When you see Jurassic World, you know dinosaurs are going to eat people. It's how they eat people that matters.
As I watched Jurassic World this week, the demise of one particular character didn't feel right to me (I'll avoid specifics so I don't give away any spoilers, but you can see who it is here). The sequence was certainly one of the most impressive set pieces in the film, even recalling (or paying homage to) Steven Spielberg's Jaws. But I was squirming in my seat because this was no ordinary Jurassic death. This was torture. And the character who dies? It's not even the villain. Not even close. The character is a nominal supporting character about whom we know very little. So why such a horrible death for such a non-essential character?
Reading some articles on Jurassic World after seeing the film, I realized I was far from alone in my feelings about this on-screen death. I discovered John August's take on the sequence after he read and added to an analysis by Devin Faraci at Birth. Movies. Death. Faraci really encapsulated how I felt about this sequence in his analysis:
I would say it’s the most horrible death in the movie. It’s well-executed (oddly this could be the only set piece in the movie that is structured in a way to actually give weight and meaning to the action within it) but that execution only adds to how deeply disturbing it is. It’s possible that this is the most horrible death in the entire franchise, or at least that it is running neck and neck with the death of Richard Schiff in The Lost World. It’s gruesome and it’s painful and it’s protracted.
Faraci continues to explain how and why characters die in action/adventure films like Jurassic World. Some unnamed background characters may die far away from our protagonists to give the audience a sense of danger. Good characters close to our protagonists may die in an act of heroism or to bring the peril much closer to the protagonist. And of course, many audiences feel evil characters deserve to die as moral retribution for their previous actions.
John August elaborated on Faraci's analysis of when characters deserve to die. Here's how August describes this particular character's death:
What makes this one death in Jurassic World so odd is that the character is neither hero nor villain. We’re not rooting for comeuppance, yet the sequence seems designed for exactly that -- payback for a karmic debt owed.
If this sequence had been used to kill one of the villains in Jurassic World, the feeling would be much different. Both Faraci and August guess that this set piece was very likely designed in an earlier draft of the script for a villain, but then the story was changed, the sequence was deemed too spectacular not to use and another character now dies in a way that is out of proportion to that character's previous actions.
Why does all of this matter? Because a death of this kind in Jurassic World not only does not feel deserved, it actually pulls the audience out of the ride. As I watched the sequence, I thought to myself, "This is horrible. When is this going to end?" And when it finally did, I wondered what was the point of such a gruesome death for an inconsequential character.
Jaws famously opens with the brutal death of a character we know nothing about and who we consider innocent. That death, however, sets the stage for the danger that the shark poses for the rest of the film. And we didn't even see the shark in the opening sequence. In Jurassic World, we already know the danger the dinosaurs pose to innocent lives when this sequence occurs. Even if we hadn't seen Jurassic Park or any other movie in the series, dinosaurs have already killed several people at this point in the film. We got it. Everybody better hold on to their butts.
Maybe this sequence is supposed to tell the audience that the rules you thought applied to Jurassic World have just changed: things just got a lot darker, nobody is safe, and you are going to have to watch more characters die protracted, gruesome deaths. Except the rules didn't change. The rest of the film certainly wasn't predictable, but the sequences all worked within the prescribed rules of Jurassic World based on our experiences with the earlier parts of the film and the original Jurassic Park.
In other words, how dinosaurs proceeded to eat people from this point of the film forward worked. And I wasn't squirming uncomfortably in my seat. The filmmakers upheld the social contract between me and Jurassic World. People get eaten. Swiftly.
This brings me back to looking at the sequence from a screenwriter's perspective. I have a ton of respect for both credited screenwriting teams on Jurassic World, Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver and Derek Connolly & Colin Trevorrow, and I really enjoyed the movie. Jurassic World revitalized the franchise with great callbacks to the original Jurassic Park. But if this particular sequence stuck out so much for me, I wanted to understand why in terms of story.
John August summarizes the screenwriting takeaway lesson nicely:
Early deaths help establish the rules of the world. Late deaths create closure. It’s the middle deaths like this one in Jurassic World that are often the most challenging. Too mean-spirited, and you risk turning the audience against you. Too generic, and you’ve lessened the stakes for your hero.
This particular sequence was tricky for Jurassic World, and while visually spectacular, the set piece ultimately didn't work for the story in my opinion. If this death was seen from the perspective of our heroes and we could see and feel their reactions, the impact would have been a lot more effective, even though some of the spectacle would be sacrificed because of our distance from the death.
Death is the ultimate choice when writing a screenplay, and as screenwriters, we need to consider the timing and impact of each death on our heroes and our audience.