Jurassic Park is one of my all-time favorite movies, but I also believe it’s one of the most important films in the history of cinema. It ushered in a new era of filmmaking and box office blockbusters, where anything an artist could envision could appear convincingly on the screen, while setting a standard for visual effects that is still unmatched. It was also one of my most memorable moviegoing experiences, and to an entire generation of people my age it was our Star Wars. It inspired us and filled us with wonder, while delivering a story, characters, and a universe that captured our imaginations and dominated the pop culture landscape. It also had dinosaurs. Jurassic World was seemingly inevitable, particularly in today’s nostalgia-obsessed world. Take one of the most popular franchises of all time and update it, bringing the most modern visual effects and most popular stars to the series, and the result has been the biggest box office smash of all time. It’s also a mess.
There’s an intriguing film that could have been built from the bones of Jurassic World’s ideas, but this is certainly not it. It’s been more than 20 years since the events of the first film, and John Hammond’s vision of a dinosaur theme park is now a reality. The rebranded Jurassic World, set on the same island that was abandoned all those years ago, is a thriving success, with attendance numbers growing slowly but steadily year after year. The park itself is like Sea World done by Disney on steroids, with particular focus of the negative aspects and stereotypes of those companies and their parks. Jurassic World’s main street is a line of well-known shops and restaurants (Margaritaville and Pandora Jewelry, for example), while even park buildings and exhibits have sponsors (the John Hammond visitor center sponsored by Samsung). Thousands of people cram an amphitheater to watch a Mosasaur leap from the water to devour a Great White Shark, pile up 5 deep to see a T. rex eat a goat, canoe down rivers past gentle herbivores, or wait in long lines for the latest attractions.
As we visit Jurassic World for the first time, so do teenager Zach and his younger brother Gary, sent to visit their aunt Claire who runs park operations while their parents negotiate a divorce. Claire, however, has little interest in her nephews and sends her assistant to watch after the boys while she sorts out the larger problems of Jurassic World. In an effort to boost attendance geneticists have created the Indominus rex (soon to be brought to you by Verizon Wireless), a hybrid original creation designed to be the scariest, coolest dinosaur ever, made with DNA from the T. rex as well as current species like the cuttlefish and a few surprises. And the CEO of the company, Mr. Masrani, is arriving to see the animal for himself. He requests that the park’s leading animal trainer, Owen, be brought in to observe the Indominus rex’s behavior, despite Claire and Owen’s clashing personalities. But once this new monster escapes from its enclosure, the pair will have to put aside their differences in order to save as many lives as they can, and to rescue Zach and Gary, who have gone missing.
As I said, there’s an intriguing film that could have been made from some of Jurassic World’s pieces, but this isn’t it. Just like the original, this movie deals with issues about how we relate to nature or corporate ethics with regards to scientific advancement, while adding a layer of the jaded, cynical nature of humanity in our current decade. But unlike the original, Jurassic World isn’t interested in dissecting those ideas, and is content to merely race on by them in favor of setting up the next action setpiece. There’s no time in Jurassic World for any of the scenes from Jurassic Park where scientists and visionaries sit around debating humanity playing god or even to just marvel in wonder at the power of nature, not when there’s another CG explosion to get to. None of the film’s plot serves any other purpose other than getting us to the next dinosaur attack, which would be ok (if still disappointing) if the action were exciting or surprising, but Jurassic World is one of the most predictable films I’ve seen in years. There are no real scares, no twists, just sound and fury filmed in a style so modern that it’s lost any touch of interesting cinematography or imagination. There’s a way to do non-stop action and make it compelling and emotional, but this isn’t it. What we’re left with is Jurassic Park as done by Michael Bay.
It’s a shame, too, because I’ve been intrigued by director Colin Trevorrow throughout the buildup to this film, both in how he’s handled leaks of the script and just his general attitude towards the film in interviews. But the fact is that the film we’re left with is never compelling enough to deserve the Jurassic Park connection. Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard do as good a job as possible as Owen and Claire given what they had to work with, but even they can’t save these one dimensional characters. It’s probably a bad sign that I couldn’t remember a single character’s name without looking them up, that’s how forgettable they were. Owen is a stereotypical cowboy, running on instinct and out of place in a corporate environment. Claire is more of a problem, tapping into every negative stereotype of a cold, career woman, unwilling to bend and unfeeling towards her family, all while running through the jungle in high heels. That she ultimately finds a way to cope with the situation still fits into the cliché that the right man can help a working woman loosen up, and it’s predictable as it is pathetic. (And seriously, they run past dozens of stores on Jurassic World’s main street, couldn’t she have found one with boots in it?) The film could have been made infinitely more interesting by swapping the actors’ roles, and going against stereotype for a change. It’s pretty sad that the most compelling character in the film is a Velociraptor named Blue.
I would have loved to have seen what Spielberg could have done with this kind of budget and the idea of a fully functional dinosaur theme park, but that was never a possibility. Instead we’re given mere glances at the storytelling potential behind this park only to brush it aside in favor of screaming guests or helicopter gunships. Owen spends his time building bonds with a pack of Velociraptors, using realistic animal training techniques to establish a pattern and make himself part of the pack, only so we can get to the point where he’s riding a motorcycle flanked by them on the hunt for the Indominus rex. And I promised myself I’d only devote one sentence to the fact that Vincent D’Onofrio plays the company’s head of security who wants to sell raptors to the military to use as soldiers. Jurassic World not only refuses to say anything of meaning or consequence, it in fact actively goes out of its way to set up some interesting possibilities only to dash them to pieces with the next inane action scene.
Jurassic World does have one thing going for it and that’s our nostalgia for Jurassic Park, a card it plays as often as it can. And I’d be lying if I said that it didn’t occasionally get to me. It’s hard not to get a little emotional seeing the familiar approach to the island while John Williams’ legendary score (expertly rearranged by Michael Giacchino, surely the busiest composer in Hollywood) blasts through the theater. That the film’s most emotional moments consist entirely of callbacks to another, better movie is not a mark in Jurassic World’s favor, but the filmmakers clearly intended to pull that one resonant string as often as possible. Entire lines from the first film get quoted often, some scenes are completely duplicated, while one minor character seems to exist only to point out how much cooler the “original park” was. The original visitor’s center shows up in ruins partway through the film while serving no real purpose in the film other than to say “Hey, remember Jurassic Park?” The presence of Dr. Wu, the only character from the original to reappear, serves no other purpose to the story other than to tie things back to the beginning of the franchise. And the film’s finale, which I won’t spoil despite the fact that it was widely and correctly reported and speculated upon for months based on the film’s trailers, is the biggest nostalgia burst at all and is actually mildly successful from that standpoint, in spite of being completely and utterly ridiculous, high heels and all.
Nostalgia, however, does not make for a good movie all by itself, and unfortunately that’s all that Jurassic World has going for it. The fact that the film made any emotional connection at all with me by using those connections is not a testament to Jurassic World’s success, but just a reminder at how remarkably perfect Jurassic Park truly is and what Jurassic World lacks. There’s no time in Jurassic World for emotional discussions (over melting ice cream) of important issues that give context to the destruction. There’s no time for character development or even simply characters who don’t fit into a cliché checkbox (Ian Malcolm is just too weird for a film like this). There’s not even enough time to create suspense before delivering on the action, giving us some genuine scares or taking us to the edge of our seats. How can there be when there’s more CG chaos to show? Jurassic Park was many things, but it wasn’t really an action movie, and now we can see why. After its record-smashing debut, and its box office dominance, I realize I’m probably in the minority of all this, but for now I’m content to sit back and relive the magic of the original. I believe we’re still capable of being awed, amazed, and inspired by movies, while also being challenged, enlightened, moved and engaged, regardless of whether the film is a dark drama about the real world or a gripping yarn about a dinosaur themepark. Jurassic Park hasn’t aged a day in 22 years, so I’d rather spend my time reliving a masterpiece than waste it on this reheated mess of borrowed ideas and pandering. I recommend you do the same.