It’s a very common theme in Hollywood films for mad scientists and power-hungry entrepreneurs (and, most terrifyingly, hybrids of the two) to have eyes bigger than their stomachs, wings that take them too close to the sun — or whatever other cliché you want to ascribe to those who, for personal gain, create monsters that get out of hand, cause mass destruction, and ultimately teach those greed-blinded fools a lesson. And it’s an even more common theme in Hollywood for big-budget films to fall victim to their own monstrous, maximalist desires. So it’s not much of a surprise that Jurassic World, while it does admittedly deliver true thrills, ultimately falters because of its clumsy dealing with its desire for bounty — and that bounty’s alleged coupling with commentary about consumer culture. “There’s something in the film about our greed and our desire for profit… The Indominus Rex, to me, is very much that desire, that need to be satisfied. The customers want something bigger and badder and louder,” director Colin Trevorrow once said of the film’s “critical” undertones, and of its central dino-antagonist.
But the writers (four in total, including Trevorrow) seem aware of the fact that it’s no longer 1993, and perhaps also the understandable need — as Jurassic Park‘s other two sequels did — to one-up the original T-Rex fright-fest. Back when the first film was released, it was innovative because it provided a relatively convincing live-action glimpse into the bizarrerie of the Earth’s own history. Fantasy and science nerds could unite over the awesome, strange fact that our own world was once home to creatures as strange as anything you’ll stumble upon in genre fiction — and that we finally had the technology to depict all that with shocking meticulousness.
But in 2015, the ’90s may as well be the Jurassic Period — now, anything and everything the imagination can cook up has been rendered realistic-ish with CGI, and the pure, unprecedented thrill of seeing life-sized dinosaurs interacting with likable, fit celebrities is not nearly as awe-inspiring (or unprecedented) as it once was. Thus the need to make the creatures more plentiful, and the stakes higher.
This alone wouldn’t necessarily be a problem, but the treatment of the film — which entails imagery of mass destruction and carnage — maintains a frolicsome levity that seems weirdly misplaced. For instance, Bryce Dallas Howard’s character’s personal assistant meets an end reminiscent of the more harrowing footage in Blackfish — and in the same scene, Howard and Chris Pratt (aka Owen, the salt-of-the-earth-hero who teaches the uppity Howard to live and love amidst the turmoil) share a requisite cutesy, opposites-attract(!) kiss — beneath a score whose sonic flavor is super-sized cherry slushy.
Plot-wise, the film only generically lives up to its consumerist admonishment: after 22 years, Jurassic Park is now the full-fledged Jurassic World, a glistening island theme park replete with Starbucks, a goddamn Baked By Melissa, and a “Samsung Innovation Center.” (Lucky for the studio, “commenting on consumerism” also entails all the benefits of excessive product placement). The park’s ambitious CEO (played by Irrfan Khan) — backed by his operations manager, Claire (Howard) — is worried, perhaps in the same way as the real-life filmmakers, that what the park’s been offering for so long just isn’t enough anymore. And so he/they have created a prehistoric Munsanto soybean of a dinosaur to wow the public: the aforementioned Indominus Rex, who happens to like to murder “for sport” and of course escapes, threatening the 20,000 people on vacation in the park, as well as all the kindly herbivorous wildlife (sadly, the film’s vegetarians do not fare well). There’s also a subplot about a warmonger (Vincent D’Onofrio) plotting to militarize the dinos to replace troops in battle — to be fair, the film’s meatheads don’t fare well, either.
Claire’s two nephews are visiting on the weekend of the mishap, which adds to the chaos and also to the stakes — especially since Claire is notoriously chilly, and this is her chance to connect to her family. The nephews, it seems, are sent as a test by her sister (the underutilized Judy Greer) to open Claire up to her professionalism-stifled maternal side. And then there’s Chris Pratt’s Owen — the one character who desires quality over quantity — who saves the day: he’s the caring Velociraptor trainer who just wants to ensure happy lifestyles for the oversized reptiles.
What emerges is a panoply of exhilarating action scenes, mired in exhausted tropes. The visuals are stunning, and some of the most emotionally complex moments come from the dinosaurs (a dying Brontosaurus gives the best, most nuanced performance in the film). But when it comes to the humans, you can almost imagine the panel of screenwriters working in a control center akin to that of the theme park, pressing “insert character arc” and “insert character attraction” buttons.
The strangest thing is that beneath Jurassic World‘s formulaic romance and saccharine score lies true horror: there are scenes, towards the end, where the traumatized masses have gathered in a building reminiscent of the Superdome during Katrina. The film has a difficult time reconciling the fact that it’s depicting a larger-scale threat (and tragedy) than its previous films with its tone, which is, purely: fun and awe! And it is fun, until the moments in which it gives way to the uncomfortable dissonance of seeming like Zero Dark Thirty directed by Chris Columbus, and until you realize how much the movie is, itself, aiming no higher than trying to emulate the theme park environment it depicts and allegedly critiques.