Hammond to evaluate the viability and safety of the island attraction. Just before a group of the survivors boards a rescue helicopter to leave the island, one of the scientists tells Hammond that he has decided not to endorse the park, and Hammond agrees.
But something has survived, namely an ambitious corporate vision. Twenty-two years after that famous disaster, Jurassic Park is now under new management. Thanks to the leadership of the island’s new owner Simon Masrani (Irrfan Khan) and the continuing work of InGen’s bioengineers, Jurassic Park has now graduated to Jurassic World, in much the same way Disneyland grew into Disneyworld. Isla Nublar is now a full-fledged luxury resort, where thousands of tourists from all over the world can come to watch and interact with a variety of living dinosaurs.
But then, something goes terribly and predictably wrong. Again. The incident of 1993 repeats itself, this time on a much larger scale.
This is the set-up of director Colin Trevorrow’s Jurassic World, which falls into that class of movies that are best seen on the big screen. As far as pure action/adventure escapism is concerned, I enjoyed the movie. It’s a fun ride that is far superior to the other two sequels (but not better than the first). In fact, Jurassic World was written as a direct sequel to the original Spielberg classic, featuring a narrative set-up that treats the middle two terrible installments as never having happened. This turns out to be one of the few good decisions on the part of the film’s developers.
But while Jurassic World works well as escapist action/adventure entertainment that is satisfying on the level of pure spectacle, it is sadly not a good science movie. The movie’s main attraction is the Indominus rex, and one need look no further than this beast to see a major example of problematic science. Indominus rex, an extraordinarily-large and ferocious “dinosaur,” is a genetically-engineered hodgepodge of Velociraptor and several other modern animals and dinosaurs. Through a series of unfortunate events, this beast escapes its enclosure and runs free on the island, eating tourists and employees of the resort and killing other dinosaurs just for sport. This improbable hybrid was created in the lab by Jurassic World scientists at the behest of the resort’s corporate owners as a money-making gimmick to bring in more tourists. Apparently, people are starting to find normal dinosaurs boring, no more interesting or exciting than seeing giraffes or elephants in a normal zoo.
This premise is not only absurd (any park that offered the opportunity to see even one living dinosaur – let alone hundreds – would remain the most popular tourist attraction in the world for decades on end). It is also, I think, a sad reflection of the overly-cynical way the filmmakers view the general moviegoing public. Their implicit assumption is that today’s pop culture consumers would find a movie about classic familiar dinosaurs too passé and boring, and so they see fit to write new kinds of giant carnivorous monsters into the story. In doing this, both the writers and the studio that pays them think too little of the public’s capacity to continue enjoying cinema that retains what has worked well in the past.
Indominus rex was easily the biggest turn-off for me; the thing was genetically cobbled together from so many other creatures that the finished product is not even a legitimate dinosaur. On top of this, the movie’s writers needed to come up with a rationale for why their fictional scientists saw fit to make such a fatally dangerous creature. The way the writers do this is by introducing bad science into the story. Masrani asks the resort’s chief geneticist why he and his team made this creature so terrifyingly dangerous. Why endow a 40-foot carnivore with built-in camouflage, infrared vision, and the ability to drop its body temperature to evade thermo-sensor detection? The geneticist, Dr. Henry Wu (B.D. Wong, reprising his role from the first movie), explains that trying to build one attribute into the creature resulted in other features that were not planned for. Camouflage was one of these unintended side effects that resulted from inserting cuttlefish DNA into the mix. In Jurassic World, apparently, geneticists are not able to selectively pluck out a gene that codes for just one desired attribute. This scheme comes off as a horribly contrived excuse for why Indominus was designed to be a killing, devouring, intelligent creature that could actually perform strategic and tactical maneuvers against its prey.
There are other science problems in the movie. One of the most glaring is the lack of any plumage on the dinosaurs. One of the most important discoveries paleontologists have made about dinosaurs in the last 20 years is that many of them had feathers, especially theropods in general and Velociraptors in particular. By not putting feathers on the Velociraptors, the movie blew a great opportunity to reflect and advance modern paleontological knowledge. It would have cost the filmmakers very little to include feathers on their dinosaurs.
The movie did at least get a few small details right, however. One case in point is the Tylosaurus mosasaur. I love the scenes in which this massive marine reptile appears, and the movie is worth seeing for that spectacle alone. Paleontologists have recently discovered that mosasaurs had an extra set of interior “palatal” teeth in their massive jaws. The movie pays attention to that little detail, subtle as it is. Then again, this rare instance of attention to detail is offset by the fact that the species of shark being fed to the mosasaur in its debut scene is an endangered one, a clear research oversight on the part of the writers. But if the filmmakers hewed to modern developments in paleontology as closely as they did for something as relatively insignificant and minor as mosasaur teeth, what excuse do they then have for not putting at least a few feathers on the Velociraptors?
The single most preposterous plot element used in the movie, and the one that strains willful suspension of disbelief to the breaking point, is the idea that Velociraptors could be trained by the military to fight on battlefields alongside human soldiers. Shortly into the movie, the character of Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) expresses proper skepticism about militarizing the creatures when the idea is suggested by Vic Hoskins (Vincent D’Onofrio), head of security operations on the island. But during the film’s climax, we are treated to a scene in which humans are racing through the jungle on motorcycles with a pack of Velociraptors keeping pace with them as they attempt to track down the Indominus rex. But reveling in the sheer absurdity of this and other sequences is part of what the made watching the movie a fun experience.
Jurassic World versus Jurassic Park
One of the reasons the original Jurassic Park film made such a huge and lasting impact on popular culture is because it incorporated paleontological knowledge of dinosaurs that, in the early 1990s, was cutting-edge at the time. It is in this respect that 2015’s Jurassic World differs most markedly from its ancestor. The new film’s writers and producers made no real effort to advance any of the new knowledge paleontologists have gained over the last 20 years. This is a disappointing departure from the standard that was set by the original film. To quote paleontologist Thomas R. Holtz, Jr., “Jurassic Park has a cachet that it borrows from science that is a lot different from Land of the Lost or Godzilla.” In other words, Jurassic Park is supposed to be science fiction, not fantasy.
Jurassic Park is a much better film in almost every other important respect as well. The story is far more compelling and the characters much more nuanced and relatable. In contrast, the plot of Jurassic World is predictable and its characters are for the most part flat and one-dimensional. Chris Pratt is a likeable actor, but his performance as the character Owen Grady did not feel authentic or heartfelt. In 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy, Pratt’s humor and charisma was given free range, and as a result he played a character that I cared about. But his performance in Jurassic World disappointingly lacks all the traits that made Star-Lord a great character. Bryce Dallas Howard plays Claire Dearing, a character who starts out as the stereotypical cold and detached corporate busybody who only learns how to acknowledge the existence of her young nephews when their lives – and the lives of everyone else on the island resort – is threatened by Indominus rex. Howard is no Laura Dern, and Claire Dearing does not even come close to living up to the depth of Jurassic Park’s Dr. Ellie Sattler.
The science in Jurassic Park is a central and overt element of the plot. In Jurassic World, on the other hand, the science is a superficial prop whose only function is to serve as window dressing. The original movie is much different in spirit. The story involves the park’s developer inviting actual scientists to evaluate the island, and the script included interesting discussions by the characters about chaos theory. The characters even watch an animated science lesson in which Mr. DNA explains the process of DNA cloning, a sequence that is both entertaining and educational.
That being said, Jurassic Park also incorporated at least as much questionable science as did Jurassic World. Of course, some of the science shortcuts are necessary in order to tell a realistic and semi-believable adventure story about dinosaurs eating people. For example, scientists have known for decades that DNA cannot possibly survive intact for 65 million years, even if preserved in fossilized amber. This gimmick is an easily-forgivable storytelling device, without which dinosaurs cannot figure into the plot. But why do the bioengineers in the movie decide to mix the incomplete portions of the dinosaur DNA strands with amphibian DNA? It would make much more scientific and practical sense for them to fill in genetic lacunae with the DNA of birds, the modern living descendants of dinosaurs.
But besides the loose science, there is also an anti-science vibe in the first movie that, in my opinion, is more noticeable and pronounced than in Jurassic World. The writers turned Michael Crichton’s much more intellectually-stimulating novel into a plotline that resorts to the tired and all-too-common Hollywood cliché about the evils of probing into and manipulating nature. Science and technology are explicitly disparaged by the protagonists, as when the character of Dr. Ian Malcolm says,
“What’s so great about discovery? It’s a violent, penetrative act that scars what it explores. What you call discovery, I call the rape of the natural world.”
At least Jurassic World directed its cynicism about human management of nature toward corporate business rather than placing unfounded criticism at the feet of science itself.
All of the Jurassic Park movies require contrived plotlines in order to create a situation in which the human characters get placed one rung lower on the food chain. This is understandable, and the movies should not be faulted for this. After all, the Jurassic Park movies are action/adventure thrillers that feature monsters. But because they are science-based monster movies, it’s important for the science not to make one’s eyes roll and to keep science buffs from walking out of the movie in exasperation. Jurassic World fails in this regard, but nevertheless succeeds in being highly entertaining fantasy adventure. Provided one does not go to the movie expecting anything more than Land of the Lost on steroids, there still remains a fantasy adventure story to be enjoyed.