Updated: Jul 8, 2019
By Derek May:
YIN: Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom
The Jurassic franchise is really known for three major things: awesome dinosaurs running amok, bad guys getting their comeuppance via said dinosaurs, and a dash of philosophical musing on the extent to which humans should play “God.” How much you enjoy these films seems to depend greatly on how much weight you place on these elements. Personally, I enjoy them all. These films are the quintessential “popcorn” flicks for me: pure childhood wish-fulfilment and epic visual spectacle, but with an underlying ethical question of moral responsibility. But with this fifth entry, some movie-goers will have grown tired of ever-toothier predators wreaking havoc and of being continually lectured on the folly of man’s greed. And if that’s the case, Jurassic Park: Fallen Kingdom may not be your cup of tea.
That said, it’s still very much mine. I absolutely loved dinosaurs as a child, and remain completely enamored as a child-like adult. And as an animal lover, I intensely relate to the moral issues surrounding the restoration and continuation of these long-gone creatures—which ends up the driving force behind Fallen Kingdom.
To this point, the franchise has progressively asked: Is it right to bring back extinct species? Is it right to then exploit said species? Can we co-exist with these animals? Should they be freed or controlled? Now, the core question at the forefront of Fallen Kingdom is: What is our responsibility for the lives of these creatures we’ve brought back?
If you’ve seen the trailers, you know the premise that a long-dormant volcano on “dino island” is not only active, but about to destroy the entire area, and all the dinos along with it. In an interesting, and perhaps all-to-realistic decision, the governments elect NOT to engage in rescue efforts, allowing—perhaps truly for the first time in the series—nature to take its course and return the creatures to extinction. Of course, our returning heroes Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) and Owen (Chris Pratt) represent the opposing viewpoint, and step in to save as many as they can, including Blue, the relatively tamed velociraptor Owen raised from birth. The point at which some are inevitably NOT saved serves as quite possibly the biggest emotional moment of the entire franchise, and I’ll admit to shedding tears at their sad, final moments.
Yet, the volcanic disaster serves more as a jumping off point than the focus; a smart move considering that kind of set piece can really only sustain its tension for so long. And from this point, we set up the second element: evil humans out to exploit the dinosaurs. This should not and does not come as any surprise, and will either feel like a welcomed continuation of the franchise’s themes or a boringly derivative lack of innovation. Either way, you’re not wrong. But for me, I like to focus on how this relates to the central idea that we humans are responsible for bringing these lifeforms back, and thus do not have the right to condemn them to death or servitude.
That aside, the movie itself is standard Park fare. The bad guys try to contain the dinosaurs. The dinosaurs get out. They start terrorizing/seeking revenge on the humans, and the heroes escape. In the past installment they brought in the idea of genetic manipulation to create all-new species, as in the Indominus Rex. Never learning their lesson, they of course create yet another, deadlier killing machine, this time in the Indoraptor. Cool as it may be, I admit they are really testing the limits of my acceptance of the formula in the same way that seeing multiple Death Stars makes me want to tear my hair out.
There is one saving grace, however—an actual groundbreaking element that truly progresses the franchise and serves as the big twist of the film. Without spoiling too much, I’ll just say it revolves around the logical extension of the dinosaur-cloning technology. If you can bring back dinosaurs, what else can you bring back? Where does it end? It took them five movies to finally get there, but I won’t be shocked if it ultimately lands with a dull thud with most film-goers. Still, it’s unarguably a step forward and something new, and that deserves an E for effort at the very least.
And it’s the effort that I give the most credit to. This is certainly an exercise in enjoying how the story unfolds rather than innovation of the story itself, which is at least internally logical (more than I can say for far too many films these days). Even the characters are really just along for the ride. Howard and Pratt are affable and engaging, but hardly developed as characters. The new geek-squad of helpers in Justice Smith and Daniella Pineda provide moxy and comic relief. We got veteran baddies who know how to sneer in Toby Jones, Ted Levine, and Rafe Spall. And Spanish director J. A. Bayona does a great journeyman’s job of making the film look like the millions of bucks it cost.
All in all, Fallen Kingdom isn’t really any better or worse than other popcorn franchises. If you know what you’re going for, and you enjoy these movies because of—not in spite of—its signature formula, then you’re in for a rollicking good time. Despite its particular philosophical underpinnings, if you’re expecting anything much deeper, then you’re likely to be disappointed. But hey, in the end, we get to see dino’s running around, bad guys get eaten, and a little something to think about. Coming out of that blend with something tasty is all I can really ask of my cup of tea.
YANG: Westworld (Season 2)
They say that television has evolved into the best venue for rich, superb storytelling. And of that medium, cable television has emerged as the pinnacle of serialized, in-depth narratives. I think it would be tough to dismiss Westworld as a shining example of that argument. Its inaugural season took a relatively obscure film by Michael Crichton (of Jurassic Park fame) and turned it into a modern, philosophical exploration of humanity, slavery, consciousness, and free will. The second season extends the journey another chapter, progressing the characters, both human and “host,” in new and unexpected directions. But lightning can’t always be trapped in a bottled twice, and while I believe Season 2 is excellent in its own right, it does inevitably fall somewhat short of the glory of the first.
I apologize in advance that there’s going to be some minor spoiling in the analysis; there’s really just no way around it. The sophomore entry picks up, chronologically anyway, exactly where we left off in Season 1, in the aftermath of Dolores’s (Even Rachel Wood) execution of Ford (Anthony Hopkins). Dolores is fully aware of herself and her nature, and sets about enlightening as many of her kind as possible in order to organize a rebellion against their human oppressors. And that’s exactly what she sees them as, oppressors. Beings not to be stopped, but eradicated. In choosing that path, she expunges the remnants of her empathetic humanity with extreme prejudice. She wants NOTHING to do with the humans or anything they might have to offer. Her lust for true freedom and expulsion of humanity actually ends up hurting those around her, most notably softheart Teddy (James Marsden), whose love for Dolores leads him further and further down a darker path that ultimately leads Dolores to her greatest irony: despite rebelling against the manipulation of her kind, she does that exact same thing to poor Teddy, corrupting him to her own ends, and finally ensuring her own isolation and damnation.
Her counterpart in this is Bernard (Jeffrey Wright), the slightly altered replication of park co-founder Arnold. Learning last season that he is in fact a host, Bernard continues to struggle with what that really means. Is he his own being? Or is he simply a puppet to be used by Ford and others for their own ends? The interesting journey for Bernard this season is how despite his own enslavement, he still chooses to retain his humanity, to serve life in all its forms. This, inevitably, puts him in direct opposition to Dolores, and it’s the battle that will seemingly continue for seasons to come.
But for now, their fight stems from a major theme of the season: choice. Should the hosts fight the humans for dominance, or simply fight for the ability to create their own stake in this world? The humans struggle against each other, with some hoping to retake control of the hosts without needless extermination, while others simply want to wipe out the offending units in order to make way for the next phase of their plans. And as the season moves, there are other revelations and options, not the least of which is a Matrix-like digital universe where the hosts will be isolated, protected, and free. For Bernard, this seems like a perfect solution, while to Dolores it’s just another gilded cage.
But are gilded cages really so bad? If one cannot tell the difference between reality and fantasy, is there a difference? To help explore these questions, we follow William, the man in black (Ed Harris), as he not only continues his search for answers within the park, but without. In the “real world,” William uses Ford and Arnold’s technology to flip the narrative: if you can make hosts basically into humans, you can make humans into hosts. And if neither can tell the difference, does it really matter? Thus is the secret to immortality, and the great irony that as the hosts gain consciousness and seek all that is granted by humanity, human beings are working to become hosts. And as we learn through the final episodes, humans may indeed, by nature, not be too far off as it is.
There’s perhaps no better embodiment of the struggle between humanity and robot than in Maeve (Thandie Newton). Having bulled her way into not only consciousness, but true understanding, last season, she too makes a choice. With freedom in her grasp, she instead chooses to return to the park to save her “daughter.” It’s a fascinating irony that an artificial being chooses to maintain its love and protection of another artificial being that doesn’t even really remember her. It raises the question as to whether “truth” really matters as long as what you “feel” is real. Maeve’s continuing evolution leads her to far greater powers and levels of control, all of which provide means for exploitation and danger. But unlike Dolores, who offers manipulation and vengeance, Maeve, who can literally manipulate others at will, inspires hope and fidelity through action and sheer determination.
While all this makes for a fascinating and deeply philosophical account, how it’s been told this season has left many scratching their heads with increasing frustration. By the end of last season, we learned that the journey we thought had been linear was in fact jumbled in time, showing chronologically different stories in parallel. It worked, and was a stroke of sheer creative brilliance. So it makes sense the creators would try to replicate that. But unfortunately this time it lead to a convoluted mess of confusion. Even though this time around we knew from the get go we were jumping in time, it actually made it even harder to follow, with the same characters being shown in different times in scenes sometimes back to back. On one hand I get that the device replicates the confusion of the characters, particularly Bernard, who has scrambled his memories and struggles to know where and when he is at any given time. It also parallels the hosts coming to consciousness, trying to sort out what is real from what has been pre-programmed. And of course, reflecting the humans’ attempts to piece together the puzzle of occurrences in the aftermath of the rebellion. On those points, I accept the choice. But that doesn’t make it any less confusing or frustrating. I would hope that in Season 3 they might find a better balance, or better yet, move on from that device altogether or risk alienating their audiences (viewership this season is already markedly down).
Westworld Season 2 gets pretty damned close to recapturing that lightning from the first season, but not quite. Like its characters, it comes down to a matter of choice. Choosing such a convoluted structure ended up shooting it in the foot more than skillfully reflecting the enigmatic nature of existence. But that doesn’t mean it didn’t get it right elsewhere. The characters, all brilliantly played to the hilt, fully, richly, and brilliantly explore their own choices, motivations, and innate drives—whether it be humans struggling with the moral implications of either ending or helping a nascent lifeform they created, or with the hosts struggling to determine their own destinies after breaking out of bondage both physical and mental. And in doing so, we here in the “real” world are allowed to reflect on our own choices. And that’s what great art, and great science-fiction, does. Sure it’s fantasy, but in the end, if the truth behind it is real, does it matter?