PG-13 124 mins. 2015 USA Colin Trevorrow
It may seem strange that I’m reviewing Jurassic World for a horror blog since none of the Jurassic Park films have ever been categorized as horror films: they are action, adventure, thriller, and science-fiction. But not horror. Why is that? Well, in large part it’s about marketing and studios striving to reach the largest possible audience; it’s about making sure the franchise is family-friendly. It’s also, though, because the films feature dinosaurs—natural creatures, not monsters. Right?
Noel Carroll has famously argued, in The Philosophy of Horror, that horror demands a monster—a being that is impure, “categorically interstitial, categorically contradictory, incomplete, or formless,” a being that thus elicits fear and revulsion in its viewers.[i]
By this definition, though, the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park aren’t natural beings at all: they are monsters, something that’s been clear from their inception in Michael Crichton’s 1990 novel. Characters in the novel and all four of the films insist that the dinosaurs are not faithful re-creations of “natural” prehistoric animals, but genetically engineered monsters. (In Jurassic Park III, Alan Grant (Sam Neill) hits us over the head with the “unnaturalness” of the dinosaurs, flatly declaring that they are not dinosaurs but “monsters.”) Jurassic World makes it even clearer than all the other installments in this series that we’re dealing with a monster. Indominus Rex, star of the show, is a creature designed in the lab to sate the customers’ desire for “more teeth,” an expressly impure mixture of T-Rex, Velociraptor, cuttlefish, tree frogs, and who knows what else. And Indominus Rex is not just born a monster; she’s made one too. Raised alone in a walled compound, her only meaningful relationship, as hero Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) puts it, is with the crane that delivers her food.
Making it clear how “monstrous” Jurassic World’s “dinosaurs” actually are, one unforgettable moment in the film highlights their extreme alienation from the natural world. A Jurassic Park (and no doubt genetically-engineered) Mosasaurus eats a shark—and the fearsome predator of Jaws (and surely this is a nod to Jaws’ 40th anniversary this summer) is turned into a puny afternoon snack.
So Jurassic World really should be considered a “horror film.” Its entire plot is centered on the violent rampage of the genetically-engineered, “monstrous” Indominus after she (inevitably) escapes from her walled compound and storms across Isla Nublar killing dinosaur and human alike. This is the classic horror formula distilled to perfection, complete with its own Doctor Frankenstein—villain Dr. Wu (B. D. Wong), who creates Indominus and abandons her, his only defense when things (inevitably) get out of hand being that he’s only doing what the scientists at Jurassic Park have always done (and he has a point). To press the matter home, about the monstrosity of Indominus, Grady declares at one point, looking out across the glen filled with dead herbivores: “She’s killing for sport.” Indominus Rex is Frankenstein’s creature, Godzilla, Michael Myers, Jason Vorhees, and Hannibal Lecter all rolled into one—with more teeth.
Indominus Rex’s status as monster is heightened still further by the fact that former Jurassic “monsters”—notably the Raptors that stalked the three first films—are now being harnessed as “natural” beings (with names) on the side of good (even though, as Wu points out, they too were created by filling in missing gaps in the raptor genome—hardly, actually, “natural”).
Still, with all that, Jurassic World doesn’t feel like a horror movie. Perhaps it’s because I have too much sympathy for Indominus, as well as all the other “monsters” that populate Jurassic World. As far as I’m concerned, they utterly steal the show from a solidly mediocre and forgettable cast (with the possible exception of Chris Pratt’s Indiana-Jones-like Grady.) As much as Indominus does wreak utter havoc when she escapes, and as much as she must meet her inevitable end when she threatens our protagonists, she so clearly never had a chance: she became exactly what her much less sympathetic human creators made her to be. In that, she is, in fact, like Frankenstein’s creature, who was similarly abandoned and vilified by his unlikeable creator.
Jurassic World also doesn’t feel like a horror film because of the happy ending—mandatory in action films, it seems, but certainly not mandatory in twenty-first century horror. Most viewers will watch the film safe in the knowledge that while the bad guys and disposable extras might die, the “good guys”—meaning the incipient heterosexual couple, Grady and Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard), as well as the children, Zach (Nick Robinson) and Gray (Ty Simpkins)—will emerge unscathed. I’m not giving anything away, then, when I say that, narratively and visually, the ending has much in common with the final frame of James Whale’s Frankenstein.
Of course, if the film resembles nothing more than Frankenstein, why isn’t it a horror film? By most accounts Whale’s 1931 classic kicked off the U.S. horror tradition. And then there’s King Kong (1933)—also something of a progenitor for the Jurassic Park films. The Lost World (1997), which culminates with the T-rex storming through the streets of San Diego, evokes not only King Kong but also The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), Godzilla (1954), and the Creature from the Black Lagoon films (1954, 1955, 1956).
In the end, I do think that Jurassic World is firmly in the horror tradition, a line drawn from 1930s and 1950s “creature” films to the genetically-engineered “monsters” of Jurassic Park. These films, like Jurassic World, often featured sympathetic monsters, and they insisted (in some version of a “happy ending”) on affirming the heterosexual couple and the nuclear family—even as that “happy” ending rang hollow for many viewers who felt the death of the monster was too high a price to pay for the affirmation of the normative world.
Mainstream horror since the 1960s has moved away from this vision—typically locating the source of horror in the family, and certainly not preserving the heterosexual couple or family in a happy ending. Jurassic World, though, is a horror movie that, like its dinosaurs, is a holdover from the past.
[i] Noël Carroll, The Philosophy of Horror, or, Paradoxes of the Heart (New York: Routledge, 1990), 32.