Regressing: On "Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom"
“Is that my stomach or the guy next to me?” I wondered as the Universal logo unwound at the beginning of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, the fifth part in the box office juggernaut dino franchise that began a little more than 25 years ago this summer. Going back to June 1993 and first seeing the corporate brand preceding Jurassic Park’s logo with rain and rumbles on the soundtrack, there was palpable excitement and fear, knowing that filmmakers had realized Michael Crichton’s bestselling novel and resurrected creatures extinct for 65 million years (give or take). Now, the Universal merry-go-round Earth anticipated a rote affair with my mind chuckling to a question of digestion. Fallen Kingdom begins as expected, on a dark and stormy night in Isla Nublar, with dutiful corporate pawns banally doing their work, some on land, some underwater, several personages becoming something’s midnight snack. Ho-hum (and yum) stuff, blurp-blurp.
Of all the big movie tentpoles, Jurassic Park has become the one handed the most vituperative abuse by critics and commentators. Even the more poorly assessed DC movies aren’t susceptible to the kind of meanness and condescension of the Jurassics (it seems the members of Justice League simply got off on the wrong foot). Jurassic World and Fallen Kingdom, the brainchildren of movie thinkpiece punching bag Colin Trevorrow (here continuing as co-writer and executive producer; J.A. Bayona is directing), are insulting to its audience, to stoopid too like. And yes, these Jurassics are dumb, though they seem to be conscientious of that dumbness which, excuse me, is somewhat refreshing at a time when viewers clutch their pearls over The Avengers and demand The Last Jedi be remade. If Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park is now seen as a masterpiece (it certainly wasn’t upon release, though nowadays it doesn’t feel any less accomplished than his other 1993 film, the immediately consecrated Schindler’s List), the rest are unabashedly vulgar monster movies, and like several B-grade films of the past, any “significance” is smuggled into the text (if a little on the nose; smuggled, yes, but then splashing into view like Lt. Frank Drebin).
The biggest splash of 2015’s Jurassic World involved troubling sexual politics, where savvy park manager Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) was interpreted as a denigrating representation of a powerful woman, her weaknesses affiliated with her choice to decline having a family like her sister, whose two sons Claire will spend the next two hours trying to save from hungry carnivores. Matters weren’t helped that Claire’s foil was the musky and meaty Owen (Chris Pratt), a dude’s dude who could tame this shrew as much as he can tame lady raptors. Particularly in the time of Inside Out and The Force Awakens (and when Trump's ascendency and its implicit misogyny was becoming increasingly alarming), Trevorrow’s Jurassic World was reactionary stuff (a critic I happen to like a lot has said Trevorrow hates women more than Donald Trump). I too, after a first screening, found it bothersome, though I enjoyed the movie enough (yes, I am dumb and found it fun) enough to see it again, which cleared some things up. Trevorrow is no Spielberg, certainly, and the shape of his film kind of admitted that from the beginning, implying that the digital effects that were so incredible in 1993 had become a banal stuff. Audiences, like the park’s attendees, were more interested in their phones and holograms than the actual dinosaurs, the oooo/ahhhh ingenuity of the Brachiosaur looming over Sam Neil, Laura Dern, and Jeff Goldblum a bygone feeling. This meta undercurrent gave Jurassic World a sardonic vibe, the heavy-handedness of which can be forgiven in a movie marketed to juvenile sensibilities. So while yes, Jurassic World was no Jurassic Park (and I'm still ambivalent about Colin Trevorrow--I haven't seen the much-reviled Book of Henry), in the Amblin/Crichton catalog it's certainly more worthwhile than a couple of Jurassic Park's immediate progeny from the '90s (much as I would compare it favorably to its present blockbuster peers), Congo and Twister.
In a way, Trevorrow was taking cue more from Spielberg’s old chum Brian De Palma (again, not with the same visual wit by a longshot, but work with me), playing with his audience’s prejudices and expectations, anticipating their reaction and outrage, and cackling at us in the aftermath. For while Claire has her problems (she’s human, after all, and Bryce Dallas Howard plays her with great verve), her married-with-children sister is demonstrably not a lifestyle model to be emulated but rather the film’s most miserable character, and while a corporate authority, Claire is a good worker (Michael Mann-level good), saving her nephews and Owen several times (muscly Chris Pratt doesn’t save her once, if you watch closely), repeatedly several steps ahead of her male peers (she's introduced bitching out one of her dopey male employees, but knows to move a waste basket to catch his errantly-placed soda drink). Yet all the audience (and subsequent think pieces by good progressive citizens) noticed was her high heels. What’s a girl to do to get some respect? (Be utterly flat psychologically, apparently, like the female protagonists of a couple of other franchises, but I digress). Furthermore, the escape from Jurassic World climaxes with the heroes confronting the raptor Blue, the franchise’s other principle female protagonist. Again, it’s not Chris Pratt who saves the day; Trevorrow makes it clear that letting the heroes live is Blue’s choice. This climax is followed by the raptor wistfully walking away into an artificial backdrop that feels eerily similar to Teri Garr’s escape into a Las Vegas matte in Francis Ford Coppola’s One from the Heart (1982), a woman breaking free from domestic confines. Like Claire’s nephews, the audience saw Chris Pratt with a gun and gave the man all the applause. Meanwhile, that Claire’s female assistant should be sadistically dunked underwater by a pterodactyl before being consumed by a monstrous leviathan created more outrage, though the moment had the kookiness on par with Joe Dante (of Piranha, Gremlins, and Small Soldiers), and the character’s fate seemed pretty tame compared to the Russian dude in Crystal Skull who gets eaten inside-out by fire ants, but whatever. Jurassic World was a huge hit, and it didn’t need my defenses (not a hill I would die on, admittedly, unlike say Spielberg’s recent Ready Player One, come at me). While the rhetoric surrounding it was consonant with the times and so exhibited a pernicious decadence, I let it go in favor of exploring and arguing about 2015's real great films: agic Mike XXL, Carol, Bridge of Spies, Chi-Raq, and Blackhat.
Fallen Kingdom slightly apologizes for its perceived mishaps, albeit in a sorry-not-sorry way given how we first see Claire with a close-up of her heels before arcing up to her face (this made me grin). She’s not climbing corporate ladders anymore, but doing good activist work, specifically in a campaign that would help save the dinosaurs left on Isla Nublar who are going to be inevitably engulfed in an unstable volcano’s lava (the film also makes fun of the Family Values with her repeatedly asking if other characters have children). Helping her are hacker Franklin Webb (Justice Smith) and Dr. Zia Rodriguez (Daniella Pineda), the former a geeky coward and the latter a tough-as-nails veterinarian. After the deposition of Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum, who came back for a day’s shooting), Congress has voted not to help the dinosaurs. Claire and company are buoyed, though, by the help of an ailing billionaire, Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell), who happens to have been the partner of John Hammond (the entrepreneur from the first film played by Richard Attenborough). With his protege Eli Mills (Rafe Spall), Lockwood will bankroll the dinosaurs’ liberation, though the operation needs the help of Claire, Webb, Rodriguez, and, due to the importance of getting the last raptor Blue, Owen (who’s since broken up with Claire). Guiding them on the island will be the mercenary hunter Wheatley (Ted Levine, whose visage means nothing’s on the level here). The fun begins.
It turns out that Mills is manipulating Lockwood, and the master plan is that Wheatley procure these dinosaurs to be sold as military weapons to foreign buyers. The importance of Blue has to do with the ultimate dino weapon, thanks to the art of the nefarious Dr. Wu (B.D. Wong), the “Indoraptor,” a hybrid of Jurassic World’s heinous Indosaurus and the unusually intelligent raptors. Blue’s DNA is necessary for the experiment because of her empathy, or something to that extent. None of this makes too much sense, and whereas Jurassic World’s dumb fun was in part rooted in its self-deprecating form and sardonic tone (hate on Trevorrow, but it's very much a film by the director of Safety Not Guaranteed, which I realize isn't necessarily a positive endorsement for some viewers), Fallen Kingdom falters by means of getting lost in its plottiness. Making things more complicated is the significance of Maisie (Isabella Sermon), Lockwood’s pre-adolescent granddaughter nurtured by the mysterious housekeeper Iris (Geraldine Chaplin). Maisie sneaks around the great Xanadu house of her granddad and quietly registers the treacherous goings-on, much of which has to do with the mystery of her own existence as a young girl who never knew her parents. It’s an awful lot of intrigue that doesn’t really gel, exposing Trevorrow and Derek Connolly’s weakness as writers. Most of this two-hour film feels like an extended prologue for the next movie.
Moving stateside from the jungle, Fallen Kingdom plays ike a redux of Spielberg’s 1997 sequel The Lost World, where the antagonist was a similar corporate moneyman taking advantage of a frail old man (Hammond, in that case). Though The Lost World is roundly considered low-tier Spielberg, it was still often horrific, such as the prologue where a child is attacked by a swarm of scavenger reptiles on an ostensibly harmless beach for tourists, or when the audience can see a pack of raptors surround an oblivious hunting team, the grass coming alive. Fallen Kingdom is comparably low on thrills, something that makes its exposition more annoying. But whereas The Lost World jumped the shark when it hit the states and evoked King Kong with a T-Rex on the loose, Fallen Kingdom hits a stride in its last laps, embracing James Whale kookiness of The Old Dark House (I laughed with glee at all of the scenes of Wong’s dastardly Dr. Wu) and the gothic expressionism of Nosferatu: the Indoraptor’s Max Schreck shadow (its smile derivative of the Karloffian Grinch) shows how these creatures are getting progressively humanoid, perhaps an augur for the planned Jurassic World III where maybe we’ll see the secret ingredient of Wu’s Indosaurus was human DNA all along (Jurassic World: Attack of the Lizard People, making these things more relevant than ever I suppose). Blue, meanwhile, has somehow become my favorite movie superhero, the Rowdy Roddy Piper of franchise blockbusters: the industry’s baddest heel unexpectedly turning face without losing any of her volatile face-ripping viciousness.
If there’s anything Spielbergian about Fallen Kingdom it’s that it’s really two hours of “not work” but “presentation,” again being fundamentally a trailer for a planned third film (at this stage to be directed by Trevorrow). Its disposability lends itself to the series’ cheekiness while also denigrating it a few hours after viewing (back to complaints of digestion). Much of what we see in the first wave of exposition is (knowingly) bullshit, even Lockwood’s rhapsodic memories of Hammond contradicting the Jurassic mythos. Malcolm explicitly tells Congress that Isla Nublar's fate has nothing to do with God, but the politicians choose to air a narrative guided by the hand of Providence. The meta-dimension of Jurassic Park related to Spielberg and his FX collaborators Stan Winston and Dennis Muran happening on a new means of creation not unlike Dr. Wu, the film itself being more of an amusement park ride than a movie proper (presided over by a “director,” Richard Attenborough); the digital creations get out of their cages (or computers) and eat up the meat-space analogue players and sets, as has happened in moviedom, the nurturing hands of Old Hollywood quashed by crass commercial demands (Fallen Kingdom's Geraldine Chaplin being a recognizable descendant of Hollywood iconography and genius, silenced by the moneyman Mills). By Jurassic World, these seminal creations are banal and secondary to the narcotic amusements of other trinkets, and now with Fallen Kingdom the miracle of ingenuity, like the Internet, is commensurate with utter bullshit, a pool of such crap in which we’ve found ourselves and can’t swim out of. Now even the human beings are hyperreal creations (which is to say, clones). The Indoraptor’s entrance, critic Jordan Hoffman has noted, is a blatant Trump allusion, and what is Trump if not a kind of cosmetic confection of the Internet we’ve let out of the box and, like Jurassic’s monsters, can’t be put back in (every day the news seems to verify We Are So Fucked, and prospects for coming elections aren't necessarily fostering optimism). We’re now in Jurassic World, invention regressing us to cosmic infancy as dinosaurs profane historical landmarks. More than anything in Crichton’s novels, the Indoraptor—and Trump—hearkens to the laboratory man-beast in Mikhail Bulgakov’s 1925 novel (and thinly veiled Soviet satire) Heart of a Dog.
Along those lines, the eschatology of Fallen Kingdom is more unnerving than the film’s mixed quality warrants. As greed gets exponentially more vulgar, life doesn’t necessarily “find a way” but shuts the hell down in hopeless exhaustion. The feel-good activism of Claire and company conflicts with the sagacity of Ian Malcolm, who believes we shouldn’t interfere with nature (considering we already have enough). The most unforgettable of blockbuster studio image this year isn’t from Star Wars or Marvel but here, as we see that old Brachiosaur disappearing in the fog of nature’s cruelty, a reminder that Extinction Happens, something that we may take to heart in a time of accelerating climate change. The mordant “happy conclusion” is an affirmation of infantile regression, as Ian Malcolm’s Reason would win out but the damned children—who, Jesus, I guess we always have to listen to—act decisively in the interests of empathy, which, hey, suggests a paradox more interesting than anything else in Franchise World. Ultimately, that’s the escapism in which Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom indulges, suspending good taste and reason for a political fantasy where we eat the rich. Fuggit, that's what fantasy is and right now such recklessness feels kind of good.