I love talking about movies. I love that experience of walking out of a theater and discussing the film I’ve just seen with someone, breaking it apart, looking at the pieces, understanding how the whole thing fits together and what makes it work (or not). It’s exciting to me, and it’s the whole reason I run this silly blog, so it’s really unusual for me to walk out of a movie and be totally stumped by it – to feel that something wasn’t quite right, but to be at a total loss as to what went wrong.
I was stumped by Jurassic World.
Jurassic World is the third sequel to Steven Spielberg’s masterful classic, but it largely ignores the other two. Set 22 years after the original incident on the island, Isla Nublar is now home to a fully functional, and hugely successful theme park housing various species of cloned dinosaurs. The problem, though, is that dinosaurs are already kind of old news at this point. Sure, the T. rex was cool 20 years ago, but what do they have that’s new? The stockholders in particular have this question on their mind, and Jurassic World’s genetics team has an answer: Indominus rex – a new species of dino spliced from the genes of T. rex and… well, that information is classified. Regardless, Indominus is bigger, faster, smarter, and meaner than her genetic cousin, and in short order she finds a way to escape from her paddock and out onto the island. It’s up to Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard), Jurassic World’s operations manager and Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) a Velociraptor trainer, to try to recapture Indominus rex before she wreaks havoc on the park’s guests, including Claire’s young nephews, Zach (Nick Robinson) and Gray (Ty Simpkins).
Here’s the thing, as I’m writing this review, I’m still really wrestling with how I felt about the film. For the most part I enjoyed it – it’s definitely much more entertaining than either of the previous sequels – but there’s something about the movie that didn’t quite land for me, and I can’t put my finger on what it is. The main reason I was attracted to this movie in the first place is the core idea of a world where we’re already bored with dinosaurs. Very early on, director Collin Trevorrow talked about the idea of a teenager on their cellphone with their back to a Tyrannosaurus paddock. That’s a really smart idea, and has a lot of potential for dealing with interesting themes, and that image is in the film, but the film never really goes deeper than that. It never digs into the thematic meat of this idea, but rather just stays on this surface notion of dinosaurs being old news, so a monster needed to be created to get people excited. It’s also interesting that most of the guests we see are excited by the park, in fact the only one who’s kind of a grump about it is Zach, the older of Claire’s nephews. There’s a lot of stuff that could have been explored here going both meta-textual with our desensitization to spectacle in film and extra-textual dealing with the ramifications of zoos and parks like Sea World reducing wild animals to tourist attractions, but the movie never goes there. It’s a shame because there’s even in-universe opportunities to dig into these ideas that the movie squanders in its choice to ignore the other two sequels. The Lost World ends with John Hammond declaring that Isla Sorna be left as a protected nature preserve where the dinosaurs are allowed to flourish without the interference of man. Bringing up the idea of plundering this nature preserve for the sake of capitalistic gain in a theme park would have played really well with the film’s themes, but instead the movie retcons away the whole Isla Sorna issue by saying that John Hammond’s dying wish was to see his dream of Jurassic Park become a reality.
Not only does the movie sort of waste its core idea, but it feels the need to introduce a second, wholly superfluous narrative through line about InGen wanting to sell trained raptors to the military. It’s an idea that feels more fitting for an Alien movie than a Jurassic Park movie, and it never really meshes with the story being told. It comes across like something that was added in a late rewrite, possibly for the sake of laying bread crumbs for a sequel.
Beyond that Chris Pratt is tragically wasted in his role as Owen Grady. Owen is maybe the most blandly written leading man I’ve seen in years. Had this character been played by Sam Worthington or Jai Courtney I believe people would have actually died of boredom. Chris Pratt’s infectious charisma and innate likability makes the character tolerable, but it does a huge disservice to Pratt’s immense talents. Bryce Dallas Howard’s Claire fares a bit better, but she’s still sort of bland as well. Weirdly enough, it’s actually Ty Simpkins filling the obligatory precocious kid role who somehow manages to be the heart and soul of the film as far as characters go.
All of that being said, the film is undeniably fun. More so than any of these movies since the original, Jurassic World manages to instill some wonder and awe and makes us feel something beyond fear of these creatures. It understands the essence of the original film by showing us that dinosaurs are not monsters, but merely animals, capable of being many things including majestic, beautiful, heroic, dangerous, and yes, scary. The way they go about making this distinction, though, is by giving the movie a real monster, and its effectiveness is kind of hit-or-miss
I actually think we see too much of the Indominus rex in this movie – part of what made the original film so effective is that, like Jaws, you see less of the dinosaurs than you think you do. Each time we got to see a dinosaur in the movie, it had weight because even within the movie it was relatively rare. Here, we see Indominus in what feels like every other scene, and the impact of her presence lessens over time. It also doesn’t help that Trevorrow is no Spielberg (which is not really a knock since Spielberg is the greatest filmmaker currently living) and so none of Indominus’ appearances come even close to the T. rex attack or the Velociraptor cat-and-mouse game of the original. Still, the movie has some solidly executed action. There’s a chase with the raptors in the last half of the movie that’s really well handled and a final confrontation that treacherously dances around the line between cool and cheesy, but (for the most part) manages to stay on the side of being cool.
The idea of making a sequel to Spielberg’s Jurassic Park is a lot like the idea of the park itself. It sounds really amazing in theory, but every time they try it, something inevitably goes wrong. I mean, Spielberg is one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, and even he couldn’t pull it off. The fact that Trevorrow’s movie works at all is sort of miraculous, and it is genuinely more fun than either of the other two sequels. That being said, it ends up feeling a bit like the titular park. Sure, it’s functional – much more so than the last few times they tried it – but it’s also maybe just a little bit bland.