Jurassic Park was a movie about scientists using cutting-edge technology to create awe-inspiring attractions that no one had ever seen before, made by filmmakers who were essentially doing the same thing. Spielberg’s famous, much-parodied “Spielberg Face” signature shot (that slow zoom or pan into a close-up of a wide-eyed actor witnessing or contemplating something overwhelming) was never more dramatically deployed than when Sam Neill’s Alan Grant and Laura Dern’s Ellie Sattler beheld their first dinosaur — and never more closely mirrored the audience’s own response to the spectacle on-screen.
That was then, this is now. More than 20 years later, what was novel is old hat, both for the characters and for the audience. In Jurassic World, director Colin Trevorrow (Safety Not Guaranteed) offers an ironic counterpoint to the “Spielberg Face”: a striking shot of a teenager on a cellphone in the back of a crowd, not even watching as a T-rex on the other side of a glass barrier devours its dinner before the spectators.
“No one’s impressed by dinosaurs anymore,” says Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard), operations manager at the Jurassic World theme park. “Kids today look at a stegosaurus like it was an elephant.” Well, they do, at least on the screen. They’ve grown up with them.
Audiences lining up for the latest installment in the Jurassic Park franchise are thus less like newcomers getting a privileged look at brand-new marvels than jaded crowds of theme-park visitors returning to a familiar, established destination. Jurassic World is the first installment since the original to work as a metaphor for itself — and the most entertaining installment since the original. Perhaps it’s fitting that it’s the first sequel to return to the island of Isla Nublar (the earlier sequels were set on a different island).
It’s also the first sequel to start over with basically a brand-new cast. The last sequel (Jurassic Park III) had Sam Neill and (briefly) Laura Dern, and the earlier one (The Lost World: Jurassic Park, directed by Spielberg) had basically everyone else, led by Jeff Goldblum’s sardonic Ian Malcolm. Jurassic World’s only returning cast member is a minor character from the first film, B.D. Wong’s geneticist Dr. Wu, here in a larger role. (There’s also a fleeting cameo by the animated Mr. DNA.)
That puts a lot of pressure on this film’s leads, Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard. Pratt is red-hot after Guardians of the Galaxy; there’s talk about casting him as Indiana Jones, so there’s a certain logic in his following in the footsteps of Neill’s Indy knockoff. (To my mind, the case to dub Pratt the next Harrison Ford is still premature; at this point in his career he should be happy to be the next Brendan Fraser.)
Thankfully, Pratt more than delivers. You could almost say he manages to stand in for Sam Neill, Jeff Goldblum and Laura Dern. He’s got Neill’s toughness, Goldblum’s humor and Dern’s down-to-earthness. His character, Owen Grady, is Jurassic World’s velociraptor trainer, and in a terrific early set piece Pratt persuades me that he’s capable of standing up to three raptors armed with nothing but charisma and nerve. He’s a big part of the reason Jurassic World works as well as it does.
If Pratt is Neill, Goldblum and Dern, where does that leave Howard? She’s a fine actress and can be effective even with a very flawed script, but here she’s hamstrung by a character who for at least the first half of the film is written in such a chilly, tightly wound, corporate-boardroom way that the whole screenplay seems to be a rebuke to her, telling her to loosen up, let her hair down and stop and smell the roses, for goodness’ sake.
Like Alan in the original film, Claire is uncomfortable around children, and certainly with the idea of having her own; Owen is meant to have a humanizing effect on her, like Ellie had on Alan. The difference is Alan was pretty awesome and likable from the outset. Claire is brittle and emotionally repressed, not to mention, like Kathleen Turner in Romancing the Stone or, even better, super-annoying Kate Capshaw in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, overdressed and in impractical shoes for an action movie, to the amusement and chagrin of our rugged hero. (Naturally Claire becomes, um, less overdressed as the movie progresses.)
This inversion of the original film’s feminist vibe is bolstered by the addition of two young siblings who are both brothers, where the original had a sister and a brother. As with the recent remake of Poltergeist, dudes have taken over a franchise originally at least as attentive to its capable female characters as to the males, or more so. (My friend Peter Chattaway reminds me that the 1993 film made a point of giving the girl the computer skills that Michael Crichton’s novel had given the boy.)
As in the original, the young sibs are relations of an adult connected to the park — and, for no particular plot or thematic reason, are from a broken home, or one that is apparently about to be broken. The film actually opens with Gray and Zach, played by Ty Simpkins and Nick Robinson (respectively 12 and 19 during filming), at home preparing to leave Mom and Dad to spend a week at Jurassic World with their Aunt Claire, whom they haven’t seen in seven years.
Gray has a geeky interest in facts and statistics relating to Jurassic World and its dino attractions; he’s also much more concerned about evidence of their parents’ crumbling marriage than disaffected Zach, who will be on his own in a couple of years. Zach has trouble expressing himself socially, whether with his parents, his cute girlfriend (who says she loves him, though he won’t reciprocate) or various young women at the park who catch his eye, and vice versa. Zach’s one vital connection is with his kid brother Gray, whom he assures he’ll always be there for, even if Mom and Dad get divorced. Of course, Zach tells Gray reassuring lies throughout the film in order to keep him calm, as does Claire; Claire even makes this theme explicit, arguing that it’s okay to lie when people are scared.
None of this particularly goes anywhere or does anything. In the end (non-spoiler alert, unless you have never seen a movie before) Owen and Claire have overcome their differences and have become a thing, and Gray and Zach are reunited with their parents — but there are no developments on the apparently impending divorce.
The movie makes a big deal about the idea that the solution to audience dinosaur fatigue is genetically engineered custom dinosaurs, such as “Indominus Rex,” a bigger, tougher, designer cousin of the T-rex. The writers have given Indominus an implausible skills set, but the artists oddly haven’t visually differentiated him a whole lot from T-rex.
The movie hypes the mystery about what else is in Indominus’ genetic code besides T-rex, pretty overtly suggesting that there’s something in the mix giving it super-saurian intelligence. I wondered whether dolphin, ape or even human DNA had been used; a transgressive choice like that would really have ramped up the franchise’s critique of industry-driven scientific hubris. But no. The key secret ingredient is the most predictable possible choice based on the franchise to date — one that I had actually taken for granted, without excluding more exotic possibilities — and, while it leads to an interesting twist and ramps up the tension, dramatically and thematically it’s a letdown.
The movie’s real secret weapon, along with Pratt, is more dino-vs.-dino action than the first three Jurassic Park films put together, skillfully orchestrated by Trevorrow. The recent Godzilla and Pacific Rim movies left me cool, but here I was pulled in, possibly because of the relationships and interactions between the humans and the dinosaurs. Granted, there’s nothing here as gripping as the first film’s big T-rex attack or raptors in the kitchen, but the action is more gripping than anything in Jurassic Park III, and it doesn’t bog down like The Lost World. For me, that makes Jurassic World agreeable if disposable fare.
I must also mention that the human body count is the highest in any Jurassic movie — and Trevorrow displays a ruthlessness more suggestive of Spielberg circa Jaws (in which he was willing to kill off an unsuspecting young woman and a boy) than Jurassic Park (in which the victims are all adult men who either had it coming or had at least in some way signed up for the possibility). In Jurassic World a supporting female character is subjected to a particularly harrowing death — one of a number of moments that puts this film beyond the pale for younger fans of the earlier films.
I see I haven’t yet mentioned the human heavy, a security official (Vincent D’Onofrio in low-rent Brian Dennehy mode) who wants to weaponize Owen’s trained velociraptors and license them to the military. “Just imagine if we’d had these puppies in Tora Bora,” he gloats.
You think it’s a stupid idea, but wait until you see Owen, astride his Triumph Scrambler, racing amid his raptor pack — a sublimely silly image. Okay, it’s stupid that they’re taking on Indominus with only four raptors, but an army of raptors against the Islamic State — who wouldn’t want to see that? If only they’d make that sequel.
Caveat Spectator: Much intense menace and stylized dinosaur-related violence, including a number of deaths; an obscenity, some innuendo and crude language. Teens and up.