Director: Colin Trevorrow
Starring: Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard
So here we go then, one of the swathe of massive movie resurrection pictures hitting our screens in the next few years. And in before The Force Awakens, in before Ghostbusters III, we have this – the very definition of a franchise “de-extinction.” Which is interesting, of course, because the Jurassic Park films have always questioned if science should do things just because it can, and whether some fossils really ought to be left in the ground.
Trevorrow’s Jurassic World is a ‘soft’ reboot of the franchise: its world-building remains playfully respectful of Spielberg’s influential 1993 original and largely ignores the two underwhelming sequels. The film also chooses to anticipate and grapple head-on with the questions of how a 90s cinema classic will fare in the post-3D, post-Imax, CGI for breakfast cinemascape of 2015. “Twenty years ago, de-extinction was up there with magic” notes Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard), the steely operations manager of Isla Nublar now a well-established theme resort which has managed to recover, expand and prosper since the unfortunate dino-rampage incidents of the original movie. But since then, the magic has mutated into the mundane, Claire continues: “now kids look at a stegosaurus like it’s an elephant at the zoo.” Plotwise, this is the rationale for the creation of Indominus Rex, a T-Rex spliced with DNA from various other creatures (Frankenstein’s shopping list is gradually revealed throughout the action as more of I-Rex’s capabilities come to light) who has been designed to be bigger, cooler, have “more teeth” and to wow the jaded smartphone generation. Clearly, this also raises a flag of cinematic intention for Jurassic World.
The creation of such a beast as I-Rex is problematic on so many levels, not mention the fact that it’s just downright, dumb, reckless idea. But as a new powered up dino rampage ensues (come on guys, that’s hardly a spoiler, what else did you expect to happen, this is a Jurassic Park film after all) viewers get to enough enjoyably tense action sequences to make us glad of that stupidity. My reaction to the ‘birth’ of I-Rex encapsulates my feelings on the film as a whole fairly neatly: there are some troubling issues, and it’s not something we really needed, but since it’s here I’m happy enough to enjoy the ride. And there is plenty to enjoy here although the plot’s own lesson that bigger isn’t always better is one that remains perhaps more pertinent than the producers would have hoped.
There were many moments in Jurassic World that reminded me of last year’s Godzilla (also from Legendary Pictures, who seem to be going all out on the creature features since the cult / slowburn success of Pacific Rim). We could easily have expected the film to start dramatically with some kind of dazzling dino display, like the impressive mosasaur show we glimpsed in the trailer. Instead, just as Gareth Edwards does in his recent treatment of the Kaiju King, Trevorrow makes his audience wait. Jurassic World begins by establishing continuity with the original film through introducing the two kid characters who are destined to
scream and scream get rather more close and personal with the dinosaurs than anticipated. Here it’s enthusiastic Gray (Ty Simpkin), a walking dino-encyclopedia, and his older brother Zach (Nick Robinson) who (rather one-dimensionally) would rather be flirting with girls than packing for Isla Nublar. My tolerance for precocious child actors is notoriously low but Simpkin deserves credit (as he also did in Iron Man 3) for managing to play cute, hyperactive and vulnerable without engaging my gag reflex. That’s quite a feat.
Most of the human characters in Jurassic World are fairly one dimensional. Chris Pratt’s character is Owen, the “dino-whisperer”: an ex-navy man now working to try to train the raptors and at the same time butting horns with his employer in resistance to a laughably vague and undeveloped subplot about the potential of dinosaurs for weaponisation. Pratt is charismatic (though never quite as much here as when he’s Star Lord) and immensely likable, but his character, a hunk of stubbly badassery, is exactly the same at the end of the film as he is at the start. This probably shows Pratt has excellent credentials to play a rebooted Indiana Jones – since the whip-cracking archaeologist is the cinematic character who most epitomises this kind of static personality – but since Pratt is almost Indy here already, it also made me question whether we really need to see any more of the same.
The only human who gets anything approaching a character arc is Bryce Dallas Howard as Claire, who moves from corporate to courageous as the action intensifies. I can see how her characterisation could be considered sexist: she spends the whole film (including the action sequences) in ridiculous high heels and visually signifies her transition from boardroom to jungle survivor by gradually revealing more cleavage. Claire is mentally tough, however, and her story does build to a satisfying crescendo. I suppose it’s also good to see that a woman was managing the company in the first place and I’ll admit I cheered a little when she corrected her rather insipid sister’s “when you have kids…” with a firm ”if.“‘ But even so, the film certainly felt like a bit of a dinosaur in terms of its gender depictions which was a shame, but not something that completely marred my experience as I wasn’t there for the humans anyway.
Jurassic World establishes a winning relationship with its own lineage, providing enough references to the original film to reward the avids – from continuity sight gags to a sequence that actually takes place within the now derelict confines of the original park enclosures. But it also manages to re-establish itself as a twenty-first century franchise. The film’s focus on ”asset management” – monetising the dinosaurs – feels like a very contemporary critique, one that it simultaneously condemns and peddles. Product placement also abounds. The resort shots are punctuated by high profile logos: Starbucks, Samsung, Pandora. Their presence contributes to the unpleasant atmosphere of corporate exploitation that Chris Pratt’s character particularly exists to critique, yet on the other hand these are also examples of prime product placement, advertising to us, the viewers, for which I’m sure the corporations paid handsomely. Owen repeatedly reminds us that the beasties are not numbers on a spreadsheet or products to be sold, but living, breathing, idiosyncratic creatures that demand respect. The action pushes us to agree with him while all the time reminding us that we are consumers of the film, and paying for our couple of hours of dino fix.
And of course, the dinosaurs are the real stars. I enjoyed the early world building scenes, which show the attractions of a fully-functioning Jurassic World resort, such as the much-hyped mosasaur sea-show (which does indeed deliver) and – hallelujah – a dino petting zoo! Zach dismisses this particular attraction as “just for little kids” but honestly, if I were at the resort I think I’d be happy enough just hanging out there stroking the “gentle giants.” That would be magic enough for me; so perhaps we don’t all just crave “more teeth” after all. Indeed one thing I noticed was that although technology has improved vastly since 1993, mosasaurs aside, it generally wasn’t the big sweeping, CGI shots that really stirred me but rather the closer range dino encounters, which were mostly achieved with animatronics. You know how horror films are much scarier when you don’t see the monster? I felt the same about Indominus Rex: a glimpse of teeth, tail or oversized footprint, leaves rustling, blood dripping down, these were much more effective and engrossing elements than actually seeing the full majesty of the beast. Trevorrow seems to understand this, and for most of the film ratchets up the tension by reigning in the I-Rex encounters. Despite me not caring greatly about any of the characters, the tense scenes were done in such a way that I was still on the edge of my seat for them, willing their survival.
Is it unintended irony or deliberate intention that a film which signposts so stringently the consumer urge for ‘bigger, better, more high-tech’ is more successful in its old-fashioned jump scares than its CGI vistas? The big set-pieces were well-composed and enjoyable enough for sure but they never wowed me or set my adrenalin pumping the way I remember the original Jurassic Park doing, or the way that some other movies I’ve seen this year have done. But maybe that’s the key. Maybe Claire is right and we consumers have grown accustomed to too many technological marvels (perhaps a capital M would be more appropriate for that word?) But what if the answer to that conundrum is not more technology, but less? I’ve seen quite a few really enjoyable films this year but when it comes to excitement and adrenalin, only one was off the scale compared to everything else I’ve seen, and – tellingly – that was the one that used far more physical stunts and real action, and less CGI than we’ve grown accustomed to. I’m talking of course about the outstanding Mad Max: Fury Road.
At the end of the day, dinosaurs are dinosaurs. There’s a reason why almost every kid goes through a hardcore dinosaur obsession phase (I know I did). Much as I love my Godzillas and other fictional giant monsters, dinosaurs have an additional appeal and sense of connection from being rooted in fact, and for that reason I think many of us will always be willing to welcome them to our screens. Indominus Rex may be intended as the main attraction this time around, but what ever goes according to plan in Jurassic Park? I loved the build-up, chase and survival scenes, but when I-Rex finally looms large for the final showdown (which was also highly reminiscent of Edwards’ Godzilla) I was underwhelmed. The leading ladies here are the absolutely velociraptors. These too are imagined in a form that is almost as much a fiction as the hybridised I-Rex. Yet the raptors captivate not because of their epic scale but for the opposite reason; they are smaller, and often portrayed via animatronics and motion capture rather than just CGI, and it is with these creatures that the film establishes the greatest sense of connection. The whole premise of Owen as a ‘dino-whisperer’ type is faintly ridiculous, yet his scenes with them are hugely engaging. The raptors are given names, choices, even a perceptible character arc, and though their scenes are mostly close up they wowed me more than the inevitable building-busting I-Rex showdown. Perhaps what would truly capture punters’ interest, then, isn’t more teeth but more connection. More touch. Though, as we see, the velociraptors are hardly lacking in the teeth department either.
Pre-release, I’ll admit I hadn’t been overly enthusiastic in my anticipation of Jurassic World. I certainly wanted to see it but there was no real sense of urgency I only attended on opening night because one of my friends is a raging Chris Pratt obsessive and needed a cinema-buddy. So it’s revealing that I hadn’t realised how good it feels to have this franchise back until I was settled in my seat and saw that familiar logo and heard that stirring theme (the original iconic tune has been nicely appropriated into a new score by Michael Giacchino). Maybe it’s impossible now to re-capture the power of the original film but this is certainly – finally – a decent enough sequel and I’m happy enough to let it stomp Jurassic Park 2 and especially the awful 3 right out of memory. Jurassic World is certainly not without its problems but it’s worth seeing as a solid popcorn flick that offers a good dose escapism in more ways than one. Go for the I-Rex, but stay for the raptors.