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The Sequel That Eats Sequels: 'Jurassic World'

26/06/2015 17:22 BST | Updated 26/06/2016 10:59 BST

Jurassic World is a film about films. More specifically, it is a film about film sequels, and the expectations an audience has of film sequels. It plays on these expectations subtly, and, I think, rather brilliantly. Let me explain.

The trailer, when it was launched, went to work creating the sense of a film that wanted to crush its older siblings underfoot, in the classic Hollywood manner. The approach is usually to frame a crude caricature of what the movie studio supposes must be what the audience liked about the original - let's call this the 'T-Rex Wow Factor' in this case - and to work out how to make it bigger and better than the original. If the film is about explosions, then in the sequel EVERYTHING MUST EXPLODE. If the film is about Liam Neeson's stuff getting taken, then MAKE HIS STUFF GET REALLY TAKEN. In this case, it's a genetically modified, bigger and better version of the T-Rex (the trailer all but says those words). The new dinosaur thus perfectly embodies the formula of the lazy sequel. A friend, upon seeing the trailer for Jurassic World, bemoaned the tendency of sequels to try too hard to up the ante. A genetically-modified dinosaur that is almost literally a Super T-Rex? That's surely the laziest way to up the 'T-Rex Wow Factor'. The trailer itself, indeed, had the line 'they're dinosaurs, "wow" enough'. Surely this irony couldn't have been lost on the filmmakers?

Well, it turns out that that irony is precisely what was intended, and what Jurassic World serves up is a masterclass in self-aware metacinema: it is a sequel that wants to bury the idea of the sequel. The story for the most part unfolds fairly predictably, though the film is pleasingly paced throughout (the audience is as surprised as Chris Pratt's character to realise that, with his first visit to see the new dinosaur, the action of the film has already begun). The formula runs: scientists and business-types talk up the ferocity of a new beast (let's call it 'Sequel'); Sequel breaks loose; Sequel begins eating scientists, business-types, and the odd docile herbivore. But any sense of the formulaic breaks down with the film's climax, set in the obliterated, largely-evacuated park that is 'Jurassic World'.

The scene is set for a showdown between Chris Pratt (who I chose to conflate with his character), with the velociraptors with whom he has developed an entente cordiale, versus the rampaging Sequel. It starts to look like the Pratt-Raptor combo isn't going to triumph. And then, at a crucial moment, one of the younger cast members suggests that what they need on their side is 'more teeth'. The order goes out: 'open pen nine!'. We aren't told what to expect to stroll out of pen nine, but we still know what's coming. That familiar foot-fall, that heavy breath. It's 1993 all over again, as the original T-Rex himself is brought out of retirement, unmodified genetics and all, and is re-enlisted, Terminator 2-style, as an unlikely hero. As the two giants begin snapping at each other (in what are spectacular scenes) it gradually dawns on you that you are watching a death-match between the original Jurassic Park and its sequel. The audience is not only rooting for the former villain, but they are actively encouraged to do so - the lives of two young boys, a young woman, and the charming Chris Pratt depend upon it. Come on 1993! Come on embodiment of cinematic nostalgia! Eat that stinking Sequel!

This scene is foreshadowed throughout, I think. Jurassic World (theme park, not film) is literally built upon Jurassic Park, and, like a palimpsest, glimpses of the latter peek through the cracks of the former. The two kids of the film find themselves in the same shopping area and dining hall as do Timmy and Lex during the penultimate act of Jurassic Park. Even the heavy and expensive night-vision goggles make an appearance. And those things for which we feel nostalgia triumph early on. For instance, the kids walk past a number of new, sequel-worthy vehicles wrecked by the Sequel dinosaur before they arrive at the remnants of the old park. What vehicle carries them to safety? Only a classic, 'Jurassic Park'-branded gas-powered Jeep. The dusty but trusty objects of our past save the day ("How did they even get one of these old things started?", asks Pratt).

So by the time we are reunited with the T-Rex it is only right that he feels somehow like a sort of saviour, a better-the-enemy-you-know biped from the past, an anti-hero to be venerated above the young upstart of the sequel. The message is clear: leave the original film alone, or else. Of course, it looks for a moment like the T-Rex is going to lose, and the hypothetical dominance of the Sequel had been adequately talked up by the dead or fled scientists of Act One. Rex is down, the count has begun. But one last velociprator returns to the scene with a rebel 'Caw!', and sinks his teeth into Sequel. This gives beloved Rex a moment to recuperate: he finds his feet, bites Sequel, and sends him spinning towards what is very much the Sea World exhibit of the new park. A sort of giant fish-crocodile-dinosaur, who manages not to represent the concept of the sequel but acts only as deus ex machina, leaps out and drags Sequel kicking and screaming into the waters of obscurity. Sequel dies, audience cheers.

The Sequel vanquished, the cast of the original take a good long look at one another: velociraptor eyes up T-Rex, and vice versa. We remember that Jurassic Park ended with a T-Rex battling the remaining 'raptors under a symbolically falling 'Jurassic Park' banner. This time, though, no such battle takes place. Like two world-weary and worn-out soldiers, brought together just this once by a common enemy, they exchange only a look of understanding. The T-Rex turns and walks away; the 'raptor looks after him with something like respect. The audience understands perfectly: the cast of the original have assembled to see off a ghastly, too-big-for its-boots sequel. It's like seeing Rancor eat Jar-Jar Binks, or like watching a young Harrison Ford punch his older self. In a sense, it would have been a similar scene if the T-Rex and the velociprator had walked off the set together and dragged the writers of the third Jurassic Park into the giant fishtank instead. That was, after all, the film that first wanted to find a bigger, deadlier T-Rex, to create a more psychopathic killer that could murder Michael Myers, or a more terrifying shark that could eat Jaws whole. The threat, of the sequel that might kill off the original, has been neutralized.

I dare say this is not brand new territory for films. There has been a trend, of late, for showing the vulnerabilities of a now-aged hero. Think of Batman's broken back, or the boozy Bond of Skyfall. These felt at the time like Hollywood reflecting on its own age, or like a franchise feeling its own threads wear thin, but answering, with triumph, that the Sequel can yet replicate the wonder of the Original. But Jurassic World manages to stage the tension between sequel and original with exceptional brilliance, and has us rethink our own relationship with our on-screen heroes. Some things should remain sacred, it makes us feel. Don't always go out of your way to 'cook up' new monsters to do away with the old ones. We like some of the old ones, and in the interests of leaving memories intact and allowing nostalgia to remain a safe place to return (nostalgia comes from the Greek for 'homecoming', after all), some originals are better off without their sequels, which often serve as little more than a dagger in the back. Jurassic World stages a pleasing conflict between past and present that, for once, allows the past to walk away with its dignity intact and its prehistoric head held high. I can think of no better tribute to the original Jurassic Park, so important to so many childhoods, than that.