Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Review: JURASSIC WORLD

This review is made possible in part by The MovieBob Patreon.


So here's my darkest movie-geek confession: I don't consider the original JURASSIC PARK to be an unassailable classic. I recognize that this doesn't make a ton of sense, given my love of Spielberg, monster-movies, science fiction and above all else Dinosaurs; but here we are.

It's a great film - yards beyond what any other filmmaker would've likely done with the same material at the time, as is to be expected with Steven Spielberg - and it deserves its place on the pedestal for its iconic setpieces and industry-changing FX work, no question about it. But measured on the long-terms merits? It's a vaunted member of the Three-Star Spielberg Club, standing proudly among MINORITY REPORT, TEMPLE OF DOOM (and LAST CRUSADE, if we're being honest), AMISTAD, etc., but "only" just that. And while I "get" the idea that the original is effectively "Millennials' JAWS," sorry, no - only JAWS is JAWS.

I bring this up mainly to give you some context through which to process this review: If you're looking for someone who views the first movie as Holy Writ to tell you whether or not someone's gone and popped some Groucho Glasses on Michelangelo's David? This ain't that. But if you'll settle for the opinion of someone who thinks the original is great but in all honestly is more of a ONE MILLION YEARS B.C./WHEN DINOSAURS RULED THE EARTH/KING KONG guy when it's time to get his Dinosaur on, welcome aboard.

(SPOILERS, though not IMO important ones, follow)



Since I didn't mention it before, the previous two sequels I can largely take or leave. THE LOST WORLD has awesome action sequences stuck randomly into a dreaery, mean-spirited plot while JURASSIC PARK III is a serviceable B-movie but only just that. In many ways, JURASSIC WORLD feels like the sequel the franchise has been waiting for: It's clearly (blatantly, in fact) aiming to for ALIENS-territory, i.e. a bigger, faster, meatier, nastier extension of a more constrained original experience, trading slow-build suspense for relentless action. A welcome idea, but followed perhaps a little too slavishly: Speed and efficiency are one thing, but here's a film that's in such a hurry to get to the good stuff that it almost forgets to have a first act.

That lack of desire to take it slow (at least at first) is an easily dissapointment, since the actual setup for how this World actually works feels interesting enough to have merited another ride on the Welcome Trolley. Our story: Decades after the original Jurassic Park disaster(s), the InGen corporation and specifically John Hammond's island "preserve" of cloned Dinosaurs have been bought out by a flamboyant Indian billionaire who has realized the late Park-founder's dream of a fully functioning tourist destination - though his version is a little less "nature preserve" and a little more Busch Gardens/Sea World. Still, he's ultimately yet another "Spare no expense!" eccentric who cares more about delighting visitors and the coolness of de-extincting Dinosaurs than profits...

...unfortunately, everyone else does still care about profits, and as the film-proper opens the new key to bigger profits is believed to be messing with Dinosaur genetics to create bigger, scarier versions aimed at wooing a public now jaded by a world where the T-Rex etc are fairly commonplace. The prototype for this new venture is Indominus Rex, a laboratory-engineered "hybrid" ("hybrid of what, exactly?" is kind of a spoiler, but suffice it to say she's basically a bigger, more agile T-Rex with usable arms) whose creators realize too late is smart enough to stage an escape from her pen but also "disturbed" by the circumstances of her development enough to start a dino-on-dino murder spree that soon imperils the entire tourist-filled park - in particular, the young visiting nephews of head scientist Claire (Bryce Dallas-Howard), a development that spells danger for her dogged determination at remaining (what else?) a frazzled, over-scheduled, asexual workaholic who I assume InGen head-hunted from an unfinished Sandra Bullock vehicle.

Fortunately, it turns out that Jurassic World's support staff includes Chris Pratt as Owen Grady, who just so happens to be Earth's Greatest Human. Effectively a set of Chuck Norris Facts memes that fused and gained sentience, Owen isn't simply an ex-Navy SEAL badass who lives a solitary life of tuning up his motorcycle outside his kickass trailer out in the park's wilderness and a studly nature/survival expert, he's also (yes, really) a soulful animal lover who has managed to tame a pack of Velociraptors pitbull-rehabilitator style and scolds the JW bosses for not being respectful enough of his Dinosaur pals. His silent head-nods may or may not also cure Cancer - I'd have to watch a second time to confirm.

(Seriously, though. I'm trying to think of a "flaw" the film affords Owen and I'm coming up blank. The closest I can come is that he's a little too forward in his 007-esque "wooing" of Claire... and I'm not convinced that the film intends us to recognize it as too forward.)

In any case, Owen is technically onhand playing Cesar Milan to The Raptors at the behest of Vincent D'Onofrio's sleazy InGen exec as part of an off the books side-project with B.D. Wong's returning Doctor Wu dedicated to pre-loading a storyline for the next movie: In this case, a scheme to use Dinosaurs to combat terrorists in lieu of soldiers/drones - and yes, it's presented as offhandedly ("Oh, incidentally, I've got this paramilitary-Raptor thing cooking, too.") as I'm making it sound.

It's such an insane "big idea," conceptually, (though not that insane - at one point, dino-commandos were to be the focus of an unmade third sequel) that I'm giving to suspect that having it as an explicit part of the story (scheming about it openly represents about 90% of D'Onofrio's dialogue) but leaving the loose-end to dangle teasingly is the result of a hasty rewrite - possibly to excuse what would otherwise be the plot hole of Indominus having been designed with special powers like chameleon camouflage-skin and body-heat control that make it a formidable monster but wouldn't be very sought-after in a zoo attraction. I don't know that this is the case (it's so similar to the recurring "Weyland-Yutani wanted this to happen!" conspiracy turns in the ALIEN franchise it may well have been baked in from the start), but it feels like it from the moment it's introduced to the last shot of Doctor Wu absconding to the JURASSIC PARK 5 writers-room with his parcel of Infinity Stones genetic-material.

But for now, that's our scenario: Indominus Rex (I-Rex - iRex - GET IT!??) is on the rampage amid a resort full of sitting-duck tourists and at least two moppets out in the jungle; so it falls to Owen, Claire and ultimately Owen's team of obedient (but only just so) Raptor Buddies to team up and save the day - preferably at a pace that allows for just enough additional chaos to unfurl in the form of stampedes, sneak-attacks, paramilitary battles (InGen does not fuck around on animal-control, apparently) and a bravura setpiece wherein all manner of winged dinos set upon the tourists like pigeons at the Panera Bread dumpster. All in service of a build-up to a climactic showdown that might just set the new Gold Standard for earnestly absurd fan-service in blockbuster sequels.

If I'm making this all sound a bit silly, well... that's because it is. Spectacularly silly, as though tweaking the noses of genre-fans who demand every last franchise tumble down into Gritty Realism Land was a Priority 1 note pinned to the screenwriter's monitor. Director Colin Trevorrow comes from a genre-comedy background (he's mainly known for the quirky indie time-machine dramedy SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED) and while he keeps the production from tipping over into outright farce it's clear from the get-go that he's bringing a lighter, more mischievous touch to things than Spielberg (or Joe Johnston) did previously: The big action scenes happen mostly in the brightly-lit daytime, and there's a playfulness to hypothetically "tense" moments like Indominus' attack on a "gyrosphere" vehicle that looks (one would have to assume intentionally) like a mash-up of the original's iconic T-Rex jeep-attack and a cat fumbling with a hamster ball.

There's a sly (and subtle, considering the material) sense of of self-awareness underpinning the proceedings, as scene after scene staged as bigger, flashier, tackier versions of "majestic" staple-sequences from the original film(s) play out amid a story that's entirely about the ugly business of turning miracles of science and technology into marketing opportunities - and lest you think that tonal dissonance is some kind of accident: one of the main secondary good guys is a tech-support engineer (Jake Johnson) who shows up to work in a vintage Jurassic Park logo t-shirt ("Don't you think that's in bad taste?"), keeps toy dinosaurs at his workstation and grumbles about "legit" Hammond's original Park was versus branding-saturated version he works at now (iRex's full name is "Verizon Wireless Presents Indominus-Rex.")

I'm down for all that (if anything, I found myself wishing they'd found a way around doing the "park disaster" story again so the setting could be as refreshing as the approach) but the flip-side to playing things so loose and fun-for-fun's-sake is that you start to question what's a knowing wink and what's legitimately not working: Is Indominus not being quite as next-level scary as she's meant to be a deliberate commentary on half-baked marketing schemes, or could the new monster have used a few more passes at the design-phase? Are Howard's icy/flustered working girl and Pratt's Velociraptor Dundee routine so enthusiastically one-dimensional because Trevorrow is having fun with the arch-ness of blockbuster stock-types or has something been lost in the writing (or the edit)? Is the secondary cast overstuffed with mirror-characters (there's effectively a good/bad version of everyone, even two separate teams of soldiers for you to alternately root for/against when they go up against iRex) and subplots because we're riffing on the bigger-faster-meaner buildup for sequels or... well, see above.

Still, the fact remains I showed up for Dinosaur Action, and if JURASSIC WORLD is committed to one thing it's Dinosaur Action by the barrel-full. Like I said at the beginning, I love myself a respectable B-movie that bends (or breaks) logic, realism, screenwriting rules etc into knots in order to justify insane monster action; and there are moments (especially once Act 3 kicks into gear) where the film leaps enthusiastically into the same intentional Saturday Morning Cartoon miasma PACIFIC RIM mined to such great effect. This is a new(ish) animal from the "majestic" slow burn that even Spielberg was unable to hit twice; and taken both on it's own goofy, knowing terms it's both a riot of a new production and just enough of a nostalgic callback (you'll see) that I can't not reccommend it.


This review was made possible in part by The MovieBob Patreon.