Friday, June 29, 2018

Review: Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018)

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018)

Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of science-fiction violence and peril

Score: 3 out of 5

I really enjoyed Jurassic World. A lighthearted, nostalgic throwback that brought back some of the magic of the original Jurassic Park for a new generation, it was about as good as you could ask for from a summer blockbuster these days. Was it a great movie? No. It didn't hold a candle to Steven Spielberg's 1993 classic, and at times it felt like its flippant tone and self-mocking snark masked genuine deficiencies in the story department, but it had a pair of great action-figure lead actors in Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard, and while the promised scenes of spectacle-driven dinosaur mayhem didn't match the sheer awe and tension of the original, they made up for it in adrenaline. Which is why I found it so puzzling that, for the sequel, they decided to strip it back and create a smaller-scale movie than the first, taking away from its greatest strengths and shining a spotlight on its weaknesses. Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is still a decent movie, but without any attachment to the characters independent of the actors' charisma, and with only a few great action scenes that really stuck in my head afterwards, it felt like it was going through the motions compared to the first. I still recommend it, especially given that the ending promises a radically new direction for the franchise, but overall, it had a feeling of "been there, done that" to it.

After the last film ended with the disastrous release of a slew of prehistoric reptiles upon unsuspecting tourists, the Jurassic World theme park has been abandoned while its genetically-engineered attractions have gone feral on Isla Nublar. Unfortunately, it turns out the island is also home to a dormant volcano that's now primed to erupt and destroy the island, taking the dinosaurs with it. Benjamin Lockwood, a former partner of John Hammond, recruits Claire Dearing, the former operations manager of the park who's now working for an NGO dedicated to protecting the dinosaurs, to assist in an operation to send a team to the island to pick up several valuable species before the island explodes, so that they can be relocated to a different island and live in peace there. Claire, in turn, brings along Owen Grady, who had worked as a raptor trainer at the park and has since retired to build himself a cabin in the mountains like the man's man that he is. Upon getting to the island, however, they soon learn that Lockwood is being manipulated by his aide, Eli Mills, whose real goal is to sell the dinosaurs to pharmaceutical companies and arms dealers to study and weaponize. Together with Franklin and Zia, two of Claire's co-workers at her NGO, and Lockwood's daughter Maisie, Claire and Owen set out to stop Mills.

If I were to describe this movie in a single word, it would be "incoherent". It has a ton of great individual scenes in it, from a heartbreaker where the characters are looking back on Isla Nublar -- and the dinosaurs that are being consumed by the pyroclastic flow -- to some creeping dread as this film's newest bioengineered monstrosity against nature creeps into Maisie's bedroom. (Rule of thumb: if it was spoiled in the trailers, it's not a spoiler.) What it lacks, however, is narrative connecting tissue holding all of this together. It is most apparent with the shift in setting this film takes halfway through, as the action leaves Isla Nublar and moves to Lockwood's mansion in the woods of northern California, at which point the film takes a dramatic shift in tone. In its first act, it feels almost like a disaster movie, with a focus on massive-scale spectacle as the volcano destroys Isla Nublar and our heroes scramble to escape. After that, however, it narrows its scope considerably, a move I felt was for the worse. The two halves of the film don't go together well at all, especially not with most of the big action set pieces front-loaded into the first half of the film. There's a reason why many blockbuster action movies save their most explosive mayhem for the climax: it's to cap off the ride with something memorable for the audience to gush about afterwards. Here, however, when you've seen the money shot of a Tyrannosaurus rex roaring while a volcano erupts behind it during the first half of the film, you expect the second half to have something equally memorable, and as a result, the shift in gears felt jarring. The big climatic fight between the raptor Blue and the genetically modified "indoraptor" had its moments, but it felt kind of underwhelming, not only failing to live up to the T. rex vs. Indomitus rex fight from the last film but failing to live up to scenes earlier in the film.

None of this would've been a problem if the film had built any genuine emotional stakes for me. Many classic action and horror movies have scenes that, while objectively just "pretty good", are elevated by the context in which they're in, taking something as simple as a one-on-one fistfight and giving it massive stakes. Captain America: Civil War, for instance, ended on a three-way fight between Steve Rogers, Tony Stark, and Bucky Barnes, and despite coming after the much greater spectacle of the airport battle, it felt like an appropriate conclusion to the film; everything had been building up to this, with Steve and Tony's differences reaching a breaking point. The reason why Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom didn't really work, then, wasn't because the action in the second half was underwhelming, but because there wasn't anything to elevate it beyond just "pretty good". Owen and Claire were still one-dimensional despite capable performances from Pratt and Howard, as are the new characters. Jeff Goldblum's appearance amounts to a pair of glorified cameos in which he doesn't interact with any of the other major characters. The film tried to throw in a twist involving Maisie, but it fell flat because I never had any reason to care about her as a character beyond the fact that she was a cute kid character being threatened by dinosaurs. Bring on the Eight Deadly Words: I don't care what happens to these people.

And yet, at the end of the day, I still kinda liked this movie. It may have had little going for it beyond flash and spectacle, but those alone were enough to keep me entertained for two hours. The special effects were outstanding, such that, even in close-up shots, there were times when I couldn't tell if I was watching practical effects or CGI, the gold standard of high-quality effects work. Director J. A. Bayona previously made the harrowing disaster movie The Impossible, and having the studio oversight that comes with a blockbuster mega-budget hasn't diluted his talents. Whether it's the explosive spectacle of the first half or the claustrophobic monster chases of the second half, this film is filled with great moments that, even without much in the way of a good story to lend them weight, still stand out. While this isn't a film I plan on watching in full any time soon, it is a film that I expect to live a long life in bits and pieces on YouTube. And, if nothing else, the ending of this film promises that the next one will break out of the franchise's usual formula.

The Bottom Line

Looking at the movie in full, I kind of wish that it had committed to either going all-out with the first half's blockbuster action or going more small-scale with the second half's horror tone. When mashed together, and without much meaningful development for the main characters, it just felt all over the place. As empty-calorie entertainment, it more than gets the job done, but it felt like it could've been more.

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