Thursday, July 5, 2018

Eight Million DPM – Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

Director J.A. Bayona, contemplating his Trevorrow-esque career trajectory. (Photo: IMDB)

My initial impression of Jurassic World (2015) was largely positive; I saw it as a fun reworking of the franchise’s formula that succeeded in being entertaining even when it failed at being coherent. The bloom’s since come off the rose: with the benefit of hindsight, it’s hard not to see past the film’s cynical, calculated maneuverings, which aim to capitalize on the affection you might have felt for Spielberg’s dinosaur films without bothering to earn that affection itself. In that way, it’s a lot like John Hammond (Richard Attenborough), whom Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldbum) criticizes for the hubris of thoughtlessly “standing on the shoulders of geniuses.” Director/writer Colin Trevorrow doesn’t only show little respect for the material he’s in charge of – he also proves over and over again that he’s not very good at realizing it for the screen. His parks, like Hammond’s, have proven to be failures. Thankfully, though, nobody (in the real world, anyway) is being devoured as a result of his negligence.

I wish that Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, directed by J.A. Bayona, had found enjoyable ways to play with the dinosaur toys he and Trevorrow inherited from Spielberg. I’ve long since let go of any hope that the franchise will recapture the intelligence, tension, and dramatic stakes of the first film; that would require a full reset, a shift in tone or genre, and a filmmaker with a unique vision at the helm. Instead, all I want is for the Jurassic World films to become the shlocky, ridiculous creature features they clearly ought to be. But like its predecessor, Fallen Kingdom wants to have its cake and eat it too, attempting to deliver both exciting dinosaur action and dramatic sci-fi storytelling and succeeding at neither.

Again like Hammond, the World films spare no expense, assuming that throwing money at a difficult, complex, and delicate operation will result in its flawless execution. There are more dinos per minute (DPM) in Fallen Kingdom than perhaps any other blockbuster film, something 9-year-old me would have found delightful, but which 29-year-old me finds extremely vexing; I’m baffled that this film could let me gawk at this many of my beloved prehistoric behemoths and still leave me so unfathomably bored. The film’s CGI is only sometimes convincing, the dinos often looking plasticky and inauthentic in brightly-lit scenes, and the script and direction offer precious little pacing or tension that would make it scary and awe-inspiring when the characters interact with them. I find Fallen Kingdom frustrating because it does occasionally allow itself the pleasure of some dumb fun, but it ruins it with anemic, half-hearted attempts at character drama, horror, and woke social commentary.

Chris Pratt as Owen Grady, mirroring my instinctive response to the idea of further JP sequels. (Photo: IMDB)

The script (by Trevorrow and Derek Connolly), about Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) and Owen (Chris Pratt) returning to Isla Nublar to save its dinosaurs from a second extinction due to volcanic eruption, is a mess. That premise comprises the first act of the film, while the latter two acts are filled with awkward, clumsy setpieces set back on the mainland, where Eli Mills (Rafe Spall), our slick corporate suit du jour, tries to weaponize and sell the surviving dinos to the highest bidders (literally, as in, the climax takes place at a live auction where the ultra-rich compete to own sauropods). The whole plot is a contrivance, everything happening because reasons with setups and payoffs that are ill-conceived and unsatisfying. Jeff Goldblum returns in a cameo as Ian Malcolm, presumably with the stipulation that he not be asked to stand, move, or emote while he delivers Trevorrow’s cringe-inducing dialogue. A new genetic mutation is created for this film, an even less imaginative monster than the last dino hybrid, I think primarily because Amblin Entertainment wants a new toy design to sell. John Hammond is revealed to have had a business partner this whole time, played by James Cromwell, because . . . well, because Trevorrow thought of it and put it in the script before considering whether or not it was a good idea. The nasty characters in these films always receive their comeuppance at the fangs and teeth of the monsters they create and exploit, but no such poetic justice is waiting in the tall grass to tear into Trevorrow or Bayona’s necks for the hubris they’ve displayed. Fallen Kingdom is the work of filmmakers so impressed with what they could do, they never stopped to think if they should.

The Hammond metaphor continues to work in my favour here: the filmmakers don’t understand the embryonic power of what they have on their hands, introducing intriguing characters and story lines and letting them wither and die without ever realizing their potential. Corporate interests trying to weaponize the dinosaurs, something Jurassic World tried and failed to make compelling, is fleshed out further here, but the moral horror of this idea isn't mined for real drama. The idea of protectionism in the face of those corporate interests  personified here by Claire, in a forced character shift that could work if it wasn't so clumsily handled  also presents a fascinating moral quandary: do we have a responsibility to the life we've created, or do we allow an act of god to wipe out our mistakes? This could be really interesting, Prime Directive-type stuff, but it's not used at all except as flat motivation for our heroes to "save the dinos." Fallen Kingdom very much would like you to believe that the relationship between Owen and his favourite raptor, Blue, has been well-established, but the truth is that Trevorrow dropped that ball in Jurassic World and Bayona is forced to shove in some archival footage of a baby Blue playing with Owen to try and patch this hole in the film's emotional stakes, which simply doesn't work. The worst offender is the subplot about Maisie Lockwood, played by Isabella Sermon, which introduces possibly the craziest and most interesting extension of the original film's ideas and does precisely nothing with it. My own fallen kingdom for a version of this film where everything happens from Maisie's perspective.

About half an hour in, there’s a scene that approaches the sort of shlock that I crave so badly from these movies, where Owen and Claire can only save their beloved velociraptor friend by forcibly obtaining tyrannosaur blood for a transfusion – shoving them into a shipping crate with a sedated t-rex while they attempt to stab needles into her without waking her up. It’s stupid, it makes no sense, and it’s a ton of fun; Pratt and Howard giggle nervously at the audacity of what they’re trying to do and the tension ratchets up as they’re forced to be more and more rude to this sleeping carnivore. There are other good moments, as when Owen uses a rock-headed Stygimoloch to escape a tough situation, when some pyroclastic flow becomes an inexorable "I'm comin' for ya" villain, when Dr. Henry Wu (B.D. Wong) returns to shout arrogantly about lesser minds betraying the integrity of his genetic art, and when the dino-auctioneer played by Toby Jones waxes poetic about why one might want to own an ankylosaur. But the deft touch of these brief sequences is missing in the rest of the film, and their lighthearted tone is often upset by terrible violence anyway. Fallen Kingdom is rated PG-13, but occupies a bewilderingly unsatisfying middle ground between a lack of engaging stakes and a profusion of upsetting gore – making it at once less tense and engaging than the original and yet more explicit with its carnage, where every kill feels inappropriately cruel. (This also might be part of why seeing so many dinosaurs on the big screen isn't as thrilling as it should be: most of the time, when a dino is on screen, it's being horribly mistreated  shot, stabbed, burned by lava, crushed by falling rocks, choked with toxic gas, you name it.) It’s the worst possible way to use dinosaur action to create cinematic excitement – as long as you’re aiming for more than a simple monster movie, that is. Bayona uses lighting, silhouette, and reflection to create some neat, spooky funhouse tricks, especially in the final mansion set piece, which is the bump-in-the-night style of direction I wish these schmucks would just embrace wholeheartedly. We might actually get a satisfying film that way.

If you’ll allow me: I understand that the dinosaurs still don’t have feathers – despite the entire scientific community, who were once trusted advisers for these films, agreeing on the evidence supporting it – because the creatures are brand symbols in and of themselves.  But this is such a weak excuse. If each of these movies is going to create another boring new monster-dino from whole cloth, then why not shake up the creature designs with some feathers? Despite the box-office returns, it's extremely charitable to think Bayona's going to get another shot at this franchise  god forbid he should create a unique visual identity for his crack at bat, right? You can’t tell me seeing some brightly-coloured raptors, their proud and terrifying eagle-like plumage carefully handcrafted in CGI, wouldn’t have made the trailers for this thing more intriguing. Ultimately, it’ll be a filmmaker unafraid to make such audacious moves who will bring this franchise back to life, which is too busy stoking its own postmodern cynicism to recognize and capitalize on what makes dinosaurs on the big screen engaging in the first place: the excitement of seeing things we’ve never seen before (and more importantly, feeling something other than leaden boredom as a result).

Justin Cummings is a narrative designer at Ubisoft Toronto, and has worked as a writer, blogger, and playwright since 2005. He has been a lifelong student of film, gaming, and literature, commenting on industry and culture since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade.

No comments:

Post a Comment