The Fallen Kingdom Is Our Own: Jurassic Park Confronts the Rise of Trumpism
I give my little monster some bacon but that does not satisfy him.
I tell him, ssh ssh, don’t growl little monster!
And he growls, oh boy does he growl!
And he wants something from me,
He wants my soul.
--Dorothea Lasky, “Monster”
Objects in mirror are closer than they appear.
-–message on car mirror, Jurassic Park
NOTE: This post contains spoilers for Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom.
“US President questions the existence of dinosaurs in the first place.”
So runs a BBC news chyron in a quick shot at the beginning of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, the sequel to Universal’s wildly successful reboot of a long-dormant franchise about the dangers of resurrecting the past. It’s a strikingly timely jab, a nod to both President Trump’s denial of climate change and his assault on “fake news,” and it’s the first sign that this latest installment has more on its mind than most summer entertainment. Though at first glance it has all of the trappings of typical big-budget fare—A-list celebrities, loud action sequences, and a plot that makes little sense—Fallen Kingdom is a stunning work of political art, and while it's not always the most enjoyable Jurassic Park sequel (Slant's Josh Wise predicts viewers will be "bored or bemused"), it just might be the smartest. Directed by Juan Antonio Bayona from a script by Jurassic World scribes Colin Trevorrow and Derek Connolly, it’s an artifact of the current cultural moment, the first cinematic blockbuster of the Trump era that truly grapples with the 2016 presidential election.
More than anything, Fallen Kingdom is a film about our relationship to the past, and how our future depends entirely on our ability to confront what’s come before. Bayona understands the power of the past to impact the present; after all, he’s directing the fifth entry in a 30-year-old franchise. In 2018, nostalgia is our most valuable form of cultural currency (just look at how much of our mass entertainment is adapted from decades-old properties). It’s also what led to our current political crisis and inspired a wave of white nationalism that sent a racist billionaire to the White House to bring back an imaginary American utopia of decades past. How appropriate, then, that the opening scene of Fallen Kingdom features both the iconic Tyrannosaurus Rex of the original film and the Mosasaurus of the last installment both trying to devour researchers as they extract DNA from fossilized remains. It’s a self-conscious acknowledgement that confronting the past is as dangerous as it is necessary for growth; like any drug, nostalgia feels pure, but too much can kill you.
We know how this story goes. The script recycles the conceit of the second film, The Lost World, in which Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) was persuaded by the park’s creator, John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) to document the dinosaurs on Isla Sorna so they could be legally preserved. This time around, Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) and Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) are hired by Hammond’s former business partner, Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell), to rescue the dinosaurs on Isla Nublar from a volcanic eruption and transfer them to a new sanctuary to live free from human interference. Of course, just as in Spielberg’s sequel, they are betrayed by a group of mercenaries who wish to profit off the stolen livestock. The second half of the film finds them trapped in Lockwood’s mansion, trying to save both themselves and the animals before the latter is sold to the highest bidder. Meanwhile, there’s a new genetically modified dinosaur (of course), corporate backstabbing, and a subplot involving human cloning.
It's a convoluted plot, yet there’s something weirdly poetic in its disregard for story coherence, a strange juxtaposition of Jungian archetypes and political allegory with big-budget spectacle that fascinates as often as it puzzles. Bayona is concerned less with logic and more on capturing deep-seated emotions—the hope of naïve idealism, the pain of recognizing that reality is not what it seems, the fear of our own shadows. His characters are paper-thin notes to be played as needed in service of larger themes. They travel thousands of miles in a single cut, transitioning from movement to movement, story beat to story beat, in a state of constant reaction rather than reflection. Their actions are impulsive, seemingly removed from their history in the previous film. Shouldn’t they know how these things always turn out? They’ve learned nothing, and that’s the point.
For most of the decade before the rise of Trump, I thought I had an accurate understanding of the United States, both as an oppressive empire and a democratic force for good. I knew (but did I, really?) that our history was one of genocide and chains, war and murder and puppet governments, that the shining city on a hill was often closed to those who needed it most. Yet those felt like deviations from our true nature. America had always seemed to be the embodiment of a desire, one for equality and liberty for all, a Platonic ideal that we didn’t always live up to but that we at least set as a goal so that the best parts of us could keep making strides. Progress was slow, but it was steady, I thought, and the moral arc of history always bends towards justice.
As the 2016 election drew near, I didn’t like a lot of Hillary Clinton’s platform, but I (like everyone else) was convinced she would win the presidency, simply because she was a small step forward rather than a giant leap back. It seemed natural that the first black president would be succeeded by the first woman to hold the office. After all, that’s how sequels are supposed to work, delivering audiences even more of what they enjoyed before while also driving the story forward. And what had American politics become since 2008 if not the wildest piece of mass entertainment of our lifetime, a story of popped bubbles and class warfare, drone strikes and botched healthcare, virulent racists and the measured defenders of civility who were there to vanquish them? We knew how the story was supposed to end. Despite a few angry citizens, there would be peace in the realm, at least until the next installment.
We were wrong. We forgot that sequels are just as likely to recycle as they are to renew, to repeat what’s come before, just with more of it. We didn’t correctly guess how the story would end because we didn’t rightly grasp how it began.
When Benjamin Lockwood tells Claire Dearing in Fallen Kingdom that his former business partner, John Hammond, was a humanitarian, he is lying; at the very least, he is telling a half-truth, viewing the past through rose-colored glasses, believing that he can make Jurassic Park great again, as though it ever was what he wished it could be. Yes, those of us who remember The Lost World know that Hammond (always presented more favorably in the Jurassic Park films than in the novel) did learn from his mistakes and wanted to let his dinosaurs roam freely in safety. But that’s not all he was. He was the one responsible for the events of the first film, a man whose ambition to push science forward (and profit from it) led to the creation of monsters and the destruction of human bodies. He was a villain. Lockwood’s mansion is part-museum, filled with monuments to the past, yet despite being surrounded by history he has no understanding of it. In hindsight, it all seems so obvious. Of course our leads will be betrayed by mercenaries. Of course the dinosaurs will be kidnapped and sold for profit. It’s what happened the last time a preservation mission was sent. It’s what has always happened. It what has to happen for the country, I mean the movie franchise, to continue on existing as usual.
For the past is not as idyllic as we like to remember. As in every Jurassic Park film (since we never seem to learn), the characters in Fallen Kingdom view the dinosaurs with wonder, and in their hubris they believe that they are in control. But dinosaurs are also wild and untamed. If they inspire wonder, it’s the kind one has when encountering God: awe grounded in fear. The past is filled with monsters that will devour us if we refuse to reckon honestly with them. In Jurassic Park, Spielberg showed humans forced to grapple with their creations face-to-face, eye-to-eye, but every major attack in Fallen Kingdom comes from the rear. Bayona’s characters are doomed by their ignorance of what looms behind them; they can’t see the threat—a Tyrannosaurus camouflaged by jungle, the silhouette of a leviathan, the movement of a killer’s tail, a claw reaching out of the blackness—until it’s too late. The forces that led to Trump have always been here, yet so many of us refused to see it, and now the beasts are among us. To overlook the worst parts of our history—the chattel slavery of Africans, the disenfranchisement of those who were not rich or male enough, the slaughter of Native Americans, the enforcement of Jim Crow segregation, the lynchings, the failure of Reconstruction, the destruction of Black Wall Street, the internment of Japanese people (most of them American citizens), the invasions of Southeast Asia and the Middle East—is to repeat the same mistakes. The volcano was always there, yet we chose to build on it anyway. Eventually, something had to erupt.
So it’s no surprise then that the first major action sequence of Fallen Kingdom finds our leads’ myth of the past destroyed by the harsh realities of the present, and it might be the most honest representation of what it felt like in the weeks following the 2016 election that I’ve seen in a blockbuster film. Our leads go to Isla Nublar thinking that everything will be fine, that the monsters will be kept in check, because they have forgotten that they are indeed dealing with monsters. (Note that the character most aware of the potential danger is a man of color, and his warnings go unheeded.) At the pivotal moment, corruption wins out over preservation, and their naïve idealism is consumed by fire and sulfur. Is there a more scathing visual metaphor for how many (white) progressives misunderstood the rise of Trump than Chris Pratt’s character Owen, paralyzed, comically contorting his body in a slapstick routine reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin (who famously challenged Nazism in The Great Dictator) as molten lava inches closer and closer? Its political weight is surpassed only by the later image of Owen being chased down a hill (an homage to Raiders of the Lost Ark, which was itself a tribute to the serials of the 1930s and 1940s, many of which were period pieces—the past is always with us) as Claire and Franklin attempt to escape in a plastic bubble that eventually cracks. Ultimately, they are left staring in sorrow as a brachiosaurus, the majestic creature that first inspired awe in the original film, is swallowed in smoke and flame. It’s a shot that resonates not simply because it depicts the demise of a noble innocent, but because it reflects a loss many of us have struggled to cope with in the past year-and-a-half: the death of an American ideal. We are no longer (and never were) what we thought we were. The titular kingdom—the republic—has fallen, and along with it, our illusions about ourselves. As the marketing tagline so succinctly put it: "The park is gone."
What follows is a period of mourning and confusion. For the first time in the franchise’s history, Bayona takes the narrative somewhere it hasn't been before: inside a haunted mansion. The bright, wide-open grasslands of the island are replaced by the dark passages and hidden chambers of Lockwood’s estate. Visually, the characters are placed in boxes, trapped with the mistakes of the past that they unleashed, and they spend the remainder of the film navigating a series of enclosed spaces, from prison cells to narrow hallways and even an old-fashioned dumbwaiter. In these moments, Fallen Kingdom feels more like a work of horror than a family adventure movie, with Bayona (who first earned attention with the ghost story The Orphanage) presenting post-election malaise as a gothic castle filled with monsters (both human and reptile) that can never be fully escaped, only temporarily avoided.
Yet all is not lost. It’s revealed that Maisie (Isabella Sermon), introduced as Lockwood’s granddaughter, is actually a human clone of his late daughter, another consequence of a refusal to let go of the past, another lie disguised as innocent, a purer ideal of ourselves that might still be worth protecting. She is pursued by the Indoraptor, a genetically-engineered combination of a velociraptor and the Indominus Rex of the previous film, which was itself a hodgepodge of dinosaur DNA. It is, in essence, a soul deformed, the extremist embodiment of our most terrifying attributes, an alt-reptile abomination weaponized by the one percent to help them achieve more wealth and power. Bayona presents our current political moment as a struggle between our dueling natures, two sides of the same national coin. One particularly poignant shot finds Maisie gazing at her own reflection in a pane of glass, only for it to be blotted out by the visage of her doppelganger. We have finally gotten a clear look at ourselves, Bayona seems to be saying, and now we must confront our monstrous shadow.
It’s a shadow so dangerous that even the villains can't grasp what they’ve unleashed. The most deplorable among them, Ted Levine’s mercenary Ken Wheatley (who, in one heavy-handed moment, calls a young doctor a “nasty woman”), thinks that he can literally defang the monsters he’s working with, to his peril. Later on, a business tycoon played by Toby Jones finds his coif of wispy orange hair blown back by the breath of the creature he thought he could close the door on. In Fallen Kingdom’s vision of America, Trumpism is an evil that even he can’t control, one that will continue to terrorize after he’s gone. It’s worth noting that the Indoraptor is only killed when an intelligent raptor—a former-enemy-turned-enlightened-ally who shares blood with the original king of the dinosaurs—impales it on real fossilized remains of the past, not a false replica. Our present darkness can only be vanquished by an honest reckoning with our history.
And what, then, of the future?
“We are living in a time of monsters right now… the result of the red lines that we’ve crossed,” Bayona has said in interviews. The opening scene of Fallen Kingdom foreshadows the final moments: the gates have been opened, the beasts are among us, and they aren’t going away. Fallen Kingdom argues that our pure, ideal side must learn to cope with its shadow; you can’t have one without the other. We must live with the mistakes we’ve made and co-exist with those we deem monsters. What happens next must not be what’s happened before. The time has come for something new. Something true. No matter how dire the political moment seems, life must find a way.