MOVIE REVIEW: “Jurassic World” looks back a lot, but hardly moves forward

United International Pictures, Universal Pictures, Amblin Entertainment, Legendary Pictures
Starring Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Vincent D’Onofrio, Ty Simpkins, Nick Robinson, Omar Sy, B. D. Wong, Irrfan Khan
Directed by Colin Trevorrow
TRT: 2 hours 4 minutes
MTRCB Rating: PG
Philippine Release Date: June 10, 2015

Jurassic_World_logo Some of the most vivid memories of my childhood involved me being invited to spend afternoons at my (much older) cousin’s house. Her kids had a gigantic – and sadly ignored – bookshelf full of thick, hardbound reference books and an extensive collection of Reader’s Digest magazines. I still remember it: fifth shelf from the top, eleventh book from the left. It was a book about dinosaurs, and to six-year-old me, it was as important as the Bible.

To say that I was obsessed about dinosaurs wouldn’t be too far from the truth. I drew herds of Triceratops all over my notebooks and decorated my homemade volcano science project with little plastic stegosaurs. I even had a stack of cards with colorful illustrations of each dinosaur, arranged in alphabetical order, and information on their estimated height, weight, period of existence, and so on at the back of each piece.

It thus goes without saying that I absolutely loved the Jurassic Park movies. The first one in particular satisfied both my deep fascination with dinosaurs and my interest in the sciences. It was all very exciting for me: Here was a film that, for the first time, showed me how modern science says dinosaurs could have moved around or hunted. A far cry from the typical depiction of these so-called “terrible lizards” as sluggish, slimy, and not very bright, Jurassic Park made me appreciate the sight of a Brachiosaurus eating leaves off the top of a tree, fear the mighty bellow of a Tyrannosaurus rex, and hold my breath whenever those smart and speedy Velociraptor bastards would come close to sniffing out those poor kids (even though I had to suppress the urge to point out that the film’s “raptors” were actually much closer in both size and appearance to Deinonychus).

Plus, the story behind how these species were revived sounded so plausible, so convincing to my young ears that I was filled with hope and wonder that I could one day come close to actually hugging and riding my very own baby Triceratops.

It also didn’t hurt that Jurassic Park was way ahead of its time special effects-wise. Try watching it now and you’ll see that, ridiculous-looking consoles and outdated ideas about dinosaurs notwithstanding (for example, we now know that Tyrannosaurus rex actually had feathers and binocular vision), the film aged quite well. The dinosaurs sure as hell looked alive and breathing then, and still do now.

In short, Jurassic Park put the “evolution” in “revolutionary.”

Which brings us to Jurassic World. 

A lost world, rediscovered

Jurassic World is… well, not so much a sequel to Jurassic Park as it is a film that chronologically takes place after the original trilogy, on the same island. Isla Nublar is now the site for Jurassic World, a spanking new theme park – open to the public, at last – with spanking new attractions. As with every other film in the franchise, Jurassic World revolves around the consequences of mankind’s insistence on (1) affecting the balance of nature and upsetting millions of years of evolution for selfish gains and (2) experimenting with variables and factors it can neither master nor comprehend in full. Now under new ownership, the park’s financials and operations are managed by the no-nonsense, perpetually busy Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard), while the former space pirate, I mean, military man Owen (Chris Pratt) is one of the park’s most skilled trainers. Predictably, things go wrong and spiral downward at a frighteningly rapid pace, and it’s up to them to save the day. People panic, buildings get destroyed, and many things get eaten, often in gory fashion.

Jurassic_World_Chris_Pratt

“Ooh child, things are gonna get easier…”

Pratt (Star-Lord from Guardians of the Galaxy) and Howard (Gwen Stacy from Spider-Man 3) deliver adequate performances, even though their interaction seems a bit forced at times. Some of the other noteworthy players in the film are Vincent D’Onofrio (you may know him as Wilson Fisk from the excellent Netflix Daredevil series), Omar Sy (who played Bishop in last year’s X-Men: Days of Future Past), Irrfan Khan (that arrogant Oscorp executive Ratha from The Amazing Spider-Man), and Ty Simpkins (that kid Tony Stark bonded with in Iron Man 3). So yeah, as you can see, this movie isn’t just another Jurassic movie; it’s actually the secret crossover film Marvel fans have been demanding for years. Maybe.

Also, at various points in the film, you’ll want them all to die, which is probably par for the course when it comes to Jurassic Park films, anyway.

Under the direction of Colin Trevorrow, Jurassic World is essentially this generation’s Jurassic Park, meant to introduce the mythos and allow children to experience the wonder of seeing living, breathing dinosaurs, just like how my generation did. It’s supposed to do to viewers the same things Jurassic Park did for me the first time I saw it. After all, there’s a reason why this film is called Jurassic World and not Jurassic Park IV.

Evolutionary gaps

The film has all the right ingredients for a surefire blockbuster: a star-studded cast led by a prominent actor from a recent superhero film (the kind of film that seems to be all the rage these days), high levels of suspense and action, a bit of humor, a lot of gore, and CGI dinosaurs here, there, and everywhere.

Unfortunately, the DNA of Jurassic World is missing a few critical strands – and in this case, substituting them with the same ones in Jurassic Park holds the newer film back from escaping the jaws of “popcorn flick”-ism and joining Jurassic Park in the pantheon of genre-redefining films.

Jurassic_World_Triceratops_hamster

But hey, at least it has a giant automated hamster ball. Futuristic shit, right there.

For starters, let’s talk about how the dinosaurs look. Or rather, how they should have looked. And before you grab your pitchforks, point at me, and try to push me off a cliff or set me on fire, let me explain.

Obviously, Jurassic World is anything but a documentary – a point that the director himself made clear in a succinct tweet. The decision to stick to the old notion than all dinosaurs were gray and scaly was a conscious one, effectively dismissing new knowledge about dinosaurs’ possible habits and physical features (feathers, colors, sizes, etc.) in favor of adhering strictly to the standards set by the original film. To the film’s credit, this is addressed this in a way that does not disrupt the narrative. Still, it was a missed opportunity to reflect real-world science, to become a true landmark – and just because it didn’t have to, doesn’t mean it couldn’t have. And to me, it really hurts the value of Jurassic World.

Furthermore, despite the fact that Jurassic World does resemble Jurassic Park in terms of structure and plot, it still somehow fails to capture the spirit that made the latter film unique for its time. The story – or whatever passes for one, anyway – barely holds itself together, the humans suffer from painfully bland characterization and are hard to relate to, and the rate at which Jurassic World references the original and repeats its cliches multiple times within the same film comes close to abuse. Here’s an example: Pay attention to the scenes the new dino, Indominus rex, appears in, and you’ll notice that he does something really specific at least three times on three separate occasions throughout the movie. Interestingly, Indominus rex serves as an accurate reflection of Jurassic World: a new and flashy product driven by what corporations think the people would like, offering much in style but very little in substance.

“The gig comes with a killer dental plan, though!”

Of course, that’s not to say that it’s a bad film – it’s just that it’s not a particularly good one. I enjoyed Jurassic World, though, and perhaps for all the wrong reasons. I loved it because it featured many of the dinosaurs I was familiar with as a child, in exactly the same way I came to know them, scientific inaccuracies and all. I loved it because its constant nudges, winks, and references to Jurassic Park appealed to the fan in me; because it spoke “my” language, it knew “my” world.

Still, Jurassic World ends up feeling like a halfhearted attempt: an entry in the franchise that aims to make everything bigger and better to look like something different and revolutionary, but somehow still refuses to let go of the past, banking mainly on nostalgia to sell the idea that for the nth time, humanity has still not learned its lesson. After all, the resurgence in popularity of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, GI Joe, Transformers, and other franchises that today’s adults loved when they were kids proves one thing: winking at the older crowd – the crowd with spending power – guarantees ticket sales.

And let’s face it: We’re all really watching Jurassic World for the dinosaur action, not for things like story or scientific accuracy. It’s just a shame that even the film itself settles for accomplishing just that.

The true tragedy here is that, while Jurassic Park captured hearts and minds and served as the definitive take on the world’s extinct megafauna for an entire generation of wide-eyed moviegoers, Jurassic World will become nothing more than an entertaining yet ultimately irrelevant footnote in the “fossil record” of cinema – an incomplete find of what may have been a majestic creature, and a subpar attempt at resuscitating a sense of wonder and interest in the natural world that, in this era of Facebook, iPhones, and man-made distractions, seems to be rapidly going the way of the dinosaurs.

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Reviewer’s (Admittedly Unnecessary) Note: It kinda sorta bothers me how, in the film, it’s easy to mistake Mosasaurus, Pterandon and Dimorphodon for dinosaurs. They actually weren’t; dinosaurs’ hips allowed them to stand with their legs straight – a feature lacked by pterosaurs, mosasaurs, plesiosaurs, and even today’s crocodiles. In reality, they’re more like distant cousins – while they all branched out from diapsids, dinosaurs and pterosaurs diverged as separate groups under archosaurs, while mosasaurs actually fell under the lepidosaur group. I think it’s important to understand that the term “dinosaur” is not meant to be a blanket term (or layman’s wastebasket taxon, if you will) for all kinds of extinct reptilian or birdlike megafauna. Yay for trivia shoved down your throat!

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