One of my vivid movie-going memories comes from June 1993 when I saw Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park on opening night. 22 years ago, nobody had ever seen a computer-generated dinosaur, much less a whole mess of them. They were vivid and life-like. They convincingly interacted with human actors. They even seamlessly melded with full-scale animatronic dinosaurs for close-ups. Jurassic Park wasn’t just a successful sci-fi action thriller, it was a technical milestone. Spielberg—as Spielberg tends to do—showed us something we’ve never seen before.
Cut to 2015. Computer-generated imagery is now the norm. From huge-budget Hollywood blockbusters to films made in a teenager’s garage, CGI has achieved maximum saturation in mainstream films. If you can dream it, CGI can achieve it, put it on film, and do whatever you want it to. Indeed, CGI has become so commonplace that seasoned moviegoers now know intuitively when something onscreen is CG and when something is real. George Lucas used it with moderate success in his first of the now-infamous Star Wars prequels, The Phantom Menace, but by the time that the third prequel movie was released—Revenge of the Sith—the once location-and-soundstage-based Star Wars universe had grown to look…well…artificial. It’s no secret that actors prefer to work with actual real-live actors and actual props and walking around on actual sets. When the actors, sets, and props become strictly computer-generated, the actor struggles. And we struggle to care about a world we know was concocted on a hard drive as opposed to being built on location or on a soundstage.
One of the best things about Jurassic World—of which there are many good things—is that the film itself knows that today’s audience are a jaded “been there/done that” bunch. Sure, Jurassic Park was once new and fresh and spectacularly unique. But now because of countless imitators and a few inferior sequels, CG dinosaurs are sooooooooo five minutes ago. We want something bigger. Faster. Cooler.
Such is the dilemma of those who operate Jurassic World, a dinosaur-themed amusement park that is the fully-realized dream of John Hammond, the kindly-but-misguided visionary who attempted to open a smaller-scale park back in 1993 and, well, we all know how that turned out. Raptors ran wild. A T-Rex threatened two children. Lawyers were eaten. Jurassic World is a fully operational theme park in need of a new “gimmick.” Apparently, simple genetically-created dinosaurs aren’t enough. Enter Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard), the stressed executive who runs the park (she acts as though she has the entire Jurassic World on her shoulders—see what I did there?). She concocts the simple idea of creating an entirely new dinosaur. T-Rex? Blah. Everybody has seen that. She puts the geneticists to work in the lab to create the mammoth, toothy and positively frightening Indominus Rex. Of course, if Ian Malcolm were around in this movie he would remind us that this “is the worst idea in the long, sad history of bad ideas.” The contained “I-Rex” doesn’t stay contained for long and pulls off a brilliant escape from her cage. As she roams the jungles surrounding the busy tourist-filled theme park, the park’s security team–lead by ex-Navy man Owen Grady (Chris Pratt)–scrambles to contain the mayhem.
Of course, they fail.
Fortunately, co-writer/director Colin Treverrow knows that the original Jurassic Park has cemented itself as a classic thriller. He doesn’t attempt to top that film—wisely—but he does craft a entertaining thrill ride that easily tops the dreary and dull The Lost World as well as the cash-crab of a sequel, Jurassic Park III. Treverrow deftly juggles the quiet character moments as well as the large-scale dinosaur carnage. Those eager to watch some well-choreographed dinosaur action won’t be disappointed, and there’s even plenty of humor to be had in some unexpected places. Neither Sam Neill’s by-the-book scientist Alan Grant nor Jeff Goldblum’s smartly goofball Ian Malcolm return for this sequel, but Chris Pratt’s character is a well-realized combination of both of those roles. Pratt is convincing as he barks warnings about messing with the created order as well as when he’s running, jumping, shooting, and protecting the innocent. The two younger actors are also convincing playing brothers trying to enjoy their vacation in the midst of turmoil in their home.
There are some passing references to evolution (this is a Jurassic Park movie, after all), but the pro-family, anti-divorce messages come through as loud and clear as a T-Rex roar. Unlike the original Jurassic Park, which jettisoned any traditional villain in favor of having our heroes hunted by essentially wild animals, Jurassic World finds it’s main bad guy (or technically, bad girl) in the monstrous I-Rex. Vincent D’Onofrio plays a villainous military operative with sinister plans for the dinosaurs, but he ends up getting upstaged by this impressive CG creation. The I-Rex is an effective antagonist: she’s intelligent, tricky, and positively lethal. Fans of the T-Rex shouldn’t be concerned about their favorite dinosaur sitting this one out, though: the filmmakers know how to effectively use the T-Rex such that when she finally makes her appearance, the crowd goes wild.
A certain level of predictability and some questionable decisions by the characters keep Jurassic World from attaining the lofty status achieved by Spielberg’s original, but this film holds it own as an entertaining romp. In a summer movie season overloaded with comic-book superheroes, it’s nice to have some CG dinosaurs running loose and hunting tourists. Fast-paced, self-aware, and with a keen sense of humor, Jurassic World is worth getting excited about.
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