“No one’s impressed by a dinosaur anymore.” Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) boils the conundrum facing both Jurassic World and “Jurassic World” down to a single phrase. The latter is the long-delayed — substitute “overdue” or “unneeded” depending on your proclivities — fourth installment in a franchise that by common consent ran out of gas before it ground to a halt in 2001. (I would submit that “The Lost World: Jurassic Park” is actually better directed, if less well written and acted, than “Jurassic Park,” and “Jurassic Park III” is a perfectly fine little exploitation movie, but that’s an argument for another day.) The former is what’s become of the original Jurassic Park in the 22 years since the events of the first movie. It’s now an established tourist attraction hosting some 20,000-plus visitors a day, a massive, high-overhead attraction whose wonders become routine. The late visionary-slash-madman John Hammond once boasted that the original Jurassic Park would make his nature preserve in Kenya “look like a petting zoo.” Jurassic World has an actual petting zoo, stocked with baby triceratopses that children can saddle up and ride.
“Jurassic Park” cannily served as a metaphor for itself, with Hammond’s genetically engineered attractions as the equivalent of the film’s CGI ones. Unless you’ve seen it recently, there’s almost certainly less CGI in “Jurassic Park” than you remember — as in “Jaws,” Steven Spielberg uses a host of techniques to camouflage the limitations of an emerging technology — but the scenes where it’s used still have the power to inspire awe. In “Jurassic World,” that awe has been replaced with the simple desire for more. The park’s newest, as-yet-unveiled attraction is the Indominus Rex, a mashed-up genetic monstrosity crafted with the primary purpose of, as B.D. Wong’s scientist puts it, being “bigger, scarier, cooler.” The I. Rex — so named because, as Claire helpfully explains, real dinosaur names are too cumbersome for a four-year-old — is part dinosaur, part frog, part chameleon, just as “Jurassic World” is an amalgamation of other movies, many of them Spielberg’s. (The movie’s most brutal sequence, in which a woman is plunged into the water again and again by ravenous pterodactyls, is best, and perhaps only, understood as a misjudged “Jaws” homage.) The movie, like the I. Rex itself, only exists because audiences demanded it. It’s all our fault.
In Jurassic World’s genetic labs, as in the world of digital rendering, anything is possible — a phrase which was once a starry-eyed promise, now a ho-hum matter of fact. We already knew you you could make anything. So what? The only way to keep audiences enthralled is to keep upping the ante: bigger, more ferocious dinosaurs; more massive, earth-shattering movie destruction. Don’t forget to keep costs down while you’re at it: Claire negotiates a deal that will slap a corporation’s name on the Indominus Rex’s attraction; the movie features prominent product placement for Samsung and Margaritaville chain restaurants. (“‘Verizon Wireless Presents Indominus Rex,,’ ha ha, now here’s a character wearing Beats headphones.”) These dinosaurs aren’t marvels of the natural world; in the park’s terminology, they’re simply “assets.”
One critic went as far to call “Jurassic World” a “meta-modernist blockbuster.” But acknowledging a problem doesn’t solve it, any more than telling people you’re an asshole allows you to act like an asshole with impunity. “Jurassic World’s” opening act is meant to serve as an inoculant against the flavorless blockbusterisms that follow, but there’s no lampshade big enough to cover the movie’s lack of a soul. Director Colin Trevorrow homages the original “Jurassic Park” — skipping over the sequels because they’re inconvenient — as if he’s working down a list: close-up of flickering dino eye, check; shot where humans hold breath as dino head comes so close to theirs; check. (Never mind that it’s explicitly established that the I. Rex sees thermal images, so keeping still makes no difference in visibility.) But it’s worth dwelling on what he misses — not just the sense of wonder, but the respect for life. In the first three movies, only one dinosaur dies at human hands (check this list if you don’t believe me); at the end of “The Lost World,” Julianne Moore’s character heroically tranquilizes a T. Rex before soldiers can shoot it.
In “Jurassic World,” dinos and humans alike are killed with no time to mourn their passing: Trevorrow mimics “Aliens” in charting the massacre of a group of soldiers by watching their heart monitors flatline. The previous movies’ ethical debates — woven into the plot with varying degrees of success depending on the film — have been replaced by practical ones: there are no what-ifs, only hows. As in the recent “Planet of the Apes” movies, also written by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver (Trevorrow and his partner share screenwriting credit), there’s a theme woven into “Jurassic World” about whether humanity represents the next step on the evolutionary ladder or just nature repeating her old mistakes; the last shot of “Jurassic World” uncannily, and somewhat incoherently, echoes the end of “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.” But it’s lost amid Trevorrow’s competent but uninspired action setpieces, which unlike Spielberg’s don’t connect to the movie’s purported heart.
Or maybe they do. “Jurassic World’s” action sequences are indeed bigger and possibly cooler, though definitely not scarier. (One thing that surprised me re-watching “Jurassic Park” is that, at heart, it’s a horror movie.) But like the Indominus Rex’s genetic mishmash, the parts don’t fit together, and the result, while an effective killing machine, isn’t good for much of anything else.