New Dinosaurs, Old Plot

Jurrasic World is big, loud movie with a smaller, quieter movie inside of it, peeking out at unexpected moments.

InGen, the biotech company with the world’s worst luck (and, apparently, the world’s best PR department) is at it again. A new generation of gene-spliced dinosaurs is alive and well in the jungles of Isla Nublar, off the coast of Costa Rica, and a new theme park has been built to show them off to the public. It has an on-site resort, a high-tech monorail, and a fleet of gyro stabilized, human-size hamster balls that let guests see the main attraction up close—everything, in fact except a plan for what to do if things go wrong. Welcome to Jurassic World.

Jurassic World is a sequel to Jurassic Park, but it’s also an unacknowledged remake that hits many of the same dramatic beats. Once again, scientists who should know better underestimate the capabilities of the dinosaurs they created in their labs. Once again, a pair of kids visiting a highly placed park employee are put in danger when their transportation breaks down. Once again, a dinosaur-expert hero with deep reservations about the whole enterprise has to find them and bring them home safely. The supporting characters are new names and faces attached to old, familiar identities: the eccentric billionaire, the female sidekick, the sardonic control-room tech, and the Designated Bad Guy—so cartoonish that he seems to have wandered in from another movie.

On one level, none of this matters. Jurassic World, like Jurassic Park before it, is all about the dinosaurs. The plot, characters, setting, and everything else are—like the trestles and tracks of a roller coaster—just a mechanism for efficiently delivering the audience from one “Wow!” moment to the next. The framework that Steven Spielberg created for Jurassic Park still holds up after more than twenty years, and Jurassic World updates it with more elaborate chases, narrower escapes, and a stable of shiny-new CGI dinosaurs. It delivers on all the action-adventure promises made in the trailers, and director Colin Trevorrow—whose affection for the original is obvious—tucks in subtle references to it that will make long-time fans smile.

On another level, though, the fact that Jurassic World is a quasi-remake of a classic is its biggest problem. Trevorrow (who also co-wrote the script) has some of Steven Spielberg’s ability to create small, quiet character-defining scenes, but none of his gift for staging complex action scenes or pacing movies where the central question is, “Who’s gonna die next?”

The A-plot, about a chain reaction of events that plunges the park into chaos, is a hot mess of coincidences, loose ends, and smart people doing bone-headed things. It also depends on InGen having learned nothing from the events of the first film, even lessons as basic as “genetically engineered dinosaurs are unpredictable.” The B-plot, about the Designated Bad Guy using the chaos as an opportunity to advance his own evil schemes, makes the A-plot look like Inception or The Prestige. Literally nothing about it makes sense, from the characters’ plans to their apparent lack of concern about having hundreds of tourists as potential witnesses.

Jurassic Park moves forward with such smooth assurance that its plot-holes and coincidences whiz past, barely noticed. Jurassic World, as it lurches and staggers between its big computer-animated set pieces, offers far too many chances to ask: “Wait … what?” Why don’t the security teams have weapons bigger than rifles? Why doesn’t the park’s operations director keep a set of field clothes in her office? Why can a pterosaur that feeds on fish and insects effortlessly carry off a 100-pound woman? Why would it want to?

Jurassic World is populated almost entirely by modestly famous actors who do the best they can with characters that range from underwritten to non-existent. Chris Pratt, best known for Guardians of the Galaxy, is amiable but not especially memorable as Owen Grady: a navy veteran who, for reasons the film doesn’t even try to explain, is the park’s resident expert on dinosaur behavior. Vincent D’Onofrio, playing Hoskins, the Designated Bad Guy, chews the scenery so enthusiastically that he seems to be auditioning for the arch-villain role in some future James Bond movie. If the makeup artists had allotted him a moustache, he would, surely, have spent much of the film twirling it.

Irrfan Khan, as the Elon-Musk-like billionaire behind the park, and B. D. Wong, reprising his role as chief scientist Henry Wu from Jurassic Park, make the most of their relatively small numbers of scenes, taking what are essentially stock characters in unexpected directions. Their single scene together—the scientist, watching his world crumble around him, calling out the billionaire for his own role in the disaster—is the easily the best character moment in the film.

The Jurassic Park films have never done well by their female characters, who (even when they’re presented as tough, independent field scientists) fade into the background or become conventional damsels-in-distress once the action begins. Bryce Dallas Howard, as a park executive playing host to her two nephews, fares only slightly better in Jurassic World. Her character, Claire, spends the second half of the film working with Owen, the navy-trained dinosaur whisperer, to rescue the boys: driving, shooting, and going nose-to-nose with a Tyrannosaurus rex. Unfortunately, she’s written as a catalog of clichés—the single woman as awkward surrogate mother, the sleek corporate executive drawn to the rough-hewn outdoorsman, the girly-girl who wears high heels in the jungle—that her action-hero skills, which come out of nowhere, feel like one more.

Claire’s single best moment is, sadly, relegated in the “Deleted Scenes” section of the DVD, rather than in the film itself. Tracking the boys through dinosaur territory, she and Owen come upon a waist-high pile of dinosaur dung, and he tells her to rub it on her skin to mask the scent of “that vanilla-scented lotion” she’s wearing. The scene seems poised to add yet another layer of cliché to Claire (the haughty woman, humbled), and Owen—who grins and asks “Ready?” as he prepares to rub it on her lower legs—anticipates it with pleasure.

Trevorrow and Howard, however, deftly subvert the scene. Taking a deep breath and declaring “I’m perfectly capable of doing it myself,” she props a foot on the dung pile and, hiking her below-the-knee skirt well past mid-thigh, makes an elaborate show of spreading the goo on her legs, chest, and throat. Finishing, she holds out her dung-smeared hands, and fixes the clearly discomfited Owen with a defiant look that says: “Okay, tough guy, what next?”

Trevorrow doubtless cut the scene to shorten the distance between dinosaur encounters; he was, after all, making Jurassic World, not a romantic comedy. Other, shorter grace notes remain, though, and in the seconds and minutes they’re on screen they provide pleasures that have nothing to do with dinosaurs. Henry Wu calmly, rationally argues against an order to dismantle his lab, his expression the only sign that he’s dying inside.

Zach, Claire’s teenaged nephew, looks suitably mortified as his girlfriend kisses him and tells him she loves him in full view of his waiting parents and little brother. Lowery, a control-room technician, proudly rattles on to Claire about the souvenir t-shirt from the first, ill-fated Jurassic Park he is wearing (“$150 on eBay, but mint-condition ones go for…”), oblivious to her icy disapproval. Later, as Lowery says good-bye to a female co-worker after volunteering to stay behind on the island, Trevorrow repeats the cinematic judo of the dung-pile scene: setting up a familiar cliché and then deftly flipping it on its head.

Jurassic World is a big, loud, dumb movie with a smaller, quieter, smarter movie inside it, peeking out at unexpected moments. The dinosaurs are spectacular, and—if you don’t think too hard about the plot—the film itself works as a cinematic thrill-ride. Many of Jurassic World’s best moments, though, are quiet, dinosaur-free ones when real, interestingly quirky people briefly emerge from behind the two-dimensional facades of the characters. Monster movies rarely leave you wishing for a little more time with the humans, even if it means a little less time with the monster, but Jurassic World, in its clumsy way, does just that.

The three-disc package reviewed here includes a standard DVD as well as 2D and 3D Blu-Ray disks and a code for a digital HD download. Bonus features include six minutes of deleted scenes (all small character moments), a painfully awkward conversation between Pratt and Trevorrow, several brief behind-the-scenes featurettes, and a compilation of “close shaves” from throughout the franchise.

RATING 6 / 10