I'll admit it, I have a soft spot for the Jurassic Park series. While the 1993 original is rightly revered not only for the special-effects revolution it helped usher in but also for just being a darn good film, the two follow-ups, from 1997 and 2001, respectively, aren't thought of quite so fondly. And sure, while that first flick is understandably a tough act to follow, I do think the sequels are just fine for what they are. Heck, the iconic strains of John Williams' "Jurassic Park Theme" are enough to get my pulse racing. So that should give you a sense of what my mindset was going into Jurassic World, the fourth film in the Universal series -- and the first in nearly a decade and a half.
Directed by franchise newcomer Colin Trevorrow from a script by Trevorrow, Derek Connolly, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver (all under the watchful eye of executive producer Steven Spielberg), this latest Jurassic adventure sees the abandoned amusement park of movie one open to the public and thriving. Now called Jurassic World, the park boasts an impressive menagerie of previously extinct creatures that throngs of customers regularly make the trip to Isla Nublar off the coast of Costa Rica to see. In fact, the existence of dinosaurs has started to seem kind of ordinary, so the research firm InGen, which brought them back to life in the first place, has designs on even bigger, badder beasties to draw in more customers.
Enter the Indominus rex, a Frankenstein's monster of a dino that Jurassic World's lab technicians cooked up by splicing a few wayward DNA strands together, containing a genetic stew of the most terrifying characteristics of history's greatest predators. While the initial plan is to wow audiences with this new custom-made creature (Verizon Wireless even signs on to sponsor it), this is the Jurassic series, after all, where no one learns any lessons about meddling in those "things man wasn't meant to do." Before long, the Indominus is on the loose and out for blood, and the only one who can stop him is Hollywood's new action hero du jour, Chris Pratt, as animal trainer Owen Grady.
OK, so before we talk about what works, let's talk about what doesn't: the characters. When we look back at the original Jurassic Park this many years later, it's easy to say that the dinos are the reason it's remembered so fondly. But that's only part of it. The characters were so well constructed that they felt like real people, with real foibles. Sure, Sam Neill's Alan Grant was a renowned paleontologist, but he had no frame of reference for dealing with actual dinosaurs, which made the danger feel real. Plus, he had an active disdain for children, which gave him something internal to overcome when placed in the father-figure role for the two children he was tasked with protecting.
Pratt's Owen is sort of like the Rock in San Andreas two weeks ago: We start out seeing what a bad-ass he is, and we end never once having questioned that. Owen is the guy who knows the best way to handle velociraptors. Owen is the guy who warns Jurassic World exec Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) what a bad idea it is to genetically engineer a brand-new dinosaur. Luckily for the filmmakers, we're naturally inclined to like Owen because we already like Pratt, but unlike last year's Guardians of the Galaxy, which gave the actor a flawed, funny hero with a real arc, there's really not much on the page to really justify our investment in him here.
Still, at least Pratt gets to look bad-ass while riding a motorcycle alongside a herd of trained raptors. Compare that to poor Bryce Howard. Our first intro to Claire is as a workaholic so invested in her career that she doesn't even have time for her visiting nephews (Nick Robinson, Ty Simpkins). Unlike Jurassic Park's Ellie Sattler (played by Laura Dern), who commanded her fair share of the action, Claire's entire journey here is about learning to shut up and do what Owen says. A little over a month ago Avengers director Joss Whedon took some grief for criticizing as sexist an early clip that Universal had released. While the thought was that maybe his comments were unfair given the lack of context, having seen the finished product, they do seem pretty on-point.
The two nephews, by the way, feel a bit shoehorned into the thing as well, as if they were included in the story because "Must include children" is scrawled on some list of essential ingredients for this franchise. They wander in and out of harm's way so often that you start to wonder if there's anyone actually on duty in the park to keep an eye out for stuff like this.
OK, so that's what didn't work for me. What did work, then, was just about everything else. In addition to Pratt and Howard, we have an eclectic assortment of familiar faces populating the cast, including Vincent D'Onofrio as your token evil corporate guy, Irrfan Khan as the eccentric owner of the park, and B.D. Wong as scientist Henry Wu, the only character to return from the original.
Beyond the cast, of course there's the dinosaurs themselves. Yes, the Indominus might as well have been called the "McGuffinosaurus" for all the ways new and terrifying abilities are dreamed up for it to bedevil its human pursuers (it can mask its thermal signature, completely camouflage itself, communicate with other dinos; I'm probably missing a few other abilities as well). Nonetheless, there's no denying that the thing is legitimately scary. And the way its escape serves as merely the first in a series of ever-escalating dinosaur danger dominoes is very well played. Further, the effects work used to bring the various monsters to life is exactly as impressive as you'd expect from an entry in this franchise.
By film's end, there are enough story avenues opened up that I'm curious to see where they take things next. After this many years out of the limelight, the understandable question many probably had was whether this property was worth excavating or maybe better-off buried. In 1993, Jurassic Park was a seminal moment, a once-in-a-lifetime movie event. Twenty-two years later, Jurassic World isn't that, but I knew going in that that was a bar it would never meet. However, like the previous Jurassic sequels, this latest entry is a precision piece of blockbuster filmmaking all the same. It effectively turns the lights back on for the mothballed franchise while also setting a sturdy foundation for any future such expeditions. B
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