Jurassic World and ‘Proper’ Product Placement
Jurassic World is a complicated film. It’s one of those rare glimpses into “development hell” that allows audiences to see the precise moments at which a movie can go wrong. It’s tonally awkward, full of plot holes, and strangely self-deprecating for a series with a decent amount of critical respect and the kind of box office takings that would make Scrooge McDuck envious.
Jurassic World isn’t a bad movie, nor is it a good one. More accurately, Jurassic World is about seven different movies spliced together – ironic, given that the film is about doing exactly that, in order to create something monstrous and unfamiliar.
The main problem with Jurassic World is that it doesn’t know where it stands, or what it is trying to be. Is it a loving homage to Spielberg’s initial hit? Is it a Transformers-esque popcorn blockbuster all about big, loud CGI monsters? Does Jurassic World represent a new direction for the series, a step away from fans’ expectations? Does the movie embrace “New Hollywood” ideals of mega-franchises, corporate sponsorships and reference-laden scripts, or is it demonizing such practices? Jurassic World is all of the above, and so much less. It packs so much variety into two hours that it forgets to pick a direction or plant a flag. Jurassic World has its cake, eats it too, and then smears it all over the walls.
Early on in the film, we’re introduced to Lowery (Jake Johnson), a nerdy “Original Jurassic Park” aficionado working in the theme park’s control centre. Lowery’s desk is covered in dinosaur toys, and he reacts negatively when Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) labels his limited edition “Original Jurassic Park” T-Shirt “insensitive”. Lowery is a “throwback” in human form – a living representative of the charm and relative innocence once evoked by Jurassic Park. He’s morally just, anti-corporate, pro-nature, somewhat weak in the face of danger, and – surprisingly, for a film starring Chris Pratt – he delivers most of the film’s best jokes and one-liners. For all intents and purposes, audiences are supposed to like Lowery, and take his side when conflict arises.
So when Lowery points out that the park’s owner should not be letting corporations name buildings or sponsor certain dinosaurs, we’re supposed to agree. I mean, he’s right after all – theme parks are already gloriously phony in almost every way, without every Ford, Nike and Pepsi slapping their names across the walls and Brontosauruses. Lowery quips that they should just start renaming the dinosaurs: “Verizon presents Indominus-Rex” or the even the “Pepsi-Saurus”.
This gentle ribbing of product placement is all well and good – it keeps corporate sponsors happy whilst making fun of a now unfortunately common Hollywood practice. Poking fun at billion dollar corporations is an easy laugh, because it’s what we call “punching upwards” – making jokes at the expense of those more well off than ourselves. It’s why jokes about politicians and Donald Trump are so popular, but jokes at the expense of hearing-impaired people or refugees aren’t nearly as popular. But Jurassic World revokes its right to “punch upwards” and play the underdog card, when it tries to unsubtly throw Mercedes, Samsung and Coca-Cola logos at its audience as often as it does Velociraptors.
The park’s main lobby is called the “Samsung Innovation Centre”, wherein park-goers stare in wonder at brand new Samsung Curved TVs, use Samsung Phones and pray at the altar of their new Samsung overlords. Almost every scene involving a vehicle spends way too long focusing on nice juicy, Michael Bay-worthy shots of Mercedes logos. When we’re supposed to be learning about the romantic spark (or lack thereof) between Claire and Owen (Chris Pratt), our eyes are drawn to the glistening bottle of Coca-Cola resting in Pratt’s hands, one slurp of which is just so darn refreshing it’ll cool down a man who tames dinosaurs for a living.
Product placement does have a place in Jurassic World. It’s a theme park after all, and it would look weird if in every sweeping helicopter shot of the park, the Ben and Jerry’s stand was replaced with a stand reading “Ice Cream” or “John and Barry’s”. But this kind of product placement works to make the world feel more believable, to make us feel like we’re actually in a dinosaur theme park as it would look in 2015. Jurassic World tows that line, but ends up plummeting right off the edge of it.
And it is a very fine line. Most comedies can get away with overt product placement simply by calling themselves out on it (a la Wayne’s World). But Jurassic World’s product placement becomes more insidious, more implicit in its placement and purpose. Lowery complains about Verizon and Pepsi branded dinosaurs, while the film he’s in blasts its Samsung branded trumpets in favour of Coca-Cola. It starts to feel like a direct product placement war – “Verizon and Pepsi didn’t pay us enough, so we’ll say that they’re evil whilst plugging their rivals.”
It all speaks to Jurassic World’s identity crisis. The film’s genetically modified Indominus-Rex is ripped to shreds by a pack of Velociraptors and Jurassic Park’s “Original” T-Rex, at which point the raptors and the T-Rex give each other a “nod” of respect. It’s a weirdly satisfying if totally nonsensical moment, but it’s one that symbolically represents Jurassic World’s demise.
The Indominus-Rex effectively represents Jurassic World – it’s new, it’s exciting, it’s bigger, flashier and has more teeth. It is the culmination of various elements spliced together to make a popular, moneymaking powerhouse. But by defeating the Indominus-Rex with original Jurassic Park dinosaurs, and awarding victory to Jurassic Park nerd Lowery, the film is basically saying: “Hey, remember how cool Jurassic Park was? It’s way cooler than our movie.”
Now throw in a dozen or so references to the original film, and an entire sequence in which Pratt and Howard explore Isla Nublar’s long abandoned lab, and Jurassic Park becomes a self-deprecating film concerned only with reminding us how great its source material is.
Jurassic World condemns corporate sponsorships and product placement, then perpetuates the very things it mocks. It uses Lowery to mock melodramatic and romantic Hollywood stereotypes, then indulges them via other characters. It forces new ideas on us before drowning them out with huge waves of nostalgia.
I suppose it makes sense – like most theme parks, Jurassic World is loud, expensive, and occasionally thrilling, but it lacks cohesion, direction and that sense of childlike wonder that made its progenitor so successful. It all feels manufactured – so much so, that you can hear the gears turning, the cogs grinding, and the boxes being ticked.
All photos credited to Jurassic World, 2015, Universal Studios