Monday, July 16, 2018

Kingdom Come

Chris Pratt and friend in Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

Juan Antonio Bayona would not have been the first name on my list to direct a Jurassic Park movie, and yet we have in theaters this summer Jurassic World: The Fallen Kingdom (2018), a film that is surprisingly close to Bayona's established cinematic personality. Indeed, you could view it as a melding of three of Bayona's other films. The first part of the film, in which a volcanic eruption destroys Isla Nubar and the remains of the Jurassic World theme park (already a wreck after the events of the previous film) recalls The Impossible and its terrifying depiction of the Christmas Tsunami. The second part of the film, set in the gloomy gothic mansion of Benjamin Lockwood, who has financed a "rescue mission" for the dinosaurs to prevent their extinction, is a classic "old dark house" scenario, territory that Bayona covered in his breakout film, The Orphanage. And, of course, you have monsters, which was the subject of Bayona's last film, A Monster Calls. This could almost be called an auteur's film, were it not a cog in a multi-billion dollar franchise. It certainly has a different personality than its predecessors. It even manages a note of tragedy once or twice. I like it better than its immediate predecessor, which is faint praise after what I said about that film.

Note: this contains spoilers galore.

The plot finds a volcano building toward eruption on Isla Nubar. The seismologists forcast an "extinction-level event." Debate rages worldwide over whether or not the dinosaurs on the island should be saved from extinction. Dr. Ian Malcolm, testifying before congress, thinks nature should have its way. Other entities feel otherwise. Chief among these is corporation headed by Benjamin Lockwood, John Hammond's ex-partner, who has inherited InGen and all of its holdings, including Isla Nubar (the film has conveniently forgotten that Isla Sorna--Site B--even exists, but be that as it may...). Lockwood wants to rescue the dinosaurs, or at least as many as can be managed in the short time available. To this end, he hires Claire Dearing, who was Jurassic World's manager at the time of the "incident" with the Indominus Rex. He also wants to hire Owen Grady for his work with the velociraptors, and particularly because he has a relationship with the "smart" velociraptor, Blue. Brings with her paleo-veterinarian Dr. Zia Rodriguez and the (very) reluctant Franklin Webb, a computer expert, both of whom have been working for her NGO dedicated to saving the dinosaurs from the island. But things are not what they seem. Lockwood is old and frail; his company is in the hands of Eli Mills, who sees other uses for the dinosaurs. He has already dispatch an ill-fated team to retrieve a bone from the Indominus Rex, and he and his faction want Blue for their own purposes, including transforming dinosaurs into terrifying bio-weapons. Mills's team is led by Ken Wheatley, a mercenary. Once Owen is convinced to lead the team to Blue, Wheatley and his mercenaries double crosses Owen and Claire and their friends and leave them to die in the eruption, which is imminent, except for Zia, who they take with them because Blue has been injured during her capture. Owen, Claire, and Franklin, manage to escape just ahead of a pyroclastic cloud and stow away on Wheatley's ship. Their destination turns out to be the Lockwood estate, where a secret lab has been constructed beneath the mansion where there are pens for the dinosaurs. Meanwhile, Lockwood's granddaughter, Maisie, has overheard Mills discussing his true plans with Dr. Wu, including their intention of auctioning off the dinosaurs to fund a genetic program that will remake life on the planet. Unfortunately for her, Mills discovers her and takes a hand in removing the Lockwoods from his way. The belle of his auction is the first fruit of his genetic program, an "Indo-Raptor" bred from the DNA of the Indominus Rex and from velociraptor. All it lacks is a control, hence their need for Blue and Owen's work in general. When Claire and Owen, discover this, they vow that the Indo-Raptor mustn't leave the facility. After escaping from Mills's detention facilities, they free some of the imprisoned dinosaurs, who promptly cause havok at the auction. Also freed in the melee is the Indo-Raptor itself, who begins picking off humans with implacable malice...

This is very much a movie in two parts. The first part of the film is familiar terrain to anyone who has kept up with the series: jungle, dinosaurs, wrecked park. In its overall mood, it's of a piece with The Lost World: Jurassic Park and with Jurassic Park III. Some of its set-pieces: the escape from the communications bunker, the hamster ball fleeing the volcano, the use of the T-rex as deus ex machina, even the dichotomy between Owen and Claire's team and Wheatley's mercenaries are all a case of deja vu. You've seen this before, though in this film's defense it manages to run through these story beats without insulting everyone's intelligence (something at which The Lost World failed spectacularly). Where this part of the film excels is in finding excuses for iconic images: the T-rex roaring at the sky while a mountain explodes behind it is downright primal, but the sad last look at the brachiosaurus as the volcanic cloud engulfs her is the image that everyone will take away from the film. There were a few sniffles in the audience at this, almost like they were killing Bambi's mom. God help anyone who looks up the trivia page for the film on the IMDB, which states that that particular brachiosaurus is the one Alan Grant first sees in the first film. That's harsh.

Isabella Sermon in Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

The second half of the film is in a different key entirely from the rest of the series. It's a Gothic, complete with an old dark house filled with dark family secrets, and not just the secret lab in the basement. There are still borrowings from The Lost World in this part of the film--particularly a clever inversion of the plate glass scene from that film--but on the whole, it has its own identity. One of its images, of a dinosaur on the roof of the house howling at the moon seems like something from the darkest Gothic imagination. A gargoyle come to life, perhaps, or a dragon alighted on the tower of a castle. That same "dragon" has it in for the castle's princess. The scene where Maisie tries to hide from the Indo-Raptor under the covers of her bed has a deeply atavistic charge to it, and places the film firmly in the land of the horror movie. It's a place where the other films in the series have only been occasional tourists.

Chris Pratt and friend in Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

Fallen Kingdom's fatal flaw is its lead characters. While Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) and Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) are not as annoying in this film as they were in the previous film, and while the deep vein of sexism in their relationship isn't as visible on the surface, both of these elements remain in their fundamental conception as characters. Indeed, Claire finds her inner mother at last here. One of the last images in the film finds Owen and Claire driving away with Maisie Lockwood toward an uncertain future, but there's a hint that they've formed the family unit that both Claire and Owen have been running from over the course of this film and the last, as if their adventure is an outward bound program for the formation of nuclear families as the ultimate aim of life. I'll give the film props for creating a "found" family rather than a genetic family, which sidesteps the biological imperative of the first film's ideology casting all women either as mothers or as women who aren't mothers yet, but the film still arrives at the same point through alternate means. Owen, for his part, is still a man-child who runs away from relationships because he's got a career, dammit, and women will only hold him back. This even forms part of the by-play between Owen and Claire, as they argue over who left who between the last film and this one. Owen's most meaningful relationship with a woman is with a velociraptor, which is telling, and he even manages to fuck that up. He's still a dick to Claire. If one accepts the idea that the lead "hero" in a film like this is an aspirational figure for the audience--particularly an audience of boys--then the stunted adolescence of Owen Grady should trouble anyone who watches these movies. At least the filmmakers make a point of putting Claire into sensible shoes once she's on the island and for the duration of the film afterward, which is big of them. I don't know if my eyes could take anymore hard rolling like they did at the last film. The problems inbuilt into Owen and Claire are exacerbated by the fact that both Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard are relatively limited actors, though Pratt at least gets by on a certain amount of movie-star charisma. Bayona appears to realize this limitation and doesn't ask either of them to extend outside their range. This is good for the film, but maybe not so good for an audience, because there's a certain flattening effect involved. Neither character seems like they have any kind of inner life. In previous films, you had the feeling that Grant, Malcolm, and Ellie Sattler all seemed like they had interior lives because Sam Neill, Jeff Goldblum, and Laura Dern made you believe it even when their own characters were written to be as thin as Owen and Claire.  I don't know that I could quantify this, beyond mentioning that this is a function of acting even in a film that is antithetical to acting. The difference is subtle and ineffable, and definitely there.

I wish the film had had the grand idea of making Zia Rodriguez and Franklin Webb its protagonists rather than Claire and Owen. It would have made for a more interesting film, given that Owen and Claire are conceived of as larger than life, as powerful characters from the start, while both Zia and Franklin are not. Watching them find courage and power within themselves would have been better drama. As an aside, Zia was conceived of by actress Daniella Pineda as queer, something the filmmakers were okay with to the degree that her character and performance come across as a queer person, but not to the degree that the film even acknowledges this. You might argue that it's beside the point and doesn't serve the story, and there's some justification in that given how both Zia and Franklin are used in the film, I suppose, but it's part of a larger pattern of baiting the LGBT community while preserving lucrative markets in homophobic parts of the world. Not that this matters much in the grand scheme of the film. One does not usually watch these films for the human characters anyway, and this film doesn't give anyone much reason to start.

Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard in Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

It should go without saying that this film has spectacular dinosaur effects, but I don't know that they're any more spectacular than what was in the first trio of films. The mix of animatronics and CGI remains state of the art, but it's possible that the technology used to create these creatures has plateaued. It's still the gold standard for making the unreal real. If anything, Bayona and his team have relied more heavily on animatronics than in previous films, including a full-scale T-rex that our heroes climb over. That sort of thing paralyzes one's disbelief in the illusion. The dinosaurs are more fully present in this film because of this choice than in any of the previous films. The progression of the state of the art mostly results in there being more dinosaurs on screen and for longer than in previous installments, though maybe not. Jurassic World had a lot of dinosaurs in it, though perhaps no images of those dinosaurs as good as the best images in this film.

Maisie Lockwood (Isabella Sermon) and her grandfather (James Cromwell) bear some additional comment because their storyline surprised me. I was convinced, once Mills kills Lockwood, that at the end of the film Maisie would come into her own as the head of the corporation and sack Mills and set everything to rights. A conventional ending, in other words. But that didn't happen. Her story was much weirder than that. I appreciate that the film manages to inject something new beyond the spectacle of dinosaurs on the rampage that never the less flows from the same well of science fictional ideas. In one regard, this storyline has a conventional ending in so far as Mills, like every other weaselly plutocrat in the film comes to a bad end. I'd call writing about this a major spoiler, but these characters--including a great white hunter and a Russian arms dealer, natch--are marked as dinosaur chum the instant they show up on screen. The audience would be disappointed if none of them got eaten, or even, if any of them escaped being eaten. There's a social commentary in the way this film disposes of the rich and powerful that's very much a product of its political moment in time. This film literally eats the rich.

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