The latest installment in the Jurassic Park franchise, coming a quarter century after the first film, is about the “genetic power” of the cloned dinosaurs. Only it really isn’t.
The plot is superficially superficial – reviews seem more focused on Bryce Dallas Howard’s improved footwear from the last go-round, pointing out the thin plotline. But many missed the subtleties and subtext of the science.
I scribbled in the dark theater, as I did when reviewing the ridiculous Rampage a few weeks ago. Fallen Kingdom is much better – at least some thinking went into it.
Save the Dinosaurs!
When last we saw the dinos in 2015, they were running amok on Isla Nublar, 150 miles to the west of Costa Rica. Now a huge volcano has started to sputter. What to do? After all, we brought them back, posits Jeff Goldblum, reprising his mathematician-turned-biologist Ian Malcolm persona in the first scene, deploying multisyllabic words when addressing a befuddled senator. The beasts are facing an “extinction level event.”
New scene. Dinosaur dad John Hammond’s partner, Benjamin Lockwood, played by James Cromwell of Babe the Pig fame, lives in a castle in northern California. It’s huge, complete with a 3-levels-below-ground “restricted access area” that is a labyrinth of chambers and cages interspersed with laptops displaying old dinosaur training sessions. Incubators house big eggs. Lockwood is continuing Hammond’s dream, nurturing the Jurassic dinosaurs. And running about is his spunky granddaughter Maisie; his daughter, Maisie’s mom, was killed in a car crash.
Lockwood wants to save the dinosaurs marooned on the island, but his assistant, the smarmy Eli Mills, is conspiring with animal traffickers who want to save the dinos just to sell them to the highest bidders, but not just for entertainment purposes. Each of the desired 11 species produces a unique biopharmaceutical.
Resident geneticist Dr. Wu is still on board, played by Law and Order’s B.D. Wong. “Do you know the complexity of creating another life form?” he utters in frustration. I can only imagine.
Dinos for Sale!
The 11 species are to be auctioned off to raise seed money to fund the engineering of “creatures of the future made from pieces of the past,” which is actually what nature does to the genomes of every sexually-reproducing organism. But the new reptile, indoraptor, will be weaponized! It is somehow genetically programmed to respond to a laser pointer followed by an “acoustic signal” that triggers it to attack. This is a classic conditioned response, so I’m not sure where the genetic manipulation comes in.
And it’s hardly new. Cats have been following laser pointers for ages. Here’s my favorite compilation of felines demonstrating this skill.
But the good guys as well as the bad guys must first find the dinosaurs in order to rescue them from the lava-belching volcano. And that brings in Bryce Dallas Howard’s character, Claire Dearing, who as the former director of the wrecked and abandoned theme park knows where to locate them. But first she schleps back animal behaviorist Chris Pratt’s hunky Owen Grady.
All join forces and manage to truck most of the behemoths off the island, including some babies and juveniles. The dinosaurs are captured and imprisoned behind bars, including the little ones, while those not given safe passage are left behind to perish in eerie silhouette behind flaming foliage. It was a little like watching the news last week.
Genetic Modification or Behavior Modification?
At several points in the film, a video shows behaviorist Owen training a clutch of baby theropods, a suborder of dinosaurs with hollow bones and three toes per limb that includes the ferocious velociraptors, stars of the past films. At first the interaction with the babies seems to be a variation on classic imprinting, the baby dinosaurs following Owen like the geese that trailed after famous ethologist Konrad Lorenz, thinking he was their mother. But as they grow, Owen zeroes in on one clever velociraptor, Blue.
He goes beyond the innate imprinting response in training Blue, encouraging behaviors that demonstrate affection, bonding, concern, curiosity, and empathy. Dr. Wu takes note and wants to breed the traits into his creations, seemingly unaware that these characteristics have been taught, not inborn. Perhaps he missed Psychology 101.
The movie juxtaposes genetic modification introduced through cloning, which takes place before or at fertilization, with learning and classical conditioning, which occur after birth.
So how, exactly, does the genetic modification foster the neural connections that lie behind behaviors that are learned after birth? Why not bring in epigenetics, altering gene expression, which does reflect environmental input? That’s easier to control.
Alas, like many plots based on genetics, the writers never connect the dots, instead spewing staccato mumbo jumbo so that viewers or readers think they’ve filled in the gaps and it makes sense – when it really doesn’t. Perhaps that’s what the reviews meant by a thin plot.
Blue loses a lot of blood. She needs a transfusion! Why not take blood from the zonked out T. Rex in the next cage, suggests the young paleoveterinarian. So what if they are different species. It’s good to know that should I ever receive blood from, say, a wombat, I won’t have to worry about a rejection reaction, which Blue should have suffered near-instantaneously. Happily, she doesn’t.
That’s because Bryce Dallas Howard expertly samples the blood from the donor, the snoozing T. rex, knowing precisely where to stab its scaly skin. Her experience: she once volunteered for a Red Cross blood drive. Okay.
The transfusion will turn out to be important, at least to Dr. Wu. He later pontificates that Blue has pure DNA “in every cell in her body.” But no!
If a hematopoietic stem cell from the T. rex donor got through, and it probably did, then Blue’s genetic purity might be tainted with a T. rex cell line. This phenomenon (microchimerism) is why a woman who receives bone marrow from a man could end up with blood cells bearing Y chromosomes. Dr. Wu should have realized this because he’s also forensic psychiatrist Special Agent George Huang on Law & Order Special Victim’s Unit, where microchimerism sometimes explains mismatching blood types. However, not to worry. As long as the donor cells don’t end up in dinosaur sperm or egg, the change isn’t passed on.
The transfusion gaffe isn’t the only thing off with the taxonomy and evolution. The 11 species each produces a unique biopharmaceutical, yet they’re close enough relatives to share blood. Then Dr. Wu says randomly, “A bull is barely distinguishable from a bulldog,” in terms of its DNA. I think it’s time to bring on some more geneticists.
The auction proceeds, and the bad guys rake in millions for their dinosaurs.
“What do I hear for the juvenile allosaurus? Fierce! Aggressive! Sold!” the gnome-like auctioneer bellows. “Or how about this late Cretaceous quadruped, ankylosaurus? One of the largest armored dinosaurs, a living tank!”
Then the gaveling gnome unveils a prototype indoraptor, “a perfect weapon for the modern age!” and the crowd goes wild.
“It’s not for sale! It’s the prototype!” wails Dr. Wu.
“Relax. We’ll make some more,” answers the gnome as he accepts a bid of $28 million.
Of course an action film has to end with a chase. The one in Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is set into motion not by the caged and enraged indoraptor, but by the armored ankylosaurus, who escapes and unfortunately whacks his head on a pipe and careens through the crowd of investors who are frantically bidding on the weaponized prototype.
People or their parts get eaten, including the arm of the head mercenary, played by The Silence of the Lambs’ Ted Levine, who’s been surreptitiously collecting dinosaur teeth throughout the entire film. The gnomelike auctioneer runs for his life, his toupee flapping up like Donald Trump’s aloft orange fringe as he boards an aircraft. And dinosaurs trapped in the basement are mysteriously being gassed with hydrogen cyanide and they start to cough, reminding me of the old Gary Larsen cartoon of dinosaurs going extinct from smoking.
Somewhere in the mayhem the little girl lies in a bed under the covers as a ferocious dinosaur approaches and at the last minute is sidetracked by another dinosaur. This happens a lot, one reptile attacking another. And there’s a quick glimpse of a spiral staircase in the shape of a double helix, like in GATTACA.
At the end, Claire, Owen, Maizie, the paleoveterinarian and nerdy IT guy escape. A touching scene unfolds between Owen and Blue. But all is not well. A push of a button will free the dinosaurs! Should the tearful Claire do it? “Be careful, we’re not on an island anymore!” Owen helpfully warns her.
Ian Malcolm gets the final say. “Genetic power has now been released. It’s happening now. They were here before us and if we’re not careful, they’ll be here after. We’re entering a new era. Welcome to Jurassic World.” I guess we’ll glimpse what happens on June 11, 2021, when the next film drops.
Meanwhile, semi spoiler alert: a human character is a clone, and this is critical to the transition to the next film. We’re left with the giant reptiles on the loose in northern California, watching from mountaintops and terrorizing surfers. I can only wonder if they’re going to meet up with the Planet of the Apes escapees.