Ahead of the release of Jurassic World: Dominion, join us as we pay homage to the franchise and the beasts who dominate it. Welcome to Dinosaur Day!
The enduring lessons of the first Jurassic Park are that greed is bad and old things should be left alone. Nearly 30 years later, Jurassic World: Dominion proves that we haven’t learned a thing. It soullessly squishes together beloved original cast members and characters from the past two (barely superior) installments, and pauses for what feels like an eternity to let the two contingents mechanically give each other mutual props. “Big fan,” enthuses Chris Pratt’s Owen Grady after meeting Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill), for some reason. Yet it’s a line uttered in the same scene by Laura Dern’s Dr. Ellie Sattler, who’s trying to keep her friends old and new on topic as they try to escape yet another dinosaur-infested death trap, that’s even more telling. “Let’s finish this,” she declares—a fair demand given that it comes long after the two-hour mark in a ridiculously overlong movie, and also maybe a coded acknowledgement that it’d be better for everyone involved to abandon (and maybe bury) this franchise for a while.
It’s possible that Dominion wouldn’t seem quite so bad if it didn’t go out of its way to remind us of specific scenes and line readings from Steven Spielberg’s classic. Toward the end of the film, in a span of about 90 seconds, Jeff Goldblum bravely brandishes a flare gun and coyly acknowledges his own accidentally exposed chest, as if playing Dr. Ian Malcolm bingo. Elsewhere, Dern makes eyes at a sick triceratops, Neill lectures bored-looking kids hanging around an archaeological dig site, and the score quotes John Williams’s soaring theme; an obnoxious villain gets his face melted by dilophosaurus spit, and a telltale can of shaving cream makes a rib-nudging cameo. These and other nods land with a thud because they feel so desperate and so obligatory. When Grant spots BD Wong’s Dr. Henry Wu—a bit player in the original film—he looks him in the eye and says, “I remember you.” That’s it. He doesn’t say what he remembers about him, because the characters met for maybe one minute the first time around. Boxes are merely being ticked off. In the wake of Top Gun: Maverick somehow transubstantiating fan service into something mythic and exhilarating, Dominion accomplishes the exact opposite.
The closest that the movie comes to genuine wit lies in the idea that Drs. Malcolm, Sattler, and Grant are on hand to lend various institutions a form of OG credibility. They’re household names that the public (and the real-life audience) can trust. The plot involves an aimlessly sinister biotech guru named Lewis Dodgson (Campbell Scott), who has taken it upon himself to solve the new problem of human-dinosaur coexistence as well as to harvest the DNA of all those reborn reptiles to finally cure all human illness and suffering. Of course, Dodgson has another, more nefarious master plan—one he doesn’t try very hard to hide from the members of his high-priced team—that involves unleashing a plague of genetically modified locusts on the world’s farms in order to sell more of his own specially treated wheat and corner the global food supply.
Dodgson has hired Goldblum’s eccentric chaos theoretician—last seen taking the stand as an expert witness in Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom—as his “in-house philosopher.” It’s a cushy gig for the author of How the World Will End that apparently includes giving daily, ranting lectures against his employer in a wood-paneled room in the middle of a far-flung and heavily fortified dinosaur preserve. (Director Colin Trevorrow gives us lots of close-ups of young faces nodding at Goldblum’s apocalyptic points; it’s always nice when a director has absolutely zero trust in their audience.)
Our Dr. Malcolm is, of course, a double agent, and he uses his insider status to get his old pals into his boss’s lair so they can expose the locust plan. This involves some Austin Powers–level skulking around undercover, with Neill and Dern donning stolen hazmat suits (and trying to retain some shred of actorly dignity). Meanwhile, in the movie’s other major narrative strand, Pratt’s raptor wrangler Owen Grady is making his own way to the sanctuary with his wife, Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard), to retrieve their adoptive human-clone daughter, Maisie (Isabella Sermon). Relocated to a cabin in the woods along with a couple of mostly domesticated velociraptors, Maisie has been brooding about being a human-clone, and also isolation, and also hitting puberty and not knowing what to do with her life. The more concrete problem is that she’s been kidnapped by Dodgson’s team and transported to a series of remote locations for … reasons.
I myself did not remember that Owen and Claire even had an adoptive human-clone daughter. After all, Pratt’s and Howard’s characters are the definition of forgettable; assuming we haven’t been overrun by free-range dinosaurs in 30 years, it’s doubtful that audiences will clamor to see them return in another legacy sequel. Dominion is their worst outing yet because it plays up the fact that, at the end of their own self-contained trilogy, Owen and Claire remain ciphers—blank slates with no distinguishing characteristics. Pratt’s lack of gravitas is almost impressive, though it’s hard to give much of a performance when your most compelling onscreen partner is a CGI velociraptor.
“Life finds a way,” Goldblum insisted 30 years ago, but it’s life—funny, humane throwaway moments between people—that has been systematically bled out of the material. Trevorrow is an almost parodically impersonal filmmaker, and if it’s unfair to compare him to Spielberg on a technical level, it’s at least worth examining the series’ diminishing returns on a conceptual level. Ever clever about his own practice, Spielberg crafted Jurassic Park as a self-reflexive commentary on ’90s Hollywood. The subtext of all those photorealistic CGI dinosaurs was that, as the millennium approached, cinematic special effects technology was on the verge of closing up the uncanny valley once and for all.
The great line in the first movie when Ian calls a dumbstruck Dr. Grant extinct was adapted from an on-set observation by analog special effects master Phil Tippett about digital imagery making his handcrafted illusions obsolete. Jurassic Park is well-structured and scary and wonderfully well-cast, but it also pulsates with an arresting ambivalence, whether it’s Richard Attenborough’s myopic visionary John Hammond informing his guests that he’s “spared no expense” in trying to entertain them, or a shot of gift-store shelves filled with Jurassic Park merchandise. (In a nifty and pointed bit of staging, the gift shop turns into a site of lethal threat.) Without compromising his gifts as a storyteller or an entertainer, Spielberg wound up with something rare: an authentically thoughtful blockbuster with something interesting to say about itself and the contradictions of trying to use state-of-the-art technology to re-create the past. Dominion ends with a series of platitudes about taking better care of the planet—or else—but its pleas for responsibility are hard to take seriously in light of its own omnipresent slovenliness. It’s too busy being a cautionary tale to work as one.
Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.