Colin Trevorrow and Derek Connolly’s screenplay for Jurassic Park: Fallen Kingdom veers between idiotic and knowingly idiotic. On balance, it doesn’t salvage the film, but they sure do give it a game try. Whereas The Lost World all the way back in 1997 was essentially unruffled by the astonishing mismanagement of its protagonists and their dubious morality, Fallen Kingdom is certainly at least literate in the criticisms which have been labelled upon that earlier film. Although not as subversively or as stridently as, say, Gareth Evans’ Godzilla, and with a much cheerier, more flippant attitude toward human incompetence, Fallen Kingdom is essentially content to mock its protagonists rather than celebrate them. As with Raiders of the Lost Ark, they accomplish very, very little by film’s end, just barely managing to survive their mistakes time and time again. While the film isn’t as willing to actually question the hero’s own complicity in the villain’s schemes, it is at least aware that, come film’s end, it cannot keep on defending its protagonists as ecological warriors.
Rather, in an increasingly technological world, where biological life is no longer singularly sacrosanct (as though it ever was), the only serious way to think about the debate over the dinosaurs in Jurassic World is to consider whether an expansive and more ephemeral, more dangerous, notion of life (that is, life created through human manipulation) is worth defending. Which is to say, the dinosaurs in Jurassic World 2 are artificial, and this is the first film in the franchise to seriously weigh the contours of this artificiality rather than equate the dinosaurs with naturally-reproduced animals. One might also say that it’s the only film in the series thus far to seriously question its own blockbuster artificiality, after its immediate predecessor so self-damagingly lambasted its audience in the most half-baked pop-post-modern gesture this side of, well, ever. This is the first film in the series to admit that to generally side with its heroes is to play the villain’s game and accept that artificial life cannot be dismissed emphatically, but must be seriously weighed as part of the patchwork of modernity. That, in other words, the possibilities of artificial life must be wrestled away from the corporate monolith’s which currently determine its contours.
All of that is also to say much too much in the film’s favor, since, of course, it is a corporate monolith, and, ultimately, it’s not as seriously invested in any moral consideration as it is elaborately staging Gothic horror for the audience. That’s not inherently a binary: Gothic horror, all the way since its inception over two hundred years ago, has always been genuinely committed to probing the limits of modernity, inquiring into the logical base of humankind’s presumption to master biology and nature, and generally dismantling the masculine impulse toward authoritarian social control that is latent (and often, frankly, quite manifest) in even the most nominally liberal of regimes. But if Gothic horror can and should fixate on questions of tyrannical corporatism barely hidden under norms of social decorum, Fallen Kingdom is emphatically more interested in spending two hundred million dollars to stage the most luxuriant haunted house it possibly can. But, you know, with dinosaurs instead of ghosts.
Trivializing though this impetus may be, director JA Bayona’s evident dexterity with the horror genre, and his intermittent ability (or rather, the screenplay’s intermittent willingness to indulge his ability) to let loose his inner-Cerberus and at least attempt to frighten us, really can’t be dismissed. Fallen Kingdom is, intermittently, a horror film, and it’s a pretty solid one, all things considered. In a prelude which measures the fallout of the last film, and again in the final half hour when Fallen Kingdom rather sneakily baits and switches us into Bayona’s version of Crimson Peak (directed by the producer of Bayona’s best film, 2007’s The Orphanage), Fallen Kingdom is indelible big-budget horror, fangs drawn and baying at the moonlight. Or maybe it’s just decent and, left searching for anything of value in a dying franchise, one learns to appreciate what one can.
The basic thrust of the first half of the film – Jurassic World protagonists Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) and Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) agree to join an expedition to save the leftover dinosaurs on Isla Nublar from a recently-revealed active volcano – is a tease, albeit one with an excuse for a self-consciously apocalyptic, emphatically monumental mid-film climax meant to sell the tickets and occupy space in the trailers. The sequence is suitably apocalyptic, but it’s when the ashes clear and the film conjures one gloriously ethereal, poetically fatalistic image of a lone dinosaur fading in the midst of mankind’s failures and nature’s disinterest, that the real mood of the film materializes.
From there on, it’s a reasonable approximation of my fantasies of what the director of the terrific little horror flick The Orphanage bequeathed 200 million dollars might summon: a number of astonishingly well-realized dinosaurs run amok in a California mansion. Staged with real gusto and even a sense of brutal ingenuity by Bayona, the texture of Jurassic World 2 is generally ghoulish rather than heroic. It’s still a 200 million dollar Universal Studios picture in 2018, which means that it can’t really necromance the ghost of a 400,000 thousand dollar Universal Studios horror film from 1938, but bless it for trying. I mean, it’s still a mediocre summer blockbuster with a beyond-disfigured screenplay and no meaningful or relatable human characters, so your mileage will vary. But I do confess to getting a kick or two out of the film’s sheer gusto.