Four movies into the Jurassic Park universe and there are two guarantees going into each film. The first, without a doubt, is that some dinosaurs will break free and eat a bunch of people. That’s pretty clear. The other one, however, might not be so obvious: that not one of the people eaten will be a main character we are rooting for.
For a collection of films about the hubris of man thinking we can play god and control nature, the stakes are consistently non-existent for the protagonists of the movies. What exactly are the lessons learned from films that are adamantly opposed to killing off the good guys? That only important people survive catastrophes? Being a good person means you’re immune to death?
The truth is, as someone that just wants some enjoyable escapism, I care less about the secretly terrible themes of the movies and more about the lazy cop-out each has taken. I had never even considered it until I saw Jurassic World this year. As someone that still lists Jurassic Park as one of his greatest movie going experiences, I was there on opening night. I’m a fan, always have been. I mean, this might be the most perfect movie scene ever.
The new film did give me a lot of what I wanted, like dinosaur fights, Chris Pratt riding a motorcycle with his gang of velociraptors, and people being eaten by dinosaurs. It wasn’t until I walked out that I realized what had always been going on, namely that every character I was clearly supposed to root for was beating the dinosaurs. This was like rooting for the Harlem Globetrotters. They won again!
Except no one celebrates a Globetrotter win because the outcome was never in doubt, and these movies are starting to feel that way after four straight films of the good guys persevering, even though the opponents are literally dinosaurs. If you think I’m exaggerating look at who lives and who doesn’t in each film.
In the original Jurassic Park every major character lives (and they survive all the sequels). All the doctors, the two kids, the park’s owner, everyone makes it back to the helicopter. The only characters you’d probably say are good guys that don’t make it are the park’s game warden (the British guy with the hat, aka the world’s foremost expert on living dinosaurs) and the chief engineer (Samuel L. Jackson, who spends four minutes away from his computer, but doesn’t make it). Secondary characters have a mixed-bag when it comes to making it, but it’s okay because they’re usually one-dimensional so we don’t really know them, therefore how much can we really care?
When John Hammond flees the park, he has his two grandchildren safely with him, even though they were trapped in a dinosaur park after a T-Rex flipped their car. His loss feels less about life and death and more about his life’s work. Again, tons of people have died horrific deaths, but what’s really sad is he won’t get his amusement park opened. Does the annoying lawyer die? Of course, he was guilty of trying to make his clients money. The film’s villain also dies, because bad things happen to bad people, always. Just like life.
It’s the same in the next two films. The bad guys die and the good guys live, no matter how perilous their predicaments. The most important good guy in The Lost World that dies? The bald guy. How many people that saw that movie can name his character? He’s so important that you only know him as “the bald guy.” Meanwhile Jeff Goldblum lives, his girlfriend lives, and his daughter lives.
The third film absolutely is the safest place for decent people. Dead? All the bad guys. Alive? Everyone with morals, no matter how quetsionable. One of the good guys even appears to die, only to magically show up at the end alive. This is the film where a kid survives on an island of dinosaurs alone, until he can safely make it back with his heroic parents, the ones who tricked people into going to a death island of monsters.
(Kids are really, really immune to ending up as dinosaur dinner. Do dinosaurs have some kind of moral code against veal?)
Jurassic World became the first to slightly bend the mold, but it didn’t break it. Two kids that can magically fix twenty-year-old jeeps live, our two heroes live. Only the rich guy in the helicopter dies, and even he doesn’t get eaten. While our villain (vilified by his desire to fight terrorists) gets his, our evil geneticist escapes for a sequel. But why wouldn’t he live? He’s survived the first film. It’s a lifetime pass at this point. I mean, they gave the poor assistant the worst death, but her only defining trait was being frustrated by having to babysit a whiny teenager and his annoying little brother.
I’m not trying to ruin these movies, and maybe if the fourth film had not paid homage to the first film I never would have noticed this, but these films have taken the easy way out for too long. If kids’ books like Harry Potter or The Hunger Games can address the basic truth of mortality, movies about dinosaurs eating people can too.
Sometimes you watch a movie based on a “true story,” where the main character faces peril and hardship, but instead of feeling the tension of the film you feel nothing, because you saw him doing press for the film on television. If Saving Private Ryan opened up by telling you who the old guy standing at the grave was, you wouldn’t have cared as much during all the battle scenes. The Jurassic universe is starting to feel like it has little at stake. That should be impossible when dinosaurs are running around gobbling people up like candy. We can have our awesome dinosaur fights and chases, but we can also have the element of the unexpected. Both of those things produce entertainment, which is the whole point.
Hopefully the next movie will treat the story, and by extension their audience, a little more honestly by showing that being a good guy is not a panacea for the reality of life. I want to be invested the next time a T-Rex chases someone I care about; I want my emotional investment to mean something. That’s just a better way to tell stories. As of now, I know that the suspense doesn’t really exist. It isn’t about caring about lessons and morality, it’s really just a selfish desire to be entertained.
The filmmakers are going to have to do what they have been loath to do: kill someone that will bum us out. We need it to happen, no matter how devastating.
Just not Chris Pratt, though. That would totally ruin the movie for me.
Is Mike way off, or on the right track? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.
Image: Universal Pictures