Summer 2015 is quickly shaping up to be the season of the self-loathing, lecturing blockbuster. It was just a few weeks ago that "Tomorrowland" gave audiences a high-flying adventure wrapped in an oddly scolding tone about how the world has grown too pessimistic. Now comes "Jurassic World," in which director Colin Trevorrow delivers a loud, effects-heavy blockbuster about why loud, effects-heavy blockbusters are bad for us. Though Trevorrow fares better than Brad Bird in crafting a relatively entertaining film around his thesis, the result often feels like a film at war with itself.
Taking place 22 years after the events of "Jurassic Park," John Hammond's dream is now a reality: Isla Nublar is now the site of a sleek, multibillion-dollar theme park featuring real-life dinosaurs. As the film begins, the park has been open long enough for the public to start clamoring for bigger and better attractions. Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard), the park's operations manager, explains (somewhat dubiously) that "nobody's impressed by a dinosaur anymore," and in an effort to satisfy that demand, park scientists have turned to genetic experimentation, splicing together creatures that will satisfy the public's desire for "bigger, louder, and more teeth." Their latest creation is the Indominus Rex, a genetically-modified monstrosity resulting from mixing a tyrannosaurus rex with some classified bits of this and that (the secrecy is all the better to surprise us later on with each of the creature's newfound abilities). Naturally, the Indominus Rex wastes little time before escaping its pen, running amok, and chowing down on tasty humans. As self-reflexive commentary about the current state of blockbuster filmmaking, this plot isn't bad, though the time it takes for the film to turn into exactly what it's ostensibly critiquing is virtually nonexistent.
"Jurassic World" sets itself up as a direct sequel to "Jurassic Park," and is indebted to Steven Spielberg's beloved film. Trevorrow and his co-writers load their film with references and callbacks to the original, and the story follows a lot of the same basic beats. These homages will please fans, even if they constantly remind us of how much better that first film was.
The biggest problem is the lack of any compelling characters to carry us through the action. Howard struggles valiantly, but Claire is painted as a bland cliché -- the uptight, workaholic career woman with no time for family. Her most impressive skill seems to be the ability to outrun rampaging beasts without ever taking off her high heels. It's symptomatic of the film's retrograde gender politics that it contrasts her character against Owen Grady (Chris Pratt, as Burt Macklin, velociraptor wrangler), the park's animal behavior specialist. He's the generically macho, unfailing hero who's around to keep the little lady safe. Owen's background in the Navy is repeatedly trotted out as the source of his skills, though what exactly in the military prepared him to train dinosaurs remains a mystery. And if you're going to cast Pratt as your lead, why drain his character of the goofy, rough-around-the-edges charm that makes the actor so likeable?
Naturally, there are the obligatory children in peril. This time around that role is filled by Claire's nephews, Zach (Nick Robinson) and younger brother Gray (Ty Simpkins), who happen to be visiting their aunt when all hell breaks loose, requiring Claire to embrace the maternal instinct Trevorrow's script chastises her for lacking. In a subplot straight out of an "Aliens" film, Vincent D'Onofrio portrays Hoskins, a villainous military contractor with plans to weaponize the dinosaurs for war. Meanwhile, Jake Johnson makes the best impression of the bunch, providing occasional comic relief as a control-room technician who's smarter than anyone else in the park.
The latest indie director to make the jump into the realm of big-budget blockbusters, Trevorrow's ascension is remarkable in that he only has one previous feature behind him: the quirky sci-fi indie "Safety Not Guaranteed." He acquits himself well enough to big-budget filmmaking; there's a certain anonymity to the direction of most blockbusters -- where it's more about the effects than who's behind the camera -- but Trevorrow does well with the film's many action scenes, staging them with excitement and clarity.
Thankfully the film does deliver on the spectacle. If you're going to shell out money to watch dinosaurs scarf people up like candy, you might as well see it on the biggest, most impressive screen you can -- IMAX 3D is the way to go. In "Jurassic Park," the dinosaur scenes added up to a grand total of 15 minutes; here, barely a scene goes by without one lumbering across the screen. They're all beautifully rendered, but often missing the tactile feel of the original's often animatronic creations. There are some breathtaking compositions in this "World" (shot on actual film) as well; the exploration of the original park's overgrown welcome center offers some particularly lovely images.
While none match the original film's most iconic set pieces, there are several thrilling sequences, including a massive pterodactyl attack on the park crowds and a chilling scene where Zach and Gray first meet the Indominus Rex face-to-face. This film is more bloodthirsty than its predecessors, notably in one incredibly mean-spirited scene where an innocent character receives the sort of protracted death typically reserved for the villain of the piece. The treatment of the Indominus Rex runs counter to the previous films' treatment of dinosaurs as any other animals, meant to be a source of wonder as well as fear. Here the creature is presented as a sociopathic monster that deserves to be exterminated.
If your sole concern is seeing rampaging dinosaurs terrorize puny humans, you're likely to leave "Jurassic World" happy. However, if you want a story that can hold up beyond a second of scrutiny or characters you actually care about, you're going to be disappointed. "Mad Max: Fury Road" proved that it's possible to craft a crowd-pleasing action film while also delivering indelible characters and a satisfying, original story; it's fair to hold the rest of our summer movies to the same standard. I'll just have to ignore my inner 12-year-old, who won't stop begging to see the dinosaurs again.