Friday 15 June 2018

Footnotes: "Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom"

All anybody can now remember about Jurassic World - a billion-dollar megahit as recently as 2015 - is Bryce Dallas Howard in incongruous high heels. That was it: two hours of much-ballyhooed multiplex content squandering a budget of $150m on wall-to-wall visual effects and setpiece after setpiece, and the only thing that lodged in the mind for any length of time was the impracticality of the female lead's footwear choices. Could there be any greater sign of how rapidly our bigger movies recede and dwindle in the imagination? After a quarter-century of Jurassic sequels and ripoffs and reboots, computer-generated dinosaurs are no longer the wondrous anomalies they once were, but a movie commonplace, as familiar to 21st century multiplexgoers as the characters in the Ice Age franchise or TV's Peppa Pig. With the awe and wonder diminished or gone, all that was left for us to marvel at in Jurassic World was the sight of an especially dainty female representative of the homo sapiens genus somehow managing to outsprint a velociraptor while shod in Jimmy Choos.

Talking point that they were, the shoes are back in Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom: indeed, Howard's dino-scholar Claire is even reintroduced feet first, a signal that incoming director J.A. Bayona (The Orphanage, A Monster Calls) has absorbed and understood some of the lessons of the big yet crashingly empty reboot. Although Fallen Kingdom does much to expand this franchise's scope - transporting characters and viewers alike from a Jurassic park to the prospect of the titular Jurassic world - it feels an appreciably smaller and better-managed movie than its vapid predecessor, peeling back Jurassic World's deadeningly mock-Crichtonian carapace of corporate intrigue (which always seemed like a flattering sop to those Universal suits charged with kickstarting this sleeping giant of a series), and operating a good deal closer to the roots and spirit of those man-versus-monster B-movies (The Lost World, King Kong) on which the early Jurassic films were raised.

What emerges qualifies for legitimate action-adventure status: it's no more or less than a yarn about a mission - undertaken by Claire and dino-handler Owen (Chris Pratt), underwritten by shady businessman Eli Mills (Rafe Spall) - to rescue those beasts left on Isla Nublar at the end of the reboot, and to do so before a massive volcano pops its top. Gone is that tedious, self-justifying mythology the series accumulated over successive sequels and rethinks; what's left behind is unmistakably lighter in weight, but also a movie that moves nevertheless, rerouting this franchise in an intriguing new direction, no matter what footwear its individual characters might be running in.

Seasoned blockbuster watchers might still be taken aback at how a PG-rated event movie from 1993 continues to stand as several gasps and shudders more visceral and terrifying than a 12A-rated work releasing in 2018. (These New Blockbusters - more often sketches than fully-formed pictures, dashed off to strike while a given commercial iron is hot - have underlined how the American mainstream cinema really hasn't moved on from Spielberg, an arrested development Spielberg himself seemed to acknowledge upon making the transition into prestige historical dramas. The movie brat grew up, even as the genre he did so much to define did not.) 

Fallen Kingdom has a handful of clever setpieces - a tranquillised Owen having to urge his benumbed body away from spreading sheets of lava, a sequence that locks the leads inside a shipping container with a dozing dino - but they're rushed through rather than lingered over for any duration. Where Spielberg would have terrorised us for a ten-minute stretch, Bayona whips us through inside five, partly because he knows there's something similar on its way - if this script is good for anything, it's as a moderate-peril delivery system - and partly out of a desire to bring everybody back to the mainland, and to the John Hammond Memorial Museum, where he can cast Geraldine Chaplin and more of his signature Gothic shadows.

This second hour actually goes beyond 1997's The Lost World: Jurassic Park in its efforts to domesticate the diplodocus, and after the altogether bleak thespwaste of the first reboot (poor Judy Greer), it's encouraging to see the series looking back towards Spielberg's more characterful original. Yes, it remains perverse that the reboots should have recruited Pratt, the era's pre-eminent bestubbled clown, just to hand him barely a twentieth of the so-so zingers he gets in his Guardians of the Galaxy outings. (My suspicion is that he's been cast for his ability to perform forward rolls in front of green screens, much as he used to vault over and around the sets of Parks and Recreation.)

Yet it's nice to have Jeff Goldblum and B.D. Wong back, however briefly, in their roles as concerned brainiac and fraught research scientist, and Fallen Kingdom generates the reboot's most memorable interspecies interactions to date: the breath of a T-Rex puffing up moneyman Toby Jones's Trump-blond hairpiece, macho hunter Ted Levine stepping over the line while seeking to extract a dino incisor for a trophy necklace, a pterodactyl picking up one of Spall's henchmen by his collar, and depositing him atop an SUV. (Here's a small measure of subtext for you: nature, properly red in tooth and claw, has the drop on capitalism every time.)

It's not the fault of the film but of an enduringly dysfunctional studio system that a multi-million-dollar summer tentpole release should in the end resemble the kind of straight-to-video sequel one might have troubled to check out of a Blockbuster around the turn of the millennium, and likely enjoyed with the right, reduced expectations. (Our event movies have long been no more than B-movies with an A+ budget; Bayona is just more honest about this than most.) Liberated from those expectations of what a post-Nolan, post-Marvel summer blockbuster is meant to be (long, self-involved, more of the previous thing), Fallen Kingdom nevertheless proves far livelier than its predecessor, niftily (if casually) assembled by a director enthusiastically admitting to and embracing what these reboots always were: brisk footnotes, at best.

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

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