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Non-Review Review: Jurassic World – Fallen Kingdom

Jurassic Park: Fallen Kingdom is an intriguing and compelling mess of a film. It is shrewd and clever, if never entirely human.

Director J.A. Bayona might be the first director since Spielberg to put his own unique slant on the Jurassic Park franchise, to move with just enough confidence and faith in his own stylistic sensibilities to escape the shadow of the legendary director who turned a pulpy novel into a beloved family classic. Bayona does that by allowing his own stylistic sensibilities to shine through, to embrace his own interest and to engage with the material on his own terms.

Dino escape.

Fallen Kindom walks a fine line. It is very much a creature grown in a laboratory to satisfy the demands of the larger franchise. There are elements here that exist purely because they are expected, because they are signifiers of what a “Jurassic Park movie” should look like, including both returning characters and new characters fashioned after familiar archetypes. At the same time, there is a coy and wry self-awareness to Fallen Kingdom that was sorely lacking from Jurassic World, a cynicism about its own nature that integrates rather neatly into its larger worldview.

Although it may be damning with faint praise, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is easily the best Jurassic Park movie since Jurassic Park: The Lost World, the film in the franchise with which it shares most of its DNA.

Things are heating up.

Fallen Kingdom wears the influence of The Lost World on its sleeve. Many of the basic elements of the film can be traced back to The Lost World rather than to Jurassic Park. The basic premise of the film finds the characters forced to return to an island full of dinosaurs on a rescue mission at the behest of a wealthy and sick old man who seeks to atone for past mistakes. Inevitably, a more nefarious scheme emerges, a plot to drag the creatures away from their environment and back to the mainland for capitalist exploitation. Even the titles mirror one another.

Fallen Kingdom consciously invites comparisons to The Lost World. Fallen Kingdom has built a large part of its publicity campaign around the return of Ian Malcolm, the unlikely action hero from The Lost World who provides a sense of continuity for Fallen Kingdom. James Cromwell is cast as a white haired and bearded old man who carries a cane with an amber grip, John Hammond’s long lost business partner and surrogate. The island expedition is led by a character sarcastically identified as a “great white hunter”, a nod to Pete Postlewaite’s character from The Last World.

Lost in the lost world.

Part of this symmetry is undoubtedly crass and commercial, the result of a desire to feed something familiar to a nostalgic audience, to tickle the part of the brain that responds to recognisable stimuli. After all, Jurassic World stole a lot of its material and its basis from the original Jurassic Park. Given modern Hollywood’s preoccupation with trilogies, it makes sense that Fallen Kingdom would be consciously designed to resemble The Lost World, despite that film’s decidedly mixed critical reception.

However, there is something very canny in all of this. The mixed critical reception to The Lost World makes it a much safer target for appropriation and reconstruction than Jurassic Park. After all, any comparison that Jurassic World invited to the original Jurassic Park was unlikely to be favourable; it is impossible to compete with memory, and it is often futile to attempt. However, The Lost World is a film packed to the brim with interesting ideas that never struck the same cultural nerve as Jurassic Park, and so remixing elements of The Lost World results in a much fresher concoction.

Raptor enraptured.

However, Fallen Kingdom also benefits from the fact that its strongest similarities with The Lost World are tonal rather than literal. One of the biggest issues with Jurassic World was the fact that it emulated a lot of the story beats and rhythms of the original Jurassic Park, but with a mean-spiritedness that bordered on nihilistic; think of the film’s treatment of characters like Zara Young, played by Katie McGrath. Even leaving aside the film’s questionable attitudes towards its female characters, that viciousness never sat well with the wonder of the original Jurassic Park.

In contrast, Fallen Kingdom remains relatively true to the spirit of The Lost World. It pitches itself as a bleak horror movie, a brutal creature feature. Like the franchise’s first sequel, Fallen Kingdom strips away the wonder inherent in the original Jurassic Park for something approaching the biblical definition of “awe.” There is something terrifying and unsettling about these super-predators, something terrifying about the thought of sharing the same earth and breathing the same air. The wonder curdles into terror, and it feels reasonable that it might.

No bones about it.

J.A. Bayona shoots Fallen Kingdom like a horror movie. The film contains quite a few jump scares, appreciably more than Jurassic Park, Jurassic Park III or Jurassic World. A significant amount of the story unfolds within the confines of a large gothic mansion decorated with bones, complete with a nineteenth century conservatory. There is an atmospheric sequence, one allowed to unfold at a leisurely pace, in which a young character stands with her back to a cage; a sharp claw slowly and gently reaching out from the darkness, softly and menacingly brushing her hair.

There is an emphasis on silhouette throughout Fallen Kingdom, particularly in a late sequence that is shot so as to evoke the various cinematic interpretations of Dracula. The climax features a gothic mist spreading slowly through a nice country estate. Even in other silhouette sequences, the movie uses shadow to set the mood or to build tension; repeatedly, flashes of light in the darkness illuminate approaching threats, moving in what looks like stop motion against lightning in the sky and sparks in a tunnel.

Prehistoric gothic.

It is perhaps fair to ask whether it makes sense to strip out the wonder of Jurassic Park and replace it with horror. Certainly that was, and remains, one of the most divisive aspects of The Lost World. However, both Jurassic Park III and Jurassic World illustrate the limitations of trying to recapture the wonder that made Jurassic Park such a classic. Very few directors can match Spielberg’s sense of wonder. It is folly to compete with Spielberg on his own turf. Horror provides a more level playing field, allowing Fallen Kingdom to step outside the shadow cast by the original film.

There may even be an argument that Fallen Kingdom feels more justified in its embrace of horror than The Lost World. The almost aggressive anti-humanism of The Lost World seemed mean-spirited against the backdrop of the nineties, a time of relative global peace and prosperity. The vicious tone of The Lost World jarred both with expectations and with the general public mood upon initial release. Audiences wanted to watch human characters evading monstrous dinosaurs, not to contemplate the brutality and callousness of mankind.

Putting the matter to bed.

In contrast, Fallen Kingdom arrives at a point where such cynicism feels well-earned, where such anxiety about mankind’s capacity to endure in the face of catastrophe has been truly shaken. Although Fallen Kingdom works best when it eschews epic stakes, its tone repeatedly verges on the apocalyptic – particularly in the first and third acts. It feels like something of a bridge between the monster mash aesthetic of something like Kong: Skull Island with the bleak cynicism of something like Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

In many ways, Fallen Kingdom feels more in tune with its cultural moment than any Jurassic Park film since the original, given its anger and contempt for the pettiness of mankind and its satisfaction with the destruction wrought by the monsters unleashed by such shortsightedness. Jurassic Park was always about mankind’s folly and arrogance, but generally at a personal level; will these guests and these characters survive their encounter with these prehistoric killing machines?

Baby blue.

Fallen Kingdom brushes against a much bigger question. Will mankind itself survive? Not on a literal or existential level, but on a philosophical level. The threat is not just mankind’s capacity to not just make mistakes, but to repeat them. This is arguably a question that can only be broached within the confines of a franchise film, where financial considerations demand that mankind keep making the same mistakes, in spite of all the previous failed experiments and all the evidence that it is a spectacularly terrible idea.

In Fallen Kingdom, Ian Malcolm evokes the idea of “nuclear proliferation” as a metaphor for mankind’s preoccupation with resurrecting old monsters despite the destruction wrought on each appearance. In the context of Fallen Kingdom, it might be tempting to read the movie as a metaphor for other monsters than mankind seems intent on reviving in spite of past experiences. The sort of vicious xenophobic nationalism fostered and stoked by populist political campaigns toy with primal forces that have brought nothing but destruction in the past.

The sunken place.

Of course, the relationship between Fallen Kingdom‘s co-writer Colin Trevorrow and alt-right philosopher Jordan Peterson suggests that such metaphorical commentaries are unlikely to be authorial intent. At the same time, there is something very evocative in the idea of wealthy and powerful people resurrecting lumbering and monstrous philosophies for their own amusement and their own agendas, only for those forces to inevitably and brutally turn upon them. Not for nothing does one of the villains employ the term “nasty woman” while another’s blonde hair piece gets away from him at the climax.

Fallen Kingdom seems to arrive at several conclusions that were suggested by the original Jurassic Park, but never actually explored in any of the sequels. It is notable that this is the first film in the series where the characters seem to contemplate cloning anything other than dinosaurs, a possibility that has been woven into the fabric of the franchise since the original novel. Like Westworld or Ex Machina or The Girl With All the Gifts, Fallen Kingdom also wonders about the long-term viability of mankind; it seems to wonder if extinction would be such a bad thing for mankind.

Bite size.

Much like in The Lost World, the humans are the real monsters in Fallen Kingdom. In Jurassic World, some of the sequences of the dinosaurs chowing down on human characters felt awkward and out of place. In Fallen Kingdom, most of those inevitable deaths feel earned and cathartic. The dinosaurs in Fallen Kingdom seem to operate not as instruments of Darwin, but as forces of karma. they provide a much-needed sense of cosmological balance.

It is telling that Bayona films several of his sequences using the visual language of the franchise, but with human antagonists rather than hungry dinosaurs. One early sequence finds a young girls sneaking around a lab, hiding from two sinister human characters, evoking both the iconic kitchen sequence in Jurassic Park and a later stalking sequence in Fallen Kingdom. That earlier sequence with the claw reaching through the bars is later mirrored with human characters, a hand grasping outwards. In Fallen Kingdom, even the human characters can present as monstrous.

He Rex the joint.

In fact, the smartest twists in Fallen Kingdom make a point to completely erase the distinction between humanity and the dinosaurs, to follow the theme of scientific hubris through to a grim conclusion that feels entirely in keeping with what came before while also pushing boldly beyond it into uncomfortable territory. Fallen Kingdom certainly doesn’t lack for commitment to its own core ideas, which elevates it above any of the non-Spielberg sequels.

At the same time, there is also a coy self-awareness about its own status as a crass commercialised product, and an anxiety about the damage of continually reiterating and recycling familiar elements in an effort to satisfy nostalgia. As with Jurassic World, the idea of a hybrid dinosaur fashioned from spliced DNA feels like a commentary on the nature of the franchise as a grotesque science experiment fashioned from leftovers of a more iconic and beloved feature film. It is perhaps no coincidence that so much of the climax unfolds in a child’s bedroom.

Child’s play.

Fallen Kingdom fixates on the capitalism exploitation of wonder, and how that diminishes it. “We’re both exploiting these creatures,” the villain warns Claire Dearing at one point. “At least I have the integrity to admit it.” As eager buyers prepare to purchase these wondrous creatures, an auctioneer promises, “The creature of the future, constructed from pieces of the past.” What is that but an accurate description of Jurassic World and Fallen Kingdom, films assembled from recognisable elements assembled like Frankenstein’s monster.

Fallen Kingdom actually grapples with the question of whether wonder can exist in such a cultural climate, where these elements are no longer novel or striking – where a film like Jurassic Park is no longer unique, but simply one entry in an extended series. “Your children are growing up in a world with dinosaurs,” Claire tells a politician at one point, suggesting that the novelty of the premise has been exhausted. Later, listlessly, she idly asks Owen, “Do you remember when you first saw a dinosaur?” Many audience members can remember that moment.

Where we stand when the dust settles.

It could be argued that the current franchise landscape – particularly as evoked by both Jurassic World and Fallen Kingdom – is desperately trying to chase that feeling. Belated sequels to beloved classics attempt to bottle those unique sensations, to appeal to emotion through memory rather than creating a new or exciting memory. In some ways, Jurassic Park feels more relevant in the context of the twenty-first century than it did in the nineties, speaking to a culture perpetually resurrecting clones of its childhood obsessions.

In this context, it makes sense that wonder should be transformed into horror, that something that was once exciting and compelling should instead be rendered grotesque and monstrous. J.A. Bayona’s genre shift becomes a wry meta-commentary on the franchise itself. Jurassic Park once felt like a fanciful escape into a world of limitless possibilities, while Fallen Kingdom walks among the mangled and distorted ruins.

No mean feet.

Childhood excitement has metastacised into something deeply unsettling.

10 Responses

  1. Insightful as always! Made me change my mind about seeing (at least in the cheap seats anyway).

    • Darren Mooney, influencer! (I always feel nervous when people say I convinced them to see a given film.)

      • How about people who say you convinced them to see a given film in a different light?

        I’m sure there have been others I’m not thinking of, but your Bond reviews actually changed my mind about A View To A Kill – the whole thing about it being a changing-of-the-guard moment saying goodbye to the era of classic spy fiction and bringing the franchise into the more gratuitously violent action movie era. I appreciated the movie a lot more after watching it again with that in mind. It’s still no masterpiece, but I no longer have it ranked alongside Moonraker and Diamonds Are Forever.

      • Thanks Chris! It is definitely no masterpiece, my abiding affection for it notwithstanding.

  2. Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is the best of the sequels is a largely empty declaration, equivalent to opining that a Hostess Twinkie is the best of the largely inedible sugary

    • Yep. I’ve concede that’s very much a “damning with faint praise” observation. And I’m hardly raving about Fallen Kingdom, as much as I enjoyed it. The fact it’s one of the better summer films this year is a testimony to how underwhelming the summer has been.

  3. “Of course, the relationship between Fallen Kingdom‘s co-writer Colin Trevorrow and alt-right philosopher Jordan Peterson suggests that such metaphorical commentaries are unlikely to be authorial intent.”

    I apologize for my ignorance but what relationship are you referring to? I couldn’t find any connection between the two in my research.

    • Not at all! The connection is obscured somewhat.

      Trevorrow’s big passion project “Book of Henry” was written by one of Peterson’s favoured students and close friends, with Trevorrow taking it on as a deeply personal project and Peterson himself singling out the movie for unreserved praise. (Of course, Trevorrow has subsequently tried to argue – unconvincingly – that Book of Henry was an anti-Trump parallel, but I don’t buy it and I doubt many who’ve seen the movie do.)

  4. I don’t know what I was expecting, but turning Jurassic Park into a monster movie set in a medieval castle wasn’t it. (Didn’t read your review before going). I ended up liking it quite a bit. If they’re going to keep the franchise running, branching out into other genres is a good way to keep it fresh.

    • Yep. I love the sense that somebody at Universal seems to have thrown up their hands and said, “Screw it, it’s gonna break eight hundred million anyway. Have fun.”

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