Saturday, June 13, 2015

Raptor Buddies

Year: 2015
Director: Colin Trevorrow
Cast: Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Ty Simpkins
Run Time: 2 hour 4 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

Jurassic World is not a better popcorn movie than Jurassic Park. But to be fair, I can list the number of popcorn movies better than Jurassic Park on a Post-It. With room to spare. But as a peer to this summer's Mad Max: Fury Road, which is also a decades-later followup to an inordinately successful trilogy, I can comfortably say we're two for two in fourth sequels that aren't total garbage wastes of time. 

Mind you, Mad Max is a luminescent, damn near perfect masterpiece of balls-to-the-wall action that challenges the very notion of what cinema can be and Jurassic World merely isn't quite as dumb as Jurassic Park III. We're measuring on vastly different scales here, but two successful franchise continuations in the new Millennium? For Hollywood, this is like Christmas.

Though I daresay Santa's reindeer have slightly fewer teeth.

Jurassic World is a direct sequel to Jurassic Park, depicting the successful application of John Hammond's dream to create a fully functioning theme park with genetically modified, de-extinct dinosaurs. Run by the eccentric billionaire Simon Masrani (Irrfan Khan), Jurassic World is now a well-oiled machine attended by thousands of happy tourists a day. Hoewver, as time has passed, children have become immune to the technical wizardry of the past. They long for bigger, better, more exciting adventures, and Jurassic World is prepared to give it to them. The park, that is. The movie is content to slop a bucket of CGI onto the screen and call it a night. But I digress.

Headed by the emotionless businesswoman Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard), the park has been developing a new attraction designed by the noteworthy scientist Dr. Henry Wu (BD Wong, the only returning cast member from the original film). Called the Indominus Rex, this massive creature has been designed to be scarier, deadlier, and larger than any creature the park has ever attempted before. Evidently they failed on that front, because we learn from a too-early reveal (and a quick scan of any nearby Toys R Us shelves) that the creature is pretty much just a kinda tall, albino T-Rex. Wheeeee.

Needless to say, the highly intelligent animal escapes, putting Claire's nephews - surly teen Zach (Nick Robinson) and his wide-eyed younger brother Gray (Ty Simpkins of Insidious) - and the entire park at risk. Together with the gruff raptor trainer Owen (Chris Pratt), they must work to bring the theme park back from the brink of total disaster, butting heads along the way with Hoskins (Vincent D'Onofrio), a militaristic meathead who wants to use the raptors to bring down the beast in order to prove their viability as military weaponry.

As you can probably tell, Jurassic World has a bit too much on its mind, and that's without even mentioning the subplot about Lowery (Jake Johnson), the comic relief control panel worker, or the ongoing divorce proceedings of the kids' parents, Karen (Judy Greer) and Scott (Andy Buckley).

Trying to keep track of them all is like trying to keep four raptors from biting your pretty hands off.

Jurassic World has too many plates spinning in the air, which prevent it from ever truly realizing its full potential. 

The first plate to wobble and crash to the floor is its characters. There's too many of them drifting on and off the screen to really find a hero to root for, only two of them have any semblance of an arc (Claire, who seems to be the protagonist, if only because she happens to be onscreen the most and her costume design actively reflects her transition, is the first; the second is Zach, who goes from being a surly teen to a less surly teen, so let's not dust off our Oscar shelves just yet), and the rest are shallow ciphers: Hoskins is a picture of avaricious evil, Gray is the whiz kid, Owen is the badass knight in shining armor, and so on.

The emotional impact of the storyline lacks sinew thanks to the protagonists' lack of inner life, and many of the broad strokes masquerading as character development only weakly prop up the cardboard cutouts populating its world. The parents' divorce adds next to nothing to the film (save about 5 more minutes of screen time), and the awkward, forced romance between Owen and Claire is about as credible as the McDonalds "Healthy Choices" menu.

Just look at that crackling chemistry. You can feel the heat from here.

The second, and largest, plate to fall is the special effects. CGI graphics are improving as time goes on, and nothing here is quite as egregious as the weightless copy-and-paste construction robots in Tomorrowland, but the fact remains that Jurassic Park was a success thanks to its conscientious use of computer graphics. Instead of using computers to augment and aid practical effects, Jurassic World  liberally - and lazily - slathers the film with pixel grotesqueries. 

The only abominably unconvincing dinos are the T-Rex and occasionally the raptors, but there is no lasting spectacle to be found in Jurassic World. Chockablock with flat, obtrusive CGI that lingers even in the furthest corners of the film (Really - A gate? A bird? You're telling me there's no birds pecking around the windowsills at Amblin that you could grab?), even the most convincing visuals lack impact thanks to their remarkably spotty brethren.

When you set uninspiring CGI monsters against a cadre of dull stereotypes, all running around the island madly bumping into one another, it becomes extremely difficult to muster up any cobwebs of suspense.

I mean, look at this. I'm pretty sure I played this computer game in third grade.

The third and final plate is the script. Along with a complex tunnel system of plot/logic holes, nearly every decision made by any human is the worst possible outcome for whatever situation it happens to be. I of all people am willing to accept some gaps in logic from dumb characters in suspense movies, but many key moments (and nearly every aspect of the "release the raptors" subplot) are idiotic and, worst of all, generic.

It would be one thing if the flaws in the story were in service of unparalleled action and suspense, but for the most part they form a loud background hum to one of the most hideously cliché adventure movie beats in years. Bad government, mad science, wan romance, and blockbuster drama collide in Jurassic World, careening pointlessly in all directions. The film is self-important in the worst way, packed to the gills with Important Lines that characters say while staring off into space. In fact, I don't think a single shot exists in the first act, where Chris Pratt doesn't saunter into frame (even if he's already in the middle of a conversation) to say something Badass and Insightful.

Chuck in a production team that somehow thinks it's appropriate to resurrect John Williams' classic theme when the characters are riding an escalator and you've got yourself a bit of a mess on your hands.

Nothing a good barber can't fix.

OK, are we done complaining? Good. Because, in spite of its ample flaws, Jurassic World is still a fun, dumb summer flick. The shadow of Jurassic Park is a terrifyingly tough one to escape, and of course this film - with its supremely rickety foundation - does not manage it. But it does manage to scrape together a pretty decent thrill ride for the new generation of dino lovers.

There's a negligible amount of genuinely effective suspense in this film thanks to its thin characters, but more than a couple scenes have moments that startle the senses into something above complacency. Likewise, there are a handful of comic relief moments that strike gold and have the capacity to elicit actual, bona fide peals of laughter. The rest of the film coasts on effects-filled action and, when it gets a chance to abandon its pretenses at telling an authentically human story, it does not disappoint.

Jake Johnson is funny as always, and Bryce Dallas Howard is more effective than the trailer gives her credit for, but the real conflict comes with Chris Pratt. He does more than enough to prove himself as a viable candidate for future non-comedic roles, but Owen gives him absolutely nothing to work with. He's awash in the contradictory pages of the script, relying only on his natural charm to get the point across rather than any act of true character creation.

It's shallow and it's messy, but it's still a good time at the movies. Maybe the rampaging dinos don't have they heart they used to. Maybe the humans they tread upon fall short of interesting. But as a slick, surface level thrill ride, Jurassic World does its job. No more and no less than that, but it's something I don't dread seeing again.

TL;DR: Jurassic World is a totally fine popcorn movie, all things considered.
Rating: 6/10
Should I Spend Money On This? I ain't gonna stop ya.
Word Count: 1514
Reviews In This Series
Jurassic Park (Spielberg, 1993)
Jurassic Park III (Johnston, 2001)
Jurassic World (Trevorrow, 2015)

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