Review: Jurassic World
Jurassic World understands the core emotional beats of Jurassic Park. It knows what made that film such an enduring piece of popular culture. World endlessly calls back to Park, with references both sly and blatant. But there is little winking at the audience here. This is neither a sendup of Jurassic Park, nor an attempt to bring it more in line with the times. It’s an earnest effort to follow its footsteps. It mostly succeeds, which makes it splendid entertainment.
Jurassic World will no doubt deal with endless comparisons to Spielberg’s original film, and director and co-writer Colin Trevorrow knows this. His script is littered with references to how audience expectations have changed since 1993. At one point, Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard), an administrator at the immensely popular Jurassic World theme park, says that audiences now view dinosaurs as they would zoo animals. They need new, bigger, genetically engineered attractions to “up the wow factor”. “They’re dinosaurs, wow enough” retorts Owen (Chris Pratt), a macho raptor trainer. Well, perhaps in a world where dinosaurs have actually come back. For real moviegoers, movie dinos have had a long run on the hedonic treadmill. In 1993, Spielberg could simply show a brachiosaurus and get a standing ovation. To his credit, Trevorrow knows that’s no longer the case.
The bulk of Jurassic World is a chase film involving a new, terrifying dino called Indominus Rex. It looks more like a kaiju than anything we recognize from previous films. Its teeth are gnarled, its claws long and imposing. It can change color for camouflage like a chameleon. Its wow factor is beyond reproach.
It also ate its only sibling. You can see where this is going.
Jurassic Park set a standard for gratuitous child peril that few films have been able to match, but this film gives its all in that department. The at-risk youths here are the brothers Zach (Nick Robinson) and Gray (Ty Simpkins), Claire’s nephews who are on vacation at the park. Zach is a moody teenager, Gray a jack-of-all-knowledge tween. Gray is the more sensitive and knowing of the two; he has to tell his older brother that the reason they’ve been sent on this vacation is so their parents can finalize their divorce in private. Zach is weary of his brother’s penchant for spouting scientific facts every few words, but the film mostly avoids the wearying trope of siblings hating one another so they can get closer together. They end up surviving (come on, this isn’t a spoiler; this isn’t Game of Thrones) an absurd number of situations involving the world’s newest apex predator, a tremendous feat given that we see Indominous Rex take down several much larger, significantly stronger creatures than two adolescents.
Claire barely knows her nephews. She is all about work, see. It goes without saying that Claire, whose lack of children is depicted as a trait (sigh), will bond with her nephews as she tries to keep them alive once Indominus Rex inevitably wreaks havoc.
If I have gotten this far into the review (some 500 words by my count) without sounding enthused about the movie, that all changes with the word “havoc”.
Jurassic World takes its sweet time putting its pieces into place. Its world-building is not particularly deep, but once dino hell breaks loose, the movie reaps the rewards of its patience. The second half of the film is almost endless action. I usually find this wearying, but as a 20 minute catnap can rejuvenate you when you are weary, some basic, competent exposition can do wonders for making action scenes meaningful. It’s the difference between watching a fast car speed by and being in the car. Action is so much more interesting when we understand where everything is, where everyone is going, and what the stakes are.
Casting is also essential in a film like this. Everyone has an archetype to play, but you mask cliches with charm if you cast correctly. Chris Pratt is an immensely charismatic, likeable actor. Bryce Dallas Howard has an inherent affability that comes through even when she is forced the trudge through Ice Queen cliches in the film’s opening scenes. Ty Simpkins is very good here, selling exposition (like when he tells his brother about their parents’ divorce) with great emotional authenticity. Other, smaller roles are filled with good actors that help bring some vibrancy to the film’s edges. Irrfan Khan is a wonderful actor whose supporting roles in major Hollywood productions have still managed to show his range, from weary brutality (Slumdog Millionaire) to gentle wisdom (Life of Pi). Here, he’s the eccentric billionaire who own the park, an all-to-common trope that he, like Richard Attenborough before him, injects with ample charm. As an arrogant private military contractor, Vincent D’onofrio chews scenery as he is wont to do, and he does it well. Jake Johnson, Lauren Lapkus, Omar Sy, and BD Wong all take turns in the spotlight and make the most of them. This is not the sort of film that one thinks of as an ensemble piece, but a strong, deep cast can make even throwaway moments enjoyable.
I am a bit surprised at the tepid critical response to this film. It is eager to please but not cloying. At some point during the final act I realized that its action was no longer simply enjoyable; it was actually thrilling. For all its callbacks to Jurassic Park, the film realizes that trying to match that film’s iconic set-pieces (the confrontation with the T-Rex in the rain; the scene with the raptors in the kitchen) would be fruitless. Jurassic Park‘s action was surprisingly lean and frightening, and it has aged well as a result. Jurassic World does go bigger, with far more gunfire and, yes, explosions. But it never tilts into excess. It knows the draw here is still the dinosaurs. And the way the final showdown ends up being about the dinosaurs works magnificently, both as an homage to the original film and as a fitting final battle in its own right.
Movie dinosaurs may not be able to drop jaws in wonder anymore. But they can still, all on their own, give me chills. That’s Jurassic World knows, that the previous sequels did not. You can’t simpyl show dinosaurs and have the same effect each time, but give them something fun to do and they will shine. Give me a pack of raptors racing through the night. Give me two thirty foot carnivores locked in a battle for reptilian supremacy. Give me a swarm of pterosaurs swooping down on a mob of people running like hell, trying not to drop their margaritas. This may not be your type of movie. But I will be there. By god, I will be there.