Movie Review: Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

jurassic-world-posterYou can never go home again. But apparently you can keep mining the same basic premise — crazy scientists reinvent dinosaurs, put them in a park, park breaks down, dinos eat people — until you hit bedrock. Or, in the case of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, until you hit magma.

This is perhaps the laziest and most paint-by-numbers of the franchise, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t fun. It is, however, pretty dumb– at least as dumb as its giant rampaging beasts, with plot holes equally as large. Perhaps, like the stegosaurus, it has a brain the size of a walnut and a secondary “brain” in its tail?

But that doesn’t make it not enjoyable. There’s two ways to enjoy this movie– you’re either a 10 year old, or an adult.

For a kid, or someone who can tap into their inner child easily, it’s like a eating a giant bowl of jelly beans doused in Mountain Dew and shoveling it in your mouth like a kid eating cereal watching Saturday morning cartoons. There’s no layers here, no nuance, no deeper meaning. As much as I would like to salute the stinging indictment of the 1% and global military-industrial complex in this film, that’s even more of a reach than I’ll normally make. This is sugar on top of sugar on top of sugar with a dollop of high fructose corn syrup. And that’s it.

For cynical adults, however, this film is more along the lines of going to see a concert of one of your favorite bands from 90’s. Yeah, they’re going to play the hits– all of your favorites– but you notice they don’t quite sound the same any more. They’ve lost a little bit of that verve. And then when they tell you, “And here’s a song off our new album,” you know you can check out for a moment or go grab another drink. This is like that.  (Apologies if you feel I’ve maligned your favorite 90’s band.) But this movie is like the lyrics from 90’s band Gin Blossoms, “If you don’t expect too much from me, you might not be let down.”

Our story– if it matters? and yet it’s also needlessly complicated– is our beloved dinosaurs are in danger. This time the abandoned park on Isla Nublar is in danger from a (very convenient) volcano which threatens to destroy the island. While the world debates whether to let the animals become re-extinct, a fate which returning champ (and drastically underused) Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) explains in what is essentially an extended exposition cameo. Former park manager Claire (Dallas Bryce Howard) is now an animal rights activist working to save the dinos. She is enlisted to help save them and take them to a sanctuary on another private island by eccentric dying billionaire Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell) former partner of John Hammond in the dinosaur-making business. To rescue the dinos, they will also need velociraptor wrangler Owen Grady (Chris Pratt), as they seem very interested in his raptor buddy Blue.

owen and blue

And this movie spends a lot — a lot — of time with Owen and Blue. It is almost a boy-and-his-dinosaur movie. While this is likely designed to be a selling point, one of the biggest tragedies of this movie is the best character arc of the film is reserved for a dinosaur. That’s ok. We love Blue. He’s great. But this is too much of a good thing. The human characters, however? They’re basically set dressing to move the action scenes along and provide snack-shaped macguffins for the thunder lizards to chase.

And where do they chase them? Well, towards the setup of another obligatory sequel, of course. Sure, there’s bad guys who get chomped, and a few twists and turns about what’s actually going on, but it’s really predictable the same way you’ll never be surprised by a meal at Applebees. They’re also joined on this quest by paleo-veterinarian Zia Rodriguez (Daniella Pineda), computer guy Franklin Webb (Justice Smith), and army guy Ken Wheatley (Ted Levine). And, because it’s a Jurassic Park movie, Dr. Wu (BD Wong) is back, as is obligatory-child-in-peril Lockwood’s granddaughter Maisie (Isabella Sermon).

The action setpieces are dazzling if a bit unharmonious. The first half of the film is a slow build to the rescue from Isla Nublar against the backdrop of an apocalyptic volcano. It’s big dumb action fun that would make Michael Bay blush. Have you ever said, “Hey, what Jurassic Park needs is to have is the dinosaurs attack while lava threatens everyone!” Well, this is your movie. As is The Land Before Time as well as that scene from Fantasia with the dinosaurs set to The Rite of Spring. Enjoy! as an incapacitated Chris Pratt slowly rolls away from molasses-paced lava! (Seriously) Actually, it’s kind of fun. But it is really dumb.

Are you sensing a theme?

You also get a lot of sense of “been there, done that” as you get “characters” who seem to only be there to fit a stereotype or move the story along. Ted Levine (remember when he was the grumpy police captain on Monk? Or Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs?) seems determined to copy bits and pieces of Sean Pertwee and Pete Postlethwaite, but never really becomes anything more than “Army guy who is hunting dinosaurs.” Ditto with Justice Smith, whose only purpose is to be scared and fix the computers.

And then there’s Daniella Pineda, whose character seemed like she might break the mold and actually be interesting. . . and then no. Unsurprising reports have surfaced that a scene was cut “for time” where she reveals she’s a lesbian. This is only unsurprising because major studios seem so unwilling to put anyone who isn’t heterosexual in their major tentpole releases. However, this goes to the broader point– the fact that she’s gay was cut “for time” as opposed to any of the filler “action sequences,” some of which get ridiculous. The film approaches character and development as purely secondary to more overt explosions and dinosaur attacks.

The film’s approach that more is more is on full display as the island is filled with lava and overtaken by toxic gases from the volcano’s pyroclastic flow. There is a moment where they escape from the island and a scene with a sauropod that will break your heart. Or, turn your stomach, depending on how cynically you approach the film. Your mileage may vary. My ten year old cried. My inner ten year old did, too. It’s not quite at the level of “I don’t feel so good Mr. Stark. . . ” but almost.

And that’s the first half of the movie.

The second half of the film is so tonally dissimilar from the first half that it feels like two different films. The second is basically a monster movie with a dinosaur villain that has probably been spoiled if you’ve seen the marketing for this movie, but whom I will not spoil here because it is a nice reveal. The dino isn’t the problem, though, and neither are the cold techno-lab setpieces in the basement of this giant Hearst-Castle-esque estate which gets a cool haunted house vibe (although those are also a bit of a tonal shock as well). The real problem, as is the theme of all Jurassic Park movies, are the humans. Especially the human villains are the least interesting and compelling major franchise villains outside of a Transformers movie we’ve had in a long time. Not compelling, not memorable, and their motivations are just stupid. Toby Jones even tries to show up 2/3 of the way through the movie as an ancillary villain to try to save it. Spoiler alert: he can’t.

There are also pieces here that you want to say are “callbacks” to previous films, but really? They feel almost more like cliches and obligatory fanservice. If you had asked me to make a list of everything that is a staple of Jurassic Park movies, I would give you a list of a dozen or so items. Jurassic World was partially so successful because it played with those tropes. This one just leans into them. Some are done well. Some are done less well.

What’s interesting and fun here isn’t necessarily new. And what’s new and unique isn’t necessarily fun.

The fact that Blue is basically the film’s deuteragonist next to Own Grady is somewhat refreshing. Let’s give them an unreliable dinosaur sidekick! Ok. But it only works so long. You really have to buy the premise to buy this bit.

But the film seems to not understand its basic concept. While Jurassic World embraced the idea that “dinosaurs are boring, so we need to make a hybrid dinosaur– bigger, scarier, more teeth!– to make a new monster” as its sort of meta-concept, they try to do that same concept, but to less effect. The Indominus Rex was new. What they gave us in this movie is a literal mishmash of everything before thinking it would work again.

But nature is unpredictable and can’t be controlled by man. And our filmmakers were so preoccupied with whether or not they could make a sequel that they didn’t ask, ahhh. . . if they should.

It sounds like I’m being harsh to this film. Perhaps I am. But basically this is on the level of a Fast and Furious movie. It’s fun and it’s sugary. But it’s not substantive nor near as interesting as previous installments. It does, however, look great. But so do Fast and Furious movies. In fact, director J. A. Bayona (who previously did great work on A Monster Calls and The Orphanage) has a lot in common with Fast and Furious mainstay Justin Lin. They’re both strong directors with great visual style who know how to balance action and comedy, but most importantly know how to keep a franchise movie moving– as long as it’s in the direction of more! more! more! and to put lots of butts in seats buying giant tubs of popcorn. There are much worse things in this world.

But the end of the film also replays some of Ian Malcolm’s words from the beginning, as though he’s Shakespeare at the end of The Tempest: “O brave new world, That has such [dinosaurs] in it!” But perhaps when embarking on the next (super obligatory) sequel (because this film is destined to make T-Rex sized mountains of cash), they should ask themselves, “Should we?” And unless their ideas exceed recycling the greatest hits of the franchise before, maybe they should wait.

Regardless, if you can leave any cynicism or expectations behind at the concession stand, you’ll likely be smiling most of this movie. It is a lot of fun. The bowl of pure sugar. The 90’s band concert. There are much worse things. And a little escapism with dinosaurs isn’t so bad. But compared to some of the sheer genius we’ve seen the last 4 months in movie theaters, this doesn’t quite measure up.

3 out of 5 stars