Hard to believe it’s been 22 years since “Jurassic Park.” If that fact alone doesn’t make you feel old, now there’s “Jurassic World” to make those of us ancient enough to remember — and admire — the original feel like dinosaurs.
In theory, the movie is a sequel, but let’s admit it: “Jurassic World” is really a remake — a remake engineered the way Steven Spielberg probably figures he’d have to treat “Jurassic Park” if he were making it for the first time today, at a time when half that film’s problems could be solved by a little invention called the cell phone. (As for Spielberg’s “Jaws”? Fuggedaboudit. We’re living in the age of “Sharknado.” No one’s impressed by a shark anymore.)
For the sake of this column, I’m going to assume you’ve seen “Jurassic World.” Ten days in theaters, and the movie has already grossed nearly $1 billion. Odds are you went at least once. I was there for the first midnight show in Paris, at the Rex theater (appropriately enough), ready to discover what more could be done with the park.
In the movie, Bryce Dallas Howard plays Hubris in High Heels, a tightly-wound corporate type who lets audience whims dictate the park’s gene-splicing agenda. “Consumers want them bigger, louder. More teeth,” she says. That might be true of Disneyland’s “It’s a Small World” ride, but I doubt consumers have tired so easily of dinosaurs, even after witnessing the Dinobot mayhem of last summer’s “Transformers 4.”
Then again, in 1993, movies used to inspire theme-park attractions (as “Jurassic Park” did at Universal Studios). Now it’s the other way around. And besides, Michael Crichton was already thinking like Howard when he wrote the “Jurassic Park” book, which was essentially a toothier version of “Westworld,” the theme-park-goes-berserk thriller he’d directed way back in 1973. (Don’t know “Westworld”? It’s dated, but worth a look.)
As Jeff Goldblum says in “Park,” apropos of Richard Attenborough’s Disneyland comparison, “If ‘The Pirates of the Caribbean’ breaks down, the pirates don’t eat the tourists.” And now, after all these years, audiences can finally see dinosaurs eat the tourists. Fine, I get it: Carnage sells. Two thousand years after the Roman arena shows, we’re still throwing slaves to the lions, only now the slaves are feckless consumers, and the lions are bigger, louder, with way more teeth.
Maybe Michael Bay is rubbing off on Spielberg, making him cynical. It was reportedly Spielberg’s idea to hire Bay to make those infernal “Transformers” movies, which have all but bludgeoned the fun out of summer popcorn season, turning it into an arms race to deliver the most “impressive” movie possible.
Don’t like the way blockbuster entertainment is going? Well, neither does the movie itself. But this is the “Jurassic” experience contemporary audiences deserve — at least, that’s the hypocritically self-critical message director Colin Trevorrow is sending with what, I can’t help being impressed to admit, is only his second feature at the helm, after the delightfully character-driven indie “Safety Not Guaranteed.” In his earlier debut, Trevorrow demonstrated a certain Spielbergian ingenuity: Shark doesn’t work? Hide the shark, sell the suspense. (Also, slather it in John Williams music, which “World” does to excess.)
In other words, embrace your limitations. “Safety Not Guaranteed” did exactly that. With two matchbooks and a popsicle stick, Trevorrow and screenwriter Derek Connolly constructed a damn fine time-travel movie, MacGyver-style, embracing their shoestring predicament and relying on imagination — our imagination. There’s one big visual effect at the end, which is fine. The movie needed it; things can’t take place entirely in our heads.
But what do you do when there are no limitations? In “Jurassic Park,” Attenborough keeps nattering on about how he “spared no expense.” That was his character’s fatal flaw, apart from playing God (no small offense): The old guy truly believed that pouring enough money into his creation made it right. Sound familiar? “Jurassic Park” cost a whopping $63 million in 1993. Universal claims “Jurassic World” set them back about $150 million, though reports reach as high as $190 million, and I wouldn’t be surprised it the truth were higher. They spared no expense, pouring most of that into visual effects.
This is where I start to feel old. Last week, on a panel at the Annecy International Animated Film Festival, Chris Meledandri (the Universal-affiliated exec behind the “Minions” phenomenon) attributed his company’s success in part to “the first generation raised primarily on digital imagery becoming adults.” Twenty-two years ago, “Jurassic Park” was on the bleeding edge of the CG revolution, though it still relied heavily on Stan Winston Studio-designed practical effects. It used the CG sparingly, but with “impressive” results, emphasizing the element of suspense. And imagination.
When Laura Dern and Sam Neill first drove up to the Brachiosaurus habitat in “Jurassic Park,” Spielberg spent no fewer than 33 seconds establishing their reactions to the as-yet-unseen spectacle before cutting to the dinosaurs themselves. It’s an almost comically drawn-out build-up — the apotheosis of a Spielberg signature — but it worked.
Serving as a relatively hands-on executive producer, Spielberg gave both instructions and feedback to Trevorrow on “Jurassic World,” but also let the director go his own way. And Trevorrow, who has nowhere near the experience under his belt that Spielberg did in 1993, follows the trend. Though the movie superficially lifts DNA from adventure serials, screwball comedies, classic “King Kong” and even “The Wizard of Oz,” the operating formula here is strictly the spectacle-driven, “show everything” variety, while the script is pure Roger Corman nonsense.
As B-movie king Corman has countless times observed, “the special effects have become the stars.” Thoughtful adult dramas (the sort that originated as novels, plays or real-life situations) have been driven off megaplex screens, left to low-budget indie directors to make. The B movies have become the A movies, and vice versa.
By that model, “Jurassic World” is 5% classic-Hollywood nostalgia, 25% recombined elements from the original (kids in peril, monster-movie thrills, control-room power plays, park employees with secret agendas) and 70% schlock. “Park” was sold on its concept and logo alone. “World” gives us a poster-boy in the dorkily hunky Chris Pratt, hardly a character at all, but handsome enough that we’re not supposed to notice.
In what amounts to an almost beat-for-beat rehash of the original, with exposition compressed and payoffs amplified by the advances in CG technology, “World” jumps “Jaws’” shark early and often, practically admitting as much when the gargantuan Mososaurus leaps from its aquatic enclosure to devour one outright (just an appetizer for the downright silly courses to follow).
Here, in plot points that would be right at home in Corman’s B-niverse, Pratt’s dino whisperer has learned to tame the Raptors, the military wants to use them as super-soldiers and someone has engineered a new dinosaur, Indominus rex™, from unknown sources. “Jurassic World” has essentially become one giant cartoon, and though it clearly has a sense of humor (as the nanny-Pteranodon-Mososaurus “Turducken” moment pretty much proves), what’s missing is the suspense.
We’re so busy being impressed, we don’t care about the characters. They never seem to be in any real peril. Some are obviously marked for death, expiring predictably on-cue (like the fatso who opens the Indominus rex enclosure), while the others improbably survive to maintain the virtual Spielberg family that’s been awkwardly grafted onto the film. The film is baldly disinterested with them. Everything has been engineered to get us to the spectacular high-concept climax: an “Aliens vs. Predator”-esque death match between Indominus and Tyrannosaurus rex.
As far as I can tell, “Jurassic World” has no ambitions of winning Oscars for its screenplay. Or its acting. Or any other classic filmmaking discipline, for that matter. But all involved have their eyes on the visual effects prize. How else to explain the choice to stage the big rex-vs.-rex battles in long, unbroken takes? It ain’t out of respect for classic, pre-Michael Bay-style storytelling, that’s for sure. Rather, it’s a chance to show off the fact that they can. Trevorrow isn’t hiding the dinosaurs this time, but he’s lost the characters along the way. And if you want them back, in this or any other blockbuster, you have to expect — no, demand — more from the movies. I, for one, am not impressed.