Review – Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

I went into Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom with low expectations. Those expectations were surpassed considerably. It might take a while for me to shake out how much I like the movie, and how I’d rank it compared to the other films, but it’s safe to say that it’s good, not great.

Fallen Kingdom opens with an incredibly intense mercenary operation in the midst of a driving rainstorm in the dead of night to retrieve a sample from the remains of the Indominus rex at the bottom of the mosasaur lagoon. The action switches from a submersible in the lagoon depths to a rain-slicked landing site and stormy helicopter escape. Tension builds quickly, and the prehistoric beasts we encounter early on are glimpsed first as shadows and tricks of the light. It is terrifying! And more than ever, the carnivores of Jurassic Park feel truly monstrous, seemingly more like looming malevolent spirits than fully corporeal animals.

After this incredible opening sequence, the film slows a bit to reintroduce Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) and Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) in their post-disaster lives and to establish the narrative conceit: the dinosaurs of Isla Nublar are threatened with re-extinction because the long-dormant volcano on the island is active once more and soon to erupt cataclysmically.

We aren’t ever told what happened to the dinosaurs on Isla Sorna (Site B, from the second and third movies), but for us to believe in Claire’s idealistic motivations or the sense of urgency in rescuing these animals, we must accept that Isla Nublar is now the only island with dinosaurs, and this eruption will drive them all back into extinction. This narrative decision is especially frustrating for a few reasons:

  1. Isla Sorna is specifically mentioned in the film, one time, but its context in the larger plot is never addressed, and that single reference doesn’t even state that the dinosaurs on Isla Sorna are gone;
  2. Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell), Hammond’s never-before-mentioned former partner and a wealthy philanthropist who launches the expedition to save the dinosaurs, has plans to move them to a safe island habitat where they can live naturally–but it’s unclear why this wouldn’t be Isla Sorna; and
  3. Isla Sorna is prominently featured in the recently released tie-in game, Jurassic World: Evolution.

An answer is proposed in ancillary marketing materials published in the buildup to the film’s release, of all places. There’s a fairly elaborate history of InGen and the world’s reaction to its dinosaurs that is spelled out on the in-universe Dinosaur Protection Group website; this includes the assertion that “the surviving animals [on Site B] were reportedly moved to Nublar to be housed as future attractions at Jurassic World.” Why not just mention this in passing in the film? Regardless, I’ve spent too much time on a plot point that the movie just ignores, so let’s move on.

In short, Claire convinces Owen to go back to the island to try to rescue Blue the Velociraptor. There are a few clips recorded from his days of training young Blue and the other raptors that we see over the course of the adventure, and these segments do a wonderful job of developing both raptor and trainer. Claire and Owen have an on-again, off-again relationship of opposites that flares up in moments of crisis or when it’s convenient; they’re not particularly interesting. But Owen and Blue have a rich and complex relationship, of a nurturing past and a series of betrayals by both up through the present. That relationship becomes the heart of the film in a way that the first Jurassic World only hits at. Sure, it’s revisionist, and making Blue exceptionally intelligent and empathetic as compared to her cohort might strike some as silly, but the emotional payoff of that relationship is rewarding.

In preparing for or setting off on this rescue mission, we meet the remainder of the new cast. The aforementioned Benjamin Lockwood was cut out of a partnership with John Hammond because of some perceived sin (I’ll get to that later), but now he seeks redemption in the preservation of the once-more-endangered dinosaurs. Young Maisie (Isabella Sermon) is his precocious granddaughter, tended to by her stern yet loving nanny, Iris (Geraldine Chaplin). Franklin Webb and Zia Rodriguez (Justice Smith and Daniella Pineda, respectively) are members of Claire’s dino-advoacy group who join her on the island; Franklin’s an IT expert needed to get the Jurassic World dinosaur-tracking system back online, while Zia is a paleo-veterinarian. Meanwhile, Rafe Spall plays Lockwood’s right-hand man and organizer of the rescue mission, Eli Mills, as a slightly more charming and slightly more evil version of Peter Ludlow, while Ted Levine plays the familiar “great white hunter” archetype like a cruel, dumb, and mean Roland Tembo knockoff (Owen Grady specifically comments on the use of the over-worn trope when he meets Wheatley).

That last sentence above should make it clear: Fallen Kingdom draws heavily from The Lost World in the same way that Jurassic World drew from Jurassic Park. A team meant to support dinosaur conservation efforts, and organized by a remorseful and fabulously wealthy old man, finds itself at odds with a bigger, InGen-backed mercenary outfit assigned to poach dinosaurs for transportation back to the mainland to generate profits for the greed-driven young shark successor. Except now we have a ticking time bomb in the form of the volcano. And where The Lost World only has a brief T-rex interlude back on the mainland at the end, Fallen Kingdom gets us back to humanity about halfway through and plays around with the idea of dinosaurs in the modern world quite a bit more. The Lost World ends with the dinosaurs back in the box (literally, with the Tyrannosaurus back in the cargo hold, but also figuratively, with the dinosaurs contained on Isla Sorna), while Fallen Kingdom has them bursting forth.

The second half of the film shifts from the Lost World adventure story trappings to a dark and disturbing Gothic horror story, complete with a haunted mansion, a locked wing (or, in this case, sub-basement) of the manor with a horrific mystery, and unnatural family secrets that are slowly unearthed. We have a new hybrid star, the Indoraptor, which is even more a monster than the Indominus, but scaled down to snack on misguided mercenaries in dimly lit but finely furnished hallways. BD Wong returns to portray an increasingly deranged Dr. Henry Wu, who by this point seems like he’s just a few steps away from becoming the leader of SPECTRE; Wu has designed the Indoraptor using DNA from sources including the Indominus rex and the Velociraptor (but isn’t the Indominus already part raptor?), and the resultant creation is difficult to control and prone to senseless killing. When the Indoraptor breaks loose, it’s a full-on horror movie. My wife and I were on the edge of our seats, and I succumbed to quite a few jump scares (though honestly that’s more a reflection on me than the quality of the scares).

This second half also leads up to the dinosaurs loose across the American Southwest, with some of the dinosaurs sold off to nations, mega-corporations, arms dealers, and wealthy individuals. It’s a thrilling concept, and yet the naked desire on the part of the filmmakers to establish a genuinely franchise-worthy Jurassic World is apparent. I can’t hate on them too hard, though; while I’m sick of the exponentially increasing number of expanded cinematic universes and films set within them, I like the idea of the Jurassic Park franchise being able to play with the dinosaurs in some radically new ways. And if they’re going to keep making these movies, at least they finally got away from the islands! It’s a daring move to make, and I think it mostly pays off.

There are a lot of interesting ideas under the hood in this film, but none are really developed very much. The destructive, over-reaching nature of humanity and the rapid weaponization of new technologies are pretty central. There are also questions about whether humanity has a responsibility to preserve life, especially when we are responsible for endangering it–or even when, as here, we are the reason that that life exists in the first place. There’s not a lot of heavy philosophizing, except for the maybe ten minutes that Jeff Goldblum appears throughout the film to lecture as Ian Malcolm in an apparently perpetual Congressional hearing. There are a couple of poorly considered jabs at Trumpian smugness and greed; Wheatley says that one character is such a “nasty woman,” and the auctioneer responsible for selling the dinosaurs brought back to the mainland has horrible reddish-blonde hair arced in a fluffy comb-over. (I don’t like Trump, I’m opposed to his policies, and I didn’t vote for him, but these little side-swipes added nothing to the film’s themes or philosophy and frankly weren’t very funny.)

The dinosaurs themselves are mostly great. Sometimes they look very obviously like computer-generated animals, but most of the time they’re beautiful or terrifying or both. It’s disappointing that we still have dinosaurs drawing from nineties paleontological visions, but those are the animals we had in all the other installments in the franchise, and I suppose that only a hard reboot would correct course now.

My biggest complaint is that this is not just another Jurassic Park movie; it’s something new. In other words, it’s less that I think its tone is flawed, but it’s alien to me and doesn’t quite jibe with my expectations. Jurassic Park, from the beginning, has always been a bit scary and full of action, but it’s also always clearly portrayed the wonder and mystery of these prehistoric animals. And they are animals, not just simple monsters! Fallen Kingdom pays lip service to the idea. Claire monologues about how the return of the dinosaurs is a miracle and how first seeing these mythic creatures is awe-inspiring. And we have a single scene in which paleo-veterinarian Zia is overcome by the experience of seeing a Brachiosaurus up close and personal–but that scene felt cold, the Brachiosaurus unconvincing, the pacing rushed to get to the next action set, all of it just a cute nod to the first big reveal in Jurassic Park. Most of how we actually see the dinosaurs in this film is in moments of violence and bloodshed. Carnivores fight herbivores and other carnivores. Lots of people get killed. Lots of dinosaurs get killed. And the central antagonist of the film, the “dinosaur” that likely gets the most screen time, is the hybrid Indoraptor, a cold-blooded killing machine that makes all the other carnivores seem warm and cuddly.

A big reason why I’ve always loved Jurassic Park is that I’ve always loved dinosaurs, and I could relate to the sense of wonder at seeing these animals in the flesh, could understand the temptation to risk so much to attempt to bring them back. It’s part of why Jurassic Park III, with its villainous super-predator Spinosaurus and its exceptionally cruel Velociraptors (poor Udesky), was such a disappointment to me. It’s why an otherwise fine nostalgia vehicle like Jurassic World still ranks below The Lost World to me (poor Zara). The more that the films shift toward horror, and the more that they seem to delight in the suffering of characters on camera (without much characterization invested in them prior to that), the less I’m interested. But that said, Fallen Kingdom works really well as Gothic horror! And it was fun to see the franchise do something different! It’s just not sitting quite right with me as a fan, but that’s not necessarily a condemnation of its quality.

I am interested to see where the next film goes, though. Thanks to Fallen Kingdom, they can do just about anything. And I’m pretty sure that whatever it is, it’ll be a good time.

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Finally, to veer hard into spoilers, I thought that Maisie Lockwood’s character was fairly pointless, even though I thought that Isabella Sermon was excellent in the role. Maisie existed largely to be yet another kid in a traumatic situation, with plot-related justifications engineered out of that formulaic starting point. You see, Maisie, it turns out, is a human clone of Benjamin Lockwood’s original daughter. Sure, the ethics of human cloning is fraught with pitfalls. But this film does not explore those concerns and treats the very idea as something that should be repugnant and shocking. Yet this is a film where genetically engineered dinosaurs are just a fact of existence–including dinosaurs like the Velociraptor, which in the film franchise’s canon are at least as smart as primates. There is a lot of foreshadowing to build to what is a fairly disappointing reveal of Maisie’s clone identity, with virtually no narrative impact, except that when Maisie impulsively releases the caged and dying dinosaurs into the wild at the end when Claire decides not to, her justification that they deserve to live just like her seems reasonable enough coming from a child. (Seriously. It’s such a dumb explanation for such a radical action. You’re risking environmental catastrophe here, kid. These dinosaurs are from a paleo-ecology with virtually no relation to our own.) Oh, I guess she also finds out about Eli’s scheme to sell the dinosaurs, but this information only gets her grandpa/dad killed and serves to dump exposition on our protagonists while they are literally watching the auction happen.

Okay, one other complaint. The bad guys capture our heroes and lock them in a cage before the auction. The bad guys already tried to kill them. Everyone thinks they died on the island in the volcanic eruption anyway. If they get out, the bad guys’ plans are ruined. The bad guys imply that they’ll kill them later anyway. So why don’t the bad guys just kill them? I’m willing to accept any arbitrary explanation–the bad guys like to gloat, they want the heroes to see how they failed, the bad guys want to be merciful and may not kill them after all, the bad guys want a bargaining chip, etc. I’ll take any contrived, overused explanation you’ll give me to get through the second-act-low-point. But you have to give me something! And that was absent here. Hell, I’ll accept that the dinosaurs in these movies always conveniently get clumsy and slow and disoriented whenever chasing the protagonists in these films, no matter how ridiculous this recurrent excuse gets for these alleged cheetah-speed animals. I’ll take anything. And nothing was provided.

Still, these concerns don’t wreck the movie. Keep your expectations set for fun, not life-changing, and you’ll probably enjoy it.

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