Directed By: J.A. Bayona
Release Date: June 22, 2018
Starring: Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Rafe Spall
Three years after the closure and abandonment of Jurassic World, the fate of the animals left behind on Isla Nublar has become a public concern, as the island's long-dormant volcano has since rumbled back to life, threatening to wipe out the last of the dinosaurs once and for all. After it's decided that no government will step in to rescue them, Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard), who now runs the advocacy organization the Dinosaur Protection Group, is approached by the elderly Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell), a man with ties to the late John Hammond and the original Jurassic Park who wants to privately rescue the dinosaurs and relocate them to a new island sanctuary.
Claire agrees, convincing Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) to accompany her so that he can help find and rescue the Velociraptor Blue, the last of her kind, all with the clock ticking on Nublar's destruction. But, of course, not is all as it seems, as the team of mercenaries they meet up with as part of the operation are working towards a different goal, one that sees the dinosaurs being brought back to the mainland to be auctioned off, while Blue herself plays into a plan surrounding a new genetically-engineered hybrid: The Indoraptor, a mix of Indominus rex and Velociraptor DNA whose very existence could usher the world into a whole new realm of change.
And so is the setup of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, the fifth film in the Jurassic Park franchise that I've been cautiously optimistic about. With Jurassic World director Colin Trevorrow having stepped down for its follow-up, only delivering the script for Fallen Kingdom alongside his writing partner Derek Connolly, director J. A. Bayona took the reins, and he's been a huge reason why I've been looking forward to the movie, as he directed the excellent horror film The Orphanage back in 2007, while his 2016 fantasy drama A Monster Calls was one of my favorite movies of that year. Here was the chance for the director to showcase his talent for horror and drama on a scale larger than ever before, and though the trailers leading up to its release weren't anything great, I held out hope that he would deliver something exceeding expectations.
That's partially why it pains me so much to say that Fallen Kingdom suffers from an identity crisis. The sequel feels very much like it is made up of two movies, halved directly in the middle, the first movie being the rescue story, the second being a fantasy horror film, both singular ideas that could've carried an entire film all their own that instead get shortchanged because neither gets room to narratively breathe. Even further, because each part doesn't have enough time to get expanded upon, their ultimate impact is diminished; for instance, the destruction of Isla Nublar is a big deal, a monumental event for the Jurassic franchise, yet it being placed halfway through the film just feels incongruent with the fact that there's still an hour-plus left to go of something that becomes tonally different.
The first half of the film also feels like a complete retread of The Lost World: Jurassic Park, from a main character being called to an estate only to be tasked with journeying to an island for humanitarian purposes to the removal of dinosaurs from said island to our heroes trying to perform a medical operation on a wounded dinosaur to a corporate villain who wants to save his company by exploiting the dinosaurs. Even specific visuals echo that film, such as when Claire, Owen, and newcomer Franklin Webb (Justice Smith) are on an outlook watching the mercenaries round up their captured dinosaurs onto a boat, recalling a similar scene where Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) and his group watch the hunters capture dinosaurs on a game trail from atop an outlook in The Lost World. It's one thing to repeat the core concept of dinosaurs being taken off the island, because there aren't many ways to go about doing that, but it's another for the larger narrative surrounding it to retread so many beats we've seen before.
That said, it's in this first half that we get to see dinosaurs simply being dinosaurs, something that I noted in my review of Jurassic World is the whole appeal of the franchise. We get to see new dinosaurs like the Baryonyx and the Carnotaurus, a number of returning species from across the franchise to date, and - even better - get more practical effects work bringing them to life. Of course, there are still some fully-CGI creatures roaming about that still stick out in sunlight, but the employment of actual animatronics now and again, often complimented with CGI, makes a world of difference between Fallen Kingdom and Jurassic World, and at the least, I'm glad that those involved took the complaints about the issue from the last film to heart in giving us the occasional dinosaur we only wish we could reach through the screen and touch.
When the film inevitably leaves the island and switches gears to its second half, the scale of the film shrinks considerably by taking place on the night of a big auction event on the premises of the Lockwood estate. It's here that the Indoraptor enters the picture, a prototype creation cooked up by Dr. Wu (B.D. Wong) that follows commands and is even more dangerous than the Indominus rex, inevitably escaping - in an unfortunately super contrived way that highlights how smart it is simply because of humanity's blatant stupidity - and causing havoc. Bayona's horror chops get to come to light here, as the Indoraptor provides for some genuine tension as it stalks Owen, Claire, and a young girl named Maisie (Isabella Sermon) through the Lockwood manor like some kind of monster from a dark fairy tale, leading to a number of moments that proved - via very audible reactions - that my audience was into the film.
But here's my issue: Again, the second half, by virtue of being shoved into an hour of runtime, feels rushed. The concept is set up, the Indoraptor goes free, and immediately the characters have to find a way to kill it, and thus Bayona's horror sensibilities aren't allowed to be truly unleashed as much as they could have simply because the film feels like it knows it has to get the Indoraptor out of the way for what comes next. I'm well aware that for this franchise to stay relevant, it needs to keep pushing into new territory, expanding where it can go instead of rehashing the same plot over and over, but it also needs to earn its way to the goal at the end of the road instead of just forcing its way there, and Fallen Kingdom's rush to change everything costs it the opportunity to have a standalone identity all its own.
And in both halves of the film, there's an infusion of comedy that undermines the whole thing. The franchise has always had elements of levity, but Owen feels like he drops one-liners left and right, and even gets a slapstick scene involving hot lava slowly rolling towards his paralyzed body that's played entirely for laughs that feels so out of place with both the franchise as a whole and the drama inherent in the movie surrounding the destruction of Isla Nublar. And then, after the island has been destroyed in an incredibly sobering sequence - one that I will say got an intense emotional reaction out of me considering this franchise has held my heart for 25 years - the mood is undone minutes later by another comedic scene involving Claire and Owen having to draw blood from an unconscious Tyrannosaurus. Throw in a character played by Toby Jones introduced late in the film whose vocal mannerisms are incredibly distracting or Franklin’s over-the-top screaming in the face of danger and it all adds up to a film that feels like a frustrating patchwork of different tones, the straight drama and horror elements that could've - and should've - really defined this movie cut at the knees because of a need to constantly try and remind audiences to have fun and not take any of this seriously.
Not helping matters is that these characters still feel written as blockbuster leads and not as lived-in, unique individuals like Ian Malcolm and Alan Grant. Pratt gets more to do as Owen this time around, but that amounts simply to giving him more one-liners and comedic/action beats, taking advantage of Pratt's comedy chops more than World did at the expense of his proven dramatic ones. Howard's Claire is fortunately treated as less of a joke this time around, but other than a big decision moment for her near the end of the film, she often feels like wallpaper. Jeff Goldblum makes his long-awaited return to the franchise for the first time since 1997, and Wong's Dr. Wu pops up again after escaping Jurassic World unscathed, but both characters appear so little in the film that seeing them again is more disappointing than satisfying simply because it feels like a waste of their talents.
The film also introduces a whole roster of new faces, including the previously-mentioned techie Franklin and paleoveterinarian Zia Rodriguez (Danielle Pineda), both of whom feel overacted, less genuine citizens of the world they inhabit and more ill-defined, single-trait characters out of a screenplay's first draft. Rafe Spall turns up as Eli Mills, the man tasked with running Lockwood's estate, but he's only a lesser, dumber, and inexplicably greedier take on The Lost World's Peter Ludlow. Even seasoned vets like Cromwell and Ted Levine fare little better, the former's elderly, good-intentioned Lockwood reduced to being a plot catalyst and nothing else, the latter given the thankless job of giving life to the soldier/hunter who gets off on the hunt with a predictable fate, a trope we've seen play out in countless stories before, including in this very franchise.
And like the reuse of that trope, or how it retreads ground already paved by The Lost World, Fallen Kingdom spends a lot of time looking to the past, undoubtedly in preparation for the uncertain future ahead. Moreso than Jurassic World, Fallen Kingdom attempts to tie all the movies together, with the infamous Isla Sorna, Site B, getting namedropped, John Hammond's past getting a bit of a spotlight, and Lockwood directly quoting his old friend's final words from The Lost World about humanity stepping aside and trusting in nature so that life will find a way. Even the Explorer the Tyrannosaurus pushed over the cliff in the original film makes an appearance here, as if to remind everyone it’s been a 25 year journey leading up this. The sequel definitely plays with nostalgia surrounding the franchise's entire legacy before - quite literally - blowing it all up, and I appreciated that angle of acknowledging that the franchise is more than just Jurassic Park even if I'm unsure about where the series is going now.
I discussed in my review of Jurassic World that I hoped that future films - Fallen Kingdom included - would move away from notions like weaponizing dinosaurs or creating hybrids, but Fallen Kingdom puts the series in a weird place. The Indoraptor plays a big part here, but something happens near the end of the film that seems like a definitive statement that this hybrid chapter of the series is over, and I hope that's true. At the same time, the film ends in a way that changes the very texture of this franchise, playing off Dr. Grant's quote from the original film: "Dinosaurs and man, two species separated by 65 million years of evolution, have just been suddenly thrown back into the mix together. How can we possibly have the slightest idea what to expect?"
I mentioned, too, that World felt very much like a setup film for a new era, one whose legacy would be viewed positively or negatively based on what the films that followed it achieved. In turn, Fallen Kingdom feels like a middle chapter in the larger game everyone involved in making this trilogy - and yes, it's a trilogy, as the next film is set for release in 2021 - is playing. As a result, far more than World, it feels so focused on where the series is going that it forgets to stop and breathe to explore where it’s at now, intentionally leaving all sorts of threads open in a way that doesn’t feel rewarding once the credits role. This series has shifted from being episodic in nature to one of more serialized storytelling, which is fine, but there's a way to tell an overarching, multi-film story where each chapter feels fulfilling in its own right, but because there's just so much going on here, all moving so quickly, Fallen Kingdom doesn't feel entirely satisfying on its own as a result because it leaves off demanding that we return in 2021 to see what happens next.
And it's that which ultimately bothers me most about it. There is some great stuff here in Fallen Kingdom. The opening, rain-drenched sequence is pretty awesome, the bits and pieces we’re shown of Blue and Owen’s past together throughout the film is effective, the imagery, whether it's the Indoraptor silhouetted over a crowd of horrified onlookers via flashes of electricity or a Brachiosaurus hauntingly engulfed by smoke and sulfur, is stellar, and the publicized moral issue of whether or not to let the dinosaurs go extinct all over again is an intriguing idea. But so much is packed in here that no story beat, no concept, and no theme is allowed to flourish because getting to the endgame that is the next film is what matters most. As much as I've seemingly torn it apart throughout this review, I didn't hate it; as I said, seeing Isla Nublar destroyed drew an intense emotional reaction out of me, and there's enough dinosaur action on display to make up for the more Indominus-focused Jurassic World.
But I'm frustrated by it. I'm letdown. Bayona's voice that could've made this movie something special feels restricted by the confines of having to make a big budget blockbuster designed to serve someone else's larger, more accessible vision. Its tone jumps all over the place, resulting in a final product that oftentimes doesn't even feel like it exists in the same universe as the films preceding it. Even Michael Giacchino's operatic, borderline gothic score doesn't live up to his work on World. If the end of this trilogy can stick the landing, hopefully Fallen Kingdom will look better in retrospect, and perhaps I simply need to see the film again now that my initial judgment based on my hopes and expectations is out of the way, but as it stands, not even a full day after having seen it, I'm not left with a sense of wonder that the films past have left me with. Instead, I feel relatively hollow, as though I've just attended the funeral of a lifelong friend, the film itself better than Jurassic Park III but deep in the shadow of the first two films and even, I would say, Jurassic World, and considering how much this franchise means to me, that hurts.
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