I hadn’t planned on writing a full review of Jurassic World, but having seen it a second time, and having seen it become one of the highest-grossing films of all time (third, in fact, unadjusted for inflation–Furious 7 and Age of Ultron are #5 and #6 respectively), I decided to give it a go. Surely, the biggest hit of the year has to be worth analyzing, right?
I’m not going to spend a lot of time on the story. I have to assume you’ve seen it–unless you wait for my word before seeing a given film, which is an excellent choice. But the story is quite simple: Jurassic Park has been reborn as “Jurassic World”, and has thrived for some years. Human control of dinosaurs has developed to the point that Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) has begun training velociraptors–which InGen security chief Vic Hoskins (Vincent D’Onofrio) is eager to weaponize. Meanwhile, InGen’s scientists have developed a new a species of dinosaur, the Indominus Rex, which is larger and more powerful than any previous species–and has been raised in isolation, which Grady predicts will lead to disaster. Meanwhile, Gray (Ty Simpkins) and Zach (Nick Robinson) Mitchell, the nephews of Jurassic World’s manager, Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard), arrive for a holiday visit, but the workaholic Claire has no time for them and less time for Owen, with whom she went on a disastrous date.
In the midst of all this, the Indominus breaks loose and makes her way toward the park–and its 20,000 visitors–leaving a trail of death and destruction in her wake. She must be stopped…but how?
The core story is fairly simple, and not too different from the original Jurassic Park, but there’s a lot of characters and quite a few subplots which bog it down, and need not have had they been better developed. The most egregious is probably the revelation that Gray and Zach’s parents (Judy Greer and Andy Buckley) are on the verge of getting a divorce, which only really matters for a single scene. I’ve seen arguments online that the pending divorce is the impetus for the boys to be sent to the park–but that’s a weak rationalization for a pointless attempt to mine pathos from two-dimensional characters.
Other characters who orbit our principals include Simon Masrani (Irrfan Khan), the park’s owner; Lowery Cruthers (Jake Johnson) and Vivian (Lauren Lapkus), who monitor the park’s operations; Barry (Omar Sy), essentially Owen’s right-hand man; and Dr. Henry Wu (B.D. Wong), who has been InGen’s chief geneticist since the first film. Most of these characters have some kind of storyline of their own, but rather than taking the Airport or Towering Inferno approach and letting these various plots breathe, World feels both overstuffed and perfunctory, and it’s hard to be terribly invested in the characters. Like last year’s Godzilla, World assembles a great cast and doesn’t give enough of them quite enough to do (though nothing here compares to that film’s absurd choice to kill off its most compelling character in the first half).
To be fair, many of the participants make the most of the moments they do get. Pratt continues to prove himself as an immensely likable leading man, and adapts to a more serious mode without becoming boring. D’Onofrio seems to relish his slimy villain role, and the obnoxious way he assumes kinship or familiarity with those around him is quite amusing, as his demonstration of the eternal failure of man to truly master nature. Johnson, who was so wonderful in director Colin Trevorrow’s Safety Not Guaranteed, really does provide some fine comic relief, like a Greek chorus of snark (he wears a T-shirt from the original Jurassic Park, much to Claire’s annoyance). Khan is masterfully convincing as always, as the idealistic CEO who realizes too late the unintended consequences of his ambitions. And despite her minimal screen time, Judy Greer actually makes quite a strong impression. Simpkins (who looks exactly like Patrick Fugit) and Robinson are entirely adequate.
And then there’s Howard. I like her quite a bit, and her absence from the screen since 2011 (to focus on raising her children, I believe) was unfortunate. While she gives the role of Claire about the best performance possible, it’s a very badly written role, and the film’s gender politics have been rightly (and heavily) debated.
There’s really no excuse for how badly Claire is written. She’s work-obsessed and over-organized, so chilly she’s shocked by a hug from Gray and so detached from her family she forgets her nephews’ ages. She is unhappy with the thought of motherhood, but pressured to accept it by her sister; her disastrous date with Owen was apparently the result of her over-organization, though they naturally rekindle their relationship and are firmly attached to each other by film’s end. This kind of absurd frigidity leaves a bad taste in the mouth, even more so than the idea that she spends much of the film running from dinosaurs in high heels.
And on a basic storytelling level, it’s really tiresome how she’s so cold and detached that she can barely perceive the dinosaurs as sentient beings, or even comprehend the idea of people having fun (when Masrani asks her if the park’s guests are enjoying themselves, she can only cite the satisfaction surveys). She refers to the dinosaurs as “assets” and continually rejects Owen’s analysis of the situation, which would of course jeopardize the profit margin. Her organization skills aside, it’s hard to believe someone so seemingly indifferent to dinosaurs would get the job, but there we are.
Also heavily criticized is the fate of Zara (Katie McGrath), Claire’s secretary, who’s assigned to keep an eye on Gray and Zach (since Claire is too busy to spend any time with them). Not only is McGrath wasted on a complete nothing of a role, when an accident causes the pterodactyals to get loose, they pick off quite a few people (though one–Jimmy Buffett in a cameo–makes sure to save his margaritas before taking cover), including Zara, who’s tossed from pterodactyl to pterodactyl before being dropped in a tank inhabited by a giant Mosasaur, which ultimately consumes her. It’s easily the most protracted death in the film–more so even than Hoskins’, despite his being an active villain.
Zara’s death has rubbed many the wrong way, since she did nothing to “deserve” it. Yes, she was distracted enough to let Gray and Zach go off on their own, but she’s in no way a villain, and that she suffers so–and we see all of it–is strange. To me, it didn’t really register because Zara is such a cipher of a character (though I could believe she was initially meant to have a larger role), but it’s worth mentioning.
Weirdly, there’s also a subversion of a male trope late in the film, when Lowery opts to stay behind and do what he can to control the situation even as his co-workers are being evacuated. He declares his intent and prepares to sweep Vivian up into a grand kiss–only for her to inform him that she has a boyfriend. They hug awkwardly and she leaves. It’s a scene which might have worked had the film built up to it, but Lowery, while a bit of a doofus, doesn’t come off as so un-self-aware that he would pull such a stunt. And since we’ve already seen Owen pull Claire into a kiss (after which point their coupling is essentially a given), it just comes off as the film trying to have its cake and subvert it, too.
But all that grumbling aside, when Jurassic World turns its attention to what we really want–dino action–it delivers. Trevorrow’s staging of the action sequences may not secure his place in action-film history, but there are some fine moments to be found here: Owen’s raptors hunting for the Indominus, then bonding with her (since she is part-raptor) and turning on the humans; the Indominus escaping her pen by means of a subterfuge; Claire driving a van with Gray and Zach in the back, the back doors swinging open, and raptors in pursuit of them; the final showdown, when Claire summons the T. rex (shades of Godzilla, I should think, when the big guy sold out and started working for humanity). Although the story can be messy, Trevorrow keeps the film from dragging, and in the second half it’s often legitimately exciting.
He adds a few witty touches, like the juxtaposition of a dinosaur’s and a bird’s claws–reminding us that the descendants of the dinosaurs are all around us today. When the script (by Trevorrow, Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, and Derek Connolly) allows itself to be good, it’s quite solid for what it is. But when it slips… (I must mention one logical flaw which really bugged me; no way in fucking hell is a Jeep that’s lain dormant for 20+ years going to be in running condition.)
John Schwartzman’s solid cinematography (which boasts some nice comic book-ish angles), Kevin Stitt’s editing, and the production design all add to the spectacle. The special effects, on the other hand, may be the victim of the CGI era’s lack of new frontiers, but they really aren’t much better than what we saw in 1993, and there are moments when they look decidedly more fake. For the most part, the money shows on the screen, but anything short of impeccable should not go unchallenged. And certainly, some of the larger creatures (the mosasaur especially) are not quite impeccable. Michael Giacchino’s score makes decent use of John Williams’ original themes, but is otherwise unmemorable.
Why World has made such an absurd amount of money remains a bit of a mystery to me. Of course it’s not the best film of the year, but it’s not even the best action film of the year. Nostalgia might be a factor–but Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles made less than a third as much money. The sheer appeal of dinosaurs on screen can’t be discounted; even the critically-reamed Walking with Dinosaurs 3D made $125 million worldwide. Chris Pratt’s stock being so high in the wake of Guardians of the Galaxy might also have helped. (Too bad Her was released a year too early to take advantage.)
The exceptional success of Jurassic World is hard to understand, yet not so hard to explain; it’s a good action film and a good piece of entertainment. That it is really not much more than “good” is, sadly, beside the point.