Making the original Jurassic Park in the early ’90s, Steven Spielberg told the visual effects superband he’d assembled — Stan Winston for full-scale puppet dinosaurs; Phil Tippett for miniatures; Dennis Muren and Michael Lantieri for the photorealistic computer animation — that their film would depict even its most predatory dinos as animals, not monsters.
In Jurassic World, that distinction is long extinct. Jurassic Park’s second-best sequel is set 22 years after Velociraptor challenged Tyrannosaur in the biggest movie of 1993. The Central American island dino-zoo that onetime flea-circus operator John Hammond spent his fortune to build has been open long enough for attendance to start to sag. That’s why this long-gestating fourth chapter boasts a bigger, craftier, never-was-found-in-nature dinosaur, its features shaped not by evolution but by user-experience surveys. “Customers want bigger, louder, more teeth” says Claire, the movie’s brittle, shamed-for-her-childlessness Career Woman. Too focused on the next rung to recall the ages of her visiting nephews — yeah, sorry, the requisite crying little kids are in this movie, too — she’s the series’ latest reluctant foster parent, and the latest thankless role on the resume of one Bryce Dallas Howard.
But just as Dr. Wu — B.D. Wong’s dino-cooking geneticist, the only human who reappears from the original film — has cross-bred various species to make his “Indominus Rex,” Jurassic World liberally stirs in DNA from other blockbuster franchises: Suddenly there are threads from the Alien pictures (amoral corporation wants to sell ungovernable beasts as weapons) and Terminator pictures (obsolete killing machine from films past rebooted to guard puny humans from its more advanced successor). There’s a Pteranodon attack straight out of The Birds, a movie that was 30 years old when Jurassic Park was new. And then there’s Chris Pratt’s unflappable beefcake hero — an archetype every prior entry in this series has managed to do without. Forget the Ph.D-having Sams Neill and Jeffs Goldblum of the Jurassic, um, period; this guy is all about keeping up with the Joneses. Well, maybe not Crystal Skull.
(Full, potentially discrediting disclosure: I enjoyed Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull to exactly the same degree I enjoyed Jurassic World.)
Remember what a nice boy Pratt was when he used to be on TV? His transformation into a bulging, grimacing action figure is now tragically complete. As Owen, Jurassic World’s resident Velociraptor Whisperer — seriously, they obey his commands — he carries a lever-action rifle, a firearm choice that pegs him as Hunter rather than Soldier, just to distinguish him from those machine-gunning redshirts from “Asset Containment” who haven’t seen enough movies to respect the creatures they’re dispatched to take down. Owen speaks little, jokes less, wears tighter clothes (leather field vest, sweaty henley) than anyone in the movie, and he’s never, ever wrong.
Boooooooo to all that. Guardians of the Galaxy let Pratt be a swashbuckler without burying his lovable-goofball side. You know something is wrong with your summer popcorn movie when your leading man smiles less than he did in Zero Dark Thirty. (Pratt was one of the SEALs who raided Osama Bin Laden’s secret above-ground lair at the end.)
In fact, Jurassic World ascribes Owen’s Very Peculiar Set of Skills to the fact he’s a former “Navy man,” which is kind of like shrugging off the Coneheads’ weirdness on the grounds that they’re “from France.” Maybe he trained dolphins to look for sea mines or something? When Claire goes looking for him after hours, she finds him tinkering with a motorcycle. What did you think this guy does when he’s not on the clock? Read? Pilates? Man-scape that immaculate chin-scruff of his? Wrong, wrong, wrong.
But back to Claire. A far cry from the calm, capable science-women Laura Dern and Julianne Moore played, she’s supposed to be Jurassic World’s Director of Operations but she walks, talks, and dresses more like a Vice President of Marketing type. This spreadsheet-keeping, itinerary-revising LinkedIn user needs her sister, the utterly wasted Judy Greer, to tell her she’ll be happier once she’s spawned, but It Takes a Dude — her boss, in fact — to tell her it’s not all about money, it’s about putting smiles on people’s faces. (The screenwriters don’t even let Claire say, Gosh, sorry for keeping the lights on at your scandal-plagued, human-buffet family fun park, Boss!) She also needs Pratt to advise her that high heels are not suitable for jungle adventuring, and to save her shrieking bacon, again and again and again. When the movie finally comes around to letting poor Claire pick up a rifle and bag a winged dino that’s taking its sweet time pecking Owen’s head off, it practically rolls over and asks us to rub its scaly belly.
Spielberg, perhaps dismayed by the indignities of the Jaws films that followed his industry-reorienting classic, agreed to direct Jurassic Park‘s first sequel, 1997’s The Lost World, himself. His stand-in here is Colin Trevorrow, who’s made just one prior feature, the quirky time-travel-romance-comedy Safety Not Guaranteed. Trevorrow proves capable of steering a literally 240-times-as-expensive ship, and he apes Spielberg at least as well as seasoned company man Joe Johnston did in the forgettable Jurassic Park III. There’s a nice update of the original movie’s nocturnal T-Rex attack involving a GyroSphere — a sort of armored-Pope-glass hamster ball. And the grand-finale dino-fight, plus a chase wherein Owen rides his motorcycle flanked by his squad of headset-wearing velociraptors, is certainly worth $13 if you’re as 13 years old as I am.
Not much of Trevorrow’s own sensibility has survived the upscaling process, though. A little of it comes through in Jake Johnson’s funny scenes as, um, Glasses-Wearing Control Room Guy. Claire reprimands him for showing up to work in a T-shirt from the original Jurassic Park — a morbid collector’s item, on account of the tragedy. “I got it on eBay,” he says.
About that: Remember the original film’s interlude in the gift shop, when the camera panned across shelves of officially licensed merch, all of it available for real-world purchase? More than any blockbuster since, Jurassic World is best appreciated as a metaphor for big-tent, thrill-ride moviemaking that now more than ever seems in danger of swallowing up every other kind. Going meta is the only move it’s got left, really. Consider the other four movies that rounded out 1993’s box office Top Five: Mrs. Doubtfire. The Fugitive. The Firm. Sleepless in Seattle. In that long-ago, far-away galaxy, thrill-machines like the ones that made Spielberg rich and beloved were still seasonal specialties. Now we get 25 of these per year, from February to December, and Mad Max sequels are progressive while Jurassic Park has gone retrograde.
That last bit’s the unkindest raptor-bite of all. For all Jurassic World’s warnings about tinkering with nature, its least persuasive feat of chemistry is its attempt to sell us the Beatrice-and-Benedick-style bickering foreplay between Owen and Claire. We never for one second buy that these two have a sexual attraction strong enough to overpower their mutual loathing for longer than a weekend. Then again, opening weekend is all that matters. As some guy said a long time ago in some dinosaur movie, nature finds a way.