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Film Review – Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018; Directed by J.A. Bayona)

For all that the movies of the franchise-rebooting Jurassic World trilogy are not turning out to be very good, they are offering ample opportunities to consider and discuss the ideas and themes at the centre of Michael Crichton’s surprisingly resilient concept of a theme park featuring genetically-recreated dinosaurs. These latest movies in Universal’s lucrative blockbuster series don’t always manage to explore these ideas in fresh or intriguing ways, and they increasingly take place in a comic-book version of our world where people continue to do the exact same things with regards to dinosaurs and invariably expect a non-catastrophic result (which is maybe not so unlike our textbook-definition-of-insanity world after all). But with the exception of some fleeting, film-homage-drenched moments of visceral thrills, Jurassic World and its new sequel Fallen Kingdom don’t have much else to offer the committed moviegoer. Certainly not developed characters with relationships that we can invest in (with one slightly odd exception) or snappy, amusing dialogue or plot turns that make sense and amplify the impact of character arcs and script themes.

Jurassic World made heaping piles of money at the box office, but it was hardly a great (or even consistently good) movie even as summer popcorn-movie fodder. What it was, however, was a suprisingly complex if often self-contradictory and messy recontextualization of the ideas at the core of Jurassic Park, combining the original Frankenstein-descended thought-seed of corporatized science bringing prehistoric monsters to life (with disastrous physical and moral consequences) with troublingly Hitchcockian gender politics. Where Steven Spielberg’s glorified (but only really just above-average) 1993 Jurassic Park did build a re-socialization of Sam Neill’s child-hating paleontologist Alan Grant into its conflict between idealistic capitalist vision and crusty rational cynicism, Colin Trevorrow’s 2015 Jurassic World re-situated that association to career-driven woman Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard). Claire’s professional authority and ambition is associated directly with the turbulent sublimated maternal/oedipal all-devouring violence of the Indominus Rex, a super-predator whose genetic creation she authorized as the new star attraction of the theme park she ran and whose escape precipitates that park’s disastrous destruction. Through the crucible of disaster, Trevorrow pushed Claire towards a more traditional path of a forged-in-crisis family unit with her ever-imperiled nephews and heroic man-of-action Owen Grady (Chris Pratt), a combat veteran and animal behaviourist who trained a pack of velociraptors from a young age to bond with him and respond to his commands.

As Fallen Kingdom opens, this promised family unit has dissolved. Having broken up, Claire and Owen are brought back together by a mission to return to the ruined park on remote Isla Nublar and rescue as many creatures as possible from a volcanic eruption that threatens to destroy the whole island and the entire population of genetically-crafted dinosaurs with it. This effort is funded by ailing old rich man Benjamin Lockwood (a wheelchair- and bed-bound James Cromwell affecting a baffling bad Mid-Atlantic accent), who collaborated with original Jurassic Park head honcho John Hammond on the initial genetic experiments that brought dinosaurs back to life. Claire, who heads a bustling animal-rights-oriented NGO that is campaigning for the preservation of the remaining dinos, meets Lockwood, his business aide Eli Mills (Rafe Spall), and his precocious young granddaughter Maisie (Isabella Sermon) at his neo-gothic estate, museum, and laboratory in Northern California. They need Claire’s handprint authorizations to access the system in the old park that will allow their hard-as-nails big-game hunter Ken Wheatley (Ted Levine) to track and capture the dinos, and she jumps at the chance to fulfill her organizational goals. Owen needs a little more convincing to go back, but is persuaded to do so with the promise of a reunion with the prized alpha female in the raptor pack he trained, the intelligent and imperious Blue.

This adventure (whose description after this point includes deeper spoilers, to give fair warning) involves plentiful dinosaurid peril and a spectacular, sustained, impossibly apocalyptic escape from a massive volcanic explosion. It also involves increasingly incredible situations, as when Owen and Claire are tasked by feistily pragmatic ex-Marine paleoveterinarian Dr. Zia Rodriguez (Daniella Pineda, who would make a better human lead in these movies than either of the top-billing stars) with drawing blood from a half-sedated Tyrannosaurus Rex in order to save the injured Blue with a therapod-match blood transfusion. Fallen Kingdom gallops over the edge into truly goofy but viscerally exciting genre-movie homage territory as the mission is revealed as a recklessly duplicitous scheme by Mills to raise millions of dollars by auctioning off the rescued dinosaurs to wealthy private bidders and then use the resulting funds to develop genetic super-dinos as even more lucrative weapons of war. The auction is hijacked by Owen and Claire with the help of an ornery headbutt-happy Pachycephalosaurus (I spelled that right first time, I swear), but as a result the prototype dino-super-soldier Indoraptor gets loose and chases the screaming Maisie through her grand-dad’s rambling quasi-Victorian pile in an enervated gothic monster horror episode on steroids.

Fallen Kingdom‘s director is Spanish filmmaker J.A. Bayona, a Guillermo del Toro disciple with an applicable resume of fright-fests and disaster movies who orchestrates the requisite frightening dinosaur pursuits with verve, intensity, and baroque visual flourishes. One compelling pastiche image of the Indoraptor’s curved claws reaching menacingly for Maisie as she shivers in terror in her four-post bed is already a defining image (one aesthetically worthy of his Oscar-winning mentor, even) for an otherwise-disposal film, it seems.

But Bayona’s adeptness in these genre sequences is constantly let down by a horridly misbegotten script, from Trevorrow and Derek Connolly. Texturally, it’s powerfully lame, full of unrealistic character motivations, dialogue that vacillates between awkwardly expository and painfully leaden, and flat, telegraphed jokes galore. Owen Grady is the more serious-visaged prong of Pratt’s blockbuster leading-man fame and thus less-beloved than Guardians of the Galaxy‘s more sarcastic Peter Quill, but Pratt’s comedic gifts are not anathema to Grady’s thinly-drawn character but rather buried in piss-poor lines and dubiously-timed deliveries. Pratt does manage one funny scene of physical comedy, at least, as a semi-tranquilized Grady rolls gradually away from inexorably advancing lava. Howard’s Claire, meanwhile, is not saddled with a character arc that attempts to send her back into the kitchen as a 1950s housewife (or any arc at all, really), but she has little enough to do but run from danger here, which she does magnificently well (pounding out a full sprint in heels is Ron Howard’s daughter’s superpower).

More problematically, like Jurassic World, Fallen Kingdom shoehorns in a child in peril to satisfy certain Spielbergian tropes in reflection of the master’s original work (Bayona includes a few direct tribute shots to the franchise’s father, and I swear I even spotted a stealth reference to a memorable Jurassic Park lampoon from the short-lived animated comedy series The Critic). It should be said, however, that the trauma that Maisie is put through in a single night over and above being pursued through her home by a ravenously vicious carnivorous reptile is frankly a bit much, and would doubtlessly lead to psychological scars of a remarkable magnitude requiring years of therapy to even begin to mitigate. As if this wasn’t enough, the screenwriters also feel the need to drop a much-teased bombshell twist about Maisie prior to the climax. But it’s weirdly perfunctory (a dino attack tramples over any hope of a reaction to it) and furthermore essentially weightless in its implications, as if Trevorrow and Connolly didn’t so much study and dissect shocking plot twists in order to produce an effective one of their own as they were vaguely told about their general existence by an aunt on Facebook.

Fallen Kingdom has these problems and more on a moment-to-moment basis, but loses the plot that much more completely in macro thematic terms. Five films of diminishing quality into the franchise, there appears to be little left to say about humanity’s dinosaur-creating hubris and how it is fed by corporatized avarice and compromised science. So little, indeed, that Trevorrow and Connolly retreat to that eternal safe ground of Hollywood critiques of capitalist exploitation and deploy cartoonishly nasty arms dealers (one of them even has a broad Russian accent, Slavically calling out his multi-million dollar bids in lurid closeup inserts). This would be only half-effective even if The Last Jedi hadn’t gone to the same well much more prominently and forcefully, and with a touch more nuance, a mere half-year ago, and the subplot even wastes Toby Jones (the Wayne Gretzky of sad, smarmy little men) as the smirking rodent-like broker to the ultra-rich bidders.

The new idea that is introduced into the Jurassic Park cinematic realm in this movie is one that has subsisted on the margins of the films so far. Namely, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom goes all-in on an in-text debate about animal rights for the dinosaurs, and more subtly flirts with the idea of empathy for them and how they are deserving of a chance to survive, whatever cost that chance might have for human civilization. Claire’s organization is only the spear’s head of a wider political debate about saving the dinosaurs or letting them go extinct again.

The film grounds the intellectual and moral case for their survival in empathetic moments: Bayona recuscitates the wondrous appearance of the Brachiosaurus from the 1993 film and then bathes it in sad elegy, having the same majestic creature cry out to the last departing ship from the Isla Nublar dock as the island is consumed by volcanic activity; the film’s climactic dilemma concerns a direct choice between releasing the surviving dinosaurs or preserving civilizational order by letting them die, and is resolved with the simple loving quasi-wisdom (and perhaps buried genetic solidarity) of a child. More than anything else, though, Owen Grady’s bond with the velociraptor Blue, the only relationship in the film that carries any weight or emotional power (and even then proscribed to fleeting moments), makes the empathetic case for dinosaur rights. As deadly as she can be, Blue is basically treated like Owen’s imposing but touchingly loyal dog, an impression strengthened by keeping her injured and in risk of dying in the care of the vet for much of the film, as well as incorporating video of Owen forming a bond with her and other adorable little raptor puppies years before.

Jurassic Park: Fallen Kingdom firmly puts forth and supports this idea of dinosaur rights, and the appeals to empathy work fairly well, aided as they are by excellent CG character work on the creatures that demonstrates how far the fine details of the technology and craft have come since Jurassic Park acted as a watershed for CGI effects in 1993. But it’s hard not to go along with the characteristically dire warnings of Dr. Ian Malcolm, played again in cameo by the incomparable Jeff Goldblum, testifying before a Congressional committee considering funding the ill-fated dinosaur rescue mission that Owen and Claire perform on the Lockwood dime instead. Having ignored his prognostications of doom and persisted on the path of a post-modern Prometheus, Malcolm considers mankind’s only rational decision concerning this self-created dilemma to be the one of enlightened self-preservation: Let a volcanic act of God erase the error of a man-made act of God. Not to be heartless, but it’s hard to say, given what happens between humans and dinosaurs in this film as in all of the others, that he isn’t right.

Watching dinosaurs rampage and devour humans is the core thrill of the Jurassic Park franchise, but the explanatory reasons for those humans’ stubborn and unwise persistence in keeping these deadly beasts around are becoming spread ever-thinner. Again and again during Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, you’re left wondering why people who know as much as these characters do about the dangers posed by dinosaurs keep getting into the cage with them, figuratively but very often quite literally. You need not wonder that about the film’s audience, protected as they are from the violent ends of their violent delights by the semi-permeable membrane of the movie screen. We keep getting into the cage with the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park because it’s undeniably appealing, even in the diminished doses offered in the Colin Trevorrow-headed Jurassic World trilogy (which will be concluded by a third film once again directed by Trevorrow). What the Jurassic World films should be working harder to achieve is to give us better reasons to want to get into the cage. They have one more shot at it. Make it count.

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