Deep Focus: Jurassic World
I didn’t buy the Old Testament tenet that “the iniquity of fathers will be visited upon children unto the third and fourth generations” until I started following Jurassic Park. The franchise started out compromised. Each new movie gets worse and/or more confused than its predecessor. The latest, Jurassic World (#4), is a distressing fiasco—dumb non-fun—but its failure is thoroughly predictable and rooted in the first film 22 years ago. That’s when director Steven Spielberg turned the founder of the dinosaur theme park, John Hammond (played by Richard Attenborough), from the ruthless CEO of Michael Crichton’s original novel to an empathetic old softie crying into his melted ice cream. Throughout, the director blunted the potential for a scary-funny indictment of corporate amusement-park culture (for that, you have to re-watch Crichton’s own delicious Westworld), and he romanticized the park’s demise as paradise lost.
In Spielberg’s sequel, The Lost World: Jurassic Park (97), Hammond’s scientists and adventurers battled his coldhearted nephew’s attempt to capture dinosaurs from the abandoned breeding site and transport them to San Diego to become blockbuster attractions. In the end, the ever-benign CEO declared the breeding site an international preserve. By the time Joe Johnston’s Jurassic Park III came out in 2001, the one message it could peddle with any credibility was the notion that genetically engineered velociraptors—every dinosaur fan’s favorite pack killers—were smarter than primates, including the series’ humans.
In the fourth film, John Williams’s familiar theme swells up at our first sight of Jurassic World park, the realization of Hammond’s dream to use the “de-extinction” of majestic prehistoric creatures to arouse wonder and inspire humility in 20,000 visitors a day. For moviegoers who snort at shots of a Starbucks or Margaritaville, it’s the pinnacle (or nadir) of product placement, culminating with the camera swooping into “The Samsung Innovation Center.”
Jurassic World needs branding sponsors because business has flattened while costs have escalated. To spike new customer interest, Hammond’s successor, warmhearted and adventurous tycoon Simon Masrani (Irrfan Khan) and his careerist operations manager, Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard), authorize genetic wizard Dr. Henry Wu (BD Wong) to create a predator that’s bigger, toothier, and more menacing than Tyrannosaurus rex.
Ladies and gentlemen, we give you Indominus rex. Or, rather, Indominus rex, we give you ladies and gentlemen. In one of the screenplay’s many idiocies, no one demands that Dr. Wu reveal what DNA goes into the I. rex until it draws first blood.
The filmmakers think they’re questioning the commercialization of science and the danger of tampering with nature and transforming it into a circus. (The full name for Dr. Wu’s hybrid is Verizon Wireless Indominus Rex.) The carnival-like presentation of the mosasaurus, an enormous marine predator, recalls Blackfish’s depiction of Sea World exploiting orcas. But this movie represents everything it should be condemning.
It’s essentially a mash-and-gnash extravaganza with all the requisite money shots: dinosaur jaws clamping on humans and shaking them like dogs with chew toys, monstrous claws crushing slow runners, pterodactyl beaks piercing human flesh. The movie shows no regard for all but two of the park’s visitors. Instead of wringing drama from evacuation and crowd control, it piles on ridiculous complications featuring evil security honcho Vic Hoskins (Vincent D’Onofrio). He treats the I. rex’s escape as a field test for a hit squad of raptors. The movie’s hero, U.S. Navy vet and raptor whisperer Owen Gray (Chris Pratt), has tested their capacity for training on the outskirts of the park. Vic regards them as potential substitutes for drones; he also views Dr. Wu’s hybrid critters as potential special ops agents. Get ready for Dino Team 6.
The audience sees I. rex’s rampage coming from miles and miles away, but it takes forever to arrive onscreen. Watching the first half-hour of this film is like driving toward a landmark on a flat desert highway and wondering why you aren’t there yet. Jurassic World is directed by Colin Trevorrow and co-written by him and Derek Connolly, who collaborated on Trevorrow’s one previous feature, the micro-budget Safety Not Guaranteed. (Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver get screenplay and sole story credit; since they’re also responsible for the splendid Planet of the Apes reboot, they must have been thoroughly rewritten here.) Safety Not Guaranteed (12), a twee sci-fi fable, featured a lovelorn, geeky antihero who was cutting-edge in time travel and off the grid in every other way. The movie’s main attraction was Aubrey Plaza, who revitalized millennial clichés about questioning conformity and success with her magnetic comic-dramatic deadpan. She’s an enigma wrapped inside a mystery wrapped inside “Whatever.” Trevorrow’s new film could have used her instead of her Safety Not Guaranteed co-star, Jake Johnson, who plays a sloppy Jurassic World engineer with the presumption that tiny plastic dino figurines will make him seem equally messy and lovable. They don’t.
Did Spielberg pick Trevorrow to direct Jurassic World in the hope of bringing something fresh to the franchise, or simply having a faithful proxy? Based on the finished film, you have to guess the latter; this movie is 100-percent ersatz Spielberg. In the manner of Spielberg-produced flicks like The Goonies (85), Trevorrow tells it largely from the perspective of Claire’s nephews, 11-year-old dinosaur freak Gray (Ty Simpkins) and girl-crazy 16-year-old Zach (Nick Robinson). At first, their parents (Judy Greer and The Office’s Andy Buckley) come on like swell suburban people, just like the mom and dad in Poltergeist (82). Then we learn that they’re about to get divorced, like Elliott’s mom and dad in E.T. (82). Gray is designed to bring “childhood wonder” to the film and Zach some comical adolescent cool. But Gray mostly spouts statistics and blubbers about his parents’ probable breakup, while Zach is reckless and stupid. Even before I. rex’s killing spree, their aunt is too busy to spend time with them. So Zach breaks free of Claire’s personal assistant, Zara (Katie McGrath), and takes Gray on a joyride in a see-through vehicle called a “gyrosphere,” ignoring audio warnings and do-not-enter signs. Audiences know the real reason: not for Zach to give Gray an extra thrill but for the filmmakers to provide Claire with a personality-changing trauma. She will spend the rest of the movie seeking redemption by chasing after Zach and Gray and then saving them, making ridiculous leaps in geography and logic at every stop.
Even the lead characters are plot-enabling devices. They simply turn up at opportune locations and display hidden abilities just in time to get them out of trouble. When the boys bumble their way into the old Jurassic Park garage, Zach knows exactly how to revive a 1992 park vehicle. The movie treats the lesser characters as collateral damage. I’d warn you about warming to Zara, except there’s nothing to warm to. She’s glued to her smartphone, like Claire herself.
If the action is a throwback to cheesy late-night creature features, complete with a Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla climax, the “relationships” provide a reactionary response to contemporary women “leaning in.” Of all the stereotypical female careerists in recent movies, including Reese Witherspoon’s wind-up cop in Hot Pursuit and Emma Stone’s automaton Air Force ace in Aloha, Howard’s operations manager is the most retrograde and embarrassing. Could it merely be coincidental that this is the first Jurassic Park movie that Kathleen Kennedy (now president of Lucasfilm) did not executive-produce or produce? On the one hand, Claire is ludicrously omnipotent. What mere “operations manager” would hold sway over everything from marketing and genetic research to catastrophic emergencies? On the other hand, she’s dense, opaque, and slow to respond with sufficient force to the I. rex.
Claire is the butt of sexual jokes and the target of scientific and family criticism. She presumes that giving her nephews VIP passes compensates for her ignorance of everything about them, including their ages. She keeps her distance from Chris Pratt’s animal-behavior whiz Owen, who possesses so much he-man magnetism that raptors accept him as their alpha male. Trevorrow has said that he intended Claire’s run through the jungle in high heels and a white skirt suit to be romantic comedy. If so, the comedy is fatally broad, witlessly macho and one-sided. Howard doesn’t have a chance to get the audience on Claire’s side, especially when Owen tells her: “These animals are thinking, ‘I gotta eat.’ ‘I gotta hunt.’ ‘I gotta…’ [He makes thrusting gesture with his fist.] You gotta be able to relate to at least one of those things.” Pratt’s humorous timing helped guarantee that Guardians of the Galaxy would be a crowd-pleaser, but this dialogue is stillborn—he can’t spank it into life. Seeing Pratt’s bulked-out regular guy act like a hypnotist with raptors should be riotously funny, but this director makes a neophyte’s mistake of trying to play their scenes for tension and magic.
As in Joe Johnston’s Jurassic Park III, the most promising idea in Jurassic World is that dinosaurs are smarter than humans. But Trevorrow isn’t skilled or inspired enough to get away with suggesting that dinosaurs are also more emotionally complex. We’re supposed to buy that when they’re caught between I. rex and Owen, the raptors have divided loyalties. Instead they simply seem to swing in whatever direction is required for a cliff-hanging turnaround or a heart-warming climax. Another casualty of the film’s pursuit of dinosaur psychology is human ingenuity. No man or woman in sight comes up with a bright idea. Owen cycles through swarms of ravenous critters with glaring eyes and locked jaw, as if focus and intensity conjure invisible shields. Saving Homo sapiens from the gargantuan hybrid is really up to the dinosaurs.
The movie’s press kit tries to position the original movie as the seminal summer blockbuster—in other words, it misrepresents Jurassic Park as Spielberg’s actual adventure classic, the primal, imaginative Jaws (75). Spielberg’s dinosaur movies were breakthroughs only for meshing computer-spawned animals with flesh-and-blood actors (albeit playing cardboard characters). Jurassic Park’s “peaceable kingdom” view of dinosaur herds munching greenery recalled artists’ renderings of giant reptiles in slick 1950s magazines. Its most memorable moment was a visual joke: the comin’-right-at-ya gag that included the side-view mirror warning, “objects in mirror are closer than they look”— seen while a T. rex goes on the attack.
Trevorrow can’t match Spielberg’s cinematic wit or proficiency. He doesn’t manage to convey the unprecedented size of the I. rex, who looks no bigger than the T. rex. Generally he directs like a starry-eyed acolyte of Spielberg at his most commercial. Even his attitudes are similar to those of the auteur who sentimentalized John Hammond and inspired an entire subdivision of Universal’s “Islands of Adventure” in Orlando, Florida. Khan’s Masrani, like Attenborough’s Hammond, is meant to be a great guy. He ultimately puts his own hide on the line, piloting a chopper into battle with a pair of Afghanistan War veterans. He orders Claire to focus on consumer and dinosaur satisfaction, insisting that you can read the creatures’ happiness by looking into their eyes. Although he empowers Dr. Wu to create I. rex, he later accuses the doctor of violating Jurassic World’s “moral principles.”
This movie reveres the archetype of the wise, caring patriarch as much as Trevorrow reveres his mentor, Steven Spielberg. And as if to seal the film’s distrust of the single, powerful female, we discover that the I. rex is a she.