Defending Jurassic World or: Do Critics Need To Justify Liking Bad Movies?
Everyone seems to love Jurassic World. It’s earned a respectable seventy-so percent on Rotten Tomatoes, that famously flawless barometer of taste, and pretty much everyone I’ve chatted to about the film thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Everyone seems to love the film; everyone except precisely every film critic I’ve spoken to about it. My conversations – and Twitter feed – about the film with fellow critics has been dominated by discussions about retrogressive sexism and inept attempts to harness nostalgia. While the film’s RT score might suggest a positive reaction, I’ve felt very lonely as critic who thinks the dinosaur-laden sequel is very good – even great. (Just take a look at our own illustrious editor’s review, which paired a one-star rating by describing it as “sickening to watch.”)
So more and more, I’ve been questioning my own appreciation for the film. Sure, I can rattle off bullet points to justify my praise: the way it draws on the blockbusters tropes of a couple decades ago, rather than tired superhero mechanics; how it operates as a self-hating blockbuster, a conflicted attempt to express some auteurist flair within a commercial construct that’s ultimately gobbled up by the dinosaurs it unleashes; or its conjuring of something I’d only dreamed of as a prepubescent child watching the original Jurassic Park – a fully-fledged, fully-operational dinosaur theme park. But I’m beginning to wonder if these justifications are merely excuses, attempts to intellectualise my favourable reaction to the film – surely influenced, at least somewhat, by a cocktail of nostalgia and low expectations.
That said, I’m unconvinced by most of the barbs directed Jurassic World’s way. For example, Devin Faraci’s bleating about the failings of the film’s plot – complaining about inanities like no-one checking the Indominus Rex’s tracking device – ring false given this is a sequel to a classic film riddled with similar plot holes; such neckbeard nitpicking has always struck me as beside the point. But neither do I cast my lot with the likes of those who entreated critics to “turn their brain off” during such [dumb] movies. I respect the opinion of Matt Zoller Seitz, who praises the film’s action achievements but objects to its “weird male-supremacist streak” (in a mixed-but-positive review); I just don’t agree with it.
On more than a couple occasions, I’ve flipped open my laptop to compose a defence of Jurassic World’s ideology. Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) isn’t a sexist stereotype, I would argue; her journey from stern ultra-capitalism to gooey Chris-Pratt-ism is merely a twist on Sam Neill’s arc in Jurassic Park (remember how he was won over to the joys of procreation by cute kids not getting eaten by raptors?) spiced up with the storyline of every single businessperson in an 80s movie. Claire’s oft-commented-upon high heels aren’t evidence of clueless male writers, but a deliberate attempt to reject the assumption that feminism and heroism are incompatible (note the telling close-up on her heels as she’s in the process of saving Pratt’s hero, who’s cowering the corner by this stage). I’ve never actually written these, though, because the internet doesn’t need another white dude asserting that something isn’t sexist. (So, uh, sorry for this paragraph I guess.)
Besides, I can’t defend the film unreservedly. There’s that weirdly unresolved divorce sub-plot (I’ll readily defend films with the confidence to not pay off every narrative thread, but egregious misuse of Judy Greer will not stand), and the unnecessarily brutal dispatching of Claire’s assistant. Are these outliers, then, or are my attempts to defend the film fundamentally dishonest? Am I lying to myself about why I like the film, scrambling to deny any problematic aspects to avoid that guilty regret of liking a Bad Movie? Most importantly, do I need to justify liking what may very well be one of those Bad Movies?
We’re skirting along the surface of some deep questions about what criticism is – or what it should be – here, but I love those sort of questions so let’s keep going, shall we? Many hold criticism to operate primarily as consumer advice, “objective” evaluations of quality or entertainment that can be collated together into useful percentiles on the aforementioned Rotten Tomatoes (a wonderful resource; horrendously misused). These people are idiots. By its very nature, criticism is never going to be able to be truly objective, so the best criticism doesn’t even try. Instead it acts as an insightful, considered description of a subjective experience embedded within the author’s own lived experience and placed in the context of modern society. I’m thinking of pieces like Wesley Morris’ scathing Let’s Be Cops/Ferguson essay, which uses an insipid comedy to consider America’s modern racism and militarised police force, or Andreas Stoehr’s examination of Tangerine in the context of the growing acceptance of trans actors in the film industry. This kind of writing is the exact opposite of objective – and that’s why it’s so good.
Now, obviously my reaction to Jurassic World – drawing on Jurassic Park warm-and-fuzzies – isn’t even close to being on the same level. But this hopefully explains why I’m not so ready to separate my affective response to the film from my critical response. Maybe that’s the problem! Perhaps this is rooted in my inability to separate ideology from quality; this is hardly an uncommon phenomenon. If you’ve spent any time at all on the internet, you would have observed the stubborn refusal to re-evaluate a much-loved piece of pop culture (thinking in the Star Wars ballpark here), or even consider the possibility that their favourite childhood film might not be a flawless masterpiece.
I don’t have a problem with separating art from the artist, though. I can appreciate the works of artists like Roman Polanski, Woody Allen and Bill Cosby without in any way forgiving their behaviour (though obviously that’s a thornier point than this single sentence might suggest). Equally, I can respect that films like Triumph of the Will and Birth of a Nation are considered masterpieces (theoretically, at least – I haven’t seen either) without supporting Nazism or white supremacy. So I would hope that I’m not being stubborn here. That I’m not refusing to accept the notion of Jurassic World being both (a) good entertainment and (b) sexist, because – at least theoretically – I’m totally down with those two things coexisting.
Criticism should be honest, but how does one reconcile honesty with our inability to truly unpack our own response to a work? Is honest criticism finding justification for something you enjoyed… or accepting that you cannot? I think a critic’s goal is to be, well, critical – to interrogate their own response to a work as well as the work itself. It’s nonetheless impossible to fully understand our own selves, to unpack our personal complexities. Maybe I wouldn’t have liked Jurassic World as much if I hadn’t grown up dreaming of attending a real-life Jurassic Park, if I hadn’t spent my infant years relentlessly bashing toy dinosaurs into one another. Maybe if I’d had a bad day at work beforehand, all those issues of representation that others have raised would have irked me. Maybe the next time I watch Jurassic World, I’ll hate it. But, dammit, I loved Jurassic World – and the best I can do is try to explain why.