One look is all it takes to learn everything you need to know, or will ever know, about Bryce Dallas Howard’s Jurassic World character, Claire Dearing. Not a hair of her severely angled, unnaturally red bob is out of place. She’s the operations manager at a massive live-dinosaur theme park yet insists on wearing flowing white silk skirt-suits to off-road site visits. Her white designer blazer is draped over her shoulders because putting one’s arms through a jacket’s armholes can be so gauche. Mud, genetically altered extinct creatures, and a hot and muscle-y Chris Pratt (as ex-Navy velociraptor whisperer Owen Grady) surround her, but Claire will not be deterred … from wearing nude patent-leather pumps with stiletto heels. Instead of character development, Claire is saddled with character broadcasting via wardrobe. Was it really necessary for Jurassic World to resurrect gender stereotypes along with the dinosaurs?
Claire’s outfit isn’t a sign of fierceness; it’s a crime of lazy filmmaking — a patronizing shorthand for her cluelessness and stubborn need for control. See how out-of-touch she is with her environment? Silly girl! When we saw this more than 30 years ago in 1984’s Romancing the Stone, Kathleen Turner at least tore off the heels of her ridiculous, jungle-inappropriate shoes. Not so with Claire. “[She] goes out into the jungle and her white clothes get muddy and ripped up and she gets bruised and sweaty — but girlfriend does not take off her heels!” Howard told Hull Daily Mail, as though that’s admirable rather than distracting and implausible. Just in the course of doing her job — which takes her into animal cages and down dirt roads — her footwear is foolish, let alone once she starts running from dinosaurs.
This is not to take anything away from Howard, who fully committed to Claire’s intractable heels devotion: During the shoot Howard eschewed wedged sneakers and learned to run on her tippy toes, all in the interest of staying true to her character. The failures of the script go much deeper. When we meet Claire, she’s too engrossed with work to spend the day with her two nephews, 11-year-old Gray (Ty Simpkins) and teenage Zach (Nick Robinson), who’ve flown across the world to see her. Gray hugs her and Claire reacts as if she’s never before experienced human touch. When Claire’s sweet, maternal sister (played by Judy Greer) hears that Claire has been ignoring her nephews all day, she weeps, and tells Claire that she’d understand if she were a mother.
As the movie’s setup continues we learn that Claire’s frigidity also extends to the dinos, which she refers to as “assets” and “attractions.” These are lab-grown money-makers to her, not sentient beings with uncontrollable killer instincts. Oh, and she likely hasn’t been fucked properly in a long time. At least that’s the implication when she drives over to Owen’s trailer to enlist his help. We learn through their verbal sparring that they once went on a date: She brought an itinerary; he wore cargo shorts. There was no second date. Claire is defined by her job, but we never learn about the smarts or hard work that got her to arguably the highest administrative position in the park or see her do anything but be brusque and make cold, terrible decisions, like not evacuating the island when it’s under imminent danger because she’s worried about the economics.
All of this is particularly dismaying given that director Colin Trevorrow (Safety Not Guaranteed) has said that Jurassic World is meant to be a direct followup to 1993’s Jurassic Park. Remember how badass Laura Dern was in that movie? She played world-renowned paleobotanist Dr. Ellie Sattler, the intellectual equal to her partner, Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill), and a tough, resourceful heroine in the mold of Alien’s Ellen Ripley or Terminator’s Sarah Connor. She was able to identify extinct poisonous plants on sight, went toe-to-toe with Jeff Goldblum’s Dr. Ian Malcolm on chaos theory (with that great line: “Dinosaurs eat man. Woman inherits the Earth”), and got elbow-deep in a mountain of dung to diagnose an ailing triceratops. When it came time for her to fight off a velociraptor while taking the initiative to restart a power grid, we had faith she would prevail. In fact, the entire movie was quietly feminist in the way it depicted the downfall of male hubris, from Wayne Knight’s botched attempt to steal dino embryos to the exile of man from the island by an entirely female dinosaur population. Women did inherit the Earth after all.
Jurassic World doesn’t just reverse the original’s feminism by 22 years; this is some Tarzan-and-Jane-level bullshit. Claire does eventually get dirty, find inner strength, and become quite the fighter. We know she’s loosening up because she takes off that white silk shirt and ties it around her waist, and her hair goes from blown-out straight to impeccably wavy. Also, she pets a dying brontosaurus and sheds a tear. But all of this comes under swarthy Owen’s manfluence, and while it’s happening, she’s constantly being undermined. Claire saves the lives of both Owen and her nephews, only to have the boys tell her that they feel safest with her “boyfriend.”
Though some commentary of late seems to suggest otherwise, blockbusters don’t have to be overtly feminist to be good. They just have to be overtly not sexist. There’s room for both Katniss Everdeen and a character like Claire, who had never touched a gun until there was a pterodactyl bearing down on her. You don’t go to Jurassic World for the social commentary. You’re going for the dinosaurs. You know what’s going to happen; it’s the same thing that’s happened in every Jurassic Park movie. And in that regard, the movie delivered — all told, I had a ton of fun seeing it.
But there were plenty of tiny things that could have been adjusted without materially affecting the plot that would have made Claire a more believable, capable, less retrograde character. She didn’t need to be the second coming of Ellie Satler. It would have been enough if she had simply been given a backstory, or a friend, or a chance to do something at her job other than be shrill and ignore the advice of experts and put hundreds of lives in danger. As is, every chance for us to sympathize with her, every ostensible discovery she makes of her own humanity is undermined by the distracting parade of stereotypes. How about defining her by something other than her clothes or her haircut or her failure to have children? How about giving her the good sense to take off those fucking high heels?
Claire didn’t have to be a feminist icon, but we deserved more. She deserved more. In the end, her great takeaway seems to be that it’s time to stop being a frigid bitch and start popping out babies. So much for the advent of the post-Furiosa action-heroine era. That was a great three weeks while it lasted.
Correction: We originally stated that Jurassic Park’s Dr. Ellie Sattler and Dr. Alan Grant were married. They were actually in an undefined relationship. It was complicated.