Thursday, June 18, 2015

Jurassic World and Character Agency

This post contains spoilers for: Jurassic World, Jurassic Park, and Jurassic Park: Lost World

I like dinosaurs. 

I like their teeth, their scales, how cool their bones look on display, and I especially like when they start eating things - mainly humans and other dinosaurs. But for as much as I like (alright, love) our prehistoric friends, I love a well-told story even more, and well told stories almost always have character agency.

Character agency is the story's ability to make its characters the star of the show. A plot with strong agency isn't happening in a void, it's happening as a direct result of character decisions and actions. Stories without this much needed asset can suffer from plot holes, contrivances, and seemingly unrelated instances because the people through which the story is being told don't have enough force in their own tale. 

Chuck Wendig provides an awesome, full-length exploration of character agency on his blog.

For the most part, Jurassic World featured decently well-developed characters with quite a bit of agency. Sure you had a blatant damsel out of distress scene and a couple contradictions between the foreshadowing of the big mean brother and said big mean brother's actual actions, but again, for the most part, the movie did a great job with its cast. Protagonists solved problems using their unique skill sets, and each of them had their own personal stake in the tale, which boosted the importance of their decision making (and therefore their agency).

Jurassic World's Claire and Owen, flirting awkwardly.
But for me, the biggest lapse of character agency happened at the worst possible time: at the climax - the very end. I have nothing against giant dinosaur vs. other giant dinosaur (plus little dinosaur) action, but the main cast did little in those final moments.

Let's think back to the original Jurassic Park, where up until the very end, Dr. Grant and co. had clearly established character goals which drove their decisions. Get out of the tree, get over the fence, turn on the power, lock the door, etc., etc. Each completed goal led to the next, developing in complexity until finally, the cast met their match in the face of a pack of raptors. Sure, the T-Rex coming in and eating said raptors was a bit of a deus ex machina, but it was an exciting deus ex machina - one that felt earned after everything the characters had accomplished. 

Even take Jurassic Park's sequel, Lost World, and look at its ending. Ian races through San Diego to rescue the infant T-Rex from InGen, using it to lure its mother back onto the ship where Ian's co-lead, Sarah, tranquilizes it before it can escape. Still the same glorious, action-filled ending reminiscent of Jurassic's latest, but driven by the protagonists' decisions and actions. That's character agency.

My poor hometown...(or maybe lucky hometown?)

So what's the difference between those two movies and Jurassic World?

In World, Owen joins Claire and the boys with little explanation as to how he found them, making the reunion a bit of a contrivance. Add to this that when they arrive at the park's main compound, the Indominus Rex finds them (that's right, their story goal comes to them), and we're working with enough divine coincidence that suspension of disbelief starts to fail.

The boys hide, Owen shoots, and Claire, fed up with hiding and ready to demonstrate more problem solving via her skills of management and park knowledge (a great storytelling decision on the script writer's part), frees the iconic T-Rex from its pen. Owen runs out of bullets, and now the whole cast is hiding. Yep. Just hiding.

No attempts to hide, no attempts to run for cover, no attempts to signal any surviving military forces. If the T-Rex had failed to take down Indominus, I'm not sure what would have happened next. I honestly believe the protagonists would have rolled over and raised the white flag, because that's how they were acting. The climactic monster mash was cool, but it robbed the characters of choice, goals, decision-making, and in the end, agency. Shortly put: they weren't doing anything.

This problem can partly be attributed to the story's lack of depth as a whole. We get glimpses into surface level issues, but there's so much going on that we don't get to explore much complexity. Events lead into the next loosely, are rarely the result of action-consequence trails, and the character goals are merely survive and kill the big thing. While those are good overarching goals, the lack of meaningful mini-goals along the way demonstrates the lack of complexity and problem depth present in the film's predecessors. As a result, the ending was fun (again, big thing vs. big thing is cool), but for me, not as satisfying as I would have hoped.

Don't get me wrong. For a movie about dinosaurs, it hit many of the right notes: great action, awesome visuals, and a fair attempt at meaningful character development. But in the end, every story is about its characters, and not enough agency was present throughout to make this movie the storytelling homerun it could have been.

At the very least, there was Chris Pratt riding a motorcycle next to a pack of raptors, and honestly, that's all anyone really needs anyway. 

Zoom zoom.


  1. Good post and interesting observations on character agency that I hadn't thought of when I watched the movie.

    I enjoyed Jurassic World a lot and while it lacked the depth and emotion that the original had, it was a fun monster in the jungle movie. It entertained!

    What bothered my about it though, and I've not seen anyone else comment on, was not the agency, but the fact that no one seemed to learn anything in the movie, or the wrong characters were given the wrong lessons.

    I can't remember the character names but the three that stood out were Claire(?), The military guy who wants the raptors, and the other female character with the dark hair.

    The villain is, obviously, Indominus Rex, but IR is just the monster, we need a human bad-guy. And while some of the minor background characters sort of filled this role, I feel that most of the attention was shone on the (looks up character name) Hoskins character. Unfairly. He doesn't do anything particularly bad in the whole film, he has an idea to solve the problem (which they carry out! It's unsuccessful, because the IR is a raptor somehow, but he couldn't have known that. Furthermore, the raptors prove crucial in overcoming the IR at the end anyway!) So this 'bad guy' gets a villainous death.
    Meanwhile, Claire, who is in many ways responsible for both IR's release, and her inaction in locking it down, and refusal to deploy appropriate counter-measures against are the catalyst for every death in the entire movie. She doesn't even get a slap on the wrist at the end, and we're left to believe that her role in this catastrophe will be completely overlooked. Even Hammond got his bollocking from Ellie, and lost his park. It wasn't death, but it was punishment! Claire gets a free pass.
    Meanwhile, in my opinion, the worst and most torturous death in the movie goes to Zara (?), who is picked up, nearly drowned, and then eaten alive by the biggest dino in the movie. All shown in excruciating detail. I can think of no action that this character performed to warrant such a demise, but what is even more tragic is that her death is almost entirely unsung. No one mentions her again, the kids show no remorse for their involvement in ditching her. It's just bonkers! What did she do to anyone!?

    Call me old fashioned, but I like it when the good-guys are ultimately rewarded, and the bad-guys punished. In JP we had Nendry, Genarro, and Hammond. All portrayed as bad-guys or at least cast negatively, and all receive comeuppance in some form. Good guy suffer too, (Arnold, Muldoon?) but it's generally done less for spectacle, and more for fear. They're given opportunity to shine, and their deaths have "value". I think the closest we got to that was the Masrani character in JW.

    Anyway, my two-cents. Good post!

    1. Awesome insights, Stephen! I completely agree. I think takeaways for the characters themselves within the story are always important, and in this regard, you're spot on. This movie didn't quite have the storytelling charm down like the first movie (which you illustrated through great examples), but in the end, I guess we *did* get to see dinosaurs fight. Again, great thoughts on why it didn't quite shine like it could have. Thank you for stopping by! :)