Let's get this out of the way as quickly as possible: no, Jurassic World isn't very good. When judged by the metrics of ambition and imagination, it fails and keeps failing up until the final reel. And yet the depth of its failure is such that it somehow manages to come out the other side into an odd kind of success, as onscreen events take on a crazy momentum that leads to the kind of finale you almost certainly won't see coming.
20 or so years after John Hammond's Jurassic Park flamed out prior to opening, a new corporate conglomerate led by the diffident billionaire Simon Masrani (Irffan Khan) has successfully opened a new resort on Isla Nublar. This time, things seem to have gone as planned: the dinosaurs are contained, the hotels and shops are bustling, and business is ticking along at a comfortable level. However, Masrani constantly looking for ways to drum up business, and with the help of lab technicians like the original Jurassic Park's Dr. Wu (B.D Wong, chilly), he's got a new attraction ready to unveil: a genetic hybrid called by the market-tested name of Indominus rex.
However, Masrani isn't a total idiot. He's well aware that the new dinosaur has grown larger and more vicious than accounted for, and he wants to make damn sure that the enclosure can contain it. To that end he orders Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard, working with what she's given), the park's impeccably dressed and slightly frosty operations manager, to oversee the final transition. By the way, he tells her, one of Jurassic World's behavioral researchers, Owen Grady (an affable Chris Pratt), has been working with the park's Velociraptor pack. If he can keep those famously savvy animals from escaping and wreaking havoc, he's probably a good person to bring in to glance over the enclosure as well. Claire isn't enthusiastic about this: it turns out she and Owen have a bit of a...well, "romantic history" would be stretching it. But she swallows her pride and brings him in.
Unfortunately, Claire's nephews (Nick Robinson and Ty Simpkins, both forgettable) have picked that day to arrive in the park. With the addition of two meddling kids, a pushy military contractor with delusions of grandeur (Vincent D'Onofrio, phoning it in) and the unexpected intelligence of the Indominus herself, what starts out as a normal day at Jurassic World quickly takes a turn for the worse.
Jurassic World is best understood as the distillation of the 2015 summer blockbuster: an uneven, deeply stupid film seasoned with a light dusting of irony and a few genuinely clever ideas.To begin with, its plot is cobbled together from pieces of other, better movies, most notably Aliens, from which it draws its interminable "dinosaurs as military weapons" subplot. The entire last hour of the film bears a striking similarity to the third act from, of all things, How To Train Your Dragon 2. (This is likely unintentional, but it's still weird.) About the only film World doesn't steal much from is Jurassic Park, though it compensates for this by a slightly desperate effort to cram in as many nods and winks to the original film as possible--Mr. DNA, statues of Hammond, a mid-film visit to the original park's visitor center, and (in a genuinely inspired bit) a holographic Dilophosaurus.
Actually, the entire film spends a lot of time drawing attention to itself--in the parlance of TV Tropes, Jurassic World hangs so many lampshades it's a wonder any light gets through at all. Hardly a scene goes by where a character isn't referencing the implausibility of events or undercutting the premise. Some of the film's better laughs come from this self deprecation--Chris Pratt's wonderfully befuddled "Do you hear yourself right now?" in response to the contractor's dreams of militarized raptors is a highlight--but the constant chuckles end up being used as something of a get-out-of-jail-free card. To put it bluntly, World is the kind of film that makes a joke about a female character wearing impractical shoes in the jungle and then has her keep them on throughout the film. It's a particularly annoying attempt to have its stupid-cake and eat it too: the film is aware enough of its flaws to laugh at them but doesn't seem particularly interested in fixing them.
But what about those clever ideas? Well, bless its reptilian heart, but World has a few corkers. Central to the film's theme is the idea of its murderous dinosaur as a metaphor for modern blockbusters themselves. "Nobody's impressed by dinosaurs anymore," Claire says to a group of potential investors, in what is practically the film's thesis statement. It's a concept the film hammers home--the only way to keep people's interest is through bigger attractions, bigger rides, bigger, bigger, bigger, all crowned with a dash of corporate synergy. Verizon Wireless presents Indominus rex. "You didn't want real," Wu tells Masrani when confronted about the fact that the Indominus has shown unnaturally murderous proclivities. "You just wanted more teeth." For a film busily delivering just that, this might read as hypocrisy, and to some extent it is. But looking at the other blockbuster reboots and special effects extravaganzas that have so thoroughly taken over cinemas, it's a point well taken.
But the film's best idea is something I've never actually seen in a dinosaur film before: the wonderfully developed interplay between Owen and his pack of raptors. As much as Owen likes to talk about the bond between him and the aggressive dinosaurs being one of mutual respect, the film deepens and shades in that relationship, making it clear that it's a good deal more contentious and knife-edged than the dreamy Chris Pratt would perhaps like to admit. The raptors are for the most part characterized as dangerous animals with impulses and motives of their own, and as the film goes on, where their loyalties lie becomes very much an open question. World spends at least a little time trying to get into the head of the Indominus as well; Owen's discovery that the new, intelligent super-dinosaur is likely a little crazed from being raised in isolation is one of a few effective moments of foreboding in the film, and contextualizes ludicrous lines like "she's killing for sport!" that popped up in the trailers.
There is also something legitimately winning about the film's occasional willingness to throw irony to the winds and really go for it, the discussion of which includes Spoilers. The revelation that the Indominus is "part raptor!" is a hoot, and marks the film shrugging and doubling down on lunacy, a choice that culminates in a hilariously fun battle between the Indominus, the remaining raptors, a late arriving T.rex, and an even more late arriving Mosasaurus. This simply should not work, and yet it does, because the film finally stops poking fun at its own stupidity and fully commits to being a stupidly awesome cartoon. I spent the last third of the film laughing like a madman, and it was the most fun I've had in a recent film. Spoilers end here.
Finally, Jurassic World's conception of the functioning park itself is generally well sketched, if occasionally at odds with the film's own musings. Despite what we see, most of the park's nameless patrons are still plenty impressed with dinosaurs, in what seems like a subtle indictment of Claire's corporate mindset. The visitor area is thronged with shops, tennis courts, and branded merchandise. The ride operators are bored and likely stoned. The obnoxious cameo by Jimmy Fallon--a tutorial video that plays in the Gyrospheres--is a fairly merciless skewering of gimmicky celebrity cameos at theme parks (and reminded me of Ellen Degeneres' Epcot ride, which also includes dinosaurs.) The park at Jurassic World feels pretty convincing as a place.
What aren't convincing, I regret to report, are the dinosaurs. I'll save my musings on issues of accuracy for another time; yes, the raptors should have feathers and hands that are correctly oriented, and the fact that several of the herbivores are shown with dragging tails is basically inexcusable. But Jurassic Park had more than its fair share of inaccuracies as well. What really damns Jurassic World is the fact that the dinosaurs themselves are unconvincing as animals sharing a physical space with the actors and sets. The models are rendered with a kind of slick, almost slimy sheen that makes them feel rubbery and texture-less. The animals rarely display any feeling of real physical weight or heft, despite attempts to use motion capture to lend more realism to their activities. Strangest of all is the fact that the proportions on all the animals veer into the cartoonish--big eyes, slightly over-sized feet, stylized in ways that call attention to how designed they are. The result is a special effects extravaganza that ends up feeling weirdly cheap, without even the convincing monsters of something like Peter Jackson's King Kong. Whatever the flaws of the prior two Jurassic Park films, the combination of practical effects and CGI they employed have this film beat, hands down. For a film that clearly wants to wow audiences with extravagant spectacle, Jurassic World never really delivers.
But if you simply want CGI monsters eating the hell out of a procession of nameless goons, capped with a finale that feels like a bunch of toys getting banged together and unencumbered by actual characters or convincing special effects, it's an inoffensive way to kill a Saturday afternoon.