For all their flaws, these Jurassic World movies keep pitching us ideas that could lead the franchise into some fascinating territory. Nature vs. nurture and capitalist interests is the whole reason behind the Indominus Rex in Jurassic World. Fallen Kingdom wants us to look at a broader relationship to the species. They are living, breathing creatures that exist on our planet. As such, the question remains: does humanity have an obligation to save the creatures from a re-extinction event or is this nature’s way of course correcting?
It’s a fascinating question. One the movie even addresses in a handful of moments. Unfortunately, Fallen Kingdom is made up of many other moments. Most of which are about as dumb, mean-spirited and aggressive as its immediate predecessor. The first issue right off the bat is the lack of interest in the actual discussion. There are images of news footage, a courtroom scene with deity Jeff Goldblum declaring perhaps the nature is once again attempting to course correct itself. Before you know it, Bryce Dallas Howard’s Claire Williams is meeting up with a secret partner of John Hammond’s (because these sequels seem intent on smothering that man’s legacy) and we’re on a race against time against a volcanic eruption to save as many dinosaurs as possible.
I’ll say this: it’s not every day a messy, bloated blockbuster gets to distinguish its act structure through entirely different genres. Fallen Kingdom director J.A. Bayona swings for the fences here. He goes wide with a disaster movie, narrows his focus with claustrophobic thriller and aims for a thrilling haunted house finale. It’s the rare blockbuster that actually feels more confident as it chugs along. Hypothetically, this should make the storytelling more tight, the pacing more intense, the action more riveting. And it does, sort of.
When Colin Trevorrow described this feature as a “Spanish Horror Movie” on multiple occasions, it was hard to even imagine what the lambasted artist even perceived as such an endeavor. Thankfully, Bayona takes over the director’s chair and comes to play whenever there is a practical set piece. A sequence following a gyro-sphere submerged underwater actually pulled my attention back in when I was ready to check out. Bayona plays with framing, lights and shadows in a pulpy manner that borders on something truly visceral; even primal at times. He reuses similar tricks in revealing dinosaurs far too often, shrouding them in darkness with momentary flashing light sources revealing the sharp toothed creatures. But you know what? It’s a different approach to familiar ground. I’ll take it. And the much discussed haunted house style finale comes pretty close to saving the entire movie for me. If only for the film to maneuver some impressive, and even expressive, camera work. The revelation of this mysterious Indo-Raptor is handled with the same methods as I mentioned above, utilizing lights and shadows to present something horrific.
Sadly, for every thrilling or creatively inspired moments there were another dozen to pull me away from fleeting entertainment. I should probably devote a section to the villains but they’re so one-dimensional, so I’ll keep it brief. They’re bad. Okay, let me elaborate. They’re terrible.
Moving on, Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard remain two of our finest working actors and lord help me, this franchise continues to give them nothing. Pratt’s Owen and Howard’s Claire remain at romantic odds for reasons that can only be described as “because we need conflict here.” When the characters do engage in their romantic baggage, it’s still clear Owen is just kind of a dick. The only true love Owen feels for anything is for his pet raptor Blue. But the script needs there to be some semblance of conflict before going to the island because that’s what movies do, so Owen needs to watch video archive footage of him and his raptors as babies. That way we know he cares. I wonder if I would have enjoyed this more if it were a found footage movie. Bayona’s horror chops could’ve shone even brighter there.
It also hit me while watching this, Owen was a little too callous about his baby raptors getting obliterated by weapons and an even bigger dinosaur during Jurassic World. Like, those were his buddies. He gives them momentary glances and just returns to the action like he didn’t just watch one of his pets get blown to bits by a rocket launcher? I’m sorry, but fuck that. I guess it wouldn’t matter as much if we were supposed to sympathize with these creatures, but we’re only allowed as much as these Jurassic World movies want us to in individual scenes. What this rebooted series tells us is how there are good dinosaurs and bad dinosaurs. The bad ones are usually the ones with lots of teeth. The good ones are the herbivorous. Until the ones with teeth work with the good humans, then we cheer for them. Also, it is sad when they die. Unless they’re trying to eat the good humans!
That’s the other big issue. These aren’t dinosaurs. These are monsters, until they aren’t. The Jurassic World series can’t decide whether to frame these creatures as gorgeous beasts worth protecting or violent monsters that we should fear. There’s a tonal tightrope that could satisfy both parties. Though dinosaurs are not necessarily Kaiju, the franchise attempts treat them as such. For a good frame of reference, look no further than Gareth Edwards masterful Godzilla 2014 for how to frame these creatures from a distinctly human perspective.
The major issue for me is in the film’s aggressive and excessive emotional manipulation had completely tuned me out of the movie. Moments are composed in such exploitative fashion to wring out every ounce of attachment the audience has had to this franchise. It is inherently tragic as an island of creatures run to safety. But the film lingers on these moments too long, like shouting through a megaphone about how sad this all is. We get it. Emotional arm twisting always been Bayona’s weak spot as a director and once again it’s just overpowering here. These creatures are given wondrous glamour shots, such as when Danielle Pineda’s first instance witnessing a living brachiosaurus. So why does it insist on making the other dinosaurs violent monsters? They’re ultimately just larger animals than what we already have on our planet (with asterisks, of course) but why would these creatures spend time fighting one another or chasing humans while lava flows through their forests and a volcanic eruption destroys their island home? It’s tone-deaf, idiotic and actively works against the mythos of Jurassic Park.
I wouldn’t deny moments that do work, however, such as the much discussed “Spanish Horror” third act. But the writing is just so atrocious that I couldn’t buy into some impressive filmmaking. Follow that up with Bayona over-extending himself with the emotional beats, and it was an unfortunately frustrating experience.
Bayona’s imagery can be striking; often evocative of true horror and tragedy. Sometimes it feels appropriate, other times it’s… whatever this is.
Against all sense of logic and reason, there is a big budget movie that contains a shot of a T-Rex roaring in front of an exploding volcano and it’s not the greatest thing to ever happen to me. Shout out to my pal, PABastien for explaining this issue more thoroughly than I ever could.
Because the framing is flat, at eye level, colour graded to remove contrast and tone which destroys depth, shot with a long lens, composed as a laterally oriented image and the background curves up obscuring the sky.
Scale is about depth and camera angles and horizon lines
— Phillip Bastien (@PABastien) December 8, 2017
VFX work ranges from oddly composited during the day to pretty good under the right conditions. The dinosaurs have looked worse, they’ve certainly looked better. Michael Giacchino’s score is hilariously overt to the point of inert, always too thuddingly obvious to accompany moments that even come close to working.
It’s really a shame Bayona had to work with one of the worst scripts of the year. The more VFX laden sequences continuously escape his grasp but elements that are bound by practicality and lighting are worth commending. I’d be happy to see him work on this scale again with a different creative team. More works for him than it doesn’t. Not so much #BayonaDidNothingWrong as much as #BayonaShouldHaveSavedThisMovieAsOpposedToItBringingHimDown.
Easily superior to Jurassic World, Fallen Kingdom still contains every one of that film’s flaws with a set of Bayona’s own. The human characters range from thematically empty to dramatically pointless. A late act twist might be the first time a Trevorrow and Connelly script even touches upon tying up thematic arcs but is so aggressively manipulative and cynical that it only contributes to bringing down all the more horror inspired elements I began fawning over by the finale. There just comes a point where all the good is overwhelmed by the nihilistic cynicism, like a cloud of volcanic ash covering the entirety of Isla Nublar. The park may be gone, but so is the magic.