As an unabashed fan of the original Spielberg classic, Jurassic World is neither as bad as I’d feared or as good as I’d hoped. Tempered expectations are what’s needed to wring enjoyment out of this by-the-numbers sequel that falls prey to much of what ails the modern blockbuster.
Despite a sheen of solid effects, an eclectic cast and the thrill of seeing long-extinct dinos on the big screen again, Jurassic World still manages to squander much of the goodwill built up since the last disappointing sequel (2001’s dire Jurassic Park 3). The Jurassic theme music still stirs the blood and seeing Velociraptors and the fearsome T-Rex on the big screen is undeniably thrilling, but the endeavour but can’t help but feel a bit hollow in the face of disjointed plotting and bone-headed characters.
World starts promisingly enough with a post-modern spin on the Jurassic legend that places John Hammond’s initial failed park as a stepping stone to a modern age in which resurrected dinosaurs are the norm. Jurassic World exists on the site of the original park (Isla Nubar in Costa Rica) and is a booming success, although the uptight manager Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) frets about flat revenues and continues to push for more dangerous and spectacular dino creations to draw in crowds.
Opposing her is former flame and Raptor-whisperer Owen (Christ Pratt), a salt-of-the-earth type dude that’s training dinos to hunt and kill at his command but naively scoffs at the suggestion that they be weaponized. Owen seems to want dinosaurs (he pointedly calls them “animals”) to simply exist for their own sake and not be at the beck and call of their human (re)creators. His boss Hoskins (Vincent D’Onofrio) has alternative plans and acts as the devious catalyst/Nedry (albeit in a very convoluted manner), throwing the fully functional (and populated with tourists) Jurassic World theme park into chaos.
There’s some lip service paid to the ideas that Michael Crichton proselytized about in his original novel, namely that man shouldn’t play God and to do so invites destruction and chaos. Yet in the jumble that is Jurassic World the message gets lost amidst a freight train of forward momentum and on-the-nose dialogue that leaves little room for character development or legitimate suspense.
Before it gets to that point though, there’s an introduction to the audience surrogates – older, jaded teen Zach (Nick Robinson) and his younger, weirded brother Gray (Ty Simpkins). They’re the nephews of Claire and have been sent to the theme park for family togetherness amidst their parent’s crumbling relationship (there’s lots of sub-plots, none of which are paid off satisfactorily).
World has fun with these characters by making Zach initially immune to the theme park’s charms (as he idly texts while entering the iconic Jurassic gates rescued from 20 years ago) but eventually coming around to the wonderment that these resurrected lizards (birds?) represent. In contrast, Jake Johnson – likely the movie’s MVP as a witty comm-room tech – wears an original Jurassic Park t-shirt and waxes nostalgic about the majesty of dinosaurs in what’s surely the brightest performance in the film.
The central story focuses on the creation and subsequent escape of a new genetically engineered dino called the Indominus Rex. It’s basically a more vicious, larger mashup of a Raptor and a T-Rex, and it gets far more screentime than either of its two predecessors. The goalposts for the intelligence of Jurassic’s dinos seem to change with each successive film, and World is no different as Indominus turns out to be an intelligent serial killer, making the film into a “C.S.I. Jurassic” of sorts. After some procedural elements and mounting suspense, the movie switches into full-on action mode (World is like the Aliens to Jurassic Park‘s Alien, or at least wants to be as it ups the action factor significantly), with Pratt’s Owen teaming up with Claire to stop the destruction of the park (and loss of life) and save her nephews.
The good is that the dino designs and most of the effects are stellar, and it’s great to see them on the big screen again. The T-Rex is reduced to little more than a cameo here, but Raptors and a vicious flock of Pteradons play large roles, as do new dinos like the Indominus Rex and the giant sea monster Mosasaur (who swallows a great white shark as if the blockbuster baton of Jaws was passed on to Jurassic World). Pratt’s relationship with Raptors threatens to totally shatter the suspension of disbelief, but at least it leads to the cool image of him riding a motorbike alongside a pack of them.
The bad is that it’s hard to care about any of the characters. Pratt is a genuine movie star, but his character here feels underbaked and we basically have to take it on faith that he’s a cool and capable guy instead of being organically shown this. Howard’s Claire fares worse, as she’s the real star of the film but is forced to a) run around in high heels the whole time and b) basically be the killjoy to Pratt’s more likeable Owen. D’Onofrio could use more screentime to establish his villainous character and the kids, while competent, seem to be in a different movie entirely and their story never really coalesces.
The ugly is that while certain scenes in isolation are impressive and stirring (large crowds being menaced by flying terrors, Indominus attacking the brothers in the pod, the final battle) the movie feels disjointed and never really pops. When they have callbacks to the original Jurassic Park (and there are many, including a rearview mirror gag, the return of B.D. Wong, an overzealous park owner and more) it mostly serves to remind me of how much better the first one was. I suspect there’s a new generation of moviegoers that’ll glom onto World and exalt it as their own (just as I’m sure there are some folks who prefer the Star Wars prequels), but it feels like more of a misfire despite some solid action.
Audiences have had 14 years to cleanse their palates since last visiting the Park and while this return trip goes down easy at times, it ultimately feels like empty calories. At one point Claire has a revelation and says they need “more teeth” (i.e. “We’re gonna need a bigger boat”), when what Jurassic World really needs is more of that Spielberg heart.
Jurassic World (2015)
Directed by Colin Trevorrow
Runtime: 124 minutes