On Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, Genre Reflections, and the Franchise Reboot

Jurassic World Fallen Kingdom.jpeg

Like the first Jurassic World, the mega-hit of summer 2015, this summer's Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is fairly solid entertainment, if far from artistic excellence. Nevertheless, both Jurassic World movies contain thematic and meta-filmic elements that allow them to partially transcend their status as mid-tier summer blockbusters.

Of first concern are both films' at-times intelligent engagement with their 1990s franchise predecessors. I've described 2015's mega-hit Jurassic World as a "sorta-sequel, sorta-reboot, capable of standing alone yet fixated on its connections with its predecessor." On another occasion, I more precisely termed Jurassic World a "diegetic reboot" of Jurassic Park (1993), meaning that it acts as a narrative successor to Spielberg's film as well as a thematic revival and franchise reboot.[1] Following this logic, as World mirrors Park, the sequel Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom shows many reflections of The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997), Spielberg's darker, meaner sequel. In both cases, the 21st-century re-creations pale in comparison to their 1990s originals, but, as I've already indicated, the Jurassic World movies are not without merit. In particular, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom offers the viewer an exciting generic hybrid of a summer blockbuster, featuring formal and narrative elements which parallel the gene-spliced dinosaur at the centre of the plot that functions as both MacGuffin and movie monster.

The first Jurassic World duplicates the focus of Jurassic Park on the breakdown of human control over a theme park containing genetically-resurrected dinosaurs. In this respect, both World and Park are works of science fiction in the vein of H. G. Wells' The Food of the Gods (1904) and the urtext, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818), works in which scientific invention precipitates a loss of human control and destructive events. Thematically, this group of works caution against the hubris of human beings playing God, that is, presuming control over things ultimately beyond human capabilities or domain. Michael Crichton, who wrote the novels that Jurassic Park and The Lost World were based on (published in 1990 and 1995, respectively), returns to this theme in many of his works. Fundamentally, such themes are conservative in outlook, as they emphasize human limitation and a proper, natural order to things. Human ingenuity is not without marvelous ability, but our interests and desires tend to exceed our grasp. Thus, scientific invention, which ever seeks to exercise greater control over the natural world, leads to a coincident loss of control—the creation of chaos at the moment of domination and ordering. Thinking about the advent of the smartphone will show that this can be the case in real life. Indeed, this is the paradox at the heart of scientific enterprise and technological innovation, and the message in such works of science fictions stands in stark contrast to the techno-utopian messaging coming out of places like Silicon Valley.

In the prologue to Fallen Kingdom, Jeff Goldblum's Dr. Ian Malcolm briefly appears onscreen to warn a U.S. Senate committee about the hubris of presuming we can safely create and control dinosaurs. The gist of Malcolm's sermon (which is basically a summarization of his comments throughout Jurassic Park), however, goes ignored by the major characters and indeed the film itself. Bryce Dallas Howard's Claire, the heroine of Jurassic World, now heads an NGO dedicated to preserving the dinosaurs of the now-defunct Jurassic World theme park living in isolation from human activity on Isla Nublar (with partial success—a team extracts a large tooth in the opening gambit). The problem is that the dinosaurs now face a new "extinction-level" event in the form of an active volcano on the island. At no point does anyone but Malcolm invite the sensible view that it might be safer and more ethical to simply let the dinosaurs go extinct once again, by natural causes I would add.

Instead, Fallen Kingdom embodies science fiction's warning about human invention and technological innovation chiefly by replicating, with limited variation, the monster at the centre of the first Jurassic World. Franchises, like people, never seem to learn their lessons. Jurassic World introduced the "Indominus Rex," a genetic hybrid of a Tyrannosaurus and several other species. Fallen Kingdom presents the "Indoraptor," a genetic hybrid based on the Velociraptor, a smaller, more intelligent dinosaur predator. This creature, and the intellectual property that are its genes, is both the desired object the good guys and bad guys are hunting for, as well as the monster hunting everyone alike. The film manages this seemingly strange MacGuffin/monster amalgamation through shifts in narrative focus and scope, and with the aid of allusions to other works of science fiction and adventure.

You will recall that the title of Spielberg's The Lost World: Jurassic Park alluded to Arthur Conan Doyle's adventure classic, The Lost World (1912), about explorers discovering a hidden world of dinosaurs in South America. That film featured Ian Malcolm heading an expedition to document the dinosaurs on Isla Sorna (a second island) where they come into conflict with a more nefarious expedition to capture a variety of the dinosaurs for a new theme park in San Diego. Fallen Kingdom follows Spielberg's sequel by also involving an adventurous expedition into a realm now ruled by dinosaurs: the main duo from the first World film, Claire and Chris Pratt's Owen, are recruited by the agent (Rafe Spall) of a dying billionaire (James Cromwell) to go to Isla Nublar and save as many dinosaurs from the volcano as they can. We discover that the agent has an ulterior motive: to sell these dinosaurs as weapons on the blackmarket.

The narratives of Lost World and Fallen Kingdom both resemble that of the monster movie classic King Kong (1933),[2] as each film involves an expedition to a remote island, an adventure on the island, and the capture of the monster and its transport to the mainland, where the monster ends up breaking free and going on a rampage. King Kong also establishes the central creature as both sought-after object and monster to fear. Where Fallen Kingdom diverges from the other two movies is during its second half, when the film narrows its focus and setting, as I will discuss shortly, instead of expanding to show destruction across a city. Running only two hours long and with its main action set piece found in the middle of the movie, Fallen Kingdom also offers welcome divergences from most action blockbusters today, which tend to extend well beyond two hours with aggravated and drawn-out overly-destructive climaxes.

Before the contraction of its final act, Fallen Kingdom offers up its true climax in terms of action spectacle, which involves a grand-scale variation on the terrifying cliff set-piece from The Lost World, in which the heroes must escape a camper trailer dangling over the edge of a cliff. Thus, Fallen Kingdom expands a confined-setting set-piece from Lost World, while later confining the monster's rampage to a mansion from the expanse of a city. As the volcano destroys the island in Fallen Kingdom, Claire and Owen and their annoying secondary-character cling-ons (I won't validate their presence by describing them) must flee to the coast where the paramilitary group's escape boat resides. Like a menagerie of animals fleeing alongside each other in the face of a wildfire, dinosaurs big and small run, leap, and trample alongside the heroes.[3] The collection of animals and humans is driven towards a precipice—and I'll let you find out what happens.

The volcanic destruction of the island is the highlight of Fallen Kingdom and worth the price of admission. It's a vision of apocalyptic fury as well as a nod to one of the theories for dinosaur extinction, and the only time (until the very end—more on that later) in which the film expands to a scope matching its title, Jurassic World. The sequence concludes with the film's moment of most poignant emotion, as a long-necked dinosaur is caught up in a swirl of dust and fire, and helplessly succumbs to the flames.

With titles evoking loss and impermanence, both of these dino-sequels, The Lost World and Fallen Kingdom, ultimately place the franchise's thematic emphasis less on warning about the dangers of scientific invention and more on the evils of human exploitation of the natural world and the need for the conservation of its wonders. Whether we can consider these prodigious dinosaurs as natural creatures, considering their highly artificial creations, is insufficiently questioned by either film.

After the island adventure, the film contracts, and here, it would seem, we get the strongest influence of the Spanish director, J. A. Bayona, a one-time disciple of Guillermo del Toro who is most famous for the creepy horror film The Orphanage (2007). Bayona has also cut his chops directing a disaster film, the tsunami movie The Impossible (2012), so Fallen Kingdom repeats two major beats from his filmography. The film contains several pronounced Gothic elements, most significantly, an old mansion in a forest with secrets in the basement, and a little girl with a creepy nanny who possesses a strange blood heritage.

Bayona cuts away from the Claire-Owen storyline to tell the story of the mansion and the girl at various points. The mansion is the billionaire's, and the girl, Maisie Lockwood (Isabella Sermon), we are told, is his granddaughter. The final act of the plot, which centres around the agent setting up a dinosaur-weapon auction in the basement complex, is dominated by these Gothic trappings. Eventually, the Indoraptor breaks free and wreaks havoc on the mansion. These events resemble the close-quarters tension of the scenes in Jurassic Park when the children are evading the raptors in the complex. As I've already noted, Fallen Kingdom lacks the large-scale destruction of a T-Rex unleashed on San Diego; its final act more resembles the scenes in Lost World showing the raptors hunting in the long grass at night and the events at the dilapidated complex. At one point, the Indoraptor even comes in through the girl's window to her elaborate Victorian bedroom, lifting up her blanket with its long hooked claws. I thought these scenes oddly worked. I also liked the hiding from the monster in the old dinosaur display room. I appreciate the subdued scope of the final act.

If the action differs in flavour and tone, character-wise, there are improvements over the first Jurassic World. In my review of Jurassic World, I objected to the sexist portrayal of Bryce Dallas Howard's Claire. This time, the screenwriters, Colin Trevorrow and Derek Connolly, forget that she was a career-minded corporate lady, and let her do her thing. I also found Pratt to be more comfortable as Owen and less a caricature of the muscular masculine adventurer. The little girl is a strange addition, though, and so is her whole storyline. It has whiffs of Resident Evil, with its wicked mansion containing genetic horror.

For a reading of the final act, might we consider how Fallen Kingdom comments on its direct predecessor, Jurassic World? In the early scenes with Owen in Jurassic World, that film voiced criticism of the military application of dinosaurs. However, the idea was overturned in the film's second half when the viewer is invited to take pleasure in Owen doing the very thing he criticized: weaponizing his raptors as he rides out for battle (or to the rescue) with his pack. The action in that film also shows how superior in capability the raptor pack is to the paramilitary group, proving the villainous military contractor's claims about the extraordinary value of dinosaurs as weapons.

As well, Claire's dialogue in Jurassic World about the Indominus Rex link the film to that creature, as something "bigger, louder," with "more teeth" than the first Jurassic Park movies. Fallen Kingdom is also linked to its gene-spliced monster. The Indoraptor is smaller and more lethal in close settings, and, as I've described above, the film narrows into its haunted house final chapter. The culminating action involves the Indoraptor unleashing havoc on arms buyers, the very people who want to weaponize it. Does this second film's conservationist and anti-military message put it into conflict with the first film's later embracing of action involving dinosaur soldiers?

In addition, near the end of Fallen Kingdom, all the dinosaurs held in captivity are released and the little girl, Maisie, the newly-added heroine, is revealed to be a clone, linking her with the dinosaur clones she unleashes on the world. This is the incarnation, finally, of series 2.0's title, Jurassic World. This ending had left me confused and morally troubled, since, in a way, the girl becomes responsible for the death and carnage and human loss of life we can presume occurs after the dinosaurs spread across the globe. But, this ending perhaps makes more sense if we read it as an act of revenge: the revenge of the clones, if you will. On a meta-filmic level, it is an act of revenge and self-chastisement, punishing the world and audience for not only once again consuming the type of summer blockbuster entertainment that demands death and carnage, but also chastising the film's own greed in creating a second line of dinosaurs, and a second series of movies within which to exploit them.

There is a meta-filmic thread running back to the original Jurassic Park, which itself linked film and theme park (even showing the same icons and product lines), that comments on and criticizes the very filmic forms the Jurassic movies embody. This doesn't exempt Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom from criticisms of the Hollywood franchise industry, but it does make it just that bit smarter, as well as shows the logic of postmodern capitalist entertainment, which is all-too-happy to incorporate counter-cultural critique into its commercial systems of entertainment.  

On a lighter note, for all their flaws, the Jurassic World movies eschew many of the characteristics of 21st-century blockbusters that I find least appealing. For instance, they avoid the contrived grittiness of so many reboots, or the cynical irreverence that characterizes today’s summer fare, and they contain a lot of what made 90s blockbusters enjoyable because they are similarly light and fun. However, they never reach the heights of Spielberg's Jurassic Park because they don't have the patience to generate intense suspense, nor the ability to conjure genuine wonder and awe. But they are pretty good, and the latest addition makes me want to forgive some of the aspects of the predecessor that I found less-than-appealing.

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018, USA)

Directed by J. A. Bayona; written by Derek Connolly and Colin Trevorrow, based on the characters created by Michael Crichton; starring Bryce Dallas Howard, Chris Pratt, Rafe Spall, James Cromwell, Toby Jones, B. D. Wong, Isabella Sermon, and Jeff Goldblum.

[1] To clarify my use of the term "reboot": The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) is a good example of a conventional movie franchise reboot. The first series is stopped and a new series centering on the same subject (or franchise property) is started, usually but not always by the same production company (in the case of Spider-Man, Sony Pictures). In contrast, Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) and, arguably, Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017) are examples of "diegetic reboots," in that both movies are additions to the franchise as well as the sequential storyline—and story-world, hence, "diegetic"—but, at the same time, important functions of the reboot are being performed, such as the introduction of new major characters, a different narrative focus, a new tone or artistic approach, etc., or a new artistic/commercial ownership has taken effect (in this case, Episode VII is the start of Disney's, rather than Lucas's, Star Wars, but it's still supposed to be the same Star Wars world). On other occasions, I've called attention to diegetic reboots of differing character, labelling the Bond movies For Your Eyes Only (1981) and The Living Daylights (1987) as "soft reboots," whereas Casino Royale (2006), which goes back for its narrative subject to a preceding, original event, is a "hard reboot." All three 007 movies are diegetic reboots, since they take place in the same story-world and movie franchise, and For Your Eyes Only, it seems to me, even sequentially follows the Roger Moore films that came before it. There's still work to be done on how to understand and talk about reboots, but I hope this is a helpful start.

[2] The 1925 movie adaptation of The Lost World used pioneering stop motion special effects to the render its dinosaurs. The effects were created by Willis O'Brien, who went on to famously create the special effects for King Kong. In the early 1990s, Spielberg first considered stop motion special effects for his dinosaurs before George Lucas convinced him ILM could create the dinosaurs using CGI.

[3] The escape amidst the legs of giant beasts also recalls the flight amidst the long-necked dinosaurs in Peter Jackson's King Kong (2005).