Thursday, July 5, 2018

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom: Terrible Lizards for Hire? Dino-Mite!

A T-Rex roars in "Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom"
The only thing harder than cloning intelligent life, it appears, is cloning intelligent movies. Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is the latest failed attempt to replicate the wonder and the horror of Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, that quarter-century-old landmark that brilliantly married new-age special effects with old-school filmmaking craft. Fallen Kingdom, with its toothy lizards and toothless people, takes place in the present day, but it feels like it’s an entire geological era removed from the original film; in fact, it expends little effort trying to even resemble a good movie. Instead it recognizes its role in the contemporary blockbuster landscape: to supply a steady stream of loud, reasonably coherent set pieces in which fearsome dinosaurs do battle with one another and occasionally pause to munch on the hubristic humans who are either too foolish or too unlucky to get in their way.

As with many forgettable and unpretentious movies, Fallen Kingdom aspires to be labeled “dumb fun”. It’s dumber than most. Where its predecessor, the uneven but not unentertaining Jurassic World, envisioned Michael Crichton’s theoretical theme park as finally becoming a commercial reality—a tourist mecca that attracted throngs of imbeciles who thought peeking at prehistoric man-killing monsters from behind six inches of glass qualified as a vacation hot spot—Fallen Kingdom considers the aftermath of its collapse. A volcano is now set to erupt on Isla Nublar, the fictional island that hosts the now-ruined park, thereby imperiling the many dinosaurs who still thrive there ever since humanity fled in a mass panic. This pending natural disaster engenders a spirited political debate, the kind with Senate hearings and grim newscasts. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum, returning for just a few pointless scenes) deems the volcano a critical evolutionary corrective, and he urges the American government to live and let die. (You might call his approach, “Death finds a way.”) But Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard), who has apparently changed careers from middle manager to conservationist, pleads with reclusive billionaire Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell) to transport the not-so-terrible lizards to a safe haven, where they can roam and roar in peace.

Every movie seems vaguely political nowadays—I will confess to chuckling at a throwaway chyron here that reads, “U.S. president questions existence of dinosaurs in the first place”—but to the extent Fallen Kingdom carries ecological implications, they are muddled and dubious. More pronounced, and more idiotic, is the attempt of the screenwriters (Derek Connolly and Colin Trevorrow) to deliver a warning about the dangers of militaristic might. Where Malcolm views the dinosaurs as an existential threat to our own species and Claire considers them endangered animals, more sinister figures in Fallen Kingdom perceive these hulking behemoths as tantalizing weapons of war, living armaments to be bridled, indoctrinated, and strategically unleashed. In 2018, the threat of nuclear conflict is no laughing matter, and there is perhaps a kernel of integrity in Fallen Kingdom’s abstract message. But that cannot excuse the sheer stupidity of its narrative, which actually features a scene where an auctioneer (Toby Jones) parades caged dinosaurs—including an unholy, genetically engineered hybrid called an Indoraptor—into a giant theater and eagerly awaits as anonymous, wide-eyed men from Europe and Asia begin shouting out million-dollar bids. (It’s a bit like the absurd human trafficking auction in Taken, though not as revolting.) In moments like this, Fallen Kingdom plays less like a science-fiction thriller than an unintentional comedy.

"Hang on, lady! We going for a ride!"
That is the only strain of comedy you are likely to find. Despite the presence of Chris Pratt, who returns to play dino-whisperer Owen Grady, Fallen Kingdom is largely devoid of humor, along with most other forms of writerly intelligence. In general, it shares its forerunner’s general disinterest in characters, instead furnishing us with an array of familiar archetypes. In addition to Claire and Owen—the script again foists a half-hearted romance upon them, though Howard and Pratt’s chemistry remains nil— there are two nerdy teens, one confident (Daniella Pineda), the other squeamish (The Get Down’s Justice Smith); a venal entrepreneur who seeks to leverage the cranky creatures for profit (Rafe Spall, whose American accent is nearly as shaky as Pratt’s intermittent Southern drawl); an innocent, frequently screaming young girl (Isabella Sermon, credibly terrified); and a gun-toting, cigar-chomping mercenary, who is played by the great Ted Levine and who is thus instantly untrustworthy. How these characters feel or what they say is of little import. (As a demonstration of the quality Fallen Kingdom’s dialogue, at one point somebody actually says, “Welcome to Jurassic world.”) Their primary function is to be bait, to run and jump and shriek as they are chased by mythological beasts with insatiable appetites and bad tempers.

And despite its significant flaws—bad writing, indifferent acting, the general lack of a reason to exist—on a fundamental level of filmmaking competence, Fallen Kingdom mostly works. Replacing Trevorrow as director, J.A. Bayona (The Impossible) shows a steady hand with sweeping action sequences, clearly conveying the dinosaurs’ enormity—their size, their speed, their momentum—without assaulting viewers with CGI tonnage. An early sequence on Isla Nublar, in which an angry tyrannosaurus squares off against a feisty triceratops, is a dynamic display of carnivore-versus-herbivore violence, while the new-fangled gyrospheres of Jurassic World make a welcome return, this time spiraling downhill toward a cliff’s edge. And it is always suspenseful to watch characters trapped inside a submerged vehicle, helplessly taking their last gulp of air as their oxygen-deprived brains seek means of escape.

Don't let the bed-dinos bite.
These effects-heavy scenes are suitably eye-popping, but Fallen Kingdom impresses most when it strips things down. Bayona’s best film remains The Orphanage, a supremely creepy fright flick about a woman searching for her missing son. (He also directed one of the finest episodes of Penny Dreadful, Showtime’s sadly neglected supernatural mash-up.) The Orphanage was a variation on the haunted-house genre, and once Fallen Kingdom transitions from the vast acreage of Isla Nublar to the sterile confines of Lockwood’s mansion—by way of a claustrophobic freighter transporting the rescued animals—it naturally acquires some clammy tension. Dinosaurs are most notable for their astonishing bigness, but Bayona is most adept in small, cramped spaces, where there’s nowhere to run and all you can do is shrink yourself against the wall and shut your eyes and pray for deliverance. Fallen Kingdom has a mammoth budget and a massive sense of scale to match, but in its third act—which is essentially an extended and elaborate game of hide-and-seek—it discovers its true calling. This isn’t an action blockbuster. It’s a horror movie.

And a pretty good one, at least in stretches. In a handful of scenes—where characters are literally pulling teeth or drawing blood, scrambling across a glass dome or crouching inside a dumbwaiter—Fallen Kingdom inspires the rapt silence and fear that Spielberg once commanded so regularly. Much like the velociraptors that Owen inexplicably trains, it gets smarter as it grows older, an ironic reward for a franchise that keeps churning out more installments yet seems incapable of evolution.

2 comments:

Beale Tejada said...

A really bad movie. You wrote a lot, and you're a great writer, but it's just a bad movie.

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