Last night Charles and I watched a recent blockbuster mega-movie that turned out to be surprisingly good: Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. I’d just bought the Blu-Ray edition but hadn’t had that much hope for it since Charles and I had seen its immediate predecessor in the Jurassic Park/Jurassic World cycle, Jurassic World (2015) a sort of combination reboot and sequel to the first three Jurassic Park movies from 1993, 1997 and 2001 — the first two directed by Steven Spielberg (and the original Jurassic Park being the big commercial blockbuster he had to give Universal to get permission to film Schindler’s List immediately afterwards). Jurassic Park began as a novel by Michael Crichton, who’d made it onto best-seller lists in the late 1960’s with a book (also filmed by Universal) called The Andromeda Strain, about a pathogen from outer space that comes to earth aboard a returning spacecraft and has to be contained in a super-lab shaped like a hexagon. The soundtrack album from The Andromeda Strain was a piece of vinyl shaped like a hexagon and packaged in a cover with six cardboard petals that opened to reveal the LP, which since it wasn’t round probably destroyed the styli of a number of record buyers who tried to play it as if were a conventional LP. Crichton specialized in stories about experiments that went horribly wrong, though in later years he turned Right-wing and wrote a novel called Disclosure in which a male employee is sexually harassed by a female boss, and another in which the entire climate-change movement was revealed as a deliberate fake conjured up by radical environmentalists aiming to reverse the Industrial Revolution and revert humanity to a primitive state. Crichton’s first work written directly for the screen was the script to the 1971 film Westworld, about a super-amusement park in which animatronic figures would enact, and let you participate in, your wildest cultural fantasies, only things went horribly wrong and one figure in particular — a Wild West gunslinger played by Yul Brynner — started going around slaughtering the paying customers for no discernible reason. Westworld spawned an almost immediate sequel called Futureworld (though for that one Crichton descended the studio food chain from MGM to American International!) and eventually a streaming-channel TV series that is still going on.
In 1991 Crichton published Jurassic Park, in which a mad multimillionaire named John Hammond bankrolled a project to genetically re-engineer dinosaurs from bits of their blood literally frozen in amber along with the mosquitoes which had consumed it. His objective was not only to bring to life the giant reptiles that once ruled the earth but to populate them on a (fictional) island off the coast of Costa Rica, Isla Nublar, and turn the island into a giant amusement park where people would pay hefty admission and hospitality fees to spend their vacations among revivified dinosaurs. Only, this being a Michael Crichton story, things went horribly wrong and the dinosaurs went wild and started rampaging across the island and eating the paying guests as well as some of the human staff that were supposed to control them. Universal bought the movie rights and made the first film in the cycle, Jurassic Park, in 1993, with Spielberg directing from a script co-written by Crichton himself and David Koepp and Sam Neill, Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum as his stars. The real stars, though, were the dinosaurs; originally Spielberg and his effects technician, Stan Winston, had planned to use some computer-generated imagery while doing some effects with stop-motion animation — the classic way dinosaurs had been put on film since The Lost World in 1925 and King Kong in 1933 — but the CGI turned out to be so lifelike that, aside from a few scenes with full-sized puppets (like a dying Triceratops which obviously had a bellows inside so the animal could appear to breathe), Spielberg and Winston went with it throughout. They inspired a new generation of filmmakers to explore computer effects and thus render stories filmable that couldn’t have been made before. Universal did two sequelae to Jurassic Park, of which the first one, The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997) was based on a Crichton novel that ripped off the title Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had used for his pioneering dino-novel which Harry Hoyt and special-effects genius Willis O’Brien had filmed in 1925. (When Charles and I watched the movie on VHS and got to the interminable credit roll, Charles joked — referencing the joke title at the end of Airplane! — “Author of A Tale of Two Cities: Charles Dickens.” I said, “No, ‘Author of A Tale of Two Cities: Michael Crichton.’ He’s going to rip off that title, too!”) The Lost World — the Spielberg-Crichton version — at least got us off the island and ended with a dinosaur rampaging through the streets of San Diego, which at least gave it a home-town appeal. We missed the third film in the cycle, Jurassic Park III, and only recently caught up with the semi-sequel, semi-reboot, Jurassic World.
Made in 2015 by director Colin Trevorrow from a script he wrote with the usual committee — Rick Jaffe, Amanda Silver and Derek Connolly — Jurassic World opens with a new corporate owner having managed to tame Jurassic Park, renamed Jurassic World and turned into a relatively safe worldwide attraction. Only ticket sales are falling, and in order to juice them up the corporate baddies decided to engineer a whole new dinosaur, Indomitus Rex, not based on any ever actually-existing dino-species but genetically engineered for ferocity and fright. Alas, once again things go terribly wrong and the human heroes, Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) and Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard), barely escape with their lives as Indomitus Rex rampages through the park, causing death and destruction willy-nilly until a sort of deus ex oceania, a seagoing dinosaur called Masosaurus, eats it at the end. Both made and set three years later than Jurassic World, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom posits that after the disaster of Jurassic World humans abandoned Isla Nublar and left it to the dinosaurs — only a long-extinct volcano on the island has suddenly become active again and threatens to destroy it. This leads Congress to hold hearings after rival lobbying organizations start a political debate over whether to let the genetically engineered dinosaurs die a natural death when the volcano erupts and destroys the island (a plot twist obviously copied from Son of Kong, the 1933 sequel to the original King Kong) or try to evacuate them somewhere. Already we’re in more profound territory than we usually get from a big-budget mass-audience blockbuster as the debate centers around whether the dinosaurs are just monsters or they are part of the animal kingdom and we should try to save them as we would any other animals who were facing a mass extinction event. An old, grizzled Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum, reprising his part from the first two films in the cycle and playing an older version of the character as he has naturally aged) tells the congressional committee investigating the Isla Nublar situation that the right thing to do is let the dinosaurs die — their creation, he argues, was an anti-natural mistake and nature is about to correct the error and make the dinosaurs extinct again — but, swayed by animal-rights activists who insist that the dinosaurs remain alive and the government try to find a home for them, Congress decides to allow their evacuation.
Owen Grady and Claire Dearing (Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard repeating their roles from Jurassic World) get recruited to lead the evacuation effort, and the old, crippled and largely bedridden Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell, whose best-known film was a quite different sort of animal movie, Babe — after Babe was filmed Cromwell became a vegetarian in real life and when he was asked why, he said, “What? You think I should eat my co-star?”), business partner of John Hammond (played in the 1993 film by Richard Attenborough). Lockwood lives in an old Gothic mansion that looks like a set from a 1930’s Universal horror film — it’s really a castle they rented in England, but director J. A. Bayona, a Spanish filmmaker whose previous credits are all low-budget horror films, said the resemblance is deliberate — and his only companions are his granddaughter (at least we’re told she’s his granddaughter) Maisie (Isabella Sermon) and her governess Iris (Geraldine Chaplin). Lockwood has assigned the director of his family’s nonprofit foundation, Eli Mills (Rafe Spall), to be in charge of the evacuation operation, and Mills has shown Lockwood a model of the sanctuary, ringed by mountains, to which the Isla Nublar dinosaurs will be located. Only, as he warned us in his opening scene when he tells Owen and Claire that he took the job of running the Lockwood Foundation when he was “young and idealistic — and now I’m neither,” Eli is up to no good: instead he intends to sell the dinosaurs at auction to the highest bidder. His partner in this enterprise is a crooked entrepreneur named Gunnar Eversoll (Toby Jones, who in one of the 788 imdb.com “trivia” posts on this film — about seven times as many as I’ve ever seen for any other movie — is quoted as saying he picked the ill-fitting blond wig he wears to make himself look like Donald Trump).
The first half of the movie takes place on Isla Nublar just before its volcanic destruction, as Owen, Claire and the two obligatory comic-relief characters, Franklin Webb (Justice Smith) and Zia Rodriguez (Danielle Pineda), attempt to round up the dinosaurs and fend off the efforts of a military commander and his private security force to get them out of the way so they don’t interfere with the real plan he, Eli and Eversoll have in mind. Fortunately our not-so-fantastic four manage to escape both the private troops and the killer dinosaurs and smuggle themselves onto the ship taking the dinosaurs onto the Lockwood estate. Eli clubs Lockwood to death in his bed — the first time, according to the imdb.com contributors, that one human has murdered another in the Jurassic Park/World franchise — so he won’t interfere, and in a film the director and his writers (Trevorrow and Connolly again — Trevorrow was supposed to direct but turned down the project to make the ninth and, presumably, last film in the basic Star Wars cycle, only he got fired from it over creative differences with producer J. J. Abrams, who took over the last Star Wars film himself; he’s slated to return to the Jurassic Park/World franchise to direct episode three in the current cycle) have acknowledged influenced them, they restage the house party held by the corrupt 1-percenters in the old 1994 Schwarzenegger vehicle True Lies. In the film’s most chilling scene, the dinosaurs are shown being auctioned off to the highest bidders from amongst a group of representatives of military dictators, arms merchants and safari organizers who want to give their clients something especially exotic to kill, and the creatures are fetching eight-figure sums — but the biggest bids go to a creature who isn’t supposed to be for sale, only the creeps bidding at the auction (which is staged as a cross between a Dad Mecum collectors’ car auction and a sale of slaves) immediately demand the right to bid on the prototype.
The prototype is something called an Indoraptor, produced by Lockwood’s house geneticist, Henry Wu (the openly Gay Chinese-American actor B. D. Wong, reprising his role from Jurassic World) as a cross between the Velociraptor — a super-intelligent hunting dinosaur, introduced in the first Jurassic Park story and portrayed as an animal intelligent enough to figure out how to open a door — and the Indomitus Rex monster from the first Jurassic World film. Wu is hoping to breed future Indoraptors to bond with humans and follow their commands, but to do that he needs “Blue,” the pet raptor Owen figured out how to tame in the previous Jurassic World film (a video of him doing this figures prominently in Fallen Kingdom), to serve as a mother figure for the young Indoraptors and teach them how to behave around humans. Along the way it’s revealed that Maisie Lockwood is not the elder Lockwood’s granddaughter, but his daughter — or, rather, a clone of his daughter, who apparently died before she reached puberty and therefore never had kids of her own; but that didn’t stop him from having Dr. Wu and his assistants whip up a clone of her in the same basement lab that generated the dinosaurs. There’s a big fight between a runaway T. Rex — supposedly the one from the very first Jurassic Park movie — and the wild prototype of the Indoraptor, which dies when it falls through the glass roof of the Lockwood castle and gets impaled on the horn of one of the authentic dinosaur fossils on display in his study. The film has a surprising number of parallels to the old Universal horror classics of the 1930’s in general and Frankenstein in particular — director Bayona has said he saw the Indoraptor as a sort of modern-day Frankenstein’s monster, since the monster was spliced together from different parts of human bodies and Indoraptor has been gene-spliced from different species, and he quotes quite a few of James Whale’s shots from the original Frankenstein movie, including one of Maisie menaced by the killer dinosaur.
At the end of the film the surviving dinosaurs are trapped inside airtight cages on the Lockwood estate, thanks to damaged circuits in their life-support system the cages are filling with hydrogen cyanide gas, and the dinosaurs are about to die. The only thing that can save them is if someone pushes a red button that will activate the emergency release, open all the cages and loose the dinosaurs out into the world — and both Owen and Claire are tempted to push the red button but think better of it and decide not to. Then Maisie rushes over to the button and pushes it — an interesting inversion of the final scene of The Bride of Frankenstein, in which the monster sends Frankenstein and his wife out of the lab just before pulling its self-destruct button and blowing up himself, his would-be bride and the mad scientist who created them, exiting with the line, “We … belong … dead!” — loosing the dinosaurs on the world and permanently changing the ecological balance, forcing humans to learn to coexist with dinosaurs as part of their normal everyday environment. (This is dramatized by a post-credits shot of a flock of Pteranodons buzzing the skyline of New York City.) The point is made by a quite moving speech by Jeff Goldblum’s character, who doesn’t appear in the rest of the movie but whose words of wisdom bookend the film — Bayona, Trevorrow and Connolly saw him as a sort of Al Gore character, grizzled with age and frustrated at humanity’s doggedly ignoring his warnings of impending doom — “How many times do you have to see the evidence? How many times must the point be made? We’re causing our own extinction. Too many red lines have been crossed. And our home has, in fundamental ways, been polluted by avarice and political megalomania. Genetic power has now been unleashed and of course, that’s going to be catastrophic. This change was inevitable from the moment we brought the first dinosaur back from extinction. We convince ourselves that sudden change is something that happens outside the normal order of things, like a car crash, or that it’s beyond our control, like a fatal illness. We don’t conceive of sudden, radical, irrational change as woven into the very fabric of existence. Yet, I can assure you, it most assuredly is. And it’s happening now. Humans and dinosaurs are now gonna be forced to coexist. These creatures were here before us. And if we’re not careful, they’re gonna be here after. We’re gonna have to adjust to new threat that we can’t imagine. We’ve entered a new era. Welcome to Jurassic World.”
Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is actually one of the best big-budget franchise films I’ve seen lately, surpassed only by Black Panther; it offers audiences the thrills and terror they expect from the franchise and its basic premise, but at the same time it deals with real dramatic and political issues, particularly the privileges of the 1 percent, their ability to wreck not only the economy but the environment the rest of us have to live in, and the whole issue of whether or not humans should be messing around with the gene pool of themselves or other life forms. There’s no doubt about where I stand on this — quite frankly, I think nuclear power and genetic modification are the two technologies I regard as, in the old catch line from the Universal horror classics, “meddling in things man was meant to leave alone” (and I’m horrified by so-called “environmentalists” who have embraced nuclear power as a supposedly “clean” alternative to fossil fuels, whereas nuclear power is so dangerous and costs so much energy over the entire fuel cycle that adopting it to stop human-caused climate change would really be leaping from the frying pan into the fire). When we start mucking around with the germ lines of various life forms we don’t know what we’re doing, and since life, once created, reproduces itself, cross-breeds and mutates in ways we can’t even predict, much less control, who knows what genetic horrors we may be loosing on the world when companies like Monsanto re-engineer soybeans to take higher doses of carcinogenic pesticides? If Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom has a moral, that’s it: we tamper with the genetic code at our own peril and we know not what we’re going to do to the biosphere when we attempt to rewrite the history of evolution nature has bequeathed us from the last few billion years.
 — At least that’s the traditional explanation of what dinosaurs were, though some modern paleontologists believe they were more like modern-day birds than modern-day reptiles, and Crichton incorporated that into his story.