You can almost hear the corporate cogs whirring as the new Jurassic World unfurls. The movie is a belated extension of the old Jurassic Park franchise, which was launched by Steven Spielberg in 1993. Spielberg's first film, which heralded a new age in computer animation, was an enormous hit. It was followed by two sequels of slightly diminishing box-office returns, the last of them released 14 years ago. In that time, the art of digital effects has advanced into astonishing new realms. Surely, it must have been thought, a high-tech return to the Jurassic well would yield a slam-dunk summer blockbuster, and, not inconsequentially, a merchandising money-gush of t-shirts, backpacks, action figures and other kiddy-world impedimenta.
This is undoubtedly correct. Jurassic World is as close to a guaranteed smash as any movie might likely come. And it does offer a lot to look at, most of it scaly and snarling. The dinosaurs on view have the illusionary weight and detail of real creatures, and they move through the film's physical environments at a new level of precision complexity. What's missing, though, is the Spielberg touch (although he's onboard here as an executive producer). In Jurassic Park, the director was careful to pause for moments of wonder, showing us, for example, a long-necked brachiosaur gracefully nibbling leaves at the top of a very tall tree. New director Colin Trevorrow, whose one previous feature was the 2012 Sundance hit Safety Not Guaranteed, is more committed to raging spectacle. This would be okay, but all of the digital expertise that has been lavished on this picture is subverted by its script, which is thuddingly analog.
The movie ignores the previous Jurassic sequels and takes us straight back to the tropical island of Isla Nublar, where the original Park came to such an unpleasant end. This time we're in the company of two brothers, little Gray (Ty Simpkins), who's on hand to provide occasional dinosaur exposition, and teenage Zach (Nick Robinson), who's mainly into girls and would rather be anywhere else. The boys have been dispatched to the island by their parents, who are on the verge of divorce, and I won't go into that—although the movie does, at unnecessary length—because it's too boring.
Jurassic World is a new commercial enterprise erected on the ruins of the old park. It's a mash-up of Disneyland, Sea World, and tourist hell, packed with herds of visitors writhing in the tropical heat. The attractions include dinosaur holograms, a mini-dino petting zoo, an aqua show, and a monorail that carries the customers out into the electronically-fenced outback where the coolest dinosaurs, all cooked up in the JW lab, are on free-range display.
The story is shouldered by a core of skimpily written characters who are barely up to the job. Bryce Dallas Howard has the thankless task of playing Claire, the resort's operational manager. Claire is a feminist nightmare, running through the jungle in high heels and being told, when danger erupts, to "stay in the car!" She has no boyfriend, naturally, although she did once have a date with Owen (Chris Pratt), now employed as the resident raptor trainer (or something). Pratt, such a quick-witted screen presence in Guardians of the Galaxy, is given virtually no good lines here—he's a standard-issue hunkosaur, which is too bad, because his interactions with Howard are entirely sparkless.
Claire has been charged by Jurassic World owner Masrani (Irrfan Khan) with devising a new attraction, and working with staff geneticist Dr. Wu (BD Wong, back from the first Jurassic film), she has succeeded. "No one's impressed by a dinosaur anymore," she explains at one point. "Consumers want them bigger, louder, more teeth." The solution is a freshly brewed Indominus rex—a really, really big dinosaur that towers over the previously formidable Tyrannosaurus rex of the earlier films. You can imagine how dangerous such a creature might be if it ever got loose, but nobody else here can. Well, maybe the sneering security chief, Hoskins (Vincent D'Onofrio), who believes Indominus could be turned to military purposes and made into an excellent weapon. Don't think too hard about this.
The blithe lack of concern on the part of Jurassic World executives about the inadvisability of creating a new species of monster lizard is part of the movie's rote anti-corporate stance, which sits oddly in a film brought to us by a company the size of Universal Pictures. And it's a ridiculous message to peddle amid all the rampant product placement (Starbucks, Coca-Cola, Verizon Wireless, Mercedes-Benz) that assaults us at just about every turn. On the other hand, while I found this sort of thing annoying, I know if I were 12 years old, I wouldn't care at all.
If you'll permit me a spoiler here: Indominus rex gets loose. Soon Owen and Claire and the two boys are running for their lives, which of course is what the movie is really about. There are some wonderfully wild action scenes. In one of them, young Zach and Gray, perambulating around the dino grounds in a see-through gyro-car, encounter a gigantic beastie and find themselves being kicked about like a soccer ball. There's also a hair-raising attack by a squadron of screeching Pterodactyls (well, Pteranodons, I guess—in any case, you can almost hear the tourists screeching for their refunds). And in one of the movie's most excitingly staged scenes, a truck bearing Claire and the two kids careens down a road pursued by roaring dinosaurs they can't seem to outpace.
This is pretty great stuff. It's all that the movie really promises, and it delivers. Will anyone in the target audience care that the story is wholly predictable, and that the characters are limp and depthless? Does it matter that the digital creatures that swarm forth here no longer pack the revolutionary punch of Spielberg's original creations? Lemme think. No.