A Disappointment 65 Million Years In The Making
As a parent who loves movies, teaching my kid to be film literate has always been a priority. The trick is making it all age appropriate. It’s not like on his eleventh birthday, I’m going to pour him a big glass of lemonade and sit him down to watch Schindler’s List.* With kids, you need to watch what they watch, see how they react to it, and help them to put things in context.
When he was younger, I’d try to curate the good stuff for him, films like The Iron Giant. Yet there were always touchstone films that I chomped at the bit to show him. This week, one of those touchstones were reached when I showed him Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. The kid absolutely adored it, from the very beginning. I mean, there was jumping up and down almost constantly during the last twenty minutes.
I think he was hoping for non-stop carnage and action, and the joke our family has is that character development is the iceberg that sinks a good movie. Jaws though? There’s lots of character development, and armed with a strong script, Spielberg takes the time to craft people we care about instead of just shark fodder. Instead of simply watching set pieces, we’re wondering exactly how Chief Brody will protect Amity Island, or if Hooper and Quint will kill each other before the shark has his chance.
Pretty simple formula, right? Compelling characters+rampaging beast+creative set pieces=good movie. You’d think that, but too many filmmakers leave out the first part of that equation. So it was with 2015’s Jurassic World, which despite making a stunning $1.52 billion at the box office, remains a film that everyone saw and nobody loves.** As usual, Hollywood took the wrong lesson, and now they have inflicted Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom upon us. Is it good? Of course not, but it’s a slightly better kind of stupid than its predecessor.
To refresh your memory of the preceding film; there was a fully functional island theme park built around genetically engineered dinosaurs. Due to man’s stupidity and hubris, the dinos escaped and killed the hell out of a bunch of people. Yes, again. Now, we’re reintroduced to Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard). Last time, she was a cold corporate type supremely comfortable with exploiting these animals. Now, she’s running a nonprofit dedicated to saving the dinosaurs. Why is she now actively trying to protect creatures who actively tried to eat her? Well…(checks notes)…I have no idea.
Anyway, it turns out the island the park was built on has an active volcano that’s preparing to erupt. The U.S. government earnestly debates if they should be saved, and in a brief cameo, Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) opines that the eruption should take them out. Claire is contacted by the officious Eli Mills, an underling for Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell), a titan of industry and the silent partner of John Hammond, the original designer of Jurassic Park. Why are we just now learning about the other dude who was passionate about creating genetically engineered dinosaurs? Well…(checks notes)…I have no idea.
It doesn’t matter, because Eli tells Claire that Lockwood has bought a sanctuary for our horde of Cretaceous critters. He wants her to put together a team to help get the dinosaurs off the island. They consist of Zia (Daniella Pineda), an acerbic veterinarian and Franklin (Justice Smith), a terrified computer analyst. Oh, and Owen (Chris Pratt), the wildly competent velociraptor trainer from the previous film. How competent is he? When we’re reintroduced to him, he’s building a house in the middle of nowhere all by his damn self. But he initially resists helping Claire, particularly the part where he can rescue Blue, a velociraptor Owen formed a particularly strong bond with. Why would Owen blow off the chance to save Blue, then change his mind? Well…(checks notes)…I have no idea.
From there we have two movies awkwardly Scotch-taped together. The first is the breathless island rescue, involving running people, running dinosaurs, flying lava bombs, and last-minute escapes. The second is the shocking/not shocking revelation that It Was All A Set Up, and the evil Eli plans to sell the dinos on the black market to the highest bidder. While the auction takes place in a shadowy Gothic mansion, Owen and Claire must rescue the dinosaurs, along with Maisie (Isabella Sermon), the mysterious granddaughter of Lockwood. Naturally, there will be running and screaming.
Jurassic Park: Fallen Kingdom isn’t like a Marvel movie, the cinematic equivalent of a friendly black Lab who just wants to give kisses. It’s not trying to challenge you with ethical concepts, though it throws a few out as lip service. Instead, I have this vision in my head of this film repeatedly playing to a completely deserted theater. We’ve reached a milestone, that of the Post-Audience Movie. It doesn’t need enjoyment or engagement, it just needs box office.
Director J.A. Bayona is a dab hand at staging fun horror sequences. He knows he’s saddled with a dopey script, and he flexes his muscles whenever possible. Bayona is particularly good at the mansion scenes where clawed horrors slink through the shadows, and lightning crashes ominously outside. It’s stupid, but it’s fun stupid.
The script by Colin Trevorrow and Derek Connolly is not fun stupid, it’s “When am I getting paid” stupid. Just like the last film, characters are barely two-dimensional and don’t have arcs, per se. It’s just checking stuff off the Jurassic Park franchise list. A character stares at a dinosaur in wonder. Check. A subplot involves monetizing the animals. Check. For a franchise concerned with dinosaurs turning people into bloody wrecks, the script is awfully bloodless.
The cast…is…um….comprised of trained thespians. Yes. Remember Chris Pratt in Avengers: Infinity War as the dopey, well-meaning, and ultimately tragic Star-Lord? Here, he’s a guy with muscles who’s always good at things all the time. Remember Bryce Dallas Howard, who ran from predators while wearing high heels in Jurassic World? Here, her character isn’t obviously sexist. She’s fine and less annoying, which I take as a win. At least Daniella Pineda’s Zia gets a few good lines, and the magnificently creepy Ted Levine shows up as a hunter with a predilection for collecting souvenirs.
I showed my kid Jurassic World a while back, and he was unimpressed. He asked me what this week’s film was for me. When I told him I’d be seeing Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, he wanted to know if I thought it would be as good as Jaws. “Oh, no. No way. Absolutely not,” I replied. He shrugged and told me to see it on my own, and that it didn’t matter. Kid’s really on to something.
*I’m saving that for his twelfth birthday.
**It’s the same kind of thing with Avatar. Absolutely everyone dutifully marched to the theater to see James Cameron riff on Dances With Wolves, only with cat people. I never see t-shirts, conventions, people fondly reminiscing about the movie. We all just agreed that it was a thing that happened and moved on, which makes me wonder about how the next couple sequels will do.
***A more satisfying sequel would have been two hours of Jeff Goldblum’s character drinking tea and softly chuckling while watching the animals who repeatedly tried to kill him die in a volcanic eruption.