If nothing else, the marketing team behind Jurassic World deserves credit; they’ve taken a cinematic albatross, stuck in development hell for over a decade, and transformed it into what is now certain to be one of the year’s biggest box-office hits. Such skill is to be admired.
Movie Review: Jurassic World
By Ben Gruchow
June 23, 2015
The story of how Jurassic World came to be made is actually far more interesting than Jurassic World itself; I’ve rewritten the opening of this review three or four times now, trying to convey something about the thing beyond its existence. The movie delivers exactly what the trailers promise: there is a theme park, there are lots of dinosaurs, a little scientific intrigue, some corporate mischief, and then things go very wrong. Absent is much of a reason for the movie’s existence. Jurassic World is handsomely-mounted and slickly made, but so are most films. At the end of the movie’s 124 minutes, I realized that I had not seen a single image as powerful - or as unsettlingly realistic - as the first movie’s shot of the T-Rex tearing down its fence and taking its first steps. Even The Lost World, that most mercenary and joyless of sequels, had brief moments of visual beauty. Instead, much of the movie’s $150 million budget has gone into dinosaurs and locations that positively scream their digital nature in every onscreen moment. There is not a moment of this film where we are not consciously and continuously aware that we are looking at CGI; finely-textured and well-animated CGI, but we’re a long way from Spielberg’s creepily lifelike animatronics here.
There isn’t much of the story that hasn’t been told in trailers, but here goes: Some 20 years after the events of the 1993 film, Jurassic Park has become a reality. As the movie opens, we follow two kids, Gray and Zack, as their parents ship them off to Isla Nublar, to visit the park under the care of Bryce Dallas Howard’s park manager Claire Dearing. Their timing couldn’t have been worse, because Claire (and the company CEO, Simon Masrani, played here by Irrfan Khan) are about to debut their new dino, a genetic hybrid of God-knows-what called an Indominus Rex. Along for the ride is animal trainer Owen Grady, played by Chris Pratt. Also in attendance is a militaristic security head Vic Hoskins, played by Vincent D’Onofrio. The two kids take us on a de facto tour of Jurassic World, but we see this only incidentally; in a somewhat clever nod to its theme of desensitization, most of the early dinosaur action takes place in the background or offscreen, as the characters are busy in conversation or looking at the screen of their smartphones and tablets. Desensitization is also the motive behind the creation of this fearsome new uber-predator, which in no time has escaped its holding pen and caused all kinds of inconveniences.
Operative phrase: “in no time.” The movie rockets into its primary conflict and crisis without so much as a hint of build-up or rising action. I’m at a loss to explain it, really; we go from a wide-eyed introduction to the park and some low-key corporate shenanigans to a single, nicely creepy scene between Khan and Howard where we catch little flashes of the Indominus, and Khan utters the movie’s best line. Then we have, if I remember, one major scene between Howard and Pratt before the movie’s major conflict happens in the next one.
This next scene is essential to discuss, as it brings together the two things that proceed to deflate the movie’s action over and over again. The editing, by Kevin Stitt, shapes almost every scene to the same unhurried, laconic pace; it resembles nothing so much as the way his work on 2000’s X-Men resolutely refused to generate any visceral excitement. The other liability is some really pedestrian and generic cinematography by John Schwartzman; this is a sci-fi horror movie that’s framed and lit with all the atmosphere of a romantic comedy. The combination of these is observable throughout the movie’s running time, but it’s poisonous to the opening. The opening passages of the film trudge by without any momentum or build; events just occur and blend into each other. Initially I thought that the movie was going for a cute meta in-joke, with the existence of a dinosaur theme park being portrayed as routinely as possible as a way to lull the audience before everything goes to hell. But even after the escape of the Indominus, the movie never wakes up.
The framing and lighting gives us plenty of opportunity to analyze the copious amounts of CGI that have been loaded onto the screen. Most of the action sequences in Jurassic World appear to have been created with computers; late in the film, there is a chase sequence involving raptors and a motorcycle, and we keep getting pulled out of the moment because of its obvious artificiality; the camera bobs, ducks and shoots through the forest far quicker than any real camera ever could in a real environment. Elsewhere, the evident care taken with CGI modeling and texture work is at odds with the camera movement. I never felt like I got much of a good look at the Indominus, which is saying something considering how many sequences it appears in. What I did see resembled less of an unprecedented genetic hybrid, and more of a spikier riff on the “V-Rex” creature from 2005’s King Kong. There are elements here that could have worked. The Indominus is described as white in color; in the few moments where we see the creature in daylight, the light pigment gives the dinosaur a uniquely unsettling appearance. A shot that unveils a chameleon-like nature to the animal is one of the few moments where the camera, lighting, and movement work in concert to build an effective moment of tension. Too often, though, the dinosaurs function more as demo-reel material than as organic elements of the frame. It’s not coldly technical and narratively ugly the way the Spinosaurus/T-Rex battle from Jurassic Park III is, but that’s a pretty low bar to clear.
With the movie being blandly competent in every technical sense, we turn our attention to the carbon-based cast. Here, at least, we have a bit of a surprise: Irrfan Khan’s Masrani is a break from the usual corporate official; here we have a CEO that shares a bit of John Hammond’s DNA in that his primary interest is in the park visitors having fun. His secondary interest is whether or not the animals feel real and genuine. When the situation becomes dire, he refuses to loose the velociraptors on the island out of safety concerns. He has an interest in keeping the company investment healthy, but only to a point. Masrani is absolutely the best character Jurassic World has going for it, and the secondary benefit of his presence is that it takes attention away from the film’s vapid co-leads. Pratt makes out marginally better here; his Owen is possessed with the hint of dimensionality, however superficial it may be. Howard is just screwed; her Claire is a brittle, borderline-misogynist archetype that seems to exist mostly to be corrected and overruled. Howard has some liabilities as an actress - and she completely earns an early vote for worst line delivery of the year, in a hilariously overbaked bit of dialogue late in the film - but all she’s really doing is struggling against the writing, to no avail; it’s the worst performance in the film. Everyone else is just coasting: D’Onofrio and B.D. Wong as scientist Henry Wu are the only other adults that really register, and the kids fulfill the important Jurassic Park role of making a difficult and dangerous situation even more so.
“Coasting” is, at any rate, a better deal than “actively irritating”; Jurassic World has no character as apocalyptically stupid as Lex from the first film, or Billy from the third film, or everyone but Pete Postlethwaite from The Lost World. The actors give emphasis to the correct parts of sentences. The camera is in focus, and there are no screw-ups with compositing or matte work. The movie exists on roughly the same plane of workmanlike competency as May’s Avengers: Age of Ultron. It’s not as much of a grind as that movie is; it’s 20 minutes shorter, for one thing, and it’s not functioning as an extended trailer for the next three or four movies in its franchise. Jurassic World is self-contained (mostly), and the absence of a blatant sequel hook is just barely enough to nudge it over the line into a recommendation, in the most workmanlike and passionless way.