Not Entirely Without Feathers
Advance publicity and good word-of-mouth are very important these days, and bearing that in mind it has been interesting to follow the pre-release fortunes of Colin Trevorrow's Jurassic World. The multiplexes and merchandising companies are clearly anticipating a big payday from this one, perhaps fondly recalling the squijillion dollars made by the original Jurassic Park in 1993, and have even done things like print up novelty 3D-glasses-covers and fake 'Day Passes'. Expectations from other sectors has been rather different: the production has been soundly condemned for not making its dinosaurs as scientifically-accurate as possible, while even the esteemed Joss Whedon took to the internet to criticise one previewed scene for its old-fashioned gender politics (ironically, this was before Whedon was driven from Twitter for the heinous crime of making Age of Ultron a competent superhero movie rather than some kind of feminist tract).
Well, hey ho, here we are, and very shortly the box office will speak for itself. Steven Spielberg has some sort of behind-the-scenes role this time around, with the co-writing and directing duties going to Trevorrow, whose only previous film was Safety Not Guaranteed – a little indie borderline-SF film with only about 0.5% of the budget of this one. (That's a movie which everyone seems to like but me.) At times Jurassic World does feel like the work of someone grabbing his shot at the big time with both hands, not that this is always necessarily a good thing.
The film opens with (in defiance of all sanity) Jurassic World in full operation, based on the same island as the original park. Business is, as they say, booming, but a steady stream of new attractions is required and the pursuit of novelty has led to the company cooking up their own bespoke new dinosaurs in the lab. This is fine as far as overachieving exec Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) is concerned, for she is primarily interested in the bottom line, but animal expert and raptor trainer Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) is deeply alarmed by the psychopathic genetically-engineered monster that the park is preparing to unveil to the public. Sure enough, the focus-group named ‘indominus rex' busts out in short order and sets out on a gory reign of terror. It is just the baddest of bad luck that all this happens while Claire's young nephews (Ty Simpkins and Nick Robinson) are spending the weekend in the park...
So, needless to say, we're dealing with a real brute of a hybrid here, utterly relentless in trying to get what it wants – and the GM dino in the film is pretty nasty too. Apparently one of the reasons for the long interval since the release of Jurassic Park 3 in 2001 was the perceived need to find some new ideas to freshen up the franchise. Well, there are certainly some new ideas here, but whether they should all be in the same film is another matter.
One of the possible consequences of the long gap between sequels is that Jurassic World feels the need to make explicit call-outs to the first film: quite apart from snatches of John Williams' wonderful music there's a statue of Richard Attenborough's character, and some locations are revisited. There's even a reasonably significant role for B.D. Wong, who played one of Attenborough's boffins back in 1993 – Wong gets the plum assignment of having to explain just why, in defiance of all scientific understanding, Jurassic World's theropod dinosaurs are plumage-free.
To be fair, it's a pretty clever explanation and adds to a sense of self-referentiality that Trevorrow occasionally deploys during the long build-up to all the running and screaming and chomping. Everyone is always looking for the next big spectacle, we are told, regardless of logic or good sense, and plain old dinosaurs just don't have the gosh-wow effect they had back in 1993. (Which is true: Jurassic Park's special effects have stood up well, but viewing it now, it has nothing like the same gobsmack factor it had on its first release.) Inevitably, though, the film can't venture too far down this particular avenue, for fear of seeming too knowing or even hypocritical. The soulless corporate types in the movie have cooked up the new GM monster in a cynical attempt to attract people to their big cash cow, but Jurassic World can't be too satirical about this, for that pretty much describes the thinking behind the making of the movie itself, too.
There's not a great deal of this material in the movie, as I say, but it has a level of intelligence and wit that is noticeably lacking from other sections of the movie (though, to be fair, the film's jokes have a pretty good hit rate). Once the beast gets loose, we are pretty much in business-as-usual territory for your typical blockbuster. However, it feels like there's some genuine uncertainty as to what kind of film this is meant to be – is it a ‘running away from the dinosaurs' film like the first three, or a more traditional monster movie? A bonkers subplot involving a scheme to sell weaponised raptors to the US Army suggests the latter. Jurassic World can't seem to decide which one it is, resulting in a slightly iffy dramatic structure and some real tonal oddities at various points.
These might be less noticeable if the two teenage boys were engaging characters (they're not) while the female lead is actively annoying. The central relationship between Howard and Pratt is, quite simply, utterly unconvincing. One thing I will say is that this film should confirm Chris Pratt as a bona fide star, as he remains completely watchable even when delivering some fairly dubious material. (Sadly, it should come as no surprise whatsoever that great actors like Irrfan Khan and Omar Sy are sadly underused, further down the cast list.)
Hope is the thing with feathers, according to Emily Dickinson, which should therefore mean that Jurassic World, with its non-plumed dinos, is a pretty hopeless case. Despite everything that I've said, I still don't think that's entirely true: it has a good leading man, it's visually lavish, and Trevorrow manages to seed it with little moments of wit and visual invention. But overall, you can't escape the impression that wider corporate concerns were keeping the director from making the darker, smarter, funnier, more focused film he probably wanted to. The weird thing about Jurassic World is that this is a movie which goes out of its way to explain to you exactly why it was made and what the resulting problems are, without seeming to notice it's doing so. Ten out of ten for honesty, guys, but minus fifty for self-awareness.