At the end of the first JURASSIC PARK, deranged billionaire John Hammond confidently declares that the idea of a dinosaur safari land is just too dangerous and must never be returned to … but like any effort where there’s a lot of money to be made nothing’s going to stop businessmen from trying to run a good idea into the ground no matter how dangerous it might be. Some twenty-two years later then his dream has become a reality in the form of JURASSIC WORLD, the greatest family vacation destination in the world, and the newest entrant in the aging franchise.
It’s a strange combination of a return to basics that ditches much of what the previous sequels attempted in order to tie itself more closely to the one film in the series which people enjoyed, and a meta-commentary on why the series must do this despite the knowledge it must inevitably fail.
While the first film holds a special place in many people’s hearts (mine is not of them but that’s a discussion for another time) due to its thrilling set pieces and mostly believable creation of living breathing dinosaurs on screen, combining awe and adrenaline into an occasionally powerful package, and though JURASSIC WORLD is the best of sequels to date (a low bar to be sure) it can’t quite overcome its baggage to be more than adequate.
It doesn’t help that a film with the reputation (earned or not) of the original is an inherently tough act to follow, so tough that not even Spielberg managed it, leaving Universal to focus on what was successful about the first film rather than try and blaze a new trail as it returns for a fourth go round.
What it does have to offer is MORE; more, bigger dinosaurs, more men with guns, more set pieces and more eye candy as the living, breathing dinosaur theme park talked about and hinted at in the first film is brought to full reality via Ed Verreaux’s spectacular production design, from mobile underwater dino-pen to baby triceratops petting zoo for the kids. It’s populated by some of ILM’s best dinosaurs yet, which is to be expected given how many years they’ve had to build on the foundation of the first film, and they animation group has outdone itself: lead velociraptor Blue is completely understandable as a character despite only being able to communicate through head snaps and chirps, and a dying brontosaurus is imbued with genuine pathos.
It’s very much the classic sequel mold – like the original, just a little different – right down to Michael Giacchino’s score which seems to be trying to be more of a John Williams for this outing, all the better to fit into the original JURASSIC PARK theme when it makes the occasional appearance, one of a number of call backs to the original film which WORLD increasingly indulges in as it moves along, producing a vague whiff of desperation.
It’s an issue the film’s co-writer/director Colin Trevorrow is not only aware of but takes pains to point out, noting how quickly dinosaur interest fades and what was once novel and exciting is now routine, with the only solution to go over the top in consumer excess regardless of the potential dangers involved which means – as technician Jake Johnson aptly puts it – ‘eventually somebody’s going to get eaten.’ For more examples of this see every other JURASSIC PARK sequel ever made.
Of course those films did much of the same and by ignoring them WORLD has taken no lessons from what doesn’t work in the established JURASSIC PARK formula (nor would it seem to allow itself the freedom even if it did realize the traps), leaving a film that has all of the weaknesses of the first without the benefit of newness to cover them up which that film did. For some reason it has been decided that each of these films must have one or two children who tag along into incredibly dangerous situations – in this case the nephews of park executive Bryce Dallas Howard, whose job it is to keep the island from becoming passé no matter the cost.
Something like this has appeared in every film in the series to the point where they seem to be put in exactly because every other JURASSIC PARK has a had a child in danger element (or because studio executives are convinced younger audience members can only identify with characters their own age, or both) with no one stopping to think whether it works or is necessary despite often leading to the weakest moments in each of the films to date. There’s nothing quite so egregious here as Jeff Goldblum’s daughter gym-kataing a dinosaur to death (which I can never forgive in part because it cost us our chance to see Natalie Portman as Indiana Jones daughter in KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL) or the 10-year old survivalist who made it months on Dino Island without being eaten, but that doesn’t exactly make it good storytelling.
Maybe if one of the kids was eaten, to show off the true danger and terror of the place, but that can’t happen – not because the film is overly invested in the characters, they’re nowhere near well enough defined for that – but because JURASSIC WORLD is exactly what it accuses it’s cinematic self of being, a surface driven haven for consumer safety. By going down that path, however, it precludes any real character drama from ever developing, which leaves little for the film to offer except more teeth.
The problem is compounded because WORLD also has the weaknesses of most sequels, covering much of the progress versus prudence and dinosaurs wreaking havoc ground all of the films did while it keeps its fresh ideas held back for the start of the third act. Fresh idea, really, which is to pair dinosaur and man rather than keep them at odds when Claire and military hot head Hoskins prevail on animal trainer Owen Grady (Pratt) and his specially trained pack of velociraptors to fend off Indominus Rex while the civilians escape.
It actually is a really good idea and extremely well executed – the image of Owen and his pack racing off into the forest to hunt the giant super beast threatening the park is the greatest in the film and the element Trevorrow seems most interested in. Unfortunately it’s his big Act III moment, so he has to spend much of the first two-thirds wasting shoe leather until it’s time to unleash the beasts.
Pratt’s interactions with his dinosaurs are completely believable, from his terror at being trapped in a cage to his genuine concern for them when being sent into the wild, but it also plays up what little chemistry he has with the rest of the cast, particularly supposed love interest Howard. Whether they’re treking through the jungle searching for lost children or reminiscing about their disastrous first and only date the outcome is the same – a snappy, churlish put down from Howard followed by a silent, slightly bored look from Pratt.
Some of it could be that he’s been cast in a roll that does not take any advantage of the good-natured goofiness that has been at the heart of best performances, putting him instead in the seat of being the only truly competent individual on an island full of idiots. Most of the other actors are in the same boat – Irrfan Kahn is hilarious as a billionaire with entirely too much confidence in his own abilities, but D’Onofrio is absolutely wasted which does nothing but create plot complications so that the creators don’t have to come up with organic conflicts.
This is a subset of the larger problem of the story (like all the other films) not really caring about its characters enough to define them before brutalizing them. There’s a theme about the need of family running as an undercurrent through the film – the boys have been sent to the park in part to put them out of town while their parents secretly divorce, Claire is so obsessed by work she’s lost the joy and meaning of being part of an actual family, and Owen in his search for belonging has literally created his out of slavering clawed monsters. But for all that that is there, it doesn’t add much to the viewing experience except to make it very noticeable when the dinosaurs aren’t around.
There have been plenty of good films made from similar unambitious material; this just isn’t one of them. It’s not bad, it just comes from a different mold, one that was mediocre from the beginning and which JURASSIC WORLD can’t reinvent; it can only repeat.
Which may be all anyone wants out of a JURASSIC PARK sequel but which ultimately doesn’t change the fact that it can’t get out of its predecessor’s shadow. Nor is it clear that it wants to. In many ways WORLD is exactly what it warns against – an embodiment of the perils of progress. It took one of the most astute adventure directors in history working with the best visual effects company ever at the bleeding edge of their craft to make the first Jurassic Park. Now, anyone can do it.