The dinosaurs are back after some sixty-plus million years or a mere fourteen, depending on your point of view. Most of the real beasties went extinct millennia ago, of course, but “Jurassic Park III” was released as recently as 2001. But the unhappy fact is that whichever mode of chronological computation you prefer, the dino return has come entirely too soon in “Jurassic World.”
Of course, computer-generated effects have progressed exponentially over the last two decades, so the reappearance of the series that Michael Crichton and Steven Spielberg initiated with “Jurassic Park” in 1993 comes as no surprise in a Hollywood obsessed with follow-ups, prequels and reboots of every imaginable sort. And the dinosaurs in Colin Trevorrow’s picture are visually impressive, though to be honest those in the earlier installments still hold up pretty well in comparison. Perhaps to compensate, there are more of them here—in one scene, for example, a flock of pterodactyls descends on a crowd of tourists in an apparent homage to Hitchcock’s “The Birds.”
Despite that nod to another filmmaker, though, Trevorrow’s approach for the most part slavishly follows Spielberg’s, and he and his co-writers Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver and Derek Connolly take their lead from Crichton’s original rather than the two sequels as well. The script is based on the premise that the park envisioned by John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) has in fact been built on the island—as the wise black man (Omar Sy) who’s one of the employees remarks, “These people never learn”—and become a popular tourist destination. Owned by Simon Masrani (Irrfan Khan) and managed by Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard), since—as one character offhandedly remarks, nobody’s awed by a regular, old-fashioned dino anymore—the place aims to maintain its edge over competitors by adding new species genetically engineered under the direction of the unflappable Dr. Henry Wu (BD Wong), who adamantly rejects the notion that he’s the mad scientist he so obviously is. His newest concoction is the gigantic hybrid Indominus Rex, still being kept in isolation in a heavily-fortified part of the jungle (though we’re told it will eventually be named after Verizon, just the latest example of corporate sponsorship in the product-placement-crazy park). Elsewhere a quartet of velociraptors are being trained by Owen Grady (Chris Pratt), a handsome, gung-ho ex-Navy man (and sort of dino whisperer) who’s also Claire’s ex-boyfriend. Watching his work closely is park security man Vic Hoskins (Vincent D’Onofrio), who dreams of turning the raptors into weapons for the military.
In order to provide the kids-in-jeopardy thread that younger members of the audience can identify with, enter Zach and Gray Mitchell (Nick Robinson and Ty Simpkins), who are sent to Jurassic World by their parents Karen and Scott (Judy Greer and Andy Buckley) to enjoy a vacation with their aunt Claire. She promptly deposits them with her assistant Zara (Katie McGrath), whom they quickly ditch to go out and have fun by themselves. Despite the observation by Hoskins when trouble starts at the park that “it’s grown-up time,” the emphasis on these two shows that “Jurassic World” is really aimed at juvenile viewers, a fact demonstrated by the fact the script spends a lot of time on them—telling us, for example, that teen Zach can’t control his hormones and that Gray, a dino-geek, is troubled by suspicions that their parents are about to get a divorce—and that when the inevitable dinosaur rampage gets underway, the mayhem we’re shown will be high on energy but low in blood and gore.
Of course, it’s preordained that the boys will also be among the first human targets when Indominus Rex inevitably escapes its prison (disposing of some guards in the process), setting the last half of the movie—really one long action sequence—into motion. (Actually, their first encounter with the beast, when they’re encased in a gyrosphere ride, is one of the movie’s cooler bits.) Meanwhile Claire and Owen venture into the forest to find them, and all four must elude the fearsome beast, which follows them to the park’s crowded central plaza (complete with an Imax theatre, though why one would go to a movie rather than visiting the dinosaur petting zoo is never explained). Not only do Masrani, Hoskins and the raptors join the fray, but Zara reappears as well, and though she’s done nothing to engender dislike but speak with a British accent, she becomes one of Rex’s most notable victims. That’s not a spoiler: “Jurassic World” pretty much identifies those who will be disposed of by the close as soon as they appear onscreen. (That heavy-set dude operating the controls at Indominus Rex’s place should really have a nametag reading “Lunch.”) It’s also clear as crystal which characters are simply too important to suffer even a scratch, however many times they might be at point of being crushed by Rex’s formidable foot. As for the thousands of nameless park customers, they’re treated much the same way as the hordes that are crushed by falling buildings or swept away by tidal waves in “San Andreas”—as unimportant background scenery.
The CGI critters—not just Indominus and the raptors but the other assorted dinos, including a huge underwater creature that’s central to the park’s “Sea World” exhibit (and plays an important part in the finale)—are rendered with predictable efficiency by the effects army, of course, and they’re integrated well into cinematographer John Schwartzman’s widescreen images, but while in isolation they look fairly convincing (the “Lost World”-inspired battles between dinos are fine, even if the 3D paints them in overly dark tones), when humans and dinosaurs appear together the result is little more persuasive than the exhibits in a fundamentalist Bible museum. The humans are less well realized. Pratt is like a beefier version of Indiana Jones, but his swagger doesn’t have the charm that Harrison Ford’s looser mien did. Still, he’s better company than Howard, whose transformation from scaredy-cat executive to pistol-packing heroine is laughable. Robinson and Simpkins are pleasant but unremarkable, while D’Onofrio makes a hissable villain and Wong an effete version of Dr. Frankenstein. Jake Johnson and Lauren Lapkus are meant to provide comic relief as a pair of workers in the park’s control room, but the screenplay gives them little to work with. Trevorrow and editor Kevin Stitt keep things moving fast enough to paper over many of the narrative absurdities and spates of pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo in the dialogue, and all the technical crew do state-of-the-art work.
But the impact of such CGI wizardry is simply not what it once was. What back in 1993 seemed wondrous is now commonplace, pretty much a weekly multiplex routine. “Jurassic World” tries hard, incredibly hard, to recapture the sense of magic that Spielberg’s groundbreaking film achieved. But it fails, not because it’s lacking in craftsmanship, but because it’s devoid of the inspiration that might have made it distinctive rather than a well-executed but by-the-numbers retread of its predecessor. Perhaps the best indication of its second-hand feel comes in the music by Michael Giacchino, which tries desperately—and ineffectually—to stir up up an awestruck reaction in the audience but too often falls back on simply using bits of John Williams’ 1993 score. They’re good themes, but we’re heard them before; and in the end “Jurassic World” is as well made as most of today’s summertime Hollywood blockbusters, but essentially we’re seen it before too. And unlike love—at least if you believe Frank Sinatra—it’s not better the second time around.