Running and Screaming
There’s an old belief that all little boys go dino-mad for a minute. I have no idea if that’s accurate, but I do know I was no exception. Back then, I recall a zoo of molded plastic critters, everything from the T-rex to the Stegosaurus. I remember junior paleontology books and a bemused father* taking me over and over and over to the Denver Museum of Nature and Science so that I could gawk at the fossils.
I love dinosaurs. I always have. Even now. I recently finished the very good book The Last Days of the Dinosaurs by Riley Black.** Odds are I’ll stop loving them right around the time I stop breathing. So when the Venn diagram of movies and dinos intersected in 1993 with the release of Jurassic Park, you would have expected that I would have lost my damn mind.
Here’s the thing about that…I like Jurassic Park quite a bit. I don’t love it. A rewatch a few days ago confirmed that it remains a skillfully made blockbuster with some Hall of Fame setpieces and a screenplay written with genuine craft.*** So what’s wrong with it? Nothing. My gut tells me that if I’d been a few years younger, Jurassic Park would be foundational instead of a movie I’m simply fond of. Instead, the movies that made me were Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and the 1989 Batman.
The fact remains that Jurassic Park casts a Brachiosaurus-sized shadow over the cinematic landscape, one that the rest of the movies in the franchise have never been able to live up to. A legacy sequel, Jurassic World, was released in 2015 and was followed in 2018 by Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. Both made money. Both don’t seem to have become beloved over time. Now we’re confronted with Jurassic World: Dominion, which is designed to wrap up the whole epic. It simultaneously does too much and not enough.
To very quickly bring you up to speed, after the events of Fallen Kingdom, lots of genetically engineered dinosaurs are living free and in the wild. Pterosaurs nest atop skyscrapers. Brontosauruses casually walk through small towns. A rogue Mososaurus makes commercial fishing even more dangerous. None of this is ideal for anybody.
Speaking of things being less than ideal, former Velociraptor whisperer Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) and former Jurassic Park manager and current ecoterrorist Clare Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) are attempting to live a quiet life off the grid. You see, the absolute last thing they want to do is attract attention, considering that their adopted daughter Maisie (Isabella Sermon) is the clone of a famous geneticist. She’s also being hunted by Dodgson (Campbell Scott), the CEO of BioSyn. Does it make sense that, considering they need to keep a low profile, Clare is going on direct actions to free imprisoned dinos? Eh…not really, no.
Anyway, a group of poachers connected to BioSyn kidnaps Beta, the offspring of Owen’s Raptor pal Blue. They also manage to kidnap Maisie quite easily since she’s an impulsive teenager. Owen and Clare must spring into action to rescue their daughter and Beta from the evil clutches of Dodgson. Along the way, they’ll be assisted by Kayla Watts (DeWanda Wise), a former Air Force pilot and current smuggler. Does it make sense that Watts initially tells Clare there’s no way she’s getting involved, then almost immediately changes her mind to help them? Eh…not really, no.
But wait, there’s more! There’s also the minor problem of genetically modified locusts systematically destroying crops throughout the Midwest. Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern) suspects BioSyn is behind it, and she convinces/bullies Alan Grant (Sam Neill) into helping her obtain evidence. Does it make sense that a paleontologist would be uniquely qualified to commit corporate espionage? Eh…not really, no. The good news is that Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) works as a resident thought leader for BioSyn, and when he’s not cheerfully explaining all the ways the world will end, he’s in a position to help out his old pals.
As I write this, social media is showing me the many, many people who took their hyperbole pills and weighed in on Jurassic World: Dominion. Some have said it’s an unmitigated disaster, one of the worst blockbusters in recent memory. Others have hailed it as a triumph, a film that proudly stands snout to snout with the original. The truth lies somewhere in the middle. Dominion features some fun setpieces, mostly charismatic actors, and decent VFX work. It also features a bloated mess of a screenplay and a lead performance that feels curiously inert.
Despite Steven Spielberg acting as an executive producer, the World films feel more like the brainchild of director Colin Trevorrow. He’s a thoughtful filmmaker, and I think if he’d been given the reins to a project that wasn’t beholden to a massive IP, we would have had more interesting results. Dominion is a good-looking movie that occasionally lingers on a lovely sequence, such as a group of cowboys pursuing a flock of Parasaurolophuses through snowy mountains. Trevorrow has a good eye, there’s no denying that.
Yet the primary problem at hand is with the screenplay, written by Trevorrow, Emily Carmichael, and Derek Connolly. First, the film makes an implicit promise to the audience by saying, “Ready to see dinosaurs go absolutely ass-wild throughout the world?” It’s true that we get a fun motorcycle v. raptor chase through a city, but moments like that are the exception. The rule is that the majority of the story takes place in isolated preserves, which is pretty much what the previous five movies also featured. I don’t know if this was a budgetary issue, another victim of the COVID-19 epidemic, or a failure of imagination. I do know it doesn’t work.
Secondly, we’re also promised that the OG cast and the new kids will team up for all manner of dino-related tomfoolery. And that happens…in the final third of the film. To get there, we have to sit through two separate narratives that don’t have a hell of a lot to do with each other. Now, I hear you saying, “Didn’t Avengers: Infinity War also have a ridiculous amount of plots and characters to keep track of?” It did and it juggled plot and characters with no small amount of dexterity. Dominion is nowhere near that agile with its dueling narratives. They’re too clunky, they take far too long to merge, and when they do, we don’t really get much chance to see these thinly-drawn characters bounce off each other meaningfully.
Lastly, as fun as the action sequences are, they’re fun in a lizard brain (Sorry!) kind of way. If you think about the details, they fall apart. For example, there’s a moment where two characters must enter an enclosed area to get a genetic sample from the gigantic locusts. Why do two people have to go? What do they have to do to obtain the sample? What happens if the locusts get them? The answers are 1) two people have to go because, 2) they just have to pick up a locust and jab it with a syringe-thingy, and 3) presumably the locusts will strip them to their bones. Nobody ever said screenwriting was easy, but too often here, moments seem to happen “just because.” When thought and specificity are applied to action sequences, the results aren’t just smarter, they’re more satisfying.
So why are we putting up with all of this? Because the cast is, for the most part, charming and fun. I’m down with Laura Dern’s can-do Ellie, down with Sam Neill’s slightly grumpier than I remember Grant, and down with Jeff Goldblum absolutely Goldbluming all over the place as Malcolm. I enjoyed Bryce Dallas Howard’s in over her head Clare, and I loved DeWanda Wise. As Watts, Wise has a competent and cocky charm reminiscent of Indiana Jones. She steals the film, and she needs an action/comedy franchise built around her.
Then there’s Chris Pratt as Owen Grady. In my Jurassic World review, I wrote that Pratt is playing “a character that is literally flawless. He’s always right about everything, he’s utterly competent, and there’s never a sense that he’s in a situation he can’t handle.” That’s still the case and as a character, Owen is deadly dull. As a result, Pratt almost never gets to show humor, range, or vulnerability. That drives me nuts because past roles have proven to me he can portray all of that and more. Here, he’s not tired, scared, or worried about failure. He’s simply determined. All the time. Constantly, and that one note gets real old real fast.
I still love dinosaurs. I love that they’re visually unique creatures, so much so that it’s hard to believe sometimes they could ever be a part of our world. I love that they’ve made an indelible mark on the history of our planet. One thing that will not make an indelible mark is Jurassic World: Dominion. It’s fine. It’ll make an amount of money similar in size to the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs. Then, Dominion will disappear and another, better film will be rightly heralded.**** Like life, cinema finds a way.
*A product of World War II, my father surely wanted a strapping young son who would play catch with him and tramp through the woods. Instead, he was stuck with me. All I’m saying is that his upbringing didn’t prepare him to parent a nerd.
**I also highly recommend The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs by Steve Brusatte.
***Yep, David Koepp wrote a legit smart screenplay. Consider the scene early on where Ian Malcolm explains chaos theory to Ellie Sattler using a glass of water. That causes us to associate chaos with water and sets up the introduction later of the T-rex with the famous impact tremors in the water. This stuff isn’t coincidental.
****I learned from anecdotal evidence that numerous screenplays involving dinosaurs are being passed on. The thinking is that audiences will only accept dinos in movies if it has something to do with Jurassic Park/World/Galaxy. Sometimes I hate Hollywood.