Right before Jurassic World started my seatmate turned to me and inquired after my favorite dinosaur. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that I hadn’t thought about what my favorite dinosaur was for a solid few years, that despite my boyish charms I actually wasn’t in third grade. I shrugged and said Tyrannosaurus. Good ol’ T. Rex is what would pop into my head if you approached me and said “dinosaur”, so maybe that kind of bias does qualify the stub-armed carnivore as a darling dino of mine. Seatmate agreed.
The more I weighed this pressing question the more I believed answering it to be a requisite for instant peace of mind. I was, I remembered, quick to raise an eyebrow when that Spinosaurus took down a T. Rex in Jurassic Park III — can they do that? This is T. Rex, Ancient King of the World, and he gets taken out by Dinosauria threequelae? And in the sequel The Lost World, which features a Tyrannosaurus loose on the mainland in the climax, we should really be honest about who we’re rooting for in that scenario. Though it traded the color and wonder of the first film for a considerably darker tone and palette, The Lost World succeeded in taking the bull of the first film and finding a more expensive china shop.
Still, that climax is either a) humans win, yippee! or b) T. Rex wins, which sounds yippee! to a blockbuster moviegoer but is mutually exclusive with a), which means humans are dead, which isn’t very yippee! at all. Among the many things Jurassic Park did right (yeah, okay: it did pretty much everything right) was to allow both a) and b) to happen, with Rex asserting his dominance over the pesky Velociraptors and allowing the cadre of protagonists to escape in the process. They have to escape, of course, unless this is a Jurassic movie written by George R. R. Martin, but if T. Rex gets tranquilized or killed then a little bit of that ultimate-force-of-nature-ness is lost.
So when the newfangled Indominus Rex, a test-tube amalgamation of dino-DNA and other-DNA, rips through species after species of dinosaur over the course of Jurassic World until, at the climactic moment, someone casually suggests they utilize “more teeth”, it’s gleefully obvious what’s coming. Not only does Tyrannosaurus reassert his dominance in the franchise as the one dinosaur you do not want to f*ck with, but there’s a sort of street gang pact formed between the actual dinosaurs against the unnatural Indominus. This is our turf, the dinosaurs say. It’s a nice sentiment, and a very Jurassic Park-y one as well, to posit that nature will unite and overcome any unnatural force regardless of its power. World ends with Indominus vanquished, humans huddled together for safety, and T. Rex roaring out over his domain.
But, wait, oh yeah: humans. The dinosaurs are cool in Jurassic World, sure, and it’s nice to see T. Rex overcome what was by all accounts a pretty wicked villain in Indominus. Yet just as we’ve seemingly forgotten to mention any of the actual characters so far in this review, World seems to have missed the crucial, too-obvious point that Jurassic Park was never about the dinosaurs. If it was, then at the very least the dinosaurs aren’t what made Park great. Much critique has been spun about the formulas of each film within the franchise, about the lack of a truly fresh plot and how that may or may not be inherent to the initial concept, about the ebb of Spielbergian vigor as the franchise progresses and, of course, about which dinosaur is the sweetest. All of that — even T. Rex — is tossed aside if the characters aren’t compelling.
In World, they’re not. Chris Pratt is likable mostly because he’s Chris Pratt; Bryce Dallas Howard is admittedly attractive, occasionally endearing; Omar Sy, the incredible actor from The Intouchables, does more with his five minutes than most other tertiary characters do with quadruple the screentime. But the characters themselves are written so hastily that not even damn-fine acting can elevate the cliché parade, and Jurassic World suffers badly by underemphasizing the human players. Pratt’s Owen might have been conceived as a young Dr. Alan Grant, a smart, capable, down-and-dirty get-the-job-done personality who spots a problem with meddling in Mother Nature’s territory from a mile away. But that’s where Owen begins and ends, with a pinch of senseless romance thrown in for good measure. Grant, on the other hand, has a history that manifests itself in his personality. He dislikes kids, hence the whole musical jeeps routine in Park; he’s confounded by technology, meaning “animatronic” but saying “auto-erotic”; and he’s in a relationship that seems real, one where he respects his significant other for her work, one where he tries to keep his glimmers of jealousy from showing when Malcolm makes passes at his girl. Grant’s a can-do guy with vulnerabilities, trying and failing to buckle his seatbelt on the helicopter, whereas Owen is just can-do without fail.
And Owen’s the best of them. The worst is Vincent D’Onofrio’s Hoskins, military-minded InGen gunner with a devious plan to draft raptors into the army. Yeah. I applaud the necessity of a human villain — the Jurassic films need that, just like the Alien films need more than just the xenomorphs — but Hoskins feels like he’s there solely for that purpose: to be the bad guy. Hell, they even state that in the movie, when Howard’s Claire says “you wanted this to happen, didn’t you?” Of course he did! Because he’s evil, not because it makes any sense. When the raptors almost chomp Owen in the beginning of the film, Hoskins nods as if to say see? I was right. They’re the perfect weapons. But wasn’t his point just proved wrong, if the raptors tried to eat the one guy who could control them? Where is the logic? Hello? Spock?
With Hoskins as the bottom rung, the characters of Jurassic World can be ranked upwards through the wasted talents of Sy and the one-noted clichés of Claire and the children, through Owen as arguably the most one-noted protagonist of any Jurassic film, through the dead Brontosauruses that still have more life in them than most of the human characters, through the breakout talents of Mosasaurus, all the way to the double-agent raptors and the killing machine Indominus. Though it’s not the worst entry in the series — and even though seeing the park open and seeing John Hammond’s dream fulfilled is at times breathtaking — Jurassic World is least effective when it focuses on the actual human characters. The people aren’t nearly as important as they think they are. Then again, in some twisted metafictional kind of way, maybe that’s the point.