“Jurassic World Fallen Kingdom” movie review

“Your (executives) were so pre-occupied with whether or not could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.” Ironic, isn’t it. A haunting but accurate assessment by Dr. Ian Malcolm. Let me say first, Jurassic Park is my favorite movie of all time, followed closely by Sunset Boulevard and Psycho, so it’s difficult to separate fanboy me from critic me. However, I shall do my best to keep my personal bias in check. As a longtime fan of the franchise that captured my imagination as a kid and with the original filled with depth, irony, tragedy, and more, I was excited as I sat down in the theatre last night to watch Jurassic World Fallen Kingdom (JWFK). And suffice it to say, my friends and I enjoyed our time and felt entertained; however, it’s simply not a great movie. And it pains me to write those words. At the end of the day, the movie suffers from a poorly written screenplay. Some may even describe the screenplay as a generic, vapid paint-by-the-numbers summer popcorn crunching blockbuster movie. The movie is not without its thrills, but I wish more attention was paid to the plot. Director J.A. Bayona takes suspension of disbelief to far reaching levels. The life of this franchise is in the balance; how I hope it finds a way to overcome the weak sequels since the strong original in 1993 that still holds up (and I’m not talking about the technology). Reasons for why it holds up could be entire articles in and of themselves (a lot has to do with the screenplay), but we are here to talk about JWFK.

Three years after the destruction of the Jurassic World theme park, Owen Grady and Claire Dearing return to the island of Isla Nublar to save the remaining dinosaurs from a volcano that’s about to erupt. When the search and transport operation meets with capitalistic opposition, the mission takes them to an underground arms market, they must stop the demented auction from placing humanity it mortal danger. During their covert operation, they encounter terrifying new breeds of gigantic dinosaurs, while uncovering a conspiracy that threatens the entire planet.

Unlike the soft opening of Jurassic World, the sequel begins with an opening scene similar to the tone of the opening of Jurassic Park. Encouraging, right? It’s dark, filled with tension, and ends with a kill. All this, and it doesn’t feel overstuffed with dinosaurs. Like a screenplay should, it hooks the audience without lots of gimmicks. The focus is on the drama, and not simply “look what we can do with dinos.” After this scene, I was looking forward to the rest of the movie. And even in the senate hearing with Dr. Ian Malcolm, this could’ve been used as a great setup for a dynamic ethics debate but it was not followed through. Like other ideas of Colin Trevorrow’s, many turning points, characters, and events are introduced but not developed. These elements often play off as mere plot devices to hurriedly cause something to be able to happen without having to truly develop it. Every character is flat. No dimension to anyone or anything, really. I cannot help but take note of the many opportunities that Trevorrow had to truly craft a cinematic story, and ostensibly ignored it. In an effort to help the vapid screenplay, J.A. Bayona attempted to add dimension to the flat plot but only so much can be done to fix a flawed story.

Examples of characters as mere plot devises are systems analyst Franklin and paleo-veterinarian Zia. Both were setup to be developed further beyond their main skill, but were abandoned. They exist only so two important actions can happen, but that is the extent of their respective development. Such wonderful opportunities to include strong characters, buy they are left as flat as the plot, lacking in any subplot or goals of their own. There is also a fantastic opportunity to provide some exposition on the days before John Hammond’s innovative theme park resort destination. We meet his former partner Benjamin Lockwood, and he explains how the first DNA was extracted in a state of the art lab in the basement of his mansion. There is also a nostalgic shot of a model of the original park’s Visitors Center, complete with Jungle Explorers and the famous gate. Although we have lost Sir Richard Attenborough, there is certainly ways of crafting a flashback to the first time DNA was extracted or even just a few moments of exposition through dialogue to learn about the early days and ultimately why Hammond and Lockwood split. We are given a reason that likely led to the split, but I imagine there was more to it, including the direction to go with the dinosaurs. Again, this is another example of exposition and dimension lost. Could’ve been used as character building and development time.

On the topic of nostalgia, there is plenty of fan service in the movie. Lockwood delivers a line taken directly from Hammond at the end of Lost World and we get to revisit the site of the Jungle Explorer that T-Rex pushed over the retaining wall in the original. There are other moments as well that remind me of the raptor kitchen and more. Furthermore, there are moments in the movie that act as a mirror to the original. Instead of seeking to lock the dinosaurs up, the goal is to free them. But I won’t get into details.

Whatever Universal and Amblin are doing presently, they need to stop and throw out the playbook from Jurassic Park III, Jurassic World, and now JWFK. I liked Jurassic World well enough but I thought the next installment was going to be more gripping, thrilling, exciting, but it went out with a whimper. I was cautiously optimistic when I heard it was going to be darker, closer to the horror that was the original 1993 blockbuster, but it wasn’t terrifying at all. And what parts were creepy, were already shown in the trailer (but that’s the marketing company’s fault, not the director or writer). Crichton is likely rolling over in his grave right about now, rest his soul. The next writer in the Jurassic franchise needs to be someone who understands what it takes to create a great story that CAN sell tickets and reach blockbuster status while holding up years down the road. Take the iconic Tim Burton Batman and Batman Returns, for examples. The reason why these, especially Returns, hold up so well is because Returns is a classic Tim Burton film that happens to have Batman characters, whereas the original is a Batman movie directed by Burton. So, the third installment in the Jurassic franchise needs to attach a writer and/or director who can write/direct a science-fiction horror movie that happens to have dinosaurs and legacy Jurassic Park characters.

While many critics are calling for this franchise to go extinct, this film scholar believes strongly that it can be saved. Much like Claire and Owen are determined to save the cloned dinos from a second extinction, Universal and Amblin need to go back to the beginning and study WHY the first one worked well. The short answer is the screenplay, followed by casting, and lastly the directing. An approach could be to write the screenplay without dinosaurs; write a solid, compelling narrative. Make sure there is a clearly defined goal with clearly defined opposition to the goal, simple plot, and complex characters. Then find places to add in the dinosaurs as anti-heroes. It’s far more effective to retroactively add dinos in and modify the screenplay than write it with a focus on seeing dinosaurs and write a story around them. The former is narrative-heavy with supporting, terrifying action sequences whereas the latter is spectacle heavy with a one-dimensional narrative. Subtext, subplot, and theme need to be infused back into the Jurassic franchise.

At the end of the day, I enjoyed myself. I did not feel as if my time was wasted. You know what, I had fun. And for that, I appreciate the movie. It may not have truly memorable characters or scenes, but it was a fun watch. If more fans speak up, perhaps the next film will go back to its DNA and deliver a sequel that would make the original proud.

For my review of Jurassic World click here.

Ryan is a screenwriting professor at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog!

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“A Monster Calls” movie review

monstercallsA breathtakingly beautiful and dynamic film that typifies the art of visual storytelling in the gothic style. Focus Features’ A Monster Calls directed by J.A. Bayona is nothing short of a Terms of Endearment, in theme anyway, for a new generation. You are certain to laugh and cry your way through the film. Based upon the novel by the same name, written by Patrick Ness and illustrated by Jim Kay and conceptualized Siobhan Dowd, Bayona’s adaptation of the novel plays out to be a deep, rich story that will touch the hearts and minds of each and everyone in the audience. For anyone going through the stages of grief, this film will especially ring true and perhaps bring about comfort. Although the protagonist Connor, played by Lewis MacDougal, is twelve years old, this dark melodrama with a plot revolving around terminal illness is not typically something that will appeal to kids of Connor’s age. Despite the fantasy elements and the young protagonist, A Monster Calls is more suited for older teens and adults; however, by the same token, the movie isn’t entirely going to initially appeal to adults since the protagonist is quite young. I screened the movie last night in an auditorium filled with patrons of all ages and there was not one dry eye in the audience. Looking at the film from the outside and analyzing the plot and cast, it would appear that it may not attract droves of people because of the gothic fantasy nature, typically aimed at kids and young teens, with content and theming best suited for older audiences; however, the film truly transcends age barriers and stereotypes to touch those who are young or young at heart.

While most twelve year old boys are busy with school and learning to develop socially or even romantically, or just simply playing video games and having Stephen King type adventures, Connor (MacDougal) is dealing with far more than a kid should every have to deal with. Connor’s mother (Felicity Jones) is very ill and Connor is forced to grow in many ways kids should not quite quickly to take care of her. Not entirely going through this terminal illness alone, Connor has a grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) who looks in on him and his mother–a grandmother with whom he shares little in common. With Connor’s father settling down in Los Angeles, Connor feels very much alone while dealing with his mother’s illness. Expressing his emotions and thoughts through water color and sketch artwork, Connor uses his penchant for beautiful art as a form of therapy. Just when all seems lost, an unexpected ally in the form of a rather gothic tree-like monster (Liam Neeson) appears in his window one night. Apprehensive at first, Connor befriends the monster who guides him on a journey of courage, truth, and faith that combine in a powerful fusion of imagination and reality.

This is certainly a year for fantastic monsters and fantasy, isn’t it? However, A Monster Calls is definitely not your typical fantasy. It deals with deep emotions, dark themes, and material usually better suited for adults. Why then choose such a young protagonist? Perhaps the author Patrick Ness wanted to reach those kids who are going through tough times and who are dealing with situation that most kids won’t face until they are much older. Some kids are just forced to grow up more quickly than others. It’s important that cinema and literature not forget them because words on pages or moving pictures may be the only source of comfort, escape, or allegory. Director J.A. Bayona appears to have successfully translated the novel to screen–from what I know. Interesting that the movie opens with the narrator describing Connor as being too old to be a kid but to young to be an adult. By extension, that is precisely where this movie fits in. It’s too “old” to be a kid’s movie but too “young” to be an adult movie. And that’s okay. Growing up is hard, and when faced with a family member or close friend with a terminal illness, life is exponentially more difficult emotionally and even psychically. Unconventional as it may seem, this film is powerful and transcends the age spectrum to provide a strong emotional journey that audiences can appreciate and from which people may receive comfort. If for no other reason, having a kid starring in a melodrama brings audiences of all ages together–many who may be going through something similar as the child, parent, spouse, or lover of someone who is terminally ill. It’s okay to grieve and let go.

From the opening credits alone, I was confident that this was going to be a visually stunning movie. The water color animation and brushstrokes are reminiscent of the story of the three brothers in Harry Potter. Absolutely beautiful. Much in the same way Kubo and the Two Strings was an innovative animated film, A Monster Calls also contains unconventional and innovative methods of telling its story. Similar to how the animated story of the three brothers in Harry Potter was integrated into the diegesis of a live action movie, so it is with this film. The more I thought about the technical and emotional elements of A Monster Calls, it is clear that it’s truly a dynamic means of cinematic art. Dynamic in that there are three different types of storytelling methods used diegetically each highlighting a different form of art: (1) motion pictures (2) visual art (3) oral storytelling. It’s been said that the novel is an extension of oral storytelling, the play an extension of the novel, and motion pictures an extension of the play. At the root of all those methods of communicating through art is the very concept of storytelling. And A Monster Calls has the art of storytelling in spades. There are so many levels to the diegesis in this film; much like an onion or matryoshka doll, this film has a message of how to deal with grief at its core but there are many different routes to get to that central theme. Each layer teaches Connor and the audience something different and valuable. The cinematic storytelling elements of direction, cinematography, editing, and score are all equally beautiful.

Structurally, A Monster Calls is an intimate story reinforced and surrounded by artistic German expressionism calling attention to its own artifice. From the exterior shots to interior rooms, the various sets appear to be meticulously constructed on a stage and the wardrobe much like perfect costumes. The art tells the story effectively with little exposition required. Fernando Velazquez’ score is so incredibly moving that you may find yourself listening to the score as it too truly assist in the overarching means of telling this story. The design of the monster is brilliant and ominous all at the same time. Almost animatronic in nature, the tree plays out like there is a puppeteer on the inside articulating the movements. The monster feels just as much like an actor as the actors playing the human characters. Liam Neeson was a perfect choice to cast as the tree’s voice. His deep bass is comforting, warm, and wise-sounding. But just who is the tree (in the story)? Although we are never told whose spirit inhabits the tree that has seen thousands of years go by, there are a couple of hints as to who it might be if you pay close enough attention to subtleties in the film. At the end of the day, whether it’s the spirit of someone or the personified life of the tree itself, it is of little consequence to the movie. Still, its definitely fun and interesting to talk about as my friend and I did after the film.

If you enjoy movies such as The Iron GiantThe Giving Tree, or Terms of Endearment, then you will immensely enjoy this film. Presently in advanced screenings and limited releases, you may need to wait a few weeks before it is at a theatre near you. Although slated for a January wide-release, it may make its way through many markets before then. Originally set for an October release, it makes since to have held it until Oscar season since this is one of those films that could grab the attention of the academy. Definitely bring your tissues.