Review Date: 06/22/2015
Rating: 2/5 Peanuts.
In a Nutshell:
Relying overmuch on nostalgia for the first film, what might have been a train wreck is saved by the climactic third act and the undeniable charisma of leading man Chris Pratt.
I can’t believe this movie broke records at the box office. In a summer when a new Avengers flick was released, and opening up a mere week before Pixar’s delightful Inside Out, 2015 has become the Jurassic Summer. In the interest of managing expectations up front, I’m just going to level with you that I’m going to have a really tough time getting through this review, because I feel like it’s a tale of two movies.
On the one hand, the very premise of the movie is ridiculous. Acknowledging that the first iteration of the fabled Jurassic Park theme park from the 1993 Spielberg outing was a tragedy where “people died,” and seemingly distancing itself from movies 2 & 3 as much as possible, the nameless corporation headed by the successor of visionary billionaire John Hammond has fully rebuilt Isla Nublar into a modern resort / theme park destination, this time called Jurassic World. Wildly successful, the park has been operating for years, continually unveiling new attractions (new species of dinosaurs) to the extent that kids now view these ancient killing machines the same way “a kid sees an elephant at the city zoo.” As a result, the park’s marketing department, headed by a Bryce Dallas Howard’s Claire Dearing, has been seeking to “up the wow factor” in pursuit of the almighty dollar. Their solution: “Verizon Wireless presents the Indominus Rex” a bioengineered hybrid dinosaur, bigger, faster, stronger, more vicious than the sum of its parts and complete with “more teeth.” What could go wrong, am I right?
The first act of the film really has some heavy lifting to do, and it feels forced more than a few times. To be fair, the writers did have their hands full, world building by explaining the new park and status quo, introducing a myriad of characters for us to be emotionally invested when the prehistoric “living weapons” are released, introducing us to a host of comically one-note characters for us to feel ok about when they inevitably meet their demise at the hands of these same living weapons, and of course, introducing us to Raptor Wrangler Chris Pratt in a scene that has launched one of the better internet memes of the summer of 2015. Ultimately, none of this really matters since the entire point of world building in a movie like this is so we can watch when it inevitably gets torn down. And man, does it ever get torn down.
The Indominus Rex, displaying a host of unforeseen biological quirks resulting from being created in a test tube as a genetic melting pot, predictably escapes. Also predictably, the corporate overlords are hesitant to put down their $36-million asset, and send a ten man squad armed with stun guns chasing after the ~50-foot killing machine. You read that right, they sent a bunch of mall cops with Tasers after Godzilla. Mixed in with the escalating panic of those in the control room is a subplot involving Howard’s nephews gone missing in the park because no matter how many faceless extras get killed we need true emotional investment in order to keep the suspense going. It’s all window dressing though, and by the time a flock of Pterodactyls begin preying on hapless tourists in a scene that vividly represents how I view trips to Disneyworld, I was pretty much checked out. They had lost me as a viewer – I simply did not care. And then the third act happened, and holy crap did that change everything.
What’s the best way to stop a giant rampaging dinosaur when you’ve got Chris Pratt, a motorcycle and a pack of kinda sorta maybe trained Velociraptors? Set them loose in the most epic late night ride through the jungle that will ever happen. When the gates opened and the four killing machines began hunting in formation with Pratt’s Owen Grady, the self-proclaimed “Alpha” of the Raptor pack, at their lead, the movie had truly turned a corner. The entire 90 minutes that preceded this moment didn’t matter anymore as all I could do was smile and nod as one of the kids noted to Howard “your boyfriend’s a badass.” It’s a meta, comedic beat few movies can pull off, and yet somehow Jurassic World did it effortlessly. The rest was blood and noise, the adrenaline payoff that can only come from watching a slow motion train wreck suddenly ignite a hidden fuel reserve and explode in epic fury.
So what does the success of a movie like this say about the state of movies in general? I’m not really sure. It definitely checks all of the boxes on the only slightly metaphorical producer’s cash-bag checklist. Sequel to a known property that can trade on nostalgia and brand recognition rather than taking risks in introducing a new property? Check. Action, blood, violence? Check, check and check. CGI wizardry – with the ability to render enough 3D scenes to release in that format, thereby charging higher ticket prices? Check. Female characters who, if not “empowered” are at least not a negative portrayal of women as mere damsels in distress? Seeing as Howard’s character Claire was willing to (literally) roll up her sleeves and throw herself into harm’s way to save her nephews (and even Pratt’s character twice) I’d have to say check here as well. Charismatic lead? Pratt’s swaggering charm, like a teddy bear with bigger biceps, absolutely carries the movie and is basically the only watchable thing on screen so I’m going to have to emphasize the Check for that one.
But I think, to close out this checklist metaphor, therein lies the problem. By deconstructing blockbusters into mere checklists, the intangibles are the things that slip through the cracks. What was so amazing about the first Jurassic Park was the overwhelming sense of wonder that Spielberg was able to convey. While expecting the same wonder on the fourth iteration of a franchise may be unrealistic (or even unfair), it also feels like the people responsible for Jurassic World didn’t even try. In place of wonder we got slick corporate packaging, all form over function. The film lacked heart, and no matter how many times Pratt was able defibrillate the movie, the EKG output remained a flat one-note tone. And this is why I’m confused and disappointed by the World’s success. We shouldn’t be rewarding a blockbuster by numbers approach to filmmaking, we should be encouraging the development of new properties and allowing filmmakers to take risks. If the success of a Jurassic World allowed a few Birdmans to be made, I’d call that a net positive force and move on, but I fear that the corporate overlords of the film studios, in their pursuit of the almighty dollar, will unleash more Indominus Rexs into the world to the inevitable death of the medium.