It might be E3 next week in the gaming world, but this weekend was all about Jurassic World. I finally got a chance to see the film today, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
To start, Jurassic World was never going to top Jurassic Park; no sequel to the classic 1993 film can live up to the magic of seeing those dinosaurs for the first time. I knew this going in, and I think that helped avoid some unnecessary disappointment. But it's hard not to think about Jurassic Park sequels without a certain hesitation, as the second and third films both had various issues that kept them from reaching the greatness of the original.
The good news, though, is that this film holds its ground much more firmly than The Lost World or Jurassic Park III.
Some film spoilers follow.
The plot centers around the now-open park, a pack of sorta-trained velociraptors, and a genetically-engineered dinosaur called Indominus Rex. Predictably, the new hybrid dino breaks loose and threatens the safety of everyone in the park, which sets up most of the ensuing fun. It's a simple premise at its core, but there are enough details to help flesh out the proceedings and keep it from feeling too basic.
Following in the footsteps of the original, we see a few themes resurface: corporate greed, the morality of genetic engineering (or "de-extinction"), and the importance of family. However, these themes get a few new wrinkles, especially with the creation of a new species that never existed for, as we later find out, military advantages. When Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) proves that the "clever" raptors can actually be trained, it only takes about one minute before there's talk of weaponizing these vicious killers.
The first two films both had characters looking to steal the magic, but it was primarily corporate theft for similar end goals (creating zoos or other parks). Here, the idea of using dinosaurs as military weaponry brings new meaning to "the lack of humility before nature that's being displayed," especially when the film's human villain, inGen security chief Vic Hoskins, suggests that they might kill off genetic lines that weren't loyal so they can be used in warfare to make the ultimate sacrifice. These scenes do a lot to lay the groundwork for the audience to emotionally connect with the Velociraptors who had been, until now, relegated to villain territory. We know they're still a little unpredictable, but the film does a good job of making it possible to, later on, root for the raptors.
All of this feeds a basic tension between characters who respect the dinosaurs as animals with rights and those who view them as "assets" to be exploited. Having this layer of plot, which co-exists alongside the giant monster movie plot, gives them film an important bit of depth. Scenes between inGen and park owner Simon Masrani (Irrfan Khan) and head scientist Dr. Henry Wu (B.D. Wong) highlight the challenges inherent in trying to run a theme park while making incredible progress in the field of genetic engineering. It's unsurprising that wielding the power of creation to satisfy investors and a bottom line leads to some terrible decisions.
Even when things go awry and the Indominus Rex is loose, we see that greed on display as the park officials are initially unwilling to use lethal force (despite Owen's advice). It's easy to understand a company's desire to not destroy a major investment; but the ensuing damage to the park, its visitors and staff, and the countless other dinosaurs slaughtered by Indominus make it hard to argue that killing the escaped beast earlier on wouldn't have been the better option. It's hard to imagine yet another attempt to create a dinosaur park after this second epic fail, so I suspect that the inevitable next film will pursue the military storyline.
So, how does Jurassic World function as a monster movie? Pretty well, although it's lacking a little of the original's heart, pacing, and finely-tuned characters.
As Owen Grady, an ex-Navy Seal turned Velociraptor trainer, Chris Pratt struggles to find the perfect balance between witty action hero and respectful animal lover. His character works most of the time, but he has a few too many lines that don't land or properly match the mood. He has some moderate chemistry with Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard), the park's operations manager, but their romantic subplot is a predictable distraction that could have been cut without much impact.
What does really work, though, is Owen's interaction with the "Raptor Pack." When the film's trailers revealed the idea of raptors being trained like dogs, I wasn't sure if we were in for groan territory, but I totally bought into the idea. Not only is animal training, especially with intelligent species, something that seems nearly inevitable at an animal-themed park, but the way Owen used a clicker and acted as the "alpha" made enough sense within the film's narrative that it felt believable.
But, when Owen, Clair, and her two nephews Zach and Grey have to navigate their way through the park and escape the Indominus, we get an excellent mix of sneaky dino evasion, high octane running action, and dino-on-dino(-on-dino) fights. I liked that Claire's character goes through a few evolutions in the course of all the action: she's reminded of the importance of family, she learns to respect nature, and she learns that a white dress will never survive a prehistoric jungle unscathed.
The two young stars of the film are honestly the weakest part of the film. Older brother Zach has a meandering arc of having a girlfriend at home but still ogling any young girls he sees in the park. This bit went nowhere and should have stayed on the cutting room floor. He functions best as the embodiment of the world's growing ambivalence toward the return of dinosaurs, especially when he passes them off as being just "for kids." But, unlike Lex from Jurassic Park, Zach doesn't have much to offer in the way of hacking Unix systems.
Similarly, just like Tim in the original film, younger brother Grey is really into dinosaurs; but that doesn't really go anywhere either. It just felt like they didn't know what to do with these characters but felt the need to have some younger stars in the film. Aside from a harrowing encounter with the Indominus while in a Gyrosphere, they don't go through nearly enough to be as interesting as Tim and Lex.
They do, however, get one of the best scenes in the movie, although it has nothing to do with them: exploring the ruins of the original park. Seeing the old visitor center, complete with a tattered "When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth" banner, is one of many brilliant (but mainly subtle) nods to the franchise's roots that helps this film feel more like a direct sequel to the original than either of the last two films.
However, all other problems aside, the final twenty or so minutes of this film are incredibly satisfying and should excite even the most jaded Jurassic Park fans. After the Indominus turns the raptors against Owen, Claire, and the boys, things seem dire; however, when Grey suggests that Claire release the T. Rex, things get extremely awesome in short order. Watching a three-way battle between Indominus Rex, Tyrannosaurs Rex, and Velociraptors is something audiences won't soon forget. We had a great audience that was quite literally clapping and cheering throughout this scene, and it felt completely earned.
Oh, and I have to give a special shoutout to Jake Johnson as Lowery Cruthers (who came up with these names?). He works in the control room, has a huge toy dinosaur collection, and sports a vintage Jurassic Park t-shirt that he "bought on eBay." He helps add a bit of the Ian Malcom/Dennis Nedry humor that would otherwise be missing from the film. He doesn't have the biggest role, but I enjoyed all of his scenes.
All in all, this is a worthy film of the Jurassic moniker. While I like parts of the last two movies, they each have significant problems that hold them back from greatness. Jurassic World isn't 100% even, but it never dips as low and has some incredible highs. It could have benefited from a little extra polish on some of the dialogue and some tighter editing, but it felt like a good return to form for the franchise and its amazing creatures.