It’s finally time for another First Impression Review – the movie reviews that come with a huge asterisk because it really takes more than one viewing to make a good analysis and evaluation of a movie, but that takes, y’know, time, and people don’t like to be patient. And what better subject to mark the return of this column than the sequel to Jurassic World, a movie that was so good at manipulating my childhood nostalgia that my first impression overlooked its many flaws? So join me friends as we discuss Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, the second entry in the sequel trilogy of the Jurassic Park franchise.
If you follow me on tumblr, you may have noticed that I take issue with how quickly critics slap the word “stupid” on any genre fiction movie that doesn’t star superheroes, and especially in how frequently the word comes up in regard to monster movies. Even positive reviews do it – “Well, it’s a dumb movie, but it’s fun!” – as if the fact that there’s a monster in a movie at all is inherently stupid, and yet at the same time the idea of, say, a frozen super-human wearing a costume made out of the American flag coming to the present day to fight a fictional NSA’s giant flying aircraft carriers is smart by comparison. I think there’s a bit of a double standard here.
I will stand up for the average-but-competent writing of films like Rampage and Monster Trucks – just because a film isn’t a masterpiece work of art that changes your life when you experience it doesn’t mean it’s stupid. Films don’t work on a strict Genius/Idiot dichotomy – there’s a spectrum between them, and some movies are just ok instead of good or bad, smart or dumb. Some movies are just acceptable. Competent. Not stellar, but not utterly terrible. Just ok – a solid C grade for those of us who grew up with the horribly backwards American education system.
I mention this because when I say Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is dumb but fun, I want you to know that yes, I appreciate the irony. However, I’m also not saying this lightly. JW:FK is a movie that makes significant and stupid mistakes in its writing. It has an abundance of glaring lapses in logic and character consistency. The dialogue is serviceable at best and pretty bad far more often than not. It doesn’t have a plot so much as a series of flimsy justifications for the string of action sequences that make up the majority of its runtime.
You know how people often claim genre fiction movies don’t care about story, and that all their talky bits are nothing more than a hasty excuse for the stuff that people actually want to see (in this case, dinosaurs eating people)? Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is exactly that. In its defense, the dinosaur scenes are all incredibly effective at their intended purpose. The numerous chase sequences throughout the film are all gripping, and dear god, you get your money’s worth for the dinosaur action. This isn’t a dull slog of a cash grab like Jurassic Park III – this is pure fanservice, the closest any movie has come to being “just dinosaurs eating people for two hours” like so many monster movie fans clamor for. For the sheer schlocky fun of watching big prehistoric monsters rampage around, this movie hits it out of the park.
There are also a few moments that play the dinosaurs for pathos, and, for me at least, this was effective. Like The Lost World: Jurassic Park, this movie really works better once you realize the true protagonist isn’t human – in this case, it’s really the story of how Blue the velociraptor goes from trained pet to full on action hero. We even get to see her origin story AND a scene where she showcases the action movie hero superpower of being able to survive an explosion unscathed just by turning her back to it! That last bit is a bit silly, sure, but it happens in your precious fucking superhero movies and you ain’t calling them dumb anymore.
She’s not the only dinosaur that gets sympathy, either – given that a huge plot point is the idea that all the dinosaurs are being threatened by a volcano, we do get more than a few scenes that play up the horror and tragedy of seeing these large, impossible creatures facing an even more unstoppable and primal force of death than themselves. How effective this is on you depends on how easily you sympathize with dangerous creatures – as a person who’s been fascinated by and compassionate towards predatory animals since childhood, particularly those of the reptilian persuasion, I was a pretty easy mark for this movie’s attempt to pull at an animal lover’s heartstrings. It did make me cry in one particular scene (if you’ve seen it you definitely know which scene I’m referring to – it’s one of the standout moments of the film). I have, however, heard plenty of people who have a lot less sympathy for the dinosaurs, on account of them eating people in every movie and all that.
Which, y’know, fair I guess. It’s probably natural to value the lives of human beings over genetically engineered chimeric prehistoric monsters. I might be wired a little strange.
That does lead to an important point of criticism, though, and one that’s particularly relevant to my blog here. As you know, I’m incredibly fascinated by the idea of treating monsters as characters instead of as simply a force of conflict. Both approaches can work, of course, but in general I think a monster is far more interesting when it’s given its own motivations and personality, especially when those monsters are pretty far from human in shape and mentality. The Jurassic Park franchise is generally very adept at treating its dinosaur stars as characters – I wrote an ICHF on Rexie/Roberta, the T.rex from the first film who returned in both Jurassic World and this entry, and even the turgid Jurassic Park III gave its dinosaur stars motivations and a great degree of personality.
By contrast, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is hit and miss at this. While Blue, the herbivorous dinosaurs, and the villainous hybrid monster Indoraptor (we’ll get to him in a bit) enjoy the level of characterization that’s standard for the series, all the other predators are treated much more like the standard movie monster: namely, they exist only to menace the human characters, even when it makes no sense to do so. And unfortunately, MOST of the scenes are ones where it really doesn’t make sense for the predatory dinosaurs to go after our human characters. A real animal would not stop in the middle of running from lava to menace a few humans, or worse, spend all its time chasing humans while trapped in a building filled with lava. Even the aforementioned Rexie is treated as nothing more than an eating machine, hunting every conceivable prey item with her every waking moment. Since these monster chase scenes make up roughly 70% of the film’s runtime, the result is a LOT of scenes where the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park don’t behave like real creatures, but rather as puppets of the script’s forced conflict – “This scene would be scarier with one of the dinosaurs acting as an obstacle to our heroes’ escape from the lava, so let’s do that even though it makes the carnivores seem suicidally gluttonous.”
The one exception to this is the aforementioned Indoraptor, and even then we must include an asterisk. While the other dinosaurs are treated as such a uniformly destructive force that there’s a sort of subtextual malevolence to them, the Indoraptor’s wickedness is just plain text. It is an evil being, a creature that smirks while tricking a human into coming closer to it, that visibly delights in toying with its prey and inflicting carnage. It doesn’t just feel an instinctual need to kill people wantonly all the time like the other dinosaurs – it actively wants to kill. It’s a murder-saurus, Freddy Krueger’s dinosaur fursona. Is that a bit silly? Yes, but you don’t criticize it when superhero movies have villains with the exact same moustache twirling villainy.
The Indoraptor provides some of the best scenes of the movie – tense, horrifying chases that make use of dinosaurs/the prehistoric monster archetype in a way that has never been seen on film before. If they were in a movie that had a better script – the way their antecedent, the “Raptors in the Kitchen” sequence of the original Jurassic Park had been – I think they would make for one of the most effective movie climaxes of this decade.
That’s the real tragedy of this movie, honestly. There are a lot of elements of it that work – you can take basically any of its dinosaur scenes, particularly those that have little or no dialogue, and see how much talent was poured into them. The director of this film is to be commended – he provokes a wide variety of emotions despite working with a rather lackluster script, and there are shots in this movie that no horror film has ever experimented with before. I honestly think this could have been a groundbreaking film, perhaps even on par with the original…
If. It had. A better. Script.
I know I’ve railed on it a bit, but I have to admit that, for all its faults, I enjoyed my time watching this movie. As other reviewers are so fond of saying, I enjoyed the spectacle despite my brain constantly seeing all the weak writing that tried and failed to justify that spectacle. It was dumb, but it was enjoyable, and because I really do love big scaly monsters, it tugged my heartstrings with great expertise. The camerawork and editing is top notch, and the special effects artists knew how to make some really fun dinosaur moments. Most of the cast is great too – the actress who plays the requisite child character is quite possibly the most likable child in any Jurassic Park movie (damning with faint praise since most of the child characters in this franchise are abysmal, but still, she does damn good work), and Chris Pratt brings as much charm as he can to the horribly written cliche that is Owen Grady. The snarky paleo veterinarian Zia is the highlight of the movie, if only because she’s perpetually exasperated by how stupid all of the characters around her are. And of course Blue steals the show.
But it would be nice if we could have all these good elements in a story that makes sense, and with characters who are at least well written enough to make us care about them. At least one Jurassic Park film managed that, and I don’t think it’s a lot to ask. Yes, we’re coming here for the dinosaurs – they’re the main draw – but as any player of Jurassic Park: Operation Genesis can tell you, people need more than just dinosaurs to stay around, and this franchise needs more than spectacle to live up to its inaugural entry’s name.