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Rex ’n’ FX: The Charming ‘Jurassic World’

The dino-sequel is a love letter to classic Steven Spielberg. Plus: the largely dreadful ‘Insidious: Chapter 3.’

Some movies are just movies. But if you whack some of them right, they turn out to be piñatas. That’s Jurassic World: a split-open piñata whose candy innards are made from other people’s hits. It knows this about itself. The plot, for example, is built around a spectacular gene-splicing snafu. Enthusiasm for the eponymous island theme park has plateaued, so the science and business teams — in secret collaboration with security contractors! — have engineered an attraction whose full genetic provenance is as obscure as a hot dog’s. It’s part T. rex, part stuff you don’t want to know. Don’t ask, just say aaahhh! They call this new thing Indominus rex. It’s smart and sentient and eager to create a diversion in order to escape its confines and go on a killing spree. (It ate its sibling — presumably, given its sophisticated pedigree, with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.)

The movie is produced by Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment and has been made in small but enjoyably slavish deference to his and its catalogue. That should feel unseemly, but there’s something satisfying about how the allusions just keep pinballing off each other, slapped into motion by killer dinosaurs. Director Colin Trevorrow and the three other credited writers are stealing used parts to make a newish car.

Take Gray and Zach (Ty Simpkins and Nick Robinson), the two brothers at the center of the run-for-your-life adventure plot. Gray is the little overeager geek who can identify DNA sequences and knows everything about every ancient animal species. Zach is too cool and too hormonal to care about that or the dinosaur theme park they’ve been shipped to so their parents (Judy Greer, Andy Buckley) can finalize their secret divorce.

This is shameless Amblin schmaltz. The brothers are straight from The Goonies, and, of course, Spielberg is merely among the most talented of directors to combine fantasy (or doom) with a broken-home story line just to build a stronger house. And Simpkins has been given a big, mop-top haircut that intensifies his breathtaking resemblance to Melinda Dillon, who played the single mom in Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind and the mother-wife in Amblin’s 1987, sub-E.T. hit Harry and the Hendersons. He’s as wonderfully emotional and bright-faced as both Dillon and Sean Astin, who played the nerdy kid brother in Goonies.

That’s one example, but the movie just keeps going, remolding the movie’s hero, Owen Grady (Chris Pratt), in the image of Indiana Jones, and his eventual love interest, Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard), into that of one of Indy’s sparring partners. Claire runs the park and is the boys’ estranged, careerist, maternally clueless aunt. The movie buys Spielberg’s idea that maternal instinct is something that danger brings out, whether you’re a Stegosaurus or a woman. But the writing’s not there for Howard the way it is for some of the other actors, like BD Wong as a frigid geneticist; Jake Johnson, who plays one of the park’s control-room-bound technicians; Vincent D’Onofrio as a paramilitary heavy; and Irrfan Khan, who’s so typically charismatic as the park’s billionaire owner that it’s scandalous he won’t get a recycled franchise of his own. Howard’s got a short, sharp-angled haircut (and remains trapped as Joey to Jessica Chastain’s Friends) and spends the first half of the movie knifing across the screen, like a power-suited dorsal fin. She and Pratt get a little wet and her hair relaxes as the romance kicks in, and the movie leaves Spielberg’s farm to evoke stuff like the bantering that Kathleen Turner does with Michael Douglas in Romancing the Stone. Nothing here is that playfully lascivious. But the movie has fun shoving in the reference along with everything else.

Owen’s a motorcycle-riding, safariwear-clad, chauvinistic man of science. There’s no bullwhip. There’s none of the macho panache that Ford had in wielding it, either. There isn’t even a field of study upon which to hang the thing. All we know is that Owen has learned to train lethally frisky velociraptors and abhors what Claire and her boss have done with science in the name of capitalism. The movie loves this character and it loves Pratt. We no longer manufacture Fords, so Pratt’s anti-serious permanent adolescence will have to do. Having recently rewatched Spielberg’s first two Jurassic Park movies, from 1993 and 1997, respectively, I was startled anew by how self-consciously hot Jeff Goldblum is in those movies. Sadly, we don’t even make his kind of strapping nebbishness anymore. But Pratt caroms inoffensively from one set piece to the next, arriving at every joke on time with a smirk or a wink. At 35, that’s his appeal — he’s the frat house Eagle Scout.

Jurassic-Park-2Chuck Zlotnick/Universal PicturesThe mayhem around the outbreak gives the movie its fun. What’s in the piñata is nice, but you don’t need to spot the references to like this movie. That’s part of its indolent, cynical shrewdness: Jurassic World doesn’t work on its own terms, per se, but it does work as a new arrangement of terms that have already succeeded in other movies. It has such wild, carefree energy that Trevorrow isn’t even paying tribute to Spielberg’s meticulous craftsmanship or what he did with the original Jurassic Park, which is as perfect a backdoor horror film as an action-adventure gets. He’s saluting the dumb, crazed part of Amblin’s spirit, its everybody-into-the-pool sense of summer — the part that prizes Spielberg the sensation over Spielberg the artist.

In that sense, the film has more in common with Joe Dante, who did Amblin’s Gremlins in 1985 and its gonzo 1990 sequel, and Amblin’s cofounder Frank Marshall, who did 1990’s Arachnophobia. In Jurassic World’s best set piece, the park’s pterodactyls flee their aviary and attack the hundreds of patrons, many of whom are languishing near the restaurants and shops, waiting to get off the island. Another movie would have played this sequence for horror, but here the rushing, zooming chaos is actually funny. One guy runs for his life with a cup of beer in each hand, which is very late-1980s/early-’90s Hollywood, an era in which emotional gravity was meant to be defied as weirdly as possible. These were the times of the gigantic worms of Tremors and the upside-down family comedy of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. Even the comic-strip and comic-book movies — Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy, Tim Burton’s Batman — had a piety-free pop edge. Trevorrow was a teenager when these movies came out. These are now the movies coming out of him, the way Alfred Hitchcock and John Ford came out of Spielberg.

Trevorrow’s only other film is a science-fiction romance between Mark Duplass and Aubrey Plaza called Safety Not Guaranteed. People liked it, although I’m not sure why. Its charm was entirely mechanical, driven by obnoxious characters, one of whom was played by Jake Johnson, who has one scene too many in Jurassic World. I left Safety Not Guaranteed convinced only that the person who made it really wanted to make more expensive Hollywood movies. By the flaccid ending, it was clear the movie didn’t have anything to say other than “hire me.”

Rightly, a lot’s been made of Trevorrow having been chosen to make Jurassic World. He’s in a class of who’s-that? directors who’ve moved from the obscurity of having made an independent film that people liked to the sort of Hollywood blockbuster that anyone could have made. In one sense, who cares? In another sense, it’s dismaying. As Alex Pappademas pointed out on Grantland earlier this week, the crime resides in the movies unmade by these theoretically body-snatched directors. Who are they outside of the franchises they’ve been sucked into? The task before Trevorrow and his peers — all men, all young, all white, all caught up in the franchise sweepstakes — seems thankless. It’s filmmaking, sure. It’s also a form of caretaking. They’re expected to toe a well-established commercial line, to deliver tradition. No one’s asking for personality, just a familiarity with how the Tupperware works.

This is different from the movies’ 1990s boomlet of repurposed television shows, where the goal was to laughingly deconstruct what the culture once held dear. When those movies worked (and only a few did: the second Addams Family and The Brady Bunch, for instance), they did so both as nominal comedies and pop criticism. There was also the sense that the movies had found ways of making money off of TV while also calling TV stupid. By comparison, movies have always been self-consecrating. You don’t go back to Star Wars in order to shit on it. You go back because the congregation demands a snazzier church. I’m not sure who’s been clamoring for another Jurassic Park. And that lack of urgency takes pressure off the movie.

Safety Not Guaranteed was a limp audition for this movie — and you know what? The dinosaur movie is better. Sure, the human materials aren’t what they used to be, and because the film keeps repeating a joke involving a particular dinosaur, the vicious finale isn’t quite exciting enough to put up with waiting for the punch line to come around yet again. But Trevorrow is having fun taking as little of this as seriously as he needs to. Unlike San Andreas, which is both intentionally and accidentally old-school funny, this movie appreciates that its mere existence is a hoot. Jurassic World is the fourth installment of something that now feels fresher — or at least far less stale — than its age. Who can say whether the pop wax-museum quality comes from Spielberg or from Trevorrow’s memories of having once been 13 at the movies? It just matters that when it’s over he’s made you feel 13 at the movies, too.

Insidious-3Focus Features

Everything about the new Insidious movie is not-quite. The writing, directing, set design, makeup, acting, effects: It’s all a rung below professional. The demonic possession makes no sense, even by the genre’s standards. At least every time I left one of the Insidious movies (we’re bafflingly up to three), there was talent to notice — almost none of that showed up this time. Ty Simpkins was little Dalton Lambert, heir of Patrick Wilson’s astral projection powers, in the first two movies. Now he’s warming my heart in Jurassic World. Series cocreator James Wan directed Parts 1 and 2, then went off to Furious 7. (He makes a cameo in Chapter 3.)

This leaves Leigh Whannell to man the helm of this prequel. He and Wan also created and watched over most of the Saw movies, but it’s clear Whannell’s not the director of the duo. This movie has the dusty feel of antique television. The framing of the action and the actors is often off — or cut away from too soon or too late. The budget is almost 10 times that of the first film but looks as if it cost 10 times less. For all three, Whannell cast himself as a kind of ghostbuster, alongside Angus Sampson, who’s a poor man’s Nick Frost. They’re lifeless performers who aren’t even trying to keep up with, say, poor Dermot Mulroney, who’s at his wit’s end playing the desperate single dad of a possessed teenage girl (Stefanie Scott).

But the whole thing almost justifies itself as a valentine to Lin Shaye, who has played the bereaved medium Elise in all three films. Chapter 3 is more about her, and therefore oddly, sweetly compelling. Shaye’s an entertainment veteran who has allowed the years to remain lined along her open, handsome face. No matter how absurd these movies get — especially this one, which, regrettably, gives Elise one of those “get away from her, you bitch” moments — Shaye elevates her scenes out of mediocrity and somehow touches your heart with plainspoken line delivery and eerie familiarity. Officially, Wan and Whannell are messing with paranormal activity. But Shaye cuts warmly to the chase. She keeps putting the “aunt” in “haunted house.”

This column has been updated since it was published.