Death is a currency in blockbuster films. Faceless henchman are wiped out indiscriminately. Nameless bystanders are consumed in explosions and buried in rubble. This is the loss of life that makes up the dark matter of the standard action flick — those deaths that are just out of sight or out of focus, but which are intended to give weight to the larger forces of the plot and the choices of the main characters.
Jurassic World embraced this summer movie season truism wholeheartedly. Scores of interchangeable soldiers in the film quickly turn into dinosaur cannon fodder, with little more than blurred security footage and a few ominous beeps to remember them by. Dozens of random park-goers are snatched up by winged dinosaurs in a prehistoric take on The Birds, but it’s always off in the distance, always just for a second, to where the most notable moment in the rabble is Jimmy Buffett shuffling indoors with a pair of margaritas.
But two deaths in Jurassic World stood out, and they were not necessarily the ones I might have predicted when I walked into the theater.
Devin Farici of Birth.Movies.Death. described the death of Zara–the assistant to Claire who’s enlisted to look after the boys–as “mean-spirited,” “deeply disturbing,” and “strangely cruel and unusual.” Devin attributes his problems with Zara’s death scene, which is a parade of dino-related horribles, to the fact that it violates the grammar of cinema. He explains that, “the deaths of your characters must be proportional, unless the unproportional nature of the death is, in and of itself, the point.” Devin argues that because Zara isn’t mere cannon fodder, and because she had not done anything in the film to deserve such a horrific death, the severity of how she dies feels wrong.
Devin has a point. Director Colin Trevorrow seems to agree that a character needs to earn their grim demise. But his explanation that Zara deserved her death because of the quick scene where she’s a “bridezilla” and insults her fiance’s friends is troubling for a myriad of reasons. With that barely-established stereotype as the only basis for Zara “earning” such a harsh death, it does feel more mean-spirited than the other deaths in the film and makes the intentions behind the scene much more problematic.
But apart from the issue of whether Zara deserved her grisly end, hers was also the only death in the film that made me experience a moment of real awe or fear akin to what the original Jurassic Park was able to achieve.
Because 95% of the deaths in Jurassic World felt just like the film’s CGI did — weightless. That’s not a bad thing necessarily. These kinds of action films are supposed to be entertainment, and if we have to think too hard about the lives extinguished in all the pre-viz excitement, then the filmmakers have a Man of Steel problem, where the collateral damage starts to feel too real and detracts from the audience’s ability to enjoy the action for what it is. But Zara’s death didn’t feel weightless. It felt appropriately terrifying.
Now some portion of that is simply because, to Devin’s point, the fact that Zara has a name and a bare bones characterization separates her from the other indiscriminate victims of the fugitive dinosaurs in the film. She isn’t one of the film’s more fleshed out characters, but we get a half-formed sketch of who she is and that makes her character slightly more notable than the other redshirts running around.
The audience knows that Zara is a haried, if disinterested employee; that she’s had this task thrust upon her by Claire; and that she’s not necessarily accustomed or adept when it comes to wrangling two kids in the dinosaur equivalent of Disneyland. The very thing that Devin suggests helps make Zara’s death feel so cruel–that we have some idea of who she is–is the same thing that gives her death more of an impact than the death of a nameless bystander would. When someone the audience half-knows gets caught up in the attack, it helps to drive home the idea that the dinosaurs are a legitimately uncontrollable force in an erstwhile controlled environment.
But that sense also has to do with the direction and framing of the scene. The audience feels Zara’s terror because rather than the quick cuts and dizzying array of shots that make up a standard action scene, the camera follows Zara throughout her horrible ordeal. It feels more personal, more real, when the focus stays on a single character amid the chaos around them.
The scene also keeps defying the audience’s expectations. When the pteranodon first snatches Zara up, that natural expectation is that it will be the last we see of her, and Zara, like the other random tourists frantically trying to escape, is simply going to be carried away to an ambiguous doom. But then the pteranodon‘s grip loosens and in the half-second where it looks like that Zara will plummet to the ground, she’s scooped up yet again and caught in a tug of war between two more pteranodons.
Eventually she’s dropped into the mosasaurus’s tank, and the end game again seems clear. Like the famous scene in Jaws, we expect the mosasaurus to emerge from underneath and take a sizable bite out of Zara. Instead, the pteranodon returns, and the camera follows as it drags Zara beneath the water and brings her back to the surface while she screams in terror. Only then, when the audience’s attention is focused on the pteranodon playing with its food, does the mosasaurus finally emerge and devour both Zara and the winged dinosaur in a single chomp.
An extended scene like this risks becoming the cinematic equivalent of a rube goldberg machine — thrilling, but contrived. Instead, it was one of the few moments in the film where the dinosaurs’ behavior made them seem like genuine wild animals instead of Disney sidekicks or computerized marionettes. And rather than letting the viewer settle in and allowing this scene to play to expectations, these twists and turns kept the audience on their toes and made Zara’s demise, and the dinosaurs who cause it, feel more frightening, powerful, and unpredictable.
And it contrasts with the death of Hoskins, the film’s human antagonist, whose demise prompted a mild chuckle at best. Despite the fact that Hoskins was, ostensibly, the only villain in Jurassic World who could deliver a monologue instead of just a roar, his death left me almost entirely nonplussed. The same unspoken principles of film that Devin asserts made Zara’s death seem so harsh are also the ones that made Hoskins’s death seem so routine.
In contrast to Zara’s ordeal, Hoskins’s final bow did feel like the product of his worst decisions coming back to bite him. And it was meant to. It’s designed to strike the viewer as poetic justice. But it was such a paint-by-numbers development, in an already generic action film, that the scene, and his death, lacked any force.
Hoskins was the concept of trying to control the inherent wildness of nature personified, and his being interrupted in the middle of a big evil speech to get viciously slaughtered by the very uncontrollable elements he was trying to put on a leash had the ring of irony to it. The scene is constructed well-enough, and it certainly feels “just”, in terms of the mores of cinema, for Hoskins to meet his grim end at the hands of the creatures he tried to cow. But that’s also part of the problem. That moment represented such a straightforward bit of karma, to the point that Hoskins’s death became as rote as the rest of the film.
Of course the bad guy gets torn to shreds by the dinosaurs he underestimated. Of course the manner of his demise underscores the theme of control versus harmony that the film had already hammered home with a cartoon mallet. Of course the villain receives his comeuppance at the hands of the raptors who are, ostensibly, the good guy dinosaurs. When justice on film is portrayed as a karmic vending machine–put good or bad deeds in and get good or bad results out–those results become boring; they become expected, and, at worst, they become perfunctory or disinterested or even meaningless.
Zara’s death scene was none of these things. It was the one scene in the film where I felt the tension of the moment. Her predicament was unexpected. It was dynamic. And it had more than mere shock value; it made the dinosaurs feel terrifying and dangerous beyond the stock beats of an action movie that permeated the rest of the film. It was the singular scene where the dinosaurs and the threat they posed managed to awe me.
Almost every other death in the film vacillated somewhere between a standard-issue fatality and background noise. But because Zara wasn’t mere cannon fodder, because her death was not merely a checkmark on the list of blockbuster prerequisites, it had more power than all the other predictable moments in an unadventurous adventure film.
But the one other death in the film that actually mattered was much quieter, and it filled me with empathy rather than with awe. It was the slow death of an apatosaurus that the audience had barely seen before its dying moments.
Like Zara’s death, part of what made the apatosaurus’s passing stand out is that it the moment felt real. Rather than an elaborate show where even the prehistoric characters on screen seemed to simply be performing a predetermined dance routine, this was a pause in the relentless, lumbering movement of the plot to explore some genuine emotion and deepen the audience’s appreciation for the creatures it was trying so hard to make us care about.
It’s a credit to the folks who designed the animatronic apatosaurus that the scene works as well as it does. The detail and intricacy of the wounded dinosaur’s sighs of pain, the way its eyes rolled and it struggled to lift its head, made it feel alive and helped the audience to become emotionally invested in one of the creatures that were the film’s main selling point. Instead of the rest of the movie where the dinosaurs felt like cartoon characters bopping around like penguins in Mary Poppins, when Owen reaches out and touches the apatosaurus, it responds to him like something that’s really there, and we feel for it accordingly.
The apatosaurus, a gentle giant slowly fading away, felt like something true and genuine in the throes of its death. It was expressive, frankly more so than some of the flesh and blood actors. And when it exhaled its last breath and stopped moving, I was saddened, because the real emotion, expressed through molded plastic, sculpted rubber, and the motors and gears of its animatronic skeleton, made me care.
That’s the power of film. When these moments are done right, when the direction and special effects and actors and all the other little elements that make a scene hum culminate into something more, you forget that you’re watching a pile of circuits and silicone. You forget that the actress who plays Zara is resting comfortably at home. You forget that there’s no real danger, no real loss, no real dinosaurs. For three minutes, Jurassic World made me forget. I felt the power of the prehistoric creatures, and I felt sorry to see one one them perish, in a way that the film couldn’t come close to in the rest of its run time. And that’s why, even if they were mean-spirited or manipulative or maudlin, those were the only two deaths in Jurassic World that really mattered.