[EDITORS’ NOTE: The following entry knowingly contains minor, non-shocking spoilers.]
Much like the TV show Leverage, the Jurassic series has always been about disrupting high-level corruption in wealthy companies whose prideful execs think they’re too rich and clever to fail. Past Jurassic installments have tackled such hot-button issues as animal rights, eugenics, science ethics, theme park safety protocols, nepotism, big-game hunting for sport, neglectful mishandling of dormant IPs, natural disasters, black-market endangered-species trafficking, and more. Cautionary tales have taught us many important lessons all along, starting with that time Steven Spielberg and co-screenwriter David Koepp brought Michael Crichton’s bestselling screed about corporate accountability to a worldwide audience, some of whom took the Moral of the Story to heart and resolved not to live their lives with the hubris of Dr. John Hammond. Some of the filmmakers who followed in their footsteps paid more attention than others.
This time, much like the Leverage season-4 episode “The Hot Potato Job”, Jurassic World: Dominion turns its journalistic eye toward American agriculture and the manipulative opportunists who dominate the landscape and push out hard-working independent farmers who don’t have the resources to compete with the cutting-edge agritech wielded by richer, amoral hands. It’s to Universal Pictures’ credit that they dared to spend $165 million on a 60 Minutes exposé wrapped in a heist flick, which returning director/co-writer Colin Trevorrow and two co-writers kept intentionally mediocre so that the razzle-dazzle of basic cinematic quality wouldn’t distract from the message.
As with all solid Leverage episodes, which is nearly all of them, there must be an evil boss. Enter Dr. Lewis Dodgson, head of an international agrifuturist firm called Biosyn Genetics. (Probable ad slogan: “It’s not sin; It’s BIOSYN!”) He’s rich, he’s brilliant, he’s socially awkward, he’s in charge anyway, and his office has no suggestion box outside. We last saw Dodgson in the original Jurassic Park paying Newman from Seinfeld for some light corporate espionage involving the aforementioned Dr. Hammond’s research advancements. The original actor, who is horrifyingly unavailable, has been replaced by the always great Campbell Scott (Singles, House of Cards, Andrew Garfield’s Spider-twofer), but his methods remain as underhanded as ever. Whereas Hammond thought too big, Dodgson’s latest invention is much tinier in design, yet potentially devastating in scope — a combination of proprietary crop seeds for their clientele and a crop destroyer for competitors. “It’d be a real shame if something happened to your farm because you didn’t buy Biosyn” is basically agriextortion, but Madison Avenue no doubt reduced it to a much snappier catchphrase. (Say, “Biosyn or Dust!”)
For each Leverage con there’s either a victim or a whistleblower; Dominion provides both. We get one (1) scene with farmer Teresa Cendon-Garcia and her farm-turned-wasteland, and then she’s never seen again, not even for the traditional Leverage post-con scene of gratitude, seven-digit reparations, and/or ironic justice. The whistleblower here is far more integral to the morality tale — Mamoudou Athie (Brie Larson’s BFF/love interest in Unicorn Store) is Ramsay Cole, Biosyn’s communications director. He’s young, and in Dodgson’s eyes he’s protege material, but he’s got a moral compass that points to directions other than “Biosyn profit”. He knows he can’t save the world alone. That means it’s time to assemble a team.
Well, technically, half a team is assembled. The other half stumbles into the fray while working their own subplot involving a kidnapped girl who’s differently useful to Dodgson’s agri-empire. Leverage fans know their favorite team’s makeup by heart — the Hacker, the Hitter, the Grifter, the Thief, and the Mastermind. Ramsay’s distress signal ends up with a far different collection of skill sets: the Paleontologist, the Paleobotanist, the Chaotician, the Animal Trainer, the Animal Activist, and the Pilot. Can these six disparate do-gooders join forces, break into Biosyn’s labs, steal the necessary material to prove Dodgson’s culpability, set off the alarms by accident, have fight scenes on the way out, improvise, turn Biosyn’s own assets against them, trade quips, save the day, and let Dodgson suffer a comeuppance without any of them getting killed off or even so much as arrested for trespassing?
Sadly, Dominion falls far, far short of Leverage standards. It drags on for over 2½ hours, lets Dodgson hint at a grander master plan without ever actually speechifying what that master plan actually was, never lets its ensemble spend enough time together to gel, and never comes back around to the beleaguered farmers whose plight was the whole point of this exercise. Maybe that part seems hokey to modern cynics, but Leverage was always really good about giving the “little guy” closure after the Big Bad’s downfall. If Trevorrow’s intent was to exploit the crimes of corporate agrisabotage for some vain aspiration to Oscar consideration, then in some ways he’s no better than Dodgson when it comes to using people to further his own selfish ends, except hopefully Trevorrow didn’t destroy millions of acres of food in the process.
To learn more about agricultural corruption, head to your local library and check out books on the subject, such as Peter Pringle’s Food Inc. and pretty any nonfiction tell-all with “Monsanto” in the name. Remember, kids: reading may be a magical world of whimsy and wonder, but you need to learn about the world before you can change the world.
…oh. Oh! Ohhhh, waitwaitwait. I’ve just been informed this was supposed to be a blockbuster tentpole sequel about frickin’ DINOSAURS doing SUPER AWESOME DINOSAUR STUFF. My bad.
That once-endearing magic did not come through for me. What I got was bumbling amateurs on a caper to tattletale on a rich guy whose big deal is he’s invented a race of super-locusts, made possible by the dino-gene-tech from the first five films that begets dino-horror every single time. This expensive reboot of MST3K’s The Beginning of the End, which also sported giant locusts, is paper-thin yet occupies a huge portion of the epic-length running time. All other creatures receive cameos at best while the mega-locusts are thoroughly in your face, a nonstop reminder that tampering in God’s domain is still as bad as ever, but the worst thing that could come of it is great big creepy bugs, as our ancestors already learned from such films as Them!, The Deadly Mantis, Attack of the Giant Leeches, Kingdom of the Spiders, Horrors of Spider Island, The Giant Spider Invasion, Mimic and Starship Troopers.
But sure. for those curious about the non-buggy minority subplot, we can go through the motions.
Previously on Jurassic World: at the end of Fallen Kingdom a bunch of grown-ups sat on their thumbs and watched a tiny child push a button and release an entire dinosaur horde, most of them extremely dangerous, into the modern world like they were a bunch of cute puppies escaping Cruella de Vil’s clutches. Fast-forward to today, and dinosaurs roam free worldwide once more, except when the movie says they’re isolated only to specific places, except when they show dinosaurs basically everywhere. Authorities apparently also sat on their thumbs while the dinosaurs spent the next few years migrating as they pleased. The American government’s primary response was to devote a new C.I.A. division to the subject, since they might have surplus staff after the closing of Guantanamo, which is now probably a free-range dinosaur resort.
Our “Heroes” from that film have returned — aspiring action star Chris Pratt as Seriously Serious Hero Owen Grady and Bryce Dallas Howard as former theme park manager Claire Dearing, who now leads her own group of guerrilla dino-rights crusaders called the People for Ethical Dinosaur Observation or whatever. They live out in the woods with clone-girl Maisie Lockwood (an equally returning Isabella Sermon), who’s forced to stay in hiding because her revolutionary DNA could be useful to giant evil biotech companies. Her world-famous guardians come and go as they please even though their faces have been on the news, but she’s been cooped up in the cabin for years. Now she’s a teenager and that status quo is about to go exactly where you think it will. But before ordinary teen impulses can ruin anything, to our non-surprise someone eventually recognizes Owen the World’s Only Raptor-Tamer out-‘n’-about, and their witness self-protection program falls apart. Evil chasing and kidnapping ensue.
Owen and Claire embark on a James Bond globe-hopping journey minus the charisma, which takes them to an illicit dinosaur fight club in Malta, where dino-pandemonium is inevitable. Familiar dinos are reintroduced, henchmen are bitten to death, and velociraptors run amuck in the city — sometimes as fast as a speeding motorcycle yet sometimes struggling to keep up with a lone woman running in sensible shoes. Mission: Impossible motorcycle stunts are mildly evoked, while the Bourne Ultimatum window-jump stunt is reshot frame-for-frame with a dinosaur replacing Matt Damon’s double and a clumsily edited cutaway implying they didn’t quite nail the shot. (Call it The Bourne Saurpremacy.) They survive and pause for a quick recruitment drive when they realize their next destination is far away, neither of them can fly a plane, and the cast is still far too white. Enter DeWanda Wise (Netflix’s She’s Gotta Have It) as ace pilot Kayla Watts, who’s better than Owen at hero stuff and easier to take seriously as a screen presence. Any fleeting audience notion of a potential love triangle are snipped away by a single line of dialogue that may have been just equivocal enough to slip past Chinese censors.
The trio split up so they can deliver one (1) worthy action moment apiece. For Owen and Kayla, it’s an iced-pond throwdown with an extra feathery ‘raptor with a keen sense of camera flamboyance. For Claire it’s a far messier stealth sequence — one of Dominion‘s few truly tense moments — involving a slow crawl through mud to avoid one of the film’s new contributions to Jurassic guidebooks, the Therizinosaurus — tall and gangly, but potbellied and Edward Scissorhanded. All the dino-action is largely standard-issue, not too upgraded from the preceding installments, all of which did them better.
That disappointment includes the mandatory Baddest New Dinosaur Yet, in the series’ usual one-upmanship. This time it’s Giganotosaurus, which is not a typo for “Gigantosaurus”, which would be equally non-clever but at least make more sense. Its discerning features include vestigial fins and a hypnotic allure that compels onlookers to announce to audiences that it’s The Largest Carnivore That Ever Existed (And We Were Lying If We Ever Called Any Other Dinosaur That). If you remember the Spinosaur from Jurassic Park 3 or the Carnotaur from Disney’s Dinosaur, same deal. There’s nothing unique to it — no Mothra wings or guns for fingers. And even the dino-fight that should be the coolest, the Final Boss Battle, is largely cropped out so we can focus on the actors cowering. Once they’ve fled to safety, the remaining melee is over in about six seconds flat.
Speaking of sights that the audience is expected to applaud on cue, mention must of course be made of the nostalgia comeback tour for Drs. Ellie Sattler and Alan Grant. Laura Dern and Sam Neill reprise their previous roles, fumble around a tad and try not to blow their last chance for will-they-or-won’t-they closure. They’re relegated to the Mega-Locust plot track, but it’s hard to be mad at seeing them again. While Dern and Howard team up and enjoy some Final Girl bonding, Dr. Grant is mostly around to deliver old-man yuks as Owen catches him up on the last two Jurassic films’ most notable canon additions, such as the part where velociraptors are now trainable and can be stopped dead in their tracks by doing a Diana Ross STOP!-motion in their face and glaring at them with intense anxiety.
Also, Jeff Goldblum’s Dr. Ian Malcolm returns for far more screen time than his Fallen Kingdom cameo afforded him. Even the other characters are aware his admonishments concerning man’s affronts to Mother Nature are broken records, but he does get to act like himself and he probably improvised all his own dialogue, so there’s that. He’s had funnier moments in his time, but there are internet laws against dissing Jeff Goldblum, so, uh, onward, then, I guess.
By the time the casts of the two trilogies converge to form a Jurassic Fast and Furious super-team, the adventure energy is no longer escalating so much as it’s simply going through the usual motions until Our Heroes complete the same final objective as every Jurassic film: run past the edge of the habitat till the lizards can’t follow them anymore. And so it goes.
Dominion‘s key viewing demo is anyone intoxicated by the mere sight of dinosaurs, even if they’re just standing still and doing nothing, so your grade-school kids will be okay with this if you can coach them through the tedious agri-spying scenes. It’s brought none of the original film’s majesty (remember how cool it was to imagine dinosaurs were alive again?) or even the characters’ own awe, apart from kind-hearted Ellie’s occasional fawning over the cuter ones. Much of the slight inventiveness and bizarre third-act setting choices that J.A. Bayona brought to Fallen Kingdom are gone. Trevorrow has reverted to the factory settings of his Jurassic World opening chapter, which whetted a certain appetite after going 14 years between sequels but paled before the original trilogy. Nothing involving dinosaurs should ever feel pale.
And apropos of all that’s gone before, the showiest moment in Dominion‘s climax belongs not to the dinos, but to the locusts.
Meanwhile in the customary MCC film breakdowns:
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Because Dodgson can’t act alone, once again our man BD Wong shows up as Dr. Wu, who swears his experiments will benefit humanity one day despite their ghastly body count to date. Rather than hold him accountable, the film has the audacity to allow him a redemption arc, as if he’s done anything to merit forgiveness for six straight films’ worth of crimes. Maybe ask the families of dinosaur victims how they feel about that.
Other returnees from previous chapters include Omar Sy (X-Men: Days of Future Past) as Owen’s Jurassic World work-BFF; and Justice Smith (Detective Pikachu) and Daniella Pineda (Cowboy Bebop) as Fallen Kingdom‘s scientist sidekicks, who show up for the prologue but nope their way out of the rest. New characters include Dichen Lachman (Dollhouse, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) as the leader of the illegal dino-fight ring and Scott Haze (Venom) as one of Maisie’s hunters.
How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after the Jurassic World: Dominion end credits and they thankfully don’t end by threatening us with “OWEN GRADY WILL RETURN.” But I was curious to notice the Special Thanks section includes a shout-out to the late Bill Paxton. I would love to hear the story behind that.