Review: ‘JURASSIC WORLD’ Surprises By Actually Being Good

You want a fun adventure with plenty of satisfying dino mayhem? You got it.

Corporate felt genetic modification would up the “wow” factor.

–Claire

They’re dinosaurs; that’s “wow” enough.

–Owen

Imagine that, 22 years after it spectacularly fell apart, John Hammond’s dream of an amusement park full of prehistoric monsters is actually a reality. Let’s assume that they worked out all the bugs in their systems, that legitimate safety protocols are in place, and even that they’ve developed a new kind of unbreakable superglass so that park visitors can get really close to the action. Even if that was sustainable (which, since this is a movie, it is), how long before what you’ve put together is no longer cool enough? How long before audiences get bored?

This is the central idea behind Jurassic World, the long-gestating fourth film about the consequences of Man playing God. Now, the park has been open (successfully) for well over a decade, and the corporate overlords are getting restless. Visitors want something new, they think. They want to be scared again. They want bigger. More teeth. But to paraphrase Ian Malcolm, just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

There are intriguing real-world echoes in this setup; director Colin Trevorrow has said that the image that guided him was of a bored teenager playing on his phone, with his back to a majestic creature he’s no longer moved by. When Spielberg’s seminal dino epic crashed onto the screen in 1993, it marked a sea change in the film industry. Now, creatures could be convincingly rendered in the computer, and the sky was literally the limit for what filmmakers could do in the future. Yet as technology has only improved, the choices made with that technology have gotten lazier, until each summer we’re practically drowning in CGI-laden monstrosities: robots and aliens and superheroes beating each other up until we’re numb to it. A great white shark, once one of cinema’s great monsters, is now merely bait for a much bigger monster.

The first Jurassic Park was so powerful because of how judiciously it deployed those effects. (It sure wasn’t because of its dialogue and characterizations. Let’s not get confused.) It was a true magic trick; we bought the infant CGI because we bought the animatronics. Spielberg’s imagination gave us the potent combination of fear and wonder. The sequels? Not exactly. The Lost World, though not without a few great sequences, was mostly fear and little wonder. Jurassic Park III, best left undiscussed entirely, had some wonder but no fear at all. Basically, the bar for these films isn’t that high. The surprise isn’t that Jurassic World clears it, but how high it goes.

Jurassic-World-HD-Still-Ty-Simpkins-in-Observer-BallThe script, credited to four writers — Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver, the team from the Apes films, and Trevorrow & Derek Connolly — does an admirable job setting up a whole bunch of plotlines very quickly. Claire Dearling (Bryce Dallas Howard), the perfectly coiffed operations manager of Jurassic World, is about to debut a brand-new, genetically enhanced dino: the Indominus Rex. (Knowingly, more than one other character makes fun of its silly name.) It’s everything ticket-buyers are looking for: a truly nasty-looking piece of work, a T-Rex crossed with a something crossed with a something else. Claire brings in ex-Navy SEAL Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) to consult on its paddock, three weeks from being opened to the public. Owen’s got his own problems, in attempting to train a quartet of young velociraptors to follow commands as InGen’s military arm (led by an odious Vincent D’Onofrio) breathes down his neck.

Pratt’s character is a bit of a hybrid himself: the cynicism of Malcolm, the animal compassion of Alan Grant, and the all-around bad-ass-ness of Muldoon. He’s effortlessly charming, as you’d expect. Only one scene made me think of Pratt as “Burt Macklin,” and I didn’t think of Star Lord at all. He’s the coolest uncle you never had, which means, like your uncle, you have to look past any outdated aw-shucks-little-lady comments he makes to Claire. (How the film treats Claire is another subject entirely. She gets her moments of heroism, but only after she is 1. Belittled by her sister for caring more about work than having a family, 2. Made to traipse through the jungle in a blindingly white pantsuit and heels, 3. Sidelined by D’Onofrio’s oozing machismo.)

But wait, there’s more! Claire’s nephews, Zach and Gray (Nick Robinson and Ty Simpkins, respectively) are coming to visit amidst their parents’ divorce, lest you forget this is an Amblin film; the younger is an excitable egghead, though the older brother is more interested in girl-watching than dino-watching. They’re supposed to be glued to their aunt all weekend, but she’s busy, so she saddles them with one of her assistants. There are other faces, too, both new and familiar: Jake Johnson and Lauren Lapkus as appealingly nerdy Control Room techs; Irrfan Khan as InGen’s morally conflicted CEO; B.D. Wong is back as Dr. Wu; Omar Sy, Judy Greer, and Andy Buckley pop up occasionally. That’s a lot of balls to keep in the air, but Trevorrow pulls it off — all that exposition is handled with relative efficiency, so the Inodominus can inevitably break out and start chomping on people as quickly as possible.

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Trevorrow’s case is an interesting one, as he’s the latest untested director to suddenly be handed the keys to a behemoth money-spinning franchise. This weird new Hollywood trend has been hit-or-miss; Gareth Edwards was able to parlay low-budget success into his great Spielberg homage, Godzilla (and now to Star Wars spinoff Rogue One); Marc Webb hit more bumps going from 500 Days of Summer to the Andrew Garfield Spider-Man films. The jury’s still out on the unfortunate Josh Trank, whose terrific Chronicle got him a gig on Fantastic Four that has been dogged (literally) by rumor and hearsay, and now he’s out on a planned Boba Fett film. More and more (white, male) filmmakers are jumping to the big leagues, and not all of them are rewarding the studios’ faith.

Trevorrow’s journey may have been the most unlikely, as the only other feature film to his name is festival darling Safety Not Guaranteed, a micro-budget sci-fi with little in the way of actual sci-fi. The story goes that Brad Bird, who was circling a Star Wars film of his own, took a liking to Trevorrow, and offered to bring him in to prep it while Bird finished Tomorrowland. That obviously didn’t end up happening, but Spielberg kept Trevorrow’s card, and looped him in to Jurassic World instead. I’m pleased to report that this particular gamble paid off: Trevorrow’s love of the original Jurassic Park is palpable, and World doesn’t betray it (it even does us the favor of pretending the other sequels don’t exist) — it’s nostalgia without pandering. Statue of Hammond as Walt Disney? Sure. The original Rexy as battle-scarred shogun? If you insist, but you’ll have to wait for it.

Jake Johnson (the only thing this and Safety have in common) plays Lowery, an avatar for the fans who unironically wears a shirt from the original park — “Yeah, people died, but that first park was legit!” — and wants to fulfill the vision of John Hammond as much as Trevorrow wants to live up to the legacy of Spielberg. Lowery also groans about the creeping corporatization of the park, bracing for the day they’ll just name new dinos “Verizonsaurus” or “Tostitodon.” With these little winks and some cute observational humor, Trevorrow gets to have it both ways, commenting on Jurassic World‘s very existence as a soulless corporate product and then fighting tooth and nail to nevertheless make it worth our time. These people sure are dumb to create this entirely unnecessary, unstoppable demon Rex — but you’ve got to admit you’re enjoying yourself!

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Once the gyroball gets rolling, Trevorrow serves up a movable feast of rollicking setpieces on land, air, and sea; it’s propulsive, imaginative filmmaking that never takes itself too seriously and doesn’t overstay its welcome. Even some of the biggest red flags from the trailers — Chris Pratt’s Raptor Squad, and the preponderance of CGI in general — actually kind of work in context. Let’s be honest: these films have never been known for their smarts. The science is dubious; the look of the dinos themselves haven’t kept pace with what we’ve since learned about them; a lot of story beats depend on characters making the worst decision possible. But Jurassic World manages to resurrect that long-extinct element that covers a multitude of sins: Fun. It’s just fun.

The ending, for example, is ludicrous — preposterous — but I dare you not to be grinning ear to ear when it’s over. Sure, the CGI looks a little dodgy in spots, and we only get one good scene with an animatronic, but it also gives Trevorrow freedom to get really active with his camera, hurtling towards earth like a bloodthirsty pteranodon. Furthermore, the world itself looks so great, I was surprised by how little I cared about the effects. I would give my right arm to visit Jurassic World as it exists here. Ed Verreux’s production design is immaculate: clean, detailed, and entirely absorbing, and you hate to see it demolished. (I also can’t go this entire review without mentioning Michael Giacchino’s score, who ably steps into John Williams’s shoes.)

With enough seeds planted for future installments and the reliable bankability of Chris Pratt, it doesn’t look like this franchise will ever really die. That’s either a testament to the eternal allure of dinosaurs, or to mankind’s hubris, or both. But Jurassic World, for the first time in 20 years, gets the mix right. Fear AND wonder, finally.

Grade: B+


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