Friday, June 12, 2015

Jurassic World: Dino-might

Jurassic World (2015) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for intense sci-fi violence and peril

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.12.15

We never learn.

Which is a good thing ... because, otherwise, where would Hollywood find most of its plotlines?

Having managed one narrow escape after another, our besieged heroes — from left,
Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard), Owen (Chris Pratt), Zach (Nick Robinson) and Gray
(Ty Simpkins) — wind up trapped in a lab when yet another dino-menace appears out
of nowhere. These poor folks just can't catch a break...
In a few key respects, Jurassic World is an honorable sequel to the sensational 1993 film that Steven Spielberg made from Michael Crichton’s riveting, way-clever novel ... not to mention Spielberg’s almost-as-good 1997 follow-up, adapted from Crichton’s own sequel. (Equal credit also goes to scripter David Koepp, who worked on both films.)

We’ll just sorta pretend that the series’ third entry, in 2001, never happened.

Which also seems to be the attitude adopted by this new film’s director, Colin Trevorrow, and his three co-writers: Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver and Derek Connelly. Jurassic World does acknowledge the first two films with several nice nods toward those who sculpted this franchise so superbly. Even Michael Giacchino’s exhilarating score references key John Williams themes from the two Spielberg movies.

Visual effects supervisors Tim Alexander and Glen McIntosh also do phenomenal work, further enhancing the “you are there” verisimilitude that made the first film such a jaw-dropping wonder. It’s no imaginative stretch at all, to accept these various beasties as living, breathing ... and highly dangerous.

Trevorrow and editor Kevin Stitt concoct a hell-for-leather third act, with each suspenseful encounter and/or chase building to an even better one. Additionally, the script is laden with perceptive social commentary, taking some well-deserved jabs at our jaded 21st sensibilities, while reminding us anew that — to paraphrase a droll 1970s TV commercial — it’s not nice to mess with Mother Nature.

Sounds great, right?

Well ... not entirely.

Despite its many virtues, Jurassic World is marred by an abundance of unpleasant, mean-spirited and just plain stupid characters who spend the entire film behaving like complete idiots. On top of which, Trevorrow seems to have coached everybody to play at hyper-melodramatic, back row/third balcony opera house levels.

That’s frankly surprising, since Trevorrow’s sole previous credit is 2012’s droll Safety Not Guaranteed, a little sci-fi mystery that gets its oomph from being so deliciously coy, subtle and quiet.

So why switch gears here? Did Trevorrow worry that his human players had to compete with their dino co-stars, when it came to chewing up the scenery?

Whatever the reason, it’s hard to like or admire most of these characters, including the few whom we’re definitely supposed to root for. Brainless behavior demands the opposite; I’d have been perfectly content to watch a few more become dino-chow.


Two decades and change have passed since Dr. John Hammond first built his amazing theme park, and stocked it with prehistoric beasts coaxed into life from petrified DNA. The Isla Nublar facility has become an even larger tourist attraction, thanks to a financial injection from billionaire benefactor Simon Masrani (Irrfan Khan).

But much the way conventional theme parks have been forced to construct bigger and badder roller coasters, lest they perish from public disinterest, Jurassic World has survived solely because geneticist Henry Wu (BD Wong, reprising his role from Jurassic Park) has kept Isla Nublar well stocked with critters both benign and ferocious. Children ride gentle mini Triceratops in the petting zoo, while patrons at an aquatic attraction watch a massive Mosasaurus leap from the water to snatch a great white shark dangled as a snack.

Everything is overseen by career-oriented, bean-counting operations manager Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard), whose micro-managing style is grating, to say the least. Actually, everything about Claire is grating; Howard does far too good a job, making the woman arrogantly insufferable.

No surprise, then, that she’s less than thrilled to be saddled with her sister’s sons: 16-year-old Zach (Nick Robinson) and 11-year-old Gray (Ty Simpkins), who’ve arrived expecting some “family bonding” with their long-unseen aunt. In this script’s most pointless sidebar, the boys’ mother and father (Judy Greer and Andy Buckley) are about to divorce. Not that this detail ever gets the heft it demands.

Claire’s usual level of distraction is heightened by the impending debut of the park’s next headline-grabber: a genetically enhanced super-saurian dubbed Indominus rex. She therefore abandons her nephews to the care of her assistant, Zara (Katie McGrath).

Unpleasantly dismissive as Claire is, Zach is even worse: a sullen jerk who, despite having just left a girlfriend back home, ogles every teen hottie he spots. As with Howard, Robinson plays this young jackass to such perfection, that we can’t help wishing that the aquatic trainer would feed him to the Mosasaurus.

OK, I get it: Zach is introduced as a cad because circumstances will force him to “man up” and behave like the caring older brother he’s supposed to be. But Robinson can’t sell that transition; it just sorta happens, eventually, because the script says so. In a similar vein, Howard also fails to sell Claire’s equally necessary character shift.

That’s bad directing. Granted, many viewers likely won’t mind, but I do wish Trevorrow had tried a little harder.

Elsewhere in the park, rough-around-the-edges nice guy Owen (Chris Pratt) has developed a cautious but successful bond with four Velociraptors dubbed Blue, Charlie, Delta and Echo. This work has aroused the interest of Hoskins (Vincent D’Onofrio), a not-so-clandestine corporate stooge who — following in the footsteps of Paul Reiser’s Burke, in Aliens — sees great military potential in “weaponizing” the ’raptors.

Needless to say, Stuff Goes Wrong.

As was true of last summer’s Guardians of the Galaxy, Pratt is this film’s secret weapon: absolutely the coolest human character on the island. Bulked up as befitting his character’s special ops background, Pratt also displays a persuasive air of authority, while further serving as this story’s social conscience. Owen gets saddled with a lot of hokey dialogue, particularly when it comes to insisting that these various beasties be accorded respect as “living creatures” ... and damned if Pratt doesn’t pull it off. Every single clichéd phrase.

Claire, however, can’t see Owen’s resourceful forest for her self-centered tree; she’s still mad at him because of one less than optimal date. (That’s a rather slender thread on which to hang so massive a character dynamic, and their prickly “banter” is rather awkward.)

By this point, we’ve also had to put up with a wealth of inexplicably poor behavior on the part of all sorts of people. Even for a corporate stooge — an easy target, these days — Claire’s apathy toward loss of life, and her initial refusal to consider public safety, are ludicrous. And are we really supposed to believe that park visitors would be allowed to power themselves inside large gyroscopic hamster spheres, wandering willy-nilly through dinosaur-filled meadows? Seriously?

Needless to say, the latter contrivance gives bad-boy Zach an excuse to venture farther afield, eventually putting him and Gray in serious peril. Hey, kids will be kids.

And boy, for a supposedly savvy billionaire entrepreneur, Masrani is remarkably clueless. Fortunately, Khan is skilled enough to (mostly) make us overlook this guy’s failings.

Nothing is sillier, though, than the suggestion that a motorcycle-bound Owen could pace his ’raptors, as they charge pell-mell through a forest. What, are we to believe that Owen just sorta vaporizes through the countless trees and fallen branches that the ’raptors evade, leap over and scoot under? Sure, it’s a way-nifty sequence, but hardly credible.

The obligatory peril and jaw-crunching deaths are handled in a (mostly) family-friendly manner, as befitting this film’s PG-13 rating. Trevorrow doesn’t dwell on dismemberment or gore, limiting things to blood spatters, off-camera chomps and single-gulp swallows (much like the notorious toilet scene in Jurassic Park).

There’s one exception: a supporting character who endures way more suffering than seems warranted.

Several lesser players stand out in supporting performances. Jake Johnson (Nick, on TV’s New Girl) and Lauren Lapkus spar nicely as command center technical engineers, and Omar Sy is memorable as the park’s refreshingly intelligent lead dinosaur handler. Finally, Colby Boothman-Shepard is appropriately terrified, as a newbie ’raptor handler.

And Jimmy Fallon is a hoot, playing himself in one of the park’s many instructional videos.

The 3D effects add little to the film: no surprise, since they were added after the fact, rather than integrated from the get-go by Trevorrow and cinematographer John Schwartzman. That said, watching this film on the giant IMAX screen is a genuine treat: the best possible way to experience the second hour’s many thrills ’n’ chills.

Based on the turn-away crowd at Tuesday evening’s preview screening, anticipation for this film is running very high; box-office business should be impressive. And, in fairness, it’s a helluva ride ... once it gets going.

But Trevorrow couldn’t get the all-essential blend of thoughtful science, admirable heroes and crowd-pleasing thrills that Spielberg delivered so well. Let’s therefore call this one a good try.

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