Something has survived…and it’s not dinosaurs. For surely as long as there are big screen spectacles (and dino-loving children frequenting them), there will be movies with the prehistoric critters running wild. But Jurassic Park, now ostensibly called Jurassic World for both on and off-screen rebranding purposes, has risen from the franchise tar pits of the 1990s to wreak havoc on unsuspecting amusement park visitors once more.
While there have been previously unwise sequel attempts to play God with that 1993 classic to abominable results, Steven Spielberg (in the role of producer) and director Colin Trevorrow were compelled to return to the the lab for likely the same reason as their movie’s extraordinarily optimistic scientists: if at first you don’t succeed, try, try, and try again to make a self-sustaining and open-ended franchise moneymaker.
But the craziest thing about this summer attraction thrill ride is that it actually works. Mostly. Now that’s chaos.
Set on the same island of Isla Nublar from the first film, Jurassic World seems to ignore the “Site B” pretense of those other sequels ever happening (which is A-OK by us). In this franchise revision, InGen has chugged along without incident for two decades, and John Hammond’s vision has come to fruition with “Jurassic World” being the most successful tourist destination spot on the planet. In fact, it’s been too successful since its posh and high-tech redesign, complete with a Starbucks and fashion stores, has seemed to plateau. Now, they must grow “hybrids” with corporate sponsors if they hope to compete for iPad-loving families’ attention.
What could go wrong? Well, if you’ve seen any of the other Jurassic Park films, you probably have a pretty good idea. Indeed, during a Christmas holiday in Central America, life finds a way when their first hybrid, the ominously named “Indominus Rex” (part Tyrannosaurus and part something unknown), proves too smart for its makers and escapes to rampage through an island where it isn’t just hunting for food—it’s also killing everything in its wake for sport.
And if this couldn’t have come at a worse time, Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard), the tightly-wound park operations manager, has just sent her two nephews (Nick Robinson and Ty Simpkins) onto a vehicular safari into the park (sound familiar?). With the help of Chris Pratt’s Owen Grady, the boorish but in-tuned with nature game warden who has raised his own personal pack of Velociraptors, she will try to find her estranged sister’s kids before all hell really breaks loose. Unfortunately for her family and her job, it’s much too late for that.
Of course the Brachiosaurus in the room is still the towering shadow of that first Spielberg film, which all but dwarfs this lightweight adventure in darkness. Jurassic Park was a modern cinematic marvel 22 years ago that introduced computer generated imagery in a grand way to most audiences with effects that still stand up (especially since unlike Jurassic World, Park also smartly used animatronic dinosaurs for close-ups). But just as crucially, that picture kept a sliver of Michael Crichton’s science fiction novel, crafting characters that were, if not nuanced, at least authentically human and trapped in a Promethean tale of unregulated genetic science run amok.
Jurassic World has almost none of that. The characters are broad and the plot is even moreso, especially when Vincent D’Onofrio’s military contractor comes into play as a villain more cartoonish than his recent stint on superhero television. And yet, director Trevorrow might have found the secret genome to make an enjoyable sequel, if not a modern day classic: he embraces the B-movie aesthetic that Spielberg resisted so mightily with both of his earlier trips to the park.
This is a film with no qualms about being anything more than a popcorn monster movie predicated on the desire of seeing Chris Pratt lead a pack of Raptors into battle on a motorcycle, or for the Indominus Rex to spectacularly throwdown with her Tyrannosaurus ancestor over trendy product placement stores waiting to be destroyed. In these moments where the humans can only stare at the carnage and fret about their fates, it makes for a better giant monster movie than most of Hollywood’s recent attempts. So, when it is all about teeth and claws, or the actors’ derring-do of avoiding them, the movie works in spades.
The CGI, like all other blockbusters these days, quizzically still cannot stand up to what ILM did 22 years ago. But it doesn’t have to. If simply compared to its modern summer contemporaries, it fits to formula, right down to Chris Pratt as the square jawed hero.
There has been some fair criticism leveled at certain Jurassic World scenes between Pratt and Howard, which play like a politically incorrect sitcom from the past. While I can say the scene in question is no more jarring when in context, it also is less indicative of gender politics in the film than simply representing a movie that’s tone is entirely sitcom rather than menacing adventure. As a result, Pratt and Howard are both appealingly charismatic and likable as presences onscreen, but their romance—as with every other character interaction in the film—feels as artificially designed as the dinosaurs themselves.
Nevertheless, the dinosaurs are the stars and more than any extra or snarling antagonist with dreams of paramilitary Velociraptors, it is the ancient creatures that still draw our attention and entertainment. Another way to put this is that for all the nameless characters who get chomped, it is the prolonged death of a Brontosaurus or a threat to a baby Triceratops that will actually get a rise out of audiences. And then will come the cheers.
The dinos are still so effective that the insistence on a “D-Rex” and hybrids feels overthought. Whether it’s kids in this fictional world or our own, it is hard to imagine any that would shrug at the sight of Raptors doing what they do best: be the Spielbergian incarnation of evil made flesh. Turning the little demons into anti-heroes seems more like an unneeded bid to create another toyetic villain—or a set-up for further sequels down the road.
But in the here and now, those again-resurrected dinosaurs are like Michael Giacchino’s dutiful retreads of John Williams’ musical transcendence: a multiplex thrill momentarily revisited. Indeed, the best reprisal comes midway through the picture where there’s a scene of the hapless nephews discovering the ruins of the original Jurassic Park’s visitor center. With the soaring strings now plucked in minor, Giacchino and Trevorrow reach for some of that long gone cinema majesty.
In the end, Jurassic World isn’t that movie and never will be. But it is like the titular theme park: glossy, superficial, and maybe a little dumb. It’s also eager to please with the kind of big screen kitchen sink mentality that’s hard to begrudge in an age of blockbuster television. It ain’t Spielberg, but when it has dinosaur on dinosaur death matches as gleeful as its finale, it’s surely better than those other misbegotten sequels—or any other PG-13 spectacle so far released in summer 2015. For those who can leave the past buried, it’s still an attraction that will easily entertain if not scare and awe.