By ROCCO THOMPSON
Starring Ryan Merriman and Perrey Reeves; Matt Block and Cooper Elliott
Directed by Ryan Bellgardt; Milko Davis and Thomas Martwick
Written by Ryan Bellgardt; Milko Davis and Michele Pacitto
Uncork’d Entertainment; Wild Eye Releasing
Like carrion beasts drawn by the scent of a freshly killed Stegosaurus, THE JURASSIC GAMES and THE JURASSIC DEAD have arrived, circling the soon-to-be massive box-office earnings of JURASSIC WORLD: FALLEN KINGDOM. Despite their titles, these micro-budget features contain a depressing lack of dinosaur action and though they’re audacious bits of hucksterism, they’re too po-faced to recommend even to fans of so-bad-it’s-good cult cinema.
Writer/director Ryan Bellgardt proves himself a rip-off artist of few scruples with his layer-cake of derivativeness, THE JURASSIC DEAD. Equal parts THE HUNGER GAMES, READY PLAYER ONE, and, of course, JURASSIC PARK, Bellgardt’s film pits a group of death row convicts against each other in a virtual reality showdown: ten enter, one walks free. In Bellgardt’s near future vision of America, the country drops everything to watch this gameshow-like death-match as the murderers fight for their lives against computer-generated dinos and each other.
The title is a bit of a misnomer (“as was the Jurassic part of Steven Spielberg’s 1993 opus” I hear you shout at your screen, but we’re not focusing on Michael Crichton’s crimes against accuracy here, thank you very much) as Bellgardt’s film is more focused on the not terribly involving interplay between ten hardened criminals than Cretaceous-era (there, happy?) reptile action. To his credit, however, the cgi dinosaurs that are present don’t look half bad, and a final act battle between three T-Rex almost threatens to make good on the film’s over-the-top premise.
Though the acting is hairy in its best moments, Ryan Merriman is passably amusing as the sadistic host of the games (and gets to wear a sick, black, saber-toothed helmet) and Alex Payne does his best to drum up some emotional engagement as the only participant who probably didn’t commit the murder that landed him in the clink. Katie Burgess is the obvious standout as Joy, a hateful, baby-faced sociopath. One can picture in their mind’s eye the open call flyer that landed her the role asking for a “Jennifer Lawrence-type,” but a cut-rate J-Law is better than none at all. The rest of the cast is a nondescript blur. With names like “The Wasp” and “The Mason Brothers,” one wishes that Bellgardt had just gone full-on WACKY RACES with the oddball characters and spent less time laboring over his lame-brain commentary on American greed and bloodlust. Fortunately for those who enjoy JURASSIC DEAD, the promise of laser-wielding Velociraptors and missile hurling Tyrannosaurs will have you itching for a sequel, but for everyone else, these elements will have shown up a little too late. You know what they say: so much trash cinema, so little time…and THE JURASSIC GAMES fails to give us the good stuff up front.
If THE JURASSIC GAMES is lacking in giant lizards, THE JURASSIC DEAD suffers from a full-on dino drought. In fact, the creatures of the title consist of one, single, not quite true to size puppet, un-cleverly referred to as Z-Rex by the rest of the characters.
After a tense opening scene in which a fedora-wearing “government agent” (Matt Block) and neckbeard-sporting “scientist” (Cooper Elliott) come to blows over the neckbeard’s mysterious, neon-green substance, it’s soon revealed that he is actually Dr. Wojick Borge, a university professor who has unlocked the secret of eternal life with his reanimation serum. After testing the serum on a dead cat in front of his class, Dr. Herbert We—I mean, Wojick Borge is expelled from his university and becomes a doomsday-prepping, gravelly-voiced, gasmask-breathing madman.
Many years later, a group of wiseacre, black ops commandoes (a la ALIENS) with names like “Duque,” “Cuchilla,” and “Spivey” are en route to eliminate Dr. Borge when they encounter a group of irritating teens whose car has broken down after a meteor strike knocks out all electronic devices within its impact radius. The teens team up with the commandoes to take down the Doctor and Z-Rex.
THE JURASSIC GAMES looks like a work of documentary-realism compared to THE JURASSIC DEAD. As the teens, Ben Johnson, Mia Klosterman, Adam Singer, and Nicole Goeke (whose abysmal shake-n-go wig is probably grounds for a lawsuit in a few states) turn in performances to rival your local church’s nativity play in ineptitude. The commandoes are played by a cast of nincompoops who have muscles upon muscles, and the onscreen charisma to match. Despite some lovely B-roll, the majority of the flick is an overdose of green-screened backgrounds the likes of which this reviewer hasn’t seen since the Wachowskis hate-crimed the movie-going public with SPEED RACER in 2008. Luckily, writer/director Milko Davis has enough sense not to take the material too seriously, and so we get references (“Duque looks kinda like Duke Nuke ‘Em!”) and homages (a faux electric fence gag to make Sam Neill proud) that can’t take the place of genuinely clever writing, but at least dull the ache of viewing this painfully gauche effort.
THE JURASSIC GAMES and THE JURASSIC DEAD are so derivative they could almost be seen as twin commentaries on the artistically bankrupt American film industry if they weren’t so thoroughly empty-headed. Joylessly cribbing elements from THE HUNGER GAMES, READY PLAYER ONE, THE MATRIX, RE-ANIMATOR, ALIENS, etc. and slapping a “Jurassic” label on the fiery remains of these cinematic train wrecks, Bellgardt and Davis have offered up films lacking both self-awareness or the air of so-bad-its-goodness that could make them potential cult classics. THE JURASSIC GAMES and THE JURASSIC DEAD are shameless cash-grabs, certainly, but their biggest problem is that, like plagues, famine, or other similar extinction level events, they’re just not all that fun to endure.