Thursday, July 9, 2015

Review: Jurassic World (2015)

Jurassic World (2015)

Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of science-fiction violence and peril

Jurassic World isn't as good as the original, but you know what? It's not bad. In fact, it's really damn good. It's a popcorn B-movie done right, its lighthearted, self-aware tone more than making up for its plot holes and flimsy characterization. I had no problem enjoying this movie as both a sequel to a classic (complete with tons of shout-outs) and on its own merits as an epic thrill ride, one whose finer qualities pushed the weaker and more problematic portions into the back of my head until after I'd left the theater. Going by the box-office results, I'm betting that pretty much everybody reading this has already seen this movie twice, so you don't need me to tell you that this is a high-quality, crowd-pleasing blockbuster... but what the hell, I'm saying it anyway.

This film ignores both of the previous Jurassic Park sequels in favor of an all-new story that directly follows on John Hammond's ill-fated dream in the original film. It's been more than twenty years, and despite that little... mishap in '93, InGen eventually got the park up and running, opening the world's most revolutionary zoo to an awestruck world. Today, the park, rechristened Jurassic World out of respect for those first victims way back when, has twenty dinosaur species living in exhibits and habitats on Isla Nublar, tied together by a massive resort complex that accommodates more than twenty thousand tourists day in and day out. Unfortunately, when you're in the theme park business, you need new attractions at a regular pace lest the tourists get bored. And so the park management, led by operations manager Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard), geneticist Henry Wu (B. D. Wong, returning from the first film), and CEO Simon Masrani, decide that, to make a real splash now that real live dinosaurs are becoming about as exotic as a trip to the zoo, they're gonna create an all-new hybrid dinosaur, an alpha predator called Indomitus rex (easy to remember and pronounce) made from the DNA of both dinosaurs and modern creatures. There are, of course, ulterior motives to making such a deadly monster: security chief Vic Hoskins (Vincent D'Onofrio) wants to train dinosaurs for military use as an alternative to drones and robots that can be hacked on the battlefield, and to that end he's brought in former Navy man Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) to help train four Velociraptors. Of course, everybody soon realizes that, in their quest to create the ultimate badass killing machine to draw in tourists, they created something they couldn't control, and it only takes one mishap for Indomitus rex to break out of the lab and go on a rampage. Meanwhile, Claire's sister Karen (Judy Greer in what's basically a cameo) has sent her two nephews, the dino-obsessed adolescent Gray and the jaded teenager Zach, to visit Jurassic World and stay with Aunt Claire for Christmas while Karen and her husband go through divorce proceedings. It doesn't take long for the two of them to split up from their guide and go on a run of the park just as the Indomitus rex starts cutting loose, and now Claire has to worry about her nephews as well.

I won't lie: this movie is pretty stupid. It's not as brain-breakingly dumb as San Andreas was, but the plot is still filled with holes like Swiss cheese, and it's got all manner of other flaws hiding in the woodwork. Many events run on sheer coincidence, such as Zach and Gray knowing how to get an old Jeep up and running from working on an old car back home, or Owen and Claire having some sort of past that's only brought up in one scene, or the Indomitus rex being implied to have the ability to jam communications signals. Hoskins is pretty much every asshole executive villain you've ever seen in a movie like this, and despite Vincent D'Onofrio's best efforts, the guy's just not interesting. Owen is every man's idealized fantasy: ruggedly handsome, ex-military, ultra-capable, and able to get any woman he wants, while also respecting nature and knowing how to tame the savage beast. Claire spends half the film with a telephone pole wedged firmly up her ass, an over-the-top "obsessed career woman" stereotype that verges on self-parody more than once, and of course she eventually loosens up by the end and vows to spend more time with her nephews. (Did ya really think they'd kill the kids?) Owen and Claire's interactions at times come off as (and I hate to steal Joss Whedon's words for this, but he nailed it pinpoint) something out of a cheesy movie made in the '70s, filled with shallow flirting by Owen that does little to build a convincing relationship between the two and just makes Owen look like a jerk.

However, even with all those problems on a storytelling level, this film has one thing that brushes them all to the side: it plays everything so broad that there comes a point when you realize that it's in on its own joke. For me, that point came early on, when Claire and Masrani were discussing product placement at the park. This film is stuffed to the rafters with product placement, from Mercedes-Benz automobiles to Samsung phones to a cameo by Jimmy Fallon to the entire shopping/dining area at the center of the park, an elaborate imitation of Downtown Disney or Universal CityWalk (not coincidentally, Universal made this film)... and yet here we have two of the main characters talking about corporate sponsorship and how they may as well name the Indomitus rex the "Pepsisaurus". And of course, when the big action set pieces get into the heart of the park, this film delights in utterly trashing all those restaurants and shops along with the tourists giving them their money. The makers of this film, writer/director Colin Trevorrow and co-writers Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, and Derek Connolly, know how ridiculous the process of modern moviemaking has become since the original Jurassic Park hit theaters in 1993, and they take every opportunity they can to slyly lampoon it.

This extends to the closest thing this monster-fest has to a real theme: the conflict between older, more reliable technology and the newest innovations. Like in the first film, the enemy here isn't science run amok, but greed hijacking science and steering it in dangerous directions. When Masrani yells at Dr. Wu for creating the Indomitus rex and giving it enough strength and intelligence to break out of containment, Wu responds that the monster they unleashed was pretty much exactly what Masrani, Claire, and their corporate sponsors had asked for: bigger, scarier, with "more teeth". It mirrors the debates over practical effects vs. CGI that have been going on in Hollywood and among film geeks over the last twenty years. Jurassic Park, despite making great use of animatronics and other practical effects, is still famous for its groundbreaking use of CGI, and since then, practical work has largely fallen by the wayside at the big-budget levels in favor of green screens, motion capture, and powerful supercomputers. The debate over practical vs. CG is interesting enough for a whole other article, but I'm getting ahead of myself. This film, despite its own heavy use of CGI, could easily be read as a defense of the "old-fashioned way" of blockbuster moviemaking in the face of risk-averse studios that don't want to deal with the uncertainty of filming physical sets, stunts, and effects that could go wrong and drive up the budget.

The cast and the action also go a long way towards making this film work so well. Chris Pratt may be playing a one-note wish-fulfillment fantasy, but he is so awesome at it that I completely bought it. If Guardians of the Galaxy established him as an action hero in the making, this film confirms that he's got what it takes and isn't another Sam Worthington in the making. Hell, he even managed to make Owen hitting on Claire come off as goofy rather than sleazy. As for Claire, Bryce Dallas Howard doesn't get a lot to work with in the first half of the film, the writing forcing her to play a character that's honestly an unlikable bitch. However, she definitely comes into her own in the second half once she literally rolls up her sleeves and gets down to business alongside Pratt, becoming a credible heroine in her own right, including getting one of the more spectacular moments during the climax all to herself. And oh, that climax. The last forty-five minutes or so of this film is pretty much pure monster-movie joy, making up for every story problem and poor character that came before. Trevorrow definitely shows some serious chops as an action filmmaker, especially during the final battle that's pretty much a few long, uncut shots of dinosaurs duking it out while Pratt, Howard, and the rest all run for cover. It was sweet.

Score: 4 out of 5

Big dumb summer fun is all this is, but really, the big fun definitely outweighs the dumb. It's not gonna make anybody forget the original, but it's still a great companion and probably the second-best film in the whole series. It's great fun to watch, it doesn't quite insult my intelligence, and it kicks ass.

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