Jurassic World had a long road to release and it’s not hard to see why. Steven Spielberg made movie history with 1993’s Jurassic Park, bringing the wonder and awe of dinosaurs to the silver screen with cutting edge special effects technology. The film’s sequels, 1997’s The Lost World and 2001’s Jurassic Park III, kept the franchise going, but just couldn’t match the quality of Spielberg’s original. Now, 14 years after the last film, Universal has resurrected the dinosaurs for a film that operates as a spiritual successor to the first Jurassic Park. Much like the film’s titular dinosaur theme park though, Jurassic World has some creaks in its design that hold it back from being the return to glory the series needed.
Jurassic World is set two decades after the events of Jurassic Park and the island theme park has been fully operational and open to the public for almost as long. The park is introduced through the eyes of two brothers visiting it for the first time; younger brother Gray (Ty Simpkins) is an avid dinosaur lover filled with wide-eyed wonder, while Zach (Nick Robinson) is the moody teenager more interested in looking at girls than triceratops. It’s a conventional sibling relationship that nonetheless provides the only real human relationship in the movie, as Simpkins and Robinson are given enough material to elevate them above being the typical annoying child characters that summer blockbusters are typically saddled with. As it happens, their Aunt Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) is an important park manager who spends most of the film’s first half playing a broadly-sketched shrew who just needs a man (in the form of Chris Pratt) to break her out of her shell. Claire spends a significant portion of the film running away from dinosaurs in high heels, which may be the most unbelievable part of a movie filled with 65 million-year-old reptiles. Despite the problems with her character, and the film’s depiction of women in general, Howard is a striking presence and does the best with the material she’s given.
Speaking of coasting on charisma alone, Chris Pratt’s thinly-sketched ex-Navy man and Velociraptor trainer Owen Grady is a totally empty vessel who simply exists to be good at everything and save the day. Jurassic World helps solidify Pratt as the definitive male movie star of his generation and you can tell he is working hard in every scene, but it’s unfortunate that he isn’t given a character that doesn’t go deeper than “cool action hero guy”. However, the most misused cast member has to be Vincent D’Onofrio, who ostensibly plays the film’s human villain. The problem is that, other than having an odd fascination with using dinosaurs as military weapons, it’s not really made clear why he’s a bad guy. There’s even a point late in the film when he practically begs the other characters to let him do the most obvious thing that will help save innocent people. It’s a shame that an actor of D’Onofrio’s pedigree isn’t given a meatier role, especially coming off his Emmy-worthy turn as The Kingpin on Netflix’s Daredevil earlier this year. Somehow, the deepest characters in the film are the Velociraptor foursome that Owen trains, as they actually have an observable arc over the course of the film. They own every scene they’re in and will likely be most viewers’ favorite part (the motorcycle-raptor combo scene featured heavily in the trailers is every bit as cool as it looks). Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for Jurassic World’s dinosaur villain, the gene-spliced monstrosity dubbed the Indominus rex.
The Indominus rex is a thrilling creation that represents the misplaced hubris of its creators and corporate backers but as an antagonist, it doesn’t quite live up to the potential the film’s writers want it to. The main problem is that the Indominus inexplicably seems to gain new powers whenever it fits the situation (at one point, it suddenly has camouflage abilities that make it practically invisible, despite the fact that it’s bigger than a T-rex). The Indominus rex is the clearest indication in Jurassic World that this is a monster movie, which also extends to the heightened violence on display. While it’s not a gory movie by any stretch, Jurassic World feels distinctly different from its predecessors, with some scenes that come off as disturbing and feel out of place in this kind of movie. On the plus side, the dinosaurs do look really good and the climactic battle scene — featuring no less than four different breeds of dinosaur — is an awe-inducing spectacle that’s worth the price of admission alone.
While Jurassic World is a dumb summer blockbuster in many ways, there is a self-awareness beating at the film’s heart that at least gives the impression that it’s smarter than it looks. The central conceit, surrounding corporate interests dictating that the park invent bigger and more dangerous dinosaurs to spike waning public interest, is practically a fourth wall-breaking comment on the film’s actual selling point of “more teeth.” The film’s characters bemoan the corporate hand that feeds while unironically sipping from Starbucks cups and checking their Samsung phones. There are also numerous references to Jurassic Park and the purity of John Hammond’s original vision (a park devoid of corporate interference and focused on presenting dinosaurs as they were, not as hybrid monstrosities). Unintentional or not, the film’s dedication to contradicting its own messaging and themes is kind of admirable and actually makes you think about the Hollywood blockbuster machine. If only the film had something interesting to say about anything else.
Jurassic World will no doubt satisfy that dinosaur itch, especially if you prefer them depicted as monsters, but it falls short of being the worthy successor to Spielberg’s original vision that it so desperately wants to be. It’s an enjoyable film from front-to-back; a big, dumb monster movie that will surely leave you with a big, dumb grin on your face to go along with it. Think about it for more than a minute though and Jurassic World looks more like the Indominus rex: a loud, powerful animal lacking anything resembling subtlety or grace.