The enduring joy of Jurassic Park

When things are terrible — and things are really, really terrible — it’s important to acknowledge the terribleness and then do something about it. Donate money and time, educate yourself and others, make lists and phone calls — do what you can. Do something.

We cannot survive the terribleness if we do not allow ourselves to experience joy, the things that make us happy, the things that make us feel (almost) whole.

So I ask, what brings you joy?

For me, it’s watching movies. More specifically, it’s watching movies that I love and have seen upwards of a million times, surrounded by an embarrassing amount of Hot Tamales.

Each movie hits a particular need for a feeling: Movies That Make Me Believe In Humanity Again (Lars and the Real Girl) or Movies That Make Me Happy Ugly Cry (Away We Go). I can feel the joy wrap around and protect me, insulating me for just that moment, vividly reminding me of what is was like for things to be and feel okay.

There’s always a moment when I decide that a movie is something special — when I subscribe it to its own list. A hot summer night at an outdoor movie splayed out on a blanket watching the sun set over the Statue of Liberty. A freezing cold theatre, sitting in the aisle seat, panicked, yet thrilled at how terrified I am. Christmas Eve nestled on the couch, up late with mom munching on snacks.

It marks me indelibly and is now, and will forever be, the visual antidote to overcome a particular brand of joylessness.

The movie evoked in all those things above is none other than the indomitable Jurassic Park.

I cannot overstate how fantastic Jurassic Park is and how much I love it. It is one of the greatest movies of all time. Full stop. Critics think so, fans think so, My mom thinks so. Everyone thinks so.

It’s Steven Spielberg being Steven Spielberg: it’s elegantly crafted narrative mixed with near-believable sense of fantasy; it’s opulent and cinematic sets grounded in authenticity; it’s animatronics, not CGI, pulling us in; it’s clever filming techniques upending the audience — it short, it is everything.

I first saw this movie in theatres when I was a kid and I pretended to be super cold during the raptors kitchen scene so I could sit in my dad’s lap and feel safe. That moment is so burned in my brain that I still plan an exit strategy in case raptors come flooding into the room to this day.

But the other thing I remember most, what I feel most, is how much I loved all the characters.

Jurassic Park came out in 1993 (yes, we’re all old). In the 1990s — and still now and forever it seems — femininity was seen as weak. To be a cool girl was to be a tomboy. This message, or, more accurately, the message of “don’t be feminine or you’ll be too weak, but don’t be too masculine or you’ll scare the boys” was everywhere and it dictated how women should be and how society, specifically men, should judge, categorize, and treat women.

To be cool was to be one of the guys.

Currently, the message is still the same, but it is layered over a faux feminist mentality that is hypocritical and creates a damaging picture of what women, and feminists, are supposed to be. If something has a woman, well then it must be good for women! It must be feminist! It must be for the greater good! Even super recent examples laughably disprove this notion.

Sidenote: Women can be evil, but we need to say they’re evil, not pioneers or feminists.

But Jurassic Park was ahead of these curves: it bucked the trappings of creating a heroine(s) for male audience gaze approval and resisted championing the mere presence of non-one-dimensional women as groundbreaking. Ellie and Lex are both full, realized characters actually doing things that advance the plot — even things not necessarily seen as “woman things” — and it is normal.

For example, Ellie delivers the brilliant line “Look — we can discuss sexism in survival situations when I get back” when Hammond suggests it should be him who goes to check on Arnold and turn on the power. It is both banal and explicitly feminist in its intent: Ellie is the only viable option to go — Malcolm is straight up injured, Hammond is not able-bodied enough to outrun raptors, Arnold is potentially dead, and Muldoon is literally outside hunting raptors — so she should obviously go, and also Ellie isn’t going to stand for the toxic notion that Hammond should go simply because he’s a man. That’s dumb. The movie tells us so. She’ll turn the power on and outrun some raptors and look damn good while she’s doing it thank you very much.

Equally, Lex becomes the go-to to lock the doors because she is a “computer nerd” nay “hacker” who can fix the system and lock out the raptors currently trying to bust through the door. We watch a young women in tech straight trounce an old white guy’s computer booby-trap while her younger bro (stressfully) cheers her on. That computer is ancient, but the idea was and is revelatory.

These moments are awesome because they are authentic and unforced — they are not shoehorned in to make a statement about how feminist or progressive the movie is. It is natural use of and conclusion to the characters the movies has created.

What also stands out is all these characters are on equal footing and their sense of self streamlines with their new identities cultivated by focusing on saving each other and getting away from the dinosaurs.

It’s thrilling! and scary! and funny! and its characters support and respect each other (Newman notwithstanding). As a kid, seeing this and especially women represent without being belittled or serving as someone else’s character arc was everything. I mean, I probably didn’t think of it in so many words, but I did get the thrill of watching a blockbuster action movie without feeling less than.

And that’s why it’s a real bummer that Jurassic World, and probably the upcoming sequel Fallen Kingdom, never captured the spirit that made the original so special.

I mean, Jurassic World did have a lot of things working against it — the bloated plot, overuse of CGI, and really, stupid-high expectations — but its spectacular failure at successfully putting authentic human women into it is what really did it in.

Firstly, we are getting this out of the way: a lot has been made of Claire running in high heels — this is a red herring. When Claire, in defiance of Owen mocking her “ridiculous shoes,” ties up her shirt and pushes up her sleeves and declares “it means I’m ready to go” before starting the search party through a dinosaur-filled jungle it’s utterly charming and hilarious and should have been a similar mic drop Ellie moment, but instead is a vehicle for further belittlement.

Claire’s ice-queen-turned-love-awakened-super-lady character embodied by her high-heeled running is indeed questionable, but it is the treatment of her by the other characters that makes her truly subordinate in this movie.

Claire is making moves throughout Jurassic World be they money or life-saving and she gets no respect.

Her sister, Karen, inexplicably played by Judy Greer for 5 minutes, rides her about family time and casually drops the “when you have kids” and “it’s worth it” when Claire corrects her with “if”. It’s a tired pattern that feels especially regressive in Jurassic World because it leads to a boring, predictable love story between Claire and Owen two people who seemingly despise each other.

It’s baffling that Jurassic World would centralize this love story because Owen derides or downplays Claire at pretty much every opportunity. He sees Claire as overly feminine in appearance (too girly!) and too business-focused (too masculine!) therefore incapable of surviving in nature or thwarting disaster despite complete evidence to the contrary.

Specifically, Jurassic World failed to realize that why the Grant and Ellie love story worked was because Grant actually respected and trusted Ellie completely. It’s such an uncommon portrayal of male-female relationships in movies that it actually took me many years to realize they were actually together.

Though Owen and Claire are not in a committed relationship, they are still not afforded even a glimpse of the same basic decency that endeared us to their predecessors and the attempts at genuine affection feel incredibly stilted.

Same goes for her nephews who (fairly) see her as distant and work-obsessed, but are also unable to acknowledge her constant efforts to show and prove otherwise. It’s doubly strange because a lot of the big moments in Jurassic World are near-facsimiles of Jurassic Park where said character does get respect.

For example, the nephews come to visit, similar to how Lex and Tim visit save Grant is the kid-hating person stuck with the children (as cleverly orchestrated by Ellie). Both Grant and Claire have spectacular kid-saving, dinosaur-fighting and life-saving scenes, but only Grant gets the credit and the status in the kids’ and audience’s eyes. Claire saves Owen, as well as her nephews, from an intense pterodactyl attack and shuffles them into a jeep, to which Owen speedily drives off, only to have her nephews quip “can we stay with you?” and ultimately correct the reassuring Claire, “No, we meant him.”

It’s shockingly, shockingly tone deaf. If it was meant to be a joke, it’s not funny because it isn’t coherent with the sequence of events and it positions the audience against our main lady who is reinforced as the butt of the joke and less than our our main man. Ironically also, Claire has her own impressive driving scene as she and her nephews successfully fight off multiple incoming raptors, yet upon glimpse of Owen, the boys shout for him, and ignore her.

In contrast, when Grant rescues Tim from the car in the tree and they ultimately end up back in the car, Tim doesn’t make some obtuse reference to Malcolm or Ellie, he quips “we’re back in the car.” It’s is funny because it’s true and because Tim barfed in the car so they’re probably covered in vomit, right?

But seriously, this incoherent feeling permeates the entire movie, embodied in the complete dismissal of Claire, and makes watching it just so not fun.

How would we feel about Jurassic Park if it dared to treat Ellie or Lex with the same disdain Jurassic World does Claire? How did young women feel when they watched it?

Find me someone who doesn’t love Ellie or Grant or Malcolm or Tim or Lex. You will be hard-pressed. Find me someone who doesn’t like Owen or Claire and you won’t.

Look, we’re all in aching need of a reprieve from the horrors of this world — and don’t feel bad about that. So my suggestion, if I may be so bold, is to skip Fallen Kingdom and instead grab something you hold dear (a person, a pet, a box of Hot Tamales) and watch Jurassic Park (and maybe the whole original trilogy) and feel the utmost joy that you can.

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