Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom came out last week to coincide with 25 years of the franchise. Needless to say, many official critics gave the new instalment a kicking, plus there was the inevitable cries on social media about it ‘not being as good’ as the original.
But love or hate the new Jurassic Worlds, there’s plenty for us to learn as writers from the franchise. You ready for another instalment of Movie Lessons For Writers? OBVIOUSLY there will be *some* spoilers for the franchise as a whole, but only mild ones. So let’s go …
1) Entertainment first, ALWAYS
The original Jurassic Park is a classic and a MASSIVE influence on the spec pile … Not only in Thrillers and Action-Adventures, but across the board. That said, it’s still not a perfect movie, though many people insist it is.
For starters, there’s a never-ending reliance on junk science that starts here and runs throughout the entire franchise (ALL those dinos from ONE mosquito?? That was lucky!). Said junk science also relates to not only HOW the dinosaurs came to be, but also other scientific inaccuracies such as their size, how they look and even their names.
But then, writers SHOULD sacrifice facts for drama, right? Well, even on a craft level, the original film, like many Spielberg/Koepp collaborations, also has a significant structural issue in the first half, not least its unwieldy set up.
In addition, for some viewers, there’s also a couple of jarring jumps with reference to the number of velociraptors present/not-present in scenes. Audiences have to assume the velociraptor Ellie locked in at the power station got out via that line, ‘unless they can open doors’ (though this is match-cut to the two velociraptors entering the kitchen, a completely different room).
But moments later, it should be noted that Lex locks one of these raptors in the kitchen freezer! But if you recall, Muldoon says of the queen velociraptor (‘she took over the pride killed all but two of the others’) … So unless the one in the power station unlocked the door, there should only be one left. Yet there STILL two attacking the T-Rex in the famous end scene! Teensy bit handy there (and probably the result of judicious edit, I would wager).
But did you notice??? If you did … who cares, right?
Because that’s entertainment.
Jurassic Park shows you can get away with *whatever you like* IF you make it entertaining. In fact, I will no doubt get people arguing with me in the comments section of this blog about how it’s ‘NOT like I remember it’, or that I am ‘over-analysing things’. Yet I said it literally doesn’t matter!
Of course, most of us lowly writers could never get away with stuff like this, but it is worth remembering that if something is entertaining – even on the page – readers may be willing to overlook certain sacrifices for the sake of drama.
WHAT WE CAN LEARN: Writers often obsess over stuff like narrative logic and whether they ‘should’ sacrifice facts for drama. Whilst this is important, it’s never more important than ENTERTAINMENT.
2) Visuals are KEY
I’ve written over and again on this blog about how there is ‘too much’ dialogue in the spec pile. What is surprising is this is even true in the specs that want to be taken seriously as thrillers or action-adventures like the Jurassic franchise!
Now, most of us won’t ever be in a position to write a remake or reboot for an epic franchise. Some of us may not even want to, which is fair enough. B ut whatever you are writing, VISUALS are key and the Jurassic franchise has iconic visuals by the bucketload. Here are my favourites off the top of my head, I don’t even have to look them up:
- The T-Rex roaring as the banner reading, ‘When Dinosaurs Ruled The Earth’ flutters down in the first movie
- The deaths of the Brachiosaurs on the island in Fallen Kingdom
- The caravan falling off the cliff in The Lost World whilst Sarah, Ian and Nick hang from a rope (The Lost World)
- The Spinosaurus taking out the aircraft (Jurassic III)
- The Indoraptor on the roof in the ‘haunted house’ sequence (Fallen Kingdom)
- The deaths of the mercs and hunters in the long grass via velociraptors in the second movie
- Owen riding a motorbike with velociraptors through the jungle (Jurassic World)
- The computer code reflected on the Velociraptor as it figures where the humans have gone (first movie)
- Sarah on the glass with it cracking underneath her fingertips (The Lost World)
- The satellite phone and the Spinosaurus (alluding to the crocodile and the ticking clock in Peter Pan)
- Ian Malcolm and Claire Dearing running with flares and the T Rex (first movie and Jurassic World)
- The satellite phone sliding from one side of the boat to the other as they almost drown thanks to the Spinosaurus again (third movie)
- The T Rex as villain AND hero throughout the franchise, with Blue the velociraptor bringing ups the rear in Jurassic World
- The demise of Indominus Rex (Jurassic World)
- The fact it’s nearly always raining at night in these movies! But hey, it LOOKS COOL OKAY
WHAT WE CAN LEARN: Now, some of the above are single shots; others are part of, or the whole of, individual set pieces. Whatever the case, this franchise is a VISUAL FEAST and there’s plenty to learn on using visuals to our advantage as screenwriters … Or, now you mention it, novelists as well.
3) Thematic Characterisation *is* okay
I’ve heard a lot of wailing ‘If the original Jurassic Park were made today ...’ online this past week. Of course, many of the people online who loved the original Jurassic Park as children so much have unfortunately grown up in the last twenty five years … Plus CGI is now standard, rather than new. But hey, that couldn’t possibly be why they don’t like it! 😉
Yet the Jurassic Worlds are EXACTLY what the originals were, if you really break it down:
- It’s literally made by the same people
- CGI dinosaurs galore, chasing and chomping on characters
- Pathos versus comedy
- Moral Qs regarding evolution/animal rights/corporate greed/ cloning
- Thematic characterisation across all role functions
It’s the last one that seem to be the real sticking point. I keep hearing about how the characters in the original trilogy were apparently so amazing and the likes of Owen and Claire are so terrible, or ’tissue-paper thin’ at best.
But let’s not pretend the Jurassic Park movies were EVER truly about the characters. Not only have people gone primarily for the dinosaurs and the eating of people, the franchise has ALWAYS riffed off various audience expectations, tropes and outright stereotypes. This is especially true in terms of peripheral characters, but also some bigger role functions too.
i) What always happens with characters
- Mercs and hunters hate animals and will die
- The grasping and greedy will die, especially millionaires and Toffs
- Military people who don’t understand animals will die
- Trespassers will (probably) die
- Innocent bystanders caught in the middle of stuff *may* die, because CHAOS
- Scientists and zoo keepers who always follow orders will die
- Scientists and zoo keepers who don’t follow orders will die
- GOATS WILL DIE AND LOTS OF THEM
- Children are innocent and will survive
- Adults who show mercy to animals will survive
- People in peril need rescuing, including women AND men
- ‘Helpers’ who put their lives on the line for dinos will survive
- If you repent your previous greedy ways, you will survive
- People trying to play God will (nearly always) die
- BUT BD Wong will always get away to make more dinos another day
You can apply the above to every single instalment of the Jurassic franchise. But now let’s look at the bigger role functions.
ii) The Women
For me, the most interesting thing about the first Jurassic Park is the insistence on how it’s apparently so feminist. To me, this feels like an epic retcon to fit in with the current conversation bout feminism and film NOW.
I’ll explain: I like Ellie well enough, plus if other viewers really love her, then great. But for a character so apparently revered by modern femcrit (on the basis of being a professional, apparently!), Dr. Ellie Sattler is not a brilliantly rounded character. She is a brilliant THEMATIC character, there to give out doses of what this story is ‘truly about’.
Ellie’s most famous speeches – at the dino-poop and to Hammond whilst they eat ice cream in the visitors’ centre – really nail her job in the story, here. At grass roots level regarding craft, she is nothing more than the Expositional Jo.
It should be noted that being an Expositional Jo is NOT a criticism. Even though I massively prefer Sarah in The Lost World, Ellie earns her role in the original Jurassic Park, plus Expositional Jos are needed in sci-fi story worlds where there is convoluted back story (including junk science!).
That said, with Ellie as the only lead female character in the original movie (since Lex is by her nature a Damsel to be rescued, much like Timmy), an Expositional Jo is a very common, familiar trope, especially for a female character. We even see this repeated with Amanda in the third movie and no one is going to bat for her as an ‘exceptional’ female character!
In contrast then, the likes of Claire Dearing becomes something we haven’t quite seen before in the franchise. She has some Expositional Jo qualities – she literally introduces us to Jurassic World! – but that is not her sole role function, since unlike Ellie and her male predecessors, Claire is also the protagonist.
In the first movie, she has much to learn; she’s rather naive, highly strung, a bit annoyingly self-involved, but her heart is in the right place. In short, she is what most ‘grown ups’ think ‘young people’ are (and who is this movie really for?). In the course of the narrative, Claire will have to overcome her corporate background and get stuck into the nitty gritty. Sure it’s not an amazingly original arc, but it’s all that’s needed in what is essentially a disaster movie.
In Fallen Kingdom, Claire has been significantly changed by her ordeal in Jurassic World. She is no longer so self-involved or highly strung, but is still using skills she learned in the corporate world … This time it is for the dinosaurs’ benefit, rather than exploiting them as assets. She is still naive however, hence her believing the best of the Lockwood estate and walking straight into Mills’ double-cross. But naive and idealistic is not stupid.
Also, like Ellie or Sarah in the first movies, Claire does not need saving from dinosaurs. UNLIKE them, she will save the men from dinosaurs, which makes a nice change. So why the hate? Oh right, she wears high heels. Gotcha. BUT SHE OUTRUNS A T-REX IN THEM OMFG WHAT DO YOU WANT. Moving on.
iii) The Men
What’s more, the male characters – both main, secondary and peripheral (and traditionally there have always been waaaaaay more of them!) – have always been thematic too.
The likes of Ian Malcolm and Alan Grant represent the ‘old world’ of chaos theory and archaeology respectively. They are men of theory, not practice and crucially, react exactly like we’d expect them to. First they freak out, completely useless … and must, over the courses of their arcs, ‘man up’ and do what needs to be done.
In Alan’s case, he must rescue Lex and Timmy in the original movie; then let the child Eric rescue him in the third movie. In Ian’s case (and the second movie), he tries to rescue Sarah, dragging Kelly into danger with him. His arc is the opposite to Alan’s: he must learn HE is the liability and macho bullshit can make things worse (which actually DOES feel very progressive for 1997, now we’re on the subject).
In direct comparison, Owen in the Jurassic World movies is not a man of theory or science, but one of action. This is a direct contrast to the Ians and Alans of before, which is where I think most of the resistance is coming from. His character is representative of the old world too: he’s a military man mixed with a Doctor DoLittle type. Again, this is quite familiar, but he’s not the protagonist … Or not meant to be.
I actually like Owen a lot; he reminds me of activist photographer Nick in The Lost World. He makes a few realisations, such as the fact Claire is not as weak as he thinks she is, though crucially this is a) because she its from the corporate world and b) more about him liking to rescue people!
Like Alan Grant, Owen rescues a bunch of people, most of them men and/or children: Claire’s nephews Gray and Zach in the first movie; plus his colleague Barry who works with him on Blue and the rest of the raptors; plus the worker who falls into the cage. In Fallen Kingdom he rescues Maisie, another child, plus Franklin and Claire from the gyroscope when it falls into the sea (note: not dinosaurs!).
My favourite moment though has to be when he has to rescue HIMSELF from molten lava, despite the notable issue of still be partially paralysed by a tranquilliser dart!
I do think the casting of Chris Pratt (and the fact Bryce Dallas Howard is so much ‘less’ famous) is what is causing the semantic noise and making people ‘miss’ Claire’s arc. Or maybe it’s because traditionally, audiences prefer more complex, less action-y men in this franchise? Who knows.
Whatever the case, I really like the teamwork between Claire and Owen in the latest two movies. In both Jurassic World and Fallen Kingdom, these two characters can only really prosper in the narrative when they work together … and when that fails, appeal for Blue to rescue them!
WHAT WE CAN LEARN: The epic success of Jurassic franchise shows that as writers, we can use characters whatever way we damn well want, including thematic characterisation … as long as we do it WELL. But this is not a ‘get out of jail free’ card either, we must do our research on what has gone before.
4) You Can’t Please Everyone
Now, I really enjoyed Fallen Kingdom and so did a lot of the Bang2writers. This seems to be backed up with Fallen Kingdom scoring a ‘Fresh’ rating on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, though the critics’ general consensus was that it was not as good as Jurassic World (which had a much ‘fresher’ rating of 70% to Fallen Kingdom‘s 60%).
I decided to do a little further digging, for interest’s sake. If we compare the two new Jurassic Worlds to the original trilogy, Jurassic Park gets an almost-perfect ‘Fresh’ score of 92% (critics) and 91% (audience). We can expect this, since it’s hard to find people who DON’T like it.
I was a little surprised to discover critics were so-so on Jurassic Park III with 50% rotten score; I thought they would score it a lot lower. The audience awarded it a rotten score of 36%, which makes more sense to me. You have to be a real Jurassic Park nerd (like me) to like it!
However, compare that to The Lost World’s rotten score of 53% critics, with only 51% of the audience liking it! This was a genuine surprise to me, since Spielberg directed this follow-up. Since Ian Malcolm is such a popular character and is the protagonist of this instalment, I just assumed ‘everyone’ liked it as well. I also think it’s considerably better than the Jurassic Worlds. Shows you can’t rely on your own opinions when it comes to audience and critical reception!
WHAT WE CAN LEARN: People will always hate on your work. Don’t worry about them, concentrate instead on those who LOVE it.
5) They CAN and WILL Remake Classics
Jurassic World is STILL in the top 10 highest-grossest movies ever (it seems to float around number 4-5 mark) … At the time of writing, the original Jurassic Park is at number 23. Even allowing for the passage of twenty five years (ahem, Titanic is still number 2, despite being released in 1999), that means a loooooot of $$$ is up for grabs here.
Thing is, it doesn’t matter to us as writers whether we think remakes and reboots ‘should’ happen … If there’s money to be made, the movies WILL happen. This is show BUSINESS whether we like it or not! What’s more, audiences have spoken and they literally want these movies, whether you happen to agree or not.
So, if you go off on one half-cocked on social media ranting about ‘cash-grabs’ and how audiences are all stupid … guess what? You’re being an amateur. What’s more, it won’t stop said reboots and remakes … Only refusing to pay money to go and see them will!
WHAT WE CAN LEARN: Don’t like reboots and remakes? Don’t watch them. Vote with your wallet and watch some great indie films instead – there’s plenty of them! But most importantly, don’t hurt your writer credibility by shouting into the wind online.