Much has changed in the 22 years since the events of the original Jurassic Park. The theme park has had a corporate rebranding, and the dinosaurs are bigger and noisier than ever. Huge sea monsters leap out of a clear blue sea to the cheers of spectators. There’s a baby triceratops petting zoo. Visitors can roll among giant lizards in translucent spheres. You’ll even find a Starbucks and a Ben & Jerry’s among its arcade of restaurants and gift shops. Now that’s progress.
Into the newly-branded Jurassic World step wide-eyed, dinosaur-obsessed Gray (Iron Man 3 and Insidious‘ Ty Simpkins) and his teenage brother Zach (Nick Robinson), who’s more interested in mobile phones and ogling young ladies than the creatures thundering about the park. In fact, apathy’s the major crisis facing Jurassic World and its icy operations manager (who’s also Gray and Zach’s aunt), Claire, played by Bryce Dallas Howard from beneath a precise haircut.
“No one’s excited about dinosaurs anymore,” she tells an assembled group of corporate investors. She’s right, too – visitors are constantly viewing the park through the lens of their smartphones, cutting the scaly beasts down to size and flattening them out so that, two decades after dinosaurs were first resurrected, they’re no more a novelty than a field full of cows.
To counter this, Jurassic World’s army of scientists have cooked up the “bigger, scarier, cooler” Indominus Rex, a 50-foot long splicing of T-Rex DNA and curly strands from God-knows-what-else. This, Claire and her boss, Simon Masrani (Irrfan Khan) hope, will entice even more visitors to their multi-million dollar dino-zoo.
Enter ex-navy man turned raptor-whisperer Owen Grady (a four-square Chris Pratt), who clashes heads with Hoskins (Vincent D’Onofrio), a hawkish superior who’s intent on selling tamed dinosaurs as weapons to the military (“Drones can’t search tunnels,” Hoskins reasons). Like Cassandra, Grady’s warnings that the scientists have – even by the island’s turbulent history – created a monster fall on deaf ears. That is, until the inevitable happens, and Grady’s skills as a survivalist start to come in handy…
In his first studio outing, director Colin Trevorrow brings the same dramatic lightness he displayed in his debut, the low-budget sci-fi rom com Safety Not Guaranteed. Jake Johnson returns from that earlier film as a personable computer geek, cheerfully wearing a Jurassic Park T-shirt he purchased off eBay for about $300 – much to Claire’s annoyance, who sees the old JP logo as a tasteless reminder of the island’s messy events back in ’93. This is one of several cheeky yet endearing nods to the trio of earlier movies, which range from blink-and-you’ll-miss-them returning props to allusions to the originals’ most famous set-pieces. (BD Wong also makes a welcome return as InGen scientist Dr Wu.)
The newly-overhauled Jurassic World, meanwhile, is slickly introduced; drenched in sun and filled with wonders, it absolutely convinces as an attraction that wealthier people would flock from all over the planet to see. The dinosaurs that inhabit the place are a similarly impressive sight – you can practically feel the breath coming from their nostrils, especially in IMAX 3D. But as the film’s writers (among them Trevorrow and Safety co-writer Derek Connolly) cleverly weave into the plot’s fabric, the intervening years have left us jaded by a procession of elaborate CG effects movies. We didn’t have mobile phones back in the 1990s, let alone Avengers or city-levelling Chitauri. Can Jurassic World win back our attention?
The weight and menace of Jurassic World’s monsters falls, therefore, on the skills of good, old-fashioned filmmaking – drama, suspense, clarity of action – as much as pure spectacle, and Trevorrow and his team are up to the task. As well as its own predecessors, Jurassic World owes a considerable debt to the Alien movies, from the opening title sequence (which recalls the promo from 1979’s Alien) to the scenes in which well-armed yet unprepared characters are picked off by screeching ghouls leaping from the shadows.
Such reference points will more than likely be lost on Jurassic World’s younger audience, and even adults will likely find themselves pinned back in their seats by the movie’s most effective set-pieces. An early encounter with the new-fangled iRex is all the more powerful because Trevorrow keeps the creature largely out of the frame (that is, aside from its fearsome, dangling claws). The fate of another victim is horrifying enough that some parents will probably be rushing to clap a hand over their youngest child’s eyes, while older kids in the audience will likely titter with morbid glee.
When it comes to the characterisation of its two adult leads, meanwhile, Jurassic World‘s creators seem to reach further back into movie history. Chris Pratt’s Grady, with his tight trousers, Popeye forearms, shotgun and beige waistcoat, looks and acts like a chiselled hero from an old Doug McLure B-movie. There isn’t necessarily anything wrong with this, but the script gives Pratt little more than a generic, unreconstructed hero template to work within.
Bryce Dallas Howard inhabits an even more two-dimensional character – a frosty career woman who’s gradually thawed out by Grady’s rough-and-ready charm. In a year that has already seen the likes of Charlize Theron in Mad Max: Fury Road and the plucky Britt Robertson in Tomorrowland, such a thinly-drawn character seems like a bit of a throwback.
Such grumbles aside, Jurassic World entertains as a summer blockbuster writ extra, extra large – and after two mildly disappointing sequels, it’s pleasing to see the fourth entry finally capture some of the first film’s winning mix of Spielbergian wonderment and horror. Trevorrow’s sequel also comes packaged with its own sense of self-referencing humour and anarchy akin to Joe Dante’s Gremlins 2: The New Batch.
Like a theme park ride, Jurassic Park‘s peaks and troughs are often easy to see coming, but, as ever, mentally tallying up the potential victims among the cast is all part of the fun. And cut to Michael Giacchino’s soaring reprisal of John Williams’ original score, Jurassic World provides a satisfying return to cinema’s foremost island of dinosaur mayhem.
Jurassic World is out in UK cinemas on the 11th June.
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