Despite an island’s worth of good intentions, Jurassic World is an uneven movie in a lot of ways. The human characters basically don’t work, the movie wallows in nostalgia, and the story is murky. But where it counts — beautiful dinosaur action! — this movie delivers enough to make us remember why we love these beasts.
There’s always a moment when an action movie clicks into place. Not the big set pieces (which don’t work unless you’ve already connected to the movie), but that beat that sets up what the movie wants—that shot, that music cue, that line. And the earlier it happens in the movie, the better, since that moment indicates a confidence of tone that gives us permission to relax: the movie can take things from here. They’re especially familiar as calling cards for summer tentpole movies. Though many of them end up in the trailers and lose that spark of surprise, a good movie will be able to prop up its big moments time and time again. Jurassic World, which opens today, is the latest in a franchise that became part of the cinema pantheon as soon as Sam Neill blinked back tears and looked out over a valley of resurrection.
The good news about Jurassic World is that when its moment comes, a throwback reflected in glass, it signals all the epic humanity-vs.-nature, dino-fight greatness you’ve been hoping for. The bad news is that in a movie that’s all about bigger/better/more, the movie tries for that moment long before it actually gets there.
In some ways, that’s not a surprise. Jurassic Park is an iconic summer blockbuster—the one that took the concepts underlying Jaws and raised them into a family-friendly, over-the-top legend. Filled with savvy characters who knew their stuff (plus some adorable moppets and smarmy cannon fodder, for flavor), it managed to suggest that a dinosaur theme park would be as impossible as it was awesome.
Richard Attenborough felt the sting when John Hammond’s dream was definitively deferred, Laura Dern’s Dr. Ellie Satler got shit done for 90 minutes, and as mathematician and chaos theorist Dr. Ian Malcolm, Jeff Goldblum perfected the Meta Bystander. Not everything aged well (besides the laughably quaint computers, maybe Dr. Malcolm could stop hitting on Dr. Satler for two seconds? Thanks), but the practical and computer effects set a standard that’s still talked about, and Steven Spielberg’s directing means the whole thing is meticulously constructed. It’s such a landmark it’s been able to maintain its legacy under the weight of countless imitators, from big-budget flicks to Syfy monster movies.
But Jurassic Park is also self-aware enough that even as the franchise expanded, its two uneven sequels were always in conversation with the original. Each tried to top the dangers of the original, with mixed results—dinos rampaging in California! Pteranodons on the loose! But recurring characters provided an anchor even in the strangest plot points, and offered a commentary on the hubris of InGen’s greed and on the foolishness of any newcomers, who got less and less able to avoid disaster without instruction from one of the veterans (accidental acknowledgment that the movies were getting slowly sillier).
And though the franchise had kind of lost the plot by Jurassic Park III, it’s a world lived-in enough that we take it as a given that the original Isla Nublar incident got famous, made or broke careers, and is intriguing enough to keep going back. The series shows us that dinosaurs can never be contained, even as it makes clear that seeing them is going to be pretty badass for anyone who doesn’t get eaten.
Jurassic World tries to evoke both those things early on, with a majestic sweep over Isla Nublar’s bustling Jurassic World theme park, which has been busy calibrating dinosaurs for the crowds. And we spend plenty of time in the World, sitting in on the water shows, admiring 3D holo-dinos, and spotting Mr. DNA.
But the world’s gotten jaded about seeing resurrected dinosaurs. Early on, B.D. Wong (one of the original Isla Nublar scientists who was somehow convinced to rejoin the project—the magic of dinosaurs!) pops up to remind us that this science is unreliable, and that the public’s appetite for “bigger, louder, more teeth” will backfire.
And of course it will! We know it will! What would be the point of a two-hour walkthrough of a theme park featuring well-behaved dinosaurs and overpriced merch? (Though merch there definitely is. To have a running theme about the dangers of corporate greed in a movie that’s wallpapered in sponsors is either oblivious or very bold.) The thrill of a Jurassic movie is waiting for everything to go to hell, and watching our protagonists outwit the majestic killers of yore.
And yore is well-represented here! For all the warnings the movie delivers about nostalgia, it doesn’t hesitate to draw on the legacy of the original in order to tug on your nostalgia strings, and though the movie tries to poke fun at this, too. It’s orchestra-swellingly earnest about every glimpse we can get of the prototype park, from the old entry gates onward.
The nostalgia makes sense, particularly given how much this movie’s structure mirrors the original’s — but it’s always dangerous to invoke something beloved in something that’s trying to surpass it. (An audience might end up more nostalgic for that first go-round than the one they’re watching.) And Jurassic World leans a lot on signposts from the first movie, in order to bring weight to otherwise-throwaway moments. In fact, the original Park ends up being one of the best-drawn characters in the movie. Then again, that’s not saying much.
You’re going to get archetypes in every action movie, and a Jurassic movie is going to have its particular standbys: the genial but mistaken benefactor, the greedy villain, the intuitive dinosaur whisperer, the snarky commentator, the company shill. But this time, that corporate shill is Claire, Operations Manager of Jurassic World, so prim she’s dressed entirely in white and so job-oriented she’s dismissed as a nitpicky control freak by nearly everyone she speaks to.
In a series where women scientists have been no-big-deal members of the ensemble more than once, this feels like a step backward. Not because she’s not a scientist, but because the movie sets her up as the ineffectual person at fault, who has to be taken down a peg to earn her dino stripes. You’ve probably already heard that she spends much of the movie running in high heels. And it’s arguably distracting to her character to focus on her shoes, except that they so neatly sum up how we’re meant to see her that they seem, in the end, a fitting avatar.
It doesn’t help that Chris Pratt—playing raptor-training alpha male Owen—was clearly asked to bring intensity, rather than any of his trademark charm. This works in scenes where you have to be convinced that he’s facing down four itchy raptors, but draining Pratt of his usual puckish quality means his scenes with Claire start out painfully condescending, and never really get less awkward. Paired with the latest iterations of Central Casting moppet and angsty teen, plus a host of characters so perfunctory, we barely learn their names — and it’s clear that this time around, we’re just treading water until the Indominus Rex shows up.
When she does, it’s predictably showstopping. The dinosaurs are, of course, where Jurassic World’s heart is. The movie lags in its setup and skimps on characterizations, but director Colin Trevorrow draws gleefully from monster traditions far and wide to make sure the monsters are the main attraction.
The quad of raptors is the most plotty of the old favorites, but this movie’s as in love with dinosaurs as B.D. Wong himself ever could be. This newly-minted Rex stalks her paddock like the Great White from Jaws. A fight between the Indominus and some armored Ankylosaurs is choreographed like a martial-arts showdown. Dinosaurs lurch into battle across the Park, with all the civilization-stomping gravitas of Godzilla.
Trevorrow manages to keep the action intense and immediate, but the camera work crisp enough that you’re rarely overwhelmed (even in 3D, which is saying something). Meanwhile, the effects are a little modern-glossy in places, but the team imbues the dinosaurs with enough personality that we still get that same old thrill just from seeing them prepare to take back what’s theirs.
So Jurassic World has a lot of flaws: The human stakes falter, there’s a little too much reliance on nostalgia at the expense of any present resonance, and every so often things run a bit aground on their own inventiveness (that scene of Pratt manfully guiding the Raptor pack on his bike does not become any less hilarious in context).
Does the movie bring anything new to this twenty-year-old franchise? Not really; all the DNA splices in the world can’t disguise that this one went back to an old drawing board. But this movie knows and loves those dinosaurs — and after all, that’s what keeps us coming back to Jurassic Park time and time again.