Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard and Vincent D’Onofrio star in the franchise’s first installment in 14 years.
Intensely self-conscious of its status as a cultural commodity even as it devotedly follows the requisite playbook for mass-audience blockbuster fare, Jurassic World can reasonably lay claim to the No. 2 position among the four series entries, as it goes down quite a bit easier than the previous two sequels. The 14-year layoff since the last one may well have helped, in that the new film’s perspective on antiseptic, theme park-style tourism and relentless commercialization, while hardly radical, plainly announces its makers’ sense of humor about their own project’s multifaceted mercantile motives. Although not terribly scary, and closer to PG than R in its frights and gore, Universal’s big summer action release is sufficiently toothsome to make audiences everywhere happy for a return visit to a once-wild world that superficially looks as safe and domesticated as a Universal Studios tour.
The latest unlikely suspects to make the jump from quirky niche low-budget fare to big studio extravaganza filmmaking, director Colin Trevorrow and his screenwriting partner Derek Connolly in 2012 made the disarmingly offbeat and fringe-dwelling Safety Not Guaranteed, which scarcely looked like the kind of thing that would punch anyone’s ticket for the cinematic planet occupied and significantly owned by Steven Spielberg. For this outing, at least, Trevorrow has sidelined slow-burn drollery in favor of the requisite five-speed transmission and booming speaker system. But while the scale and generic nature of this sort of franchise endeavor almost inevitably homogenizes a variable amount of a personal filmmaker’s imprint, Trevorrow would seem to suggest that he has not irrevocably gone over to the other side but, rather, is testing some different waters for fun and profit.
It can also have only helped that the other screenwriters, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, had so smartly navigated a new approach to another recent sci-fi franchise about allegedly docile beasts gone wild with the new Planet of the Apes series. The first wise move was pretending that The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997) and Jurassic Park III (2001) never existed and that the world depicted here descends directly from Spielberg’s 1993 adaptation of Michael Crichton’s novel.
This line of reasoning takes us to a Costa Rican island serviced by large boats that bring hordes of tourists over to stay in humongous hotels and take trams through terrain occupied by genetically engineered herbivore dinosaurs so benign that they could have been playmates of Dinosaur Bob. Among the many new arrivals are two brothers, good-looking teenager Zach (Nick Robinson), who’s checked out mentally (as well as by the young ladies around), and younger, dweebier Gray (Ty Simpkins), who’s distraught over what he thinks is their parents’ imminent divorce.
The boys’ aunt, Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard), manages the park, has arranged VIP passes and is supposed to look out for them, but she’s too busy memorizing corporate speak, keeping her hair unmussed and strutting around the jungle in heels to pay them much heed. Her handsome erstwhile fling and former Navy guy Owen (Chris Pratt) is a sort of dinosaur whisperer who has established a certain understanding with some young raptors being raised in captivity, while the gung-ho Hoskins (Vincent D’Onofrio) has undertaken a controversial project to militarize the talents of the new breed of dinosaurs.
At the top of the food chain is billionaire Jurassic World owner Masrami (Irrfan Khan), whose response to a slight dip in profits is to keep building bigger and better dinosaurs; the current star attraction is a gigantic sea creature that zooms straight up out of its pool to swallow in one gulp a great white shark dangling from a hook above, a spectacle which one is inclined to interpret as a sly admission by Spielberg as to how far the world has moved on since Jaws.
But management’s secret project, engineered by brilliant, amoral scientist Henry Wu (BD Wong), is an enormous new T. rex-like predator that goes by the name “Indominus rex” and is sure to send revenues soaring once again. The main objectives of the script are to work out the timing and net result of Indominus’ escape, whom he should eat and how many close calls can be arranged with characters who are clearly not meant to die; those whose fate it is to become dino chow pretty much have signs pinned to their backs from the get-go.
Despite the story’s formulaic structure and the predictable nature of its cautionary stance on playing God, the old-fashioned Saturday matinee-like pleasures stemming from resourceful derring-do in the face of mighty odds retain an appeal — if done reasonably well — which is the case here. The action only occasionally rises to rousing, and the romance, such as it is, between the watered-down Indiana Jones type appealingly played by Pratt and the corporate mouthpiece less engagingly embodied by Howard, never gets off the ground. What’s more, the two brothers are thinly drawn, with the older one in particular remaining off-putting for far too long behind his ever-present earphones.
Still, there’s a certain low-key affability about Trevorrow’s approach that marks him a likeable humanist rather than a director determined to hammer the viewer into submission, which unfortunately is what you feel with too many giant franchise projects such as this. This is, after all, a story about humankind’s fallibility, hubris and inclination to bring destruction upon itself, and one at least feels little tremors of this awareness leaking out between the creatures’ deafening stomps and roars.
On the whole, the film successfully steers clear of a significant CGI look and Michael Giacchino’s score skillfully takes certain cues from John Williams’ prior series work but develops a pronounced character of its own.
Production: Amblin Entertainment
Cast: Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Vincent D’Onofrio, Ty Simpkins, Nick Robinson, Jake Johnson, Omar Sy, BD Wong, Judy Greer, Irrfan Khan
Director: Colin Trevorrow
Screenwriters: Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Derek Connolly, Colin Trevorrow; story by Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, based on characters created by Michael Crichton
Producers: Frank Marshall, Patrick Crowley
Executive producers: Steven Spielberg, Thomas Tull
Director of photography: John Schwartzman
Production designer: Ed Verreaux
Costume designers: April Ferry, Daniel Orlandi
Editor: Kevin Stitt
Music: Michael Giacchino
Visual effects supervisor: Tim Alexander
Casting: John Papsidera
Rated PG-13, 124 minutes