The following contains spoilers for Jurassic World.
Beginning with the killer truck movie Duel in 1971, Steven Spielberg began to formulate his own personal brand of blue-sky horror. Spielberg continued that style with 1975’s Jaws, an adaptation of Peter Benchley’s best-selling novel which told a hackle-raising horror story in a blockbuster context. From beneath the inviting waters of Amity Island, a toothsome monster rose up to devour old and young alike.
The same dark streak runs through Close Encounters Of The Third Kind and Raiders Of The Lost Ark, respectively a starry-eyed Ufology fable and a matinee action adventure. In the former, we experience the terror of a mother whose young son is kidnapped by aliens. The latter concluded in a welter of gory special effects: its variously exploding and melting Nazis had a generation of kids watching the screen through their fingers.
Even E.T. managed to traumatise its young audience with a single image: that of its cute title alien lying apparently dead by the edge of a river.
From Duel onwards, Spielberg seemed to delight in bringing a hint of the horrific to family movies. And in 1993, Jurassic Park took the terror of Jaws onto dry land, as science brought the dinosaurs back to life – with thrillingly chaotic results. Just as the opening image of the shark’s first victim etched themselves onto viewers’ minds with Jaws, so Jurassic Park introduced its own unforgettable set-pieces: the T-rex devouring the lawyer. The velociraptors stalking the terrified Hammond kids through a shiny kitchen. And here’s Muldoon in his safari suit, eyes wide with fear. “Clever girl…”
It’s a brave director who tries to follow up those kinds of moments, yet Colin Trevorrow done exactly that withJurassic World. His belated sequel to a franchise that has remained dormant since 2001’s Jurssic Park III is a confident, streamlined return to the kind of PG-13 horror that Spielberg introduced back in the 1970s. It’s a film that references and pays homage to Jurassic Park, but in a mischievous, playful sort of way.
Jurassic World’s keenly aware of its status as a sequel to one of the biggest hits of the 1990s, and its duty as a summer spectacle. Even its premise – the genetic construction of a huge monster capable of shocking crowds out of their apathy – is a sly admission on the part of Jurassic World’s filmmakers. The movie’s spliced-together Indominus Rex is a creature dreamed up by a corporation chasing profits. You wanted a bigger, scarier dinosaur? Then here it is. Enjoy.
It’s the kind of sly humor we’ve seldom seen since Joe Dante’s Gremlins 2: The New Batch in 1990, a film that both pokes fun at its predecessor and satirises the notion of sequels in general (Gremlins 2 was also executive produced, funnily enough, by Spielberg).
Trevorrow seems to express a Dante-esque sense of glee as things go wrong once again on Isla Nublar; the Indominus Rex escapes, and the new iteration of the dinosaur theme park, now called Jurassic World, descends into chaos. Visitors are terrorised. Branches of Starbucks Ben & Jerry’s are ransacked.
Like Jurassic Park, Trevorrow’s sequel has its share of suspense, even though we can see the forthcoming meltdown from a mile away. An early scene where Chris Pratt’s dinosaur wrangler tiptoes into the Indominus Rex enclosure is but one early example. And when things really start to go wrong, Jurassic World has plenty of its own family horror moments – including one that is almost – almost – on a par with the most talked-about ones in Jaws or Jurassic Park.
The scene occurs when the pteranadons escape from their enclosure and descend on the park’s shopping district. Visitors scatter left and right, some of them far too late to avoid the flying creatures’ snapping jaws. The most unfortunate victim is Zara (Katie McGrath, of Merlin fame). Established as a bit of a luckless dogsbody from the very beginning, Zara works as the personal assistant to Bryce Dallas Howard’s stern park operations manager, Claire Dearing.
Given the unenviable task of playing nanny to Claire’s two visiting cousins, Gray (Ty Simpkins) and Zach (Nick Robinson), Zara spends the greater part of her time staring into her mobile phone. And if memory serves, it’s staring at a mobile phone that proves to be Zara’s undoing. Oblivious to the threat swooping down from above, Zara’s hoisted into the air by a pteranadon, and before we know it, she’s been dropped into the sea.
Now, we know from an earlier scene roughly what’s going to happen next. One of the theme park’s great attractions is its 50-foot-long mosasaur – the colossal beast we all saw leap out of the sea to eat a dangling shark in the trailers. From the moment we first clapped eyes on the thing, with its crocodile-like jaws opened wide, we just knew it was going to make a return later in the film – a kind of Chekhov’s monster, if you like.
The movie doesn’t disappoint. As Zara plunges into the depths, it only takes a few moments before the mosasaur hoves into view, its mouth ready to swallow the poor woman whole. But wait! Then the pteranadons comes splashing back down into the water to retrieve their fallen prey. We see Zara, screaming, hoisted back into the air before being dropped back into the sea. So she’s picked up again and then dropped. Picked up, then dropped…
It’s the cunning subversion of what we think is going to happen next – not to mention Zara’s evident suffering – that makes this sequence so memorable: it functions as both a macabre joke and a chilling piece of horror. We knew more-or-less from the beginning that as a supporting character in a monster movie, Zara probably wasn’t going to make it to the end credits. We knew that the mosasaur would make a reappearance at some point. But we’d failed to predict that Zara would become the rope in a monstrous game of tug o’ war.
“[I was] just trying to find ways to misdirect the audience, but based on the knowledge that the audience is really savvy and smart,” Trevorrow said when I asked about the sequence in a recent interview. “That they’re always going to see something coming, so if you bank on it, like, when the girl falls into the water, I know everyone’s going to go, ‘I know what’s going to happen to her!’ But then the [pteranadons] come in, and it starts to subvert people’s expectations based on assuming their intelligence.”
It isn’t difficult to imagine Spielberg coming up with a sequence like this for one of his films, perhaps chuckling to himself as he did so. Indeed, Trevorrow himself drew the link between the Zara scene in Jurassic World and Chrissie, the first victim of the great white in Jaws.
“I tell ya, when you think back to the moments in Steven’s films that we love the most… I mean, the beginning of Jaws is just horrifying, what happens to that poor girl,” Trevorrow said.
As the director points out, these sequences are so effective because we can somehow identify with the victim’s horrendous ordeal. We may be laughing nervously, or watching the scene with partly averted eyes, but these scenes seldom fail to provoke some kind of emotional response.
“I think, for me, what sticks with us the longest is the stuff that, conceptually, you can imagine what happens,” Trevorrow told me. “You can imagine it happening to you. Being dunked in and out of water – we just waterboard this poor girl – it’s awful…”
This, perhaps, is the secret behind the kinds of scenes Spielberg perfected in his movies. They seldom rely on gore (though one or two had plenty), but rather on timing, building and then thwarting expectations, and, perhaps most of all, giving the viewer just long enough to identify with the victim’s plight before cutting away to the next scene. This way, Spielberg, and the directors that have followed in his footsteps, have managed to sneak moments of true shock and suspense into otherwise broad, universal films.
We hear Chrissie’s screams and gasps for air as an unseen shark chomps at her feet, and we as an audience find ourselves holding our breath.
Jurassic World follows in that rich tradition of family horror. But as Trevorrow points out, it’s all part of the contract when you go to see a film like this. “Look,” the director says with a chuckle; “you’re the one that came to a dinosaur island. What did you expect?”