Monday, July 02, 2018

Zaki's Review: Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

As I made clear in my look at Jurassic World three years ago, I've always been something of an easy mark for the Jurassic Park series. Notwithstanding the 1993 original, which can legitimately lay claim to the label of "modern classic," the various other entries in the Steven Spielberg-produced Universal franchise have all offered up variations of "see dinosaurs, run from dinosaurs." And honestly, that's kind of enough for me. Some do it better, some do it worse, but give me a Jurassic that makes sure to include those key ingredients, and I'm at basically halfway committed already.

That rather lengthy intro should offer some necessary context as I dive into the fifth entry, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (which arrived in theaters just in time to mark the franchise's continued vitality during its silver anniversary). Directed by J.A. Bayona from a script by Colin Trevorrow & Derek Connolly (who served the same duties last time) with Spielberg still godfathering the whole thing, we enter the action with an impending environmental catastrophe threatening to wipe out the remaining dinosaurs on Isla Nublar in the aftermath of the prior movie's catastrophic conclusion (the park is permanently closed, natch).

There's a lot of catch-up to process, and to that end, series vet Jeff Goldblum as rock star chaotician Ian Malcom makes his belated return via an extended cameo to explain to a Senate subcommittee (and us in the audience) why the best way forward is simply to let nature take its course and let the animals die (he's clearly still nursing a grudge from his T-rex encounter lo those many movies ago). With congressional inaction a certainty, it falls to park employee-turned-dinosaur activist Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard, who's thankfully ditched the stiletto heels for something a little practical) to seek help elsewhere.

She finds it in the form of reclusive billionaire Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell), partner to late Jurassic Park creator John Hammond, whose assistant Eli Mills (Rafe Spall) informs her Lockwood is willing to bankroll a proposal to transport several surviving species to a preserve. To that end, and with erstwhile raptor trainer Owen Grady (Chris Pratt, who's having quite a summer between this and Avengers: Infinity War) in tow, Claire heads to Nublar on her mercy mission. Needless to say, things don't go entirely to plan.

The "rescue the dinosaurs" portion of the movie that's been all over the trailers and marketing materials takes up the front end, but right around the halfway point things take a turn. And it's with that turn I suspect much of the fanbase will fracture neatly in two, either being entirely amenable to the swerves the filmmakers throw at us, or sort of throwing their hands in the air in the universally acknowledged symbol of, "I give up." Now, one problem these movies have always had going all the way back to the first sequel is their continually trying to contrive reasons to get our characters onto the island(s) where the dinosaurs are, when it's clearly the last place they'd ever want to be.

And so we had Goldblum embark on rescue mission in movie two. We had Sam Neill shanghaied into a dinosaur expedition without his consent in movie three. Movie four neatly sidestepped that problem by simply jettisoning all the recurring leads and instead doing an extended Jaws 3 riff (though I doubt the filmmakers would be happy with that comparison) in a fully functioning theme park. But if this was indeed a property that Universal wanted to ensure could survive multiple further trips to the well (as opposed to, y'know, Jaws), then they ultimately had to break out of the "get to the island" part that, of necessity, comes before the "run from/get eaten by dinosaurs" stuff.

Fallen Kingdom does that. Not in a fashion everyone will like, but in a way that allows for what could be some very different, very interesting stories down the line. Thus, the second half takes us into previously uncharted Jurassic territory. Stowing away with the captured dinos, Owen, Claire, and company soon learn that the creatures are to be auctioned off to various wealthy ne'er-do-wells with questionable intent from all around the globe. What follows is a cat-and-mouse game of our heroes racing to shut down the evil dinosaur auction while rescuing the animals from captivity (including Owen's beloved Raptor Blue, so preternaturally smart that she's basically one step removed from proclaiming, "Caesar is home," by the end of the film).

And oh, I almost forgot the special treat rogue geneticist Dr. Henry Wu (B.D. Wong, making a full-on heel turn by this, his third appearance in the series) cooked up in his lab: the mutant Indoraptor, combining the DNA of the late, lamented Indominus rex (a.k.a the all-purpose Swiss Army Dinosaur from last time) with Velociraptors, making for a generally unpleasant little beastie that our heroes must contain before it's unwittingly unleashed on the populace. A few surprises follow (what's up with Lockwood's erudite and gifted granddaughter anyway?) but honestly, we're five movies deep by now, and those surprises are largely subsumed by carrying balls forward for the inevitable next entry (and with a billion dollars already tallied at the box office, it really is inevitable).

Bayona's direction is so stylish and confident that he's able to paper over the movie's narrative flaws (of which there are a few) and make for an engrossing experience that feels at times like a classic Jurassic movie and at others like a gothic horror movie in the Del Toro mould. The first scene in particular -- featuring a rain-soaked attempt by mercs to abscond with dino DNA -- is the most gripping opening for one of these movies since 1993. The director has also peppered several easter eggs throughout that had my Jurassic fanatic eleven-year-old pounding my arm in excitement every time something caught his eye, leaving me smarting from the constant hits, but also smiling from his constant excitement.

Your mileage will vary, of course, but my kid's ecstatic reaction is just one reason why I had an absolute blast with this one. It's no patch on the original, of course, but I think anyone expecting to replicate that this many years later should divest themselves of such notions. That Spielberg classic exists as something specific and singular and special. If you want that experience, that movie is there for you whenever you want on whatever format you want. Everything since has been about continuing the story, and you'll either be down for that or you won't. In that sense, this is sort of the Last Jedi of this series.

Now, I know my even making a statement like that is likely to provoke either excitement or apoplexy in equal measure depending entirely on where you landed on that Star Wars entry, but what I mean by the comparison is that this new film acknowledges the history of its predecessors but also recognizes that the way forward isn't in doling out karaoke retreads of established tropes. It's by living up to the title and truly giving us a Jurassic World, and plotting out story possibilities accordingly. As the credits come up on Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, once again Ian Malcolm is there, a familiar face to guide us from where Jurassic has been to where it's headed, and a testament to how -- twenty-five years on -- life continues to find a way. B

For more Jurassic talk, check out the MovieFilm Podcast's feature-length commentary track on the 1993 classic to celebrate its twenty-fifth anniversary via this link or the embed below:

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