Film Review: Jurassic World (2015)
Audiences had no reason to expect anything decent – let alone good – from another Jurassic Park sequel, yet we got one of the most enjoyable blockbusters ever.
I am as light as a feather, I am as happy as an angel, I am as merry as a school-boy. I am as giddy as a drunken man.
Why? Because miracles do happen.
After two miserable sequels, the world had no reason to expect anything good from another Jurassic Park movie; in fact, we had every reason to expect we would be better off without one – and it’s not as if the trailers did much to assuage our apprehension that Jurassic World would be a heaping pile of dino-dung. Why the hell would anybody build a park on the site of the previous disaster, and who would be stupid enough to put up the insurance? What kind of morons would buy tickets to visit a place with that kind of horrible and undoubtedly very high-profile history? Are we really supposed to get excited over the sight of Chris Pratt using Raptors like a pack of hunting dogs to track some new mutant dinosaur? Doesn’t the whole thing feel desperate and ridiculous?
And yet, in spite of every ill omen, Jurassic World turns out to be the most enjoyable blockbuster in recent memory, easily eclipsing the moribund Marvel superhero franchise. How this miracle was achieved, I am not quite sure – perhaps through some bureaucratic oversight, Universal Pictures hired some people who actually wanted to make a good movie? Maybe someone realized that, in a marketplace saturated with special effects, just doing another formulaic dino-munch-athon was not going to cut it?
I suspect that both may be the case: some talented people realized the challenges they faced and devised clever ways to meet those challenges. In particular, Jurassic World works because it is almost as much about Jurassic World the film as it is about Jurassic World the tourist attraction. The premise is that audiences grow jaded with familiar wonders; this attention-deficit-disorder requires an ever increasing escalation of scale in order to continue selling tickets; unfortunately, escalation can lead to disastrous results for audiences, who end up being assaulted instead of entertained.
In essence, this is the situation in which the makers of Jurassic World found themselves: back in 1993, showing regular dinosaurs – with the added novelty of computer-generated imagery – was enough to wow viewers; twenty-two years later, the familiar beasts are old-hat, so upping the ante is necessary. Thus, is born the new Indominus Rex; fortunately, the ensuing disaster is visited upon the on-screen audience in the park, not the real live audience in the theatre, because the filmmakers seem completely aware of how far wrong this strategy could go.
After all, they had only to look at Jurassic Park III, which gave us the Spinosaurus. Remember him? No? I’m not surprised. Spinosaurus is the equivalent of a “new and improved” product that provides exactly what you got before but in new packaging. It’s just a T-Rex with a sail on its back, and though having it kill a T-Rex early in the film is supposed to strike terror in our hearts, we all realize that – regardless of whether it looks a little different and kills the monster from the previous films – a Spinosaurus can’t kill you any deader than a T-Rex, so in practical terms there is absolutely no difference.
At first, Indominous Rex seems to be Jurassic World‘s Spinosaurus – just another bigger, badder T-Rex, no doubt intended to sell new tie-in merchandise. Fortunately, it turns out to be something much better than that. Indominous becomes a self-referential plot point, in which the filmmakers acknowledge what circumstances are forcing them to do (create a new dinosaur as a marketing gimmick) and then ruthlessly satirize the result while ultimately inviting us to root for the old-school dinosaurs we lovingly remember from the first film.
And if my prose makes this sound like a dry, intellectual exercise, I apologize, because the result is a kick-ass, high-octane adventure that perfectly manipulates its pop entertainment elements – which is to say that, whether or not Jurassic World features sophisticated drama and in-depth characters, it makes you feel involved with the on-screen events,so that, even if the scenario plays out in a way that might seem predictable of even trite when viewed with cynical, retroactive disdain, you will fall under the spell while the film unspools before your eyes – fearing the threat and rooting for the heroes to defeat it. Or to put it another way: the film can get away with roasting a lot of chestnuts, because it cooks them to perfection and makes the audience hungry for more.
Indominous Rex (the dialogue acknowledges the absurdity of the name, manufactured – like the creature itself – to sell tickets) is a freak of science, a gene-spliced hybrid that emerges as the modern equivalent of Frankenstein’s Monster – an abomination that has no right to exist in our world of naturally evolved organisms. Intelligent and ruthless, the creature kills for sport – a hint that pays off late in the film, revealing that Indominous is something more sinister than just a redesigned Tyrannosaur.
In short, Indominous is almost a dictionary definition of a monster, which beyond any doubt needs to be exterminated, and much of the triumph of Jurassic World is that the battle that ensues is not a Transformers-like exercise in empty visual flash; it’s a textbook example of the value of rooting interest: I cannot remember the last time I anxiously cheering for a character to be put down for good (unless it was the moment in Evil Dead II when Ash jabs his finger at the severed head of his undead girl friend and angrily intones, “You’re doing down!”).
Of course, this is no easy task; it requires some satisfying inter-species cooperation. Not only does Owen (Pratt) ride out with his Raptor-pack; Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) unleashes a useful ally at the climax. The sly joke is that these two dinosaurs were mortal enemies at the conclusion of the first Jurassic Park, but now they set aside their differences to help humanity defeat the monster.
In a weird kind of way, Jurassic World is the franchise’s equivalent of Ghidorah, The Three-Headed Monster, in which Godzilla teams with former foes Mothra and Rodan to fend off the new threat. The difference is that, avoiding camp, Jurassic World sells the idea with a straight face conviction that precludes us from even questioning the convenience that a worthy opponent for Indominus just happened to be conveniently waiting in a pen to be unleashed for the climax. I certainly wasn’t going to question it, because it was sure as hell what I wanted to see happen.
To spread some credit around to the humans, Pratt and Howard are effortlessly appealing in their roles; yeah, they’re fairly typical movie characters, but they’re watchable and even believable. The two brothers at the center of the story are likable instead of annoying (and neither one defeats a Raptor with a kick from the parallel bars). It’s also nice that even some nominal bad guys – execs and scientists responsible for Indominous Rex – seem sort of like people, and sometimes even make a halfway decent attempt to do the right thing, as when new park owner Masrani (Irrfan Khan) pilots a helicopter attempting to shoot down Indominous – even though he is not fully qualified for the task. It’s always nice to see B.D. Wong (here as the dino-designer), and Vincent D’Onofrio does good work as the film’s one officially unredeemed asshole, who wants to use the Raptors as dog soldiers. Guess what happens to him?
But while you’re guessing, remember this: the joys of Jurassic World do not begin and end with an unlikable character get what he deserves (a la the lawyer in Jurassic Park). This movie wants to bring you back to a state of mind where a rampaging dinosaur would have you scared shirtless. (Did I just write that? Must have been a typo!) When Indominous escapes his pen, you are not chanting, “Go, go – Godzilla!” You are moaning, “Oh no! Oh hell! Everybody – run!” It’s a sign of truly impressive film-making when even the disposable “red shirt” character inspires more sympathy than blood-lust in an audience that has paid to see a creature with an appetite for destruction go on a wild rampage.
That rampage is rendered with excellent CGI that is not merely pretty; it also suggests a believable physicality – a sense of inertia and momentum seen in real object but lacking in most digital work, which tends to betray its virtual origins. The 3D aspect is reasonably well-used: true to form for recent 3D films, the effects tend to be less in-your-face than the old school “comin’ at ya” shots of the 1950s and 1970s, but the extra dimension helps convey the sense of gargantuan size, and there is one great shot of a pterodactyl trying to fly out of the screen to escape a predator.
Despite its wonders, not everything is perfect in Jurassic World. Some early scenes do not strike the intended note (an early aerial shot, backed by swelling music, implies a sense of grandeur that simply is not visually evident in what looks to us like a standard theme park layout). The over-reliance on digital dinosaurs robs the film of the satisfying blend of computer and mechanical effects that worked so well in Jurassic Park, which had a live-action texture and immediacy that yielded a greater sense of human-saurian interaction. And finally, near the end, Jurassic World goes a little bit “Ray Harryhausen” on us, in a bad way.
To my surprise, I had bought into the Raptor scenario up till then, which had Owen interacting with the predators like a tamer dealing with lions: yes, he could get them to obey commands, but that didn’t mean he would turn his back on them. Still, there was some sense of a bond, insofar as Owen was the “alpha” member of the group, the pack leader upon whom the others had imprinted when they were born. This bond is tested, strained, broken, and possibly repaired in the film’s third act, which sees shifting alliances that lead to some shuddery plot twists. At the end of the day, certain characters make a decision to stand not with their biological kin but with their adoptive relative – even at risk to their own lives. And for too long during this sequence, Owen stands there like one of those slack-jawed heroes in an old Ray Harryhausen stop-motion monsterfest, watching while a friendly creature do his fighting for him. As much as I was rooting for Indominous Rex to take his well deserved fall, I was practically yelling at Owen to get off the sidelines and get some skin in the game – you don’t just stand and watch while your brothers-in-arms become dino-chow.
It’s ironic that, in a film which tries to add a glint of humanity to the usual blockbuster formula, the heroic roles fall less to the humans than to the cold-blooded reptiles. In a weird kind of way, despite my misgivings, I’m okay with that. Because it’s nice to see old enemies united against a common foe; T-Rex is still the Lizard King, and like the end of Jurassic Park, the climax of Jurassic World takes you back – mentally, at least – to a time When Dinosaurs Rules the Earth.
Jurassic World (June 12, 2015)
Directed by Colin Trevorrow. Screenplay by Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver and Colin Trevorrow & Derek Connolly, from a story by Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver, based on characters created by Michael Crichton. Cast: Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Irrfan Khan, Vincent D’Onofrio, Ty Simpkins, Nick Robinson, Jake Johnson, Omar Sy, BD Wong, Judy Greer, Jimmy Fallon. PG-13. In IMAX 3D.