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What Jurassic World gets right that so many other blockbusters get wrong

Hello, lovely dinosaur. Please don't eat me.
Hello, lovely dinosaur. Please don't eat me.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Jurassic World blew past its initial box office tracking, which had projected the film would earn somewhere in the $120 million range for its opening weekend, to become only the second film ever (after the first Avengers) to make more than $200 million in its first three days in theaters in the US and Canada and the first to make more than $500 million worldwide in that same period.

Any way you slice it, that's a monstrous debut for the film, one that will have every studio looking back to the 1990s in search of properties that can be revived or sequelized. It's also one that suggests that not only superhero movies and adaptations of young adult novels can be massive hits nowadays. And given that Avengers: Age of Ultron missed being as big as the first film (while still being a huge hit), the surprise success of Jurassic World indicates that audiences may be ready for something other than superhero films (just as Hollywood is gearing up to make a whole bunch of them).

But I'm hoping the film industry takes another, less obvious lesson from Jurassic World. While I think the movie's a bit of a mess, there's one thing I really admire about it: its dramatic stakes are tiny compared with those of most other blockbusters. Where other movies put the fate of the world on the line, Jurassic World keeps the risks human-sized. Or at least dinosaur-sized.

What's at stake here? 20,000 people and some animals.

Think about the third act of Jurassic World. There are dinosaurs on the loose, but the park has mostly been evacuated. Though prehistoric beasts have gobbled up their fair share of human beings, most of the park's attendees are out of danger and awaiting rescue. Only a handful, who happen to be our main characters, remain to watch the genetically engineered Indominus rex do battle with a Tyrannosaurus and a bunch of Velociraptors.

Now think about the third act of Age of Ultron, where the characters must save the Earth from an evil robot's plan to essentially turn a city into an asteroid that will wipe out all life on the planet. Most superhero movies end in this way, with a massive CGI blowout that involves the heroes only barely saving humanity from its certain end. (A notable exception to this: Christopher Nolan's three Dark Knight films.)

Heck, even the most recent Fast & Furious film ended with the characters needing to make sure a horrible weapon didn't fall into the hands of terrorists, who might then use it to (you guessed it) destroy the world. And that franchise is ostensibly about little more than people driving cars really fast.

But Jurassic World ultimately comes down to protecting the lives of a very small group of people. Sure, there's some concern from some of them that the Indominus's rampage will force the park to close. But that's a foregone conclusion. Once that dinosaur is on the loose and eating people, yeah, the park is going to have to close.

So ultimately we're dealing with the population of a small Midwestern town living or dying. The threat is existential, sure, but it's also weirdly personal.

You can't stop what's coming

In superhero films, the end of the world must be averted by our heroes. But in a film like Jurassic World, the world won't end; instead, people's lives will. Instead of asteroid versus everybody, this is dinosaur versus human, or even dinosaur versus dinosaur.

Those personalized stakes make it easier to imagine yourself in the midst of the chaos. Yeah, we can abstractly step into the shoes of the faceless people the Avengers save, but that movie asks us, instead, to imagine ourselves as one of the Avengers themselves. It wants us to consider our most heroic selves and all the good we might do with superpowers.

Jurassic World (and similar surprise hit San Andreas, come to think of it) suggests that all we can possibly do is survive. There are big, scary things out there that want to devour us whole. All we can do is run. We aren't heroes. We're prey. These movies are built upon horror movie architecture, wedded to the typical blockbuster structure.

In 2013, Vulture did an interview with Damon Lindelof, who co-created Lost and has written his fair share of blockbusters, where he spoke about how often popcorn movies evolve into stories where the fate of the world is in question. After all, there are no bigger stakes than that; there's no bigger scale for a story to play out on. But Lindelof accurately diagnosed the problem with this approach: when the end of the world could happen in every single movie, we become numb to that threat.

We have yet to face the end of the human race, and hopefully we won't ever have to. But we've all been in a scary situation where we've worried for our own survival. I don't think people are going to see Jurassic World because of its more personal stakes, at least not consciously. But I got more wrapped up in the movie's third act than I expected to, given what came before. And a lot of that stemmed from its willingness to go against what so many other blockbusters are doing.

Watch: A lot has changed in paleontology since Jurassic Park first came out in 1993.