I have never related more to a T-Rex than in this particular moment. Looking at this promotional still, I can recall wanting to tear down the screen when my theatrical screening of “Jurassic World: Dominion” came to a close. *Spoilers Ahead* – The entire experience was an uninspired slog with moments of superficial appreciation. Rarely did my positive reactions range beyond “wow, that cgi dinosaur looks interesting.” Based on the promotional materials that seem to center entirely on the fact that there are an absolute ass load of new and classic creatures on display, I guess the movie did what the producers wanted it to do. Nobody seemed concerned with an engaging plot, stylistic visuals, or a clever integration of franchise veterans Sam Neill, Laura Dern, or Jeff Goldblum (not to mention “World” returnee and queer actor BD Wong).
I was finally yanked off of the proverbial toilet seat when an admittedly touching moment was manufactured in an inorganic circumstance. Laura Dern and Sam Neill, both of whom, in my humble opinion, bring forth the most enjoyable moments in this film when they are just chatting about life, finally get together in the end. I teared up, not gonna lie, but my tears of joy quickly turned into sadness when I sat with this moment for a few moments after it had passed. Nothing I saw had been earned. The exchange itself was merely one exhibit in the theme park of madness that was the movie itself. In a way, “Jurassic World: Dominion” became its own actual Jurassic Park.
In the first film, one of the themes played with was this idea of how we’ve separated ourselves from nature, and Steven Spielberg showed us how the consequences of this choice can play out to our systemic disadvantage. The characters were shown the dinosaurs from behind two cages, the first being the windows of their automatic cars (also significant) and the second being the cages for the animals themselves. Let’s not forget, it was hard for most of our characters to even see the dinosaurs in this choreographed experience, and it wasn’t until the fences broke down that we really got to see these incredible creatures and face the horrific implications of what their presence truly means for our stake in the world. When this reconciliation between two characters I love played out, I could hear the following automated voice message play out: “Here we have Dr. Alan Grant and Dr. Ellie Sattler. These are characters who were in the original “Jurassic Park.” You like these characters and these are good actors. Them getting together is something you’ve been looking forward to, or even dreaming of, so here it is for you. They love each other. The dialogue in this scene indicates playfulness and the fulfillment of amorous destinies formed in preconceived notions audiences likely sit with. This is only enhanced by the assumed information from the previous films. Feel happy. Laugh. Smile. Cry…”
I don’t want to be shown a place I can go and then pulled forward to the next thing on a producer’s checklist. I want to be led somewhere. The best films allow us to walk forward, and they only truly take us somewhere because the screenplay directs the characters somewhere focused that we want to follow. Watching “Dominion” is not experiencing true immersion. It’s an automatic car ride, brilliantly rendered as it may be, but behind each cage is a moment we’d probably love to invest in. Given the distance those behind the movie have established, it’s nearly impossible.
There is a scene of two people finally getting together that serves as the closing scene to another, less well-funded creature feature, the 2007 giant squid thriller, “Eye of the Beast.” I am not here to tell you this monster mash doesn’t have flaws. I am here to tell you that this monstrosity is an overwhelmingly better movie than “JurASSic World: Dominion.” You bet JurAss, I just said that. My partner and I randomly stumbled upon this watch while craving for B-movie cheese, and while it was that, the complexity of its flavor surprised us.
I mentioned that two characters get together at the end of the movie (we’ve already warned you about *Spoilers*). These characters are Dr. Dan Leland and Sheriff Katrina Tomas, played by James Van Der Beek and Alexandra Castillo respectively. Over the course of the film they seek to solve one sleepy town’s cephalopod problem, but we also devote time to seeing them on their way to dating. There are bar scenes where they get a sense of each other’s humor, moments of flirtation while on the job, and they even reflect their feelings about one another to their friends (or at least the sheriff does). Their kiss in the waves was built to by spending significant time on how they relate to one another. The plot itself, you know, the whole tentacles grabbing people and taking them underwater thing… is really only a vehicle for their relationship to grow. Katrina is essentially in charge of a town where nobody is datable, and Dan hasn’t really allowed time for a relationship alongside his busy career. Their dynamic isn’t complicated, but the actors do a solid job with the material they are given. And you know what, I was rooting for them, which is more than I can say for a single character in “Dominion.”
Ok, I was rooting for THE Blum and his “Jurassic Park” original posse’, but only because I love them on the merits of what they brought to the table as actors and my history with not only them as artists, but the characters they played. There was nothing wholly original in “Dominion” that made me invested in their arcs as characters, and if they hadn’t been characters I’d known from past work I love, then I would’ve felt nothing. There’s no franchise resting on the reunion of this random sheriff and scientist, but perhaps a movie only has to be the impact it has between those initiating and closing space bar clicks. For ninety minutes, I learned about two people, heard about their clear goals, and waited for the next conflict to make things difficult.
Yes, you heard correctly. Each of our two leads had a clear goal they were trying to accomplish: kill the big mollusc that is eating people who go boating in the nearby lake. Katrina brings her investigative skills to the table as a sheriff and has connections and allies in the town. Dan is an expert on all things ocean life (and if I may say so as an obsessed ocean nerd myself, his science was generally not outlandish or unfounded, which is what you generally see in this kind of adventure) , and he uses his knowledge to help prepare everyone for how they are going to kill the squid. They plan throughout the movie, and eventually, they go about their plan in a climactic battle. I followed what they were doing, and there was nothing distracting me from the most pressing matter: KILL THAT FUCKING SQUID! Thankfully, there was no overcomplicated plot about genetically modified giant locusts decimating crops until humanity careens into oblivion that somehow intersects with an entirely secondary plot about a cloned girl learning her origin story.
As you can likely ascertain from the images I’ve shared, this movie is low budget. There is really only one shot of the squid at length, and most of what we see are the animal’s appendages flopping about here and there. But let me ask you something. Who cares? The cgi dinosaurs in “Jurassic World” look immaculate. Who cares? “Jaws,” another Spielberg classic, famously barely shows the monster shark that propels the entire story. Thank goodness that is the case. Not only did this inspire more creative camera work, but it allowed us to focus on the subject that the movie was actually about: the characters. Another more recent movie understood this too. “Prey,” the most recent installment in the “Predator” series, knows perfectly well that the famous alien is a plot device. Yes, we show up to see it, like we do for the shark… like we do for the squid… and yes, like we do for the dinosaurs… But regardless of how perfect your computer images are, too much exposure robs them of their mystique and intrigue. We get it. There are dinosaurs. That cannot be your story. The plot is “there are dinosaurs.” The story must be something more.
This is why I feel as though the producers of “Jurassic World” have a profound misunderstanding of the original “Jurassic Park.” The dinosaurs taking over the island was just what motivated the characters towards their arcs of change. Alan Grant was on a journey to invest in human relationships, allowing for their imperfection and appreciating them for it. John Hammond had to battle his own hubris and let go of his child-like sense of wonderment for the betterment of all mankind. The list goes on, and we spent a lot less time focusing on the dinosaurs themselves.
The “Jurassic Park” dinosaurs presented the characters with obstacles, and overcoming these obstacles was what it was all about. Now, the dinosaurs seem to be characters themselves. Only problem with that is, they don’t have the complexity of a human being, unless of course they’re animated in “The Land Before Time.” This is why an action behemoth like Captain Prattfall doesn’t make sense for a dinosaur movie. He has all the tools necessary to complete a mission like Ethan Hunt, and thus should be presented with complicated villains with weapons and traps. Giving Pratt all the abilities of an Ethan Hunt and then having him face off against dinosaurs is really like putting an orca in captivity. They can’t do what they’re really evolved to do, and thus, they become a several-trick pony. That’s not only bad for Pratt. It’s bad for the dinos. Making Pratt the captive orca turns all the dinosaurs into toy balls and targets and jumping hoops. And so, in this meandering review, the behind-a-glass coldness of “Dominion” makes me shudder once again.
I was supposed to compare two films and I’ve mentioned about twenty-two. I digress. “Eye of the Beast” is a return to the black and white monster movies where people in lab coats talked about the creature for 80 minutes and then killed it in the remaining 10. The less than glamorous cgi is used sparingly, and the practical squid stuff is quite impressive. The town itself has a dingy atmosphere, and I was impressed that they set their adventure in a low-income area. This means that they didn’t have to dress anything up, and I felt like I’d been to a lakeside community like this before. The lighting department deserves special mention, as they cleverly masked what shouldn’t be seen with bright lights. These lights seemed to permeate every scene, but it just added to my association with the subject material. It felt like being in a deep ocean surrounded only by flashing moonlight and bioluminescence. They truly made everything that they had to do based on their limitations work for what they were thematically exploring, and while the script could’ve done with some editing (unnecessary one-liners, some awkward moments, etc.) there’s not the sense of complete overhaul I get from “Dominion.”
To wrap this thing up in my meaty, boneless tentacle… a movie like “Eye of the Beast,” simple as it may be, is enjoyable because it is only what it is. The movie is so assuredly a rom com about two people fighting a squid that it endeared me to it. I mean hell, even the eclectic, secondary characters were varied, realistic, culturally accurate, and loveable in some way. “Jurassic World Dominion” is five-hundred things flying around that amount to nothing. When a movie feels like an “ideas” dart board session, then something has gone wrong. I truly believe that Colin Trevorrow loves dinosaurs. I also truly believe that he attempted to do things with them that are inappropriate to the world Michael Crichton wrote all those years ago, and I believe that not enough attention was devoted to the script, suspecting that all that energy was diverted towards set pieces and spectacle.
Remember, it isn’t about having Sam Neill, Laura Dern, and Jeff Goldblum in your movie. It isn’t ABOUT having dinosaurs that look really great. We know this, because the original had all that and was a triumph of cinema. The new film has all that too and really should’ve remained in that tree sap trapped mosquito. I would never claim to be an authority on what films need to be. I can only say what I want as an audience member, and I want to feel things. Feeling things beats just seeing things every time. If any filmmakers are reading this, then I encourage you to build a foundation for something great with what you have and refrain from being intimidated by a lack of zero’s on your budget outline. That idea you have… You don’t know how long you’ll have with it. Make it. Show it. Love it.