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Entries in Jurassic World [2015] (1)

Wednesday
Jun172015

Jurassic World (2015)

Wonder No More

"Repetition works, David. Repetition works, David."

--Wayne Gale, Natural Born Killers

Last Friday, my son checked out a book from the library called The Berenstain Bears and the Trouble with Commercials. In it, Mama and Papa Bear discover that their kids have become obsessed with every toy, treat, and cereal advertised on television. As you might imagine, this leads to piles of expensive crap laying about the house, and two children who don't appreciate the value of anything for more than five minutes. The parents devise an ingenious plan to buy Brother and Sister Bear everything they see on TV one day--with the condition that they don't get anything else until all the cereal is gone, the treats are eaten, and the toys have been played with for one month. Without the prospect of shiny new things around every corner, the kids must actually taste their sugary food substitutes, and they grow bored with the cheaply made products that are neither as durable nor interesting as their cartoon pitchmen made them out to be.

Someone could write a similar book called The Berenstain Bears and the Trouble with Jurassic World, as the first in a long line of absolutely essential summer-blockbuster cautionary tales. Jurassic World looks like a film and and is being pushed as one. Its credits even list four screenwriters and a director. But make no mistake: this is a product manufactured by Universal Pictures, just as whatever device you're reading this review on was once an anonymous item in a shipping container. Its goal is to sell other products now (tickets, Blu-rays of the original films, and LEGO sets) and more later (downloads of itself, tickets to the sequel, and still more LEGO).

There's no evidence on screen that anyone cared to make something better than (or even worthy of) Steven Spielberg's 1993 Jurassic Park. With the season's second record-breaking, opening-weekend box office under its belt, Universal can safely say that doubling down on shiny-object filmmaking pays off in spades. The fact that director Colin Trevorrow has delivered third-generation Xerox of the original film that ignores the sequels (while pretending not to be one) is immaterial, thanks in large part to branding efforts and the inclusion of newly minted blockbuster darling, Chris Pratt.

The studio planted seeds years ago, with the release of the new film's title and premise. As a name, Jurassic World implies far greater scale than Jurassic Park. Maybe, just maybe, it teased, the whole planet would be overrun by the prehistoric denizens of Isla Nublar. Imagine drones bombing brachiosauruses in Berlin, or T-Rexes tackling tanks in Texas! Instead, we're dropped into a new part of the same old island where tragedy struck decades before. In every sense, this is just Jurassic Park 4 by way of Friday the 13th Part 2.

Following the events of the first film, a billionaire (Irrfan Khan) opens a new dinosaur-themed entertainment destination called Jurassic World. It's a smash, for awhile. To an ADD-addled public, however, even watching raptors run free is no match for Twitter-feed updates. As attendance flags, investors demand bigger, badder dinos with "more teeth". The park's lab techs successfully whip up several batches of DNA bouillabaisse but something...goes wrong!

I loved the idea of living, breathing, rampaging dinosaurs becoming passe in our technology-dependent culture. As others have stated, Jurassic World is the perfect metaphor for the evolution of summer movies: where Spielberg and Stan Winston broke new ground in developing Jurassic Park's blend of practical puppetry and computer graphics (applying imagination even as they evoked it), Jurassic World's effects are ninety percent CGI--resulting in countless minutes of giant, indistinguishable creatures smashing into each other on digital planes far removed, viscerally, from the human actors whose sole job is lending them scale and believability. 

The film also teases us with the threat of dinosaurs attacking 22,000 visitors who happened to have shown up on the worst possible day. Aside from the open-air pteranodon attack you've seen in the trailers, though, there's no danger to anyone outside our core group of heroes and villains. The theme-park refugees are safely cordoned off in a facility at the tip of the island and not seen again until the post-climax cool-down. Sure, we're told that the film's big bad lizard, Indominous Rex,* is on its way to eat those people. But we never meet anyone in this crowd for more than twenty seconds, and instead wind up following (yet again) the exploits of six people running through a jungle.

The film's greatest crime is its boastful lack of originality. From the character archetypes (scheming corporate mole; well-intentioned-but-clueless park owner; dashing hero and his kinda-sorta-inevitable girlfriend; two screaming kids whose favorite subject in school is "Introduction to Movie Peril"); to the unrelenting Jurassic Park references; to the gross, omnipresent product placement, this is the most nakedly antagonistic yet opportunistic film of its kind that I've seen in awhile--the brand-cult realization of that old bit, "You could literally show Such-and-Such Actor reading the phone book for two hours and it'd be a hit."

About that product placement: Wayne's World effectively drew attention to the uncomfortable need for corporate sponsors by working an ironic super-commercial into its story. Jurassic World assaults the viewer with logos and then comments on them by saying, "Gee, these corporate logos sure are obnoxious, aren't they? Man, this Starbucks really hits the spot!" One approach is wryly sincere; the other is equivalent to someone claiming they're not a racist, just before launching into a straight-faced joke about foreigners.

Before you ask what right I had to expect something different from the third sequel in a movie about dinosaurs fighting each other, let me direct your attention to Mad Max: Fury Road (for the umpteenth time this summer). Series creator George Miller spent decades conceiving of and developing a follow-up to the trilogy he created in the 1970s. He came roaring back with a spectacle that yanked cynical, action-weary audiences up by their collars and forced them not only to care whether or not his characters lived or died, but to wonder about the greater universe being built in real-time at the edge of every frame. That film, like the original Jurassic Park, cared just as much about keeping the brain humming as the blood pumping.

Everyone involved in Jurassic World, from Trevorrow to composer Michael Giacchino to the team of visual artists,** is riffing on Spielberg or John Williams or James Cameron. Yeah, there's a lot of Aliens in here, too, especially involving the two teams of paramilitary goons that the owner sends out to hunt dinos. From the "They're coming out of the Goddamned walls" moment to the look of horror on the goober-in-charge's face as his teams' heart monitors flat-line on giant displays, it's apparent that Universal is banking on moviegoers either not knowing that these are references, or embracing them as just more noise in the multi-million-dollar nostalgia-bomb extravaganza. Instead of breaking the curse of Spielberg-related Part 4's, Jurassic World fits comfortably into the pantheon with Jaws: The Revenge and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

Jurassic World is not awesome, entertaining, better than the original, or even good. Your kids may love it, and it has been engineered on a cellular level to induce goosebumps in those whose only demand of movies is that they start on time. In twenty years, the film's record-breaking opening weekend will have been surpassed as many times over, and I imagine audiences will be hard-pressed to tell which dinosaurs (or human characters) appeared in part four versus the inevitable part five (or six or seven). Compared to Jurassic Park, the groundbreaking, heart-felt feature that made this "brand" possible, Jurassic World is just a TV commercial--an advertisement for imagination disguised as a gateway to it.

*Whose name sounds like it came from the middle of George Lucas' Sith Lord reject pile.

*Their work, while pretty, lacks wonder and surprise. Incidentally, these are not good reactions to have while watching a film called Jurassic World: "I know what a monorail looks like. I've ridden one. Hey, it's a computer-generated monorail, wow." "That velociraptor looks totally different now that it's got a blue stripe on its back. Heh, they named it 'Blue'." "Why does Indominous Rex look like a T-Rex with King Koopa's shell glued to its back?"