by Philip Price
Come what may, “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” is a curious middle chapter that will likely be remembered more for its curiosities than its contributions to the overall arc of this new trilogy. What will allow the ‘World’ trilogy to always have an upper hand over that of the will-always-be-superior original and its two less than successful follow-ups are that of the coherency this new set of films will seemingly possess and thus is what initially makes ‘Fallen Kingdom’ so intriguing. Intriguing in a morbid curiosity kind of way as the first act of the film would have one believe it was something of a task to bring together our protagonists from the first film. Bryce Dallas Howard's no longer high-heel wearing Claire Dearing has become a voice for the dinosaurs left abandoned on Isla Nublar as a volcano is set to erupt at any moment threatening another extinction-level event. Convenient, right? Well, as it turns out this is not only an opportunity for writers Derek Connolly and Colin Trevorrow to move the action off the island (a good thing), but it also creates inspiration for Claire to reach out to now ex-boyfriend and "raptor wrangler" Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) so that they may reunite to rescue as many dinos from the island as they can. Is it necessary that Owen be brought back into the action? Not entirely and ‘Fallen Kingdom’ does Pratt's character no favors by giving him little to do other than become a human super hero who in turn becomes more of a dinosaur whisperer than a trainer that is also doomed to repeat the romantic beats of the first film with Claire, but to not have the star of the first film return would feel weird as well. It makes sense to a degree, but this contradiction of sorts in need versus obligation is symbolic of what seems will come to define the shortcomings of this new trilogy as well. Owen is a fun and charismatic character that functioned well for the plot of the first film, but who is only called on to be fun and charming in this sequel despite the function of his character within the plot being largely pointless (though this wouldn't be as glaring if there were more depth to the character). The movies themselves are breezily enjoyable and often massively entertaining, but the plots on which they function will seemingly only feel more and more strained the further they push this. Other than for financial reasons is there a story worth telling that justifies the existence of more of these movies? The moral dilemma of should man do something simply because it is capable has been obliterated yet another genetically engineered dino is at the heart of Fallen Kingdom with this film moving more into should these dinosaurs be regarded in the same way as other endangered species despite being created in a lab. Much in the same way Owen is charming and fun to have around even if his presence is mostly unnecessary ‘Fallen Kingdom’ only brings up said points to try and validate its existence without ever exploring them enough to make this movie feel necessary.
If “Jurassic World” gave us the operational theme park that “Jurassic Park” only hinted at, ‘Fallen Kingdom’ takes the idea of dinosaurs visiting the mainland that was tacked onto ‘The Lost World’ and ratchets it up a couple notches. Knowing too much from the given trailers will tell you the entire first act of ‘Fallen Kingdom’ and as much as has been summed up in the opening paragraph, but there is some clarity in the motivation to be desired and thus Connolly and Trevorrow backtrack to tell us that the late Dr. John Hammond (the late Richard Attenborough) was not alone in his quest to clone dinosaurs from prehistoric DNA, but that he in fact had a partner in the endeavor before something insuperable came between them. That man, as it turns out, was Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell) and while that man still loves dinosaurs he has apparently never been important enough to note before this time of needing another "in" when it comes to the initial tinkering that brought about the problem of the initial re-birth of the prehistoric period. Whatever caused Lockwood and Hammond to sever ties is left for a third act twist, but what Lockwood's presence is initially utilized for is that of reeling in Claire and encouraging her to save the dinosaurs from Isla Nublar as he has created a new piece of land where they can live and breed without the interference of man. Of course, at this point Lockwood is ill and nearly completely bed-ridden and thus has someone who was once "young and optimistic" guiding his estate into the future cue the introduction of Rafe Spall's Eli Mills. Mills presents a united front with Lockwood and is designated as the one who will organize everything for Claire's expedition, but if this operation is to be successful Claire is told they need to capture Blue, the trained Velociraptor from the previous film, as Blue is one of the most intelligent beings on the planet. This, of course, requires Claire to recruit the reluctant Owen-though not convinced of the need for this mission by Claire, but rather by his video journals of Blue as a baby-Owen decides to join his ex along with obligatory tech guy Franklin Webb (Justice Smith) and dino doctor Zia Rodriguez (Daniella Pineda) who one thinks will be more vital and who we will come to know better than we ever do. This is the only movie the trailers had to sell us on, but Universal or whoever they hired to cut the trailers for this thing didn't seem to think that was enough for the public to be intrigued by a sequel to their $1.67 billion grosser. And so, before going into ‘Fallen Kingdom’ most of the audience is already aware Mills is an evil dude and is only using Lockwood's facade and money to double cross Claire and Owen so that he might retrieve Blue and as many dinosaurs as possible to both sell them on the black market and use them for further experiments via the incorrigible Dr. Wu (BD Wong). Oh, and Lockwood has a precious granddaughter named Maisie (Isabella Sermon) that comes to be quite important in the grand scheme of things.
The first “Jurassic World” was a surprise due to low expectations and the initial hesitance of there being any premise that validated continuing the series. The idea that a functional tourist attraction was in fact able to be accomplished and successfully operational for some time considering the events of the previous three films was somewhat fascinating, but the execution in which that same park's inevitable downfall was chronicled was immensely entertaining and largely satisfying from a narrative and character perspective save for that atrocious subplot that dealt with weaponizing the raptors. It may have simply been the experience of seeing the first new ‘Jurassic’ film in 14 years on an IMAX screen that gave many of that film's shortcomings an easy pass as, upon a second home viewing, the film isn't nearly as intriguing as memory served it to be, but with ‘Fallen Kingdom’ being the newest ‘Jurassic’ film in only three years and the film itself feeling like a series of events more to get from one point to the next rather than a set of circumstances from which natural character reactions and interactions are born the sheen of the world in which we were so exhilaratingly introduced has worn off somewhat. That said, there is a lot to like about ‘Fallen Kingdom’ much of which comes from the hiring of new director J.A. Bayona who cut his teeth in the horror genre with the Guillermo del Toro-produced “The Orphanage” and 2016's “A Monster Calls.” Bayona's touch is immediately apparent on a franchise that has largely profited off the "wonder" elicited by seeing present day human beings interact with creatures that have been absent from this terrain for some 65 million years by turning this wonder into something of a realistic fear and terror rather than the cheap switcheroo of sorts that was employed by ‘The Lost World.’ If examples are needed, one needs look no further than the opening sequence that, for all accounts and purposes, is rather nonsensical and messy, but is constructed in such a way that it pulls out the most thrilling aspects of the scenario simply by way of how it is presented to the viewer. In this sequence, a team we eventually learn has been hired by Mills to extract DNA from the long dead Indominus Rex is put through the ringer by the massive Mosasaurus and is framed so that the tone immediately elicits more of a horror vibe than it does an action/adventure one. Furthermore, the third act of the film kind of hinges on the splicing together of a new dinosaur called the "Indoraptor" and while there is always doubt these movies will be able to top the presence of the T-Rex, Bayona is able to employ real dread and panic each time he turns his camera toward the intimidating Indoraptor; a feat not to be casually dismissed. That the movie begins by implementing this kind of tone sets in motion a certain set of new expectations and Bayona keeps a steady hand on this tone as he seemingly had no say in the direction of the narrative. To be able to keep said tone in check is a task that is tougher and determines more than one might expect or even realize, especially when in the case of a movie like ‘Fallen Kingdom.’
It’s a given ‘Fallen Kingdom’ is a big budget franchise film intended to be little more than popcorn fare and thus we as audiences have been trained to more or less expect this kind of movie to know exactly what it is and succeed in being that kind of movie while making a few winks and nods to assure us the moments that could potentially be interpreted as stupid are done in a purposeful fashion. Fallen Kingdom doesn’t fall prey to this though, but more it owns every minute of what it commits to the screen. There isn’t a knowing bone in Bayona’s sincerity and in turn ‘Fallen Kingdom’ becomes this kind of dour, but legitimate movie even if certain points of its story make little to no sense or could be ridiculed as stupid. It’s a tricky line to walk and that isn’t to say the story is terrible for the direction that Connolly and Trevorrow have set-up is nothing short of intriguing and inspires a certain curiosity in where the franchise might go. That said, the biggest complaints that exist and can be logged against ‘Fallen Kingdom’ do come from the screenplay. Beginning with the underdeveloped characters and ending around the unexplored themes that are consistently hinted at. The emotional logic of ‘Fallen Kingdom’ never feels out of whack as it doesn't try to be or do too many things at once allowing the audience to nestle into the kind of thriller splotched circus the film ultimately becomes. As the film goes on it becomes increasingly darker and Bayona seems thrilled to be able to intertwine this darkening storyline and the somewhat unexpected direction of the film's climax with his already solemn sense of imagery and score as provided by the always reliable Michael Giacchino. This makes ‘Fallen Kingdom’ a different enough ride from the previous films so as to be distinguishable as well as slightly more memorable than any of the other sequels that came before, but to really elevate this from what is a passably entertaining movie to that of an all-around solid if not exceptional blockbuster would be to have the character's emotional arcs as well as the arc of the story in general fall in line with those images, that music, and the ultimate direction of the plot. Instead, Connolly and Trevorrow dispense archetype after archetype and cliché after cliché into these beautifully photographed scenarios as if to intentionally derail the film from entering too interesting or too specific a territory. The movie clearly wants to have its cake and eat it too when it comes to its crux of either killing or unleashing these dinosaurs upon humanity, but even this idea of an underground black market dealing in buying and trading dinosaurs could have been something interesting yet none of it is never fleshed out enough to feel as if any element is the key to understanding what makes the movie's heartbeat. ‘Fallen Kingdom’ is probably a better movie than “Jurassic World” because it at least has some ambition to it whereas the Trevorrow-directed film was more a live-action cartoon come to life that was easier to engage and immediately un-engage with. That is to say, ‘Fallen Kingdom’ holds itself to a higher standard and in reaching for more falls shorter than its predecessor did of attaining the goals it set for itself. All in all, here's to hoping the climax of this trilogy can bring these ideas and tones together in a coherent fashion that might truly set these films apart from the shadow of that original or at least on a new path so as not to continue to rehash the same premises again and again.