Monday, June 15, 2015
Jurassic World (***)
Directed by Colin Trevorrow
Before Jurassic World even starts, we know that the logic here is all wrong. If we're meant to believe that all of the Jurassic films exist in the same universe (and there's no reason why we shouldn't) then it's patently ridiculous that at this point - after three separate, horrible incidents involving genetically-engineered dinosaurs killing multiple innocent people - to contemplate that within this same universe, intelligent people would think that it is, in fact, okay to fill a theme park with these same dinosaurs. Is there anyway you can even fathom this happening in our current reality? One of the smartest things that Jurassic World does is acknowledge its franchise's violent past, but only with the original, iconic Jurassic Park from 1993. Jurassic Park is still, in 2015, a fascinating film that still has the capacity for wonder; it's about as logical as it can be, considering its subject matter. It's two subsequent sequels, The Lost World and Jurassic Park III, are failures because they exist within that logic - mainly, that we'd still be trying to keep dinosaurs in controlled captivity after the tragedies in the first film. Luckily, Jurassic World, coming out twenty-two years after Park, doesn't hold itself to that same standard. It understands its own ridiculousness, and wears it like a badge of honor. It doesn't aspire toward intelligence, it aspires toward adventure, and the result is probably the best film in the franchise since the original classic.
The events of Jurassic World take place in somebody's idea of the present. Twenty-two years later, the dino-curious billionaire John Hammond's dream of a dinosaur theme park is truly a reality. It's been running for ten years now without any issues, other than trying to meet the demands of an ever-unsatisfied customer base. The park is now owned by Simon Masrani (Irrfan Kahn), a laid back moneymaker who leaves the day-to-day management of the park to Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard), a steely, uptight business woman who has no time for anything outside of her job. Simon and Claire begin to give in to the public pressure for more exciting attractions, and allow their genetics scientists, led by Dr. Henry Wu (BD Wong), to genetically engineer a new, never-before-seen species of dinosaur called the Indominus Rex. The Indominus is a splice between several different species, but the recipe of this dino cocktail is kept top secret, only Dr. Wu knows. This plan does not sit well with Owen Grady (Chris Pratt), a field dinosaur expert and velociraptor trainer. Owen's developed a relationship with certain dinosaurs unlike anyone else who has tried, but he still understands the unpredictability of their kind. Creating a more fierce creature can only bring unforeseen chaos, unlike any of the previous incidents they've seen before. Owen knows that his warnings will fall on deaf ears, but he makes his opinions known anyway.
In this particularly busy time, Claire must also deal with the arrival of her two nephews: the too-cool high schooler Zach (Nick Robinson) and his younger, excitable brother Grey (Ty Simpkins). Grey is overcome with expectation upon arriving at the park, dinosaurs being a major obsession of his, but Zach could care less, caring more about any girl of similar age that comes in their path. The boys expect to spend their time with their aunt Claire, but soon realize that she cannot spare a single moment and are left to be chaperoned by Claire's equally cellphone-addicted assistant Zara (Katie McGrath). The two boys quickly manage to get away from Zara, and take to the park on their own, Grey eagerly watching all the exhibits, including a kiddy park where children ride a baby Triceratops, and viewing booth to witness the T-Rex eat a goat. When they partake in one of the park's main attractions, the Gyrosphere (a motorized glass bubble that rolls around like a hamster wheel, keeping patrons safe inside as they get a close-up look at various, less-dangerous dinos), the park itself gets some unfortunate news. While Claire attempts to show Owen their new Indominus, the incredibly intelligent dinosaur hides itself for long enough to break out of captivity when the gates are opened. As it schemes through the park, Owen's worst fears come true: unaware of its own freedom and with no previous interaction with other dinosaurs, the Indominus becomes a monster, killing out of bloodlust instead of the hunt.
As the park sends its tens of thousands of patrons indoors, Claire frantically tries to find Zach and Grey, and deputizes Owen to help her. The boys, adventuring out in the gyrosphere while all hell was breaking loose, get their own up-close-and-personal meeting with the Indominus which they barely survive. With Claire combing the park with Owen, Masrani is advised by Hoskins (Vincent D'Onofrio), the head of security, to go along with his plan: weaponizing Owen's raptors. Hoskins, impressed by Owen's ability to "control" the raptors feels convinced that they'd be the perfect choice for militarization, and this security breach provides him with the ideal opportunity to prove his point. If that plans sounds absolutely insane, that's because it is. Everybody thinks so, including the park's control room operator, Lowery (Jake Johnson, in perfect comic relief mode), and his partner Vivian (Lauren Lapkus), but with Claire and Owen out within the chaos and Masrani running out of answers, Hoskins uses the vulnerability of the situation to go along with his plan. Hoskins' concept, which seems wrought without much in the way of critical thinking, obviously fails and things go from bad to worse as Claire and Owen do their best to stop the seemingly unstoppable Indominus Rex while they have the chance.
I don't know if the Jurassic Park films are a "dumb" franchise. The first film felt as brilliant as its two sequels felt uninspired. When telling this kind of ungrounded tale (based on a best-selling Michael Crichton novel), it's important to know your limits and play within them. Steven Spielberg directed the original Jurassic Park and The Lost World, and has been a producer on all the films, including this one. Spielberg is one of Hollywood's most refined minds, and is probably the greatest film director ever when it comes to directing intelligent films that can reach a broad audience. For Jurassic World, Spielberg passes the keys to Colin Trevorrow, a young-ish director who's only other film was 2012's Safety Not Guaranteed, which is a maddeningly simplistic film about some pretty major psychological issues (it's only above-average moments come from an assured and hilarious supporting performance from Jake Johnson). Trevorrow is doing much better work here. The larger scale agrees with him; his apparent disinterest in crafting realistic, three-dimensional characters is less apparent. He knows how to manage a starry cast with the likes of Pratt and Howard - allowing Pratt to deliver on his well-known comedic timing, and letting Howard bring her patented enigmatic allure to let Claire evolve into a more caring woman - but still let the dinosaurs be the stars.
Trevorrow is following the Spielberg model, even mirroring the legendary director's obsession with the American family. We learn early on that Grey fears the oncoming divorce of his parents (played by Judy Greer and Andy Buckley), and we see as Owen and Claire fill the parental roles that Grey needs. All the while, Claire learns of the maternal instincts she's been suppressing inside. This is nothing new, Sam Neil's Alan Grant has an arc similar to Claire in Park, and Spielberg has always seen the American family as sanctimonious and the ultimate goal. This movie is a little less subtle about it though, Trevorrow doesn't yet own the pulse of the American people the way Spielberg does. (It's also apropos to mention that times may finally be changing on Spielberg's worldview. Our films and television shows are becoming darker. Is there still room for his sentimental idealism? Probably.) What Trevorrow lacks in manipulative skill, he more than makes up for with product placement. Whether watching Pratt enjoy a glass bottle of Coke while fixing his motorcycle, or catching a glimpse of a poster of Pandora jewelry while the Indominus destroys the park, its good to know there was no revenue opportunity left behind. It's funny to think that entrance into the film's theme park requires all of the patrons to turn in their cell phones and pick up a Samsung Galaxy Edge 6. Doesn't one person have an iPhone?
The Jurassic Park films have always struck me as particularly violent, especially considering that the main demographic that these films reach toward is children. But like all of the franchise's previous films, Jurassic World is pretty careful about who actually gets killed. The greedy scientist Wayne Knight gets killed while the idealist scientist Jeff Goldblum is marred but eventually saved, and the same template is followed with this film. It's interesting in World, considering all of the innocent bystanders trapped in the park as the Indominus roams menacingly, that the only people we see get killed are either blood-hungry militants with no respect for dinosaurs rights, or materialistic, capitalist-minded consumers (made even more ironic by the previously-mentioned product placement). These films have an astonishing ability to lessen the impact of someone basically getting chewed and swallowed by a dinosaur. While the lives of our main characters never truly feel at danger (this isn't Game of Thrones, we expect are protagonists to survive and feel entitled to it), Jurassic World really plays with tension quite well. The film's overall self-awareness (Jake Johnson is basically in the movie so it can make fun of itself) really saves it, and Trevorrow uses it to really maximize the fun within all the silliness. I can see this movie reaching audiences the way 93's Park did - in it's opening weekend, it's already made more money than Mad Max: Fury Road has in its entire run. It reignites the adventure that the original film presented, and does so without insulting your intelligence.