Silver Screen: Jurassic World *1/2
Jurassic World is a treacherous place. Visitors must contend with lackadaisical security, increasingly intelligent velociraptors, a scheming military contractor, and an angry new hybrid dinosaur. But even greater terrors lay in wait— rampant clichés, formulaic screenwriting, unhinged nostalgia, dunderheaded plotting, detestable characters, and an awkwardly shifting tone that tries and fails to encompass family friendly adventure, cynical self-awareness, and monster-movie horror.
The movie’s premise is intriguing and surprisingly obvious given that two sequels— both of which this installment all but ignores— completely missed it. In Steven Spielberg’s incomparable original, based on Michael Crichton’s nearly perfect beach-read novel, a starry-eyed tycoon creates a zoo where the attractions are dinosaurs cloned and brought back to life sixty-five-million years after they went extinct. The park’s beta test was a disaster, of course, and the subsequent two movies took place on secret dino-infested islands. Jurassic World takes what is logically the next step forward from the original: What if someone managed to successfully get the park up and running?
As the film opens, Jurassic World has been open for years, long enough for the public to become blasé about its prehistoric inhabitants. New park impresario Simon Masrani (Irrfan Khan) has succeeded in making John Hammond’s vision a reality with the help of original Jurassic Park scientist Henry Wu (B.D. Wong), frosty park supervisor Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard), and raptor wrangler Owen (Chris Pratt).
To maintain public interest, Masrani believes he must up the ante, so he conscripts Wu to create a new hybrid dinosaur that will draw fresh audiences and lucrative corporate sponsorships. The top-secret beast— let’s just call it the Moneysaurus— is due to be revealed to potential investors when it breaks out of its habitat, inciting an escalating series of accidents that will loose hungry dinosaurs into the island resort filled with twenty-thousand tourists.
All the ingredients are in place for a rollicking summer blockbuster, but director Colin Trevorrow, working from a script credited to four writers but seemingly tinkered with by at least a few more, can’t get the damn thing working.
The failure of the film Jurassic World is oddly mirrored by the failure of the park of the same name; it’s the one way in which the movie’s insipid metafictional commentary is actually apt. The filmmakers, like dino-entrepreneur Masrani, have no faith in the intended audience’s capacity for awe, science, and natural beauty. It’s supposed to be a little inside joke that the only way to rake in big cash is to dazzle crowds with ever bigger and more outlandish attractions, thus begetting the ill-conceived Moneysaurus, which causes the park’s destruction. This same impulse for bigger/faster/better/more keeps the film from establishing anything like a coherent storyline populated with tolerable characters.
That’s how the moviegoing audience winds up with superfluous, stunningly stupid subplots like a military contractor (played by Vincent D’Onofrio) scheming to weaponize trained velociraptors for overseas combat. Or a retread of Jurassic Park’s famous Jeep-attack scene, recreated almost beat for beat inside of an implausible high-tech gyroscopic bubble vehicle.
The restaging of that famous scene tells you all you need to know about disparity in the quality of filmmaking between Jurassic World and its ancient ancestor from 1993. Spielberg’s original conjured spine-tingling menace as it established the danger of the monsters lurking in the jungle. The ripples in the waterglass as the T-rex stalks through the dark remain one of the movie’s iconic images. Trevorrow here builds no such suspense— he just sends two generic teenage boys (Ty Simpkins and Nick Robinson) into the middle of the field and unleashes the Moneysaurus on them. He recreates much of the physical action—the blinking dinosaur eye, teeth on a splintering glass windshield, the battered vehicle collapsing around its inhabitants— but recaptures none of the feeling.
Do we care if any of these people get eaten? I was actively rooting for the death of Howard’s frosty Claire, a damning cliché of a career woman whose accomplishments come at the complete loss of her humanity. The film only recasts her as a heroine when she strips down to a cleavage-bearing tank top, reclaims her lost maternal instincts to protect two boys, and partners up with a rugged man who can tell her what to do. Pratt’s Owen is slightly more likable, only because Pratt is some kind of human charisma machine. But even sitcom-star-turned-Marvel-superhero Pratt can’t choke out his lame quips with any real authority.
Some of the most inexplicable movie dialogue of 2015 comes when Owen, wearing Han Solo’s vest and Indiana Jones’s academic purism, argues with D’Onofrio’s military contractor. (The military contractor is the stock villain of the new millennium, replacing the ubiquitous evil land developers of the 1980s.) “Extinct animals don’t have rights!” D’Onofrio sneers. “These animals aren’t extinct anymore,” Pratt retorts, to which D’Onofrio replies: “Exactly.”
The special effects wizardry makes for a handful of exciting moments. A flock of pterodactyls swooping down to pluck up screaming tourists, then brutally killing yet another career woman who had the audacity not to like children, is vivid and frightening. Later, a cheeseball dinosaur fight between several different species provides campy fun.
But Trevorrow can’t find a balance between the goofy and the horrific. He jumps between gory killings and silly one-liners from resident comic-relief nerd Jake Johnson as if they exist within completely different cinematic worlds.
Spielberg was able conceive of a plausible-seeming theme park both wonderful and frightening. Jurassic World is just another slick corporate contraption designed to separate you from your last paycheck as sure as any licensed, synergized property. Exit through the gift shop.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.