Not With A Roar But With A Whimper
By Johnny Pomatto
In the summer of 1993 I saw “Jurassic Park” and I’ve been chasing that film-going experience ever since. The film ranks high with the very best of Steven Spielberg’s escapist adventures and time has been very kind to it. Although we’ve gotten a few sequels throughout the years, ranging from disastrous misfire (“The Lost World”) to silly dumb fun (“Jurassic Park III”), Hollywood has never given up their quest to return to the island and introduce the dinosaur theme park to a new generation. After several failed attempts, we finally have JURASSIC WORLD, a film that proves that “bigger” and “more” isn’t always a guaranteed improvement. While I fully expect the film to be a gargantuan hit, my nostalgia couldn’t fully allow me to overlook its many troubling faults.
Colin Treverow’s JURASSIC WORLD doesn’t waste any time getting to the theme park, and what we see there is pretty astonishing. There’s a certain kind of wish fulfillment as the skeleton of a park from the first film appears to be a thriving business with thousands of visitors. But the film cynically tells us that the customers are bored with typical, run of the mill dinosaurs and that the park must add strange and new attractions to lure people through the gates, including the catalyst of the film: a genetically modified dinosaur that has new deadly tricks of camouflage and cunning. While the heroic characters in the film scoff at the idea of teenage hipsters being too cool to be impressed by plain old dinosaurs, the movie treats its audience the same way, thinking that the only way for the sequel to impress is to forgo the subtle horror of the first film, in favor of large scale action sequences and dinosaur fights. That might be easily forgivable if the dinosaurs were visually appealing, but this brings me to the film’s biggest problems.
The very first shot of the film is of a baby raptor hatching out of an egg, but something about it looks strange. We already know what a hatching raptor looks like, because we saw it in the first film. But this dinosaur looks like a cartoon straight out of one of the “Ice Age” movies. Spielberg’s original film was a revolutionary coming-out party for a new age of digital effects, but he still used them sparingly alongside animatronics, which is why the effects still look so seamless today. The majority of the dinosaurs in JURASSIC WORLD are computer creations and their animation is wildly inconsistent. Some of the CGI, (such as the raptor scenes and various flying dinosaurs) is detailed enough to appear convincing, but other times you’re looking at so much animation you begin to wonder if there’s anything physical in the shot that you’re watching or if it’s just green screen on green screen. About halfway through the film, Chris Pratt cradles a dying dinosaur and I realized that the thing he was holding was in fact a robotic prop. The visual was in such jarring contrast with the rest of the film that it made me feel like I was watching a completely different movie. Perhaps the robotic models look just as fake as the digital effects, but at least they look like a physical thing that you can reach out and touch.
Sudden A-lister Chris Pratt does a decent job carrying the film and playing one of its only likeable characters. He has some well played moments but much of his effortless charm that he exuded in “Guardians of the Galaxy” last summer is muted. Jake Johnson plays a small role as a technician and provides the film with some essential comic relief. He comes damn near close to walking away with the movie with just a few brief scenes, but I kept thinking that a couple years ago, that would have been the role that Pratt would have played, and it might have been a more appealing task for him. The rest of the film is mostly comprised of a cast of villains. If the film is lacking a funny wiseass like Jeff Goldblum’s Dr. Ian Malcolm, it has plenty of John Hammond’s in its place. While the first film let us see the park through the eyes of a few lucky visitors, this one generally keeps us amidst park employees, who have long since forgotten the magic and wonder that could have appreciatively been rubbed off on the audience. While the body count may be relatively high by the end of the film, many of the people responsible for such carnage are our supposed protagonists. Bryce Dallas Howard’s corporate supervisor deserves to be torn apart by dinos for all she’s done, rather than given the chance to be Chris Pratt’s girlfriend after some half-assed attempts at redemption. Just because her character is not quite as evil as Vincent D’Onofrio’s isn’t reason enough to let her or any of the other attractive park employees off the hook. The closest things we get to innocent protagonists are two children, (Howard’s nephews) who get chased around the park and don’t seem to emerge that transformed after their harrowing journey. Considering the hook of this film is to show us a park that’s fully operational, it’s a shame we never get to see it through the eyes of an average tourist. My further enjoyment of the film could have easily have been resting on one well cast comedic actor in the role of an average audience surrogate, but alas the film is more interested in taking us behind the scenes, rather than immersing us in the world as if we were a part of it.
I can’t say there was nothing about the film that didn’t enjoy. After a clunky first hour, the film finally delivers a few memorable action set pieces in the final act, (such as a fun pterodactyl attack and raptor chase through a forest), but even the best bits feel like too little, too late. There’s nothing to rival the terrifying kitchen sequence from the first film or the T-Rex escape. The villainous genetically enhanced dinosaur doesn’t provide that many scares on its own, and when it makes its own escape, I was left saying to myself “that’s it?” It’s discouraging that the T-Rex, the symbol of the entire franchise, is reduced to not much more than a cameo, and only under the cover of darkness where its special effects are mostly hidden from us. Worst of all, I kept wondering where do these films go from here? This clearly wasn’t meant to be a one-off revisit, but rather the beginning of a new series. But if you begin your saga with a fully operational park under attack, (insuring that it will never allow to be opened again), then how do you up the stakes in your sequel? The filmmakers seemed so determined to give us everything they thought we always wanted that they didn’t leave any room to grow, though plenty to improve upon. Though perhaps the greatest gift they could have given us was to leave well enough alone. The original film’s theatrical rerelease from a few years ago introduced itself to a new generation and few people who saw it for the first time left the theater anything short of awestruck. Perhaps it’s enough to keep a few classics around for revisiting without the need to update them. Nostalgia will help do some of the work when delivering a so-so product, but it will only get you so far.