There is no film, or any piece of media for that matter, more informative to my childhood than Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park. In one masterstroke, Spielberg ushered in a new area of special effects and invented the Summer Blockbuster.
Between it and its sequel, the completely underrated Lost World (to hell with all y’all, I love that film to dino-bits), I’ve clocked over a hundred viewings of dino crises. I’ve even amounted to a dozen sitdowns with Jurassic Park III despite it being –as Malcolm would so eloquently put it – one big pile of shit.
I love all things Jurassic Park. I love dinosaurs. I especially love Spielberg’s key storytelling signature in which ordinary people are thrown into an extraordinary situation. That signature may be what makes the Jurassic Park movies so successful, even over Crichton’s source material – though the concept is rooted in a scientific ‘What If,’ Spielberg knew to place a heavier emphasis on the characters rather than the dino-jargon.
So I was Trepidation Rex when it came to another sequel, especially from a relatively untested director. JP3 had me convinced one of the most integral components to a good Jurassic Park film is parking Stevie’s magical beard behind the camera. Jurassic World has softened that opinion.
The film builds itself on one of the stronger concepts this series has seen: what if Jurassic Park didn’t prematurely implode? What if the world actually got to experience John Hammond’s dream come to life? Enter Jurassic World, a fully functioning theme park quite literally built on the remains of the original park (a beat-you-over-the-head brand of allegory).
It’s both surreal and enchanting to see Jurassic World in action as intended. Petting zoos, thousands of spectators snapping off phone pics, a friggin’ Starbucks in the middle of the park… There’s a sense of awe in the fact any of this works at all given that all three prior films deal with the fallout of Jurassic Park failing miserably.
The audience’s ‘In’ comes in the form of the brothers Mitchell – the teenage Zach (Nick Robinson), whose main characteristic is “Undue Angst,” and his younger brother Gray (Ty Simpkins), a boy with an encyclopedic knowledge of dinosaurs. The movie sprinkles in a subplot about their parents’ ensuing divorce but never commits to it, making it mostly inconsequential once teeth and claws become the camera’s focus (the parents, played by Judy Greer and The Office’s Andy Buckley are similarly squandered).
You could almost tell in either the scripting process or in the editing room that some scrapped line or event may have served as an emotional payoff, but without it, its inclusion is as confusing as older brother Zach staring at every teenage girl in the park despite having a girlfriend waiting for him back at home.
The film fares far better with its main stars, starting with an abundantly awesome introduction to Chris Pratt’s Owen Grady. Owen spends his days on the island training grown raptors like they’re fanged dolphins. There’s a respect level reserved just for him and the four “Hero” dinosaurs of the flick, but you get a swift reminder that they’re not entirely tamable when a newbie falls into the pen and almost ends up in shreds.
The packaged deal of Owen/Raptor Squad is a sight to behold and one of the film’s biggest treats, but Pratt’s characterization of Grady isn’t immune to the script’s wrinkled pages. The gravitational pull of charisma Pratt exuded in Guardians of the Galaxy has been zapped away in favor of a more traditional (i.e. boring as fuck) action hero archetype. There’s moments when you can tell Pratt wants to break free of his “Blue Steel” scowl and just be Prattastic but you get a sense that the studio ordered up a badass lead. Hell, characters vocally point out how much of a badass Grady is. It’s especially irksome since it flies in the face of Spielberg’s “ordinary fellow vs. the extraordinary” style that props up his more famous films.
Bryce Dallas Howard’s role as Claire Dearing, Jurassic World’s Director of Operations, is positioned as Owen’s foil. She’s a control freak, prim and proper, and the script spends every moment not filled with scaly action to point out she’s an uptight drag. Claire is championed as the corporate face of naivete, the “Man” part of the equation in “Man vs. Nature.” Howard delivers Claire through the valley of predictability with such precision, you’ll wish the screenwriters wrote her a better part.
Vincent D’Onofrio rounds out the supporting cast in one of the poorest additions he’s ever made to a film. They have him playing an InGen stooge foaming at the mouth to sell “Raptor Warriors” to the military. He spends his woeful screen time dribbling douchey, thinly veiled right wing dialogue at our heroes while pressuring Owen to unleash his dogs o’ war. B.D. Wong, reprising his role as Dr. Wu, the only returning character that tethers the original film to this one, also suffers from a one-dimensional personality. To be honest, it’s not even the same characterization, as they’ve made him into a sort of villain – a lazy mad scientist that creates genetic terrors for no other reason than because he was told to.
It’s Irrfan Khan’s playful turn as Jurassic World’s owner, Simon Marsani, that saves the supporting cast from belly-slashing the movie. Khan’s obviously having a shitload of fun playing the slightly oblivious, all-too-rich Marsani, and in return, I had fun watching him. His screen time is much too brief and his, er, explosive exit proves needless once you feel the void of his presence.
Of course, this is Jurassic World, and the real stars of the film are the dinosaurs. And Trevorrow delivers hard on the dinosaur action. Each of his set pieces own this sense of escalation that’s so eerily Spielbergian, you’ll feel like the beard’s behind the camera himself. Trevorrow’s displays a penchant for terror, and his Indominous Rex thusly benefits from the tensest scenes in the film.
Indominous is a scary sonuvabitch. Its design cobbles together the most ruthless predators in the saurian kingdom, and paints the monster a ghostly white. Unfortunately, the CGI team does their damnedest to ruin any ounce of mystique the creature could’ve owned by putting it front and center as often as possible, in the brightest, harshest lighting possible. For a dude that literally has Spielberg looming over his shoulder, Trevorrow could stand to watch Jaws again.
Still, Indominous serves as a worthy villain; it leaves chaos in its wake and brings dino reckoning to Isla Numblar in spectacular fashion. Once it breaks loose, the film switches gear as Grady and company goes on the hunt for the murderous hybrid. The tone departs from the disaster movie vibe of the original in order to follow more closely the beats of a monster movie. And it’s a perfectly entertaining monster movie to boot. Despite some character foul-up’s (seriously, I swore in disappointment every time a raptor failed in completely eviscerating a Mitchell brother), once the hunt is on, the film becomes a laser focused roller-coaster, loops and all.
Jurassic World is most successful at tugging on those nostalgia strings coiled in any moviegoer that remembers jumping the first time the heard a T-Rex roar fill a theater. There’s some small nods to the series at large, and some very obvious callbacks. The latter runs the risk of coming off as manipulative, but it’s clear Trevorrow shares the same soft spot we do for Jurassic Park.
Moments like revisiting the first (now dilapidated) Visitor’s Center and fixing up one of those inexplicably cool Jeeps from the original film tickled the right spots. More indulgent is the generous usage of John Williams’ scores. You can’t hold back that smile when you hear those swelling trumpets greeting you back to the park. Some of the ways music is repurposed is surprising and thoughtful; the stuff only a fan could come up with.
But effective nostalgia accidentally reveals the movie’s weakness. Like the Jurassic World our characters inhabit, the film relies on the efforts, passion, and love of another visionary’s dream. I realized the reverence shown for Hammond and his large-scale flea circus is what Trevorrow and his crew holds for Spielberg and his island of movie magic monsters. In that way, Jurassic World lives in the shadow of a movie monument – it’s formula even hems suspiciously close to the beats of the original.
To put it in perspective, and to ruin a big “reveal” in the film’s finale (YEAH, SPOILER), an all-out brawl between Grady’s Raptor Squad and Indominous ensues. Without any real cause to believe this might work, Claire takes her nephew’s prompting that they “need more teeth,” and, brandishing a flare in the same way Grant did all those years ago, unleashes The Tyrannosaurus Rex onto park grounds. I say “The Tyrannosaurus” because she’s the very same leviathan we met back in 1993 (the film’s marketing states this fact, but the film itself seems to skim over this bit of trivia).
Our old hero Rex clashes against the newly bred, entirely volatile Indominous Rex in one of the best monster movie showdowns this side of Gareth Edward’s Godzilla. It’s nothing but constant CGI, sure, but it satisfies nonetheless. It’s a huge payoff for fans of Jurassic Park… But that’s the problem. It’s a payoff that doesn’t make any sense without the original Jurassic Park. Before this climatic finale, there’s a microcosm of a scene in which the Rex is feeding on a goat in its paddock (another callback). That’s it. There’s no throwaway line describing the Rex as an adept fighter, or how amazing it is that she’s a survivor of the original park. Nothing. There’s no buildup.
It’s only a payoff if you love the first movie. Which we all do, so most won’t think much of it. But if you take this story singularly, if you have no previous experience with any Jurassic film (even the one with William H. Macy’s porn-stache), Jurassic World ends up having a bunch of holes in it. Holes it expects its audience to fill.
Jurassic World’s heart is in the right place. The film shares the same spirit of adventure and wonderment that made its ‘93 predecessor a movie legend. But it doesn’t share Jurassic Park’s wit and cohesion. When the dinosaur action gets cooking, the plot takes a backseat. It attempts to rattle off the same message – man’s comeuppance for playing God – but smears it with overblown CGI and a general glossiness common in dumber Hollywood fare.
If there’s a sequel – which is guaranteed since Hollywood makes ‘franchises’ these days, not ‘movies’ – I’d love to see this new series mold its own identity. As is, it’s top-notch Summer Movie-Going, absolutely. But it’s not lasting in the least. At best, it reminds you why you loved Jurassic Park in the first place. At worst, it reminds you that you should’ve just watched Jurassic Park to begin with.
- Hammond’s vision realized is awe-inspiring
- The Indominous is a raging, hate machine
- Pratt’s interactions with the Raptor Squad are sometimes more genuine than between him and his human cohorts
- The music is fucking killer
- Big budget set-pieces are worth every million
What Doesn’t Work:
- The supporting cast does anything but
- Lapses in logic
- Swims in the waters of predictability (you’re better than a romantic subplot, man)
- The Mitchell Brothers
- Too much CGI. Stan Winston would be shaking his animatronic’s head