Museums in Movies: Jurassic World

Claire with dinosaur

Summer blockbuster Jurassic World feels like the perfect choice to continue my Museums in Movies series. The park is a for-profit attraction “selling $7 sodas,” but in essence it’s just a flashy natural history museum. This franchise installment shows us an expanded version of  John Hammond’s original vision for prehistoric thrills. With a larger scale comes even more possibility for disaster, though. For me, the scariest scenes were when a flourishing tourist destination became a visitor services hellscape. A low-ranking ride operator facing an angry mob when he must close a ride for “technical difficulties;” and a waiting area packed with hot, tired people enduring transit delays are the type of things that haunt my nightmares.

The film’s dinosaur danger arises when Jurassic World’s leaders try to combat a problem familiar to many museums: how to stay relevant to the modern world when you keep retelling the same story. Visitors are no longer wowed by “an interactive CD-ROM,” like back in ’93, or even by seeing a live dinosaur. The park has made some admittedly cool upgrades, like adding hologram exhibits or replacing the static Jeep paths with gyroscope pods. Kids can now enjoy hands-on activities like digging for “fossils” or riding a baby triceratops.

The park also may have sold out a bit, relying on corporate sponsor naming rights to fund new “attractions.” This makes the film’s abundant product placement winkingly self-referential, like when main characters enter the Samsung Visitors’ Center. Gone are the days of jello and ice cream in a single dining room; now there’s a Starbucks, a Margaritaville and a … Brookstone? Maybe some 1990s wonders still impress.

Battle of the Bulge simulation gallery

The new-and-improved Jurassic World reminded me of my recent visit to the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, which has opened several shiny additional buildings in the past few years. Its impressive airplane display wing is funded by, and named for, Boeing. You can even buy coffee cups with the vintage Boeing logo in the gift shop.  The WWII Museum’s newest exhibit, The Road to Berlin, features interactive touch screen kiosks and several surround-sound battle simulation set pieces. The latter seem to be a trend in museums dealing with military history; even the modest museum at Woodrow Wilson’s birthplace in Staunton, VA invites visitors to walk through a trench amidst explosion sound effects. Similarly, one of the old guard of historic sites, Colonial Williamsburg, recently announced plans for a petting zoo and a flintlock shooting range, which I hope will operate on opposite ends of Duke of Gloucester Street.

Alas, Jurassic World’s innovation efforts are foiled by not just the usual shady bioethics, but an incompetent organizational culture. The park has grown too big and too automated for staff to communicate and collaborate well. Despite sinking millions of dollars into a high-risk new genetically-engineered “asset,” the staff have raised it incompetently. They have failed to consult expert dinosaur handlers about its habitat, and don’t even know the creatures of which it has been composed. Is no one in this place capable of writing a professional email?

Different park authorities view its dinosaurs not as living creatures, but as products or weapons that will bring flashy results. Contrast this with the detailed knowledge and geeky wonder the original Jurassic Park characters display. At the beginning of that film, Dr. Alan Grant brings a grumpy teenage boy from skepticism to fearful awe with dramatic storytelling and just one velociraptor claw prop. That’s the kind of dynamic interpretation that really builds visitor loyalty.

Unfortunately, the screenwriters of Jurassic World show neither understanding nor good storytelling in their treatment of female characters. While Owen (Chris Pratt) gets to swagger around as a funny, brave and generally hunky specimen of red-blooded American manhood, the ladies are either nagging shrews or uptight workaholics. Re-enacting Nobel Laureate Tim Hunt’s infamous recent comments about women in science, they attract romantic overtures from colleagues and even cry in the computer lab. Diligent mission control tech Vivian sensibly pairs a cardigan, tights, and flats with her modest dress, but is still #distractinglysexy to her male colleague Lowery at his messy desk. Spoiler alert: the saucy minx ultimately rejects his advances.

“Uh, I have a boyfriend.”

“Oh! I didn’t know you guys were like, together together. You never mentioned it.”

“Well, I was at work.”

Even though women –including single mothers- are increasingly taking on museum leadership roles, Jurassic World subjects us to the tired Hollywood syllogism that female professionalism is a zero sum game. The more effort a woman movie character puts into her job, the more she will neglect her personal relationships. The Big Meeting must always conflict with boyfriends’ birthday parties and dinner with relatives, because apparently scheduling and vacation time don’t exist.

Sure enough, park operations director Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) is so busy running things that she ignores her sister’s calls and doesn’t even remember her nephews’ ages, blowing off their visit. The film mocks her for studying prospective donor names and having visitor stats ready for her boss – both of which would be expected of someone in her position. We even get a reminder that Claire should really have kids someday, even though nothing is said about the male staff’s family status.

I’ll admit, Claire’s John Hammond-esque white ensemble was lovely, but she couldn’t have ditched the skirt and heels for something more practical for sprinting through the forest?  Jurassic Park‘s Dr. Ellie Sattler and her khaki shorts would be appalled. That previous heroine also managed to keep her maternal instinct intact doing extensive fieldwork, and didn’t flinch from danger, quipping “We can discuss sexism in survival situations when I get back.” By the end Claire does channel a little of Dr. Sattler, becoming more protective and proactive, but she’s still a poor role model.

Despite its lame characterization, Jurassic World still manages to be a fun, exciting dinosaur thrill ride full of homages to its origin story. It’s a more logical continuation of the Jurassic Park world; let’s ignore the other two lame sequels and call this the reboot. If amidst the summer entertainment, a few kids get inspired to keep learning about paleontology, then the special effects haven’t been in vain. Really, that’s what all museums hope for each vacation season.