Early on in Jurassic World, Bryce Dallas Howard’s character explains that it’s been 20 years since scientists were first able to recreate dinosaurs from the remnants of fossilized DNA. Audiences have since gotten bored with the parlor trick, she says, and to keep theme park tickets selling, her team needs to amp things up: bigger, louder, “more teeth.”
Of course, the same thing could be said for the state of the movie industry and the massive, global corporate interests that dictate the films we get every year. That self-referential nod is no accident, and it’s just one of several threads of commentary that run through writer-director Colin Trevorrow’s new film. Fourteen years after Jurassic Park III thankfully faded into the mists of memory, the director of the indie hit Safety Not Guaranteed is attempting to bring the franchise back to life with a movie that reaches for the best of Steven Spielberg’s original while refusing to dumb itself down.
The craziest thing is that it practically works.
One of Jurassic World’s smartest decisions is omission, and it makes it right at the top: the movie all but retcons Jurassic Park II and III out of existence. Instead, the island that served as the setting for the original film has become home to a massive island-wide resort known as Jurassic World. It’s a luxury destination and theme park, overseen by the uptight Claire (Howard), who’s juggling visits from the park’s billionaire benefactor (Irrfan Khan) and her two nephews (Nick Robinson and Ty Simpkins) — who in true Spielberg movie fashion, have been shipped off while their parents deal with divorce proceedings.
The park is getting ready to unveil its latest attraction: a custom-built, genetic hybrid dinosaur known as the Indominus rex. Somehow an entire park full of scientists and geneticists haven’t realized that the Indominus is smarter and more savage than any of their other beasts (it’s one of many head-scratchers), so Claire pulls in an animal expert named Owen (Chris Pratt) to help her out. Owen’s a dinosaur whisperer, spending most of his time training velociraptors to act on his command, but when he sees the Indominus, he knows instantly that if the creature ever gets loose things will go very, very wrong.
Then the creature gets loose.
Before you complain about spoilers, you should know that I’m leaving out two entire storylines in that set-up. Biting off more than it can chew is the biggest problem with Jurassic World, particularly during its first half. The project was in development for over a decade, and while Trevorrow and his writing partner Derek Connolly have certainly put their stamp on things, at times you almost hear the ghostly screams of previous iterations. It’s most noticeable with Claire’s two nephews, who never feel credible — Simpkins’ character ricochets from crying over his parents’ divorce to childlike wonder on a per-scene basis — and end up serving little function beyond some convenient stakes-upping and giving the movie the opportunity to show off different sections of the park.
The movie’s real focus is on Claire and Owen, who also have some issues in the chemistry department — particularly in their first scene together, a sequence that invoked Joss Whedon’s online ire when it was released as a sneak peek. It’s an awkward and uncomfortable scene built upon some outdated gender archetypes; Pratt projecting would-be machismo without his usual wink, and Howard committing to Claire’s OCD stuffiness to such a degree that she’s almost robotic. From there, the film starts walking down a very uncomfortable path, complete with rote jokes about wearing high heels in the jungle, but as the action picks up, both characters thaw. By the time Claire becomes a formidable hero of her own, it becomes apparent that Trevorrow is tweaking the stereotypes he put into place, subverting them in the same way the film’s theme of corporate excess goes after the hand that funded it.
Jurassic World is a self-aware blockbuster, the latest in a growing trend that includes films like The Lego Movie and The Avengers, and it’s a welcome change — except for when it gets in its own way. Laying out a thinly veiled critique of the blockbuster mentality is clever, but here it’s so on-point it pulls you out of the movie, detracting from the action ride that is truly at the movie’s heart. Similar issues befall the film’s characterization of Claire: the movie may be trying to set up and knock down an antiquated cinematic stereotype, but if the execution is so clunky that the audience is put off by its first impressions, there’s not much left to work with.
In that sense, Jurassic World could have benefited from being just a little less clever, because when it comes to crafting action sequences, Trevorrow is impeccable. His camerawork is confident, his staging clear, and he’s able to create a sense of foreboding and menace with the camera in a way that feels, quite simply, Spielbergian. Visual effects blend seamlessly with live-action elements in a way that filmmakers that have directed big budget films for decades aren’t able to accomplish. The second half of Jurassic World is when the film hits its stride, heralding the arrival of a filmmaker that is able to tackle the challenges of a huge movie while keeping the audience in safe, considerate hands.
That’s something that’s all too rare in and of itself, and cause for celebration despite Jurassic World’s faults. And admittedly, equally important is the context of the criticisms. As I was discussing the film with a colleague recently, I realized we were critiquing it not in terms of The Lost World or Jurassic Park III, but only in terms of the original film. Just as Jurassic World’s plot does away with the second and third films, the new film’s quality has retconned them from memory. The only question, then, is whether or not it lives up to what some consider to be one of Steven Spielberg’s best films. It doesn’t, of course, but it’s bigger, louder, and has more teeth — and it knows how to use them.
Jurassic World opens on Friday, June 12th.