There’s a definite sense of self-awareness to Jurassic World. Here’s a movie that knows exactly what it is and where it fits into the grand scheme of things. It knows its audience and for the most part knows what its audience wants. It feels like a film made by fans for fans.
Which, when you come to think of it, is probably exactly what it is. Twenty years on from the first Jurassic Park, we have an entirely new generation of filmmakers here, most of whom probably grew up watching Jurassic Park and its disappointing sequels. They know what worked and what didn’t, because they had the same reactions to them that we did. What we have here is, really, just a very elaborate piece of fan fiction.
You know what? That’s fine with me.
The original Jurassic Park is a classic; one of the great classic films. That’s not to say it’s one of the great films of all time, but one of the great classic films. The difference is that a great classic need not be a great film in itself. Jurassic Park is a wonderful movie, but it’s also a deeply flawed movie. But, nonetheless, it’s a classic because its place in cinematic history is assured.
In any case, there’s no replicating it. It had to come along at that point in time with those filmmakers to have the impact it did. It’s a unique and untouchable achievement.
Jurassic World knows this. In fact, it works it into its script. “A kid today sees a stegosaurus just like an elephant from the zoo,” says the Park’s manager, Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard). And there’s a hilariously appalling scene where a kid misses the Tyrannosaurus’s feeding because he’s too busy checking his cell phone.
In this movie, Jurassic World, the replacement for Jurassic Park, has been up and running smoothly for years, and though it’s still doing great business, public interest is waning. The Park’s owners, therefore, decide to create a totally new dinosaur via genetic splicing in order to “up the wow factor.”
Owen Grady (Chris Pratt), the park’s security consultant and raptor trainer, thinks this is a horrible idea, as do a number of other park staff members. Of course, they’re right as the Indominus Rex (“We needed something that sounded scary, but that was easy to pronounce”) breaks out of its enclosure and goes on a rampage across the park.
I’ll admit it; when I first heard of this plot point, I thought it was the worst possible idea the filmmakers could have come up with; a desperate effort to gauzy up the movie that completely missed what the Jurassic Park series was all about. It wasn’t about coming up with super-powered monsters; it’s about showing the audience real live dinosaurs. Making up a super-duper scary genetic mutation struck me as something out of a Sci-Fi Channel movie.
You know what? The filmmakers felt the same way. In fact, that’s practically the theme of the film! The Indominus Rex makes a great villain precisely because it doesn’t belong in a Jurassic Park movie. This isn’t just a creature that threatens to kill the human characters; it threatens to destroy the dinosaurs themselves.
The filmmakers know that the audience is here for the dinosaurs; not some made-up sci-fi monster. So, what better way to get the audience on board than by inviting them to hate the damn thing? And how do you make them hate it? By having it attack the very thing they love: the dinosaurs.
Yeah, like I said, this is elaborate fan-fiction: have the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park threatened by an evil pseudo-dinosaur that’s out to destroy them. Cartoonish? Oh, yes. Cool? Heck yeah!
The Indominus is not the only fan-fiction aspect to the film. Trained raptors? Yeah, that’s a fan’s idea, and it’s done in a really cool way that allows the raptors to be more unpredictable than ever while still retaining their, ahem, ‘bite.’ They’re trained but…they’re not safe. Not at all.
Then there’s the fact that the park is actually open for business. Don’t try to pretend that for all the movies’ “these are things man was not meant to know” posturing you don’t really, really wish that Jurassic Park existed. The first act of the film is basically an extended indulgence in that wish, with long, lingering scenes of people having a blast at the various rides and attractions.
Though, I have to say, some of these rides really stretched my suspension of disbelief. Jeep-tour safaris are one thing, but letting people kayak down the river right in front of a bunch of apatosaurs and stegosaurs? That’s a disaster waiting to happen. Yeah, they were herbivores, but they were enormous and probably very dangerous herbivores. Same thing with the ‘gyroscope’ ride (though at least the ankylosaurs were kept closed off from it).
(On the subject of park safety, at one point in the film Claire notes that they have “one of the best engineering consultants in the world,” to which another characters replies “So did Hammond.” My thought: “He did?! Good God! The engineers in this universe suck!”)
Still, the attractions are cool, and the film gets a lot of mileage out of them. I especially like how the two main kid characters (Ty Simpkins and Nick Robinson) don’t even crack a smile while watching the pathetically goofy gyrosphere instructional video.
Who are the kids? They’re Claire’s nephews who were being sent to stay with her at the park while their parents finalize their divorce (which they apparently tried to keep secret). Claire, however, is too busy running the park and leaves them with her assistant, Zara (Katie McGrath), who, frankly, kind of ignores them also. Jeez, after all that neglect, the Indominus doesn’t seem so bad; at least it pays attention to them.
Meanwhile, a slimy company representative played by Vincent D’Onofrio is trying to convince Owen to let him sell his trained raptors to the military, because this is a cheesy science fiction film, and in cheesy science fiction film land the military thinks vicious killer animals make great weapons. This plot point is unfortunately the film’s weakest elements, and it only gets dumber the longer the film goes on.
By the way, Vincent D’Onofrio is a fantastic actor, as he recently proved in the Daredevil series, but…man, he just wasn’t trying this time. He’s a slimy, stereotypical corporate/military idiot, whom we’ve seen a thousand times before. His whole character and subplot are patently unnecessary, and the film drags whenever he’s on screen. Which is a really shame because, again, I love Vincent D’Onofrio: he’s usually amazing at everything he does. But he just can’t make anything of this part, which I’m going to blame on the writers more than him.
On the other end of the spectrum, Chris Pratt solidifies himself as the best action star to come around in years. He’s cool, he’s funny, and he’s immensely likeable and down-to-earth. He’s sort of like if you sent Michael J. Fox and Harrison Ford through the brundlefly machine together. He’s a perfect anchor to center the movie around (though I have to ask: was he carrying that gun around just for his health? ‘Cause he never seems to use it, even when it would really come in handy).
Bryce Dallas Howard doesn’t make as much of an impression. She’s got a decent story arc, but nothing groundbreaking, has some cool action scenes, and makes a fine foil for Pratt. Basically, she’s adequate, which is more than most of the female leads of this series could say. Kudos also to the film for making her genuinely an ass for about the first half of the film and then doing a pretty good job of redeeming her. The characterization is simple, but believable.
The kids are actually quite good: probably the best we’ve had in the series so far. The older brother is kind of a jerk to begin with (understandable, since he’s a teenager from a sort-of broken home), but like with Howard’s character, the film does a good job of redeeming him. The brothers play off each other well, and I’m so glad they didn’t just go with the obvious move of having them bicker all the time before their inevitable reconciliation. Yes, they bicker a little, but they also share some family comradery even before things go south. Like how at one point Gray, the younger brother, makes fun of Zach’s habit of just staring at pretty girls while acting like he’s doing something important. Rather than get into a fight, they both pretty much just laugh it off. They also have some really good moments when the disaster is underway that shows Zach trying to look out for his younger brother, even though he’s just as out of his depth as Gray is. I also like that Gray is implied to be mildly autistic, which I think ads a bit of flavor to the character and makes his awkward, but affectionate relationship with his brother all the more interesting (by the way, who names their kid ‘Gray’?)
Irrfan Khan plays Mr. Masrani, the park’s owner, and again, I have to give the filmmakers kudos for mirroring the ambiguity of Hammond’s character. Masrani is charmingly enthusiastic about the park (and, well, pretty much everything) and insists that it’s not about making money, but at the same time it’s noted that he was the one who signed off on the Indominus in the first place. Add in that he doesn’t evacuate the island or try to kill the Indominus when he had the chance, and you have a rather uncertain figure. He’s lovable and friendly, but again like Hammond he seems naïve and overly optimistic about his own skills, which eventually leads to disaster, though we can’t really blame him for that. He’s well acted and well written, and I really wish he had more screen time.
Other than that, there’re two park technicians played by Jake Johnson and Lauren Lapkus, who get some good moments (especially Johnson). B.D. Wong returns as Dr. Wu from the first film (the Asian scientist in the hatchery, if you don’t remember) and gets an expanded role that shows him to be another ambiguous character and not as sympathetic as Masrani. And as for Katie McGrath as Zara, well, let’s just say I’m guessing she was based on one of the writers’ ex-girlfriend because man someone hated this woman!
Going back to the dinosaurs, again, the filmmakers know just what we want to see. Again, the trained raptors idea was inspired and done in just the right way so that the raptors don’t just turn into pets or anything like that. For my money, the raptors here are better utilized than any since the first film. There’s a thrilling action scene where they take on a group of armed men in the forest at night that shows just how lethal they can be. It’s sort of like an improved version of the long-grass scene in The Lost World.
Returning species include stegosaurus, triceratops, and the ankylosaurs (who actually get to do something this time, though more on that below). New species, meanwhile, include apatosaurs (one of which features in an almost wordless scene that is one of the film’s best), a new pterosaur (dimorphodons, joining the returning pteranodons), and a huge mosasaurus, which doesn’t get a lot of screen time, but leaves a big impact (though perhaps not quite as much as the one in Jurassic Park: The Game, but I digress).
(By the way, let me just say that personally, the ‘falling into the water with a dangerous predator’ scare is one that almost always works for me).
The pterosaurs are, I’ll admit, pretty darn nasty (though why, I’m not so sure; what exactly makes them decide to just go and kill everyone they can find?) and are used pretty effectively in one of the film’s big set pieces. Though I’ll admit, they strike me as being not quite as impressive as the pteranodons in Jurassic Park III. Maybe because we don’t really get to see any of those pterosaurs just walking about on the ground with people, or maybe because there’s just too much going on in their scene to really appreciate them. Or maybe because they’re also featured in some of film’s silliest moments, such as when one crashes into a helicopter and skewers a man with its beak (which is sincerely the funniest moment in the film).
By the way, something I forgot while watching the movie but was reminded of afterwards is that the film is accurate in depicting the all-female pteranodon flock with short, nub-like crests as opposed to the huge, imposing head gear of the males from the previous film. So, good on them for that!
What about the Indominus itself? Well, it’s a pretty cool monster, I have to admit. It’s vicious, cunning, brutal, and completely hateful. You just want to see this thing die almost as soon as you meet it. I’d still put the matriarch velociraptor from the first film as the best villain in the series, but the Indominus runs a close second. And, like all good villains, it always seems to be one step ahead of our heroes, which makes things even more enjoyably frustrating. I also like that, while it’s not too visually distinct from the T-Rex, there’s definitely a Giganotosaurus/Chacharadontosaurus influence in the design, which makes sense since both those were in fact larger than the T-Rex.
Though, with that said, the Indominus is definitely a victim of the “oh, come on!” syndrome. That is where a monster manifests ridiculous abilities based on flimsy explanations. The Indominus’s genes are like Batman’s utility belt; it can just pull out something new for every occasion. I’m surprised they didn’t give it wings. To make matters worse, none of its abilities are used more than once. And this is yet again another instance of cheesy science fiction movies telling us that as long as have DNA from something, you can do whatever it can do. Best I can say is it’s not quite as dumb as Man’s Best Friend, where the dog could turn invisible, fur and all, because it had chameleon DNA: at least the Indominus doesn’t have fur.
To make matters worse, even if I’m willing to accept its smorgasbord of powers, there are some things that just don’t work unless we give and call the thing magical. Again, I’m forced to remind filmmakers that big does not equal ‘invincible.’ I’m sorry, I don’t care what DNA this thing has, a direct hit from an ankylosaurus’s tail would’ve completely shattered its jaws. And besides, this is a park that holds dinosaurs, you’d think elephant rifles and fifty-calibers would be standard issue. But then I suppose this wouldn’t be a Jurassic Park movie if anyone ever used a gun effectively.
Wait a second; isn’t there someone missing from this list?
Well, I can’t really talk about you know who without spoilers. Remember what I was saying last time about how Jurassic Park III should have ended? Apparently, the filmmakers here felt the same way. It’s not quite what I would have wanted, but it’s probably the closest thing I could reasonably hope for.
Again, the filmmakers know that we hate the Indominus and that it’s out of place in a Jurassic Park movie. And nothing demonstrates this better than the film’s climax, which is a really clever twist on the ending of the first film. I won’t really describe what happens (though you can probably guess part of it), but let’s just say it’s one of the biggest fan-pleasing moments in the film. Heck, it opens with the filmmakers all-but telling us “we know you hated what happened last time. This one’s gonna be different.”
The dinosaur-on-dinosaur action this time has been ramped up, and for the most part it’s pretty great. The fight between the Indominus and the ankylosaurus was, again, not exactly realistic, but in its favor, it was fairly clearly a shout-out to the tyrannosaurus-stegosaurus battle in Fantasia, which earns it some props. One of the pterosaurs ends up on the wrong-end of the mosasaurus (again, shades of Fantasia) and then there’s the final battle, which didn’t remind me of anything out of Fantasia. The action in general is really good, with only a few ‘yeah, right’ moments. One of the highlights is a night-attack with Owen motorcycling into action alongside his raptor pack, which is definitely one of the film’s biggest “this is AWESOME!” moments.
Again, I was stuck by how well the film seemed to know its audience. It knows we want cool dinosaur action and it delivers. It knows we don’t want a cheesy hybrid monster, so it doesn’t bother trying to make us like the thing and instead invites us to cheer for its death. It knows it’s never going to touch the first film and so has its characters openly state that the original park had something they don’t and never will. The movie is littered with little nods to the earlier films and to the fan base, like a cameo by Mr. DNA, or a statue to John Hammond in the middle of the entrance hall. And it knows we don’t want a half-baked message about not playing God, so it doesn’t really bother (though it does say that gene tampering is wrong, which really doesn’t need to be hammered into our heads, so it doesn’t bother). Heck, the fact that the film doesn’t even mention Isla Sorna shows that it knows how disappointing the first two sequels were.
As noted, it is flawed. The subplot of the brothers’ parents’ divorce receives no real conclusion and pretty much just exists to amp up their angst (having a killer dinosaur monster trying to eat them and seeing people die horribly before their eyes wasn’t enough?). Again, Vincent D’Onofrio’s character is terrible: a complete waste of a great actor. I mean, bad enough he’s the unscrupulous caricature, but did he have to be so suicidally stupid as well? What on earth would make him think he could control Owen’s raptors when he’s done zero training with them? I mean, I’m not just surprised anyone hired this guy (again, what is going on in InGen’s HR department?); I’m surprised he hasn’t killed himself long ago (“No, it’s fine: I watched my parents drive; I don’t need a license!”). Oh, and the plot point about the Indominus Rex’s ‘ingredients’ being classified makes no sense. What, exactly, was Dr. Wu worried about? That someone would sell his secret monster recipe? If they expect their people to be able to care for the thing, shouldn’t they know what went into it? It’s obviously just there so that the Indominus can pull new powers out of its genome as the plot demands.
But on the whole, Jurassic World delivers. It’s easily the best film in the series since the first one, and by far the most enjoyable. It’s a cartoon, but a well-made cartoon that is just bursting with good-will towards the audience, and you know what? Sometimes that’s exactly what you want.
Final Rating: 3.5/5: A big, goofy film for fans by fans.
P.S. Much as I didn’t care for D’Onofrio’s character or plotline, or the ‘vicious killer animals for the military’ trope in general, I will say that if they made the next film about trained dinosaurs hunting terrorists in the Middle East, it would be pretty much the greatest thing ever.