It's been nearly 15 years since the last Jurassic Park installment, and a lot has changed in the world: 9/11 rocked and divided our nation as the War on Terror took root, smartphones replaced cumbersome cellphones, and GMOs have become talking points at cocktail parties. What's all this have to do with the revival of the dino-park movie franchise based on the slim yet innovative novel by Michael Crichton and initially helmed by Steven Spielberg?
The answer is everything. Like the problem of a bigger, meaner and more thrilling wow (read: dangerous) that confronts the conglomerate structure behind Jurassic World, the filmmakers spinning out Jurassic World are saddled with the burden of outdoing what came before. The good news is that the quality of special FX has come light-years.
Today, people caught in the middle of a dino herd don't look like they're being shot against a screen and pasted into a jerkily moving computer rendering; they're now seamlessly in there with the "real" possibility of being trampled or squashed or snatched up by the genetically engineered Indominus Rex, the new badass on the block, cooked up in a lab by a bunch of avaricious DNA jockeys to scare the shit out of money-paying vacationers seeking an adrenaline rush just to know they're alive.
At the park on a lush tropical island off the coast of Costa Rica, at any time, there are some 20,000 people being run through the vast array of exhibits and rides and fleeced for cash with the rapier efficiency of a Disney or Sea World. Money is a driving force at Jurassic World, and in the birthing lab, there too looms a myriad of hidden agendas and covert, need-to-know data points — like who's DNA went into good ole Indominus — that breeds malcontent and dubious action.
As far as to why we're here, that's got to do with two boys, Zach (Nick Robinson) and his younger sib, Gray (Ty Simpkins, War of the Worlds and Little Children) being handed over to their aunt Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) for a week, while their parents work out the future of their crumbling marriage. It's not the happiest of times, but since Gray's obsessed with dinosaurs and Claire pretty much calls the shots at Jurassic World, there shines a silver lining of sorts. Claire, however, is a workaholic suck-up and sends the boys off with her assistant (Katie McGrath), while she brings in the velociraptor wrangler Owen Grady (Chris Pratt), a former Navy special ops and security expert, to see if there are any vulnerabilities to the Indominus's holding pen. Pro-tip: the time to have checked it was before the raptor-T-rex hybrid grew to be the size of a house.
Given these tea leaves — or fossil ferns, if you will — the plot movement of Jurassic World becomes as obvious as the extinction of the great dinosaurs in the fossilized record, though the amount of human lunch meat consumed is rather staggering compared to earlier chapters. The subplot about militarizing raptors for warfare (Vincent D'Onofrio is excellent as a sleazy military contractor) adds some piquant political punch that unfortunately passes too wispily to bare any bite.
Spielberg's long-standing themes of wonderment, sense of family, and youthful innocence get woven in and reinforced by the trusty looping of the John Williams composed theme song that propelled the original 1993 venture. All of this — and a $150 million budget — gets entrusted to director Colin Trevorrow and three other screenwriters, who do a good job of tying back to the 1993 original with success (the old park becomes an archeological find of sorts) but also do a tar-pit-sinking job of staging rom-com tension between Owen and Claire.
There's pretty much no chemistry between the two (this crew's got nothing on the amiable lot from before), but in their flat, straight-ahead roles as corporate wonk and quirky lone wolf, they're quite effective, especially Howard (daughter of Ron) with her stark auburn bob and luminous eyes to underscore Claire's vulnerable uppityness. Pratt's not as disarming as he was in Guardians of the Galaxy (Owen's a shell of Quill) but it's not going to affect his forward momentum. The nice add to the cast and nod to past comes in Jake Johnson's channeling of Samuel L. Jackson as the Big Gulp slurping hacker and voice of reason.
Trevorrow, whose other feature credit is the indie sci-fi flick Safety Not Guaranteed (budget of just under a mil), stretches himself impressively. He's given a tall order and nearly succeeds. That said, Jurassic World is a popcorn movie, though the butter's a bit too plastic — the integral visual components don't always blend together in seamless confluence. The story stitch-work of past and present too feels like a beta release from the lab rather than a summer ready box-office killer. The chassis for Crichton's cautious forward-looking book had Frankensteinian underpinnings: don't mess with mother nature or the past. The curators of the park do both, the filmmakers do the latter.