“No one’s impressed by a dinosaur any more,” says Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard), the administrator of the fully functioning theme park in Jurassic World (rated PG-13). She’s talking about the challenges of running an international tourist attraction, but the same could be said of jaded movie audiences and the knotty problem of getting us to return to the prehistoric party for a fourth time.
When Steven Spielberg brought Michael Crichton’s novel to glorious life in 1993, the cinematic combination of CGI and animatronics were just beginning to find its footing; as with James Cameron’s Terminator 2 just a couple of years earlier, he was able to show us a familiar onscreen villain with fresh graphic power. Jurassic Park was a horror movie with all-ages appeal, thanks to the sense of eye-popping wonder Spielberg packed into each frame.
But like the guests at Claire’s park, we’ve seen all that before; what else ya got? The solution in both cases is to go bigger and badder – “More teeth” is the command given to the park’s geneticists, and they deliver. If you judge Jurassic World by its ability to show you a new version of a dinosaur, writer/director Colin Trevorrow’s film is an unqualified success. If you want anything more – say, likable characters or a plausible story or anything that isn’t reduced, reused and recycled from the original – you may be profoundly disappointed.
The film is set 20 years after the genetically resuscitated beasts first ran amok (let’s pretend the middle two Jurassic films never happened), and the world appears to have conveniently forgotten just how incompatible humans and dinosaurs really are. The Jurassic World theme park is overflowing with guests of all ages, including Gray and Zach Mitchell (Ty Simpkins, Nick Robinson), Claire’s underage nephews who are there to visit their aunt and be put in harm’s way.
When the creatures inevitably bust loose, it’s kind of astonishing how unprepared the park employees are to do anything about it – but fortunately they have Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) to save the day. Owen, who wears a leather vest to prove his action-hero bonafides, has developed a rapport with four velociraptors and respects the creatures enough not to want to mess with them. No one takes Owen seriously until the genetically enhanced Indominus Rex starts gobbling up staff members and pterodactyls swarm in the skies. But Owen can take it. Owen doesn’t mind. Aw, heck, Claire, give Owen a hug already, willya?
Director Trevorrow came to Jurassic World with exactly one feature film on his resume – the low-budget indie Safety Not Guaranteed (2012), a defiant non-blockbuster that told a time-travel story with offbeat wit instead of CGI trickery. I have no idea what possessed anyone to give him this for his next job, but he’s unsuited for the “promotion” – his action scenes are flat and his dialogue is wooden. Young Zach and Gray don’t have enough personality for us to care whether they wind up as dino chow, and Owen’s character as written saps every comedic instinct Pratt would likely have brought to the role. Only Howard shows occasional flashes of life as Claire, but the script keeps pushing her back into running-and-screaming mode.
When I heard Trevorrow was at the helm, I wondered if we were in for an bit of anti-establishment guerilla filmmaking – some kind of ironic take on what it means to make bloated blockbusters through the eyes of someone inclined to do more with less. Unfortunately, the irony seems unintentional: Jurassic World doesn’t realize it’s criticizing its own existence better than any critic can. When all you can offer audiences is “more teeth,” it may be time to stop gnawing on this particular bone.