Early on in Jurassic World, there’s a scene that sort of sums up everything that’s both wrong and right with the movie.
Gray (Ty Simpkins), a young dinosaur enthusiast, has just arrived on Isla Nublar with his older teenage brother Zach (Nick Robinson). Two decades after the events in the original Jurassic Park, the island features a successful and fully functioning theme park, stock full of dinosaurs, exactly as John Hammond envisioned. Gray and Zach’s aunt, the supremely polished Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) runs the day-to-day operations on the island, and has to hand them over to an assistant while she wrangles another group of investors.
Gray is off like a shot into the park, hurtling joyously from exhibit to exhibit in the main thoroughfare. We see kids excavating dinosaur bones, interactive displays with the “Mr. DNA” animated character from the original film, and a statue of Hammond himself, all while composer Michael Giacchino swings for the fences with John Williams’ original theme.
It’s really a remarkable moment, with just the right amount of pop culture self-awareness (this is a film by and far people who were awed by Jurassic Park as kids). There’s effective story-telling, character information and world-establishment, with cinematic transcendence on its own terms. I was grinning from ear-to-ear. And obviously, the only way for this sequence to possibly end is for Gray to stumble across an actual dinosaur just as the music hits its peak, right?
Instead, the climax of the sequence is just… a sweeping helicopter shot over the park. I mean, it’s a lovely shot and a lovely park. It’s just that it should have been fucking dinosaurs.
And that’s Jurassic World in a nutshell: lots of good ideas and definitely entertaining, and even a few moments where it hints at the potential for greatness. But it doesn’t quite stick the landing.
The plot revolves around a gambit by the park to up attendance. As Claire observes, the public has gotten used to dinosaurs, and they’re no longer enough of a wow factors by themselves (cue the self-aware pop culture commentary). So they’ve allowed InGen, the biotech company from the first film, to cook up a hybrid predator called the Indominus Rex.
In another part of the park, Owen (Chris Pratt) has managed to train a pack of velociraptors to follow basic commands and hand signals. Normally, he does this from an overhead walkway – but there’s a thrilling introductory sequence where a handler falls into the paddock and Owen manages to keep the creatures under control in a very up close and personal fashion. Later, Simon Masrani (Irrfan Khan) John Hammond’s successor and the park’s owner, asks Claire to have Owen inspect the Indominus’ paddock to make sure everything is solid.
Writer-director Colin Trevorrow and his stable of fellow scribes are smart about how they handle their central beasty. Her design has to be grounded to avoid camp – the Indominus Rex simply looks like a Tyrannosaurus Rex with a few added flourishes – so they rely on mood, camera work and portent-laden dialogue to establish the threat the creature poses. She’s extremely intelligent (the way she uses Owen’s inspection visit to break out is fiendishly clever), she’s violent (she ate her one sibling and, once loose, starts killing other dinosaurs for sport), and there’s a particular poignant suggestion that she may be psychotic (she has never known anything but captivity, and was raised without parents or any sort of social structure). That last idea has real thematic potential, especially since Jurassic World follows its predecessors in questioning mankind’s confidence in manipulating and controlling nature. But the film never really goes anywhere with it.
At any rate, Isla Nublar has to be evacuated, and Gray and Zach get left out in the park in the rush. Owen and Claire have to go track them down, and everyone has to kill the Indominus before it makes its way to the populated end of the island and slaughters the evacuees.
As a standard-issue action hero with relatively few jokes, Pratt is solid. But it’s Howard who does an especially good job imbuing Claire with a bit of humanity. Trevorrow wisely introduces Claire as she preps alone for a meeting, so we get to see her fear and self-doubt before the armor goes up. And the film drops enough hints about trouble in Zach and Gray’s family that Claire’s shift into protector mode – along with dino-killing badassery – has real heft. (Unfortunately, Trevorrow inexplicably leaves Claire in heels for the entire bloody film). Khan is good as the well-meaning but in-over-his-head Masrani, and Jake Johnson has an especially fun turn as a control room tech who comes to work wearing a vintage Jurassic Park t-shirt, much to Claire’s annoyance.
Again, however, the control room subplot sputters out at the end. The villain, played by Vincent D’Onofrio, is obnoxious and forgettable – which is astonishing, given that D’Onofrio’s just gave us Daredevil’s fascinating Wilson Fisk – though his story also leaves an opening for a sequel big enough for an Indominus Rex to stomp through.
The action and special effects are solid throughout. I’m not giving away anything that wasn’t in the trailers by revealing that Owen and his trained velociraptors eventually wind up hunting the Indominus. It’s an impressive sequence, and Trevorrow even throws out a devious homage to Aliens. But as the movie reaches the end, things get increasingly silly: there’s a loyalty test between Owen and the raptors, lots of long meaningful glances between them, and even a slo-mo hero shot as one of the raptors unexpectedly arrives for a last-minute rescue.
The climax is big and impressive and has at least one expertly-staged bit of fan service. But the dinosaurs also wind up overshadowing the people completely, and the movie doesn’t conclude a narrative arc so much as it just… ends.
Anyway, I don’t want to sound overly negative. A lot of Jurassic World is genuinely fun and quality entertainment. It’s worth a trip to the theater. But along with a lot of great moments, the filmmakers also commit a fair number of stumbles. Jurassic World is good, but I just want to note that greatness was within reach.