Film, Jurassic Park, Reviews

JURASSIC WORLD: DOMINION should never, unlike life, have found a way (Film Review)

It feels a genuine missed opportunity not to delay Jurassic World: Dominion a year in order to coincide with the 30th anniversary of Steven Spielberg’s seminal introductory film to this box office chomping franchise.

Granted, thanks to Covid-19, it had been shunted back a year once already much like most pictures made in the pandemic period, however Dominion so desperately works to pay homage to Spielberg’s film it would have, to fans, been worth the direct birthday tie in. For anyone who doesn’t love the original Jurassic Park, well, a) I don’t believe you exist and b) if you do, Dominion is not about to convince you to jump into this franchise 65 million years in the making.

The clear eyed truth of the matter is that Dominion wants to be Jurassic Park so damn much, it entirely forgets to do anything else across the weighty two hour plus running time. Colin Trevorrow’s fan credentials of Amblin, Spielberg and this era of the movie making have always been in evidence and he—the man who, lest we forget, for a long time was directing what became Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker—wears that adoration on his sleeve in everything he does.

The problem here is the same problem you find whenever someone produces a weaker cover song years after the fact: it just makes you wish for the original.

Here’s the reality: if there is one blockbuster in Hollywood history that never needed a sequel, it is Jurassic Park.

That film is perfect. We’re talking Citizen Kane or The Godfather or Back to the Future perfect, certainly in the realm of cinematic entertainment it strives for. Spielberg is absolutely at the top of his game, as is composer John Williams. And it’s important to remember just how far Jurassic Park moved the needle in terms of visual effects work. James Cameron sowed the seeds over the previous five years but that moment in JP when Sam Neill’s Dr Alan Grant & Laura Dern’s Dr. Ellie Sattler look in complete astonishment as they see a T-Rex is matched by the audience’s own creation at how the dinosaur is rendered. Nobody had ever seen anything like that before.

Subsequently, Jurassic Park goes on to tell a wonderfully written, performed and structured tale of corporate hubris in the face of nature’s instinctive power, all through the prism of essentially a disaster movie meets chase thriller. Granted, it leaves a couple of threads open ended but Spielberg never needed to make The Lost World in 1997, nor Joe Johnston the flimsy re-tread without a third act in 2001’s Jurassic Park III. The reason they happened, as eventually the canonically in step reboot of Jurassic World in 2015 happened is the same as with any franchise: dollar bills. That will always be the case. But Jurassic Park absolutely could stand alone, and often in many ways does.

By the time we reach Dominion then, as Trevorrow works to ram together the legacy characters from the entire franchise all the way back to Jurassic Park with the modern stars of World and beyond, we are in the prehistoric land of diminishing returns. Dominion is a profoundly boring movie in which Trevorrow shows absolutely zero acumen for how to tell a familiar story with any kind of wit or invention. His attempts to simply recreate beats or moments from Jurassic Park are among the most egregious in modern ‘legacyquel’ history. It makes Top Gun: Maverick—a vastly superior example of a modern blockbuster—look as subtle as a Ingmar Bergman film.

Dominion subscribes to the idea that has frankly ruined American franchise filmmaking among lesser creatives – that everything in a sequel has to be louder, faster, BIGGER than all which came before it. Therefore here, we don’t just have an island with genetic dinosaur experiments but an entire mountain range transformed into a prehistoric land; we don’t just have the mighty T-Rex, we have the apex predator that is the Gigantosaurus (yes, it’s really called that), a bigger and snarlier schoolyard bully version (so he is instantly less cool); and we don’t just have one cast but two, with Neill, Dern and Jeff Goldblum wedged in with Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard and so on. It’s a wonder they didn’t CGI old Dickie Attenborough in for a cameo and AI his voice. Maybe they wanted to spare an expense.

Great sequels build on what came before and enhance the original product.

That’s exactly what TG: Maverick recently did. It’s what The Empire Strikes Back did. It’s not what The Rise of Skywalker did and on this evidence, as iffy as that film was, thank your lucky stars Trevorrow didn’t go anywhere near it, because he fundamentally thinks a great sequel is remaking a great movie with extra dinosaurs, extra action, extra explosions etc… hence we don’t just get Lewis Dodgson (played here in fresher casting by Campbell Scott) back creating shifty genetic experiments, he’s now some kind of scientific Blofeld looking to harvest a food crisis thanks to out of control locust populations so his evil corporation, BioSyn, can make insane amounts of money. And naturally he’s working with sinister underground dinosaur trading criminals to achieve his ends, with poor Dichen Lachman—otherwise a solid character actor—saddled with the kind of supporting 1980s Bond girl villain role that’s frankly just embarrassing.

Indeed, you get the sense that Trevorrow secretly wants to make a Bond or Mission: Impossible movie as he creates the most insanely implausible set piece levered to give Pratt (who gets entirely lost inside the movie this time around given he’s part of a broader ensemble) the chance to speed around Malta on a bike while angry, programmed raptors are chasing him. It looked ridiculous in the trailer and it doesn’t disappoint in that regard in the movie. Awfully edited, it’s the kind of sequence which displays just how far this franchise has fallen. It’s not the idea of dinosaurs rampaging over streets—Spielberg got there first after all 25 years ago—but it’s Dominion believing it can get away with lazy attempts to ape other, better film franchises in entirely separate genres.

Arguably, much as their characters are watered down templates from Jurassic Park, the film is at its most charming when Dern & Neill are on screen.

To Trevorrow’s credit, these aren’t just cameos – they are fully integrated into the other side of a plot that comes together in the final act, and for the most part they pick up where they left off, with a sweet December romance brewing across the picture. Goldblum has less to do as Dr. Ian Malcom, but then he just recycles the same kind of nerdy but cool rock star schtick he does in every movie and perfected in Jurassic Park, but the heart of Dominion lies with Dern & Neill. It’s a better picture when they’re on screen and it allows, as much as it simply recycles the core central act of Jurassic Park all over again, for the final act to be where the film is strongest.

Ultimately though, Dominion has no sense of awe about it in the face of such powerful and ancient creatures. Trevorrow tries to make us feel that through dialogue but it’s never on screen – he’s too busy trying to engineer a jump scare, or an action sequence, or craft a really dull corporate conspiracy narrative, or he’s focused on Pratt & Howard trying to be parents to the cloned granddaughter of one of JP’s founders (it’s weird, don’t ask, just watch Fallen Kingdom again). He also tries to beat us over the head with a message Spielberg conveyed with far greater subtlety, how man must co-exist rather than try to destroy or tame nature if they are to survive, which is now in 2022 both a pointed allegory not just for rampant climate change but also polarised societal structures.

Sure, fine, okay, all of this is ten a penny these days in American cinema. But where’s the grandeur? Where’s the moment as mentioned earlier looking upon a T-Rex? Where’s the terrifying anticipation of the glass of water rumbling in the car? None of the films since Jurassic Park have managed to recapture that, not even the overrated World—Trevorrow’s last and admittedly better stab at the franchise—and that surely adds to the case that the Jurassic world, outside of financial concerns, never needed more than Spielberg’s original adaptation of Michael Crichton’s work. Dominion is a Frankenstein of a tentpole franchise picture and, when delivered with this kind of poorly written, often cheese-filled, jaggedly over-inflated direction—with frequently awful CGI to boot, incredibly—it is everything wrong with franchise filmmaking today.

Let’s call it a day now. Let’s wait another 65 million years before we let another Jurassic film find a way.

★ ★

DIRECTOR: Colin Trevorrow

WRITERS: Emily Carmichael & Colin Trevorrow

CAST: Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Sam Neill, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum, Campbell Scott, Mamadou Athie, DeWanda Wise, Dichen Lachman, B. D. Wong

STUDIO: Universal

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