It’s been an alarming 22 years since that guy from Seinfeld was eaten alive by a dilophosaurus. Back then, CGI still had the freshness to be able to capture our imaginations, but that’s not the case anymore. You can litter the screen with computer-generated creatures with 18 arms and blazing supernovas for eyes and you’ll still struggle to impress the blockbuster crowd.
So, taking that information on board, how the hell do you make a new Jurassic Park movie? Well, with Jurassic World, they not only took that information on board, they made it a part of the plot.
Jurassic World shows us an unsurprising, if not predictable, outcome for the legacy of DNA cauldron craft left behind by John Hammond. Rather than the abandoned and hostile ruins seen in Jurassic Park 3 (which is basically retconned out of existence by this film), Isla Nublar has been transformed into a new tourist retreat above and beyond Hammond’s ambitions. The enormous resort makes Bush Gardens look like a petting zoo operated by Ed, Edd n’ Eddy. It’s a teeming paradise of impressive but morally dubious dinosaur ‘experiences’. Kids can ride on an infant triceratops, there are kayak rides down a stream frequented by apatosaurus and parasaurolophus and a colossal aviary with flocks of pteranodon and dimorphodon (yes, I am showing off, what of it). There’s an even more impressive but equally fucked-up send up to SeaWorld’s Shamu show, in the form of a giant tank containing an 18-meter long mosasaurus, a distant cousin of the liopleurodon that so famously appeared in Walking with Dinosaurs (and Charlie the Unicorn, obviously).
The trouble is that, even with such incredible, God-defying attractions, people are getting bored. The park’s attendance rates are dropping as kids indifferently flick through Snapchat while a T-Rex is feeding right in front of them. This clever allegory for the never-satisfied smartphone generation is personified by Gray and Zach, two kids who have been bundled off on a trip to the island by their parents, seemingly for slightly more complex reasons than just showing their children a good time. The idea was that their aunt Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard), who happens to be the park’s operations manager, would chaperone them, but she has virtually no time for them. She barely knows them and she seems far more concerned with the park’s latest ploy to win back the affection of the jaded masses.
At the behest of the park’s billionaire, former oil baron owner Simon Masrani (Irrfan Khan, clearly having fun), the park’s genetics team have created the first hybrid dinosaur, known as the Indominus Rex (for reasons of being easy to pronounce). Built largely from T-Rex DNA, but containing a cocktail of other strands, the creature was designed from the outset to be the biggest, smartest, most frightening beast in the park and the result is a resounding success. Predictably though, it worked a little bit too well. While Gray is busy dragging his girl-obsessed older brother up and down the park, the Indominus (or ‘asset’ as it is coldly referred to by most of the staff) manages to get loose, killing two people in the process and sets off on a destructive path towards the main part of the resort.
The rest of the film is built around repeated attempts to contain (and then, failing that, kill) the rogue dinosaur as the management is dragged into an internal conflict between the people concerned with the well-being of the animals and guests and the InGen security team led by Vic Hoskins (Vincent D’Onofrio), who has been quietly evaluating the worth of the park’s velociraptors as military assets. This is the part of the film that’s caused the biggest stir among skeptics. In the trailer we see Chris Pratt‘s ‘raptor wrangler’ Owen Grady standing in an enclosure, flanked on all sides by velociraptors, seemingly having no trouble keeping them under control with hand signals and voice commands. Whilst that is exactly his job description in the film, the clip is kind of misleading. In truth, he only goes into the pen when another staff member falls in and they are both almost ripped to shreds as a result of the mistake. Grady has trained the raptors to respond to commands in exchange for food, but it’s a delicate balance.
That’s not to say things don’t take a turn for the ridiculous as the tension gets ramped up, but Jurassic World doesn’t fall into the same trap as the past two sequels and attempt to contextualise all the insanity with any measure of realism. The best bit of The Lost World (other than the amazing long grass sequence) was the part which had a T-Rex running amok in A Whale’s Vagina. I mean San Diego. Why? Because it was ludicrous. Most of the latter half of Jurassic World is basically that sequence with more dinosaurs and jacked up to 11. The humour never rolls back in favour of any kind of gritty realism and it ends up almost feeling more like Gremlins thanJurassic Park. Far from a bad thing, the film would never have been able to get away with the bonkers finale if it had made any attempt to convince you it was happening in a world that could actually exist, never mind the moment when Star-Lord actually shares a knowing look with one of his raptors.
It’s this part of the story where it is most evident that Rick Jaffa (writer of the last two Planet of the Apes films) headed up the script. The uneasy relationship between humans and dinosaurs is a key running theme and the raptors take centre stage. Throughout the film it’s made clear that they can’t be controlled, but they are willing to co-exist and the idea of how humanity reacts when it drops down a few rungs on the food chain is an interesting, engaging one. Seeing someone staring down a velociraptor as it quizzically tilts its head and lets out a sharp snort is just as tense as it was in the first film. All the dinosaurs in the film look great, but the raptors are as ghostly and unsettling as ever.
On the human side, Pratt does an excellent job as the pragmatic and capable Grady, but it is Bryce Dallas Howard who steals the show. Claire is diligent, rambunctious, and funny, but never makes any attempt to out-scream Laura Dern, blessedly. Zach and Gray are no Lex and Tim, but they’re still leagues ahead of that annoying short-round wannabe from the third film. This is also the first Jurassic entry not to feature a scientist as a protagonist, instead wisely opting for characters more likely to react to the circumstances in a way that audiences can more easily relate to. I still missed the shit out of Jeff Goldblum though. That’s chaos.
All the elements work together effectively enough; the characters manage to be almost uniformly engaging, despite the rushed, scattered nature of the film, and the contrived and overarching conspiracy plot-line explores enough bigger ideas to be appropriately thought-provoking. There’s a particularly sharply-scripted scene which has Masrani debating the ethics of the Indominus with B.D. Wong’s head scientist Henry Wu – the only character from the original film who appears. – “Monster is a relative term. To a canary, a cat is a monster, we’re just used to being the cats”. Most of the peril is played for darkly comedic effect, with the most disturbing death being the slow, lingering demise of an apatosaurus (with the possible exception of one puzzlingly brutal moment during the pteranodon attack) and the film never veers too steeply down the ‘what have we become’ route so heavily favoured by The Lost World.
It’s not often you stumble across a franchise revival that seems so uninterested in revitalising its franchise (although it does leave the sequel door hanging wide open). It’s a goofy, self-aware exploration of how Jurassic Park would fit into the current climate. It’s not going to capture the imaginations of today’s youth like its forebear did (and by God does it have a chip on its shoulder about that) but it is interesting, fun, and does the original more justice than anything else in cannon. For a film that seemed like it would struggle to stay above water in a year littered with bombastic blockbusters, it holds its own remarkably well.