[Review] Jurassic World

Many people expected Jurassic World to be a hit, though few would have predicted quite how big a hit it would turn out to be. In retrospect, it’s easy to appreciate how complete the movie’s formula actually is: dinosaurs will always be a major draw for children, especially when fighting other dinosaurs, while older viewers have the strong nostalgia factor of Steven Spielberg’s 1993 adaptation of Michael Crichton’s novel, Jurassic Park, to lure them in. Throw in one of Hollywood’s fastest rising stars in the shape of Chris Pratt, and suddenly that record-breaking take doesn’t seem quite so surprising.

Despite its big reputation, the original Jurassic Park never won me over as completely as those whose nostalgia is among the many reasons World is on its way to global domination. There’s no question that Park was an extraordinary cinematic event, one of the few movies of the past thirty years to inspire a genuine sense of awe in its viewers, but whether it coheres as a great film in its entirety, rather than a handful of magnificent scenes and a cast which happened to be a perfect fit for the material and each other, is up for debate. Regardless, the moments when it really delivered are rightly celebrated among the finest moments of Spielberg’s glittering career and few can deny its importance as a cultural phenomenon of its time. For all its astounding financial success, Jurassic World seems unlikely to be held in such high regard in twenty years’ time.

Jurassic World
Director: Colin Trevorrow
Rating: PG-13
Release Date: June 12th, 2015

That’s not to suggest Jurassic World is a bad movie per se, but one which is best taken with strongly tempered expectations. It delivers all the dinosaur-on-dinosaur action that viewers will be expecting and is certainly the best of the three Jurassic Park sequels, though that’s faint praise if ever there were such a thing. It’s a movie which feels acutely aware of the likelihood that a strong percentage of its audience will be children and subsequently inhabits that PG-13 middle ground where no matter how great the carnage depicted on-screen, everything remains strangely and distractingly bloodless.

One of the most uncomfortable examples of this is a prolonged, grossly misjudged death of one of the supporting characters, who for a good thirty seconds is thrown through a procession of increasingly nasty torments before finally being put out of their misery, all without a single drop of blood being spilt. There are many reasons to object to this scene in particular, not least its discomforting delight at inflicting extended cruelty on a character who seems to be being punished for nothing more than absent-mindedness, but the movie’s refusal to show the consequences of its depicted actions even while pushing so far into unpleasantness makes for an uncomfortable disconnect from reality and a sense of weightlessness which permates the rest of the movie.

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Taken strictly on the level of spectacle, the movie hits its marks comfortably. Director Colin Trevorrow emphasizes the wonder and scale of the park, which has been rebuilt and reopened on the same island as the original in one of countless nods. The iconic John Williams score – is there any other kind? – is put to full, thrilling use and for a moment, Jurassic World recalls that feeling of awe which rooted the original so firmly in the collective cultural memory. It’s when the movie has to get down to the nitty gritty of telling an actual story, with logic and characters and other such troublesome distractions, that it starts to go off the rails. Chris Pratt may be an immediately charming presence, but doesn’t have the idiosyncratic charisma of a Jeff Goldblum, the gravitas of a Richard Attenborough, or the everyman authority of a Sam Neill. He’s hamstrung by material which forces him to recite a series of leaden gags in lieu of developing an actual character, while his repeated assertions of manliness come off as juvenile posturing.

Speaking of which, the movie’s antiquated representation of gender has been the subject of criticism ever since the first clip from the movie was released. Unfortunately, far from being taken out of context, as Trevorrow suggested, the female roles are arguably even more retrograde than first imagined. This doesn’t appear to be down to anything more malicious than  the same clichéd writing which also wedges a needless and shorthand-y divorce subplot between the two young brothers acting as audience surrogates in the first act, but even writing as someone who is generally reluctant to apply outside politics to any form of storytelling, World‘s female characters are punished and diminished in the presence of the male characters, themselves exclusively drawn from stereotypical masculine archetypes. Dallas Howard’s Claire isn’t much more than a stiff for Chris Pratt’s self-identified ‘alpha’ to wear down, and the one time she asserts herself, it’s to tell a nerdy male character to ‘be a man and do something’. Meanwhile, Vincent D’Onofrio’s Vic is so outwardly villainous and one-note that the only surprise is him not getting a chance to do his own Dr. Evil laugh. Oh, and did I mention that the person subject to the prolonged death described earlier was a working woman? Read into that as much or as little as you will.

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Fortunately, the action is strong enough to offset the tedious emptiness of the movie’s human characters. The absence of one well-developed character does rob the movie of any tension, with the bloodlessness only adding to the impression they’re no more real than the CGI creations swirling around them, but that innate dinosaur appeal is a powerful thing indeed. Despite the movie’s snarky in-jokes about audiences becoming increasingly blasé in their demands for bigger and better, there’s still a childlike joy in watching raptors on the hunt, pterodactyls in mid-flight, or the lumbering beauty of a diplodocus grazing peacefully in a verdant savannah. The movie’s respect for its creatures and concern over humans’ treatment and commodification of animals, makes for one of its few poignant thematic successes, even if it all goes a bit wrong when it starts fully anthropomorphising them for the sake of a staggeringly stupid final act: this is a very dumb movie for the most part, even in a series where plot holes are a longstanding tradition, but the climax really takes the cake in throwing all semblance of reality and logical behaviour to the wind.

Jurassic World‘s faults are those that might be expected from a movie which has emerged from over a decade in development hell. It seems to be trying to tell three stories at once, of which only the spectacle truly delivers. The original sketched its characters just delicately enough to allow its magnetic cast to do the rest. World overburdens its characters with contrived histories delivered through hilariously inane anecdotes which just so happen to offer inspirational messages perfectly suited to each moment of peril (‘Remember when we went on that date?’/’Remember when I had that dog?’/’Remember when…’ [and I’m not even joking here] ‘…we saw that ghost?’). It delivers well enough on its core requirements as a summer blockbuster tentpole that few will come out feeling as though they haven’t basically seen the dinosaur extravaganza they were promised, but the constant nods back to Jurassic Park only serve as a reminder of how much better rounded that movie was in the small details which gave its action meaning and heft and connectionLike World, Park for the most part worked better in individual scenes than as a complete picture, but it’s those details which made Park‘s scenes so jaw-dropping and are conspicuously absent here. Financial success makes a fourth sequel an inevitability, but when Jurassic Galaxy rolls around in a few years’ time, let’s hope it remembers to bring back the soul so missing in World‘s impressive but hollow spectacle.

Xander Markham

Londoner with a serious love of all things James Bond, most things Nintendo, plus crumpets, labradors, hammocks and horrible puns. Not necessarily in that order.

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