I was having a conversation about Jurassic World online after my screening and the crux of the discussion focused on my misgivings over the glossy emptiness and lack of heart of the film, to which someone replied “all the awe and wonder was used up in the first Jurassic Park movie.”
It struck me as a particularly poignant and on-the-nose observation, because the film is unquestionably aware of that fact, and spends a big chunk of its running time devoted to commenting on how wildly out of whack the population’s appetite and expectations for bigger, better, faster, MORE has become in regards to entertainment across all spectrums – superhero movie battles have to be massive, city annihilating spectacles; rollercoasters have to be higher and twistier and faster; video games have to be more immersive with eyeball-blasting graphics. And on and on it goes.
The problem is, the bigger, louder, and more technologically advanced things become, the more people grow jaded and desensitized. Heart and storytelling are buried under a thick shellacking of shiny digital wizardy. A microcosm of that is on display in Jurassic World, as InGen’s new corporate owners have warped John Hammond’s original vision of a majestic safari experience and created a tacky theme park, compete with gaudy décor, overpriced concessions, and a Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville chain restaurant (shudder).
Even worse, they found a way to package, merchandise, and exploit dinosaurs – making them feel as boring and mundane as the animatronic pirates at Disney World. Dallas Bryce Howard’s park director character says something to the effect of “People look at a Brontosaurus like an elephant in a petting zoo now.” There’s even a sequence where five-year-olds ride on the backs of miserable-looking triceratops babies.
In order to keep visitors pumping money into the park, scarier and meaner “assets” (that’s how routine dinosaurs are, at this point) are continually required, which falls on the genetic engineers led by the first film’s chief dino-splicer Dr, Henry Wu, once again played by BD Wong. This results in the creation of the park’s first hybrid dinosaur – a nasty, pale-skinned horror dubbed the “Indominus Rex. Several expository sequences later (we have to know what special abilities and characteristics the I-Rex will implement in his eventual murder-spree), the beast predictably escapes out into the theme park to kickstart the popcorn-munching blockbuster thrill ride portion of the film.
Before the relentless action begins the film cross cuts among three sets of characters: a pair of brothers—one a sulky teenager (Zach), the other a shy, awkward dino-obsessed 9-year-old (Gray)—visiting Jurassic World while their parents go through divorce proceedings. Meanwhile their aunt, Bryce Dallas-Howard’s ambitious, impeccably organized Claire, is busy trying to lock down a corporate sponsorship for the iRex while placating the park’s primary investor, Irrfan Khan. Then there’s Chris Pratt’s rakish, rugged raptor wrangler/whisperer Owen, who is trying to stave off Vincent D’Nofrio’s stock, 2-dimensional cartoon ex-military baddie desperate to test the raptors for use in the battlefield.
Unfortunately, the cross-cutting is imbalanced (we spend way too much time with the kids and not enough with Pratt) and throws off the pacing in the first half of the film. It also doesn’t help that the characters aren’t that great. The kids, in fact, are pretty awful. Zach is bland and perpetually sullen, while Ty Simpkins, who was so great in Iron Man 3, comes off annoying and weirdly off-putting. When park guests are being torn apart left and right, they share a very forced “brotherly love” moment with some poor dialogue. It’s only when they start interacting with Pratt and get active during the climax that you begin to care if they get devoured or not.
The script tries to get a Tracy-Hepburn / Solo-Leia thing going on between Pratt and Howard, and is fairly successful despite only giving us one scene between them to set up their relationship in the first act. Singularly, Pratt doesn’t have nearly the same depth and heart to work with that he had as Star-Lord in Guardians Of The Galaxy, yet his natural charisma continues to shine through, anyway. Howard also doesn’t get much to work with, playing a fairly stereotypical stuffy career woman until the catastrophe brings her badass/emotional side to light.
Of the peripheral characters, Jake Johnson is so good, he turns what would normally be a groan-inducing, audience surrogate/”nerdy tech guy obsessed with nostalgia for the old park” character into someone with life and humor. (I’m really beginning to question if anyone outside of Marvel Studios can give us likeable, developed characters in blockbuster movies.)
The good news (or the bad, depending on how you look at it), is that once the park’s Modern Prometheus is unleashed and the mayhem begins, the film drops all pretense of meta-commentary and simply delivers the exact thing it’s critiquing – a loud, dazzling, fast-paced, completely absurd dino rampage with some truly outstanding special effects and a firecracker of a finale that will have you pumping your fist and cheering, despite how manipulative and reliant on the original film it is.
Director Colin Trevorrow (Safety Not Guaranteed) and screenwriters Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver did a very smart thing by sweeping the previous sequels under the rug and setting the film on Isla Nublar, creating a masturbatory nostalgia experience for one of the targeted demos here. Fans in their mid-20s to early 30s who were mesmerized watching Lexi and Tim get attacked the by the T-Rex in the original will no doubt feel all tingly inside when Zach and Gray find themselves in the overgrown remnants of Jurassic park’s original visitors center, walking past the bones of the raptors and finding old night-vision goggles.
Trevorrow’s framing and staging is solid, and he handles complex action sequences well (thousands of extras fleeing in terror from a fleet of flying pterosaurs is particularly exhilarating and could not have been easy to shoot). However, he does fall into the trap (likely due to the nature of the subtext) of revisiting some key iconography from Jurassic Park and attempting to go bigger and bolder. Intense as these sequences are though, there’s only one Spielberg, and they can’t hold a candle to scenes like the now-iconic T-Rex assault on the jeep with its simple but eternally suspenseful buildup and immediately legendary imagery. It’s incredible how ripples in two cups of water and a dialating pupil can still outshine millions of dollars of CGI sturm and drang.
Hell, the best shot of the entire series is still the moment when Dr. Alan Grant and Ellie are in the jeep and see the dinosaurs for the first time. When they stood up and gaped in open-mouthed, wide-eyed wonder at those off-screen prehistoric leviathans, we gaped right along with them. These days, I don’t believe anything short of staring into a fiery nuclear apocalypse could trigger the same response.
Jurassic World fails as a film that follows through on the promise of something clever to say on a meta-textual level, and it can’t deliver in the emotion and grandeur department, either. But Chris Pratt’s effortless charm and the dinosaur carnage that unfurls over almost the entire second half of the film is an absolute blast to witness, so I can’t in good conscious ultimately condemn it. it functions perfectly well as a adrenaline-fueled, fun summer ride. (I’m also bumping up the film’s rating a half-star, solely due to the destruction of the Margaritaville during the finale, because, fuck Jimmy Buffet.)
3 out of 5 stars