If Top Gun: Maverick took formula film-making into the stratosphere, Jurassic World Dominion has returned it to the primordial swamp. Whatever the shortcomings of the previous installment in this seemingly endless series, it feels like a classic alongside this new effort. In Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018) Spanish director, J.A.Bayona managed a few clever twists and laid a promising platform for a sequel in which humans and dinosaurs would have to learn to live together. The hapless Colin Trevorrow, who helmed Jurassic World in 2015, has taken that platform and placed on it a Disneyfied vision of a world in which little girls play with baby dinos in the park, pterodactyls make nests on top of skyscrapers, and the odd T-Rex goes around munching on camper vans.
Franchise films tend to rely on the dedication of the fans to supply a lot of background information, so if you’ve only been watching since 2015, you might not be aware of the roles played by Laura Dern as Dr. Ellie Sattler and Sam Neill as Dr. Alan Grant, in the first Jurassic age, which stretched from 1993-2001. These characters have been resuscitated so we can all wallow in nostalgia, even if we’re only familiar with the last three movies which feature Chris Pratt as boofhead dinosaur whisperer, Owen Greedy, and Bryce Dallas Howard as Claire Dearing, all-purpose female lead.
Unforgivably, the film opens and closes with sweeping news reports that do the work of setting up the story and letting us know what happens next. For a movie of almost two and a half hours, this is incredibly maladroit. You may ask: “What was everybody doing for so long that the story had to be book-ended with clumsy news bulletins?”
Answer: “I wish I knew”. Allowing for the usual plot of ‘world-endangered-by-science-gone-wrong’, the filmmakers have sampled a bit of everything. In the first scenes we find Owen and his mates playing at being cowboys, rounding up a herd of dinosaurs. Before too long he’s zapping around on a motorcycle in the narrow, stony streets of Valetta, Malta, in emulation of James Bond. There’s a lot of by-play in an aeroplane, conjuring up memories of countless action movies.
One flinches a little at the regular procession of blows, explosions and slavering dinosaurs displaying their teeth, but these are purely visceral reactions. There’s nothing in this movie to engage the mind, and no real suspense. It’s obvious that none of our heroes is in the slightest danger, even if they spend most of the film fleeing from huge, hungry predators. This is partly because the dinosaurs have developed a strange habit of standing still and roaring pointlessly while their prey is scampering to safety. One moment they’re snapping at the humans’ heels, the next – having evolved a sense of sportsmanship – they pause to allow them to jump through windows, climb ladders, and so on.
Perhaps they’ve realised, as we have, that whatever they throw at these puny hominids, it simply won’t work. Like us, they’ve come to expect those remarkable coincidences and last-minute escapes that hack scriptwriters have been using since Hollywood prehistory to get their protagonists out of nasty scrapes.
The major plot device is lifted from the Old Testament (Exodus 10): a plague of locusts set to gobble up the world’s crops. These are special super-sized locusts, made with dinosaur DNA, by an evil bio-tech company called Biosyn – to be read as “sin”. The CEO, one Lewis Dodgson (Campbell Scott) – whose name owes some unaccountable debt to Lewis Carroll, AKA. Charles Dodgson – is a mild-mannered, nerdy version of the Mad Scientist Who Wants to Control the World. He hit upon the locusts as a little sideline, and got Dr. Henry Wu (BJ Wong), to do the genetic engineering. Now Wong feels bad about it, but Dodgson still thinks it might be OK.
He would have stood a better chance is he hadn’t invited Ellie Sattler and Alan Grant for a Cook’s tour of his hideaway dino-fortress in the Dolomites. Among other poor choices he has given a job to another Jurassic Park pioneer, Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum), and put his trust in PR man, Ramsay Cole (Mamoudou Athie). Turns out none of them are on the bus with Lewis.
Owen and Claire arrive at Dodgson’s hideaway the hard way, in a plane piloted by a daredevil air pirate, named Kayla Watts (Wanda DeWise). Kayla has an urge to do the right thing when she realises that the Biosyn crowd has kidnapped young Maisie (Isabella Sermon), whom Owen and Claire have been protecting, keeping her locked away in their boring log cabin in the woods. Maisie, we learn, is the offspring of Claire Lockwood, another figure from the Jurassic archive, who – like the Virgin Mary – managed to give birth without any male input.
As you can probably tell by now, the narrative resembles a ball of wool after a confrontation with a baby raptor. Occasional straightening occurs via those remarkable coincidences and last-minute escapes. There’s not a lot of acting involved, if we discount all the tender gazes exchanged with dinosaurs. A grumpy Sam Neill looks as if he’d like the studio to write him a big cheque and let him go home.
The paleontologist, Stephen Jay Gould, in trying to explain the enduring fascination with dinosaurs in popular culture, came up with the formula: “big, fierce, extinct – in other words, alluringly scary but sufficently safe.” It’s a recipe that applies to the entire Jurassic franchise, which introduced the small, savage raptor as a counterpart to the lumbering monster of Tyrannosaurus Rex. It was a bonanza for semioticians, who saw the film as an allegory of capitalism, with the T-Rex as the large, old-style corporation being superceded by new, more flexible models.
There was a genuine buzz about the early films, which flirted with the possibility of resurrecting dinosaurs from their DNA. This latest addition, reputedly the last in the series (Oh let it be so!) is a study in the decadence of an idea. Rather than “scary but safe”, the dinosaurs have become stale and silly, nipping endlessly at ankles they never catch. There are more thrills to be had looking at old bones in the museum.
Jurassic World Dominion
Directed by Colin Trevorrow
Written by Emily Carmichael & Colin Trevorrow, after a story by Derek Connolly
Starring: Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Sam Neill, Jeff Goldblum, Laura Dern, DeWanda Wise, Campbell Scott, BD Wong, Isabella Sermon, Mamadou Athie, Omar Sy
USA/Malta, rated M, 147 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 18 June, 2022