There’s a moment early on in the long-gestating third sequel to Jurassic Park, where characters discuss the need to keep making dinosaurs that are bigger and scarier. It seems that the public is no longer impressed by animals that have made quite an impressive comeback from extinction; they now look at a dinosaur like they would look at an elephant in a zoo. Living dinosaurs have become the status quo, so the DNA of new species has been discovered and Mother Nature has been fooled once again.
It’s a fun commentary on the entertainment industry itself, how sights that blew audiences away 30 years ago (or in this case 23) are dull by modern standards. Audiences want bigger and better, usually at the expense of what makes the most logical sense. When the Lumiere brothers debuted their fist film of a train pulling into a station, the effect was so startling that viewers literally jumped out of the train’s way. Now, audiences are nonplussed when Ultron rips a city out of the ground and hurtles it back toward the Earth. The downside, of course, is the need for bigger and better rarely seems to intersect with higher quality, or in this case, theme park safety.
The genetic engineers at InGen, the wildly irresponsible corporation that just won’t leave well enough alone when it comes to resurrecting extinct species, are at it again and have decided to genetically engineer a new hybrid dinosaur in an attempt to raise attendance at their theme park. Unless you live under a rock, you’ll know that the premise of this new movie is John Hammond’s wacky dream of a Disneyland for dinosaurs has been realized on an island just off the coast of Costa Rica. In fact the park, now called Jurassic World, has been around so long that tourists have kind of gotten bored with it. Audiences may feel a similar fatigue. The answer to this infestation of consumer malaise is the Indominus Rex, the newly minted hybrid. Designed to be even bigger than the T-Rex, the Indominus has been tampered with so much on a genetic level that the parts she’s made of are strictly classified, which is also going to be a huge problem. If you don’t know what’s under the hood, how can we possibly know what to expect.
It turns out that getting gene splices from other species allows the Indominus to change color like a gecko and not be detected by infrared heat sensors. Early in the film, she stages a nifty getaway by making it look like she’s already escaped her enclosure, when she’s actually hiding inside it. Soon, she’s roaming loose through the island, wreaking havoc in her wake. The difference in this fourth outing is, this time, the island is loaded with snacks in the form of 20,000 delicious tourists.
Luckily, Chris Pratt is on the job as Owen, a former Navy officer turned animal trainer who has developed a means of being able to train the velociraptors. People have mocked the character as “the raptor whisperer” based on the trailers, but if you take the dinosaur theme park concept to a logical conclusion, somebody would eventually try to train them like Shamu at Sea World. It’s also crazy how dropping 70 pounds moves a guy from lovably oafish sidekick on a wonderful sitcom (the dearly departed Parks and Recreation) to movie star leading man status almost instantaneously, but that’s what’s happened for Chris Pratt. I have to go back to how Pretty Woman affected Julia Roberts’ career to compare how one role made somebody a huge star practically overnight. Last August saw the release of Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, and Pratt was officially a huge star by the end of its opening weekend. He effortlessly carries Jurassic World, and the film is always at its best when he’s on screen. If they’re truly interested in him as the new Indiana Jones, I say go for it. He’d be genuinely fantastic.
Having a mob endangered by angry prehistoric animals with very big teeth needs to be humanized, so that brings us to Zack and Gray (played by Nick Robinson and Ty Simpkins), two brothers sent to the park while their parents are finalizing their divorce. Their aunt is Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard), a higher up executive who runs the park. I suppose these movies always need to have kids in peril, but Zack and Gray are wildly underwritten and given almost nothing to do. For instance, Nick Robinson was absolutely fantastic a couple of years ago playing a sort of sullen teenager in the terrific indie, The Kings of Summer, but he was able to layer a lot of likability into it. He was one of the early rumored candidates for the Spider-Man reboot, a casting idea I very much liked. Here, he’s just leering at girls, and it’s sort of creepy. It’s like the kids are only along for the shot that’s an homage to the T-Rex attack from the first movie, and nobody bothered to come up with actual characters for them to play.
Jurassic World is pretty lively and it’s easily the best of the Jurassic Park sequels, but that isn’t a bar that’s been set all that high. Minus the bravura sequence with the trailers hanging over the cliff, Lost World may be the worst movie of Spielberg’s career and Jurassic Park III is a case study in what happens when you go into production without a completed script in hand. Director Colin Trevorrow does a nice job staging some of the action and all the effects are reasonably well handled, impressive considering his earlier film was the much smaller scale Safety Noy Guaranteed. After a flabby middle, the film rallies with a fun third act set piece in which Pratt and the raptors hunt the Indominus, whose secret sauce DNA neatly turns the tables on the hunting party.
As that early conversation in the movie points out, maybe the lightning in a bottle the first picture captured can’t ever be replicated, similar to the way Age of Ultron wasn’t able to really repeat the initial kick we got out of seeing all those superheroes at the same time. The effects work in the first film by ILM and Stan Winston really made it seem like the dinosaurs were real. We’d never seen anything like it and all these years later, that movie really holds up, no matter how much film technology has expanded since then. There might always be a bit of a been-there-done-that vibe when it comes to revisiting Isla Nublar. It’s not that Jurassic World is a bad movie, it’s just that the initial charge is gone. I know Universal deeply wants this to reignite the franchise (and there are certainly enough plot threads left dangling in the end to ensure future installments), but I just don’t think this is an intellectual property that can sustain a series of movies. It’s essentially a bunch of waiting around until the dinosaurs go berserk, and the only thing sequels are going to do is rotate in a different setup. There are no people to get invested in, no character arcs to get emotionally invested in, and since nobody we like ever dies in movies like this anymore, there are no stakes and no real suspense.
So, maybe the Jurassic sequels are always going to be a bit of a letdown.