Fallen Kingdom, Indeed

 

My bio states that I love dinosaur movies. This is true. In fact, in this era of nostalgic franchise loyalty, I have repeatedly told family and friends that only two film series hold enough personal sway to keep me coming back for every single entry, regardless of mediocre trailers or bad reviews from trusted critics.

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“The park is gone.” Truer words were never spoken.

Jurassic Park and Godzilla.

Jurassic Park was my first exposure to dinosaurs, and remains my all-time favorite film. In the summer of 1993, some six months before my second birthday, my mom took me to see it in the theater. She claims she hadn’t seen the trailer and had originally intended to take me to another, more age-appropriate movie that had sold out. Neither of us is sure what that other movie might have been, but I’ll always be grateful we didn’t see it.

From then on, I was The Dinosaur Kid. Last year I even maintained a short-lived blog under that name (from which, I’ll admit, I’m cannibalizing a bit for this post). I only stopped updating it because I realized, to paraphrase Dr. Ian Malcolm, that I was standing on the shoulders of those who’d come before and not really saying anything new. I’d read what others had written about dinosaur films and was basically just regurgitating it online with some personal anecdotes and opinions thrown in here and there. It was largely a waste of time and energy, interesting only to a small niche audience who were quick to correct any factual errors (for which I was grateful, don’t get me wrong, but it only made the whole endeavor seem more pointless; even if the world does need a new encyclopedia of dinosaur-related films, literature, video games, etc., I don’t currently have the credentials, the resources, or the patience to write it).

But, even though the blog is defunct, I still want to talk/write about dinosaurs and dinosaur pop culture. And since, I guess, my Hereditary post set a bit of a precedent for talking/writing about movies here, I’ll address the Triceratops in the room.

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom just hit theaters. And, for the first time in my life, I’m not all that excited to return to the world of InGen and Isla Nublar.

I think it’s pretty much accepted by most that Jurassic Park is loads better than the franchise it hatched. It’s one of those rare action-heavy science fiction films in which the writing, the performances, and the special effects are all near-perfect. Watching it as an adult for the 65 millionth time, I can still feel remnants of the true awe and terror it inspired in my childhood. I have similar fond memories of The Lost World, and though I revisit it far less often I do think it’s a pretty good sequel. But, let’s face it, it’s not great. As a kid I ate up Jurassic Park III like a pack of Procompsognathus on an injured John Hammond, and even today I can’t bring myself to hate it, but there’s a reason it’s the black sheep of the trilogy.

Jurassic World came amid a meteor shower of remakes, reboots, and sequels acting like reboots, so I should’ve recognized it earlier as the cynical nostalgia-fueled cash-grab it turned out to be. But the kid in me was just so damn excited to see dinosaurs on the big screen again; and not just any dinosaurs, but specifically the ones I’d grown up loving. See how they got me?

Don’t get me wrong, Jurassic World is…fine. It’s a competently-made adventure/monster movie with mostly likable (albeit rather bland) characters, fun (and in one or two cases surprisingly violent) dino-action set-pieces, and an interesting idea or two. And it is sort of neat to see the park actually open, however briefly. But the parts that got to me the most upon that first watch were the deliberate, pointed callbacks to the first film. I teared up upon hearing the old theme music again, upon seeing the ruins of the original park, upon seeing the original T. rex back in action (even though in most shots she looked less real in 2015 than she did in 1993). Thanks to all this nostalgia-pandering, I left the theater on a high, proclaiming that it was the second-best film in the series. Only later did I realize how bland the characters actually were, how run-of-the-mill and ubiquitous the CGI was (only one animatronic dinosaur? Really?!), and how bloodless the film really was (in more than one sense).

The film’s saving grace, the one aspect that almost-but-not-quite elevates it above an enjoyably passable popcorn flick, is the kinda-sorta meta nature of the story. But even if that self-reflection is intentional it lacks the necessary bite (!) to make it really effective, so in the end it still plays neatly into the very pattern it seems to be criticizing.

So, in short, I like Jurassic World fine, I guess. The major set-pieces are a lot of fun, and the ending is pretty much everything four-year-old me would’ve wanted in a movie despite being incredibly cheesy. The bad doesn’t quite outweigh the good, but the blatant nostalgia-baiting puts a bad taste in my mouth. I’d put it more-or-less on-par with Jurassic Park III.

Which brings us to Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. For the first time in this franchise’s history, I almost decided to skip its theatrical run altogether. Which is kind of a big deal, for me.

I’m not all that picky when it comes to dinosaur movies. You’re reading the words of a guy who kept watching Barney & Friends a good six months or so after realizing he was too old for it, just because it starred a theropod. I appreciate some level of scientific rigor but it’s not absolutely necessary, and a unique premise and great story can often overcome bad acting and effects. It is much more difficult for great acting and effects to overcome the weight of a poorly-written story; not impossible, but very rare.

The trailers for Fallen Kingdom seemed to suggest that it had neither great performances nor great effects, and what I could glean of the story seemed underwhelming, to say the least. It looked like a by-the-numbers rehash of the last movie, with a couple of minor new gimmicks. So I didn’t rush out to see it opening night. Or the night after that. It felt like a betrayal of my childhood self, but the notion of just waiting for a cheap rental or free stream became easier and easier to accept.

Yesterday, I was invited to see Fallen Kingdom after a stressful afternoon of unsuccessful curtain-shopping. I decided to go, with low expectations and an open mind, hoping that at least the dinosaurs themselves would entertain me enough to lift my spirits.

For a few brief moments, they almost did. There was at least one halfway decent (albeit short) dinosaur fight early in the film, between a Carnotaurus and a Sinoceratops, and an (admittedly manipulative and not totally earned) emotional moment that stirred my inner child involving a stranded Brachiosaurus. Otherwise, the dinosaur action was just so-so at best. And, unfortunately, the rest of the film is pretty much what the trailers led me to expect.

Part of the buzz for Fallen Kingdom has been that it’s correcting at least one of the mistakes of the previous film: more practical-effect dinosaurs than any prior Jurassic sequel! The most since Jurassic Park! I spotted three, maybe four, and none were used as creatively or effectively as in Jurassic Park or The Lost World. They looked pretty good, though; certainly more believable than the middling CGI, which (I wish I was joking) included the film’s latest mutant monstrosity, the uncreatively-conceived and less-creatively-named Indoraptor, LITERALLY WINKING AND GRINNING AT THE AUDIENCE LIKE A GODDAMNED LOONEY TUNES CHARACTER!

The Indoraptor itself has a mildly interesting design, but its deployment as the film’s Big Bad is weak. Director J. A. Bayona (a Spanish director known for horror and fantasy, whose film The Orphanage is deep, unnerving, and so much better than this) treats it like a good-ole’-fashioned movie monster, complete with a full moon and a big spooky mansion for it to creep around. This is actually kind of neat in a fun-horror sort of way, but isn’t nearly as awesome or frightening as the movie’s overblown score tries to convince you, and feels oddly out-of-place in this movie. The Indoraptor‘s ultimate defeat, in particular, feels downright lame compared to Jurassic World‘s silly-but-spectacular climax (let alone the genuine thrills of the original film’s ending). Don’t even get me started on Blue.

The famous old T. rex, marketed as the mascot of the series and pushed as a major star of this film in particular, makes only a couple of brief appearances that don’t really belong in the story except as ham-fisted callbacks to the original Jurassic Park (ditto for the much-touted return of Jeff Goldblum, by the way). And, speaking of which, I actually lost count of such callbacks; there are so, so many little moments lifted straight out of that first great film, reproduced at lower quality and peppered throughout Fallen Kingdom‘s 128 minutes as if to say, “Hey, remember when Jurassic Park did this? Remember how effective and original it was? Don’t you wish you were watching that movie instead, sucker?” The film doubles-down on the nostalgia handicap rather than moving forward, though I’d bet the studio and producers are more deserving of blame for that than Bayona.

I could go on about the insultingly idiotic and lazy script (it selectively ignores not only the continuity of the first three films, but even that of its immediate predecessor! And the director of that film co-wrote and co-produced the damn thing!) and the nobody-giving-a-shit performances (even veteran actor James Cromwell couldn’t be bothered maintain a consistent English accent; but maybe it’s unfair to blame the actors when the characters themselves are so wooden and unchanging they could’ve been swiped from Geppetto’s mistake bin), but I don’t have the energy or the inclination to devote more time to picking this apart. I can’t say I regret seeing it, but neither did I enjoy myself.

There’s plenty of setup for the next film, in which dinosaurs will presumably be widespread across America. Seeing a Dinotopia-esque integration of dinosaurs and humans come to pass in the Jurassic universe actually does pique my interest, but if the first two installments of this soft-reboot trilogy are any indication, it won’t live up to the promise of the premise.

Unless, of course, we can bring Michael Crichton back from extinction and get him to write it?

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