Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018)
I found Jurassic World (2015) a good pop entertainment. The bright, jolly, chintzy veneer of commercial conceit dissolving into metastasizing anarchy was well-handled, the subtext about the difficulties keeping successful franchises enlivened and courting chaotic disruption through anxious attempts at creativity took care of itself, and the star performances were more expertly deployed than is usual today in blockbusters. Fallen Kingdom, the latest instalment in a film series kicked off back in 1993 by Steven Spielberg, starts three years after the first film’s events. In a strong prologue, some well-equipped rogues visit the island of Isla Nublar, where the dinosaur inhabitants who have been scampering around wild since the collapse of the Jurassic World theme park, with helicopters and submersible to retrieve a sample of the skeleton on the Indominus Rex. The raiders get away with their prize, but only after the nightmarishly silhouetted Mosasaur swallows up the submersible and a Tyrannosaurus chases off the rest. When a dormant volcano on the island begins erupting and threatening the dinosaurs, Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) leads a lobbying team trying to get the creatures rescued. When John Hammond’s former business partner and enthusiast in all things saurian and genetic, Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell) and his business manager, Eli Mills (Rafe Spall), agree to bankroll a rescue operation, Claire tracks down former boyfriend Owen Grady (Chris Pratt), who’s isolated himself in the woods to build a cabin, because only he stands a chance of bringing in the last living Velociraptor, Blue.
Naturally, once on Isla Nublar, Claire and Owen find things don’t exactly run to plan, as they travel in the company of snappy biologist Zia Rodriguez (Daniella Pineda), quaky techie Franklin (Justice Smith), and a team of tough hombres in paramilitary gear led by Ken Wheatley (Ted Levine). Surprise surprise: Mills has hired Wheatley and his goons to rescue the animals for commercial exploitation, and is also covertly financing InGen’s former genetic wizard Henry Wu (B.D. Wong) as he seeks to create a more compact, controllable version of the Indominus, giving birth to a lethal chimera called the Indoraptor. Wheatley shoots Owen with a paralysing dart and leaves him to die, whilst kidnapping Zia to force her to keep the injured Blue alive. Owen manages to get back on his feet and saves Claire and Franklin, also abandoned in the park. They sneak onto Wheatley’s transport ship and link up with Zia, aiding her in saving Blue by harvesting blood for a transfusion from the captive T-Rex. The animals are offloaded and taken to the Lockwood mansion, where Mills commissions auctioneer Gunnar Eversol (Toby Jones) to sell them off to high rollers for sport and genetic harvesting. Meanwhile Lockwood’s plucky granddaughter Maisie (Isabella Sermon) learns what Mills is intending and tries to warn Lockwood, driving Mills to deadly measures.
J.A. Bayona, the director of The Orphanage (2008) and The Impossible (2012), takes over directorial duties from Colin Trevorrow here (Trevorrow cowrote the script with Derek Connolly). I’m no great fan of Bayona, I’ll admit: The Orphanage owed a lot to other, better horror films, and The Impossible was a deeply phoney attempt to depict real-life tragedy through the eyes of vaguely described protagonists. But the first half of Fallen Kingdom suggests at least that Bayona is in his element: the technical skill in unleashing big-screen calamity Bayona displayed on The Impossible serves him well as he stages some strong set-pieces and brings a darker, horror movie palette to his visual and dramatic approach. Huge monsters are glimpsed in strobes of lightning, cavernous mansions became amphitheatres of survival, crashing rainstorms fall upon tense confrontations between the natural and unnatural. The island scenes see Bayona stage some effective set-pieces, particularly as he exploits Pratt’s physical comedy skills better than any other director has yet as Owen has to manipulate himself away from lava inching towards him despite his misfiring body being full of tranquiliser. Claire and Franklin must elude a hungry beastie that literally backs them into a corner, and then plunge off a cliff in one the park’s long-unused spherical vehicles, chased by a river of lava and sink into the sea. Stock adventure movie situations, of course, but handled with all the bluster and intensity a contemporary multi-zillion dollar blockbuster production can throw at them.
But Fallen Kingdom reveals itself as increasingly superfluous and shop-worn, as it shifts ground to more prosaic locations and turns its back on grand-scale thrills. It’s not that this entry in the now-venerable franchise lacks ideas and possible new directions to shunt the series in, pausing as it does at the gates of potential new genetically created terrors and the recolonisation of the world by the wily progeny of another biological age. There’s a very interesting twist regarding Maisie’s true identity revealed late in the story, a twist that ingeniously suggests other motives behind the entire apparatus that allowed the dinosaurs to be created and weird new frontiers in human character beckoning. But once this truth is revealed in this particular film, Bayona does absolutely nothing with it. The nefarious corporate villainy and Frankensteinian genetic engineers are trotted out but given no new facets or jolts of innovation: the Indoraptor merely facilitates a last act that’s far too similar to the previous film’s. Just as the first Jurassic World presented a loose remake of Spielberg’s original, this one fiddles about with his 1997 follow-up The Lost World: Jurassic Park, with Spall’s smooth sleazebag instantly recognisable as a variation on Arliss Howard’s in that film and the bifurcated, Arthur Conan Doyle-inspired narrative. But Fallen Kingdom lacks that film’s knowing as a ridiculous exercise in excess or sheer elegance in trying to top previous suspense sequences.
Fallen Kingdom feels strangely rudderless in spite of the great velocity it unfolds with. The diastolic cleverness of Michael Crichton’s original novel, the quality Spielberg drew out expertly, lay in grasping a sense of delight at the notion of reviving dinosaurs before then depicting the uncomfortable flipside of the fantasy. Fascination with the rowdy life of its revived menagerie, both as special effect phenomena and as representations of nature’s unruliness, has long been the key to the franchise’s popularity. Bayona shoots for, and achieves, a strong moment of pathos when our heroes must watch a forlorn Apatosaurus moaning as it’s enfolded within volcanic cloud, and the scene in which Claire and Owen collaborate to harvest the caged T-Rex’s blood is a neat piece of intimate suspense-mongering that relies cleverly on the conflicting dread and wonder of being close to such a creature. But Fallen Kingdom otherwise evinces surprisingly little interest in its dinosaurs, locking most of them away for the second half. Bayona compensates by turning the film into a wing of a very Hispanic wing of horror film, the one Guillermo Del Toro made his early films in, one with saucer-eyed endangered girls, loving but bedridden grandparents, twisted, threatening shadows on the walls, and wicked alternative parent figures scheming to steal all.
This is a great idea in theory, giving the franchise some fresh genetic diversity by importing a different cultural tradition to mediate the same basic concerns as Spielberg’s imprimatur – the joys and terrors of childhood, the coming together of family, the hard road of learning to battle fear of the shadows that constitutes gaining maturity. And yet Bayona never comes close to making the linkage feel germane, especially as he takes time out from the final bout of chase and chomp to stage an utterly illogical scene where his young heroine hides in her bed purely so he can stage an elaborate tribute to the notion of hiding from childhood terrors. The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) this ain’t. Pratt and Howard are still fun presences, and they’re asked to play more mature versions of their characters, even if they’re obliged to tread through the same disparity of life expectations and attitudes, just in a more muted key. So muted are Claire and Owen now indeed they’re rather hard to recognise as the same people; the roguish, bratty twinkle in Pratt’s eye rarely glints, the flinty drag act of Howard’s hapless corporate overlord cast aside. There’s none of the screwball comedy spark of their first outing together, and with it goes the jokey fun they wielded. Bayona’s lack of a feel for actors, something that dogged both the previous outings of his I’ve seen, is still very apparent.
Bayona casts Geraldine Chaplin with her august yet still elfin visage as Maisie’s beloved carer, a nod back to her role in The Orphanage, but it’s a rather thankless part, bundling her out of the film casually. Worst of all, Fallen Kingdom brings back Jeff Goldblum’s Ian Malcolm but only to sit him before a Senate hearing and deliver narration, which is a damnable blackguard’s misuse of one of cinema’s great natural resources. Bayona has probably made the most violent entry in the series here, including not just dinosaur mastication but very intimate murder too, and I started to find it a bit depressing. A terrible feeling of enervation lowers upon the film’s last third, as yet another pompous thug or greedy rich bastard gets a nasty comeuppance from a set of big teeth, and we’re forced to wonder how many rostrums can our heroes cower behind, how many games of hide and seek with the critters must play out? It’s not until the very end, as the escaping dinosaurs begin to swiftly upturn an ordered world with all their fierce and irrepressible vivacity, that Fallen Kingdom delivers on anything it promises. Much like its nefarious scientists, Fallen Kingdom presents franchise filmmaking as a rearguard action against evolution.