Contrary to widely-held public assumptions, no self-respecting film critic roots for a movie to fail.
I’m shocked to report that, in the case of “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom,” I’m willing to make an exception.
This realization – that the newest instalment of the “Jurassic Park” spinoffs and sequels inspired not just pity or apathy, but animus – dawned on the drive home from this week’s preview screening, as the foul mood that had gathered over the movie’s two-hour-plus running time had curdled into simmering rage.
Granted, I’m a bleeding heart. So watching pathetic – albeit monstrously huge and, oh yeah, imaginary – creatures being threatened by molten lava, then being cruelly captured, confined and tortured by sadistic capitalists, wasn’t my idea of fun. Nor was watching Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard try and fail to inject anything resembling authenticity or verve to a rote, drearily run-of-the-mill story. And, admittedly, the idea of a sequel to “Jurassic World,” the OK-not-great 2015 reboot of Steven Spielberg’s iconic 1993 film “Jurassic Park,” didn’t fill me with eager anticipation.
That was one reason I recused myself from writing the official review of “Fallen Kingdom,” which like all movies deserves a fighting chance to connect with critics and, by extension, a wider audience. But even if it didn’t fill me with wild-eyed excitement, I could still be fair, judging it by the same standards I apply to every film I evaluate. Generally, those standards can be summed up by asking myself three questions: What are the filmmakers trying to achieve? Do they achieve it? And was it worth doing?
In the case of “Fallen Kingdom,” that first question is perhaps the most important. The film’s director, J.A. Bayona, has earned critical respect for his horror movie “The Orphanage,” as well as for “The Impossible,” an impressively staged recreation of the 2004 tsunami in Thailand. He brought the values of both films to bear on “Fallen Kingdom,” which morphs midway through from a classic effects-heavy action adventure to a spooky thriller set in a cavernous Gothic mansion. What Bayona and his colleagues are trying to do, it seems, is what all sequels and spinoffs try to do, which is capitalize on sentimental affection for the original material by repackaging and ever-so-slightly tweaking it, either with a dash of edgy nihilism or self-referential camp.
Rather than snark, “Fallen Kingdom” goes for dark, trying hard to be an edgy, uncompromising cautionary tale about hubris and greed. What’s missing, of course, is the initial wonder that made Spielberg’s “Jurassic Park” such a generational touchstone, the sheer immersive awe of feeling like one was seeing actual dinosaurs come to real, palpable life. There were gasps in the theatres in 1993. Today, they’ve been replaced by a collective shrug and “What’s next?”
In many ways, the trampled theme park ruins that serve as a setting for the first act of “Fallen Kingdom” serve as an apt metaphor for the movie and so many others like it, as attempts to recapture the innocence of a generation whose tastes, preferences and refusal to let go of their childhood have colonized a movie culture awash in remakes of decades-old films, TV shows and comic books.
Escapism has turned into consumerist obligation. Wonderment has given way to wearying predictability. The cultural products that once genuinely shocked or transported us are now either dirtied-up and distressed into pseudo-deep allegories or spectacle-ized into narratives that go through utterly familiar motions ending in mandatory mayhem and CGI destruction. No visual language is being refined, much less being reinvented. No boundaries are being explored. “It’s fine” has become the new “It blew me away.”
Tarted-up nostalgia trips dovetail perfectly with the needs of a notoriously risk-averse entertainment industry and the equally notorious narcissism of a generation that prefers comforting callbacks over anything new, alien or strange. The result is a mainstream movie culture that has doubled down on reliably repeatable tropes, in which filmmakers are no longer challenged to dazzle our imaginations, but simply meet – and maybe once in a while exceed – our expectations.
It’s those values, and “Fallen Kingdom’s” grim embodiment of them, that made watching it such a joyless and finally infuriating experience. The filmmakers may have achieved what they set out to do, by cashing in on a shared past without elaborating or improving on it. But we’ve reached a point where doubling down – on nostalgia, formula and bigness for its own sake – can only result in diminishing returns.