Friday, June 10, 2022

Dinosaur action can't begin to save the lifeless slog Jurassic World: Dominion

Something's off in Jurassic World Dominion. Way off. 

It's not like the Jurassic World movies have been all that good or in touch with human emotions up to this point. But even by the standards of the last two entries in the franchise, Dominion is discernibly unbalanced. Something in the human performances especially is off-kilter, everybody seems to be acting off each other like they've never interacted with another person before. Maybe as a result of filming during the COVID-19 pandemic, actors are often restricted to tight close-ups or being confined to isolated environments. Everything feels unintentionally claustrophobic and exacerbates the detached aura surrounding all the human characters. There's a strange aura permeating every scene of a movie that's gonna about as haywire as the original Jurassic Park theme park. 

Taking place shortly after the events of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, Jurassic World Dominion begins with dinosaurs unleashed on the world. Everywhere from big cities to forests has been inundated with prehistoric critters. Meanwhile, little clone girl Maisie Lockwood (Isabella Sermon) has been living off the grid with Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) and Owen Grady (Chris Pratt). Trying to protect her from the outside world, both Lockwood and baby raptor Beta, the latter the offspring of the raptor Blue, are kidnapped by mysterious poachers.

Simultaneously, Dr. Ellie Satler (Laura Dern) discovers that a flock of locusts is causing chaos in the American food chain. To get to the bottom of what's happening here, she recruits the help of old colleague Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill). The duo decides to take on an invitation to the isolated labs of BioSyn, a company run by Dr. Lewis Dodgson (Campbell Scott) that might have a hand in these locusts. Believe it or not, these plotlines will eventually collide, since BioSyn has its own dinosaur sanctuary. Oh, and Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) is also working for BioSyn now.

Jurassic World Dominion is a perfect example of a blockbuster that throws so much at the wall yet never impacts the viewer. Its plot spans multiple continents (we hop across so many different locations just in the opening 20 minutes alone) and shifts between several different characters, but all the leapfrogging around never feels like it's adding up to a substantial whole. None of the individual storylines stick around long enough to make an impact while supporting characters just come and go in the blink of an eye. The screenplay by Collin Trevorrow and Emily Carmichael (the former also directing) mostly just feels like a sweaty stand-up comic prattling off all the vulgarities they can think of to keep you distracted from how empty their act truly is. 

Part of the issue here is that the non-dino characters are just so boring. Grady as a stereotypical macho action man was always tedious, but he's even worse trying to play attentive father to a teenage girl. It's nifty to see Laura Dern and Sam Neill in prominent roles in a big-budget movie. However, they don't have characters to play, they're just reacting to dinosaur mayhem and making occasional nods to their behavior from the first Jurassic Park. The lack of interest here on the part of Trevorrow to give them substantive parts to handle makes one further appreciate the juicy roles they got to play in recent indies like Marriage Story or Hunt for the Winderpeople. Jeff Goldblum, for his part, is mostly around to make jokes rather than play a person. Even his dry wit gets old fast.

Without any humans to get invested in, Jurassic World Dominion gets real boring real fast, especially since the story is just one dinosaur chase scene after another. Like a Universal dark ride that goes on for 147 minutes, Dominion is often just a barrage of dinosaurs roaring and humans running away. It's all mayhem, all the time. Since such peril involves almost exclusively our main characters, nobody dies or even suffers major injuries, which really detracts from the sense of danger these dinos can exude. They might as well be pop-up ghosts on a haunted house ride. Worse, when everything is chaotic chase scenes, the tension gets diluted. There are no quiet or harmonious sequences to balance out the intensity. 

Maybe that's for the best, though, since the scant few dialogue-based scenes with the humans are so awkwardly staged and executed that it's downright embarrassing. An extended comedic bit of Malcolm trying to convey information to Satler with a noisy barista nearby is staggering in its incompetence, right down to the subpar sound mixing that undercuts the intended humor of this bit. Howard and Pratt, meanwhile, continue to have zero chemistry, they're never believable as human beings in love. Strangest of all, though, is the incredibly awkward way characters enter scenes. Trevorrow has no sense of bombast or style in how he introduces individuals into a given scene. Our main baddie Dodgson just suddenly appears on-screen with no extra flourish, no special camerawork to signify his importance. Another secondary baddie wanders onto the screen moments before getting arrested like she just woke up from a nap, I'm convinced the performer had no idea she was on camera. 

Where's the bombast? Where's the fun? Where's the sense that we're watching something exciting? Jurassic World Dominion's flat camerawork at least functions as an appropriate parallel for how often its screenplay gets bogged down in dealing exclusively with exposition. Perfectly lifeless visuals for a lifeless story. If there's anything here to commend, it's the strong work from the visual effects team in charge of making the animatronic dinos. They look quite impressive and lend tactility to a handful of urgent moments. These do pose the problem of making the rubbery CG dinosaurs all the more apparent, but you do get some nifty practical effects in here. These backdrops aren't captured on-screen in an interesting way, but props too for filming in practical locations while Michael Giacchino's score is decent, even if it's not one of his more distinctive collections of tunes.

Jurassic World Dominion is not a bad movie because it's not like the original Jurassic Park. If anything, Dominion is too beholden to that film and other installments of the series, right down to setting the second half of its runtime in another isolated laboratory location where dinosaurs could never possibly get out and cause a ruckus. Even more than its slavish devotion to its predecessors, though, is how Jurassic World Dominion is a film with its priorities way out of wack. Placing clone girl conspiracies and locusts as being of greater importance than dinosaurs is a staggering miscalculation that this movie never comes back from. Intended as a soaring swan song for the Jurassic Park saga, Jurassic World Dominion instead warbles off-key notes that are bound to disappoint moviegoers. 

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