Friday, July 17, 2015

Jurassic World

Director: Colin Trevorrow
Starring: Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Vincent D'Onofrio, Nick Robinson, Ty Simpkins, B.D. Wong, Irrfan Khan, Jake Johnson, Lauren Lapkus, Judy Greer, Katie McGrath 
Running Time: 124 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

It always seemed the one lost opportunity in Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park trilogy was actually setting the action in a fully functioning amusement park filled with people. You'd think adding that element of unpredictable danger to the plot could only heighten the stakes and danger. The entire amusement park concept has been gestating so long that we figured Spielberg must have been saving it for a sequel. Then 15 years passed. And now after sitting in development hell for almost two decades the franchise is resurrected with Jurassic World and the timing strangely seems just right for that big money storyline. Amidst an overcrowded field full of unnecessary remakes, reboots, sequels and prequels, this is the one that feels closest to being necessary because we never really got what we came for.

Despite unleashing a story that was a long time coming and injecting it with a meta subplot that pokes fun at the film's very existence, there were still a number of things that could have gone wrong. Poor casting, the wrong choice of director, bad GCI, a lackluster 3D conversion or an uninspired script could have easily sunk it. Instead, Safety Not Guaranteed director Colin Trevorrow delivers the type of ridiculously fun, pulse-pounding Spielberg-era thrill ride that even Spielberg himself can't seem to make anymore, or at least has chosen to move past after inspiring inferior imitations. This isn't one of them.

Twenty-two years after the horrific incident at Jurassic Park, Jurassic World is open for business and the park's operations manager, Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) wants it to make as much money as humanly possible. A corporate ice queen, she brushes the park's sordid history under the rug as she unveils her newest attraction: a genetically modified Indominus rex dinosaur sponsored by Verizon. Inconvenienced by the recent arrival of her sister's (Judy Greer) kids, Zach and Gray (Nick Robinson and Ty Simpkins) to the park, she merely dumps them on her assistant for the day as Velociraptor trainer Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) is called in to evaluate the Indominus enclosure before opening. You could probably guess that what unfolds next is a crisis that makes the first three films look like child's play. It's up to Owen and Claire to contain it before lives in the park are lost, including their own.         

There's an early scene where a control room character played by Jake Johnson is showing off the vintage Jurassic Park shirt he won on e-bay, lamenting when the park used to be all about experiencing the wonder of a dinosaur. Now everything has to be bigger and more over-the-top. It's all about the money. While obviously referring to the Indominus attraction, he may as well have been talking about movies, particularly the one we're watching. But Jurassic World fully acknowledging forthcoming criticisms and actively poking fun at itself doesn't make it a good movie, nor should it. What does is the excitement generated on screen, since we're really there to see the dinosaurs wreck havoc.

Trevorrow wastes little time introducing us to the fully functioning theme park, which looks like a Sea World and Disney World hybrid with some surprisingly cool rides and features that seem believable within the confines of the fantasy world Spielberg initially created. As fast as the pace is, there is a considerable amount of time spent building up the first full-on appearance of the Indominus, which doesn't disappoint. It's definitely not Jaws in terms of impactfully limited screen time, but by today's impatient filmmaking standards, Trevorrow's approach is practically restrained.

Much to my relief, the CGI actually looks pretty good, as far as those go, rarely distracting from the action or story. It's also filled with some clever winks and nods throughout the park that let us know this is very much a continuation of the 1993 original and the sequels may as well not exist. Thankfully, John Williams' instantly recognizable, iconic score (the best of his storied career) still does, even if you could quibble with where it lands in the film and how quickly. But at least it's there, which was one of my big worries going in.

With employees clashing over their differing philosophies for the park, it's a given that the uptight Claire and cocky Owen will be brought together by the Indominus escape as she finally learns to care about something other than her job, namely her missing nephews. Her profit-driven approach starkly contrasts with owner Simon Masrani (Irrfan Khan), whose chief concerns are the enjoyment and safety of the guests. While both are seriously compromised by Claire's greed, InGen security head Vic Hoskins (Vincent D'Onofrio) is intent on militarizing the dinosaurs as government weapons, crreating an interesting Blackfish-like sub-plot about the humans' control over these creatures. This plays better than expected, with an inexplicably limping, head-tilting D'Onofrio throwing his weight around with the kind of bizarre performance only he could conjure up.

The casting is actually quite creative all-around, avoiding the same four or five names of actors and actresses who usually headline these blockbusters. Chris Pratt will soon likely be one of them, but for now we're still finding out what he can do and what's most surprising about his role is how humorless it is. More Indiana Jones than Han Solo. "Jurassic Parks and Rec" this isn't, as the former Andy Dwyer has to play it mostly straight in order to ground an already far out there plot.

If this is Pratt's Indy audition, he passes with flying colors, and despite being a longtime fan of the actor's work, he quelled most of my concerns that going this route would be a complete misuse of his talents. Instead, the action hero thing seems to suit him just fine and in his scenes opposite Howard he does manage to slide in some of the trademark sarcastic charm and charisma that got him here. He'll probably be cast in everything now, but if it has to be someone, at least it's Pratt, whose sheer likability and presence lifts this kind of material further than it would have otherwise gone.

While Pratt does exactly what's asked of him and surpasses expectations, he is still playing a one-dimensional hero opposite Bryce Dallas Howard's more intriguing character. When was the last time a money hungry, stuck-up corporate suit was the centerpiece of a summer action movie? Howard's always been consistently strong in various projects until disappearing for a while, only to now reemerge four years later in the last movie you'd expect to see her headline. And what a comeback it is, walking right up to that line of playing Claire as an unlikable bitch without ever stepping over it. As a result, the transition she makes to action heroine in the film's second half seems all the more seamless and reasonable, proving her an actress adept at rapidly shifting gears. In an effects driven project that too often relegates performers to window dressing, her performance is remembered. She's really playing two roles, each equally well.

Trevorrow was hired to do a job in which the understanding was he'd be relinquishing a lot of creative freedom. Yet within those parameters, he managed to slide his own vision in there to create something that feels like his rather than a tired retread. One can only hope that similar steps are taken when reviving other dormant franchises ripe for a reimagining or continuation of some kind. This is exactly the story that needed to be told in order to both honor the Spielberg film and move on from it. The final half hour featuring an epic dinosaur confrontation can compete in both scale and thrills with anything from the original. Rarely overstaying its welcome at a brisk two hours, it also features one of the few uses of 3D in recent years that at least seems defensible given the nature of the plot.           

It's funny how some critics have taken Jurassic World to task, making me wonder exactly what they expected or how it could have possibly been improved. It's everything a Summer blockbuster should be and a little more, which may represent the true root of their problem. For all the talk of the film's theme park being nothing more than a cash grab, the movie gets its job done by mocking exactly that, exploiting our fears that the wonder from the original can't be recaptured. The bigger question is why we'd want it to, especially when this sequel is such a worthy successor in its own right.               

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