By Nick Rogers
In an era of omniscient distraction and digression, what does it take to truly wow someone? Do marvels still exist that stop us cold and make time slow to let us behold their majesty a moment longer? The more our days revolve around refreshed pages, the more infinitesimal our incubation period for big ideas becomes; our haste to establish expectations and levy judgment makes even New York minutes quaint.
By inserting those ideas into a damn fine dinosaurs-eating-people scenario, “Jurassic World” straddles a line between an unexpectedly quizzical commentary and an undeniably slick, quick-moving crowd-pleaser. And in considering a need for reverent wonder in a world where it’s scarce, the pants-wetting fear of indifference that gets you killed plays better than “Tomorrowland’s” navel-gazing nostalgia.
In the series’ sole sequel of worth, late InGen founder John Hammond’s dream of welcoming the public to Jurassic Park has been a reality for years. (It’s been rebranded, though, as Jurassic World to avoid the whole unpleasant association with dying on vacation). Jimmy Fallon is its prerecorded tour guide. Crowds cheer an underwater Mosasaurus feeding on sharks as Rome’s hordes once did gladiators, albeit with a premium for splash-zone seats. Tykes ride tiny Triceratops as if they were carnival ponies. Teen staffers’ disaffected entreaties to “Enjoy the ride” have become as automated as the rides themselves.
That’s right: Even with dinosaurs walking beside you, Jurassic World has become just like any other moldy amusement park, to the point where it’s an outdoor mall with predators on its perimeter. Vacationers still come. But it’s not the destination anymore, prompting an (unwise) creation of multimillion-dollar, genetically modified, hybrid creatures such as the Indominus Rex — that, as the InGen company memos demand, turn out “bigger, scarier, cooler … with more teeth.”
Such memos could easily come from any studio in reference to plans for their summer seasons, where expectations for escalated thrills double not every year but every week. Twenty-two summers have passed since “Jurassic Park,” and at least twice as many movies have offered us increasingly realistic beasts battling each other onscreen since then. 1993’s anomaly is now 2015’s very affordable ante.
Case in point: The preview audience members who cackled loudly at the setup to “Jurassic World’s” first kill after the Indominus Rex, bred in such extreme solitary confinement as to become a smart, sociopathic killing machine, escapes. We’re a long way from nervous hushes and rippling water. Director Colin Trevorrow — who co-wrote the script with Derek Connolly, as well as rebooted-“Apes” franchise architects Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver — knows that and quickly silences those hecklers with unexpectedly fluid, but fun, aggression. This isn’t an annoyingly self-reflexive shredding of its forefather. It’s very much its own smart, sleek endeavor with momentum, confidence … and minor drawbacks.
As much a response to “Jurassic Park” as it is a sequel, what “Jurassic World” says about the modern us, as the “dominant” species, doesn’t, and shouldn’t, put us in the best light. It replaces the original’s inspiring “Life finds a way” mantra with a more resigned, weary and, sadly, relatable one: “Progress always wins.” Trevorrow wants us to groan as John Williams’ regal theme crescendos at the sight of charmless, churning commerce that’s crowding out corporate-sponsored dinosaurs. However genially, it’s nice to see a blockbuster flick the ears of its promotional bedfellows rather than just whisper sweet nothings into them. As critical of the machine as it can be while being a well-funded cog to make it run, this is one of several ways “Jurassic World” twists and tweaks the original’s majesty into mordant satire.
It’s just angry enough without losing its sense of adventure … or such brain-checking delights as muscular dinosaur expert Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) trying to train the perpetually deadly Velociraptors. Blue, Charlie, Delta and Echo, as they’re known, may prove useful in tracking, and taking down, the Indominus Rex. Himself a hybrid of Ian Malcolm’s swagger and Alan Grant’s sensible side, Owen assumes he’s the Alpha, and Pratt keys into a magnetic, straightforward groove that sells this silly subplot. But “Jurassic World” wisely never extends sentimental exceptions to these dinos’ basic instinct. They may not eat Owen, but they will eat. (“Are they safe?” one character asks. “No, they’re not,” Owen barks back.)
There’s more in play, perhaps a tad too much for one film. Vic Hoskins (Vincent D’Onofrio, hitting slimy notes you expect) wants to militarize raptors as the next evolution of super-soldier. Jurassic World’s career-minded operations manager Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) contends with the fallout of the Indominus Rex’s escape. Hollywood’s perpetual third choice for everything (and maybe fourth now that Jessica Chastain is on the scene), Howard commendably sweats her way through a horribly written role — hardened harridan going soft — that she, and we, have seen 1,000 times. Save a hilariously dumb scene in which, it’s emphasized, women can run in heels, the part gives us nothing new.
Also, Claire’s two visiting nephews, Zach (Nick Robinson) and Gray (Ty Simpkins), are trapped somewhere inside. The idea of distraction is essential to their story; they’ve been shipped off for a once-in-a-lifetime vacation as their divorcing parents plan to rip that life asunder while they’re gone. And when the fit really hits the shan, a passel of control-room lackeys (including comedians Jake Johnson and Lauren Lapkus) try to balance I-told-you-so scolding with doing whatever they can to save more lives.
You might wonder what, if anything, remains here of the Trevorrow and Connolly that intimately pondered the beauty, and danger, of love, trust, friendship and chance in 2012’s terrific “Safety Not Guaranteed.” To a sanded-down degree, you find it in Zach and Gray, especially as Zach rediscovers how to be a reassuring teenaged big brother and realizes Gray won’t soon find the freedom from family strife that he will. It’s enough to look past the unlikely amount of trouble in which these siblings find themselves, especially a scene in which the ’saurs swat their wayward tourists’ gyrosphere like a cricket ball. Emergency shutdown before an off-limits area seems like something on which insurers would insist.
That bit is one of several big thrills doled out at a regular clip by Trevorrow, who brings a crisp confidence to his inaugural action film. He’s hardly Steven Spielberg, but he has at least inherited the right ideas from the maestro: restraint, patience and a certain nervous giddiness. John Schwartzman’s swooping, thrilling camera movements help, stutter-stopping at shoulder level with characters to establish the dinosaurs’ scope, scale and speed. So do the sterling visual effects, a combo of motion-capture CGI and practical animatronics that affords these beasts more expressive traits than ever.
A nasty pterodactyl attack on the main campus unfolds in enough of a blur to protect the PG-13 rating while still ending on such horror that you’re happily tricked into thinking you’ve seen more carnage than you have. And its homage-riddled final act starts off embracing the combat of “Aliens,” edges right up to the relentless nastiness of “Deep Blue Sea,” then shifts into “The Raid” with dinosaurs. (And yes, the last bit is as awesomely realized as you’d hope due to the tactile weight and whomp of the visual effects.)
Infused with the right sense of danger, intimacy, intelligence and humor, “Jurassic World” is, like “Avengers: Age of Ultron” before it, pulpy summer fun with more on its mind than you’d think. To borrow a line from that film, this is a man-wasn’t-meant-to-meddle medley you won’t mind hearing.