If you go into Jurassic World a bit skeptical, you have good reason. Mega-franchises rule the box office, crowding out original concepts with cinematic constructions designed to tantalize the senses with just enough thoughtless violence, humor and fan-service to separate film-goers from their cash. In such an environment, do we really trust Universal to bring back Steven Spielberg’s groundbreaking but progressively floundering franchise? Frankly, I didn’t, but let me reassure you that while director Colin Trevorrow and company can’t quite tap into the magic of Spielberg’s first two installments, Jurassic World stands head and shoulders above Jurassic Park III, cleverly satirizing contemporary blockbusters while supplying a heavy dose of digestible thrills and surprising heart.
Jurassic World demands immediate suspension of disbelief, as every one of these films does, with its assertion that twenty-two years after the initial disastrous attempt, John Hammond’s original dream park has finally opened to smashing success. But there’s a problem: just like real-life American consumers of entertainment, the visitors of Jurassic World have grown bored with normal dinosaurs, and just like their real-life American corporate counterparts, the powers that be have decided that fulfilling customers’ every desire is the most effective way to turn a profit. Bryce Dallas Howard plays Claire Dearing, the park operations manager, who opens her role by giving a tour to Verizon executives who have eagerly financed the genetic creation of a “cooler” and “scarier” carnivorous predator: the terrifying Indominus rex. She consults with Chris Pratt’s Velociraptor trainer Owen Grady, with whom she has an awkward romantic past, on the strength of the park’s containment strategies for their focus-group-crafted dinosaur. Predictably, the highly intelligent killing machine mounts an escape, and with Claire’s two nephews, the teenaged Zach (Nick Robinson) and Gray Mitchell (Ty Simpkins) visiting the park as their parents prepare for divorce, the park breaks down into a terrifying, hellish nightmare.
What sets the original Jurassic Park apart from the majority of horror/thriller/action films is not only Spielberg’s immense technical skill in drawing out both suspense and wonder, but also the film’s development of surprisingly thoughtful themes (man vs. nature, the questioning of what is natural and unnatural, fatherhood, corporate greed) throughout the narrative. These questions are not window dressing, but rather part and parcel of the narrative. Jurassic World wisely reintroduces these themes to the franchise, while adding an interesting commentary on the nature of entertainment, continually emphasizing the discontentment of the consumer and the horrific results when corporations feed human desire. Jurassic World, we are told, must continually introduce new and innovative attractions to its guests in order to stay relevant. Apparently, visitors have become tired of riding baby dinosaurs in the petting zoo or seeing a Tyrannosaurus rex in the flesh. Instead, InGen (that delightfully inept representation of corporate greed) creates its own dinosaur that will not only scare the kids but terrify the parents. Indominus rex and her rampage, then, becomes a literal embodiment of corporate excess, ambition and the insatiable desire for more.
Trevorrow also directs most of the action in a properly frightening manner, following the techniques of clear logic and discernible structure shunned by far too many films. An early sequence in the film is notable for humanizing a group of containment officers slaughtered by Indominus, characters normally treated as disposable fodder in lesser franchises. As the men are picked off, quick cuts to the control room draw attention to the men’s faces next to their rapidly flat-lining vital-signs. It’s a small detail, but one that admirably puts focus on the human tragedy rather than mere spectacle. Trevorrow, throughout the film, strives to hit this mixture of wonder and terror that Spielberg so often struck upon in films like Close Encounters, Jurassic Park, (and to a lesser extent The Lost World) and while he never quite reaches the existential dread of the first two dinosaur films, the presence of actual menace certainly elevates the action above other such fare. The film does stumble during an embarrassingly cartoonish and excessively violent mass flying dinosaur attack (a T-Rex/Pterodactyl genetic hybrid is particularly groan-inducing) but thankfully this proves to be the exception rather than the rule.
The infamous Velociraptors continue their evolution of intelligence, with Owen training them like attack dogs (a subplot involving InGen’s desire to develop them as a military technology is a clever insertion of President Eisenhower’s fear of the military-industrial complex, even if the character pushing the plan is laughably one-dimensional). Chris Pratt is an excellent choice for this role, imparting equal parts charm, swagger, and moral nobility. His performance in Guardians of the Galaxy may be the only truly redeeming element of that film, and audiences will be pleased to see his continual evolution into a Harrison Ford-esque action hero. Some occasionally poignant moral observations on the effect of parents upon children are hit upon through Claire, Zach and Gray’s characters, and a not-so-subtle critique of modern teenage detachment via technology is present as well.
In the end, fans of the Jurassic Park franchise will leave satisfied, and those craving originality may be pleasantly surprised at the extent to which this film rises above its blockbuster peers. Unfortunately, convenient plot contrivances rear their heads a few too many times, and Trevorrow’s cinematography is saddled with the mega-franchise tendency to anonymize visuals, but these flaws aren’t enough to seriously rain on the parade of human driven disaster. And that is the genius of a Jurassic Park film done right, as in the case of Jurassic World. At the end of the day, human beings gleefully signed off on this unnatural disaster.
There is a scene early in the film in which a bedazzled audience “oohs” and “aahs” at an underwater dinosaur. The frame is cut as if the real-life audience of Jurassic World has been presented a mirror image of themselves, a subversive moment of self-awareness. This moment speaks to why Jurassic World stands out from its mega-franchise peers: it dares to suggest that we, the viewers, consumers, and producers, might actually be part of the problem. Indominus rex is a beast that we have been complacent in creating.