Movie Curiosities: Jurassic World
Dead franchises are not allowed. Every last cash cow must be kept alive by any means necessary, even if it means propping them up and sticking on googly eyes to try and hide their departure from the mortal coil. That’s not to say franchises can’t lay dormant for a time, while the next sequel or reboot is in some stage of development. But as long as a franchise has any remaining hint of brand recognition — or even if it doesn’t and there’s a new generation ready to rediscover it — then it simply must be exploited. No exceptions. These are the times we live in.
But it seemed for a while like the Jurassic Park franchise might have been deader than a diplodocus.
Oh, a fourth Jurassic Park movie had been in various phases of development for several years, but it seemed unlikely that anything would ever come of it. Ironically enough, the entire franchise seemed to be a victim of the first film’s success: By the release of Jurassic Park II in 1997 (which was a landmark year in cinema for so many other reasons), the market was positively oversaturated with CGI extravaganzas made for the express purpose of trying to recapture the old Jurassic Park success. And by the time Jurassic Park III hit in 2001, CGI had apparently outgrown the series and fatigue had begun to set in. It was tough to be impressed with VFX dinosaurs when VFX would be taking us to Hogwarts and Middle Earth in a few months.
Between the lukewarm reception to the sequels and the growing gap in time since the last one, it was quite clear that inertia was not in the franchise’s favor. A sequel to follow the third film after a decade of waiting was therefore a dubious prospect to say the least, and the very concept of rebooting the franchise entirely was laughable for so many reasons.
So when Jurassic World first came about, I of course thought this would be just another false start. I was briefly interested by the involvement of director Colin Trevorrow, who had previously floored me with the terribly underappreciated Safety Not Guaranteed, but this still seemed like a doomed idea. And then I read this interview with Trevorrow.
Jurassic World takes place in a fully functional park on Isla Nublar. It sees more than 20,000 visitors every day. You arrive by ferry from Costa Rica. It has elements of a biological preserve, a safari, a zoo, and a theme park. There is a luxury resort with hotels, restaurants, nightlife and a golf course. And there are dinosaurs. Real ones. You can get closer to them than you ever imagined possible. It’s the realization of John Hammond’s dream, and I think you’ll want to go there. […] When Derek [Connolly] and I sat down to find the movie, we looked at the past two decades and talked about what we’ve seen. Two things came to the surface.
One was that money has been the gasoline in the engine of our biggest mistakes. If there are billions to be made, no one can resist them, even if they know things could end horribly.
The other was that our relationship with technology has become so woven into our daily lives, we’ve become numb to the scientific miracles around us. We take so much for granted.
Those two ideas felt like they could work together. What if, despite previous disasters, they built a new biological preserve where you could see dinosaurs walk the earth, and what if people were already kind of over it? We imagined a teenager texting his girlfriend with his back to a T-Rex behind protective glass. For us, that image captured the way much of the audience feels about the movies themselves. We’ve seen CG dinosaurs. What else you got?
Trevorrow laid down a premise that takes the themes and ideas of the first movie and expands on them to an epic degree while playing into the CGI fatigue that threatened to make the franchise obsolete to begin with. Holy shit, sign me up.
The film opens with two brothers, name of Zach Mitchell (Nick Robinson, who previously earned his stripes with The Kings of Summer) and Gray Mitchell (Ty Simpkins, better known as the possessed kid from Insidious and Tony Stark’s sidekick in Iron Man 3). The two of them are leaving for a week’s vacation to Jurassic World. Where are their parents, you ask? Well, it’s never stated outright, but it’s heavily implied that the parents want to send their kids away for a time while the divorce gets finalized. And anyway, it’s not like the boys will be alone.
(Side note: Their mother is played by Judy Greer, which means that she’s stuck playing yet another fourth-tier supporting character that grossly underutilizes the actress’ talent. I am getting so sick and tired of this.)
It just so happens that the two boys are nephews to Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard), the executive in charge of running Jurassic World. In theory, she was supposed to spend a bit of quality time with her nephews by way of VIP access to the park. In practice, she hands the boys off to an assistant while tending to important business. And of course, this “business” is a new attraction designed to turn seat cushions brown in record numbers.
Right off the bat, I can tell you this much about the human characters: They are all little more than archetypes, each only as good as the actor inhabiting them. A prime example is Claire, who looks on paper like the kind of avaricious bureaucrat with nothing to resemble a conscience. Yet she works in practice because Howard brings a level of humanity and integrity to the character. She’s career-oriented but not necessarily greedy. She cares about people (especially her family), but she’s not very good at understanding or interacting with them. In fact, Claire doesn’t seem to know just how far out of touch she’s gotten, and that realization is clearly very painful when it hits. Put simply, she’s immersed herself in statistics and timetables to such a degree that she’s lost sight of what all those numbers mean. And in this case, just how dangerous and unpredictable those “numbers” can be.
In case I’m not doing her justice, I want to make it clear that Howard is easily the standout of the cast. She brings something truly special to this film and she’s fantastic from start to finish. I want to say that Claire is one of the strongest female lead characters I’ve seen in a very long time… but then I remember that Mad Max: Fury Road is still in theaters. I do love this feminist trend in mainstream Hollywood pictures, don’t you?
On the other end of the spectrum is Simon Masrani (Irrfan Khan), the eccentric billionaire who was entrusted with Jurassic Park by a dying Dr. Hammond. So on paper, he’s just another rich doofus with more money than sense. But when the character is played by a veteran like Khan, he radiates such gravitas that it’s easy to understand how he got to be so rich and why so many people would trust him with such a potentially catastrophic idea. More than that, Masrani’s sense of joy is infectious. When he talks about the guests and dinosaurs as if they were real flesh-and-blood beings instead of money and property, you can tell he really does care about them. This character perfectly expresses that grandiose sense of awe and wonder that comes with the thought of an island inhabited by dinosaurs.
In summary: One of these characters screws up because she could only see dinosaurs as numbers on a sheet instead of creatures that could think and act for themselves. The other one screws up because he was so in love with the idea of bigger and badder dinos that he finally bit off more than he could chew. And they both screwed up because they saw the park guests as customers instead of food.
Getting back to my earlier point, these characters may be overly simple on the page, yet they still work because they were played with some level of strength and inner conflict. Vincent D’Onofrio, however, decided to go another way entirely. He plays Vic Hoskins, the head of security for InGen.
(Side note: It perhaps bears mentioning that Masrani is the head of a different corporation altogether, which somehow shares Isla Nublar with InGen. The specifics are unclear, though the back half of the film heavily involves the balance of power between the two companies.)
Anyway, Hoskins is a character who’s interested in the military applications of dinosaur cloning. Make a whole ton of money, keep InGen and Jurassic World in the black, protect America’s interests at home and abroad, it’s a win-win for everybody! On paper, he’s the token immoral bastard who would do absolutely anything to make a buck. In practice, D’Onofrio makes the character so cartoonishly evil that Hoskins borders on comic relief. There’s never even the slightest effort to make Hoskins into anything more than a meatheaded bully living in a perpetual state of willful ignorance. It’s impossible to take the guy seriously or agree with anything he says, even on those rare occasions when he starts talking sense and nobody listens.
As for the kids… oof. Gray is a hyperactive and motormouthed little twit who somehow has an encyclopedic knowledge of dinosaurs, cars, and anything else he comes across. As for Zach, he’s a disengaged teenager who cares more about mobile phones and girls than his stupid brother or any stupid theme park. These characters hit a sweet spot where they have too little personality to be interesting, yet they’re not quite stereotypical enough to be annoying. They’re bland in such a way that I simply did not care about them one way or another. The kids do get a lot more tolerable when their development arcs finally kick in at the halfway point, but that first half with them was just so blah.
Last but not least, there’s Chris Pratt. He plays Owen Grady, the de facto hero of the picture, who works at Jurassic World as a velociraptor trainer. The character is interesting because Pratt conveys quite a few nifty contradictions. Owen is perfectly aware that he has the coolest job in the world, but he also knows that this job may very well kill him. Slowly and painfully, at that. After all, he’s working with a pack of the fastest, smartest, deadliest predators ever to roam the earth. His very livelihood hinges on understanding these strange creatures and forming some kind of bond with them. He loves and respects these raptors, and that’s in large part because of how much he fears them. And the raptors clearly respect him in turn, but there’s always the question of how far that respect will go.
With all of that said, I never got the sense that Pratt really immersed himself in his role the way his costars did. I could never bring myself to forget that it was Chris Pratt on the screen because he always looked, acted, and sounded like the Chris Pratt that I’ve seen everyplace else. And yet the role called for such a specific blend of credible badass and childlike wonder that Pratt seemed like the perfect choice for the character. So it’s really more of a narrow miss.
The human characters are hardly perfect, but let’s be honest: This is a Jurassic Park movie. We all know what we came to see, and it sure as hell wasn’t the humans. So let’s get to the main event, shall we?
The big bad for this movie is the Indominus Rex, designed and genetically engineered to be big enough and bad enough to actually survive that extinction-level event 65 million years ago. As the end result of the world’s most brilliant scientists coming together to make the most deadly and terrifying animal in history, the I-Rex perfectly embodies the hubris and greed of humanity, as well as the dangers of science run amok. As the product of so many different animal and dinosaur species all spliced together, it works just fine as a threat that’s potentially far more than any human or dinosaur force could handle.
But here’s the thing: The exact combination of genes that made the I-Rex is classified. We never learn the full list of species that went into making this thing. Which means that the filmmakers were perfectly free to give the I-Rex whatever powers the antagonist needed at any given time. Natural camouflage? Sure. Thermal cloaking? Why not? It gets so ridiculous that you start to wonder why the I-Rex doesn’t sprout wings and fly away. Hell, how can we take the climax seriously when the film could easily hand-wave some reason for the I-Rex to come back from the dead just when it seems like it’s been defeated?
As for the VFX, I’m sorry to say that it’s hit-and-miss. There were times (especially with the raptors) when the dinos and landscapes looked so vivid that it was hard to tell where the practical world ended and the CGI began. Other times, however, it was quite painfully obvious that the performers were only acting against a blue screen. Then again, if we’re being honest, the CGI in Jurassic Park had its weaker moments as well. In particular, those shots of dinosaurs in the valley seem to be a recurring problem.
Then we have the action. We’ve got some tremendously satisfying dino-on-dino fight scenes to be witnessed here, and I’m glad to say that the film doesn’t hold back when it comes to seeing humans get chomped. That last part is especially crucial, since we now have a victim pool of 20,000 unarmed people all packed in one location. Though there are a few times when it seemed rather gratuitous. For instance, there’s one point at roughly the 80-minute mark when we see a minor supporting character get eaten in eight different ways over what felt like two minutes. I’m not saying the character wasn’t an ideal victim, but that was still excessive to a disturbing degree.
Even so, the visuals all look sterling and the 3D effects are tremendous. The sound design is also top-notch, with consultation from original Jurassic Park sound designer Gary Rydstrom. Likewise, Michael Giacchino is rapidly establishing himself as the heir to John Williams’ legacy, using the original film’s themes as the starting point for a sweeping score. All that’s left is to comment on the egregious product placement on display, but it actually kinda works in this context. After all, the film takes place in a theme park, which is a huge corporate circle-jerk by nature.
Jurassic World is not perfect, but let’s be honest: The original film was hardly perfect either. Both films had thin characters, both films had rampant plot holes and action scenes that tampered with reality for plot convenience, and both films had some effects that aged better than others. Jurassic Park was absolutely a crucial film in many ways and it deserves to be held up as a beloved classic, but let’s keep some perspective is all I’m saying.
This movie is nowhere near as creative or innovative as the original film, but that was always an unfair comparison to make. Moreover, no sequel could ever be as groundbreaking as its predecessor, if only because it’s building on ground that the predecessor already broke. No, the job of a good sequel is to expand on the stories and ideas of its prequel, taking the concept in new and compelling directions. Plus, the best sequels were able to stand up on their own merit, entertaining all parties in such a way that old fans will be surprised and excited while newcomers will be motivated to discover the old classics.
On those grounds, I’d say that Jurassic World absolutely succeeds. It may not be the next great leap forward in blockbuster cinema, but it’s definitely good enough to justify whatever 3D and IMAX premiums you can pay.
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