Saturday, June 30, 2018

Send in the clones


Seriously, why is it so hard to take $200 million and turn it into a good movie about dinosaurs?  Oh, because they're not even making movies about dinosaurs anymore.  If I wanted to watch a movie about made-up monsters, I have other, much better options; and hence Fallen Kingdom follows up on Jurassic World to surrender even more of what granted their predecessors their power, and, yes, their occasional sense of holiness, even when they were at their worst.

Directed by J.A. Bayona
Written by Derek Connelly and Colin Trevorrow
With Chris Pratt (Owen Grady), Bryce Dallas Howard (Claire Dearing), Daniella Pinada (Zia Rodriguez), Justice Smith (Franklin Webb), James Cromwell (Benjamin Lockwood), Isabella Sermon (Maisie Lockwood), Toby Jones (Eversol), Ted Levine (Ken Wheatley), BD Wong (Dr. Henry Wu), and Rafe Spall (Eli Mills)

Spoiler alert: moderateish, or high, if you actually are as stupid as the movie thinks you are

Now, it's at least a venial sin to judge a movie for what you wanted it to be rather than what it is, though I've never been sure why.  For one thing, we're all guilty of it; for another, it's implied in any criticism that the critic is, in some sense, comparing the work of art that exists to the perfect version that does not.  Still, when it's naked, it comes across as both whiny and arrogant; on the other hand, as these words describe me with a truly uncomfortable measure of accuracy, I might as well lean in.  It also might help if I clarified what I wanted Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom to be.  At the very least, it would help me sort out my muted reaction to it, as I wanted it to be several things, and it doesn't really succeed at being any of them.

I guess the closest it comes to being any of the things I wanted is simply being a better movie than its lousy immediate predecessor.  In fact, it's quite possible that it actually is (I mean, by the numerical score I'm going to give it, it seems like it must be); but if Fallen Kingdom gets a 5/10 and the first World-branded movie of the Jurassic Park reboot got only a 4, I imagine that's mostly due to me just slightly underrating Jurassic World at the time, something I've suspected for a while, albeit something I'm not eager to determine clinically inasmuch as I'm also still pretty sure that Jurassic World actively sucks.  But, anyway, Fallen Kingdom's less overall boring than Jurassic World—by far the biggest crime that movie committed—but it does still continue this franchise's latterday penchant for somehow making dinosaurs eating people kind of boring, while being every inch as stupid and never really hitting the same highs (or just "high," singular), such as at least made Jurassic World memorable and allowed us to leave the theater briefly wondering if maybe we had been somewhat entertained.

More concretely, what I wanted was the movie promised by the first trailers (the later trailers were clearer, and they only made me sad).  That is, I wanted a movie that took the only credible and interesting relationship of the first movie—that is, the relationship between "raptor wrangler" Owen Grady and his best and only friend, Blue the Velociraptor—and used that as its focal point, sending Owen on a dangerous mission (alongside Claire Dearing, if we gotta) to rescue his beloved former pet from the ruins of Jurassic World, which turns out to have been built atop an active volcano.

For it is a law of movies that wheresoever you shall find giant beasts on film, there, too, shall be unexplained, and heretofore-unnoticed, vulcanism.

I ought not to have been surprised when Owen and Blue's interactions, though certainly pitched at us as if we're meant to care, occupy approximately one minute and forty-five seconds of this film, or that E.T.: But With a Dinosaur! just wasn't in the cards; yet I can't help but be a little surprised that Owen's initial reaction was "man, fuck Blue."  It's not that this isn't sensible—it's the most sensible motivation in this movie—but it only annoyingly adds to the runtime whilst we await his inevitable face turn.

Anyway, while this approaches a plot summary of the first half of the movie, it's probably more apt overall to just describe Fallen Kingdom as a remake of The Lost World: Jurassic Park, but with the temporal proportions of its act structure slightly rejiggered.  In other words, it takes on the objectively-worst story of any Jurassic Park movie, and attempts to improve it.  If we're being scrupulously honest, it succeeds, albeit without really ever departing from the basic premise of it: "a kindly old billionaire at odds with his devious company calls upon a reluctant survivor of the first disaster to help the dinosaurs that tried to eat him."  The only big difference is that rather than elevating a breakout performer from the first movie (as Jurassic World had none), it reteams its marquee stars instead, Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard, despite the fact they appear even less interested in the movie they're making this time.  A minor difference, however, is that this script treats the deviousness of the billionaire's obviously-evil corporate agents and mercenaries as a twist.  An even more minor difference, but a rankling one, is that The Lost World appeared to be able to count, and Fallen Kingdom can't.  (Consider the kindly billionaire's granddaughter, Maisie; consider the kindly billionaire's pre-Jurassic Park falling out with the legendary John Hammond, and the reasons Fallen Kingdom supplies; consider that 2018 minus a number equal to or lesser than 1993 equals at least twenty-five; consider yourself smarter than screenwriters Derek Connelly and Colin Trevorrow.)

So, the third thing I wanted Fallen Kingdom to be, and this is a lot less unfair of me, is a Jurassic Park movie.

And it just isn't, or at least it isn't very often; at best, it's another tale of the modern prometheus, sometimes skinned with Jurassic Park iconography, sometimes not even managing that.  Once again, the "villain" of our piece is an original "dinosaur" creation, a genetic experiment gone—well, not wrong, as it went pretty well, considering the goal—cloned from a heady brew of Indominus rex and velociraptor DNA.  Its features include good hearing, a willingness to chase main characters to the point of diminishing returns, and a shiny silver finish—I mention all that in case any of it actually impresses you, in the same way that Jurassic Park's velociraptors' careful, tension-building pack-hunting tactics did all those years ago.  It's likewise worth remarking that this series' screenwriters refuse to let go of their attempt to rip off the least-interesting part of the Alien franchise—the part where corporations keep trying to weaponize stupid and difficult-to-control animals in order to motivate their movies' stupid and difficult-to-control plots.

I guess it's more interesting here, but it's also, like, the whole thing.

The sub-Shelley themes have always been with us in these movies—they have always been the most confused and obnoxious aspect of them, too (they're the fundamental reason I don't think Jurassic Park manages to be a masterpiece; they're the fundamental reason that Jurassic Park 3, which jettisons those themes, is the only other good Jurassic Park movie)—but Fallen Kingdom represents the first time that they've really, fully overtaken the film.  Halfway through we arrive at the moment where the ongoing franchise finally swallows the poison pill Michael Crichton inserted into his first novel, by using the expedient of genetic engineering to bring dinosaurs and humans face-to-face, and maw-to-maw, in a credible way, or at least in a more credible way than if Hammond had simply collected his park's exhibits from some undiscovered savage land.

In Crichton's canon, of course, the technophobia always comes first; in the films, though, it's been tempered by the fact that it's blatantly just an excuse for the B-movie draw of the things, which (as you doubtless already know!) is to watch humans fight (or mostly run away from, mostly unsuccessfully) the behemoths and leviathans of a vanished age, all done up at the highest possible implementation in terms of both technology and technical skill.  And Spielberg, being Spielberg, brought not just dino-destruction, but his sense of wonder, reminding you that he never had any serious questions about their place in creation.

Fallen Kingdom is a movie that, on paper, delivers on the franchise's promise.  But mostly, mostly, it's just a dull Frankenstein about some dull humans whom we "like" fighting and arguing with and being betrayed by other dull humans whom we don't, guest-starring some dinosaurs for flavor—and it careens quite fully into the beckoning abyss when it starts treating the ethics of fucking cloning as the reason anybody gives the first shit about any movie beginning with the word "Jurassic."  To condemn Fallen Kingdom as a blisteringly dumb and surpassingly incomplete meditation upon the ethics of cloning—it's another one of those "twists" that appears to have been written to surprise infants, and the movie ends with you wanting to shout "what the hell are you talking about? nobody has ever denied you your personhood, not even the villains"—well, that would be wholly accurate, but it would also be kind of missing a deeper issue.

Speaking of our villains, in order to get to Fallen Kingdom's tedious themes, and to remind you which side you're supposed to be on, it stacks the deck in every last uninspired way against everybody it's decided we ought to hate—from their barely-motivated attempts at murdering our heroes to the part where Ted Levine, blatantly against his will, quotes Trump.  (It's eye-rolling, naturally, though the weird part is that if you take Fallen Kingdom's idiotic metaphors seriously, the film could easily be read as a virulent anti-immigration tract.)  Well, otherwise, it's worth mentioning that the villains are not even clearly committing crimes.  Yet, charitably, Fallen Kingdom remains an improvement on The Lost World, which accidentally made its vile poachers more heroic than its asshole nominal heroes; and, in Isabella Sermon's Maisie, we have perhaps the Jurassic Park franchise's least troublesome child performance.  I give you the credit of recognizing what low bars we're tripping over here.

As for the "highest possible implementation in terms of both technology and skill," there are many who would have it that director J.A. Bayona (taking over directorial duties from Trevorrow, who's only been able to dishonor himself since Jurassic World) not only has the superior vision, but is the best director to handle this material since Spielberg himself.  I mean, he's not; that's Joe Johnston.  But if he were:  yeah, and?

The plaudits would be confusing anyway: he has one trick, namely "variations upon dinosaurs emerging out of darkness."  Admittedly, it's a good trick—every time he does it, Fallen Kingdom is briefly excellent—but there's nothing but this sense of haunted house horror about his work here (almost literally, once we reach the part in this Lost World remake where dinosaurs come to civilization).  Only one single moment evokes awe, and it frustrates me deeply that the whole franchise's most intense moment of real majesty arrives halfway through this particular sequel, when we watch a brachiosaur slowly, slowly find itself taken up by the smoke of a volcanic eruption, returning to the mists of prehistory.  I shall concede: it honestly made me tear up.

Everything else feels mostly competent, and often perfunctory: little thrills, little chills, an increasing realization that everybody marked as safe definitely is (even an increasing realization that outside of an okayish arm-chewing scene that feels like it was staged in the early 70s, possibly on television, this PG-13 movie is so unwilling to test the outer boundaries of its rating that it probably could have been rated PG without controversy).  Bayona has a tendency to undercook every setpiece he attempts, with minor complications that are almost instantly overcome (Claire and Owen in a cage with a tranquilized tyrannosaur is a major offender).  The only part, besides that transcendent moment with the brachiosaur, that you might call strictly "Spielbergian" is almost Spielbergian in the way people mean the word as an insult; however, because it was a recognizable homage to the style, rather than to any specific iteration of it, I probably enjoyed the goofily-cute employment of a pachycephalosaur (that's the one that headbutts everything it sees) more than I even should have.  I guess there's also a bit with one of Jurassic World's hamster ball cars that blatantly tries to replicate the panic of Jurassic Park's gravity-assisted "car chase," and it makes it, like, 50% of the way, which is nothing to be outright ashamed of.

But Bayona, practically wearing his movie's dumbness as a point of pride by this point, lost my willingness to much care about anything he had to offer when he decided molten rock was about as much of a threat as a slightly too-hot cup of CGI coffee.  Now, it's a general rule that volcano-related fatalities are never presented accurately in movies, but it's only a general rule because we want to see things actually get killed by lava; so the moment a dinosaur recoils from a stream of descending lava as if lightly scalded was the moment I decided Fallen Kingdom was too lukewarm to be likeable in either direction it chose, idiotic creature-feature or legitimate successor to two of the better popcorn movies ever made.  Meanwhile, no movie with that impossibly clumsy jump cut to Pratt suddenly being surrounded by lava after French-kissing a triceratops ever gets to be called "the well-directed Jurassic Park movie," nor does a movie with such absent lead performances, or this many distractingly cheeky in-jokes.

On the plus side, it ends well.  Rather, it ends well because it turns out we've seen a two hour trailer for the next movie, which may be substantially more fun and imaginative than this one.  On the other hand, it will almost certainly be even dumber, it could easily involve even more Jeff Goldblum clucking at us for having technology, and there's a not-insubstantial chance that by the seventh or eighth Jurassic Park movie, the dinosaurs will be speaking English and it'll be hard to distinguish this series from what it apparently wants to be most of all: a dystopian prequel to The mother fucking Flintstones.  Surprise.  It's the future.

Score:  5/10


  1. And here you are, acting like the title for MY review was good. This is a work of art, Hunter.

    1. And I do include myself in the people who praised Bayona's work here, but you're right. As a handler of plot or actors, which IS a big part of the job, he's no great shakes. But his no-holds-barred approach to certain delicious imagery at least shows he was AWAKE, right?

    2. I would not and do noy deny that there are some really, really well-composed bits and pieces, but despite some individual images worth framing (or, perhaps more aptly, painting onto the side of a van), a lot of *sequences* just don't come together. I don't think anything here even comes close to Jurassic World's climax, or the bulk of Jurassic Park and JP3, or even (on a mechanical level) the trailer/cliff scene of Lost World. But I dunno, I guess it's a matter of taste, and I guess I can see *how* people could kinda dig it...

      ...tho, in fairness, we have it the exact same score!

    3. I'm also unsure whether I like it dislike one of the film's last shots: you know, the one where the t-rex meets the lion, and the lion is in a PROPERLY-DESIGNED zoo pen?

      I mean, that's funny, but contemptuous, and isn't the whole movie kind of like that?

  2. The final shot of this movie strongly suggests E.T.: But With a Dinosaur! could be in the offing. Me, I've had my fill of Planet of the Apes transhumanism. I'm pulling for The Big Wednesday: But With a Dinosaur! (or: Gidget Goes Jurassic).
    These movies have to compete with video-games, so they'll never abandon their perfectly, horribly video-game structural approach: an opening tease that introduces a prop instead of a character, followed by an ADD-paced cavalcade of side-quests and mission-briefs in lieu of geography and dramatics. The game-players I know love movies like this. The best they could do now is treat it like Gareth Edwards' Godzilla. Which they won't.

  3. Dino don't surf...

    And yeah, staging-wise, it is a lot like a video game without even having the decency to let you press B to make Chris Pratt jump.

    I do still like Rise of the Planet of the Apes transhumanism. Dawn or War, good but mixed results. Planet of the Raptors sounded like a better idea before Rise existed. Also, is it just me or does this movie do NO legwork to justify its moral distinction between the indoraptor and equally-deadly, equally-abominations-before-God regular raptors?

  4. The New York Review of Books reviewed Saving Private Ryan under my personal favorite movie headline: "Jerry Don't Surf." But "Send in the clones" may top that for sheer pathos.

    This movie may not have done the legwork, but surely it did the "armwork," in the manner favored by anti-abortion activists. See, the "good" raptor was shown in its nursery, receiving a father's love from Owen Thunderguns, like Science intended, with Little Orphan Annie observing sympathetically through the magic of home video. The "bad" raptor, by contrast, was introduced receiving a capitalist's love from an actual gun.

    For maximum absurdist suspense, they instead should have introduced the indoraptor as a laughably domesticated Clockwork Orange who's too good to last without the inevitable firing of "Chekhov's gun-whistle." Little Orphan Annie could make him wear a humiliating bonnet and pour tea at her teddy bear's picnic, the audience salivating all the while at that gun on the wall.

    Since Chris Pratt failed to bring his Guardians of the Galaxy director on board to style this movie as a literal crossover with the Scooby-Doo gang, the next movie should logically follow Blue the raptor's travails in the San Fernando Valley, where she overcomes America's Trumpistani prejudice to audition for the actual Chris Pratt's role on a revival of television's Parks and Recreation, after Pratt gets #MeToo'd by Bryce Dallas Howard when he triggers her at Bible study with his mansplaining. The title, uh, writes itself, as does Jeff Goldblum's dialogue when he triggers Pratt in the first place by theologically cockblocking with his own mansplaining: "God's, uh, not part of the equation, Ms. Howard."

    1. Got a little HSThompsony there, but I am very on board with the idea that the indoraptor is a much more effective threat (and, you know, less of a stupid idea) as a fully-trained weapon. Maybe elaborate a little on the tepid old Frankenstein model, and serve as a reminder that technology that's under perfect control is still pretty dangerous, depending on who's controlling it. I like the perverse image of a tame raptor, too.

    2. Mine would have a top hat though. Do a little dance number.

  5. I think I must have been channeling this:

    But yeah Pratt's Quaalude date with the triceratops entertained me, until that jump-cut to lava made it clear: this movie doesn't have time for actual scenes. And when the brachiosaur was made to actually "Hi Ho Spielberg," ugh...