Jurassic World: Dominion

In Jurassic World: Dominion, humanity is beset by two man-made disasters: dinosaurs running amok and gigantic locusts devouring the food supply.  The former is fallout from the previous movie, where the baddie had the brilliant idea to hold a dinosaur auction in his mansion.  The latter is the result of some nefarious genetic engineering on behalf of Biosyn, run by ruthless tech bro Dodgson (Campbell Scott).  Not content with controlling the world’s food supply, Dodgson is searching for Maisie (Isabella Sermon), a genetically-engineered clone who is now the ward of Owen (Chris Pratt) and Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard).

The supersized locusts catch the attention of Dr. Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern), who promptly recruits old flame Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill) to visit the Biosyn headquarters at the behest of mutual friend Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum).  (They need a locust sample to prove that Biosyn is behind the big bugs.)  The headquarters doubles as a dinosaur sanctuary, and you just know the dinosaurs won’t be kept under wraps for long.  After Dodgson’s henchmen kidnap Maisie and Blue’s baby raptor, Owen and Claire head for Biosyn to retrieve their children.  After running from dinosaurs separately, the two casts unite so they can run away from the dinosaurs together.  

Dominion is not a perfect movie by any stretch of the imagination.  Its plot is driven by coincidences and contrivances.  The dialog is mostly perfunctory.  In spite of its limitations, I enjoyed it.  In the sixth entry of this franchise, the filmmakers can still rely on a solid performance by Pratt and a tolerable one by Howard to anchor the proceedings.  The dino-action is, as always, top notch.  The movie avoids the unforced errors that sank Fallen Kingdom, in that nobody does anything glaringly stupid.  I’m not sure if the reappearance of OG trio Neill, Dern and Goldblum was a panic movie to regain fans after that disastrous sequel, but it ultimately disappoints, with the gentlemen tossing gutterballs.  (Dern emerges unscathed.)

Fortunately, the chances director/writer Colin Trevorrow took with the story succeeded, and turned the movie into something better than the sum of its parts.  He thankfully moves the franchise beyond the tired “dinosaurs as entertainment” angle into interesting new territory.  He shows us what a world where dinosaurs and humans coexist actually looks like.  Then, he explores how the genetic engineering used to bring dinosaurs back to life could make things dramatically worse for humankind.  Finally, he turns the question of dominion on its head for a theme of cooperation and collaboration.  The movie also introduces several intriguing new characters, including DeWanda Wise’s tart cargo pilot Kyla, Dichen Lachman’s henchwoman Soyona and Mamoudou Athie’s Ramsey, an heir-apparent to Goldblum’s Malcolm.  Omar Sy is also back, and if this series will continue with another trilogy, he should be given the leading role.  Dominion takes risks when none were expected, and for that it earns my respect.  Recommended.

The Jurassic Park/World movie series (or franchise) is a curious one for me.  The first entry is the best entry of the six, without a doubt.  While each subsequent entry has been entertaining to varying degrees, they’ve all failed to recapture the magic of the original.  Every sequel only confirmed how the original had a perfect combination of plot, acting, direction and special effects that made it such an engaging experience.  The latter films have always had top-drawer special effects, but the other elements have decidedly been hit-or-miss.

For me, the measure of success for a given big-budget movie series is how willing I am to watch any of its entries again.  For JP/W, the only one I’d say “always” to would be the first one.  Jurassic World would be a “sometimes”.  For the others (The Lost World, Jurassic Park III and Jurassic World: The Fallen Kingdom), it would be “never”.  To my pleasant surprise, I would put Jurassic World: Dominion in the “sometimes” category.

Dominion has the unenviable task of uniting the central cast of the JP movies with the principal characters in JW series.  The previous JW entry, The Fallen Kingdom, strongly hinted at this probability when Jeff Goldblum’s Ian Malcolm appeared in the finale to intone on the fate of things to come.  As promised, Sam Neill (as Dr. Alan Grant) and Laura Dern (as Dr. Ellie Sattler) rejoin Goldblum for the equivalent of a “getting the band back together” moment for the series, and the results are decidedly mixed.

On the World side of things, Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) and Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) have become surrogate parents for clone Maisie Lockwood (Isabella Sermon).  The three are living off the grid in the Pacific Northwest in an effort to shield and protect her from the rest of the world, particularly those intent on reverse engineering the process John Hammond used to recreate his dead daughter.  Along for the ride is Velociraptor Blue, who, due to her uniquely constructed DNA sequence, has managed to asexually produce an offspring.  (Baby Blue!)

The impetus for the JP cast to reunite is a swarm of gigantic locusts.  Their historical origin is the Cretaceous period, and paleobotanist Dr. Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern) has been studying them.  They devour crops except those that originate from seeds produced by Biosyn, which I took as an obvious swipe at Monsanto.  (I’m sure the analogy likely offended c-suite members of that company to no end, and to that I say, good show to the folks behind Dominion.)  At the rate that the locusts eat and multiply, they will create a worldwide famine in no time.  To prove that Biosyn is behind this catastrophe in the making, Dr. Sattler needs to get a genetic sample from a locust within the Biosyn compound, and needs a fellow scientist to attest to its origin.  (Dern, such a great actor, is always convincing, even when the script basically has her waving her hands.)  Sattler’s already received an invitation from old friend Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) to come visit Biosyn, but he’s not a real scientist (sorry, mathematicians).  Naturally, she recruits old flame Dr. Grant (Sam Neill) to tag along.  Grant, still digging up bones when dinosaurs are literally everywhere, accepts her invitation.

Biosyn’s CEO Lewis Dodgson (Campbell Scott) is behind the genetically modified locusts, the latest in a long line of evil CEOs in the series to manipulate Dr. Henry Wu’s (BD Wong) love of genetic engineering for nefarious purposes.  In case you’ve forgotten, Dodgeson was the character in Jurassic Park who recruited Wayne Knight’s Nedry to secret out samples in a can of Barbasol all those years ago.  (The Dodgson character definitely has had an interesting evolution, which I’ll touch on later.)

Dr. Wu, feeling bad for once again wrecking havoc upon humanity, implores Dodgson to let him fix the problem.  In typical CEO fashion, Dodgson sees opportunities in problems he’s responsible for, namely that his company can reap untold billions if his company sells the only seeds that are “locust proof”.  He threatens Wu that he’ll take away his chemistry set if he ever  reveals that Biosyn is behind the plague.  Not content with controlling the world’s food supply, Dodgson has plans in motion to kidnap Maisie and Baby Blue so that Wu can experiment on them.  Wu, always the patsy, compartmentalizes his morals and ethics and meekly acquiesces.

Maise, a teenager who just wants her freedom, is quickly captured by the swarthy (and English) Rainn Delacourt (Scott Haze) and his band of kidnappers.  Owen calls up old pal Barry (a very welcome Omar Sy), now a member of a French Intelligence team who focus on the burgeoning dinosaur black market.  Barry says that the baby dino was likely taken to Malta, which literally has a thriving dinosaur bazaar.  He allows Owen and Claire to check it out in person on the provision that Owen not get involved.  (You just know that won’t happen.)

Delacourt, swarthy but no dummy, flies Maise and Baby Blue to Malta on separate planes.  Kyla (DeWanda Wise), the pilot of the dinosaur express, notices Maisie exiting the other plane and immediately regrets doing business with Delacourt.  His money is good though, and she bottles up her personal resentment and heads for the bazaar to offload her other dino-wares.  She meets Claire and eventually admits that she saw Maisie get into a black limousine.  (Never a good sign.)  Owen confronts Delacourt, which forces Barry and his fellow agents to raid the place.  Soyona Santos (Dichen Lachman), one of Dodgson’s henchpersons, releases the dinosaurs and has them target the good guys.  This naturally sets wicker baskets flying and dinosaurs rampaging.  

Claire follows Santos and, with the help of a dino taser, gets Santos to reveal where Maisie was being taken.  Kyla, against her better nature, agrees to fly Owen and Claire to Biosyn’s headquarters in Italy’s Dolomites mountain range, which also functions as a dinosaur habitat.  (LIke most evil corporations, Biosyn has been putting on a good face to the public by collecting pesky dinosaurs around the globe.)  Owen evades a pack of programmed Atrociraptors on his way to Kyla’s plane, resulting in the movie’s best action sequence. 

After learning who’s on board Kyla’s plane, Dodgson turns off the habitat’s aerial defense system.  Kyla’s plane is overtaken by a flock of Quetzalcoatlus and crashes.  The three are initially separated on the way down, but reunite after dodging dinos along the way.  They proceed to the Biosyn headquarters and rescue Maisie and Baby Blue.

In the JP plot, Grant and Sattler meet Ramsey (Mamoudou Athie) a student/follower of Malcolm, who provides them with access to the secured lab where the giant locusts are housed.  After they secure a genetic sample, they and Malcolm flee the headquarters, dodging dinos along the way.  Eventually, the two teams meet-up, shake hands and try their best to avoid being eaten by the appropriately named Giganotosaurus.  After an impromptu tag-team throwdown between the T-Rex, the Allosaurus and feisty newcomer Therizinosaurus, everyone leaves the Valley of the Dinosaurs alive, with the exception of Dodgson.  Karma is not only a bitch, but comes in the form of a pack of hungry Dilophosaurus.  In the end, Dr. Wu releases a cure for the plague of locusts he reluctantly created, ending the movie and the Jurassic World series on a positive note.  (Nothing could be more positive than the sight of elephants and Triceratops walking the plains together.)

Analysis

As I mentioned above, Dominion is not a perfect movie.  With rare exception, the dialog is perfunctory.  The performances are mostly good, but include a few notable clunkers.  The plot regularly goes on auto-pilot, using coincidence (and dinosaurs) to move characters from A to B.  So, why exactly am I recommending it?  Put plainly, the new stuff won me over.  I appreciated the risks taken to move the story to move beyond its theme park origins.  I also liked the new characters (and actors) brought into the mix.  Together, they make Dominion better than the sum of its parts, rescuing what had become a tired series that was bordering on self-parody.  Incredibly, Dominion avoids the trap of being nothing more than a dumb dinosaur movie.  It still is that at times, to be honest, but it’s much more than that.

After four sequels, my expectations for the Jurassic Park/World series had reached a point where I passively watched the events unfold, taking enjoyment wherever I could.  No matter how bad the sequel was, there always was something to justify my time, whether it was an interesting performance, a few good lines of dialog or, at the very least, dinosaur action.  To my surprise, Dominion is the first JP/W sequel where I was actually interested in the story itself, and not just waiting for the characters to be eaten.  Incredibly, Dominion is still a dumb dinosaur movie at times,

Dominion finally shows us a world that had always been suggested but never explored, one where humans and dinosaurs live side-by-side.  The movie depicts what this would look in the early going, showing both the bad (a news report filled with shots of dinosaurs gone wild, a Mosasaurus attacking a fishing boat) and the not-so-bad (some Apatosaurus hanging out in a lumberyard, Velociraptors in the forest).  While I’m dubious that dinosaurs can exist in cold, snowy climates, I appreciated the imagery.

Dominion also brings some interesting new ideas to the table.  Instead of falling back on the concept of resuscitating dinosaurs for entertainment, the movie expands on the idea of genetic engineering to include humans and other creatures.  Via the subplots about Maisie and the locusts, the movie shows that tampering with nature in this way has its bad (faminine) and good (curing genetic disease) sides.  The questions raised are not that far removed from ones we’re having today, whether it’s regarding genetically engineered salmon or eradicating mosquitoes.  Dominion takes the middle-road here, positing that the outcome ultimately depends on the scientist behind the microscope.  However, the movie also shows that when the genie is out of the bottle, it can’t be put back in.  All you can hope for is that there are good scientists out there to clean up the damage caused by the bad ones.

Given that the word is in the title, I had been expecting Dominion to end with a victor declared in the battle between humans and dinosaurs for dominion over the planet.  Instead of a battle royale, the movie shows both sides trying to coexist.  Instead, the movie focuses on how humans seek dominion not just over dinosaurs and animals, but over other groups of humans through the use of technology.  By employing its genetically engineered locusts, Dodgson seeks to control the world’s food supply.  Then, when his scientists unlock the genetic tools used to create Maisie, he can not only cure diseases, but maybe even live forever.

In an odd way, Dominion reminded me of Don’t Look Up (or DLU)  Both movies are climate change analogies writ large, with Dominion using locus instead of an asteroid as the stand-in for imminent ecological disaster.  I hated Don’t Look Up for many reasons, primarily because it was made by smart people playing dumb.  DLU was made with the misguided notion that the only way to drive home its message was through incredibly clumsy satire.  

Dominion, on the other hand, was made by people who were expected to deliver nothing more than a dumb dinosaur movie, but managed to be more than that.  Dominion is a more serious and thoughtful rumination on the topic of climate change than anything in DLU.  The subtext throughout Dominion stresses how we can only hope to survive whatever ecological disaster we are facing by working together.  Maybe I’m naive for falling for Dominion’s optimism, but I’ll take that over DLUs dopy nihilism.

Chris Pratt has done a good job as the lead in the three Jurassic World movies.  His performance as Owen certainly owes much to the Stallones and Schwartzenegers of yesteryear, but it’s more than a simple variation of the gruff, “cynical pro”.  Pratt definitely looks and sounds like an action movie hero, but he’s able to project a sense of optimism and compassion that those guys never really could.  He’s also the rarest of actors who is equally comfortable delivering comedic material as he is in an action sequence.  Like fellow Marvel-ites Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Hemsworth, he represents the next step in the evolution of the action movie hero: someone who’s a gas to hang out with and laugh at their jokes, but who can also get fierce and duke it out with the bad guys when necessary. 

Thankfully, Pratt knows just how much of his good-natured, goofball personality to bring to a part.  Just like his performance in The Tomorrow War, Pratt’s Owen has just a touch of his smart-alecky Star-Lord from The Guardians of the Galaxy.  At several points within Dominion, particularly the Malta segment, the movie overtly creates a parallel between Pratt and Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones.  Without getting into a pointless comparison between the two, I will say that Pratt and Ford are two actors who are definitely cut from the same cloth.  I have no idea what Pratt intends to do with his career from here on out (he’s 42), but emulating Ford’s would be an excellent choice.

Before I move on from Pratt, I will say that I didn’t appreciate how the screen time for his character in Dominion was reduced to basically that of a supporting character.  I realize that this was done so that The Original Trio (Neill, Dern and Goldblum) would have enough screen time to justify their participation here.  Pratt, humble sort that I presume he is, presumably went along with this as a good sport.  It’s still a good paying gig, so why ruffle feathers?

Bryce Dallas Howard’s Claire became quite the punching bag when Jurassic World was released.  Honestly, the fact that she ran over hill-and-dale in heels was the least of my problems with her performance.  As a character, Claire was little more than a controlling, careerist ditz.  Howard’s wooden acting didn’t help matters and made it impossible for me to sympathize with her character.  I couldn’t escape the feeling that Claire was just a cartoon, a collection of mannerisms that never felt real.  Fallen World managed to minimize Howard’s acting limitations so that Claire stopped being annoying.  Dominion further limits her primarily to reaction shots and short lines of dialog, which she does well enough.  Howard has been better elsewhere (see: Black Mirror), so I wouldn’t be out-of-turn in saying that she’s ill-suited to action movies like these and should avoid them in the future.

I was glad that the filmmakers found a way to bring Omar Sy’s Barry back for the finale.  Even though he was only around for the Malta sequence, his effortless charm managed to make the movie a little bit better.  Like Pratt, he’s someone I immediately like and what to follow as soon as they appear in a movie.  If there is to be another Jurassic series, the filmmakers should seriously consider putting him in the lead.

As mentioned above, Neill, Dern and Goldblum return to play the characters they made famous back in the original movie from 1993, and not just in glorified cameos.  I admit that having the  original cast sharing an adventure with the new one looked intriguing in the trailers.  Unfortunately, the results of this reunion were mixed at best.  Of the three, the only one who does any discernible acting is Dern.  Neill acts with a sheepish grin on his face that all but shouts, “I can’t believe how much I’m being paid to just walk around and deliver lines however I want.”  I hate to describe Neill’s performance as “bad”, but it lacks any effort at being convincing.  (His performance in Peaky Blinders is proof that he can still act.)

Goldblum doesn’t come out of this any better, exhibiting none of the magnetism and charisma that marked his performances over the years.  At 69, I wouldn’t expect him to be able to project the same sexy nerd persona he did almost thirty years ago.  (If he did, it would come across as creepy.)  In this movie, the only way I can describe his performance in Dominion is “tired”.  All I can surmise was that director Colin Trevorrow was reluctant to ask his esteemed colleagues for additional takes.  Maybe he should have politely asked Neill and Goldblum to grab a cup of coffee before walking onto the set.  Of all the performances in this movie, I never would have imagined that the only two clunkers would be turned in by those two.

Aside from the generational reunion, Dominion introduced several new characters who stood out.  First off, DeWanda Wise’s Kyla was a treat, a strikingly beautiful African-American pilot with a “cynical pro” response ready for every situation.  In a way, Kyla is the Han Solo to Pratt’s Luke, unable to contain her world-weary cynicism when confronted with their naivete.  Wise must have had a lot of fun with the part, and kudos to the filmmakers for taking the chance to turn genre convention on its ear.

Dichen Lachman’s dishy Soyona helped me to forget all about Scott Haze’s Delacourt.  Who wants a henchman who looks like a street bum, anyway?  Mamoudou Athie’s Ramsey has the same affecting combination of sensitivity and intelligence that made him stand out in Netflix’s Archive 81.  Caleb Hearon’s Jeremy reminded me of the blobby nerd character Wayne Knight played in the original.  Hearon’s version is thankfully on the side of good.

Campbell Scott has become the go-to actor for brainy evil characters.  His Dodgson feels like a riff on the tech bro persona that people immediately associate with Steve Jobs, Tim Cook, etc.  Scott overplays his hand at times, but thankfully never goes overboard like Mark Rylance in Don’t Look Up (another reason why I hate that movie).  Interestingly enough, Cameron Thor, the actor who originally played Dodgson in the original, became a convicted sex offendor and is no longer employable.

I’ve singled him out for praise already, but I give Colin Trevorrow a lot of credit for what he’s done with this closing chapter to the Jurassic World trilogy.  He did a serviceable job in the first movie, then left for what he thought would be the opportunity of a lifetime to work on Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.  In what has become Hollywood legend, he was supposedly fired by Disney when they saw his passion project, The Book of Henry.  I haven’t seen that movie, but I will say that without him, both Fallen Kingdom and TROS were disasters.  I think Dominion is easily the best movie of the Jurassic World trilogy.  He kept the action moving along over its 2:30 runtime, and managed to include a few “artsy” shots along the way.  (The scenes with dinosaurs walking around while flaming locusts fall from the sky were pretty cool.)  Lastly, I have to acknowledge Trevorrow for not only having the guts to rip off Raiders of the Lost Ark, but for pulling off so well.  I’m guessing Spielberg was tickled.

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