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June 23, 2015

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Review: Jurassic World

They were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn't stop to think if they should.
Listen to our podcast on Jurassic World here. And for our podcast on the rest of the Jurassic Park franchise, click here.

This review contains heavy spoilers.

"A few more years development 
and we won't even have to dig anymore."

"Where's the fun in that?"

A key scene in Steven Spielberg's original Jurassic Park is set over Chilean sea bass. You know the one. John Hammond has just finished showing off his masterstroke to some of the world's finest scientists. He's given them living recreations of the most fearsome and impressive beasts in all of history. They should be in awe, overwhelmed by Hammond's quantum leap in genetic science. But they're not. They're terrified. Concerned. Appalled by Hammond's reckless presumption. The only one he's got on his side is the bloodsucking lawyer. 

The ensuing chaos supports their thesis: Life will not be contained, managed, or scheduled. Just because we can manipulate genetics does not mean we understand it. We are, as ever, victims of cruel hubris and inflated ego. The crucial misstep of Jurassic Park was believing that our place atop the food chain is irrefutable and of our own design. Thankfully, the surviving characters can reflect on these lessons and stand in proper reverence of the awesome power of life.

Jurassic World ignores all that boring stuff because it would be cool if Chris Pratt could train velociraptors to play hide-and-seek. 

Twenty-two years after John Hammond's failure, Jurassic World has opened to the public. Boss lady Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) is a cold taskmaster, seeing the dinosaurs as "assets" and concerning herself only with the bottom line. Her latest plan to boost attendance is the Indominus Rex, a mutated bastard species born of the tinkering of Dr. Wu (B.D. Wong). Hunky raptor trainer Owen (Chris Pratt) thinks this is a bad idea, and Claire's nephews (Nick Robinson and Ty Simpkins) arrive just in time to prove it. Meanwhile, bad guy Hoskins (Vincent D'Onofrio) sees the escape of the I-Rex as an opportunity to weaponize Owen's raptors for military use. Shit, meet fan.

If all this sounds a bit predictable, it should. The key to understanding Jurassic World is accepting that it just does not care. It doesn't care about its dinosaurs. It doesn't care about its characters. It doesn't care about developing themes or ideas. It doesn't care about compelling action. Its primary concern is rebooting the Jurassic IP for new audiences and feeding the nostalgia monster that has all but consumed pop culture as a whole. It's reckless and stupid, standing on the shoulders of geniuses and calling itself tall. John Hammond would be proud.

The most remarkable thing about Jurassic World is its contempt for the audience. Consider the Indominus Rex. Dr. Wu creates it because spectators want bigger, flashier animals with more teeth. This makes sense and parallels nicely as meta commentary, since Jurassic World exists for similar reasons. But what story function does it serve? It gains and loses special abilities as the plot demands, murders other animals at random, and is defeated at the hands of a truly staggering deus ex machina. It's thematically muddled, as well. Is it supposed to prove that we shouldn't mess with genetics, that doing so creates monsters rather than animals? That would explain why it kills for sport rather than nourishment. But then Dr. Wu reminds us that all of the dinosaurs are products of genetic tampering. What's the message, here? Worst of all, though, is that no one wants to take responsibility for it. Claire is an administrator with no love for the animals, and Dr. Wu blames everything on park owner Simon Masrani (Irrfan Kahn). A loud, bastardized mess lacking a strong guiding hand? Sounds familiar. 

Consider also Programmer Guy Lowery (Jake Johnson), the one in the Jurassic Park t-shirt whose only job is lamenting the loss of the original park. World thinks it's being clever by having a character carry a torch for the original film. It thinks that acknowledging obstinate fan boys like me will deflate our argument, but instead it's the ultimate surrender. "We know this isn't as good as the first one, so just sit down and shut up." How am I supposed to get invested in a film that is making excuses for itself in the first twenty minutes?  

And yes, it's usually counterproductive to compare a sequel to the original, but Jurassic World is begging for it, almost daring us. It somehow relishes in the nostalgia of Jurassic Park while failing to apply any of its essential themes. The first film taught us that life finds a way, but this film meanders on in search of nothing at all. There are no attempts to correct Hammond's mistakes or embrace the advances in science and technology that have arisen since 1993. There are no new perspectives or round table debates. There's no thesis to test. It's all flatly ignored. But look! One of those red Jeeps from the first one! Isn't that cool?

Speaking of flat, Jurassic World is populated by sterile caricatures who serve little purpose other than to annoy the shit out of me. Claire is comically underwritten. She's never taken to task for her actions in any meaningful way, and it seems only by virtue of gender that she's given a love subplot with Owen. She allegedly learns that dinosaurs are animals, not just assets, but how she does so doesn't seem to matter. Her nephews are intensely unlikable, lacking any of the complexity of Lex and Tim from Park (and it's a stretch to call them complex). Dr. Wu is completely wasted as a paltry sub-villain (his role in the first film isn't even mentioned). Masrani argues for the preservation of Hammond's legacy (sparing no expense) in one scene, and then argues against killing the I-Rex because it was expensive to develop in another. Whatever. A bright spot might be Vincent D'Onofrio, who knows exactly the film he's in and hams it up the whole way. 

And then there's Owen. Let's get one thing straight: Chris Pratt's strengths as an actor are humility and self-debasement. His Andy on Parks and Recreation and Star-Lord in Guardians of the Galaxy work because they have a roguish imperfection. They're bumbling, but brave and pure of heart. Pratt will make a great Indiana Jones one day. Here, though, he's playing it laughably straight. He's a generic hero, Blue Steeling at the camera and flexing his biceps. He's never wrong and never challenged. His awful one-liners sound like they came from Burt Macklin, Pratt's fictional FBI agent on P&R. They work there because we can laugh at them, but in World it's all just sad. 

But you're probably arguing that the real stars here are the dinosaurs. Normally, I'd agree. They certainly were in Park. That film took its time constructing elaborate set pieces that showcased their beauty and menace. Each one had a sense of scale and a real impact on the proceedings. Here, they're cartoonish and their scenes are rushed and flat. Remember how dangerous the velociraptors used to feel? They don't even put a roof on their paddock in World. Aren't they astonishing jumpers? The I-Rex vs. T-Rex battle in the climax would have been exciting if we hadn't already seen something similar in Jurassic Park III. One interesting bit would have been if Owen had to pay off the whole Alpha thing they set up earlier, but that dynamic is abandoned and the I-Rex immediately takes control of the raptors. The film loses interest in the dinosaurs as quickly as everything else. Owen looked cool motorcycling next to the raptors in that one shot though, so who needs consistency or character development? 

And that brings us back to the initial point. Who cares? Jurassic World has already broken box office records. It sells toys. It's got dinosaurs and explosions. It works in all the ways that matter to most, but years from now I'll be waving a cane at the kids on my lawn because I still believe movies should tell stories. I still believe that Jurassic Park was about more than cool animals doing cool things. It was about the power of creation and the danger of wielding it without care. What is Jurassic World about? Does it matter?

Rob writes and podcasts for The Ugly Club. Jurassic World is in theaters now. 


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