All of the Jurassic Park movies have walked a thin line between optimism and cynicism. All four movies postulate that science can perform a miracle like un-extincting an extinct species and they also postulate that those undead miracles can quickly turn into murderous monsters. So it is perhaps fitting that my review of Jurassic World, the newest film in the franchise, is also going to have to walk a line between optimism and cynicism. On the one hand I need to be clear that Jurassic World is fine. Not great, not even good, but fine. It is basically a monster movie about dinosaurs run amok, and I can’t deny that it gives you enough tooth and claw action to be entertaining in a summer blockbuster kind of way. But on the other hand I need to be honest about the fact that I think it is a piece of flaming garbage compared to the first Jurassic Park.
Now if I was truly fair I would spend just as much time weighing both of those perspectives equally, since I think they are both equally true. However, this is not a fair world, and I do lean a little heavier towards cynicism here because I think Jurassic World's shortcomings are endemic of so many of the sequels / remakes / reboots that are put out every summer, and as such, this movie has to bear the brunt of years of my pent up annoyance at Hollywood's cash-grabbing short-sightedness. Basically, if Jurassic World was a stand alone movie it would be easy to let it skate by. It has a simplistic plot and cardboard characters, but that is true of most movies about fast running creatures with hungry bellies and I'm perfectly willing to give them a pass. However, Jurassic World is not a stand alone movie. It is a part of an ongoing franchise, and that means it has to live up to the standard set by the best of the series. Unfortunately, Jurassic World's is not prepared to live in Jurassic Park's shadow. Every time that Jurassic Park zigged correctly Jurassic World zags incorrectly.
Let's start with the pacing, which is Jurassic World’s biggest Achilles heel. I would never argue that Jurassic Park is a perfect movie, but I do think that its plot structure is basically flawless. Jurassic Park takes its time establishing its characters before they get to the island where the dinosaurs live; once its characters get to Isla Nublar the movie takes its time establishing the park's layout and what the dinosaurs can and cannot do; then it lets us chill with some herbivores for awhile so we can have some sunny fun in before the nightmare begins; then once everything goes wrong, the action never lets up and the set ups don't repeat – it alternates between fast-scary scenes and slow-burn suspense scenes so you don’t get too burned out on either one or the other. Jurassic Park manages to make room for everything you would want from a dinosaur movie (or hell, a move in general) without ever feeling like it is hurrying or lagging.
In contrast, there is only one short scene set in America before Jurassic World relocates to Isla Nublar, and once we arrive it wastes very little time getting to all of the dinosaurs. That might sound efficient, but it is actually counterproductive, because instant gratification tends to create impatience instead of alleviating it. As soon as you are introduced to a beast which is clearly going to turn into a man eating monstrosity you have to start wondering when it will, in fact, begin to eat a few men, and every second that it's hanging around doing nothing feels a bit like wasted time. It is ironic that Jurassic World's first act feels slower than Jurassic Park's first act even though it is actually way faster - but it also makes sense, because its first act is faster in a dumber way, one that doesn't give the suspense any time to build.
And even if Jurassic World had created some initial suspense it wouldn't know what to do to capitalize on it. Jurassic Park had a clear hierarchy of dinosaurs with the T-Rex at the top – and since Spielberg knew what he was doing tension wise he held the T-Rex back and only deployed it when a particular scene needed to be kicked up a notch. Jurassic World, however, establishes the Indominus Rex as the new bad boy on the block early on… And then it just keeps giving us the Indominus Rex over and over again; it has no other ideas on how to scare us. Oh, sure, Director Colin Trevorrow does try to escalate the threat level by throwing more and more bloodthirsty creatures into the mix, but that’s a hamfisted way to try to raise the stakes because all of the dinosaurs in this movie are interchangeable. He doesn't go the Jurassic Park route where the raptors were small but smart while the T-Rex was huge but dumb - nope, here they are both just toothy green assholes who can run fast and want to eat you. Who cares then? It makes no difference whether you're killed by one or the other - a six inch claw will eviscerate you just as permanently as a six foot claw.
Similarly, Jurassic Park does a much better job of creating distinct human characters than Jurassic World does. Because Jurassic Park puts more space between the time when we first meet these modern marvels and when those modern marvels turn into murderous monsters it allows its characters more time to engage in an interesting debate about whether cloning dinosaurs is a good idea or not. When you first see reincarnated dinosaurs you want to sympathize with Hammond, the mad billionaire who willed the park into existence, because there is something awe inspiring about the sight of a brontosaurus eating leaves in a green meadow. Of course, when shit hits the fan you start to side with Malcolm, the cynic who correctly predicated that this was all a terrible idea. Still, it doesn’t even matter who was ultimately right or wrong because the characters seem like real people and the interplay between them is interesting on its own terms. Hell, their dialogue is almost as compelling as the more special-effects driven sequences because it touches on some real issues in a way that creates real drama.
In contrast, Chris Pratt's character in Jurassic World might as well be named "Macho McCocky"; when he isn't being a cowboy who herds velociraptors instead of cattle his main hobby seems to be working on his motorcycle. (He even manages to work on it without getting any oil on his shirt.) Meanwhile Bryce Dallas Howard's character might as well be named "Lady Who Shoulda Known Better"; she doesn't just miscalculate how dangerous the Indominus Rex is, she also wildly underestimates how romantically charming Pratt is. (Clearly, the two of them were destined for each other because they are both beautiful people with similar jobs.)
There's even a perfect example that illustrates what a half-assed job this movie does of establishing it's central power couple as people: at one point Pratt tells Howard that she isn't going to be able to go on a dino chase through the forest because she's wearing high heels. (Good point, right?) Her rebuttal is to... roll up her shirt sleeves... And suddenly she's ready to go? It seems like she is, because she does go on that foot chase and it is never addressed again.
Actually, Jurassic World even doubles down on the high heels nonsense, because after that chase sequence is resolved Howard goes back to the central compound... and the next time we see her she is still wearing the same heels. I get why she didn't change when she was already in the forest and time was of the essence, but when she was hanging out near her house in the hours between dusk and dark why didn't she take a second to put on more practical footwear? This is a movie that is clever enough to know that it is dumb, but then it doesn't fix that dumbness even though it would be easy to do so.
But if Pratt and Howard's characters are a bit simplistic, they are at least better than the movie's villain - an army contractor who wants to use weaponized velociraptors as military weapons. Let's leave aside how dumb that idea is for a second and instead focus on how unsubtle that idea is. That is a cartoonishly evil motivation, one that is obviously destined for failure, and it stands in stark contrast to the more logical motivations of the human villains in Jurassic Park. The guilty parties in that movie might have made mistakes but you at least understood why they made the choices they made. Hammond had every reason to believe that his guests were safe at his park; Nedry had every reason to believe he could get away with stealing a few embryos in the middle of a power outage; but why would you ever think that a squadron of velociraptors would ever make sense in a combat setting?
Actually, I want to dwell on that point for one more second, because that's another way that Jurassic Park is twice as complicated as Jurassic World. Jurassic Park has two layers of villains: of course you have the dinosaurs that are physically threatening our heroes, but you also have the corporate structure that cavalierly put the heroes in a situation where dinosaurs could kill them. It's a smart move because it allows you to have emotionally dynamic antagonists without having to overly anthromorphize the dinosaurs - you could have a story with real twists and turns while still keeping the T-Rex as an uncomplicated toothy beast. And again, the decision to differentiate the T-Rex and the velociraptors pays dividends, since the velociraptors grow and evolve over the course of the movie, thus adding another layer of unpredictable antagonists to the story without pushing the boundaries of realism too hard.
In contrast, the military contractor in Jurassic World is just evil from the moment we meet him... and then he never learns his lesson; no matter how much goes wrong at the park he continues to believe that gun-toting raptors are a good idea. And the Indominus Rex is hungry from the moment we meet her, and she stays hungry even after she's killed a field full of brontosauruses. And the raptors in this movie never learn anything, either - they start and finish the story as good hunters. If this was just a creature feature that would be totally fine - after all, it's not unusual for a violent critter to be a one dimensional threat. But I can't look at this movie as if it was a mere creature feature. The fact that I've seen this exact story told with a lot more depth automatically makes this more disappointing to me.
As I was sitting in my seat in the theater I kept thinking about the difference between a five course meal that was prepared by a good chef and a cheap buffet. A lot of chefs make deceptively simple food - their main course might be something straight forward like a pasta dish that's basically just noodles and sauce. But simple doesn't mean uncomplicated - that chef still put a lot of effort into the presentation and into ordering the courses so that they compliment each other instead of undercutting each other. The food at a buffet is probably also simple, but it's a random dump of ingredients that is trying to provide quantity, not quality. It's edible, but if you eat a bunch of it you probably won't feel good about it afterwards. That's the difference between Jurassic Park and Jurassic World: basically they are both simple variations on the Frankenstein myth, and their ultimate aim is to entertain an audience by scaring them with scaly starving beasts... But every time I have seen Jurassic Park I have felt nourished as well as entertained, while with Jurassic World I just felt full, which is not the same thing at all.
Winner: The Cat