In Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, Jeff Goldblum’s Dr. Ian Malcolm appears before the United States Senate insisting the remaining dinosaurs on the abandoned Isla Nublar be left to die – surely to the discontent of dino rights activists advocating for their relocation, as a long-dormant, now-active island volcano threatens their safety. As is ever the case with the charismatic mathematician, he concludes his statements asking his patient audience how long it will take before we all realize, as humankind, the unintended damage we have wrought with our curious hubris. The funny thing is, it doesn’t feel like he’s addressing them.
To the eternal optimist seeking even a symptomatically positive spin on dire circumstances, the first half of Fallen Kingdom and most of its second may read like an apology for its predecessor. The concluding set-piece prior to its midpoint practically admits going back to the island was rash and erroneous – a plot point facilitated in all of the sequels, admittedly – and, with its unironic rehash of plots and subplots from the first World, this film’s second half further confesses that the particular reasons for returning were as much of a mistake, as well. In a fashionable meta subtext, returning franchise co-writers Colin Trevorrow and Derek Connolly raise their hands in submission, secretly conceding that reviving the Jurassic Park brand – at least, in this manner – was a foolhardy idea; that it was indeed time to let it die.
Because, however, like in the now five Jurassic Park franchise films, we cannot pretend we do not live in a world controlled by the interests of the wealthy elite, or where major studio pictures aren’t defined by their marketability, subsequent financial viability and merchandising, when presented with the power of controlling life and death, Trevorrow and Connolly’s decision spits in the face of Dr. Malcolm’s desperate pleas. For added insult to injury, they waited until the last moment when their collective saliva was at its peak, rendering this Indominus Rex-like Frankenstein’s monster of a tonal and philosophical mishmash a slyly snarky middle finger to the consumers – myself included – who just ensured them and Universal a trilogy finale three years from now.
For what it’s worth, and because it’s never that much fun blindly tearing a film to shreds, Fallen Kingdom does offer some interesting moments and story tidbits that might have played better had they not been ultimately contextualized by an overall tacky screenplay. Many of these moments are the byproduct of accomplished director J.A. Bayona using his visual flair for sequences that either lend affecting gravitas to the proceedings or emphasize a satisfying creature feature undercurrent previous franchise entries hadn’t tapped since the earlier years. In the latter’s case, the opening scene sets up the second half’s plotline with horror galore and the final act uses the franchise’s new genetically engineered antagonist as if it were one of the Universal monsters, now running amok through a large, creaky mansion.
With every good idea this film may have, however, these moments are almost always undercut by preceding plot or thematic context. One particularly harrowing shot darkly mirroring, yet also swiftly ending the sweeping, grand-scale Spielbergian wonder that partially made the original a blockbuster staple not only doesn’t hit with the right amount of, or any heft because of preceding silly set pieces that harshly contrast tonally and cannot flex any self-reflexive muscle, but also because the second half following it renders this heartbreaking moment and the first half it supports a means to an end. Even the horror-inspired monster movie mayhem comprising the final 30-ish minutes isn’t as effective with a sinking feeling Bayona seemed more interested in these moments than most events and ideas setting it up.
Such divergences between plot and intent almost make it seem Universal/Amblin’s hired gun, arguably the most technically gifted director the franchise has had since Spielberg, was ashamed of directing a preposterous dinosaur movie, and given the lack of development for key philosophical ideas relating back to the series’ overarching ‘man playing God’ question, Trevorrow and Connolly might have felt equally detached. While the rest of the film doesn’t go much further beyond the lip service initially paid to animal rights, particularly the evils of captivity, it revisits the ‘weaponized dinosaurs’ idea laid out by Vincent D’Onofrio’s Vic Hoskins in the last picture and adds an international black-market and auction dynamic continuing the franchise’s despising of callous capitalism, but can’t be pressed to take its critique beyond caricatures of individuals representing the system.
Not to mention how these wealthy global buyers could have represented the varying interests of diverse production company investors looking to capitalize off of the franchise’s proverbial cash cows in the meta scenario previously illustrated, their and these new protagonists’ presence in this particular story is one microcosm of many for the filmmakers’ wishing this film be taken seriously as much as it is ironically enjoyed. Too often, though, its somber moments and horror influences are jarringly juxtaposed with ludicrous plot points and action that either stunt or undermine both facets’ possible effect. Even further dramatic development of the returning cast, particularly Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) and Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard), is too shallow to move past the character deficiencies that hamstrung them last time around.
Of course, the Jurassic Park series gave up the pretense of seriously-minded science fiction long before Jurassic World brought it back from the pits of development hell, and so Fallen Kingdom’s stupidity in and of itself isn’t so much the primary issue as is its blockading the creators from meaningfully exploring interesting thematic areas. And it’s certainly not to imply generally silly films can’t have something to say, otherwise I’d have chucked my copy of Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead years ago, but in this film’s case, it feels like two different stories and tones clashing over the final product’s ultimate identity. It’d additionally help if the meta subtext wasn’t a head-scratching reversal of what made Jurassic World passable.
It wasn’t just the refashioned fan fiction element and a complete abandonment of solemnness that made Trevorrow’s first round of mindless entertainment partially work; it was also its subversive meta-narrative about remakes/reboots and their dumbing down for broader audience appeal, as well as complacent audiences and money-grubbing investors/corporations. With a fully functioning Jurassic World operating for years, dinosaurs – rather, the Jurassic Park franchise – have slowly become old news, and attendances – much like movie ticket sales – are dwindling, and the only way to bring a disinterested public back is to genetically modify a super dinosaur borrowing the DNA of multiple species – in other words, doing almost the exact same thing that launched the idea for the park in the first place.
Such a premise is perhaps undone by the creators’ consistently exploiting real life audience gullibility for financial gain with every exponentially asinine scene, but the foundation for a symptomatically critical look at the franchise was solid enough. But for Fallen Kingdom, when Trevorrow and Connolly decided life over death for their prized assets, signaling a third World film’s inevitability, they had truly stated that the integrity of the original film’s legacy they’d so valiantly upheld with the last film’s ending no longer mattered. Obviously, those with a vested interest in the franchise’s long-term sustainability and profitability wouldn’t have let things end there or their scribes choose death here, but now, it’s difficult escaping the notion that this franchise has officially become the capitalist enemy its movies reviled, though maybe it already was. “When will we learn?” indeed, Dr. Malcolm.