2018 | rated PG-13 | starring Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Ted Levine, Daniella Pineda, Justice Smith, Rafe Spall, James Cromwell, Toby Jones, Isabella Sermon | directed by J. A. Bayona | 2hrs 8mins |
Studio Pitch: Breaking away from the Jurassic Park formula.
I’m going to break format for a bit here and talk about something that I always find completely useless when critics talk about movies: the marketing campaign. A movie spends so little of it’s life in the theaters that in 5 or 10 years a review that compares the movie to it’s marketing campaign expectations is a useless one. But the campaign Universal rolled out for Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom was uniquely bizarre. I’ve never seen a studio that seemed so hell bent on showing the public every single, solitary scene and plot point in the film before it was released. The trailers and commercials were hardly edited, they just showed a scene from the movie in it’s entirety and then another and another with each new ad. Watching this movie is simply adding a bit of connective tissue to what we’ve already been shown. Some of the turns here may have been surprising, some may be predictable – at this point it’s almost impossible to tell. Maybe that was exactly the distraction smoke that Universal laid down for this movie as it stomped into theaters.
Pushing past that, I hold the very un-cool position of really enjoying Jurassic World. That film came almost 2 decades after Jurassic Park brought dinosaurs to life with the at-the-time modern magic of DNA cloning in a park preview gone bad and delivered a well-balanced summer ride. Jurassic Park’s 2 sequels just returned to the wreckage, each time making the case that this idea couldn’t be stretched into a franchise. World – for all of it’s nostalgia callbacks, thin characters and goofy plot twists – showed us something new that refreshed the series- a working dinosaur theme park. The film excelled in dino-chomping fun but even more so at the almost throw-away crafting of faux-Disneyland world-building. It also gave rise to the dumbest movie critique ever put on the internet: Bryce Dallas Howard’s character ran in heels!
Fallen Kingdom knows you can’t strike that iron again and forges away from parks and into an ambitious new direction. Fallen Kingdom has a lot in common with last year’s Star Wars episode The Last Jedi. It takes the series in new directions, with a different tone, and new music, swatting away many of the things that people loved so much about the original film. Theoretically, I love the way this film shifts settings and is expanding the scope of the series. Like The Last Jedi it isn’t the storytelling guts to throw all the chips in the air that’s the problem, it’s the parts that don’t fit together.
The movie opens with it’s best scene. A flat-out horror set piece staged at night in a rainstorm where giant beasts creep out of the darkness. If director J. A. Bayona (The Orphanage) were able to revisit this tone of dread in the 3rd act we’d have a genuinely scary dinosaur movie here. Immediately after that opener, Bayona shifts gears and starts assembling the pieces for formula-driven, demographically designed summer movie crowd-pleaser. Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) once the cold corporate park business woman who pawned off her nephews now works for an activist group fighting for dinosaur rights with a dino-vet (Daniella Penida) and a nerdy “systems analyst” these movies always have (Justice Smith). A volcano on Isla Nublar is about to explode and a debate rages in congress about whether to intervene and save the dinosaurs or let nature take it’s course and wipe them out again. This is surely the only movie this year where we will hear the word “de-extinction” tossed around in everyday debate. Claire is approached by a rich philanthropist (Rafe Spall) who, alongside John Hammond’s secret silent cloning partner (James Cromwell) wants to save the dinosaurs, which drags Owen (Chris Pratt), away from building his own house in the woods (because of course that’s what he’s doing), to get as many dinosaurs off the island as possible, particularly Owen’s baby raptor Blue.
If there is a single word to sum up Fallen Kingdom, it’s rushed. Everything about this movie feels rushed. It does not care about it’s phony central ethical dilemma, it flattens all of it’s characters into archetypes and it puts purely expository, completely empty one-liners in their mouths. The dialog is painfully witless, bottom-of-the-barrel, as-if-written-by-machine stuff. Every line drips with cheesy self-awareness. “It’s hot” / (looks at volcano) / “It’s about to get a lot hotter”. “They lied about everything” / “Not everything”. “Where are they going?” / “We’re about to find out?”. Ugh. I wasn’t exactly expecting Tracey and Hepburn, but this movie seems to think Pratt and Howard are trading classic Hollywood witty banter here. It would be better if nobody ever opened their mouth.
What springs from there are a dozen chase scenes and an endlessly unfolding Russian nesting doll of escalating villains. We’ve got Toby Jones, as Evil Businessman, Rafe Spall as the caretaker of our Speilbergian child-in-danger who hates children but loves money and Ted Levine, as a Pete Postlethwaite-eque game hunter of the mustache-twirling villain variety who pulls dinosaur teeth for his collection but only when they’re good and weak because flat out tying a Stegosaurus to some railroad tracks wouldn’t have been on-the-nose enough. On the hero side, Pratt’s Owen has gone from rogue cool guy to charmless fist-fighting action figure. Tom Cruise could play this role now. The film has two big reveal plot points about cloning and one involves the genetic engineering of a hybrid from a dinosaur we already know to be a genetically engineered hybrid.
While Fallen Kingdom is even more rushed, ridiculous and tonally all over the place than Jurassic World, it did make me sympathize with those who didn’t enjoy that film. At no point do either of these movies slow down to create a moody piece of building suspense in the same way the T-Rex paddock attack in Jurassic Park or even the trailer attack in The Lost World did. None of this is exclusive to Jurassic World though. This is how summer action movies are made now. Even Marvel some movies. Like Independence Day: Resurgance comparing these movies to their 90s originals just makes it more glaringly how blockbuster studio moviemaking has changed in the last 20 years in favor of speed over mood, efficiency over suspense and the synthetic over the authentic. It’s a bleak vision.
Is there some fun dinosaur attack action here? The big surprise is, not really. They run and they roar, without a memorable moment. The movie speeds over plot holes to set up more convoluted plot holes. Dinosaurs set up as super intelligent killing machines act viciously or foolishly as the story needs them to around the people it needs them to. They are weapons and plot devices instead of an awesome extinct species that roams the Earth out of their own time. That maybe the biggest crime this movie commits. Given that this franchise has the movie monopoly on dinosaurs, for Jurassic to treat these creatures so commonplace they are robbed of their wonder is a bummer. By the time the movie reaches it’s dark-and-stormy night finale, where we are supposed to take them seriously, they have been so muted it comes off as silly. Jeff Goldblum and BD Wong show up in the year’s two most hollow cameos (Goldblum’s second in 2 weeks) and the movie builds two story threads that make no sense once they come together. Because it needs everything to happen over the course of days, or hours, the movie’s excuse for going to the park (make a new dinosaur) in the first place clashes with it’s desire to squeeze a new dinosaur into the finale (look at our new dinosaur we already made).
A muddled, cynically slapped together and relentlessly goofy special effects light show, but for perspective, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom does have a story, which puts it ahead of Jurassic Park 3 and there is nothing in it as dumb as Ian Malcolm’s daughter using her gymnastic skills on the parallel bars to defeat a raptor as in The Lost World. Let’s not get too nostalgic.