Review: ‘Jurassic World’ delivers dinosaur thrills but little depth

When I saw the original “Jurassic Park” for the first time, it was a magical screening, held exclusively for the Universal tour guides. It was several weeks before the release of the movie, and they wanted to give us a chance to see it early and then spread the word on the trams about what it was they were about to release.

I will always remember and revere the experience of seeing it in the Alfred Hitchcock Theater, in the room where the sound was actually mixed. When the T-rex attack began, everyone in the room stopped breathing. That may sound like an exaggeration, but the temperature went up so much during that one scene that people began sweating. In that one moment, Spielberg and his production team reached deep into our collective memory of being small furry things afraid of being eaten and tapped that fear in a very real and immediate way. It remains one of the single most effective sequences of terror ever captured on film, no matter what the rating.

The rest of “Jurassic Park”? Eh.

That's the sad truth about this series of films as a whole. They depend entirely on how you react to the set pieces in each film because as actual movies, they don't really work. I think the first film has that one great set piece, and I think the stuff with the raptors is fine, but not particularly amazing. I think the second film has about three great sequences. Both of those movies benefit enormously from the work by Jeff Goldblum, who should have been given an MVP Oscar for both of them. “Jurassic Park III” comes closer to working as a whole film, although I still think there's one set piece that leaves the entire rest of the film in the dust.

So when I say that “Jurassic World” may be the best entire movie in the series, I offer that with the caveat that there's no single moment in the film that is as great as the T-rex attack from the first film. But then again… not many films feature scenes that great, so it's a hard bar to use to judge what “Jurassic World” does well.

First and foremost, I enjoyed the film as a reaction to “Jurassic Park.” It feels in some ways like this film has been bubbling around inside co-writer/director Colin Trevorrow ever since the 16-year-old him saw the first film in the theater. If they'd never made the other sequels, this one would make perfectly logical sense as a way to pick the series up now. There is no single human lead here; instead, they've created just enough of an excuse to get Gray (Ty Simpkins) and Zach (Nick Robinson) into the park while Owen (Chris Pratt) and Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) try to head off a crisis situation created in equal parts by Hoskins (Vincent D'Onofrio) and the twisted work of Masrani (Irrfan Khan) and Dr. Henry Wu (B.D. Wong, the only returning cast member from the original). That's it. That's all the human stuff that matters.

I've already seen and heard a fair amount of fury and snark aimed at this film from some other critics, and while I would never say that I feel like this is a piercingly well-observed human story, everything's handled with a fairly light touch. The two kids are at the park to visit their aunt Claire because their parents are in the middle of negotiating a divorce, and I'll be honest… I hate the frequency with which divorce is used to simply drive plot in films. I am well aware that I am overly attuned to it right now, but it still drives me crazy. Thankfully, they don't dwell on it, and most of what happens between the brothers is just observational performance stuff, with the older brother constantly annoyed/embarrassed by his little brother, especially in front of girls. The same thing's true in the relationship between Owen and Claire. Pratt and Howard are given just enough character definition at the beginning of the film to give them things to do as they run and jump and scream for the rest of the film.

Lately, I've taken some heat from some of you for the letter grades on these reviews, and I think it's interesting to see how many years we've been having this conversation and how much some of you still believe in film criticism as a binary thing. There is no “right” or “wrong.” There are certain technical crafts that I think are very important to the overall effectiveness of filmmaking, and there are certainly plenty of examples of ways you can hamhand things, but there is such a wide range of reactions that we all have to movies that you can't possibly look at my letter grade (something I'm not crazy about) as any sort of definitive statement on the film. All that grade indicates is how well I think the filmmakers accomplished their own goals with the film. Whether I enjoyed that or not is something that is far more complicated, and that's why I write a full review. If the letter grade was the whole story, then I'd feel like everything else I do is a waste of time, and that's certainly not the case. When I gave “San Andreas” a better grade than I gave “Tomorrowland,” that's not because I think “San Andreas” is a better film. I don't. I think Brad Bird's technical craftsmanship is top-notch, as good as anyone in this industry, and I think there are plenty of grace notes in “Tomorrowland” that prove that very skilled people were responsible for it. But “San Andreas” is better at delivering what it promises than “Tomorrowland” was, and the things that I think don't work at all about “Tomorrowland” hobble it in some pretty important ways for me.

So while I can acknowledge that there are things about “Jurassic World” that feel perfunctory, the things I enjoyed about it far outweigh my complaints. There is something ridiculous about the entire conception of Pratt's character, but he sells it through performance, and the way it actually plays in the film makes sure to keep the raptors dangerous, even as it has fun with the idea of them running as a pack with a human in the lead. The film's big new invention, the Indominus Rex, is a fun movie monster because of how impossibly smart and suited to its environment it is, and because it is just a nasty killing machine, no mere animal. The film pretty much spells out what it wants to say thematically right up front, and while I like the target, I'm not sure they make the case for this being anything but part of the larger problem. The idea in the movie is that people got bored with the remarkable and have demanded an escalation in the years since, and that is very much the case in terms of blockbuster movies. The thing is, what ultimately breaks that formula is when someone remembers to include the human element given the same attention that the spectacle is given. The reason “Guardians Of The Galaxy” flattened people was because the film made us believe in the most outrageous characters on a deeply human level. The reason “Mad Max: Fury Road” turned out to be such a surprise is because of the way George Miller made everyone a character this time, allowing us to see ourselves in the characters. If you can combine the human with the fantastic and do both of them equally well, there's no limit to how much audiences will reward you. And if you can't do that, well, then make sure the spectacle works, because that's all you've got.

Having said that, one of the things that results from the choice to use almost all CG instead of animatronics this time is a mobility that allows Trevorrow to be aggressive with his staging, and I really like how free the animals are here. Whether it's the big new one or some familiar faces who show up late in the game, these animals are anything but limited in terms of what they can do. There is one scene where they are clearly using an animatronic, and there's no coincidence that it's the scene where they put the greatest emotional demand on the actors involved. They need an actor to suddenly see these things as living beings, and so they gave her something real to play off of, with the results speaking for themselves.

The second half of this movie is where Trevorrow cuts loose, and there are some big kicks to be had. There are all sorts of great gags and beats as the dinosaurs rip hell out of this park. Even at the start of the film, though, things are kept brisk, and the Indominus Rex breaks out of its environment fairly early. Once it does, the film just keeps moving, and I think this has a fairly satisfying ending. Preposterous, yes, but satisfying in the world the movie has created. This actually feels like the first of the films where there are enough threads left unresolved to pick this story up without remaking the first film again. One noteworthy villain manages to skate completely, and there's no way a disaster of this size goes unpunished. Beyond that, there is no more control over these things, and the larger world outside the park may finally have to grapple with this disruption in the natural order.

Chris Pratt deserves to be the guy every studio is chasing right now, and he works hard to sell even the most insane things he's asked to do here. Bryce Dallas Howard has the more thankless role up front, but once the running and the terror start, she loosens up and starts to have more fun in the role. There are a few nice moments for Irrfan Khan and Jake Johnson and Lauren Lapkus as well, and B.D. Wong seems to be extra-happy with everything they've given him to do here. I think D'Onofrio's character is by far the weakest link, the most pedestrian in terms of how he's imagined. What works best about the script by Trevorrow and Derek Connolly (along with Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver) is the way it keeps things rolling forward. They have some fun with the idea of what the actual park would look like and what attractions would be there, and I thought the use of Jimmy Fallon in the video that plays during the rides was a perfect touch. But when a film is corporate product to the degree that this one is, it's hard to criticize the machine too effectively. In many ways, this is the Indominus Rex. It is bigger and meaner and louder than its precursors, and it does exactly what it was bred to do. Like the “Terminator” series, though, I think the more times you return to the well, the more you reveal just how little narrative reason there is to tell further stories. At least Trevorrow seems to be genuinely enjoying what he's doing, and it's that sense of someone having fun behind the camera that ultimately won me over.

If you're okay with a monster movie that is simply a well-made monster movie, then book your tickets for “Jurassic World” this weekend. I'll be taking my own boys to the drive-in, and I suspect it's going to be huge fun for them.

“Jurassic World” opens in theaters everywhere on Friday.