Monday, August 10, 2015

Welcome to "Jurassic World"

The original "Jurassic Park" was a wonderfully fun, breathless, gee-whiz action-adventure movie that included a few broad warnings about human beings meddling with the natural world.  "Jurassic World" is a somewhat less adept, but still perfectly serviceable summer action movie that warns of the dangers of making reboots and spinoffs.  Oh yes, I'm serious.

You see, "Jurassic World" is a self-aware film.  It's titular dinosaur theme park is built on the foundations of an earlier iteration, the new generation is no longer impressed with simply seeing natural dinosaurs, and the people in charge are constantly under pressure to come up with flashier attractions to perk up attendance numbers.  When it comes down to it, the whole plot of "Jurassic World" is clearly a retread of the first film with some predictable variations and whole lot of appeals to our nostalgia.  Things go wrong at the theme park due to sabotage and bad luck.  The dinos get loose and things quickly spiral out of control.  The meta just adds a little extra fun to the predictable action beats being played out by a set of very stock characters.

After Jurassic Park was abandoned, a new theme park called Jurassic World was eventually built on Isla Nublar. It's been running successfully for several years without incident, but its popularity is waning.  As the film opens, the park's operations manager, Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) courts potential sponsors while readying an upcoming attraction, a genetically engineered new specimen called Indominus rex.  She's too busy to look after her two nephews, teenager Gray (Nick Robinson) and excitable youngster Zach (Ty Simpkins) who have come to visit, so they are left to explore the park largely on their own.  The bad guy head of security, played by Vincent D'Onofrio, (who is so obviously the bad guy that there's no point identifying him as anything else) heads up his own spinoff project, aimed at training velociraptors for the battlefield.  The primary trainer, Owen (Chris Pratt), gets good results from his raptors, but scoffs at the idea of exploiting them.  We get a few scenes here and there with Irrfan Khan as the park's idealistic owner, and B.D. Wong as a shady geneticist.  Oh, and then there's Jake Johnson and Lauren Lapkus doing worker bee comic relief from the Jurassic World control room.

So we are firmly in disaster movie territory, with a big cast of very thin characters.  There's nothing wrong with that, and "Jurassic Park" was put together much the same way, but here the assembly is far more haphazard, and the results are severely hit-or-miss.  Chris Pratt nicely fits the role of charming rogue, despite having to rattle off a lot of tin ear dialogue.  Ty Simpkins brings a lot of welcome energy to Zach, who is more or less a clone of Tim from "Jurassic Park."  However, Bryce Dallas Howard doesn't fare nearly so well as Claire, who is saddled with a weird maternal awakening subplot and stumbles through her chase scenes in high heels.  Even worse is Nick Robinson's Gray, who is the most insufferable kind of mopey, killjoy teenager through the first half of the film.  Vincent D'Onofrio is tuned to about the right level of scummy, but his character is barely present long enough to deliver a few lines of exposition.

Of course, the main event is the dinosaurs, which is what elevates "Jurassic Park" above your standard Roland Emmerich destruction-fest.  There are lots of new species to marvel at, lots of old favorites in new scenarios, and plentiful carnage.  Everything's still fairly kid-friendly, but some sequences involving park patrons get very intense and people do get eaten.  I'm sure there will be plenty of debate about how the CGI in this film compares to the effects in the original, but I was suitably impressed with the spectacle.  My favorite was not the new Indominus rex, who is a bit oversold, but the gigantic aquatic Mosasaurus, who lunges upwards from his tank to feed before adoring audiences in a Shamu show on steroids.

That brings us to the Jurassic World park itself, which I found to be the movie's best asset.  So much of the film's humor and creativity can be found in all the little touches we see at the gorgeously rendered park - the way the rides have been constructed, the announcements over the PA system, a Jimmy Fallon hosted ride safety video, and the corporate sponsorship.  The big climactic fight takes place in a shopping area that contains a Starbucks and a Pandora bracelet store - which would be completely plausible at a real theme park.  It also keeps the stakes high, as the audience may not be all that invested in Claire or her nephews, but hundreds of vulnerable families in danger still inspire plenty of anxiety.

And that's still the film's biggest obstacle.  The action scenes are competently staged and a most of the humor works, so "Jurassic World" is an easy watch.  However, the story problems and crummier characters kept me from getting fully engaged.  Attitude shifts and transformations happen in the last act with none of the work done to get the characters to that point.  It's very difficult to root for or connect to anybody.  And it's only when the film appeals to our nostalgia that it manages to elicit any sort of emotion beyond the immediately visceral.  As for messages, well, the park seemed to be operating swimmingly for years, negating the warnings of the first film.  It's only when the operators tinkered with generics in an effort to stay relevant (and prolong the franchise) that things went so wrong.

I give "Jurassic World" all the credit for being ambitious, and for resisting the urge to be cynical, crass, or cheap.  I just wish there had been a little more care.  The film could have been so much better than this.


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