Jurassic World and how expectations impact a critic's review
Welcome back to the latest installment of Ask the Critic. Or, as I’m calling it, “The all-Jurassic World edition.” Judging from the film’s record-breaking $208.8 million opening weekend, a lot of you saw the movie over the weekend and read our “B+” review. Still, you have questions about both. So let’s dig in…
This is a C-review gussied up to make its audience feel better for having such low standards. Movie reviews are not supposed to be based on “our” expectations. They’re supposed to be honest reflections on the quality of a movie based on the perspective of the writer. This writer basically tells you the movie is lousy with nonsense, but that’s OK because it’s summer and in summer you all love nonsense. —Pa Kent Says Maybe
And one reader’s rebuttal, taking the opposite approach…
Honest reflections based on the quality of a movie… sure. But one shouldn’t review Jurassic World in the same way one would review an Oscar-nominated film, say. You just can’t take it that seriously. Flawed blockbusters can still have merit, just like cult films, B-movies, etc. Chris kept it real on this one, and I respect that. —The Littlest Winslow
If there’s one recurring theme I’ve noticed in the three weeks I’ve been doing this column, it’s that a lot of you are understandably curious about how critics arrive at their verdicts. Why does one film get an “A” and another a “C-“. That’s totally fair. All I can say is that grading a film isn’t an exact science. It’s intangible—subjective rather than objective. The moment a critic attempts to put his or her criteria into words is the precise moment the whole endeavor evaporates into vapor. All I can say is that reviewing movies leans on a combination of: 1) narrative coherence, 2) acting performances, 3) a screenwriter’s—or, more likely, an army of screenwriters’—knack for storytelling, and 4) the success (or lack thereof) of a director’s technical achievement. Ultimately, though, I guess I’ve always felt that it boils down to something more ethereal: one’s gut reaction to what they’ve just witnessed.
The writer of the first question isn’t buying any of that. For him (I’m assuming it’s a “him” based on his handle), a critic’s “expectations” shouldn’t factor into their take on a film. To which, I say baloney. We all go into a movie with a certain set of preconceived ideas, critics included. We are not court reporters, regurgitating the facts of a local town-hall assembly with cold objectivity. We come to movies with certain hopes and expectations based on things like the director’s previous work. That’s why a movie like Guardians of the Galaxy (which was directed by James Gunn, a relatively unproven filmmaker) might earn an A-, while Inherent Vice (directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, a filmmaker I hugely admire) gets a C. I’m not necessarily saying that Guardians is a better film than Inherent Vice (although in this case, it is), just that it succeeds better at delivering what it promises. Does the filmmaker accomplish what they set out to do? Critics are tasked with having opinions. That’s the gig.
You’re right that I do point out in my Jurassic World review that the film is loaded with nonsense. A lot of nonsense. Not to mention liberal dollops of hokum and hooey. Not least of which is the cardboard character played by Bryce Dallas Howard, whose wardrobe—including her towering high heels clickety-clacking through the jungle—telegraphs more about her character (and the screenwriters’ own retrograde notions of feminism) than the actual script does. But it hardly stops there. Are we really supposed to believe that the U.S. military is really keen on training raptors as battlefield soldiers for the next Tora Bora? Or that after the calamitous events of the first three movies, someone would actually continue fast-tracking a dinosaur theme park? Or that Jake Johnson would really fork over $150 for a vintage Jurassic Park t-shirt on Ebay? It’s all absurd.
So what were the expectations I brought to Jurassic World that made me enjoy it enough to give it a “B+”? Not to put too fine a point on it, but they were pretty damn low. Both Lost World and Jurassic Park III weren’t good movies by any metric. So going into Jurassic World, I was expecting more of the same. The fact that the movie was as thrilling and full of dino mayhem as it was despite its many flaws, was a pleasant surprise. I left the theater with a huge grin on my face. And I stand by my statement that it’s the best of the Jurassic sequels, even if (as the second letter writer, The Littlest Winslow, rightly calls it) it’s a “flawed blockbuster.”
Let me offer another example: John Wick—a movie I had absolutely no expectations for based on Keanu Reeves’ recent track record, but was blown away by. Or The Conjuring for that matter—a movie that ended up on my 2013 Top 10 list. I went into that one expecting a boilerplate haunted-house chiller and was treated to something more than the standard clammy schlock of the genre. The flip side of this expectations game is Mad Max: Fury Road—a movie I’d literally been waiting 20 years for and had ridiculously high hopes. The fact that, for me, it failed to live up to them is why I gave the movie a “B”. Expectations are unavoidable. Critics aren’t robots cooked up in a lab at Cyberdyne Systems. We are, believe it or not, movie lovers just like you. We walk into every screening hoping that what we’re about to see will be great. So when a movie like Jurassic World exceeds my expectations, I have no problem saying so and championing it. Is the film preposterous and sub-Spiebergian and silly? Sure. But I dug the hell out of it.
Like most people, I greatly enjoyed Steven Spielberg’s original Jurassic Park; The Lost World, much less so. But I don’t believe the gaping plot holes in these movies. I get that in the first film, the raptors figured out how to open doors so they got into the park administration building. But how did the giant T-rex get in there at the end to actually kind of save the day? Which is nothing compared to the ridiculous third act of The Lost World, where the supposedly sedated T-rex kills and half-eats the entire crew of the ship, yet it still manages to sail into the right dock in the harbor, and the T-rex goes back into its pen and closes the lid on itself just so it can pop out and scare the audience (I guess). I know you have to suspend disbelief with these films, but do these howlers bother you as much as they do me? —Jeff Hoyak
They sure do, Jeff. And the howlers that you point out from The Lost World are part of the reason that movie just didn’t do it for me. If the film is working, we’ll overlook a lot. I mean, was the original Jurassic Park any less preposterous? The whole premise of the film—that dino DNA can be extracted from fossilized mosquitoes stuck for millions of years in amber—makes scientists laugh their asses off. But that’s okay because its idiocy is brilliant. Do I believe that no one would wonder what’s up when Wayne Knight leaves his post behind his computer during a crisis for a smoke break that lasts for an hour because he’s secretly off trying to hand off stolen dino embryos? Not for a second. Do I believe any chaos theorist would look and act half as cool as Jeff Goldblum does? Nope. They’re more likely to look and sound like Eddie Deezen in WarGames.
None of this matters because Jurassic Park, judged on any level, is an awesome movie. So yeah, of course, raptors can turn door knobs. If a T-rex wants to as well, I don’t have any problem with that because Spielberg had earned that much by that point in the movie. For some reason it makes me think of Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon. I recently rewatched this kung-fu masterpiece and the thing that kept making my jaw drop was that every time Lee was face-to-face with a gang of chop-socky badasses who wanted to off him, they’d all wait on the sidelines and come at him one at a time. They’d just sit around looking flustered as they watched one of their black-belt brothers get his butt handed to him by Lee and then the next guy would approach like customers at a deli counter. Of course, all they had to do was take advantage of their superior numbers and dog-pile on Lee simultaneously in fists-of-fury fashion. But you’re having too much fun to care.
Where these howlers won’t fly is in a bad movie, where the filmmakers have done nothing to earn your suspension of disbelief. For example, look at a movie like Jaws 4 (a.k.a. Jaws: The Revenge). Like the The Lost World and Jurassic Park III, this is not a good movie. In fact, it’s an aggressively bad movie trading on our fond memories from the first Jaws. In that film, director Joseph Sargent (who’d actually once made a great movie with 1974’s The Taking of Pelham One Two Three), wants us to believe that a Great White is literally so obsessed with the Brody clan that it has followed them down to the Caribbean like Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction. It won’t be ignored, Brody clan! Not to mention that later in that movie, Michael Caine’s khaki shirt literally goes from soaking wet to bone dry in the space of a single cut. When a movie is already acting in bad faith, we won’t swallow the same laziness we will with a good movie.
I have mixed feelings when a sequel like Jurassic World kicks ass at the box-office. I’m thrilled when a franchise I love delivers the goods. But when it makes sooooo much money, it also means that the studio is going to double down with multiple sequels asap. And that means there’s even less money to spend on the new ideas that could become tomorrow franchises. Studios are less willing to take a chance when they can mint a fortune just by rehashing the same old stuff. Is there anything that can change this except the colossal failure of huge tentpole movies? —Not Bill Goldman
I’ll take your word that you are, in fact, not Bill Goldman. But I will treat your question as if it was coming from the Oscar-winning screenwriter of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid himself. And to be honest, this is exactly the kind of question that would give a writer like Goldman cold sweats at night. These are not good times for uncompromising purveyors of bold, original ideas. Pre-sold franchise product is the name of the game now. All you need to do is look at Marvel, who has already mapped out their slate of superhero sequels into infinity (or at least well into the next decade). And why not? Even the not-so-good Marvel movies end up making bank. So we get deluged by more and more cynical sequels, prequels, sidequels, remakes, reboots. It’s like that theater marquee from The Simpsons featuring the titles I’ll Fry Your Face III, Space Mutants VI, Honey, I Hit a School Bus, Look Who’s Oinking, and Ernest Vs. The Pope.
Like you, I want to take a razor to my jugular from Hollywood’s tentpole mentality and the relative extinction of new ideas. Consider Tomorrowland, a movie that I really enjoyed despite the mixed reviews it received. That was a totally original kids story told in a breathless, compelling way and the public gave it Nero’s thumbs down. If I’m a studio executive, it’s pretty easy to take the wrong lesson away from its lack of success at the box office and just green light Ernest Vs. The Pope the next time that a clever, risky screenplay crosses my desk. Soon, we’ll all be staring up at the marquee at the multiplex and see nothing but McBain sequels. But the fact is that Avatar was an original idea and went on to gross nearly $3 billion. So to answer to your question, it’s going take some patience and balls on the part of development execs to not give up when an original movie underperforms and keep green-lighting more because they care about movies and not just cranking out pre-sold tentpole widgets. They have to fight every commercial impulse not to give into the industry’s knee-jerk, give-the-people-what-they-want cynicism.
Join us again next week after Pixar’s Inside Out takes on the dinosaurs at the box office. And don’t forget to email your questions to me at CriticsMailbag@ew.com or send me a tweet at @ChrisNashawaty, or just comment below.