“No one’s impressed by a dinosaur anymore,” notes one character early on in “Jurassic World,” and it’s easy to imagine the same words having passed through the lips of more than one Universal Studios executive in the years since Michael Crichton and Steven Spielberg’s 1993 “Jurassic Park” shattered box office records, along with the glass ceiling for computer-generated visual effects. Two decades and two lackluster sequels later, producer and studio have spared few expenses in crafting a bigger, faster, noisier dinosaur opus, designed to reclaim their place at the top of the blockbuster food chain. What they’ve engineered is an undeniably vigorous assault of jaw-chomping jolts and Spielbergian family bonding that nevertheless captures only a fraction of the original film’s overflowing awe and wonderment. Which should still be more than enough to cause a T-rex-sized ripple effect at the summer multiplex turnstile.
If the first “Jurassic Park” served as a game-changing harbinger of the CGI-era tentpole movie (as well as the movie-as-theme-park-attraction-as-movie), “Jurassic World” can be seen as a self-aware commentary on the difficulties of sustaining a popular franchise in an age when spectacular “event” movies are the rule more than the exception. The galloping gallimimus herd and screen-filling T-rex head of ’93 now seem almost as quaint as the stop-motion ape of the 1933 “King Kong” after the VFX breakthroughs of “Lord of the Rings,” “Avatar” and the two recent “Planet of the Apes” movies (whose writer-producers, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, share “Jurassic World” screenplay credit with director Colin Trevorrow and Derek Connolly). And when “Jurassic World” begins, a similar dilemma faces the operators of the eponymous theme park, which, after a rocky start, is running incident-free on that doomed Costa Rican isle of Isla Nublar, where it has become a full-fledged, Disney-like resort, complete with luxury Hilton hotel (one of the many brands seemingly unfazed by placing its products in a movie about a literal tourist trap).
Business is booming at Jurassic World, yes, but in the tourism business, as in Hollywood, stasis is a kind of death. The public — and, moreover, generous corporate sponsors — want ever more bang (and teeth) for their buck, observes the no-nonsense Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard), a loyal corporate flack who oversees park operations for Simon Masrani (Irrfan Khan), the Indian billionaire who inherited Isla Nublar from the late John Hammond (Richard Attenborough). So it’s time for a little razzle-dazzle cooked up by ex-Hammond geneticist Dr. Henry Wu (BD Wong, the sole “Jurassic Park” cast member to reprise his role here): a new, hybrid dinosaur breed known as Indominus rex (or, more precisely, Verizon Wireless Indominus rex), made from T-rex DNA and whatever else tumbled into the gene splicer. Will these people never learn? Not as long as the thrill-seeking public keeps queuing up for more.
Bits of dinosaur DNA isn’t all that’s been recombined here, and if you’ve ever seen a “Jurassic Park” movie (or maybe any movie), it doesn’t take much guesswork to figure out that all of man’s state-of-the-art structural engineering will fail and Indominus rex will get to stretch her mighty legs all over Isla Nublar. The roles of the obligatory imperiled children are filled this time by Claire’s two visiting nephews — a surly hormonal teen (Nick Robinson) and his geeky, dino-obsessed younger brother (Ty Simpkins) — whose parents are (per the Spielberg norm) in the throes of divorce. In lieu of Pete Postlethwaite’s big game hunter from “The Lost World,” “Jurassic World” gives us Vincent D’Onofrio as a jingoistic military type who envisions using dinosaurs as battlefield soldiers. And standing in for Sam Neill’s eminently practical paleontologist Dr. Alan Grant, we get Chris Pratt as sardonic ex-Navy man Owen Grady, who’s spent years not-quite-taming a pack of captive velociraptors (the “Jurassic” films’ most intelligent and lethal predators). They don’t quite eat out of Grady’s hands just yet, but at least they don’t bite (or bite off) the hands that feed them.
Pratt is effortlessly engaging here, doing a minor-key variation on the stoner-surfer Indiana Jones routine he deployed to fine effect in last summer’s “Guardians of the Galaxy” (a more inventive, risk-taking studio movie than this one). He certainly gets more to do than Howard, whose part is like a third-generation xerox of the high-strung damsels-in-distress played by Kathleen Turner in “Romancing the Stone” and Kate Capshaw in “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.” Then again, the “Jurassic” films have never exactly been rich on the human side — perhaps the key point that kept even the original film, for all its technical wizardry, from fulfilling Spielberg’s stated desire to create a “land-based ‘Jaws.’”
What it lacked in character, however, “Jurassic Park” more than made up for in ingenious booby traps and hairsbreadth escapes, several of which now rank among the iconic moments in modern action-fantasy cinema (an angry T-rex treating a Mercedes SUV like a matchbox car; two velociraptors cornering their human prey in an industrial kitchen). “Jurassic World” doesn’t produce any such memorable setpieces, but it’s generally a more imaginative work than “The Lost World” and (especially) the woeful, Joe Johnston-directed “Jurassic Park III,” which both found unduly contrived ways of returning key characters to the very dinosaur-infested isles they swore they would never revisit, while adding new characters so unlikable that they could scarcely be devoured quickly enough.
Trevorrow, who turned heads when he was handed the “Jurassic” reins (after having directed only the modestly charming, Amblin-esque time-travel romance “Safety Not Guaranteed”), gives the movie a warmer, brighter touch, closer in feel to the original film, especially in its central sibling rivalry and the portrait of a childless adult (Howard here, Neill there) whose parental instincts are awakened by dino-trauma. But he’s far less adept at staging big action (which tends to be more frantic than thrilling), and some of the movie’s best ideas remain oddly underdeveloped, like unhatched eggs. Having seeded the promising notion of rampaging dinos turned loose on the unsuspecting public (a la the final moments of “The Lost World”), “Jurassic World” ultimately makes little of it, relegating most of the action to the park’s interior, far from the madding crowd. Ditto the Indominus rex’s nifty adaptive camouflaging ability. And only late in the day (too late) does the movie arrive at the tantalizing, “Godzilla”-like suggestion that, sometimes, man and monster might find themselves united against a common enemy.
Trevorrow has littered the film with sly callbacks to the original “Jurassic Park,” plus amusing nods to “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” “The Birds” and many others. It’s fun enough while it lasts, but somehow, finally, all too much and not enough. The problem isn’t that dinosaurs have ceased to impress us, but that dinosaurs alone are not enough to sustain us in a sophisticated blockbuster culture that has, only just recently, given us the topsy-turvy emotional landscape of “Inside Out,” the determined desert fugitives of “Mad Max: Fury Road” and the all-too-human ape leader Caesar of “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” — movies as bold in their storytelling and as rich in their emotional stakes as they are spectacular in their visual derring-do. “Jurassic World” starts out as a satire of bigger-is-better corporate groupthink only to become the very object of its scorn — a giant wind-up machine that’s all roar and precious little bite.
The dinos themselves have rarely looked better than they do under the direction of VFX supervisor Tim Alexander, especially Indominous rex (arguably the movie’s most well-developed female character), and a new underwater beastie who’s like Shamu on steroids. Composer Michael Giacchino provides wall-to-wall pulse-pounding percussion, horns and strings, though the tunes most viewers will come out whistling are John Williams’ extensively recycled “Jurassic Park” themes.