June 21, 2015

Jurassic World (2015)

22 years after the original Jurassic Park disaster, InGen has successfully forged ahead with a new theme park on Isla Nublar. Unlike its predecessor, Jurassic World has been a phenomenal success. It has been so successful, in fact, that park visitors now take dinosaurs for granted. They're more likely to read social media on their smartphones than marvel at a Tyrannosaurus Rex right in front of them.

That's the first of several genuinely clever ideas in Jurassic World, the much-delayed fourth film in Universal Picture's action-thriller franchise. It's clever because it's believable, but it's also clever because it mirrors the film-going audience. Jurassic Park was a jaw-dropping visual marvel. Jurassic World is just another action flick with dinosaurs. Like the park visitors in the film, as movie-goers we now pretty much take visual effects for granted. Showing us some dinosaurs rampaging through a Central American jungle probably doesn't cut it any more.

Spinning the plot out from park visitors being unengaged is a cool concept, but it's also a double-edged sword since showing us some dinosaurs rampaging through a Central American jungle is by-and-large all that Jurassic World does. Anticipation for this much-delayed sequel may have been high, but the film itself is just a standard sort of sequel. There are some great scenes, and some good actors, but all in all it's just a weaker copy of an earlier and superior film.

So what works? Certainly the casting of Chris Pratt as Owen Grady, an ex-navy animal trainer who has managed to form a relationship with four velociraptors. He had already demonstrated a gift for comedy in Parks and Recreation and comedy with action in Guardians of the Galaxy. Here he's pretty much playing a straight-up action hero, and does an outstanding job with it. Rumours persist that Disney and Lucasfilm are pursuing him to play Indiana Jones. Based on his work here I really hope they are, and I really hope he says yes.

I absolutely adored every scene that involved Owen and any of his four trained velociraptors. It almost felt like a bit of plotting in the vein of Terminator 2: James Cameron knew when making that film that the audience would be rooting for Arnold Schwarzenegger, so he simply reframed his character as a hero. A similar thing goes on here, and I have to say that Chris Pratt aside my four favourite characters in the film were carnivorous reptiles named Blue, Charlie, Delta and Echo.

Velociraptors being able to be trained by human handlers is another one of the film's great ideas, because it feels broadly in line with what we've seen of the animals in earlier Jurassic films and pushes those concepts along a little further. The subsequent idea - that US military contractors would want to exploit the velociraptors as ground troops in urban warfare - doesn't work nearly as well. One of the reasons Jurassic World took so long to eventuate is because about a decade was spent trying to make a screenplay work that was completely based around using the velociraptors in the military, and it rather feels like the plotline was included here to justify spending ten years doggedly developing a bad idea in the first place.

Of course the bulk of the film focuses upon Indominus Rex, a specially-engineered hybrid dinosaur designed to be the park's new attraction. It escapes - no surprises there - and the rest of the film follows its rampage through the park, the growing chaos and the fruitless attempts to track it down and kill it.

That process has no small number of well-executed action sequences, and it's here where director Colin Trevorrow broadly excels. He has a good visual eye and a strong sense of timing, and if all you are after with Jurassic World is a bunch of scenes of dinosaurs attacking people you'll likely have a great time. Beyond that the film gets a little problematic and annoying: there are not only a bunch of problems, there are a bunch of easily corrected problems.

First of all, the Indominus Rex simply isn't that interesting. Jurassic Park III already tried to up the stakes with the spinosaurus, which was partially successful, and simply making the dinosaur bigger and spikier doesn't necessarily make it more dramatic or interesting. Its creation and complicated genetic mix is fairly difficult to swallow as well, even by Jurassic Park's own loose standards of scientific accuracy. (That said, I loved the way one line in the middle of the movie successfully hand-waved away any inaccuracies in the depiction of the park's animals - including their lack of feathers.)

Secondly there's Claire Dearing, the park's manager, played by Bryce Dallas Howard. The character is well performed, and within the context of the film reasonably well written. The problem comes when the film is viewed as part of a broader context: in terms of character Claire seems 30 years out of date. She's an awkward woman pushing a hard professional exterior, but represented as sexually frigid when sharing scenes with Pratt's Owen - and in desperate need of "warming up". Her two nephews arrive at the beginning of the film (Gray, played by Iron Man 3's Ty Simpkins, is likeable and believable; Zach, played by Nick Robinson, is actively unlikeable), and Claire is presented as incompetent and embarrassed around children, and insufficient as a woman due to not having children herself. A deliberate point is made that she spends the entire story in stiletto heels, including outrunning a Tyrannosaurus Rex. I actively wanted to like her character, and it was as if the filmmakers actively wanted to prevent that from happening.

The film makes numerous references to the original Jurassic Park, and that presents a problem. On the one hand it reminds us of a much-loved older film, and reassures us that we're watching something in the same franchise. At the same time, every hat-tip to Spielberg's original drives home the inescapable fact that Spielberg did it so much better. It's a perverse act of self-sabotage, making it progressively harder to make the new film feel fresh and interesting.

Finally, the film's narrative structure feels all over the place. The tension ramps up for a few scenes, and then drops completely for five minutes, before suddenly ramping up again. The thousands of tourists visiting the island feel as if they should be a key part of the plot, but one pteranodon attack aside seem to be completely forgotten as soon as possible. The film as a whole feels rather messy and episodic. Usually I'd accuse a screenplay like this of being underwritten, but in this case it feels a little overcooked: too many ideas and sequences jostling for space, so that none of them really get the attention and time they deserve.

Jurassic World is ultimately frustrating because it's a reasonably entertaining B-movie where an excellent action-thriller should be. It's fun enough, and dramatic enough, and competently put together, but in the end it's remarkably unexceptional. Nowhere close to the quality of the original film, but vastly superior to Joe Johnston's wobbly Jurassic Park III, it sits as a sort of companion to The Lost World. They're very similar films. Great casts, stand-out sequences, messy plot, and nicely enjoyable where - their ingredients examined - they should be fantastic.

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