VOD Releases: The Jurassic Games (2018) - Reviewed

Science fiction's long-standing depiction of violence voyeurism-as-entertainment may be a concept that has not (at least, not yet) come to pass, but it has carved itself quite a niche in popular culture. The politically charged Hunger Games series is the most obvious example, though films such as The Running Man and the Japanese cult classic Battle Royale have certainly made their mark. But just as you wonder if there are any new trails to be blazed through such well-worn terrain, in roars the buzzy The Jurassic Games, which manages to give us something the sub-genre has certainly never seen before: dinosaurs.

The Jurassic Games, which actually owes more to The Running Man than either of the hybrid of pop culture touchstones that inspired its title, depicts a futuristic game show where death row inmates are strapped into VR headsets and dropped into a treacherous video game terrain where they must survive not only the digital prehistoric creatures, but also each other. The last person standing wins their freedom, so naturally things get pretty competitive. Among the rogues' gallery of inmate contestants is Tucker (Adam Hampton), who may have been framed for the murder of his wife, and young, cold-blooded Joy (Katie Burgess), who is here, in her own words, "to kill everybody". The film is structured largely as if we are watching the show, intercut with viewer reactions (shades of The Truman Show, complete with an egotistical, sadistic director played by Perrey Reeves of Entourage.) There are flashy graphics, theme music and even a snarky, charismatic host (Ryan Merriman, Final Destination 3) reminiscent of reality show staples like Survivor's Jeff Probst or The Amazing Race's Phil Keoghan. Merriman, like the rest of the cast, gives their all, creating interesting characters out of what would otherwise be action/sci-fi archetypes and just having fun with the whole thing. When a big part of your performance is running from giant digital creatures you can't see, how can you take yourself too seriously?

The Jurassic Games is a technically great looking film. Filmed almost entirely on location in Oklahoma, the film features lush, gorgeous landscapes that no soundstage could recreate. The CGI is impressive; while these clearly aren't the near-photorealistic dinos of Jurassic Park, the beasts of The Jurassic Games look awfully sharp for bloodthirsty VR villains. Director/co-writer/co-animator/set designer Ryan Bellgardt gives the film a glossy, stylish look befitting a slicky produced reality TV show.

This film manages to avoid falling into the trap of so many schlocky Syfy original movies by somehow knowing exactly how seriously to take itself (or not). The title alone has generated its share of internet buzz, but The Jurassic Games parlays its silly concept into a solid ensemble action thriller. The film is as much, or arguably more, about the tension between the contestants than the fear of being mauled by bloodthirsty virtual velociraptors. Naturally, as clear favorites emerge among the contestants, so must others fall to the background, which makes things a tad predictable as characters get picked off one by one while the survivors' true motivations emerge. There are also moments where the film's reach just slightly exceeds its grasp, as subplots involving organized protests by a group called the Cavemen and other such underlying social messages that otherwise define films of this ilk are touched on but never really explored. Despite this it's clear that The Jurassic Games knows you're here for a good time, and it works hard to deliver.

A viewer likely knows by the time they're done reading the title whether or not they plan to watch The Jurassic Games. Those who take the leap will be rewarded with a fun, snappy ride that smartly avoids the goofy self-awareness of Sharknado and the like in favor of an '80s-style ensemble action romp. While not by any means a perfect or groundbreaking film, The Jurassic Games knows its audience and gives it what it wants. You may have the last survivors pegged within the first five minutes, but in a movie where death row inmates are hunted by virtual dinosaurs, it's not about the destination so much as the journey. With its clever twists on well-worn action and sci-fi tropes, The Jurassic Games is an entertaining, balanced popcorn flick with just the right amount of self-awareness, a fun surprise that more than delivers on the promise of its goofy title.

The Jurassic Games premieres June 12 in most video-on-demand formats and will be available on DVD July 3.

-Mike Stec