Jurassic World (Colin Trevorrow, 2015)
In Jurassic World, dinosaurs rule. Brought back from extinction by the machinations of mad scientists and businessmen, they are not only formidable enemies of the human race, but also much more interesting. As they chomp, stomp and eat their way through Isla Nubar – an island off the coast of Costa Rica that houses the new “Jurassic World” theme park – we, the audience, find ourselves in the odd position of rooting for our destroyers. The whole movie may be in 3D, but only the dinosaurs are truly three-dimensional.
Which, you may point out, is not necessarily a bad thing, nor a reason not to see the film. After all, we watch monster movies for the … monsters. Still, in the original Jurassic Park – directed by Steven Spielberg in 1993, adapted from the original novel by Michael Crichton – our on-screen surrogates were worth rooting for. Not so here. It is fortunate, then, that both the design and characterization of the monsters is as good as it is, for that, at least, makes half a movie.
And that half can be (mostly) very entertaining. Here’s the deal: 20 years after the first theme park went bust after its creatures – a pack of Velociraptors and one ornery Tyrannosaurus Rex, in particular – escaped and made a dinner out of their handlers, a new park has opened, in the same location, with all of the safety kinks (ostensibly) worked out. Owned by “the world’s seventh richest man,” Simon Masrani (Irffan Khan of Life of Pi), the reboot of the world’s most dangerous pleasure garden is both popular and ever in peril of losing its popularity (the ‘raptors and T-Rex are so yesterday). So the team of genetic engineers led by the same brilliant whacko we met in 1993, Dr. Henry Wu (BD Wong, most recently of “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” fame), , has been busy creating new (and improved) dinosaurs, using secret bits of DNA from here and there. The result? The “Indominus Rex,” a terrifying Frankensaur that Masrani plans to unveil soon … after a few precautionary tests have been run.
So what happens with the I-Rex? Not so fast! First we have to meet the dumb humans. This being a film targeted to young folks (despite the PG-13 rating), we need children. We get two brothers, one a surly teen played by the surly Nick Robinson (The Kings of Summer), and one an alternately bouncy and whiny kid played by blank-faced Ty Simpkins (Insidious). Plot spoiler (not really): at the end of the film they are both still alive. This is unfortunate. We also meet their Aunt Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard, The Help), who manages the park, and has agreed to host her nephews on a vacation away from their divorcing parents. All suit, heels, lipstick and hairdo, Claire is an ice princess straight out of my next book, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Embrace Misogyny. With a phone glued to her ear, she has time for neither the boys nor for … boys. She is clearly due for a comeuppance. Which comes in the form of hunky dinosaur trainer Owen (Chris Pratt, fresh off a great year 2014 with The Lego Movie and Guardians of the Galaxy). All grime to her glam, he’s meant to be Gable to her Colbert. The only problem is that while he might be up to it, she is not.
Wait … did I just write “dinosaur trainer,” above? Yep. Owen, you see, has been working with a pack of four Velociraptors, acting as their Alpha, under the aegis of an island security program created by an (obviously evil) corporation called InGen headed by Vincent D’Onofrio (toning it down only slightly from his recent turn as Wilson Fisk on the Netflix series “Daredevil“). An ex-Navy guy, Owen is a real hombre – or “badass” as Claire’s nephews dub him – and since he can tame actual savage beasts, how hard can an ice princess be?
As retrograde as the sexual politics of the film may be (as Baltimore Magazine editor and film critic Max Weiss has pointed out), at least most of the action sequences are fairly exciting. Especially once InGen puts into place a plan to use the ‘raptors to track the I-Rex (which has, predictably, escaped). And Claire even gets one good moment where she rises above her role as stuffy screamer, rescuing Owen by shooting a Pterodactyl in the head. But it’s the interactions between the dinosaurs that make the film work, when it works. Transcending their ephemeral CG status, they are fully realized creatures whose life-and-death fate matters to us. It means something at the end when they are not all dead (sorry, another plot spoiler, though, again, not really).
At times excruciatingly boring and at other times riveting, Jurassic World should enchant as many viewers as it repels. Colin Trevorrow, the director, has only one other feature credit to his name: the 2012 indie sci-fi dramedy Safety Not Guaranteed. We’ll see if the Velociraptors are as good to him as they are to this movie.