Why is it so difficult to make a good sequel to Jurassic Park? It's been 14 years since Joe Johnston made a half-decent B-movie-ish III, and 18 since Spielberg himself brought us The Lost World, a collection of good images in an underwhelming whole. Sure, the great original 1993 blockbuster benefited from one of those perfect confluences of creative people at the height of their powers. It has Spielberg’s eye for beautifully shaped spectacle, an iconic John Williams’ score, an appealing creature-feature structure of exquisite set-ups and pay-offs, and a hugely likable cast able to turn stock characters into warm and sympathetic people we want to see escape danger in one piece. But it’s not like the core idea – theme park stocked with resurrected dinosaurs descends into chaos – is unrepeatable. And yet here we are with Jurassic World, the third unsuccessful attempt to recapture the magic.
World, directed and co-written by the forgettable indie Safety Not Guaranteed’s Colin Trevorrow in his first big-budget excursion, is the largest, loudest, and fastest Jurassic movie thus far. It’s also the emptiest. It tells the story of corporate greed reopening the dinosaur island and creating Jurassic World, a larger theme park with more creatures and better security. It’s a hit. The new park is swarming with crowds delighted by the dinosaurs. But the owners want more profit, forcing the geneticists to cook up brand new monsters to advertise. (Sort of like injecting new filmmakers into an old franchise, no?) There’s an early scene in which the icy head of operations (Bryce Dallas Howard) sells the naming rights to their new “Indominus Rex” and assures her boss (Irrfan Khan) the beast has “more teeth.” Most Hollywood blockbusters engage in a little double think, but here it is rampant, a corporate calculation scoffing at corporate calculations.
Jurassic World is about nothing more than itself, attempting to preempt some criticism by acknowledging its nature as a product. It creates a bland self-serving parody theme park, realistically kitsch and poking fun at its own existence. It’s an old idea resurrected for the sake of big profits. Get it? We’re to giggle at parallels between the film and the park, laughing at business excesses dazzled by technology while dazzled by the technology of a film made for business excess. The World has a monorail and hamster-ball safari pods. It has a massive aquatic beast in a big tank. It has a resort hotel, chain restaurants, holograms, flat screens, and a raptor trainer (an unsmiling Chris Pratt). This film expects an audience to enjoy a fake theme park as much as the original film wanted us to thrill at dinosaurs. We even have two boys (Ty Simpkins and Nick Robinson), Howard’s character's nephews, to follow through the attractions as they stare mouths agape at CGI busyness. I’m glad someone’s enjoying it.
This is how it always starts, with oohs and aahs. But then there’s running and screaming as, inevitably, the big, bad “Indominus Rex” gets loose. It’s predictable, and worse, witless. The crisis escalates, soon enveloping the whole park, entirely due to bad decisions characters make. Every effort to contain the mess goes stupidly wrong. It’s a collection of dino attacks, spectacularly visualized in fine effects work, but hollow in impact. Countless people are devoured and animals are gunned down or torn up. It’s sometimes visceral and exciting, but where’s the care? There’s no impact when it’s only there for a thrill without considering the weight of the moment. (Contrast that with Gareth Edwards' much better work with scale and staging in last year's great Godzilla.) Rampaging dinosaurs and hundreds of imperiled tourists make for awfully small thinking when there’s no sense of stakes. It’s full of competent visuals, but has uninteresting characters and set-pieces without suspense because it doesn’t take the time to matter.
Our characters, stereotypical and humorless, enter with dopey stock plotlines both overfamiliar – the boys are worried about their parents divorce – and vaguely offensive – the business woman, always clad in a tight white suit and high heels, is repeatedly told to loosen up and let a man save her. They mix with familiar types – an antagonist with secret commercial goals (Vincent D’Onofrio), a comic relief computer guy (Jake Johnson) – but the likable cast is given lifeless material. Where are the ripples-in-the-water moments? There’s no time for awe, for sublime anticipation. We’re just racing to the next tyrannosaur-sized brawl, the next cruel kill. They’re faced with routine violence they can’t even begin to contain. It saps the urgency to know a convenient contrived deus ex machina is the only way out. They’re not racing to restore power or call for help. They’re just bumbling through the jungle hoping not to get eaten by dinosaurs we barely get to know. And what about the park’s guests? The movie doesn’t care. They’re just background screams.
There’s never any sense of danger, just bright colors and loud noises. There’s a moment when an anonymous woman is plucked out of the crowd by a loose pterodactyl, then dropped into a pool, and dragged up and down until an even bigger dino munches them both. It’s cruelly elaborate. And what purpose does it serve? It’s not thrillingly shaped or given emotional weight. It just exists because the filmmakers could do it, not because they should. There is more tension and personality in one shot of Jurassic Park than all of Jurassic World’s wide shots of impersonal computerized spectacle intercut with dutiful reactions. It’s over-thought – self-amused, loaded with references to its predecessor – and under-imagined.