JURASSIC WORLD: FALLEN KINGDOM Review – Same Shit, Different Dinosaur

This review contains spoilers

Jurassic World: The Fallen Kingdom is so dumb it would have voted for Trump. It’s a movie so dumb that its own premise doesn’t make a lot of sense, and it only gets worse from there. The script, by noted bad filmmakers Derek Connelly and Colin Trevorrow, pulls back from the wanton cruelty of the last film but still is entirely incapable of showing the slightest amount of heart. The Jurassic World films are simply sociopathic.

Director JA Bayona at least brings visual chops to the film, unlike Jurassic World, which was flat and boring to look at. Bayona seems to have studied Spielberg frame by frame, and many of the film’s best sequences – the end of the first act island escape, for instance – has the look of vintage Spielberg. But it doesn’t have the feel; Bayona is utterly unable to evoke the actual emotion and joy that Spielberg gets into every frame of his adventure films. Bayona’s Spielberg stuff is a simulacra, a golem of Spielberg that walks and talks but has no soul.

This isn’t surprising to me, as I’ve been skeptical of Bayona for years now. I think his tsunami film The Impossible is actually offensive (I called it deplorable way back in 2012, well before Hillary Clinton stole the word from me!) and I thought When A Monster Calls was a clumsy and maudlin assault on unearned emotions. That Bayona can compose a shot is without question; that he can bring any humanity to what is happening within that frame remains as yet unproven.

When paired with Connelly and Trevorrow’s sociopathic script, Bayona’s heartless style creates a movie that looks great, that is always in motion, but that is meaningless and, frankly, dumb as a stone. After a cold open featuring a doomed sub getting some of the Indominus Rex’s DNA (that was the big bioengineered dinosaur from the last movie) it skips ahead to news reports that Isla Nublar, home of Jurassic Park and Jurassic World, is about to blow up. The volcano at the center of the island has reactivated, and in days it will go, taking the island – and all the dinosaurs – with it. There’s a public debate about whether or not to save the dinos, and Bryce Dallas Howard turns out to be one of the activists agitating on behalf of the stranded, doomed dinos.

Then a billionaire named Lockwood who, in a feat of incredible retconning, turns out to have been John Hammond’s old partner in the dino-reviving business shows up and tells Bryce that he’s going to rescue as many dinos as he can, but that he needs her help. And he needs the help of Chris Pratt’s McBeef in order to wrangle Blue the Raptor, bizarrely called the second most intelligent creature on the planet (I’m assuming they meant species-wise, not individually. But it’s not clear).

That Bryce and McBeef have broken up between the two films should offer some drama to the movie, but that never happens. There is no character work in Jurassic World: The Fallen Kingdom; I think Blue might be the only character who has any sort of a meaningful arc, or who learns anything at all from these experiences. Then again, to be fair, half the cast has no reason to be in this movie at all. More on that soon.

The whole trip to the island turns out to be a betrayal. The weiner who runs Lockwood’s company doesn’t actually want to save the dinosaurs, he wants to sell them to the highest bidders. This is the movie’s fundamental problem: this idiot’s plan makes no sense. As played by Rafe Spall bad guy Eli is a total maroon, a guy who sends a huge team of mercenaries to Isla Nublar to wrangle free-roaming dinos… when he has the dino DNA in his home base, always available to make more. On top of that his plan is doubly stupid – what is valuable about the dinos is that DNA, and he has pharmaceutical concerns as well as weapons manufacturers and warlords at his auction. But by selling these guys dinosaurs (at unreal low rates. Someone pointed out to me that the whole auction brings in less money than it cost to make Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom) he’s also giving them dino DNA. Instead teaming up with pharma and weapons companies and using his valuable dino IP, he’s just selling it for a few million a pop. I mean, maybe he’s an open source guy.

The island escape, a web of hair-raising setpieces, is the highlight of the movie. But even here there’s something off; besides the fact that Bayona can’t quite get to the soul of Spielberg’s work, he also can’t get good performances out of his actors. Chris Pratt in particular is just drowning in lameness in this movie, coming off as distant and unfriendly. The script gives him no good lines, and as such McBeef transforms into the kind of pre-Die Hard action hero we thought we gave up on, the dude who has no conflict, no doubt and no trouble.

What’s strange is that the film tries to make McBeef into Indiana Jones, but while removing all of Jones’ vulnerabilities and humanity. Pratt has a bunch of scenes that are straight Indy riffs – he’s paralyzed and trying to get out of the way of lava, he’s running down a hill, he’s engaged in a fight with a goon to stop a mechanism from releasing – but none of the scenes between those contain even a shred of Indy’s charm. And that can’t be Pratt’s fault, because we have seen Pratt be very charming many times in the past. If anyone could pull off some Indiana Jones charm, it’s Chris Pratt… but he needs the writers and the director to give him the opportunity. He doesn’t get it.

Bryce Dallas Howard, meanwhile, is playing a character who is engaged in a moral problem that the movie never fully addresses, and that it in fact undercuts. After the events of the last film she, the person responsible for so much horror, has decided to be the voice of the dinosaurs. Her argument is that they are living creatures, and endangered species. Well, on the second one… they’re not. We know this. They’re like Pringles – pop all you want, they’ll make more. There’s never been a moment in these films, all five of them to date, where we got the sense that the dinosaur DNA was an exhaustible resource. It is precious, it is special, but it’s not limited.

As for her other argument – is she a vegan? The movie doesn’t really address the question of why these creatures should be saved while cows get herded through factory slaughterhouses. I’m not trying to make a big vegan point (I am not vegan) but rather recognize that the movie doesn’t engage with its own themes in any way. At the end of the film little girl Maisie saves the dinosaurs, saying “They’re alive… like me.” That’s a dumb line for reasons I’ll get into later, but it underscores the undiscussed moral question at the heart of the movie.

That question goes unasked at one of the biggest points in the film. Blue the raptor is captured, but has been shot. It’s bleeding out, and our heroes take heroic measures to save it. But here’s the thing: by this point they have to know that the villains will use this highly trained superpredator for nefarious purposes. Yet no one ever discusses whether the right option is to let Blue die to remove the danger from the world. I’m not saying they SHOULD have let Blue die (they completely and totally should have, though), but rather that the movie doesn’t even recognize that it’s presented with a legitimate moral quandary that ties into the larger question of whether or not the dinos should be allowed to die. Not allowed to live – allowed to die. It’s a very different question.

Anyway, Bryce’s character wears flats in this movie, so I guess there’s progress.

Surrounding our heroes are a few side characters who don’t need to exist. Daniella Pineda is given a really bum role as Zia, a paleoveterinarian who comes along on the initial island mission and who is tasked with keeping Blue alive. Zia is angry. That’s about it, that’s what you need to know. If we were being unkind we would say she’s a ‘fiery Latina,’ but I think even that stereotype would be giving her character more depth than the script does. Pineda is a movie star, though, and while the movie gives her nothing to do – she disappears for a huge chunk of runtime – she’s a blast to watch.

I can see why Bryce Dallas Howard’s paleovet friend comes on the mission. What I don’t see if why Justice Smith (The Get Down) comes along. He’s Bryce’s IT guy and he comes to hack the old Jurassic World mainframe or whatever… but the four hero characters are joining a huge expeditionary crew that has been onsite for some time. This huge expeditionary crew doesn’t have a computer guy with them? I know someone will say their computer guy got eaten in the cold open, but why not just hire a new computer guy? They bring in this civilian computer guy knowing they’re going to kill him – it seems like a lot. Computer guys aren’t exactly rare.

At any rate, Justice Smith gets almost nothing to do but be scared. He has a small hero moment that’s meaningless to him but I guess has some power for us – it involves Evil Henry Wu – but otherwise he feels as lost as Pratt. I loved Smith in The Get Down, but forced to spend this whole movie doing variations on Shaggy’s “A gh-gh-gh-ghost!” schtick doesn’t give him any room to breathe. And honestly, his character could be removed from the film without changing any element of the plot whatsoever.

Speaking of vestigial characters we finally come to Maisey, the character who most represents how stupid and pointless this movie is. Maisey, played by newcomer Isabella Sermon, is the granddaughter of Lockwood… except it’s really clear quite early that she isn’t. She’s actually a clone of Lockwood’s daughter, who died in a car accident. Lockwood’s desire to clone his daughter split his original partnership with Hammond.

Suddenly the genetic tampering of the previous four films gets broader. John Sayles had written a Jurassic Park 4 that had hybrid human dinosaurs, but that isn’t what Maisie is. She’s just a clone. And get this – the fact that she is a clone has no bearing on the story or the themes or the other characters. In fact everybody sort of just shrugs when they learn she’s a clone.

Maisie is in the movie because they needed a kid. There’s no other reason for her to be in the film, and even putting her in jeopardy is redundant – McBeef and Bryce don’t need the motivation of saving a child to fight the new superdino. They were going to do it anyway. And Maisie doesn’t represent a uniquely vulnerable character, and none of the choices she makes impact the movie or the action scenes. It isn’t like she has a teddy bear she needs to find and thus peels off from the group, forcing them to find her. She gets separated when the superdino attacks, but that could have happened to anybody.

And the clone stuff… why is it in this movie? This is an honest question, and any responses are appreciated. It all ‘pays off’ at the end when Maisie saves the dinos, saying “They’re alive… like me,” but nobody questions whether clones are alive. Of course they are. They’re not robots. It’s a weird note to hit, and it seems to speak to an unspoken question about whether cloned animals are really animals.

Maisey represents the way this film never bothers to engage with any philosophy, and she also represents the way that none of the characters mean a damn thing, AND she represents the larger lack of thought put into the thing. They needed a kid, so here’s a kid. They wanted to do an auction scene, so they did an auction scene but never even thought about what the economics of auctioning dinosaurs might be. They wanted a Lost World-esque group of mercs, so they put them in, without recognizing there would be no point in going to all that expense.

If Maisie represents the pointlessness and dopiness of this movie, the Indo-Raptor represents the awfulness of this whole franchise in constant decline. The Indo-Raptor is the big bad in this film, a splicing of the Indominus Rex from the last movie and the good old velociraptor. If you thought the Indominus Rex was a metaphor for the way that blockbusters need to get bigger and stupider with every installment, the Indo-Rex is like an explainer of that metaphor for the people too dense to get it last time.

I’m just going to say it: the Indo-Raptor isn’t cool. It doesn’t have anything all that unique to recommend it, and its design is fine but isn’t so arresting or evil as to truly feel special. It’s just yet another dinosaur. It’s supposed to be super smart, but it can’t figure out how to get at our heroes when they’re pinned under a log. And worst of all, the Indo-Raptor gets introduced in the third act. There’s no build up to what this creature is, or why it’s special. It just shows up in time to go wild when the movie needs a dinosaur to go wild.

This is the whole franchise in a nutshell – increasingly splicing together the same old DNA to make something meaner but not particularly more interesting or cool. This has been the course of the Jurassic films, especially after Spielberg, but even with The Lost World. That movie is mean in a way that Jurassic Park wasn’t, and Jurassic World was so mean-spirited I couldn’t believe it was a family film. This movie is less mean-spirited but only because it’s so much less spirited in general; there’s no emotional center at all. And when things aren’t getting meaner they’re getting more insular, just a recombination of the same old shit you’ve seen before. This film should have been able to break out of that – it ends with a chase in an Old Dark House, after all, not another big action showdown – but even the ending of this movie quotes previous films and feels like a more contained remake of the raptors in the kitchen in the first movie. There’s nothing new here – they even wheeled in ANOTHER kindly old grandpa geneticist. By now the Jurassic Park/World movies are just SSDD: Same Shit, Different Dinosaur.

The ending of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom offers some hope that future movies in the franchise won’t simply be retreads of the same garbage again and again, but I don’t have a lot of hope. No one, not even Spielberg, has been able to recapture the magic of the first film. This reminds me a lot of the Jaws franchise, which just got worse and worse over time. But at least the Jaws films devolved into the B-movie dross, which was correct. Somehow these Jurassic films are getting BIGGER as they go along, even as they get worse and worse. I don’t know if life will find a way, but cynical and dumb blockbuster filmmaking surely will.