Twenty-nine years ago, when “Jurassic Park” was released, computer-generated and digitally composited effects were still relatively new, but director Steven Spielberg’s team raised them to a new level of credibility by deploying them sparingly, often in nighttime and rainy scenes, and mixing them with old-fashioned practical FX work (mainly puppets and large-scale models). The result conjured primal wonder and terror in the minds of viewers. The T-Rex attack in particular was so brilliantly constructed that it put this writer sideways in his seat, one arm raised in front of his face as if to defend against a dinosaur attack. When there was a break in the mayhem, Spielberg cut to a very quiet scene, letting everyone hear how many people in the audience had been screaming in fright, which of course led to raucous laughter and a release of tension (a showman’s trick). A small girl sitting near this writer regarded his still-terror-contorted body and asked, “Mister, are you all right?”
There’s nothing in “Jurassic World: Dominion” that comes close to that first “Jurassic Park” T-Rex attack, or any other scene in it. Or for that matter, any of the scenes in the Spielberg-directed sequel “The Lost World,” which made the best of an inevitable cash-grab scenario by treating the film as an excuse to stage a series of dazzling large-scale action sequences, and giving Jeff Goldblum’s chaos theorist Dr. Ian Malcolm the action hero job. Goldblum, who reprises his role in “Dominion” alongside fellow original cast members Sam Neill and Laura Dern, turned his “Lost World” performance into a wry-yet-cranky meta-commentary on corporate capitalism.
For that matter, there’s nothing in this new film as good as the best parts of “Jurassic Park III,” “Jurassic World,” and “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom.” The latter had the most surprising pivots since the original, conjuring Spielbergian magic (think of that shot of the brachiosaur left behind on the dock) and mixing gothic horror and haunted house-movie elements into its second half. “Jurassic Park” creator Michael Crichton’s original inspiration, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, was referenced through the character of Maisie Lockwood (Isabella Sermon), a clone created by John Hammond’s business partner to replace the daughter that he lost.
Maisie is one of many major characters featured in “Dominion,” and her tragic predicament has disturbing new details added to it. But returning franchise director/co-writer Colin Trevorrow (writer/director of “Jurassic World”) and his collaborators are unable to focus on their deeper implications long enough to develop Maisie with the sophistication required for a great or even good science fiction/horror film.
The mishandling of Maisie is but one bit of scrap in this dumpster of a sequel. The film opens with Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard), onetime park operations manager of Jurassic World turned head of the activist Dinosaur Protection Group, breaking into a ranch where baby plant-eaters are being kept and impulsively deciding to rescue one of them. Then she goes to a cabin in the snowy Sierra Nevada mountains, where Maisie is living with the park’s former raptor-whisperer Owen Grady (Chris Pratt). The three form a makeshift nuclear family focused on protecting Maisie against parties who want to exploit her for genetic and financial gain. The semi-domesticated raptor Blue lives with them as well, and has asexually produced a child (mirroring Maisie’s relationship to her mother’s genetic material—though so haphazardly that it’s as if the filmmakers barely even thought of the two creatures as being thematically linked).
There’s also a corporate spy plot (as in most of the other films) involving a thoughtless and/or sinister corporation that talks of magic-and-wonder but is mainly interested in exploiting the dinos and the technology that created them. From “The Lost World” onward, the successors to park founder John Hammond (Richard Attenborough)—a nice old man who meant well but failed to think through the implications of his actions—have been actively treacherous Bad Guy types. The heavy in this one is Dr. Lewis Dodgson, a character from the original film who’s been recast and promoted to CEO of BioSyn (‘bio sin,’ get it?). Dodgson hired another recurring “Jurassic” character, B.D. Wong’s Dr. Wu (arguably the true villain of most of these films, though in an oblivious, John Hammond sort of way) to breed prehistoric locusts that are genetically coded to devour every food crop, save for engineered plants sold exclusively by the company.
Dodgson is the mastermind behind the kidnapping of Maisie and Blue’s child. Actor Campbell Scott uses inventive body language and unpredictable phrasings and pauses to invest the under-written Dodgson with a distinct personality. He turns him into a sendup of two generations of Baby Boomer and Generation X tech-bro capitalist gurus. Dodgson is a man who carries himself like a peace-loving hippie but is really a voracious yuppie who keeps black marketeers and hired killers on retainer. The warm-voiced but dead-eyed way that Dodgson conveys “caring” is especially chilling—like a zombie Steve Jobs. It’s the film’s second most imaginative performance after that of Goldblum, who never moves or speaks quite as you expect him to, and blurts out things that sound improvised. (Chastising colleagues who are moving too slowly for his taste, he snaps, “Why are you skulking?”)
All narrative roads converge at BioSyn headquarters, where Neill and Dern’s Alan Grant and Ellie Sattler have gone to ask Ian Malcolm’s help in obtaining top-secret information that can end the prehistoric locust plague, and where Maisie and Blue’s baby have been brought so that their genetic secrets can be mined as well. Two new characters—Han Solo-ish mercenary pilot Kayla Watts (DeWanda Wise) who says she doesn’t want to get involved in the heroes’ problems and then does, and Dodgson’s disillusioned acolyte Ramsay Cole (Mamoudou Athie)—join the intrigue, and presumably are being introduced as new-generation figureheads who can take over the franchise. Even if the entire film had focused on BioSyn headquarters, the film still might have seemed overstuffed and under-imagined. But Trevorrow turns the movie into a global travelogue, every sequence feeling narratively cut-off from the others in the manner of a substandard spy flick. (There’s even a rooftop chase modeled on one in “The Bourne Supremacy,” but with a raptor.)
A long sequence in Malta, where Claire and Owen have gone to rescue Maisie from kidnappers, encapsulates the film’s failures. There are a lot of promising notions in it, including a dinosaur-focused black market (like something out of a “Star Wars” or Indiana Jones film) where criminals go to buy, sell, and eat forbidden and endangered species. But it’s undone by a lazy undercurrent of comic-book Orientalism and a seeming inability to even see, much less capitalize on, potentially rich material. Michael Giacchino’s score pours on sinister Arabic-African “exotic” cliches, as if setting up an R-rated prison thriller in which Owen does a “Midnight Express” stint in a Turkish prison for hashish possession.