Early on in Jurassic World, a corporate apparatchik at the titular theme park explains the ongoing pressure to constantly offer visitors a bigger, more frightening thrill. “Let’s face it,” she says, “no one’s impressed by dinosaurs anymore.” This is in fact the central dilemma that has bedeviled Universal Pictures ever since its original 1993 Stephen Spielberg-directed hit Jurassic Park: How ya gonna get ’em back in the seats, after they’ve seen T. rex?
In the first sequel, the solution was to go with two T. rexes; in the next, to pretend that the amphibious Spinosaurus aegyptiacus was a still more fearsome predator. (It almost certainly was not.) Now, 14 years after the most recent installment of the franchise, its custodians have come up with a new idea: Scientists at the reopened park decide to genetically engineer a super-dino more terrifying than any to walk the Earth before it. The result is a hyper-intelligent, hyper-aggressive monster spliced together from the DNA of a T. rex, a cuttlefish, a tree frog, and at least one secret ingredient I will not reveal but you’ll probably guess on your own. Both the (fictional) park and the (real-life) studio are hoping this new creature, Indominus rex, will make for boffo box office.
There are plenty such moments of commercial overlap between the movie and its subject matter. Jurassic World may be a make-believe place, for instance, but I assume Samsung still paid hard cash to get its name prominently displayed on the park’s “Innovation Center.” Indeed, some of the cleverest moments in the movie play on the most cheesily recognizable elements of the theme-park experience: the bored, probably stoned attendants hustling kids on and off rides; the lamely comic introductory video in which a bumbling Jimmy Fallon plays himself.
But the glazed quasi-contentment of the theme-park experience gives way to something more violent and dramatic soon enough. The Indominus gets out of her enclosure (of course); the park tries to keep its initial recovery efforts quiet from the tourists (of course); and things (of course) gradually go all to hell—notably when said tourists start getting picked off by dive-bombing pteranodons.
Pinballing through the escalating dino-saster are a cast of character types so familiar that they represent brands almost as pre-sold as the movie they appear in. Two squabbling teen brothers (Ty Simpkins, Nick Robinson) are sent by their parents from the winter snows of home—“Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” is playing, in what may or may not be a deliberate inversion of Home Alone—for a little Jurassic recreation. Instead, they sneak into a restricted part of the park and proceed to wander again and again into the jaws—often literal—of danger. But at least along the way they learn a valuable lesson about the meaning of brotherhood. (In one of the movie’s oddest twists, the idea that the boys’ parents are getting divorced is brought up precisely long enough to squeeze out a couple of tears, and is then forgotten entirely.)
In theory, the brothers are being looked after by their Aunt Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard), an executive at the tropical-island park off the coast of Costa Rica. But because she is a Tightly Wound Career Woman, she instead foists the kids off on a careless assistant who promptly loses track of them. Howard’s character has already achieved some notoriety thanks to a critical tweet by Joss Whedon, and she is almost exactly as awful as advertised: shrill, sexless, unable to remember her nephews’ ages, afraid not merely of flying but of flies. Fortunately, with the help of charmingly roguish raptor wrangler Owen Grady (Chris Pratt)—who snatches flies out of the air single-handed!—she gradually strips off her corporate couture to discover the tough, tank-topped warrior woman beneath.
One might assume that Pratt’s casting meant that his character would have some wit to him, as with his Peter Quill in Guardians of the Galaxy. One would, alas, be mistaken. Owen is every bit as two-dimensional as the other characters in the film, who also include a tedious baddie (Vincent D’Onofrio) who wants to weaponize dinosaurs for the military; the billionaire owner of the park (Irrfan Khan), who also fancies himself a helicopter pilot; and Owen’s Nonwhite Best Friend (Omar Sy). The only actors in the film who appear to be having any fun at all are TV vets Jake Johnson (New Girl) and Lauren Lapkus (Orange Is the New Black), who receive minimal screen time as low-level park techs.
That said, this is not a movie that you go to for the human beings, and the dinos on display are consistently first-rate, from the armor-plated ankylosaurs to the whale-sized mosasaur, to the wide variety of flying pterosaurs. Director Colin Trevorrow (Safety Not Guaranteed) has a nice eye for the action sequences, and he keeps the film moving along at a sharp enough clip that its deficiencies of characterization and plot never quite prove fatal. (Among the latter is the decision to release a pack of deadly, poorly trained velociraptors in the hopes that they’ll hunt down the Indominus, a plan that practically comes in a manila envelope with “What Could Possibly Go Wrong?” stamped on it in red lettering.)
Though Jurassic World is probably the best addition to the franchise since the first film, it nonetheless lacks the innocent wonder of its predecessor. This is perhaps inevitable—the “no one’s impressed by dinosaurs anymore” quote carries more than a whiff of truth, after all—and for the most part the movie wisely responds by foregoing quieter moments in favor of big set pieces. One exception, a scene in which Owen and Claire stop to grieve over a pack of dying herbivores when they’re supposed to be rushing to save her nephews from a grisly, imminent death, represents an unusual—and, frankly, remarkable—misstep.
That said, fans of the first Jurassic Park will find this latest installment stuffed to overflowing with references and callbacks: Park founder John Hammond (played by Richard Attenborough in the earlier films) is name-dropped constantly; a dilophosaurus rears its frilly head in a holographic display; and the boys stumble into the ruined lobby of the original park, where they find a tooth of that very first T. rex. Whether one considers the movie to be giddy with nostalgia or flat-out drunk will largely come down to a matter of taste.
Late in the film, as all hope seems (once again) lost, the younger of the two brothers declares that in order to defeat the Indominus “we need more teeth.” Those four words are a wonderfully concise and elegant enunciation of the ethos undergirding the entire movie. If you limit your expectations for Jurassic World to “more teeth,” it will deliver on that promise. If you dare to hope for anything more—relatable characters, narrative coherence—you’ll only set yourself up for disappointment.