Midway through Jurassic World, two young brothers come across a storage building that’s essentially a crypt full of artifacts from Steven Spielberg’s 1993 smash hit Jurassic Park. Moldering away in there is the boxy 1992 Jeep Wrangler in which Laura Dern so memorably fled the Tyrannosaurus rex. (You can learn how to soup up your own vehicle to resemble it, if your affection for Jurassic Park runs that deep.) An old Jurassic Park banner—not unlike the one that drifts ironically past the T. Rex at the climax of the first movie—gets rolled up by the older boy to be used as a torch—an old prop turned fuel for the new movie’s purposes. In Jurassic World, director Colin Trevorrow—a surprise pick for the job, given that his only previous dramatic feature was the modest sci-fi indie Safety Not Guaranteed—pays homage to the Spielberg original even as he mulches it. But from that mulch grows a pretty robust hybrid, for both good and ill—which I guess is appropriate for a film that’s all about the joy and stupidity of bringing back dinosaurs.
Jurassic World, the third and (for whatever it’s worth) probably best sequel to Jurassic Park, is an old-fashioned monster movie. It’s also a special-effects extravaganza that pushes the boundaries of digital world-creation. A cash grab exploiting nostalgia for a recognizable summer franchise. A preachy re-re-re-retelling of Frankenstein. An ickily retrograde gender parable, if you stop and think about it for a minute. A whomping good time, if you don’t—and who has time to think when there’s a genetically engineered megadinosaur on the loose?
Jurassic World is set in the present day, a technology-jaded age in which, a generation after the opening of the first cloned-dino theme park, enormous prehistoric lizards have become old hat. In fact, the older of the two brothers, Zach (Nick Robinson) doesn’t even want to be at Jurassic World—he’s more interested in flirting with every girl he sees. But the younger, Gray (Ty Simpkins, a shaggy-haired boy with old-school Spielberg-kid appeal) is a dinosaur nerd who’s thrilled to be exploring the carefully controlled wonders of the now purportedly danger-free park, which takes up a whole (fictional) island off the coast of Costa Rica.
The person insisting the hardest that this new dino enclosure is seriously the safest place ever, not like the last time or the time before that or that first, really scary time, is the boys’ aunt Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard), the chilly, business-obsessed manager of the park. Claire speaks almost exclusively in corporate jargon, quoting focus-group feedback like it’s scripture and referring to the dinosaurs as “assets.” “They’re not assets, they’re animals!” replies the park’s resident expert on dino behavior, Owen (Chris Pratt)—maybe not in those exact words, but in very similar ones, and in multiple scenes. Ideas about nature, technology, ethics, and corporate greed get chewed over nearly as thoroughly in the first half of Jurassic World as theme-park patrons do in the second.
Claire and Owen’s ideological differences over the park’s mission have made them steer clear of each other in the past, especially after a long-ago date left them each with a bad impression of the other. But they have to team up when Claire’s nephews go off-roading in a Gyrosphere—a sort of transparent hamster-ball vehicle for humans, made for touring the tightly patrolled grounds of the park—and wind up being chased by Indominus rex herself.
Not familiar with that terrifying dinosaur species? Not to worry, it never existed … or at least hasn’t yet. The unthinkably colossal Indominus is the sole surviving member of a new super-species, a custom blend whipped up by the park’s chief genetic engineer (B.D. Wong) to satisfy the public demand for ever bigger, hungrier, scarier dinosaurs. (Comment on the contemporary film industry noted and filed.) I couldn’t help but think that Owen should have been consulted much earlier on the project, as he reasonably points out that breeding a creature to have all the traits of an ultra-predator and then raising it alone in captivity with no opportunity to hunt is a foolproof recipe for … making a lot of people ingredients in that dinosaur’s foolproof recipe.
Because Claire is a bottom-line, let’s-get-this-done kind of lady, I’ll be one too: Jurassic World delivers all that could reasonably be expected from a non-Spielberg-directed, decades-later entry in this only semi-beloved franchise. The human stories are often hokey, but they’re really just frames on which to hang the suspense sequences—we have to care about some characters enough that we mind if they’re plucked from the Earth by flocks of pterodactyls. (That happens to one supporting character who didn’t really do anything to “deserve” it, and you feel for her—but her surprise demise is so cleverly staged that it plays as a dark comic twist rather than a gruesome comeuppance.) Other characters—especially Vincent D’Onofrio as a gung-ho military type who wants to train Chris Pratt’s beloved velociraptors for use as weapons—do seem to be cruisin’ for a bruisin’ in the dinosaur department, and they get it. Irrfan Khan plays a more morally ambiguous figure, the proud owner of Jurassic World, a company he believes in so deeply he’s blind to the hubris implicit in its very existence.
I could have lived without the film’s implication that, by privileging her dino-park career over settling down and having babies, Bryce Dallas Howard’s character is indirectly responsible for the whole Indominus incident. (No one ever flat-out says this, but it’s the subtext of a plot involving Judy Greer as the boys’ mother, who’s left them in their aunt’s icy, unmaternal hands for the weekend.) And yes, the romantic subplot between Pratt and Howard, in which he slowly breaks down her defenses just by being his sexy dino-handling self, is a little on the me-Tarzan-you-Jane side. But you don’t go to the fourth Jurassic Park movie for up-to-date gender politics. You go for the crunchy dino-on-human action, and Jurassic World provides plenty of that.
We’ve been living with CGI long enough now that it’s easy to forget that in the original, the velociraptors were played in part by stunt performers in suits. In this film, some of my favorite scenes are the quieter, non-chase interactions that use not digital technology but puppetry to render the dinos’ heads and faces in close-up. The Indominus rex is, strangely, one of the least scary predators in Jurassic World, maybe because vast differences in scale are one of the hardest things to render believably via digital effects. It’s when Indominus hangs out with creatures of her own, computer-generated kind—as in the spectacular final multi-dino smack down—that we finally get a good look at her relative size. When we do, it’s hard not to feel a burst of awe at the fact that such creatures as these once walked the Earth. (OK, not the genetically engineered mega-predator, but the others, who are still pretty goddamn huge.) It’s that emotion, more than anything else, that makes me believe anyone would rebuild anything as comically unwise as a cloned-dinosaur theme park—and that somehow makes me willing to revisit that ridiculous but exciting place all over again.
Read more in Slate about the Jurassic Park movies.