When Steven Spielberg first unleashed Jurassic Park on audiences back in 1993, he created such a perfectly engineered popcorn movie that he unwittingly painted himself into a corner. How could he possibly be expected to come up with a sequel that was both bigger and better than the original? With 1997’s The Lost World, his solution was to give us not one, but two T. rexes. Bigger? Yes. Better? Not so much. Perhaps wary of pursuing the same fool’s errand a second time, Spielberg passed the reins to director Joe Johnston for 2001’s Jurassic Park III, a sequel that could never quite figure out why it existed other than to drop a khaki-clad Sam Neill into a giant birdcage full of shrieking pteranodons and pray for the best. Again, the disappointment was palpable. It’s now been 14 years since the last movie—plenty of time for us to shake off those lackluster follow-ups and for Spielberg and his brain trust to spitball a new rationale for revisiting their tropical paradise-gone-amok. And while the new Jurassic World pales next to the awe-inspiring spectacle of the original, it’s easily the franchise’s most thrilling sequel yet.
It’s been more than two decades since Richard Attenborough’s John Hammond spared no expense in his quixotic attempt to outsmart Mother Nature. Now his park is a fully operational, family-friendly destination where little kids ride on the backs of docile triceratops while their parents queue up at the nearby Starbucks. Hammond’s dream has become reality. The only problem is the fanny-pack-wearing public has grown bored. So, in order to goose attendance, the operators of Jurassic World have gone back to the lab to genetically design a newer, scarier attraction. Meet the Indominus rex—a standard-issue T. rex amped up with 11 secret herbs and spices to create history’s deadliest killing machine.
Just as this new super-beastie is about to go live, a pair of brothers (Ty Simpkins and Nick Robinson) arrive to spend some quality time with their aunt (Bryce Dallas Howard), the park’s no-nonsense operations manager. With her severe bob, towering heels, and ever-present cell phone, we know right away that whatever chaos is about to unfold will turn her into a better, more nurturing person (ugh). Playing off of her opposites-attract-style is Chris Pratt’s game warden, who with his macho safari shirt, sarcasm, and animal lover’s compassion telegraphs that he’s both the movie’s savior and its conscience (double ugh).
As you’ve probably guessed, Jurassic World doesn’t have much interest in giving these characters third—or even second—dimensions. (Vincent D’Onofrio starts off and winds up as such a cartoon of gung ho military villainy he might as well be played by R. Lee Ermey.) Still, director Colin Trevorrow (in a rush to the big leagues after the modest Safety Not Guaranteed) doesn’t seem bothered by any of this. Like the theme park’s mad scientists trying to rev up the scare factor of their attractions, he knows exactly how to get butts into the multiplex: by throwing as many CGI dinosaurs gone wild onto the screen as he possibly can in 124 minutes. It’s a distraction game. But it works. Normally I’d grouse about that kind of bread-and-circuses cynicism. But it’s what makes Jurassic World such breathless summer entertainment. Exposition and character-building chitchat are kept at a minimum as we gawk at raptors on the prowl, prehistoric sea monsters breaching out of their water pens to feed on a great white, and our old pal T. rex slugging it out with the new-and-improved I. rex.
All of this is a bit ironic considering that 40 years ago, it was Spielberg who single-handedly reinvented the old-school monster movie in Jaws by showing us as little of his killer shark as he could get away with. Back then, he didn’t have much choice because his mechanical great white was such a dud that he was forced to keep it hidden (those who didn’t know better called this Hitchcockian). These days we don’t have much patience for those kinds of coy cat-and-mouse games. We want to see our dinosaurs rampaging fast and furious over and over. In that sense, Jurassic World is a blockbuster of its moment. It’s not deep. There aren’t new lessons to be learned. And the film’s flesh-and-blood actors are basically glamorized extras. But when it comes to serving up a smorgasbord of bloody dino mayhem, it accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do beautifully. B+