Last summer, I found myself constantly defending my opinion that Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla was not a good movie. This year, it looks like I’m going to have to do the exact opposite for Jurassic World. This movie has sparked everything from absolute disdain to overwhelming adoration in both critics and audiences alike. If there is one thing we can all agree on, it’s that director Collin Trevorrow has generated an important dialogue about the true value of big, CGI-utilizing blockbuster filmmaking.
I would argue that, with the smart duo of Trevorrow and his writer Derek Connelly, it is no coincidence that such a passionate, polarized conversation has formed around what is ultimately ‘just another summer movie’. These two men knew what they were getting into when they leapt off their excellent indie debut Safety Not Guaranteed (2012) straight into the lap of one of cinema’s most well-known big-budget franchises. Trevorrow/Connelly’s take on the Jurassic Park franchise is as much a transparent lament as it is a celebration of a mode of filmmaking that in 1993 was all about delivering big, inventive spectacle but in 2015 seems only about delivering bigger thrills.
What they’ve crafted is a movie that smartly acknowledges that to be a Hollywood blockbuster in the age of Marvel and Hunger Games requires certain elements that seemingly can’t be changed under the current studio system. There needs to be CGI-infused set pieces that escalate in visual scope and intensity. There must be product placement. And, in the case of a follow-up to such a revered classic as Steven Spielberg’s original Jurassic Park, there needs to be ample call-backs to the original. Knowing it is impossible to make mass-market product without hanging close to the formula held in place by big studio executives, Trevorrow proceeds to make arguably the best Jurassic Park movie that he possibly could under rigid, perhaps unfortunate circumstances.
In a direct nod to the empathetic family drama common in Spielberg’s old Amblin films, the plot focuses on two brothers, sent away to Jurassic World where their aunt works, while their parents sort out a failing marriage. Played by Nick Robinson and Ty Simpkins, the kids are easily the most sympathetic characters in the film, even if only through obvious manipulation (though to be fair, Spielberg rode that same manipulation to consistent success). The relationship arc they go through as they become caught up in the escape of a genetically-modified super-dinosaur called the ‘Indominous Rex’ is as bare-bones as a brontosaurus skeleton, but their charm goes a surprisingly long way to generating empathy.
After all, it’s easy to latch on to them compared to the two veteran leads: the work-obsessed, cartoonish, straight-laced aunt (Bryce Dallas Howard) and an equally cartoonish dinosaur trainer who bleeds ‘cool’ so profusely that he probably needs medical attention (Chris Pratt). Again, their immense charisma makes up for roles that hew way too close to types than characters. In fact, the same can be said for the supporting case as well, where an array of unnecessary side characters are played by likable actors with enormously effective screen presences. We’ve got Vincent D’Onofrio as random army dude who wants to use raptors as soldiers, token black guy Omar Sy, token Asian B.D. Wong from the original, and token Indian Irfun Kahn who is fun to watch but, as the new owner of the park, is a poor replacement for Richard Attenborough’s John Hammond.
While the characters and the repetitive story of another escaped dinosaur won’t be mistaken for groundbreaking, the movie does get its own chance to be inventive in the wonderful design of the newly-opened park itself, which is in equal measures grounded in reality and futuristically slick and grand. Early on, the movie tries to elicit the same sense of wonder out of this park that the original elicited out of seeing believable, moving dinosaurs for the first time (on screen or otherwise) and while that is obviously a fools’ errand, the park is certainly a detailed, vibrant sight to behold. As for the dinosaurs themselves, I found the CGI good enough that I suspect it shut up a lot of the many fans who complained about it based on the trailers.
Replacing what appeared to be living breathing creatures in 1993 with a CGI theme park says a lot about what the movie really is. Like the gated theme park Jurassic World, which separates the dinosaurs from the guests via glass walls and sci-fi Gyrospheres, the movie always feels at a distance from the audience, both emotionally an viscerally. Compare this to the original, where the physicality of the dinosaurs and the suspense they brought with them felt more palpable throughout. So no, the movie is not as good as Jurassic Park. It doesn’t have the freshness, it (for the most part) doesn’t have practical effects that the actors can easily reach out and touch. It doesn’t have characters who are flawed but complex enough to keep you on their side.
What Trevorrow does offer in spades is self-aware humor that doubles as commentary on both the film itself and the state of mainstream Hollywood. It is this angle that has drawn the most conflicting opinions online, with some calling it a desperate admission that the movie is not much more than another lazy money-grab, and others praising it as a rebellious streak against its own forced Hollywood-ness. I am very strongly of the latter opinion. I found the meta-humor to be the film’s great strength, propping up the brainless action sequences with some extra heft and giving the franchise an added dose of both tragic irony and defiant silliness. In the hands of a different director, World’s tone would likely have fallen flat. But Trevorrow has already proven himself a confident master of sweet, nostalgic character-focused comedy with Safety Not Guaranteed, and thus nails that sense of summer fun that is missing from obnoxiously straight-faced blockbusters like Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel and 2014’s Godzilla, which clash garishly with their goofy premises.
In recognizing the pitfalls of being expected to live up to such a lofty classic, Trevorrow takes perhaps the only sensible route: to make fun of himself and the position he finds himself in. Hence his Safety Not Guaranteed buddy Jake Johnson (who deftly steals every scene he’s in) being made to wear a Jurassic Park T-shirt and talk about how “the first park was legit”, at once reminding audiences of this movie’s impossible legacy, as well as how bad the other two sequels failed to meet those expectations.
Another example of how the film harnesses laughs to overcome audience cynicism is the way it tackles product placement by making references to the amount of corporate names that have attached themselves to the park itself (Johnson superbly drops the fantastic new word ‘Tostido-don’ on us). I have seen many critics lambast the film for repudiating product placement but then having so much of it. But what everyone needs to understand is that it isn’t as though Trevorrow could tell Universal, “sorry guys, I don’t want product placement in my movie”. It doesn’t work that way, it never will, and Trevorrow had no choice but to insert what is basically an awkward Mercedes commercial into the middle of his movie.
Whereas Michael Bay simply tries to pretend that Transformers isn’t just a huge consumer showcases, Jurassic World at least does what it can to make audiences aware that product placement is a big part of blockbuster filmmaking now, and that it’s worth considering how and why it got to this point. I applaud Trevorrow and Universal for grappling with what it means to be a contemporary Hollywood movie and encouraging audiences to think about the ups and downs of this system for themselves.
Keep in mind that this is only Trevorrow/Connelly’s second movie, and while every joke the movie throws out is a hit, they undeniably stumble when it comes to the more dramatic bits. Dialogue that isn’t humorous is more likely than not unbearably cheesy and stilted, and exposition exposes the sheer stupidity of the narrative and opens up several T-rex sized plot holes and unfathomably unrealistic moments (like running from dinosaurs in high heels!) The uneven writing is most obvious when it comes to Chris Pratt, who at times is allowed to unleash his lovable Guardians of the Galaxy snark to perfection, but earns nothing but eye-rolls when forced to play the part of generic, machismo-laden, uncomfortably misogynistic John Wayne clone for most of the film.
For me, Jurassic World‘s open awareness of its own obligation to be brainless was enough of an excuse for me to accept its stupidity and sink into its world of illogical amusement. Providing amiable actors, smile-inducing fan service, intense action sequences (that at times recall some of the best moments of the original) and even a few genuinely emotional moments to keep relatable human drama in the forefront (do you see that, Godzilla?), Jurassic World is not the best Jurassic Park movie, but it may be the best Jurassic Park movie that could have been made in 2015.
Score: 4 out of 5