Jurassic World (2015)

1993’s Jurassic Park came along at an interesting time in the history of cinema.  Special effects were starting to move into the CGI realm, and it ended up being one of the first handful of films to mix real world and computer special effects in creating its dinosaur theme park experience.  The world of 2015 is vastly different, with the majority of special effects done via CGI and more and more films incorporating CGI, almost excessively in some cases.  Everything needs to be bigger, better, and increase the wow factor on-screen.  Every blockbuster sequel has to up the ante and inject more of whatever made the original film so successful, whether it is superheroes, explosions, robots, etc.  2015’s Jurassic World basically adopts this cinematic reality into its own story, using this meta commentary and a heavy dose of nostalgia to create its summer thrill ride in returning audiences to Isla Nublar.

22 years after the events of Jurassic Park the island of Isla Nublar is open and is a full-fledged theme park.  It features more dinosaurs than ever before, with new species being rolled out every few years.  With attendance rates apparently starting to sag, the corporate geniuses behind the theme park have decided that they need bigger and better to increase customer interest, leading to the creation of a genetically mutated dinosaur, the Indominus Rex, a dinosaur that eventually escapes her confines and begins to wreak havoc on the island and pose a threat to the 20,000 visitors to the theme park.

A lot of the structure of this film follows the structure of the original film.  It is heavy on nostalgia.  Two adults and two kids serve as the main protagonists, similar to the roles fulfilled by Sam Neill, Laura Dern, Ariana Richard, and Joseph Mazzello in Jurassic Park.  Nick Robinson and Ty Simpkins play two brothers, Zach and Gray, who are visiting their Aunt Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard, who runs the day-to-day operations of Jurassic World.  Chris Pratt is Owen, an employee who works on training the raptors.  The only thing missing is a stand-in for Jeff Goldblum’s Ian Malcolm.  While corporate espionage was the catalyst for the events that transpired in Jurassic Park, here it is simply corporate greed that brings about the events of the movie.  The company is now owned by a billionaire named Simon Masrani (Irffan Khan), who took over for John Hammond and brought his vision to life.  Rounding out the cast are Vincent D’Onofrio as Hoskins, a corporate man who is interested in the potential military use of some of the dinosaurs (never a sentence I thought I’d write), and Jake Johnson and Lauren Lapkus as two command center techies in the mold of Samuel L. Jackson’s role from the first movie.

The world building involved in this movie is impressive.  It does feel like a genuine theme park that is a Sea World (with the mosasaur pool being a big attraction) and wildlife preserve hybrid.  There’s a petting zoo for little kids to ride and pet and feed the baby dinosaurs, fake excavation sites for kids to play paleontologist, and even a Tupac-style hologram dilophosaurus.

A popular thread through all of these films is the young children in peril, and here it is no different.  Zach and Gray inevitably come face to face with the escaped Indominus Rex in a scene that is clearly meant to evoke the original encounter with the T-Rex in the first movie.  Aside from being in a glorified hamster ball rather than a vehicle, there is little about the encounter that feels fresh until they escape and have to make a run for it before it feels genuinely tense.  In fact, for a film involving dinosaurs, the film lacked a lot of tension.  Most of the best moments involved a chase or humans having to quickly hide.

The characters are a little problematic because so many of them are mostly one-dimensional.  The two brothers have the best dynamic and development, as they go from the slightly resentful of each other’s company to the older brother knowing his little brother is scared and needs some reassuring.  On the downside, the younger brother, Gray, has a weird numbers quirk/obsession that gets hammered home early on, largely dropped, and has nominal importance in the climax of the movie involving a battle between dinosaurs.  The two main leads, Owen and Claire, have a slight history together.  Gender politics aside, the ice queen caricature that is Claire would be problematic if any of the other characters in this movie weren’t caricatures themselves.  The movie really hammers on the fact that she has chosen a career over having a family and the tinges of regret that come with it.  It’s quite sloppily done, especially contrasted with how layered and seemless Dr. Grant’s transformation from someone who can’t stand kids to someone who Lex and Tim are sleeping soundly next to at the end of Jurassic Park is.

I found myself torn about quite a few things with this movie.  On the one hand, I almost immediately bought into the stakes of the movie, I think mostly because of the two brothers but also in spite of the fact that I never felt like any of the four main protagonists were ever in danger.  Also, I immediately thought that the idea of genetically modified “bigger & badder” dinosaurs was a bad idea and had a hard time imagining that anyone, even the most soulless corporation, could think it was a good idea, let alone the scientists involved in creating them.  BD Wong returns as the lead scientist in one of the few threads connecting back to the first movie.  When he rightly gets called out for what he has done in creating a “monster,” he impotently throws it back in the face of his accuser.  At least the genetically mutated sharks in Deep Blue Sea were explained as being necessary for scientific research related to brain disease or something.  On the one hand, I enjoyed Owen and his interaction with the raptors, but even though it had a cool factor, I also found it completely ridiculous.  Even more ridiculous was D’Onofrio’s Hoskins wanting to weaponize the raptors and sees the escape of the Indominus Rex as a chance at a field test to prove that they can be a military asset.  This reminded me of the Weyland-Yutani Corp stooges like Paul Reiser in Aliens thinking that a Xenomorph was a perfectly design fighting machine (Also, a scene of a group of armed men hunting the Indominus Rex and getting picked off is right out of Aliens when the marines get taken out, mixed with the first counter attack in Independence Day).

Ultimately, I think there is just barely enough to recommend this movie as a summer blockbuster, even if it lacks the direction of Steven Spielberg and the narrative tension of Michael Crichton.  Colin Trevorrow is a director who I think shows a lot of promise (as evidenced by 2013’s Safety Not Guaranteed), but this is only his second feature, and I think it could have used someone with a bit more experience.  There are some fun moments of levity, mostly involving Chris Pratt and Jake Johnson (Johnson, in particular gets a very funny scene with Lauren Lapkus that is supposed to mirror an earlier scene between Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard, only it turns out completely different).  The film definitely leaves the door open for further sequels down the road, and given how much money it made opening weekend, I think that is a safe bet, even if I don’t necessarily need another sequel.  There are so many winks and nods either to the previous movies, or to the audience about how the park itself is a surrogate for movie audiences of today that it takes away from the wow factor.  If they do go ahead with a sequel, cut down on the nostalgia, strip it down to its essentials, and make something that truly thrills and try to capture that wonder and wow.  Because as Chris Pratt’s Owen said, “they’re dinosaurs, wow enough.”

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

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