Jurassic World opens on a promising, unexpected note. Decades after the dream of billionaire John Hammond to open a dinosaur theme park was dashed by some uncooperative velociraptors and a grumpy T. rex in Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, the vision has come to fruition. Dinoland has been open for business for several years now in Costa Rica, but attendance has started to wane, because once you’ve seen one triceratops, you’ve seen them all. New attractions are needed to keep the tourists coming. These days, wonder has a short shelf life.
So when Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard), the workaholic park manager obsessed with profit margins, announces to her staff at the start of the film that “No one’s impressed by a dinosaur anymore. They need to be bigger, louder and with more teeth!” you wonder if director Colin Trevorrow has dared to pull a Charlie Kaufman. Will Jurassic World be a meta-movie that doubles as a commentary on Hollywood’s obsession to keep making sequels bigger, louder and with more teeth?
Your hopes are strengthened by a subsequent scene in which one of the park employees is admonished for wearing a Jurassic Park T-shirt to work, even though he paid $150 for it on eBay, because horrible things happened at Jurassic Park, and we shouldn’t exploit tragedy with memorabilia. Cut to a petting zoo attraction in which loving families pet adorable dinosaurs as if they were goats. Add the fact you know things are going to go bad soon, and Jurassic World seems poised to break brave new ground as a subversive blockbuster about corporate greed even though it’s a third sequel which cost $180 million. That to me would be more amazing than watching two sauropods trying to sink three-pointers on a basketball court.
But forget all that. Like Hammond’s original vision, Jurassic World quickly implodes as soon as the plot kicks in. Chris Pratt shows up as a Raptor Whisperer who dresses as if he were planning to walk over to the Indiana Jones reboot next door as soon as filming is over for the day and collect his next paycheck. He plays an ex-military free spirit, a man’s man who doesn’t believe in deodorant, and his romantic quips with Howard are so astonishingly bad (“You wanna consult here …” he asks her flirtatiously, “or in my bungalow?”) I kept waiting for the laugh track to kick in, or at least the Love, American Style opening credits to flash on the screen.
Nick Robinson and Ty Simpkins play brothers who fill the requisite kids-in-peril duty, while BD Wong (who also appeared in Jurassic Park) returns as the secretive geneticist who has followed his boss’ orders and engineered a new kind of dinosaur: a blend of T. rex and … something (dun dun dun!).
Even though practically all the adult characters onscreen are supposed to be borderline geniuses — or at least have basic zoo keeping skills — the park’s new attraction, named Indominus rex (which sounds suspiciously like a rejected moniker from Mad Max: Fury Road), gets loose, which leads to further accidents and more critters running amok in the packed park. Things get so crazy, Claire’s modified bob gets messed up, and she even tears her skirt. Also, the companies that paid for product placement in the film — Starbucks, Samsung, Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville restaurant chain — each gets a shot of a dinosaur wrecking their establishment.
Curiously, though, the body count remains low. Considering the great potential for mass deaths and maimings — imagine a pack of prehistoric carnivores eating their way through the Magic Kingdom — only a few people die, almost all of them villains (or characters who are at least a little shady). How could a movie with such a fun premise turn out this dull? You’ve already seen the best shot in the film — that mosasaur jumping out of the water to eat a shark in front of an adoring crowd — and although the special effects are impressive, there’s no sense of awe or discovery to any of them, because we can now play video games that look as good as this movie, and Trevorrow doesn’t have much visual imagination (his previous film, the tiny sci-fi charmer Safety Not Guaranteed, seems like an odd calling card for such a large follow-up). There is exactly one clever image in the entire movie: a close-up of a claw thudding down on the ground with a loud whomp, until the camera pulls back to reveal it belongs to a pigeon.
The rest of the film is just generic Industrial Light & Magic spectacle. Jurassic World was written by some smart people (Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver are working on the next two Avatar pictures for James Cameron, and Derek Connolly co-wrote Safety Not Guaranteed with Trevorrow). Occasionally they pull off a clever exchange: In a small part as a park employee, Lauren Lapkus almost steals the movie outright with one funny, throwaway line, the only time I can remember laughing intentionally, instead of at the film.
But much of the dialogue in Jurassic World consists of tripe such as “I was with the Navy, not the Navajo!” or “You’ll last two minutes in there! Less with those ridiculous shoes!” Vincent D’Onofrio fares worst of all as the military industrialist who wants to weaponize velociraptors: The movie devotes at least 10 minutes to him laying out his nefarious scheme, even though the subplot is so obvious, he could have mimed his character and we would have gleaned all we needed to know.
I’ve read some critics defending Jurassic World as being an example of Hollywood simply giving people what they want: Nonstop dino carnage done with the best special effects money can buy. What’s not to like, right? But why couldn’t it be a better movie? No one expects deep characterizations or Meryl Streep to show up in the cast of a Jurassic Park movie (although how cool would that be if she did?) but at least in the first film, Spielberg put on such a jaw-dropping spectacle of showmanship, he fired up your love of pure moviemaking with that initial T. rex attack alone. Jurassic World gives you exactly what Howard’s character promises at the beginning — More! Bigger! Faster! — but you know there’s something deeply wrong with a film that expects you to shed tears over digitally created prehistoric creatures and rubber brontosaurus heads instead of rooting for, you know, people.
Cast: Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Vincent D’Onofrio, Ty Simpkins, Nick Robinson, Jake Johnson, Omar Sy, BD Wong, Judy Greer, Irrfan Khan.
Director: Colin Trevorrow.
Screenwriters: Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Derek Connolly, Colin Trevorrow.
A Universal Pictures release. Running time: 124 minutes. Brief vulgar language, scary dinosaur attacks, gore. Playing at area theaters.