The park is finally open. Two decades ago, fictional bioengineering titan John Hammond tried to give the public a theme park with living, breathing dinosaurs as the main attraction. This “Jurassic Park” was a disaster in the world of the movie’s franchise, but Hammond’s successors have a new park up and running twenty years later. As you might expect, most of the action in Jurassic World comes from things going horribly, horribly wrong. Unfortunately for the movie, the storytelling mirrors the plot. An unwieldy, bloated structure keeps the film from gaining any type of forward momentum. Watching it gave me a whole new respect for the incredibly tight construction of the original Jurassic Park, a movie I already greatly admired.
The film opens with brothers Zach and Gray Mitchell (Nick Robinson and Ty Simpkins) leaving home to spend a week with their aunt Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard), who is the operations manager for Jurassic World. Zach is in his mid-teens, so he’s at that age where he considers spending a week at a theme park – even one featuring genetically modified dinosaurs – very uncool. This is in contrast to the younger Gray, who loves all things dinosaurs and can’t wait to explore the park. That’s the first of approximately a dozen subplots the six credited writers shoehorn into the story. Among the others we have: the hero who has chosen career over family (Claire), the park’s head of security (Vincent D’Onofrio, who chews scenery like Pez here) wanting to weaponize the dinosaurs for the U.S. military (yes, really), and Jurassic World’s billionaire owner (Irrfan Khan) learning to fly a helicopter. He clearly knows his disaster movies. Someone has to know how to fly the helicopter in the third act! The movie even takes the time to detour for one scene – just one scene! – to deal with the brothers’ fear of their parents getting a divorce. The topic is clumsily handled, and then disappears, never to be mentioned again. There is an attempt at an emotional payoff by the end, but it’s a payoff the movie hasn’t earned.
The main focus of Jurassic World, amidst all these dramatic machinations, is the creation of a brand new species of dinosaur, cooked up in the lab by the park’s genetic scientists. The crowds are fickle, and attendance rates have been dropping. In order to fix that, Claire has overseen the creation of this new breed of terrible lizard. They go with the name Indominus rex (chosen because it’s easy for the common folk to pronounce), and are meeting with a potential corporate sponsor for the creature when all hell breaks loose. I mention the corporate sponsor bit because Jurassic World itself suffers from overabundant product placement, and not with an ironic wink. The movie treats Claire’s passion for increased quarterly profits and tightly focused marketing strategies with disdain, yet in a shameless example of brand synergy by Universal (the studio that produced Jurassic World, and owns NBC, home of The Tonight Show); the media conglomerate crams Jimmy Fallon into an unfunny cameo. Playing fast and loose with the safety of customers in order to increase profits might be a plot point, but that doesn’t mean Universal can’t use the movie as an opportunity to sell, sell, sell.
The real hero of the movie arrives in the form of Owen Grady, a Velociraptor trainer (yes, you really just read that) employed by the theme park. Grady, as played by Chris Pratt, is a no-nonsense type who is cool under pressure, and exudes the confidence that he’s the one who can save the day. I like Chris Pratt, but there’s just a little something missing here. In Guardians of the Galaxy, his first big film role after being noticed on the TV sitcom Parks and Recreation, Pratt employs a sense of sarcastic irony in a really effective way. He doesn’t do that here, and as a result his performance comes off as a little bland. That might not be fair to the actor, since he was only working with the character he was given. It's a character with no story arc. Being selected as Hollywood’s new blockbuster movie idol, I’m sure Prat will get an irony free character worked out eventually. I said the real hero of the movie is Owen Grady, but that’s not entirely fair. Bryce Dallas Howard does a fine job as Claire. She impressed me during the action scenes in particular. Howard holds her own in these sequences alongside Pratt, and she made me believe she was actually dodging every digital dinosaur the movie threw at her.
Those computer-generated terrors are the best money can buy, and for the most part they look great. Any weaknesses become evident because of the amount of screen time they occupy. If you see the creatures too much, the magic spell is broken, and that’s what happened for me during Jurassic World. The digital effects in the original Jurassic Park are still held in very high regard by many people. The last time I watched the movie was during the theatrical revival celebrating its 20th anniversary, in 2013 – the perfect time to shamelessly cash in on 3-D conversion technology. That was the first time I noticed a few flaws with the dinosaurs, and the first time the film showed its age. The fact that it took two decades for the film to lose some of its luster is impressive.
But, I think how well the first film holds up has less to do with the special effects, and more to do with what makes Steven Spielberg a masterful filmmaker. Jurassic Park is a perfect example of how rhythm and pacing should work in a monster movie. The cat-and-mouse games between the dinos and humans are meticulously constructed. This creates a much richer experience for the viewer. Unfortunately for director Colin Trevorrow, he proves he doesn’t have the same understanding. His movie has none of the same heart-racing pace. The story includes too much to be satisfying. Despite the mega-budget on display, Jurassic World pales in comparison to the original, and it reminded me that when it comes to movie monsters, the suspense of the chase is what really matters.