What makes a monster? Mary Shelley----and many others before her----figured out that the answer is usually "man," but that doesn't mean we're not still afraid of glowing red eyes and some very sharp teeth.
I got to see Fallen Kingdom a few weeks ago.
Since I stepped out of the theater I've read a number of truly vicious reviews. Honestly, that just seems to be my lot in life. I'm doomed to enjoy Sci-Fi and Fantasy features with both wonderful escapism and important messages buried in their bones, only to turn around and find that the majority of viewers thought it was crap. Well, whatever. That's fine. A lot of people have lost their joy for the movies in (what I consider) a misguided attempt to view "masterpieces” to hang their hats on. The older I get, the more determined I become not to be one of them.
So yes, I enjoyed Fallen Kingdom and if that means I have questionable taste then so be it. But there are questions at stake in this narrative that go far beyond a generic action flick involving dinosaurs. Like the question of what makes a monster and who deserves to be included in our definition of humanity.
From the start of the series Jurassic Park has been invested in the morality of cloning. Notably though, the original film emphasizes the wonder of the dinosaurs' creation. Yes, Hammond is trying to open up a park, but that's so he can share his creations with the world, not to make a buck on top of his already sizable fortune. Two of the specialists he brings in are a paleontologist and a paleobotanist, people who already love these animals and are poised to protect them. Alan, Ellie, Lex, and Tim, our dino fans, all make it out of the park alive, while Dennis----the tech guy trying to sneak embryo samples----is eaten alive. The Jurassic series has a clear moral stance that continues through all its films: the good guys are the ones who recognize that dinosaurs are dangerous animals that are nevertheless deserving of respect. The bad guys are the ones who try to exploit dinosaurs for their own gain. They get eaten.
Fallen Kingdom is the first of the films to further complicate this morality, but in the end it comes right back around to its original stance. The setup of characters deliberately reflects Jurassic Park. We have two dinosaur specialists, a greedy antagonist, and at least one kid running around. It's also asking similar questions: What right do we have to mess with nature and when, if ever, do we draw the line? What does it mean to be a man, what does it mean to play God, and can family manage to find a balance between the two of them? The original Jurassic Park honed in on these and I'm pleased as punch that Fallen World is continuing the tradition. With an added, utterly phenomenal flavor of gothic dinosaur mixed in.
Seriously though, let's talk for a moment about how this film so carefully manipulates our feelings in order to impart some pretty pertinent messages. Eli Mills is our primary antagonist and we know he's the bad guy because, like Dennis Nedry before him, he's willing to sacrifice anyone in his path if it means he gets some money in his back pocket at the end of the day. That, and the fact that he yells at Maisie fairly early on in the film. Only bad guys yell at kids and kick the dog.
The morality split is clear. Owen and Claire might not be perfect, but there's no real question about who we're supposed to be rooting for in this fight, and the literal fights reward us in our faith: all the heroes survive and all the bad guys are eaten alive in the most horrific way possible. Yay! I'm all for these escapist stories that uphold the cliched happy ending, but where the film gets interesting is in how this simplicity is used to complicate the question of humanity. Good humans are good and bad humans are bad... but where do the dinosaurs fit in?
Well, they're obviously good. Dangerous like any other wild animal, but ultimately good. We know they're good because our heroes are risking everything for their survival, because the most moving moment of the film----drawn out with soft music and mournful cries----is when that brontosaurus dies on the pier; because Blue gets some of the best characterization as she demonstrates her loyalty; and because we have a long history of upholding innocent animals over our own species. Yeah, it's not great if people die in stories, but that's nothing compared to the agonizing moment when an animal dies. It's never really been about soft fur and literal puppy eyes. Vicious dinosaurs are just a hop-skip away from being man's second best friend. Those pointy teeth don't scare us much anymore. They're the sign of a queen.
We're here for protecting the bitey not-dogs and letting the capitalist assholes be the ones who get bit. That's nothing new in the franchise. What is new is how Maisie conflates the good humans with the innocent dinosaurs into something that has the potential to actually scare us. She's a clone and thus embodies all the fears that Ian Malcolm has been spouting since day one. Who are we to mess with nature? Who are we to play God? The ability to clone a human brings up all sorts of messy, ethical questions, not the least of which is, who is Maisie? Is she Lockwood's ill-fated daughter or a new, unique person?
As an action/horror flick, Fallen Kingdom obviously doesn't have the time (or the inclination) to overtly delve into this, but there are fascinating hints below the surface. Regardless of how complicated this issue is in real life, the film nudges us soundly in the direction of, "It doesn't matter. She's a kid." Lockwood's love, while obvious, appears tainted by the grief of losing his daughter and he stands in stark contrast to Claire and Owen. They start off the film arguing about their own instability. Claire can't stand the idea of the two of them just living out of Owen's car----no roots or responsibilities to tie them down----and while Claire herself technically has a job, it's dependent on the continued existence of the dinosaurs and is clearly dominated by recent grads far younger than her. In their own way, each of them is living in the past. They refuse to fully grow up... until Maisie arrives sobbing and terrified into their lives. In the span of just a few scenes, Claire and Owen move from being pseudo-kids themselves to unexpected parents. Maisie's presence emphasizes her need for a guardian as opposed to her need for people to define what she is, thus immediately highlighting her humanity in the protagonists' and the audiences' eyes.
Amidst all the action and witty one-liners there’s an important theme of accepting whatever child you’re given.
Now, I’ve seen some people claiming that leaving the island was a mistake, that Fallen Kingdom should have kept the story firmly around rescuing the dinosaurs from that volcano–--the conflict we’d been lead to believe was the driving force of the narrative. However, moving to the horror movie aesthetic of a creepy mansion is paramount to Maisie’s characterization. She’s not a beloved grandchild tagging along at the heels of her paleontologist idol and she’s not a carefree kid getting to experience a dinosaur-theme park years after the first one fell. Instead she’s frozen, trapped in that massive house just as much as she’d have been trapped in a more literal cage. In that environment she’s as much a lucrative commodity as the dinosaurs are. It’s no coincidence that Blue chooses her freedom right after Maisie steps out of that house.
In fact, beyond the obvious detail that they’re both clones, the film goes out of its way to align Maisie with the dinosaurs we want so desperately to protect. She represents a potentially ‘impure’ version of humanity--–one born of science rather than nature–--as Dr. Zia slams T-Rex blood into Blue’s veins and happily announces that purity is overrated. Our ending implies not a devastation of humanity, but rather a change to the ecosystem. There aren’t enough dinosaurs let loose to risk our extinction, but there’s more than enough to require that we reconsider what’s “normal” in the world–--a lot like the work we’d need to do if we discovered that a human clone existed. In one of the more heart-wrenching scenes Maisie chooses to free the dinosaurs and in doing so chooses freedom for herself as well. Despite Claire’s initial willingness, no one else could make that choice; no one else had the right to, because here Maisie is proclaiming her own right to simply exist. It’s been there in the franchise’s tagline this whole time: life finds a way. Even if we don't initial like the direction it's heading in.
Lots of action flicks have messages buried underneath the adrenaline and the special effects, but Fallen Kingdom is particularly poignant in the year 2018. We’re living in an age where so many people aren’t considered to be people. Whether it’s due to your sexuality, your race, how able-bodied you are, how neurotypical, or our own President announcing that anyone not like him is an “animal”… we live in a time where lots of us–--most of us–--fight for our continued right to exist. That makes Maisie a pretty important character to me. She reminds us that it's not the glowing red eyes and sharp teeth we should fear, but humanity, particularly those who define the species far, far too narrowly. The truth can be a difficult thing to face and sometimes we need fiction to lessen the blow. So if you find yourself rooting for Maisie’s survival this summer…
…swap out “clone” for another label and ask yourself if you’re extending the same amount of support.