There’s a short, great movie about dinosaurs somewhere inside Jurassic World, a long, mediocre movie about people. This box office record-shattering blockbuster may be the fourth installment in the Jurassic Park franchise, but its gender politics fall shockingly short of the 1993 original.
The film’s female protagonist is Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard), a high-powered executive who works at the massive Jurassic World theme park. She’s a cold, driven career woman who must learn (or, more accurately, who must be taught) the importance of motherhood.
This character is exactly as refreshing as she sounds, possibly less so.
On the phone with her sister, Claire uses the phrase “if I have kids,” prompting Karen (Judy Greer) to disapprovingly correct her to “when,” before tearfully expounding on the importance of family values. Meanwhile, Karen’s imminent divorce is treated with melodrama that wouldn’t feel out of place in a pre-Kramer vs. Kramer movie.
When the Indominus rex, Jurassic World’s unstoppably destructive genetically modified hybrid dinosaur, escapes its enclosure, Claire teams up with hunky, rough-around-the-edges Velociraptor trainer Owen (Chris Pratt) to rescue her visiting nephews. As she totters through the Costa Rican wilderness in a pair of high heels, we watch Claire’s hair go from blow-dried straight to curly as Pratt’s character — who, meanwhile, exhibits no growth whatsoever — literally and figuratively loosens her up.
It’s not just that Jurassic World won’t let Claire have her cake and eat it, too: she can seemingly do neither. Despite Claire’s ostensible professional success, the movie sees her ordered around by man after man after man, from Owen to the park’s owner (Irrfan Khan) to its security chief (Vincent D’Onofrio). Ironically, when she finally gets the chance to tell someone (Lowery, Jake Johnson’s control-room wonk) what to do, she does so in undeniably sexist terms: “Be a man for once in your life,” she scolds him.
In the rare moments when the script actually allows Claire to do something empowering, it’s quick to undercut her triumph. Shortly after Claire and Owen reunite with her nephews, she saves Grady’s life by shooting a Pteranodon off his back. Yet, minutes later, the kids announce, “We want to stay with him,” (meaning Owen, whom they have just met) in what was apparently intended as a hilarious laugh line.
“Your boyfriend is a badass,” one of the boys tells her. She blushes girlishly at this, like she just can’t wait to tell her diary all about it.
To defeat the Indominus rex, Claire cleverly summons the T. rex from its paddock with a lit flare, a nod to Jurassic Park. This is a genuinely heroic moment, swiftly undercut by the fact that she must then flee from the animal in her heels.
As the climactic dinosaur-on-dinosaur battle unfolds, our heroine ends up lying prostrate on the ground, in close proximity to the fighting, for no apparent reason. She is reduced to a helpless damsel in distress, bosom heaving, looking more than a little like Fay Wray in King Kong.
Claire isn’t the only female character failed by Jurassic World. Her assistant Zara (Katie McGrath) is, notably, the first woman to be killed on-screen in the franchise’s history, which, at least in theory, should be considered progress towards equality. But her drawn-out death at the hands (so to speak) of multiple dinosaurs is memorably, surreally brutal. This isn’t the sort of random casualty that emerges from the disaster movie business-as-usual. Zara’s death is depicted with relish, like it’s a deserved retribution.
That day, Claire had tasked Zara with watching her nephews, who ultimately escape their assigned babysitter’s supervision. By the time of her death, all we know about Zara is that a) she’s not terribly good with kids — although she’s certainly a far cry from the lawyer in Jurassic Park, who meets his end in the jaws of a T. rex after intentionally abandoning two children to die — and, as we overhear from her phone call, that b) she’s against her fiancé throwing a bachelor party.
What, exactly, is Jurassic World punishing her for?
The way Claire ties the tails of her blouse and the purple tank top layered beneath it are probably meant to evoke Jurassic Park’s Dr. Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern). Unfortunately, outside of their waist-up style choices, these two women have little in common.
Unlike Claire, Sattler is one hell of a character. She’s brave, passionate, and brilliant, as intellectually and physically capable as anyone else in the movie (perhaps even more so than anyone else in the movie). Sattler, a paleobotanist, is in a low-key romantic relationship with her colleague Alan Grant (Sam Neill), with whom she shares a bond that’s built on mutual respect. On Isla Nublar, she doesn’t bat an eye at Ian Malcolm’s (Jeff Goldblum) heavy-handed flirting. And it’s certainly worth noting that, in contrast to Claire’s heels and pencil skirt — which, at some point that I missed, gets an inexplicable, revealing thigh slit torn into it — Sattler is practically dressed for raptor evasion in hiking boots and khaki shorts. 1993’s stylish comfort sure beats 2015’s rigid constraints.
She’s also an unapologetic feminist. While their Jeep is parked outside the T. rex exhibit, Malcolm waxes poetic about the nature of this experiment: “God creates dinosaurs. God destroys dinosaurs. God creates man. Man destroys god. Man creates dinosaurs.”
Sattler doesn’t miss a beat. “Dinosaurs eat man,” she continues. “Woman inherits the Earth.”
When Ellie embarks alone on a dangerous mission to switch the power back on, Jurassic Park’s creator John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) hesitates. “It ought to be me, really, going,” he says, because this is a job for man. This earns an eyeroll from Sattler.
“We can discuss sexism in survival situations when I get back,” she quips.
Despite her partner’s skepticism about kids, Sattler openly expresses her interest in having children. Unlike Jurassic World, Jurassic Park readily acknowledges the existence of women who are both ambitious and maternal.
Family is also a central issue here, but the responsibility of child-rearing falls on male shoulders. Stranded in the park with Hammond’s grandchildren, Grant becomes their surrogate father. He shepherds them to the safety of the visitor’s center, developing real affection for them in the process. Grant’s discovery of his fondness for children is joyful, but in Jurassic World, Claire’s is colored with shame and anxiety.
I first saw Jurassic Park as a child and — I expect I’m not alone in this — immediately imprinted on preteen Lex (Ariana Richards), a vegetarian and a gifted “hacker.” It’s Hammond’s granddaughter who singlehandedly reboots the park’s security system, a feat that eluded all of the movie’s grownups, and effectively saves the day.
In Jurassic World, the only young women on screen are nameless pretty young things who function solely as eye candy to be leered at by Zach (Nick Robinson), Claire’s creepy teenage nephew.
If I had a daughter, I know which of these two films I’d rather share with her. Aside from the obvious advances in CGI, it’s honestly difficult to believe Jurassic World came out 22 years after Jurassic Park.
You can make a good movie — a very good movie, even! — that pairs an uptight lady with a macho dude. Two successful romances in this mold are Romancing the Stone (1984), in which Michael Douglas jungle-proofs Kathleen Turner’s shoes by lopping off the heels with a machete, or The African Queen (1951), in which missionary Katharine Hepburn dumps all of boat captain Humphrey Bogart’s gin into the Ulanga River.
But for this formula to work, it requires three-dimensional, fully drawn characters, who mutually learn from one another — and who aren’t shamed for their failure to adhere to traditional gender roles.