Here are two statements:
“Jurassic World” is a beautifully crafted, thrilling narrative.
It is a sexist movie.
Both of these things are true.
Jurassic World is a near-flawless action movie, a master class in pacing, foreshadowing, setup, worldbuilding. It has some of the most charming and talented actors currently working, a score by Michael Giacchino that borrows liberally from the immortal Williams score that stiffened the backbone of the first movie. Hell, it has the first movie to draw on, an embarrassment of riches that director Trevorrow dips into liberally, borrowing sets and props and even shots, all in a cool, meta tone that shows he knows we know what he’s doing. The callbacks are coy, flattering to the audience’s intelligence—when a park employee is scolded for wearing an vintage shirt branded with the logo of the first, disaster-struck park, he stoutly defends the purity and passion of the original park’s vision. (Hipsters. They liked dinosaur massacres before it was cool.) We all chuckle because we get that it’s a sequel talking about its own original, man, but Jurassic World never gets too cute—this is a dinosaur movie, and we are here to see some dinosaurs.
And, in short order, we meet mosasaurus, a sort of a blue whale from hell living in an arena tank the size of a football stadium. Mosasaurus’s lunch, a great white shark the size of a minivan, is cranked out to it on a straining steel hawser stretched across the tank. The audience waits. Suddenly, the creature erupts out of the sea, swallowing Jaws in a single gulp and sending a flume of splashback not just rows but decks deep into the stadium seating. The delighted audience wipes water from their bright plastic ponchos, tries to rescue soaked cell phones—it’s Sea World on steroids. And we’re meant to see a Sea World parallel really specifically, because no tourist destination better embodies the tension between Americans’ desire to see big predators behaving like house pets, and the fact that deep down, we know better. Sea World has recently fallen out of public favor (for reasons I’ll discuss below, but which you probably already know), and the currency of that scandal is one of the ways Jurassic Park reinvigorates a tired old theme: man versus nature.
And what a man, what a man, what a mighty fine man. Chris Pratt plays Owen, an ex-Navy commando who now plays Cesar Milan to a perky pack of Velociraptors: Delta, Charlie, Echo and Blue, the beta. When asked who the alpha of the pack is, Owen responds, “You’re looking at him.” And Owen is an alpha male in all the romance-novel senses of the word—while the raptors owe their DNA to reconstituted mosquito lunch, Owen owes most of his DNA to romantic action heroes like Michael Douglas’s Jack Colton (“Romancing the Stone”), Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones, and Paul Hogan’s Crocodile Dundee—endlessly competent roustabouts who could rustle up shelter and dinner in the wildest physical surroundings, pausing only briefly to conquer a foe lurking in the bushes. Typically, these kind of heroes get paired with ultra-feminine women, screeching scaredy-cats from the city who fear the nature these guys have tamed, who find the outdoors disgusting and dirty and all too gross for words. (Think about Kate Capshaw, screeching over her ruined manicure in “Temple of Doom”; of Linda Kozlowski’s endless terrified screaming in “Dundee.”) It’s no coincidence these romantic “back to nature” narratives were at a high-water mark in the 80s—women were moving into the workforce in unprecedented numbers, two-earner households were becoming the norm, and men were having to contend for the first time with the real possibility that their wives might make more money than they did. As a result, gender anxieties were at an all-time high. One way the culture soothed itself through this period of anxiety was through this “back to nature” narrative, in which a woman needs a man to protect and shelter her from the basic elements of the wilderness. If the woman is unwilling at first to accept the man’s help, she must be humiliated in a series of pratfalls—made to fall into a mud puddle, to stumble through the jungle wearing heels, to finally admit that she is hungry enough that the roasted lizard is starting to smell pretty good. By the end of the movie, fair lady has been won over by the glistening chest and valiant deeds of the alpha male, and has relaxed into a glowing acceptance of a little bit of dirt/nature in her life, and to a subservient role in this “natural” world where the alpha male’s knowledge and skills make him the unquestioned leader. Men feared they were becoming unnecessary—this narrative reassured them that if the world were returned to its “natural” state of untamed wilderness, they would once again find themselves in charge. But we got over that, and men adjusted to the idea of women in the workforce, and that gender-based insecurity doesn’t drive our national subconscious any more, right?
Wrong. “Jurassic World” broke box office records with exactly that narrative, played out exactly the same way as the retrograde fantasies of the 1980s. Here’s Bryce Dallas Howard as cold businesswoman Claire, costumed in pristine white and projecting a tamped-down, ice-queen demeanor. Even her hair is strand-perfect in place—right away, the audience is primed to see Claire get messy. We quickly learn that Claire isn’t comfortable with nature; she refers to her park’s dinosaurs as “assets”, scolds an employee for his chaotic desk, and freezes in terror when her visiting nephew Gray enthusiastically hugs her. But not to worry: wiser heads than Claire’s will prevail. Her sister, an emotional earth-mama who cries at the drop of a hat, tells Claire that “When you have kids, you’ll understand.”
“If,” says Claire.
“WHEN,” her sister roars. “They’re worth it.”
Unconvinced, Claire sends her nephews off to explore the park with a female assistant, Zara, who spends most of her time on the phone as she shepherds the increasingly bored pair through a dino petting zoo—noticing her distraction and spying an opportunity, the two boys run away from Zara to explore the park on their own. I’ll repeat that: the male children, who are around eight and fourteen, purposefully run away from Zara.
I’m repeating that because the narrative’s punishment for her momentary inattention to the boys’ behavior will be simply staggering.
Birthmoviesdeath.com wrote up an extraordinary article about Zara’s death, which I strongly suggest you read, but in which the most salient points are these:
1. Deaths in narrative always mean something. They raise stakes, they mete out justice to villains, they sometimes happen to good characters to increase the terror of the villainous threat—but they always, always, always mean something, because they are authored deaths. Death in real life is frequently random and meaningless. Deaths in narrative are never so.
2. Zara’s death, by cinematic standards, is the death that should be given to the very worst villain in the movie. Instead, it’s awarded to a young woman whose only visible on-screen crime is a lapse in maternal instinct for children not her own, to whom she is assigned temporary babysitter status by her employer, and who purposefully cause their own disappearance.
Back to Claire and Owen, who in their first meeting are already outlining the terms of their interaction: she denies liking him as he insists that “It’s all about control with you.” As evidence of Owen’s claim, we’re offered a glimpse into their first date, a disaster for which she apparently printed out a planned itinerary. When Claire refers to the dinosaurs as “assets”, Owen chides her: “You might have made them in a test tube, but they don’t know that. These animals are thinking, ‘I gotta eat, I gotta hunt, I gotta… [fist-pump gesture for sex]. You can relate to at least one of those things… right?” Not only is the movie making Claire’s need to loosen up explicitly sexual, it’s linking it to male anxiety on a deeper level. Test tube babies are the epitome of industrialized male insecurity—they tap into the fear that eventually, technology will make even sperm redundant, and that men will be rendered not only socially but biologically unnecessary.
Claire’s “assets”, the dinosaurs which she looks over more closely than the children who are related to her, were made in a test tube. Owen is going to act as the narrative’s corrective to this “unnatural” state of affairs, by pulling Claire along on a jungle adventure, one in which (you guessed it) she will be repeatedly splashed, shocked, hosed down and made messy by nature, until she grasps the error of her technological, artificial, man- and baby-eschewing ways.
All along the way, Owen helpfully reminds Claire (and the audience) of all the ways she isn’t well-suited for survival: “You’ll last two minutes in there. Less in those ridiculous shoes.” I lost count of how many times Owen told Claire to quiet down, to stay behind him, to do exactly as he said if she wanted to survive, but I know it was enough times to make me start to not like Chris Pratt (a very handsome and charming actor) as much as I did at the beginning of the movie. One of the problems with a “back to nature” misogynist narrative is that it’s difficult to write a likeable hero who is always, uninterruptedly, right about everything; and yet for one of these narratives to work, the alpha male hero must be the unerringly correct authority on survival in nature. Otherwise, the narrative collapses—because it’s predicated on the figure of the “necessary man”, without whom women and children will absolutely die. And so the hero is proven right, again and again, until the woman and children finally recognize his primacy and cede leadership to him. Once Owen and Claire find the missing boys, Gray asks: “Can we stay with you?”
“I am never leaving you again,” Claire reassures him.
“No, no, him! We mean him!!” both boys yell in unison, pointing to Owen, whom they met about five minutes ago. Such is the strength of Owen’s alpha-male competence: it impresses both velociraptors and adolescent males alike. But Claire can only see it once she has been adequately dirtied by nature: her hair mussed, her skin sheened with sweat, her clothing disheveled but—crucially—her high heels still on. Even at the climax of the movie, when dinosaurs are erupting through plate-glass windows and the Park is literally on fire, Claire is still wearing her heels. Even though they’ve hobbled her, she is as locked into symbolic femininity as Owen is trapped in symbolic masculinity. She can no more rid herself of her heels and her helplessness than Owen can abandon his penis or his ineffable aura of leadership—to this movie, heels are simply a woman’s feet. Claire is still wearing them when, at the end of the movie, the boys are safely returned to their beaming mother, who promptly bursts into tears. Watching this display of maternal emotion, Claire’s face flickers through sadness, jealousy, regret—then her gaze alights on Owen, and her face clears. She has found her alpha male, or more accurately her source of sperm, since the movie is all but holding up a sign announcing that Claire will be knocked up by morning. She saunters up to him.
“What do we do now?” she asks in her final line, signaling her newfound submission to his leadership.
“Probably stay together. For survival,” Owen responds. The “back to nature” plotline is complete—the alpha male has taken his rightful place as the leader and protector of a woman, soon to be the mother of his children.
There is an incredible documentary, “Blackfish”, about a real-life monster: the captive Sea World orca Tilikum, who has been involved in the deaths of three people. One of them was trainer Dawn Brancheau, who was killed during a performance with Tilikum. Tilikum pulled her underwater and away from the sides of the tank, drowning her slowly. For hours, the Sea World staff agonized over how to get Tilikum away from Brancheau’s body. In a particularly haunting interview, one of Brancheau’s coworkers remembers being informed of her death. After the news had sunk in, the SeaWorld representative added: “He still has her.”
We may be at a point where women are—legally, grudgingly—allowed to hold jobs, to defer motherhood, to choose a life not defined by service to men and children. But make no mistake. Zara’s gruesome death, and Claire’s return to traditional femininity, are not just narrative coincidences. They are morals, stern warnings of the terrible punishments that await women who refuse their “natural” role and the peace and serenity that await women who accept it. We sit in stands outside the tank, covered in mosasaurus splash, gasping for breath, thrilled with our popcorn.
But the monster still has her.