Earlier this week, I headed to my local multiplex to experience Jurassic World – the latest installment in the classic Jurassic Park series. And, I got a lot of what I expected – namely, a giant dinosaur disaster and heavy Samsung product placement. I also got a lot of things I didn’t know I needed in my life, like children riding baby triceratops and hangry pterosaurs snatching up grubby, fleeing tourists outside of (of course) a Starbucks. I wish I could have walked out of that movie feeling purely underwhelmed, but alas – here we are.
The one thing I did not (could not? should not have had to?) prepare myself for was that classic “men strong, women weak” current that ran through the entire movie. Sitting in my seat, gripping my cup holders for strength, I tried to determine whether this movie really did have questionable gender politics or if Mad Max: Fury Road had just ruined me for typical blockbuster action movies. The answer is both (but mostly the former).
When we first meet Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) she is clean cut – dressed in all white with stick straight hair – and all business. As operations manager of the Jurassic World theme park, she is more concerned about finding sponsors and seeking profit than admiring the animals (and men) around her. We also learn early on that her sister has sent her two nephews, Gray (Ty Simpkins) and Zach (Nick Robinson) to the theme park and has entrusted them in her care. Claire, being the busy lady that she is, passes her nephews on to her personal assistant after getting caught in an awkward embrace from youngest nephew Gray and failing to remember the last time she saw them. She is, in effect, the one-dimensional uptight, unlikable career woman you thought (hoped) Hollywood had left behind.
She is set up for the audience to have two major flaws: 1. she is too focused on her career and 2. she is not focused enough on letting loose, finding love, and starting a family. And everyone is super committed to telling her that.
In a phone call with her sister Karen (Judy Greer) early on in the film, Karen chastises Claire for leaving her nephews with her personal assistant instead of clearing her schedule to spend time with them. Claire is clearly uncomfortable (to a fault, probably) with family dynamics and children, but this is of no concern to her sister. When Karen suggests that “Someday, when she has children, she’ll understand,” Claire responds with “if I have children,” to which Karen assures, smiling, “No, when.” Claire’s grimace softens a bit as her ovaries begin to percolate.
The dynamic between her and Owen (Chris Pratt) is also problematic from the start. Within minutes of their first scene together, we find out that they’ve, of course, been on a date, though they both make sure to let us know that is was ONLY ONE DATE because they couldn’t stand each other enough to try it again. The main roadblock in their burgeoning love story seems to be that Owen is too in tune with the animals while Claire is just too uptight and career-oriented to understand him. This comes to a head when Owen attempts to explain dinosaur logic to Claire: “These animals are thinking, ‘I gotta eat.’ ‘I gotta hunt.’ ‘I gotta…’ [He makes thrusting gesture with his fist.] You gotta be able to relate to at least one of those things.” When the moment first happened, and I swallowed my own vomit, I thought he was suggesting that despite her cold demeanor, she must have warm, sexy feelings buried somewhere under that pristine skirt suit, but after sitting with it, I’m wondering if he was suggesting exactly the opposite. Either way: male/female conversation, sex is brought up because obviously, woman is literally uptight, etc, etc. And with that, Jurassic World had successfully teleported me and our entire audience back 50 years. That’s some mad science.
Things only get better when Claire realizes she actually needs Owen’s help. When the park gets shut down after the Indominus rex breaks free of her enclosure and starts eating everyone in sight, Claire is horrified to realize that her nephews are still out in the park. The only person she can think of to ask for assistance is Owen, who agrees to help, but not without a quip. When they’re ready to head out, Owen asks Claire if she’s really going to go out into the wilderness wearing her nude pumps. In response, Claire knots up her jacket, rolls up her sleeves, and gets on her way. I honestly don’t know how rolling up one’s sleeves prepares one for wilderness exploration, but I don’t care. I don’t need an explanation. So what if she’s wearing impractical shoes into the forest? Why does the question even need to be asked? She came directly from work, so she was wearing heels. Why even bring it up? Greater than the problem of her wearing prissy, impractical footwear is the problem of Owen even dwelling on her shoes when, you know, kids are out in a glass ball being chased by a mutant dinosaur.
Speaking of dwelling on weird shit, once they finally get in the car to look for Gray and Zach, the pair is quickly distracted. Owen dramatically stops the jeep, but we don’t know what for. “Stay in the car!,” he yells at Claire, who obliges. We then find out they’ve stopped in a field of Apatosaurus that have all been killed by the Indominus rex. Now, I don’t know about you, but I literally can not think of anything less threatening to a human than a friendly, dying herbivore. If you’ll remember, in the original Jurassic Park, Alan Grant and Ellie Sattler hang out with a living Brachiosaurus shortly after first entering the park and everything is fine. Yet Owen thinks she can’t even handle this. She does ultimately leave the jeep and have a moment with a poor, mauled Apatosaurus, though.
And things like this keep happening. When they finally find Claire’s nephews and she says they’re not going to leave them again, they yell “We want to stay with him!” And honestly, I can’t blame them for that. But even when, later on, Claire expertly drives them all to safety in a jeep, dodging Velociraptors and even smushing one between the jeep and a tree, the kids are instantly relieved when Owen shows up again.
Claire does have her triumphant moments, though, don’t get me wrong. When a pterosaur swoops down and tackles Owen, she picks up a gun and shoots the dinosaur in the face, saving his life. He repays her as anyone would – with a kindhearted thank you. Wait, whoops, I meant with a big smooch, because in this… Jurassic World, validation has to be sexualized for some reason.
A similarly unsatisfying triumph happens in the final mega battle scene, which involves a bunch dinosaurs and countless teeth. Claire takes initiative and runs to free the park’s Tyrannosaurus Rex so it can destroy the Indominus Rex, and that’s pretty cool. It’s just a bummer that she gets the idea from her 10 year old nephew who says that they “need more teeth.” It’s also a bummer that she has to haggle with a cowardly man (Lowery, played by Jake Johnson, who I actually enjoyed watching) to get him to even open the gate for her.
Ultimately, all’s well that ends well. Or really, all’s well that ends with love, family, and romantic silhouettes. Zach and Gray’s parents arrive and the love is palpable, even on Claire’s face. Instead of trying to connect with this family, she gazes at Owen, approaches him, and they decide they better stick together “for survival purposes,” as Owen says. And with that, Claire’s transformation is complete. It’s not a transformation from powder puff to strongman, or a transformation from out of touch to connected to the world around her. It’s a transformation from uptight, career-focused, and straight-haired, to love-oriented, family-desiring, and wavy haired. It’s the transformation Owen and Claire’s sister were rooting for, and that’s what’s so disappointing.