No one goes to a Jurassic Park movie to experience brilliant acting performances or profound explorations of complex human relationships; they want to see dinosaurs, lots of dinosaurs, and in its two hours and eight minutes Jurassic Park: Fallen Kingdom provides more than enough of them. Further, after a slow-paced and meandering first hour that emphasizes the menace of an erupting volcano more than the menace of ravenous dinosaurs, the film does become genuinely entertaining, especially since director J. A. Barona and writers Derek Connolly and Colin Trevorrow are striving to bring a novel approach to this venerable franchise – although, from a different perspective, it isn’t really novel at all.
But before discussing what merits your attention in this film, I must address what you will first have to sit through – an abbreviated iteration of the basic story of the other four Jurassic Park films: several perfunctorily developed characters go to an island and interact with a bunch of dinosaurs. Here, viewers are provided with a thankfully brief reprise of the tediously on-and-off romance of raptor trainer Owen Brady (Chris Pratt) and executive Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard), one of the least endearing features of the otherwise enjoyable Jurassic World (2015 – review here); Owen has now retired, while Claire is working to save the dinosaurs left on Isla Nublar from an impending volcanic eruption. They are accompanied by two new assistant heroes, likable nerd Franklin Webb (Justice Smith) and sharp-tongued “paleo-veterinarian” Zia Rodriguez (Daniella Pineda), being road-tested for more prominent roles in the franchise’s next installment. Back in the United States, we are also introduced to the hitherto-unseen partner of legendary Jurassic Park founder John Hammond, the benevolent Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell), his adorable granddaughter Maisie (Isabella Sermon), her kindly caretaker Iris (Geraldine Chaplin), and Lockwood’s immediately suspicious assistant Eli Mills (Rafe Spall) – obliged to bring in a dinosaur or two every ten minutes, filmmakers cannot waste any time in identifying the characters we are supposed to like and the characters we are supposed to despise.
While focused on foregrounding its two stars and developing the new characters, Jurassic Park: Fallen Kingdom also includes, fleetingly, some characters from previous films. It seems that every Jurassic Park film must include an image of the late Richard Attenborough as Hammond, here in the form of a painting in Lockwood’s mansion. It was widely publicized that Jeff Goldblum would be returning from the first film to again play mathematician Dr. Ian Malcolm; however, perhaps noticing that another sequel that brought Goldblum back in a major role, Independence Day: Resurgence (2016 – review here) was a spectacular failure, the filmmakers restrict him to a very small role, beginning and ending the film with portentous testimony during a congressional hearing. And BD Wong’s Dr. Henry Wu, given little to do in Jurassic World, is also only briefly observed here as the mastermind behind another insidious experiment with dinosaurs.
The initial plight of the dinosaurs illustrates one noteworthy shift during the evolution of this franchise: in the first Jurassic Park film (1993), the dinosaurs functioned primarily as threatening adversaries; now, they are viewed primarily as innocent victims, and the true villains are human beings, who seek to exploit the dinosaurs for sinister aims and sometimes create brand-new dinosaurs designed to be purely evil – in the previous film, the “Indominus rex,” and here, the “Indoraptor.” In a strange way, this parallels what occurred in the most prominent series of dinosaur films before Jurassic Park, Toho Studio’s Godzilla films: in early films, giant monsters like Godzilla and Rodan were unquestionably the bad guys; later, they became the heroes, protecting Japan against duplicitous people (or aliens) manipulating the monsters or new, inimical monsters like Ghidorah. Perhaps, the more time one spends with characters, the more one naturally grows to like them, even if they initially seem repugnant; perhaps, one cannot build a successful franchise around unsympathetic characters, even if they are exciting, prompting filmmakers to gradually transform them into nice guys.
Emulating its predecessors, the entire film might have been devoted to the herculean efforts to rescue the dinosaurs, led by the immediately suspicious Ken Wheatley (Ted Levine), a scenario offering ample opportunities for alternating encounters with charmingly cute dinosaurs (like Owen’s old pet, the Raptor Blue) and horrifyingly ferocious dinosaurs (like the Tyrannosaurus rex that Franklin keeps worrying about). Instead, the film rushes through this hackneyed story, which probably bored Barona as much as it will bore audiences, and brings all the dinosaurs not to another island – the original plan – but into Lockwood’s enormous mansion. (This might be regarded as a “spoiler,” but any savvy viewer will instantly realize that a film about dinosaurs would never devote so much time to describing this place and its residents unless dinosaurs would eventually be roaming through its hallways; it’s another illustration of Anton Chekhov’s principle of the gun on the wall.) I won’t provide any details about the nefarious motives behind this development, save to note that they serve the function of making us happy when, as is inevitable, all of the perpetrators are individually slaughtered by dinosaurs (the only suspense involves the possibility that one of the scoundrels might be allowed to survive in order to save filmmakers the trouble of developing a new villain for the sequel). In any event, it isn’t their routine villainy that makes the second part of the film more interesting than the first.
Except for a single dinosaur’s rampage through San Diego at the conclusion of Jurassic Park: The Lost World (1997), the franchise’s dinosaurs have always been observed in natural settings or, as in Jurassic World, within the artificially natural confines of an amusement park. Here, they invade an American home, as a dinosaur literally chases a girl into her bedroom, and there is the prospect that dinosaurs may soon be wandering through her backyard. And this will start to seem familiar to many viewers; I live in a neighborhood where bobcats and coyotes regularly patrol the streets, and residents of nearby communities have discovered bears relaxing in their pools. As their natural environments shrink, and their resources are diminished, in fact, many wild animals have invaded inhabited areas, and since they are doing so solely because they need food, scientists have advised people that they may simply have to adjust to living with some alarming animals in their vicinity. Learning to live with dinosaurs patrolling our streets might seem more difficult, but this is an aspect of one broader message in this film: dinosaurs are animals, and if they are ever brought back to life to become part of Earth’s biosphere, they will provide all the pleasures, and cause all the problems, that we now associate with other large animals.
The earlier Jurassic Park films focused on one similarity between dinosaurs and living animals: just as people like to visit zoos to see impressive animals like elephants, giraffes, and lions, they would want to visit similar establishments to see various sorts of dinosaurs. But many of the large animals long featured in zoos are now threatened with extinction, since humanity’s expanding presence is making it harder and harder for them to survive, inspiring charitable efforts to keep them alive – we have all seen, for example, the commercials urging viewers to send money to save the snow leopard. In Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, this is precisely the anticipated fate of dinosaurs, for if Isla Nublar is ravaged by a volcano, all of its dinosaurs will become “extinct.” Thus, Claire works for the “Dinosaur Protection Group,” an organization trying to rescue those dinosaurs, and we observe demonstrators demanding government action to “Save Our Dinos.” One can question the logic behind these concerns – presumably, if scientists were able to manufacture dinosaurs once, they could easily do so again – but this film’s dinosaurs may be designed to serve as analogues to today’s endangered species, which live in a world that lacks the magical technology to resurrect extinct animals. (It may also be significant that Lockwood’s mansion appears to be located somewhere in northern California, a region noted both for its devotion to nature and advanced technological prowess – and for that reason, as I’ve pointed out in other reviews, an increasingly popular setting for science fiction movies.)
Yet no matter how adorable they look in commercials, nobody wants a snow leopard in their swimming pool, and some endangered species are regularly killed by nearby residents justifiably unhappy about the damaging effects of their predatory activities; in this film, even dinosaur-hugger Claire hesitates to do anything that might bring dinosaurs into America’s backyards, though that might represent the only way they can remain alive. The solution usually advanced in Jurassic Park films is to confine them to islands, an idea that author Michael Crichton probably borrowed from the Godzilla films, where “Monster Island” becomes a safe haven for monsters who could not be allowed to roam through the Japanese countryside; but without constant human intervention, it’s hard to imagine an island ecosystem that could support lions and snow leopards, let alone carnivorous dinosaurs. In the end, the film offers no real solution to the problem of keeping attractive but dangerous animals alive without threatening humans, but this is understandable, since we are still struggling to find a good solution in dealing with actual wild animals.
Further, just as many endangered species today are the focus of illegal animal trafficking – the smuggling of live animals or various body parts of dead animals – the film suggests that dinosaurs, if they reappeared, might also become sought-after contraband in the global black market. For example, one sign that Wheatley is a dirty rotten so-and-so is his habit of extracting teeth from living dinosaurs as souvenirs. However, according to the film, the most important reason for obtaining dinosaurs is to get samples of their DNA, presumably to serve as the basis for further experiments designed to create even more horrific dinosaurs. (No one, it seems, has any benign interest in the potential medicinal benefits of dinosaur products, even though that is a major impetus for today’s animal trafficking.)
Another drawback to having large animals around is that they can be misused for undesirable purposes, like waging war – a concern that arose in Jurassic World and is further emphasized in this film. Yet the film’s argument, I think, is fundamentally flawed. As I noted while reviewing Jurassic World, it is certainly true that people have effectively employed animals on the battlefield, making it seemingly logical to use dinosaurs as well. However, the animals people have chosen are typically placid plant-eaters, like horses and elephants, and they are employed to assist humans in attacking adversaries, not to attack adversaries themselves. Horses pull chariots and warriors ride on elephants, but for obvious reasons, no culture has ever attempted to train a squadron of lions or bears to slaughter opponents.
Considering dinosaurs, then, one might well envision soldiers observing enemy maneuvers from atop the head of a brontosaurus, or riding a triceratops into battle. However, saying nothing about using dinosaurs in these ways, these films persistently promote the desirability of turning carnivorous dinosaurs into trained fighting machines, ignoring the fact that predators like lions and Raptors are, by nature, virtually impossible to train. Yes, this film does offer some language about purported genetic programming that will make the Indoraptor an obedient servant, but that claim is explicitly refuted when one of the proponents of this plan is killed by an out-of-control Indoraptor. Bluntly, all of this seems nothing more than a flimsy pretext to justify the otherwise inexplicable decision to deliberately create homicidal dinosaurs, and thus generate exciting action scenes, when sane scientists would be striving instead to find ways to make dinosaurs more docile. A cynic might further observe that these supposedly lethal predators are curiously inconsistent in their efficacy, in that they invariably succeed in killing scoundrels and invariably fail to kill good people like Owen and Claire.
Aspects of the film suggest a few other, more benign uses of dinosaurs. Recalling the Brontosaurus that Fred Flintstone employed at the Slate Rock and Gravel Company, the way that Owen induces a baby Pachycephalosaur to break through a wall demonstrates that such dinosaurs might be useful as battering rams in demolition projects. (I’m not sure of the exact species depicted; one may need to consult a ten-year-old to correctly identify every type of dinosaur observed in this film.) Owen’s ongoing relationship with the Raptor Blue indicates that some smaller dinosaurs might function well as support animals, or even household pets, although Blue herself apparently decides in the end that, despite her affection for Owen, she would rather live away from humans. And the film itself illustrates another possible way to employ dinosaurs – as the centerpieces of documentary films to attract viewers who are unable to observe live dinosaurs.
Finally, Barona, Connolly, and Trevorrow would like you to believe that their film is thoughtfully pondering an important question: if we could bring back the dinosaurs, should we do so? In his introductory comments to Congress, Malcolm surprisingly presents a negative view, stating that in re-creating dinosaurs “we altered the course of history” to bring about a “man-made cataclysmic change,” so that it would represent a desirable “correction” to allow them to become extinct. Like all Jurassic Park films, then, the film ultimately endorses the ancient argument that all scientific innovations are disastrous and hence must be avoided at all costs – an attitude that, if followed throughout human history, would have left us permanently living in caves, reluctant to dabble with potentially catastrophic newfangled stuff like fire and the wheel. My own answer, which would no doubt be echoed by innumerable Jurassic Park films, is that sure, we should go ahead and make some dinosaurs, and if that means that, someday, I’ll have to adjust to vicious Velociraptors running through my neighborhood, so be it, if that’s the price of progress. There are even slight hints that the next film in the series, already scheduled for release on June 11, 2021, will ultimately endorse that idea, even if it only represents the best way for producers to lay the groundwork for more profitable films about dinosaurs.
Directed by J. A. Barona
Written by Derek Connolly and Colin Trevorrow, based on characters created by Michael Crichton
Starring Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Rafe Spall, Justice Smith, Daniella Pineda, Isabella Sermon, James Cromwell, Toby Jones, Ted Levine, Jeff Goldblum, BD Wong, and Geraldine Chaplin
Gary Westfahl has published 26 books about science fiction and fantasy, including Science Fiction Quotations: From the Inner Mind to the Outer Limits (2005), The Spacesuit Film: A History, 1918-1969 (2012), and A Sense-of-Wonderful Century: Explorations of Science Fiction and Fantasy Films (2012); excerpts from these and his other books are available at his World of Westfahl website (here). He has also published hundreds of articles, reviews, and contributions to reference books. His most recent books are the three-volume A Day in a Working Life: 300 Trades and Professions through History (2015), An Alien Abroad: Science Fiction Columns from Interzone (2016), the co-edited Bridges to Science Fiction and Fantasy: Outstanding Essays from the J. Lloyd Eaton Conferences (2018), and Arthur C. Clarke, part of the University of Illinois Press’s Modern Masters of Science Fiction series.