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Jurassic World (2015)

jurassicworldDIRECTOR: Colin Trevorrow

CAST: Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Ty Simpkins, Nick Robinson, Vincent D’Onofrio, Irrfan Khan, Omar Sy, B.D. Wong

REVIEW:

22 years ago, Steven Spielberg ushered in a special effects landmark with Jurassic Park, featuring dinosaurs that did (and in many scenes, still do) look astoundingly real.  Spielberg’s 1997 sequel The Lost World was a step down, and 2001’s Jurassic Park III (directed by Joe Johnston) felt like superfluous filler.  Now, 14 years later, with Spielberg producing and relative newcomer Colin Trevorrow behind the camera, a film series many thought to have gone extinct over a decade ago (and sputtering out of gas well before that) has roared back onto the big screen.  While Jurassic World doesn’t scale the heights of the original film (and in some ways might even be inferior to The Lost World), it surpasses Jurassic Park III and provides two hours of serviceable monster movie entertainment.

The fiasco at the original park in 1993 (and the smaller-scale incidents on the neighboring dinosaur island in the second and third installments, which are not referenced here) is long in the past.  As we begin this film, Jurassic World, an updated version of the late John Hammond’s dinosaur theme park, has already been open for ten years, drawing massive crowds and profits with no major accidents.  In fact, things have been going smoothly for so long that the novelty is starting to wear off.  The same old familiar dinosaurs aren’t enough to “ooh and ahh” anymore.  Corporate has decided it needs to “up the wow factor”, and so, under the supervision (or lack thereof) of CEO Simon Masrani (Irrfan Khan) and park director Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard), InGen’s genetics whiz Dr. Henry Wu (B.D. Wong, the only returning series veteran) has concocted the park’s first genetically engineered hybrid, an unholy cocktail of DNA dubbed the Indominus Rex, designed to be bigger than a T-Rex and as smart as a Velociraptor.  As Ian Malcolm would say, “your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should!” (his Lost World comment that “this is the worst idea in a long, sad history of bad ideas” also fits).  As will come as no surprise to anyone, things go very, very wrong, as the sneaky and bloodthirsty Indominus smuggles itself out of its “secure” paddock and goes on an unstoppable rampage across the island, slaughtering every other dinosaur in its path and making a beeline toward the heavily-populated Main Street, where over 2,000 guests congregate.  In-over-her-head park director Claire is forced to team up with ex-military animal expert Owen Grady (Chris Pratt), who has managed to forge an uneasy bond with the park’s Velociraptor pack, to launch a two-person rescue mission in search of her two visiting nephews (Ty Simpkins and Nick Robinson) who are stranded somewhere in the restricted zone.  And meanwhile, a team of Blackwater-type mercs led by InGen security chief Hoskins (Vincent D’Onofrio) smell an opportunity to get their hands on some Raptors for military purposes.

Jurassic World partly avoids repetition by giving us something we’ve never seen before: the actual park, up and running and fully operational.  Not only does this work to set the movie apart (at least in opening scenes, before the inevitable running and screaming commences), it also provides far more hapless extras to serve as potential dino fodder, and World features by far the highest body count (albeit mostly nameless “red shirts”) of any installment besides maybe The Lost World.  The violence isn’t especially gruesome, but at least one death by a particularly unfortunate park employee might be disturbing to small children.  Being based in a finally-realized version of the late Mr. Hammond’s dream also gives it plenty of opportunity to pay homage to the original film.  Perhaps just as well, World completely ignores the second and third films while playing heavily on nostalgia for the iconic first, chock full of easter eggs and callbacks designed to give fans goosebumps, especially in a sequence where the brothers, lost and hunted in the woods, stumble across the long-abandoned, overgrown original Visitor’s Center, the “when dinosaurs ruled the Earth” poster still strewn across the floor, and find the old Jeeps and even a pair of familiar night vision goggles.  The Dilophasaurus makes a cameo (sort of).  The climax echoes the climax of the first film, with some tweaks.  Michael Giacchino throws in snippets of John Williams’ familiar score at opportune moments.  Those irritated by the T-Rex getting taken out in thirty seconds flat by the “new” big bad, the Spinosaurus, in JP III will be pleased that a wrong has been righted here.  In fact, Trevorrow throws in a delicious jab at that much-maligned aspect of the third movie that some fans will relish.  Despite having a slim filmography (the low-key quirky indie comedy-drama Safety Not Guaranteed) and no prior experience helming big-budget special effects extravaganzas, Trevorrow handles the action sequences adeptly.  Trevorrow is a devoted fanboy of the original Jurassic Park, and it shows, but he also throws in an unsubtle nod to Aliens in a scene where Marines are hunted in the darkness, with the action glimpsed through their night vision goggles transmitted back to those watching helplessly at headquarters.  He also throws in a dino-on-dino smackdown that’s far more satisfying than the disappointingly short T-Rex vs. Spinosaurus fight in #3, and knows what to do to end the climax in crowd-pleasing fashion.

That said, despite all its playing on nostalgia for the original film, Jurassic World doesn’t reach the first film’s level.  It’s worth pointing out that no Jurassic installment, including the first, has ever been a great movie.  #1 featured thinly-developed characters (albeit who felt slightly more whole than anyone we’ve ever gotten since) and a fitful pace with an interminable amount of set-up, but Spielberg gave the film a sense of grandeur, and the dinosaurs an awe and wonderment that none of its successors have been able to match.  Jurassic Park‘s biggest contribution to the film industry was not its undistinguished characters or narrative, but a special effects landmark.  Even 22 years later, despite all the strides in special effects technology, its dinosaurs, at least in many scenes, still look astoundingly real.  For the most part, the same was true of The Lost World, while JP III’s lower budget led to visual effects that, while still “good” (sometimes very good) were overly reliant on CGI instead of the blend of CGI and animatronics of the first two, and were a step down.  Jurassic World follows in the #3 vein, relying entirely on CGI (there is only one discernible animatronic, an injured Apatosaurus encountered by Claire and Owen), and it shows.  While technically well-rendered, the dinosaurs in #1 and #2 had a “weight” to them that made them seem real and solid that they lack in #3 or here.  It’s a combination of CGI’s monopoly on visual effects in recent years, and the meticulous care and effort put into the first film’s dinosaurs by the late Stan Winston, but dinosaurs were more convincing in 1993 than they are here.

Also, at least in the first film, Spielberg (who, it’s worth pointing out, produced and strongly endorsed this film) was more concerned with awe and wonder than monster mayhem.  The Lost World focused more on running and screaming, and that held true for #3 and this installment.  One could argue World is almost too-action-packed, with the characters careening from one situation to another and the Indominus basically existing as a plot device to chase people from Point A to Point B.  The movie throws in a touch of meta commentary about the pressure on the park to continually up the ante (“more teeth” was Masrani’s request when developing the Indominus) that also holds true for the Jurassic series.  In the first movie, we had one T-Rex.  In Lost World, we had two.  In JP III, T-Rex gets quickly shoved aside for the bigger, badder Spinosaurus.  In World, we get the souped-up hybrid that’s bigger than a T-Rex, at least as smart as a Velociraptor, can camouflage itself like an octopus, mask its thermal heat signature, and can communicate with Owen’s Raptor pack and turn their loyalties.  All this makes the Indominus a formidable threat, of course, but it also goes to the verge of making it seem like some kind of dinosaur supervillain whose arsenal of superpowers exist as and when the plot needs something bad to happen.  There is a glaring subplot that should have been omitted, with the shady paramilitary goons taking advantage of the crisis to hatch nefarious plans to make off with some dino DNA and maybe a Raptor or two.  It feels shoehorned in to unnecessarily add more conflict, and could have been left out without really changing anything except a slimmer runtime.  Character development, never a strong suit of the series, is as obligatory and perfunctory as always.  Early on, we’re saddled with some cringe-inducing corny banter between Owen and Claire that feels like we’ve taken a detour into a bad rom com, and their climactic kiss is unearned and feels shoehorned in just because this kind of thing seems obligatory in action movies.  An abrupt attempt at an emotional human moment between the brothers as they mull their parents’ impending divorce has no impact because it comes out of nowhere and wasn’t led up or developed.  There’s more poignancy in the scene where Owen and Claire comfort a dying Apatosaurus mauled by the Indominus where, for the first time, Claire feels empathy for a dinosaur as a living being rather than perpetually seeing the world in corporate profitability charts.

jurassicworld2The Jurassic Park series has never been distinguished for well-developed human characters, and the people scurrying around here are as shallow and two-dimensional (at best) as ever, consisting of an ensemble of cliches; the uptight corporate shrew, the hunky raptor wrangler, the gung-ho but moronic military asshole who wants dino soldiers, the plucky kids who never do as they’re told, etc.  Bryce Dallas Howard gets saddled with an especially thankless stereotype, the uptight, anal retentive “high-powered businesswoman” who stalks around in six-inch heels and immaculate white power suits, sports an unattractive haircut, doesn’t know how old her nephews are, and sees the dinosaurs as corporate assets, not living breathing animals.  It’d be nice if Hollywood was capable of recognizing that being a high-ranking corporate executive who happens to be a woman doesn’t mean she needs to be a humorless uptight shrew who, to make matters worse, turns out to just need the hunky male action hero to teach her to loosen up.  Even more one-note and cartoonish is Vincent D’Onofrio, who plays the blustering Hoskins just as one-dimensional and mustache-twirling as he’s written (is it just me, or between his aging looks and his girth, is D’Onofrio starting to both look and act like Brian Dennehy?).  As our human “villain”, Hoskins isn’t menacing or interesting, just annoying, and a superfluous plot complication that didn’t need to be in a movie that already features a dinosaur supervillain and doesn’t need a “bad guy”.  Chris Pratt fares better, playing the raptor whisperer Owen a little less fatuous and a little more serious than Guardians of the Galaxy‘s Star-Lord.  Pratt seems right at home as the hunky action hero, showing the good looks and natural charm and charisma to be a potential next in-demand leading man.  As the requisite kids in harm’s way, Ty Simpkins and Nick Robinson aren’t as good as the original’s Lex and Tim, but they’re definitely less annoying than The Lost World‘s Kelly (Simpkins is less annoying here than he was in Iron Man 3).  Irrfan Khan and Jake Johnson supply a little comic relief, while B.D. Wong is the only returning series veteran (though some might not even remember him from his bit part in the original movie in 1993).

Jurassic World goes out of its way to leave the door hanging wide open for a sequel, but in my opinion, that would be pushing its luck.  One could argue Jurassic Park never needed sequels in the first place, and their mediocrity didn’t change that view.  Jurassic World feels more worthwhile than JP III and brings things full circle by hearkening back to the original film, but the concept of people menaced by dinosaurs on an island is well played out.  Regardless of whether or not there’s anywhere fresh to take the story, however, a sequel will probably be decided solely on the basis of how much money this one makes.  In any event, Jurassic World is serviceable entertaining big summer monster mayhem, if a bit “big dumb popcorn fun”, but it doesn’t leave one with a compelling hankering for more.

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