The Fourth of July weekend, traditionally one of the most competitive of the movie-going year, was supposed to be a face-off between two very different franchises. In the big-budget blockbuster slot we had a new Terminator film, the fifth in the series (and the third to open on Independence Day weekend); the low-budget up-and-comer was Channing Tatum and his crew of “male entertainers” in Magic Mike XXL. But those movies didn’t end up battling it out for the top slot. Terminator: Genisys and Magic Mike took third and fourth place, respectively, as the reign of Pixar and dinosaurs continued. Inside Out was #2, for the third weekend in a row, and for the fourth straight week, Jurassic World took the top slot.
But Jurassic isn’t just having a good summer run. Since its record-smashing opening week (earning an unheard-of $296 million worldwide, and easily topping The Avengers’ $270 million from three years ago), the film has crushed the competition like, well, a dinosaur; it’s done $558 million domestic so far, plus another $826 million worldwide for a total worldwide gross of $1.38 billion — and, as last week’s four-peat indicates, it’s showing no signs of slowing down. “At this pace it seems inevitable that it will surpass Marvel’s The Avengers for no. 3 and sit behind Avatar and Titanic on the all-time domestic grossers list,” writes Hitfix’s Gregory Ellwood. “In fact, surpassing Titanic‘s $658.6 million cume isn’t out of the question.”
So why has Jurassic World made such an obscene amount of money? To be sure, no one was predicting it wouldn’t do well — it always seemed like a safe bet, a new installment of a beloved series from a promising new director who had the good luck of hiring Chris Pratt before Guardians of the Galaxy made him a giant movie star. That’s a good formula. But I don’t recall anyone predicting we were looking at a record-breaking opening, or the new #3 (or #2) biggest movie of all time.
And you certainly can’t chalk those numbers up to rave reviews — it’s done well enough (currently 71% on Rotten Tomatoes), though the pans have been much more vehement than the raves. And they’ve got a point; Jurassic World is, by most yardsticks (including our own), not a very good movie. Sure, the meta-plotting is reasonable clever, Pratt’s got movie star swagger, and director Colin Trevorrow can put together an action beat well, conducting the general mayhem of the third act with some style. But the picture is utterly bereft of the human interest of his debut picture Safety Not Guaranteed, its characters as genetically engineered as the Indominus Rex. It’s got plot holes big enough to drive a Gyrosphere through (LITERALLY), and the clumsiness with which Trevorrow handles the endless signposting expositional scenes of the first half-hour and the parental divorce subplot merely serves to remind us of how good Spielberg was at that stuff, and how this heir can’t measure up. (And yes, the movie’s gender politics are gross, and yes, that matters.)
But ultimately, these aren’t the things that drive word-of-mouth among summer ticket-buyers — particularly younger, repeat viewers. People aren’t raving to their friends about Jurassic World and going back for seconds and thirds because they dig the storytelling; it’s because it delivers what it promises. Jurassic World features dinosaurs, lots and lots of dinosaurs, bigger and faster and with more teeth, exactly the kind of “dinosaurs aren’t enough — it has to be bigger” thinking that motivates the plot itself (making the film, in an odd, after-the-fact way, even more contemptuous of its audience than most of its blockbuster brethren). And when (minor spoiler) Bryce Dallas Howard brings out the T-Rex for the big battle at the end, it’s framed like a crowd-pleaser (even if this bloodless, weightless CG battle dynamic is less reminiscent of Jurassic Park than of a Transformers movie), and plays like one. That’s what it takes to sell your movie.
But if that’s the case, then the battling Schwarzeneggers of Terminator: Genisys should’ve beaten Jurassic World handily, right? The movies have a lot in common — big franchises, summer favorites, new entries that are crosses between sequels and reboots. But Genisys comes to the screen with a hell of a lot more baggage; in the years since Jurassic’s last entry, all the way back in 2001, the Terminator series has given us two less-than-adored sequels and a forgotten television series. It’s spread itself too thin; its rebooting feels like desperation. On the other hand, moviegoers had time to miss Jurassic Park, and they did.
And, frankly, there’s also something to be said for the current cultural currency of ‘90s nostalgia (Generation BuzzFeed, if you will). When Jurassic World’s two kid characters — I don’t remember their names, and stop bullshitting, neither do you — wander through the old, abandoned building at the center of the inaugural outing, and composer Michael Giacchino repurposes John Williams’ twinkly original theme, we’re supposed to gasp in delight at every old prop and vehicle they trot in front of us. It’s a disposable scene; it’s also an encapsulation of the entire movie’s spirit.
Village Voice film editor Alan Scherstuhl tweeted the most persuasive theory I’ve heard for Jurassic World’s monster success: “the original JP seems to me that last movie that EVERYBODY saw and liked well enough at some point in their lives.” There’s something to that. Jurassic Park came out in 1993, in what turned out to be the final moments of real blockbuster ubiquity — a period in the ‘80s and early ‘90s where there were just certain movies (the Burton Batman, Top Gun, Ghost, Ghostbusters, E.T., Back the Future) that everybody saw. The following year saw two sea changes: the release of Pulp Fiction (and the subsequent explosion of the indie film scene), and the increased presence of the Internet, where film fans could finally find pockets of like-minded individuals who liked the same weird movies they did, and thus didn’t have to have seen the summer’s designated Product to be a part of conversations about movies.
Sure, there were later films — the aforementioned Titanic and Avatar and The Avengers — that sold boatloads of tickets, perhaps more than Jurassic Park. But those movies prompted loud cries of derision from their detractors, while, as Scherstuhl points out, Jurassic Park was a movie everybody thought was pretty good, and maintained affection for, and decided to revisit. And now, unexpectedly enough, Jurassic World has become the movie everyone is going to see, just so they know what everyone else is talking about. Its success, in and of itself, is not particularly insidious. But in a summer that’s given us refreshing, commercially successful entertainments like Inside Out and Spy, it’s a little depressing to think about the lessons studios will take away from the season’s biggest hit.