REVIEW: ‘Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom,’ empire of the senseless
When Steven Spielberg unleashed Jurassic Park exactly a quarter century ago, the wunderkind responsible for the ur-blockbuster finally synthesized the apex summer tentpole. The material was junk, but Spielberg transformed Michael Crichton’s schlocky, pseudoscientific tome into a featherweight behemoth of all-ages movie magic. Other, more interesting directors were considered; imagine the cruel splatter-fest Gremlins’s Joe Dante might’ve delivered. But Spielberg’s creation—as much of a pastiche as his Indiana Jones movies but imbued with both the childlike awe of E.T. and Close Encounters and the intuitively taut staging of Jaws and Duel—set the mold for the contemporary blockbuster, and Hollywood has been operating in Jurassic Park’s colossal shadow ever since.
For the most part, Spielberg’s work isn’t conducive to franchising, and the original series quickly ran out of steam. But our dual indulgences in corporate synergy and nostalgia demanded another whack at serialization, and the result was Jurassic World, an unusually self-reflexive crossbreed of remake and sequel, at once steeped in its own mythology and winking at it from an ironic distance.
That overly reverent, blandly conventional movie failed in almost every respect. Its sequel, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, is a different beast. It retains much of its predecessor’s naval gazing, with extensive quotations of the series’ iconic situations and images. The plot finds Jurassic World’s surviving couple (Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard, chemistry-free) called back to the ruined island. As they’re driven past the twice-built and twice-wrecked visitor center, their expressions turn dour. “Bad memories?” one of their escorts asks. Pratt takes a moment to consider the question. “Some are good.”
And sure, several generations of moviegoers have a complicated relationship with this series. But that kind of meta-textual preening is an ill fit for the grand wonder this franchise is meant to elicit. And while Fallen Kingdom seems ambivalent about its own existence—there’s a lot of arguing about exploiting someone else’s creation—it’s hard to believe its producers feel any guilt about their cash-grab resurrection. When one character insists that what park creator John Hammond “did here was a miracle,” you can almost chart the gulf between Spielberg’s self-confidence and this iteration’s smugness.
Fallen Kingdom’s plot is bisected by a volcanic eruption that demarcates its slavish first half from its bananas second. Director J.A. Bayona made his name with The Orphanage, one of the standouts of last decade’s short-lived wave of Spanish ghost stories, and he understands that reboots demand a fresh take on old material. While he struggles with the early section’s large-scale set pieces, he’s perfectly at home in the improbably claustrophobic back half where, after a bravura restaging of Children of Men’s centerpiece, he transforms this high-concept series into a bonkers haunted-house melodrama. Set loose in a cavernous mansion during a roaring thunderstorm, these dinosaurs finally feel like the monsters they are. Bayona repeatedly conjures new ways to stuff people and dinosaurs into cramped, dark spaces where strobe-like flashes of light allow us only the briefest glimpses of his beasts and their advance.
None of this is to say that it’s good movie in the traditional sense; it’s too long and the jokes almost uniformly fall flat. Even worse, the movie routinely undermines Bayona’s baroque design by denying him the gory charge it needs. And while it’s more politically engaged than any previous entry—Congress won’t intervene in the last movie’s fallout because it “cannot condone government involvement in a private venture”—Fallen Kingdom appears to equate its dino-apocalypse with either climate change or arms escalation between Russia and the US. Neither analogy makes sense.
But not making sense is what this movie does best. (One late-move reveal about a minor character’s lineage wouldn’t be out of place in a “Stella” sketch.) We’re a long way from Spielberg’s original, and blockbusters have homogenized in the interim. If Fallen Kingdom doesn’t exactly burn its franchise roots to the ground, it has the guts to embrace itself as lunatic trash. Let the tentpoles tumble like dominoes.
Jurassic Park: Fallen Empire. Directed by J.A. Bayona. Written by Colin Trevorrow and Derek Connolly. Starring Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, and Rafe Spall. Opens in Kansas City June 22, 2018.