In 1993, Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park hit theaters. I just re-watched that movie a few weeks ago, and my goodness, it has aged well. What a perfect blockbuster. I do consider it Spielberg’s best. What makes that such a good movie, though? Obviously, an engaging story, likable characters, groundbreaking special effects, and a fabulous sense of spectacle contribute to the film’s success, but for me, the thing that really elevated it above so many other movies like it, including its sequels, is the way it deals with death.
Lots of spoilers in this article for both Jurassic Park and, of course, Jurassic World, so proceed with caution if you care about that kind of thing.
Death seems like a weird thing to focus in on for an article about blockbusters, but think about it: Jurassic Park is a movie about, in the words of Principal Skinner, “A futuristic amusement park where dinosaurs are brought to life through advanced cloning techniques. I call it Billy and the Clone-asaurus.” That last bit was irrelevant, but when Steven Spielberg and Michael Crichton shove a bunch of humans and a bunch of dinosaurs onto an island together only one thing can follow: violent mayhem. You know how many people die in Jurassic Park? Five. That’s because the movie is really about humanity’s relationship with the overwhelming power of nature. The five deaths all contribute to the reinforcement of this theme.
Let’s go through this one at a time, shall we? First, an unnamed employee is pulled into a velociraptor cage and killed. This death not only establishes the tone of danger and establishes that these dinosaurs are vicious, wild animals, but it also acts as the primary catalyst for the whole plot. The only reason Alan (Sam Neill), Ellie (Laura Dern), and Ian (Jeff Goldblum) come to the park is because the worker’s death caused hesitance amongst the financial backers and they want reassurance from professionals. So, the entire movie hinges on the off-screen death of an unidentified character. Immediately, Jurassic Park puts value in the human life.
From this point on, about an hour of setup is spent to establish the characters on the island and if you’re paying close attention, you can guess who’s going to die, not because this is a predictable genre film, but because it’s already told us that it takes death seriously and is only going to use it for plot and theme. We know that the primary theme of the movie concerns respect for nature, so let’s see, who’s gonna die? Well, not the kids, obviously. Killing their grandpa would be far too cruel, so he’s gonna make it. The paleontologists have nothing but respect for dinosaurs, so they’re gonna be fine. That leaves us with a lawyer (Martin Ferrero) who sees the animals as commodities, a techie who plans to steal dinosaur DNA to get rich (Wayne Knight), a computer whiz who commands security on the park from his control center (Samuel L. Jackson), a pop mathematician who is also just the biggest asshole (the aforementioned Goldblum), and a big game hunter in charge of animal security (Bob Peck).
The lawyer’s the first one to go for obvious reasons, followed by Wayne Knight’s cocky, thieving jerk. The next two seem less obvious. Samuel L. Jackson’s Ray Arnold gets killed off-screen by a velociraptor. A sincere guy who takes his work seriously, Arnold is one of the more likable characters in the film, but he ultimately places too much faith in technology, assuming he and his computers can keep the dinosaurs at bay. The second he sets foot away from his computer desk, he’s dead. Who’s next? The hunter. Why? We know he has respect for the animals, but he’s also the ultimate killing machine humanity has to offer, and he knows it. His mistake is thinking that being the top of humanity means being the top of the food chain. And that’s it. That’s five. Ian Malcolm is a reprehensible bastard when it comes to interacting with other humans, but he has a deep, profound, and entirely unselfish respect for the unpredictable might of nature, so he lives. Jurassic Park picks its deaths carefully, following Creature from the Black Lagoon logic, and it makes sure that no violence occurs without necessity. That, in my opinion, is what makes it such a good movie.
Now we’re over seven hundred words in and I’m finally going to get to the point. Sorry that took so long.
Jurassic World (2015), the fourth film in the franchise, has essentially the same plot: humans on an island with dinosaurs, chaos ensues. Obviously, no one wants this movie to be an exact mirror image of the first one; that would be pointless. It’s a sequel, too, so we have to make things a little bigger. Bigger dinosaurs, bigger action, bigger body count, etc.
Bigger body count. How much bigger? Well… Jurassic World’s onscreen human death toll, by my count, is just two shy of Titus Andronicus. So, roughly six times Jurassic Park’s. Yeah, this includes some cannon fodder and a bad guy (forgivable for an action movie, I guess), but it also includes innocent tourists, people who were just trying to do their job, and three deaths that occur in front of gawking children. Do they contribute to the film’s themes? Uh… I’m having trouble coming up with a theme, so let’s just say “no.” Do they at least move the plot along? Also no. There’s a trend in blockbusters now. I’ve talked about it before. Needless destruction is in vogue. I originally thought that reflected a carelessness on the part of the filmmakers, but in this case anyway, it’s definitely something more deliberate and malicious.
Exhibit A. When the genetically engineered Indominus Rex first escapes, it quickly claims the lives of two hapless workers. The first happens to run a little slower than the movie’s hero Owen (Chris Pratt), and so gets scooped up and gnawed to bits. The second isn’t as good at hiding as Owen. The monster finds his hiding place, we are forced to watch him as he recognizes the mistake he made and comes to terms with his own demise, and then see him get chomped. Like the first death in Jurassic Park these poor guys did not deserve what they got. At least in the first movie that death kick-started the entire movie and so had huge importance. These two guys were just collateral damage.
The second death I took serious issue with was that of Simon Masrani (Irrfan Khan), the guy in charge of the amusement park. Now, he obviously has a lot of money invested in this thing, and turns a profit from the tourism. He also expresses, in every scene he’s in, a deep reverence for the dinosaurs and for nature. In fact, he is one of very few characters to do this. He dies after commanding a park closure (at his own astronomical financial loss) and heroically setting out in a helicopter to try to bring down the Indominus Rex, which has, at this point, killed I think about fifteen people. Pteranodons bring down his helicopter and he dies in a horrible explosion. So… that’s in direct contradiction of the rules of the game. I guess respect isn’t going to get you that far in this sequel.
Shortly thereafter the winged dinosaurs wreak havoc upon the tourists, killing several. Then we get the most unnecessary, cruel, mean-spirited death in the entire movie, possibly in the franchise, but that has stiff competition from that one death in The Lost World: Jurassic Park. Y’all know which one I’m talking about. When the T-Rexes rip that guy in half… yeah. This one not only befalls an entirely innocent, unassuming tertiary character, but also marks the first (and only) onscreen female death in the franchise. So, there’s another unspoken rule broken. This character, Zara (Katie McGrath), is the female lead’s assistant (the female lead being Claire, played by Bryce Dallas Howard). Her job is looking after Claire’s nephews, Zach (Nick Robinson) and the stupidly named Gray (Ty Simpkins). The kids sneak away at a triceratops petting zoo, much to Zara’s worry, and the next time they meet up she’s carried off by some pteranodons, pecked at, pulled at, and eventually devoured by a mosasaurus. Birth Movies Death actually does a really good write up of this death and why it’s so horrific, so I would recommend you follow the link and read that article when you’re done here. I would like to add three observations to their already tiptop analysis. First, Zara is never mentioned again. Second, one of the very few things we do know about her is that she’s engaged. That writer/director Colin Trevorrow was happy to do all that to her without the slightest thought of, “Oh shit, that was someone’s fiancé who just got eaten by a sea monster,” suggests that he lacks even the most basic sense of empathy when spectacle is an option. Third, this is one of three incredibly gruesome deaths that happens right in front of the children.
That’s right, folks. These poor kids see not one, not two, but three different people get eaten by dinosaurs, and yet this never seems to bother them. On one occasion, a security guard warns them that velociraptors are coming and that they have to leave. As he hops on the back of the truck with them, one of the raptors grabs him and pulls him to the floor, biting and clawing him until he dies while the kids watch. As the truck zooms off, the raptor pursues, but the boys manage to Taser it and escape, at which point, about a minute after watching a man die brutally, the younger boy exclaims, “Wait ‘til we tell Mom!” Oh, that lifelong trauma wore off quickly, didn’t it? Exhibit B of how Colin Trevorrow doesn’t know anything about people.
It seems as though each death contradicts the care and deliberation of Jurassic Park in some way or another. As I said before, at first I thought this was carelessness, but now I think it’s more malicious. It’s cruel and it exhibits a lack of compassion. Zara’s death is the kind of thing that, as Birth Movies Death suggested, would have been totally fine if it happened to the villain. One of the actors apparently said that they changed it to make it happen to her in post-production because she was difficult to work with. That’s a dumb reason, but it also means that they still had that entire sequence animated and done. If indeed it wasn’t originally going to happen to her, it was still going to happen to someone. The only people on camera for that sequence were innocent bystanders.
Everything is just an excuse for more action, more mayhem, and more spectacle. I know that these are fictional characters I’m talking about, but they’re a reflection of us. Trevorrow seems to maintain this air of smug self-awareness, using his audience as puppets. “Here’s my movie, come and pay me to watch it you stupid, fat consumers.” What are we paying to watch? Two hours of consumers getting annihilated by things that were created for their entertainment. Don’t tell me I’m reading into this too much. We pay for entertainment and instead we get misdirected, mean-spirited, unnecessary violence, violence that’s aimed squarely at us.
What upsets me most is the marketing for this film. Who’s the target audience? Everyone. Children. Walk into a Wal-Mart and you see dinosaurs. Some are licensed products from the movie and others are just dinosaurs, but that’s what’s being promoted right now. Kids love dinosaurs. Always have, always will, and any toymaker would be foolish to pass up the business that a movie like this will bring. As a result, kids are flocking to this movie to be pumped full of meaningless violence. Consciously meaningless violence. Deliberately meaningless violence. Yeah, when a velociraptor and a T-Rex team up to fight a genetically mutated monster, that’s kinda neat, but that’s not what makes a good movie. Jurassic World’s whole message is that violence is great as long as it looks cool and it happens to people we don’t really know. Never mind if someone else knows them. That doesn’t matter. Ultimately, Jurassic World reflects a terrible trend in blockbusters, perhaps pushing its spectacular atrocities to a new level.