Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
Jurassic Park was an exhilarating adventure from start to finish, driven by strong characters, a Spielbergian family core, and thematic resonance that lingered in practically every frame. Its two follow-ups, particularly the third installment, never regained the sense of wonder and spectacle that the first one’s outstanding visual effects accomplished. That’s primarily due to their belief that story came second and visuals triumphed emotion. Jurassic World follows that same mantra, albeit with a more self-aware touch and a modern relevance that feels shockingly advanced for a summer blockbuster. Riffs on product placement and meta commentary regarding the need to be “bigger” and “cooler” every few years in order to keep the public’s attention occur in the first half hour to snickering satisfaction. It’s unfortunate, then, that the film falls into those exact traps, brandishing Mercedes-Benz and Starbuck’s cups like they’re going out of style and including every familiar plot point from the first film but with more misogynistic characters. The result is an occasionally exciting, mostly mediocre effort that strives for social commentary but falls into overblown, mildly engaging fare.
The story opens on Isla Nublar, the home of the original Jurassic Park that has now been developed into Jurassic World. It’s a theme park that feels like a mix of Disneyland and SeaWorld, even with the modern touch of animal cruelty through painful, lonely captivity (Blackfish slam!). The person in charge of running the park is Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard), a conventional career-driven woman that puts everything before family. She knows that her nephews, Gray (Ty Simpkins) and Zach (Nick Robinson), are coming to visit the park under her supervision per her sister’s (Judy Greer) instructions, but she doesn’t even supervise. She instead delegates that to her British assistant. Claire is under pressure from investors and merchandisers to deliver a new attraction in order to stimulate public interest; a dinosaur doesn’t wow everyone anymore. They want something newer, bigger…scarier. If this sounds like sly commentary, it actually is. But when Claire seems to lose control of her new species, she calls upon one-time fling and raptor trainer Owen Grady (Guardians of the Galaxy‘s Chris Pratt) to come save the day, especially when military contractor Hoskins (Vincent D’Onofrio, whose career is finally picking up proper steam) poses a threat to the sanctity of the park.
The director here is Colin Trevorrow, who last made the Sundance hit Safety Not Guaranteed. It was a disarmingly effective science fiction comedy that hit practically every strong note in its narrative. He recently said in an interview that the writing here, which is done by four different peeps, crafts characters that fall into traditional gender tropes of previous generations. Oh, how he is sadly right. The first Jurassic Park utilized strong female characters and made an emotional connection between everyone, particularly the children. Here, the children are crafted as grating and annoying until they finally bond, but it takes too long to get there. A lot of mindless oogling at teenage girls occurs and halts the momentum. Claire, played well by Dallas Howard considering the limitations of the role, never moves past the “uptight career-oriented bitch” archetype until the last act. It’s frustratingly old-fashioned and one-dimensional. Chris Pratt is respectable but he doesn’t seem as settled as he was in his previously snarky big-screen efforts. Simply put, everything feels off when it comes to the performances, and the story doesn’t do any of the characters much justice until the admittedly strong third act.
And that third act? It delivers a dino vs. dino epic battle that reminds of 2013’s Pacific Rim in terms of its child-jumping-out-of-their-seats excitement. It’s just a blast. Yet that violence is cartoony and appropriately animalized. When the film really starts to stray from the original is when it sensationalizes its human deaths, treating their bodies like pieces of meat and tossing them around the screen like rag dolls. While many of the casualties early on are dwelled on and treated with fragility, the latter ones mean nothing to the audience and the animals attacking them look like gross hybrids that aren’t cool or exciting. It’s mildly repulsive. Nonetheless, the story does have its merits, notably in the early developments when the Blackfish-esque undertones run rampant and preach for treating animals in captivity with respect, while recognizing that they are indeed wild animals that can snap at any given moment. Chris Pratt’s Owen gets a few moments that truly work. The nostalgia, too, excels when spaced out, particularly the epic John Williams score we all know. For every element I enjoyed, another annoyed me. But I suppose Jurassic World delivers on audience expectations. I don’t know if that’s necessarily a good thing, though, as it falls far short of what Spielberg laid out 22 years ago.
Grade: ★★★ (out of 5)