On the massive but futile upgrade from Trevorrow to Bayona, the rare majesty of prehistoric monsters, and the ongoing Pratt/Howard debacle
Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom Universal Pictures
Director: J.A. Bayona
Screenplay: Derek Connolly and Colin Trevorrow, based on characters created by Michael Crichton
Starring: Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Isabella Sermon, Rafe Spall, Daniella Pineda, Justice Smith, Toby Jones, James Lockwood, Ted Levine and Geraldine Chaplin
Rated PG-13 / 2 hours, 8 minutes / 2.39:1
June 22, 2018
(out of four)
Sam Neill gets it. He had it right from the beginning. From that first moment in the park, in the Jeep, something in the near distance catching his gaze as he violently tears off his hat, picks himself up off his seat and awkwardly grabs at his aviators to give his wide blue eyes their first best glimpse at the miraculous. Seeing a dinosaur up close is kind of a big deal.
It's that sheer spectacular power that Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom understands on a fundamental level. Say what you will about its many shortcomings, it at least delivers that much. Its predecessor, 2015's Jurassic World, never knew what to do with its dinosaurs. Director Colin Trevorrow's lack of visual imagination made the presumptive greatest show on Earth look like a quotidian special-effects display. In a few scattered scenes and a few scattered shots, he ably imitated Spielberg, but beyond that he somehow managed to make dinosaurs downright boring. His treatment of them was never anything but display. "Here are some dinosaurs."
There was no romance to it. Nothing to capture that awe splashed across Sam Neill's face. In fact, nothing to suggest it was capable of awe in the first place, let alone capable of eliciting it in anyone else. Dinosaur movies aren't especially common - in the 14 years between Jurassic Park III and Jurassic World they mainly just popped up in dopey kids' movies, plus glorified cameos in the likes of King Kong and The Tree of Life - and yet World made them seem that way. What was almost by default a singular spectacle among summer movies wound up feeling ordinary. It was a movie designed to tell us we'd seen this all before rather than show us something we hadn't. In any case, this remains the definitive piece of film criticism on the subject.
Fallen Kingdom does not fix all of the previous movie's problems. With Trevorrow remaining on board as writer and producer, maybe this was inevitable. Perhaps the architect of The Book of Henry constructing a script that barely even tries to justify its plot machinations should go without saying. But new director J.A. Bayona fully appreciates the majesty of a dinosaur's presence. Trevorrow treated them like stand-ins; Bayona understands that they're movie stars. In Jurassic World they were set dressing; in Fallen Kingdom they're icons, immortalized in lightning and shadow.
Bayona (The Orphanage, The Impossible, A Monster Calls) never lets us forget what we're dealing with - the unnatural wonder of their existence, the terror of their physical might, the beauty of their form. He looks upon them with as much reverence as fright. There are images in this movie that I'll never forget. The roaring reflection of an approaching dinosaur superimposed on the face of a screaming child on the other side of the glass. A rooftop raptor silhouetted against a full moon - it might as well be howling - as the film enters its finale having transformed into Gothic horror. Bayona has a remarkable ability to announce his creatures' presence, anticipate their movements, punctuate their violence. During an indoor, close-quarters chase (perhaps "hunt" is the better word) scene, he uses the red warning lights of a darkened tunnel to reveal a dinosaur's presence. Another is introduced with its shadow illuminated against a wall, creeping like a prehistoric Nosferatu. In an early scene, death is revealed by the expunging of an underwater light from an overhead shot.
With the screenplay generating very little suspense of its own, the film gets virtually all of its tension from its consistently clever handling of visual perspective, a testament to this director's ability to convey physical and emotional stakes on subconscious, visceral levels. As a result the film works brilliantly in individual moments even when it isn't working as a whole.
Life and death are often cheap in big movies like this; the overabundance of, and over-reliance on, CGI has made death itself a weightless concern. But Bayona tries to take those notions seriously, its visual cues regularly portending a sense of existential dread (to say nothing of the more immediate dangers). In a sense, the movie is doubling down, since the whole of Fallen Kingdom revolves around survival itself - not just the characters who are obligatorily in peril, but the dinosaur as a life form. The film picks up three years after the events of the previous entry, with the wheels in motion to exterminate the remaining dinosaurs from the island of Isla Nublar. Animal-rights groups have formed and are in the process of lobbying the government to save the dinosaurs. That's where we rather inexplicably find Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas-Howard), having gone from ruthless corporate suit to bleeding heart, spending her time in the company of hipsters making impassioned phone calls to senators leading up to a pivotal vote.
There are other parties fighting the same fight ... sort of. They want to save the dinosaurs, too, albeit for much less noble reasons. Once again, the geneticist Dr. Wu (B.D. Wong) is involved, this time working in partnership with Eli Mills (Rafe Spall), who's working on behalf of retired tycoon Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell) to preserve nine species via clandestine means. Smugglers, mercenaries, various medical specialists. Lockwood was the former business partner of original mad scientist Jurassic Park mastermind John Hammond before the two had a vague falling-out some years earlier. He lives in a remote estate with his granddaughter Maisie (Isabella Sermon), who, raised in practically a dinosaur shrine, is a rather passionate enthusiast.
In leading what they naively believe is a rescue op, Claire and Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) are basically side characters in what amounts to more of an ensemble piece than the previous movie was. They're around mainly as extensions of series continuity but have little dramatic value. And unfortunately, the franchise is still trying to sell us on their romantic connection - this time in retrospect, with the two having broken up some time since that horribly awkward, out-of-place smooch at the end of Jurassic World. It's possible that no two actors in the history of the medium have ever had less on-screen sexual chemistry than Pratt and Howard in these movies, but that hasn't stopped either director from forging ahead with that subplot anyway, even though, in both cases, it could easily have been excised without the narrative losing a single thing.
Then again, almost every subplot and narrative detour in Fallen Kingdom is just as clumsy. The film comes across more like an outline for a movie than an actual completed screenplay, introducing a variety of potentially fruitful ideas that no one can be bothered to do much with. Two surprising, somewhat bold lines are crossed unexpectedly - in ways that seem both too pat to really work within the framework of this movie, but also likely to be explored in more detail in the third installment. So we'll say TBD on those two. And when "let's see if this pays off next time" is one of the arguments in your favor, that's a pretty decent indication something has gone wrong. Oh well. At least this time we have an actual image-maker to give us something to experience, if only in fits and starts.