Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom loses the tone, confuses the theme (spoiler-filled review)

I’m a big fan of the original Jurassic Park. It’s a classic Spielberg piece which melds an entertaining science fiction premise and turns it into a mostly gentle survival horror film. The original film hammered the audience with the theme (“life finds a way”) but ultimately the creator of the park wasn’t a villain, just a bit naive. The real villain in the piece, Dennis Nedry, is a bumbling, overweight programmer who risks everyone’s safety for money and winds up becoming dino-chow. There’s also a softer family formation sub-plot involving the heroes and the grandkids of the park’s creator.

Fallen Kingdom tries to resurrect most of those elements but somehow winds up showing just how difficult it is to get the tone right in a movie like this. Everything that follows is full of major spoilers so if you haven’t seen it yet maybe come back after you have. In this film, Owen (Chris Pratt) and Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) are no longer together for reasons never explained. She is an activist trying to get government funding to rescue the dinosaurs left behind in the last film. The reason? The island has suddenly become volcanic and all of the dinosaurs are going to be wiped out unless someone saves them. A wealthy former partner of Richard Hammond, played by James Cromwell, agrees to fund the rescue mission. More specifically, the young man who has been entrusted with managing his fortune agrees to fund it because Cromwell is too old and sick to manage his own affairs at this point.

So Claire recruits Owen to go back to the island partly to rescue Blue, the velociraptor he raised by hand, and partly we suspect because he still has a thing for Claire. They are joined by a pair of secondary characters one of whom is basically comic relief and the other of whom seems to be there as some kind of feminist statement. She does one thing in the movie and spends the rest of the time being obnoxious. There’s also a moment where one of the villains refers to her as a “nasty woman” which feels like a 2016 political meme we didn’t need in this 2018 movie.

Maybe 15 minutes into this, you’re expecting the heroes will return to the island and the climax will be when the volcano explodes and the heroes barely escape certain death. But that’s not what happens. The party of adventurers is met on the island by a large team of military types who are there to grab the dinosaurs. If you’ve already guessed where this is going, you’re right. It turns out the military types aren’t rescuing the dinos to put them in a game preserve, they’re grabbing them for an auction to a group of sketchy eastern European customers. They leave the heroes to fend for themselves on an exploding island full of panicky dinosaurs.

But all of this happens within the first hour of the movie. We go to the island, get the dinos, the island blows up and the heroes escape in about 50 minutes flat. It feels rushed, to say the least. Some of the stuff that happens on the island is great visually but then it’s over and now the heroes are stowaways on a ship full of dinosaurs and military guys who have already left them for dead. Needless to say, no one notices them for the next 20-30 minutes despite the fact that they are performing dino surgery and generally making a lot of noise. It just feels very forced and unearned and you begin to miss Steven Spielberg who seems to always know when the audience’s suspension of disbelief is being tested a bit too much.

The last third of the film (maybe it’s half, I’m not sure) takes place back at James Cromwell’s mansion where a lab/dino prison has been set up in the basement where the auction will take place. I won’t go into every detail of the plot here but you can probably guess that, at some point, dinos will escape the cages and chomp most of the bad guys. Before that happens, there’s a scene where Owen and Claire are stuck in jail and the villain points out what bad people they are. Instead of disagreeing, they basically both concede the point, i.e. yes, we’re horrible people who are complicit in all of this exploitation of dinosaurs and we deserve to be punished.

Um, okay. Look, I realize you have something to say here about human nature but I came to this film to see the heroes fight dinosaurs and escape. In classic terms, Jurassic Park is a comedy, i.e. a journey to hell and back. I really didn’t want to see Jurassic Park the tragedy, i.e. the heroes realize they’re not heroes and belong in hell. That’s just more than I want from a dinosaur adventure movie.

It’s not the only place where the writers seem to have lost the tone of the piece. Sticking with the first film’s subplot about family, there’s a little girl in this film who plays James Cromwell’s granddaughter. She falls in with Owen and Clair to form a kind of family unit, just like the kids fell in with Sam Neill in the first film. But here, the little girl finds her grandfather dead and then gets menaced by a really evil and unstoppable dinosaur all within about 25 minutes. It starts to feel less like adventure and more like child abuse.

Spielberg has always had a way with kids. In ET obviously, but also in Jaws and Close Encounters and Jurassic Park. Kids in his movies are often as heroic as the adults, or more so. They face danger but it’s always danger they are equipped to handle. Fallen Kingdom is missing that sense of proportion and empowerment. To be clear, the problem isn’t the young actress who does a fine job, but with the writing. There are too many horror beats and not enough adventure beats. Of course, the girl survives in the end but not really because of her own actions. There’s no scary but fun escape, she just has to be rescued repeatedly by someone else. So that’s one of the original film’s themes that is botched.

Finally, there’s the main theme. In the original film, it’s “life finds a way.” The message was that we can’t control nature, at least not perfectly. There is too much chaos in the world to allow that to happen for very long. In Fallen Kingdom, the theme is almost the opposite. Here, the film suggests that we are largely in control and that’s why things are such a mess. So long as dinosaurs live, someone will be exploiting them, so maybe it would be better if they were all dead? In fact, the film concludes with all of the dinos in the dino prison being suffocated by gas and it’s up to the heroes to decide whether to release them into the wild and let them live or simply let them go extinct again. It literally comes down to the push of a button. We have absolute and immediate control over life and death of all of these species.

All of this concludes with a speech from Jeff Goldblum as Ian Malcolm who is telling a congressional committee that we’re screwing up the world with our technological power and maybe that’s inevitable. The film doesn’t hammer on climate change or mass extinction, but that seems to be the implication the writers are reaching for. It’s all a pretty heavy lift for a kids movie with animated dinosaurs and stock Hollywood villains.

Fallen Kingdom has been getting a lot of mixed or negative reviews. It’s currently at 50% among reviewers and a barely passable 62% with viewers. I haven’t read a single review either before or after seeing it, but I don’t think the problem with the film is the action or the stars. The problem is the heavy-handed messaging from the writers who seem to have forgotten that this is ultimately a comedy adventure for kids. The messages about extinction and human responsibility probably belong in the mix somewhere but ultimately we should be able to walk out of the theater with a smile and recounting a funny line or a surprising bit of action. Fallen Kingdom is a big, noisy dinosaur movie that tries so hard to be thoughtful it forgets to be fun.