Dr. Grant here and I ain’t gonna lie. This film has dinosaurs in it, so naturally, I was compelled to watch it. As the title so purposefully suggests, THE JURASSIC GAMES stuffs THE HUNGER GAMES and dinosaurs into an overhead compartment and takes off. The film, directed by Ryan Bellgardt (ARMY OF FRANKENSTEINS, GREMLIN), actually resembles THE RUNNING MAN meets READY PLAYER ONE but instead of Fireball, Dynamo, and Captain Freedom; we get virtual reality Velociraptors, Pterodactyls, and T-Rex’s.
It wastes subzero time getting right into it. In the opening credits, it is established that The Jurassic Games are held once a year for death row inmates to have a chance at earning their freedom. Our protagonist played by Adam Hampton (GREMLIN), as one would expect, is on death row for a crime he didn’t commit and presumably has the worst lawyer known to man. He is convicted of his crime, sentenced to death and then agrees to take part in The Jurassic Games to have a chance at seeing his son and daughter again. Hampton and 9 other convicts are hooked up to virtual reality headsets in a coolly lit studio atmosphere, complete with a Ryan Seacrest like host played by an enthusiastic Ryan Merriman (FINAL DESTINATION 3) and a heartless female producer, played by Perry Reeves, (Mrs. Ari in ENTOURAGE). Three and a half minutes in and the entire plot is laid out. The convicted killers/contestants find themselves outdoors on a sunny lakefront beach with The Host adorning a dinosaur mask explaining that in this VR world, everything they experience will feel completely real and if they die in the game, they instantly receive a lethal injection back in the real world. There are 4 stages to the games and, like any good inmate game scenario, they have collars around their necks that come with the standard exploding head feature should a contestant not make it to the next stage in time. With that, The Host fades away as a towering dinosaur comes bursting through the treeline to wreak havoc and the Jurassic Games have begun.
From here, it plays out similar to what you’d expect with a diverse cast of convicts in a fight to the death. There’s the strong silent type, the bruising big man, the two young females; one seemingly frail and one seemingly crazy; the cannibal, the older guy, the brothers; one handsome and one channeling Steve Zahn. There is also the brooding emotional convict and lastly, the martial arts knowing convict. Some cons, you get brief backstories for, and others you don’t. There’s almost nothing in this film that gets too much attention. The story takes place in the very near future. It’s not disclosed when or where exactly. There’s no backstory on the games themselves, other than a small faction known as The Cavemen want to bring it down and this year is no exception with “something” being planned for the end of the games. A difference between this film and recent high profile attractions is that it is in no way a dystopian landscape. It looks completely normal. Shots of small crowds watching the games lounging in nice suburban homes while others appear to be day drinking at their local Chilis. The filmmakers mostly stay focused on the characters in the games and the key players controlling it. Bellgardt and company have also made a conscious effort not to turn this into an exploitative affair. With a title like THE JURASSIC GAMES, I came in with certain expectations and was surprised just how straight and narrow this film stayed. Hampton’s character is stoic and couldn’t give two shits about quipping one-liners. It’s left up to literally everyone else to fill out the emotional flavor and sprinkling in a martial arts exhibition for good measure with Tiger Sheu’s character facing off against three digitally ferocious raptors. Back in the real world, Merriman does some good work hamming it up for the camera while Reeves’ character represents corporate America. Unfortunately, neither of these characters are portrayed as evil villains. It’s not established but the sense is that this is not something created by these two. They are doing their job that is obviously ok with the government and watched by millions of people at Chilis’ all over the world. At one point, addressing the claims of Hampton’s presumed innocence, he turns to the camera and says that they are not the Judge or the Jury, but the game is the executioner. On top of that, the backstories we do get for these convicts is never good. There is one exchange with Reeves where she shows some malice and the film needed more of that in order to sway the audience a little more. Maybe not to comment on the topic of capital punishment, but as to whether you want to see these characters get their comeuppance.
Though the subplot of the film is about how this cruel and inhumane money grab of a show needs to be stopped, Bellgardt and his small multi-hat wearing crew appear more interested in earnestly letting the games play out instead of going for cheap gags. The kills are also not gratuitous in the least which might disappoint some. The final stage in the games features a slight twist which didn’t quite seem necessary, but overlooking that one element, Bellgardt is able to lay out a conclusion to the games that has legitimate tension and showcases some of their better visual effects work.
A deeper dive into the production crew shows that it’s all-hands-on-deck. Andy Swanson, for example, is the editor, one of the visual effects artists, and producer for this film. He also worked with Bellgardt on his two previous features in a similar capacity as well as writing and camera operator. Bellgardt himself also serves as the writer and visual effects supervisor on this film. What everyone involved has been able to accomplish on a low budget film should be commended. At no point did the look of the dinosaurs take me out of the film. They are simulations of simulations, so it wasn’t necessarily make or break but with extensive use of Oklahoma’s natural environments, some bad CGI would have really stuck out.
It appears to be a catch 22 scenario for THE JURASSIC GAMES. It almost shoots itself in its Jurassic foot with a title that will (for some) allude to a film full of yuk yuks and gore galore, but to their credit, the trailer captures the more mainstream action vibe. The lack of character development and undercooked world building will probably keep this one under the radar but it is not devoid of merit. I look forward to reviewing Bellgardt’s next project which just so happens to be about a pet dinosaur. Keep ‘em coming, Ryan!
The Jurassic Games will be available on Digital 6/12 and DVD 7/3.
"They DO move in herds!"
- Dr. Grant