Jurassic World

Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard in Jurassic World

Jurassic World is one of the most weirdly self-critical movies I've ever seen. It's refreshing when we see the film acknowledge the usual shortcomings of summer blockbusters, but after a while we realize that the movie has no intention of altering or transcending those shortcomings. It's just... apologizing, I guess? The film complains about the abundance of product placement in modern pop culture, then proceeds to deliver enough product placement to fill a Transformers or a Smurfs movie. It points out that its female lead is wearing impractical, uncomfortable high heels, then makes her stay in those heels for the duration of the movie (despite the fact that there are several moments she could have used to change into something more practical). It acknowledges that most of the ideas the supporting characters come up with are idiotic, but forces those characters to follow through on their idiotic ideas, anyway. The film's attitude is both indifferent and diffident: “Hey, we know this stuff sucks, but... eh, what are ya gonna do?”

The most prominent example of this is built into the film's premise. Jurassic World centers on a new dinosaur theme park called Dinosaur Deathtrap (kidding – it's called Jurassic World). Sure, Jurassic Park was a horrible failure that resulted in a whole bunch of people getting eaten by prehistoric beasts, but Jurassic World is gonna be different. It's bigger. It's shinier. It has more advanced security measures. Everything is going to be just fine. In fact, when the film opens, the part has been running successfully for several years (don't ask me how, but it has). The problem is, the park's shareholders are growing fretful about Jurassic World's growth potential. Dinosaurs have been a public attraction for years now, and no one thinks they're exciting anymore. So, the Jurassic World scientists begin doing a bit of experimental gene splicing to create some bigger, better super-dinosaurs. Their prize creation is Indominus Rex – basically a bigger/faster/stronger/smarter version of a T-Rex. Stupid? Sure, but the film suggests that you have to do stupid things in order to make a profit. So it is for theme parks, and so it is for blockbusters.

We no longer regard a CG stegosaurus with the same sense of wonder we did in 1993. Even a plain old T-Rex seems pretty run-of-the-mill now. Brave people and scary dinosaurs won't cut it. Now we need superheroes and supervillains, and that's exactly what Jurassic World gives us. Indominus Rex fills the latter role effectively, revealing a new superpower (He can hide his thermal signature! He can chomp through dino-proof glass!) every fifteen minutes or so. “He's just an animal!” people keep saying, usually right before Indominus eats them.

The superhero is Owen Grady (Chris Pratt, Guardians of the Galaxy), a raptor trainer who embodies every positive trait of every significant character the series has offered to date. He's the science whiz who knows everything there is to know about dinosaurs and who cautions the powers-that-be about the dangers of playing god. He's the action hero who never misses a shot, packs a mean punch and always knows how to work his way out of a deadly situation. He's a mystical raptor whisperer who develops a scientifically suspect bond with the dangerous creatures he raises. He's the eye candy who keeps his sleeves rolled up, his muscles oiled and his shirt unbuttoned. He's the comic relief who has an appropriate wisecrack ready at any given moment, and he's the stoic figure who knows when it's time to stop joking. Just in case we missed any of this, the film devotes several scenes to having other characters talk about how cool Owen is. He's awesome, I suppose, but he isn't recognizably human, and that's a problem.

Still, at least Owen is intelligent, which is more than we can say about almost every other character in the film. All of the Jurassic Park movies require a certain measure of greed, foolishness and hubris to create their dinosaur vs. human scenarios, but usually the “smart, rational scientist” to “stupid, greedy executive” ratio is pretty balanced. Almost everyone in Jurassic World – villainous or otherwise – is a moron, ensuring that a film that could have been 30 minutes long runs a full two hours. The park owner (Irrfan Khan, Life of Pi) who wants to use glorified tasers to stop Indominus Rex? Moron. The entrepreneur (Vincent D'onofrio, Daredevil) who wants to militarize raptors and use them on the battlefield? Moron. The two kids (Nick Robinson, The Kings of Summer and Ty Simpkins, Iron Man 3) who wander into a danger zone they know could be filled with deadly dinosaurs? Morons. The scientist (B.D. Wong, reprising his Jurassic Park role) who creates an unstoppable beast and then shrugs off the subsequent killing spree? Smart, but also a moron.

The film's most frustrating character is Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard, Lady in the Water), park operations manager and wearer of the aforementioned impractical high heels. She has more screen time than any other character, but the arc she's given is an obnoxious, conventional one: the career-driven workaholic forced to learn that they need to work less and spend more time with family. The thing is, Claire doesn't have a family. The movie just feels she needs one on principle. Claire's sister (Judy Greer, Arrested Development) chastises Claire for failing to spend enough quality time with her young nephews during their visit to the park, and insists that Claire will understand the importance of such things when she has kids. “If I have kids,” Claire says. “No, when,” her sister replies. Sure enough, over the course of a single weekend, this rigid careerist who regards living creatures as mere statistics transforms into a nurturing maternal figure, adoring girlfriend and passionate animal lover. Never mind the sexism, it's just plain unbelievable.

It's also worth mentioning the film has a weird ugly streak. There's a lot of killing in this one (dinos killing humans, natch, but also humans killing dinos), and the movie doesn't bring a sense of weight to any of it. There's one scene in which a random military dude just shoots a pterodactyl out of the sky and chuckles. The scene doesn't have any real point (we never really focus on that guy again), it's just a thing that happens. The film's worst scene is the elaborately choreographed death of an innocent character – it's directed as if it's being played for giggles, but because the character is one of the few humans we don't hate, the whole thing just seems needlessly cruel.

You may have gathered by this point that I'm not really a fan of this movie. That's true, but I must confess that it also contains some pretty cool stuff. When I heard that Colin Trevorrow (whose only other feature is the charming indie flick Safety Not Guaranteed), I assumed that the character stuff would probably be good and the big set pieces would probably be blandly functional. Surprisingly, it's the other way around: the characters are terrible, but most of the action scenes are a blast. When Jurassic World jumps into monster movie mode, it's a lot of fun. Sure, there's nothing particularly original (one of the early action scenes is a partial reworking of a sequence from Patriot Games, and the climax feels cobbled together from a number of Godzilla movies - the director has cited Unforgiven, but, uh, no), but it's all exciting, coherent and bombastically entertaining.

Still, the movie is largely an exercise in dumb plotting, self-loathing and cheap nostalgia. It tries awfully hard to conjure memories of Spielberg's first Jurassic Park – not a great film, but certainly an enjoyable movie with its share of wonderful moments. There was genuine wonder in that now-iconic scene where we saw the brontosaurus and heard a rich, full performance of that majestic John Williams theme. That theme makes another grand appearance in Jurassic World, but this time it's accompanying an underwhelming view of a large corporate building surrounded by trees, tourists and a Starbucks. Jurassic Park earned its wondrous theme. This one uses it in a futile effort to inject dull blockbuster imagery with a sense of wonder.

Jurassic World

Rating: ★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 124 minutes
Release Year: 2015