This article contains Jurassic World Dominion spoilers.
Colin Trevorrow was supposed to direct Star Wars: Episode IX back when it was called Duel of the Fates. This bit of barroom trivia will forever remain a “what if” among fans. What if the “final” Star Wars movie, at least in the Skywalker Saga, did not just revert to playing the hits for longtime fans? What if the newest movie continued on threads weaved by its controversial predecessor The Last Jedi?
We of course will never truly know what might’ve been in the case of that franchise, despite Trevorrow’s early draft and storyboards being on the internet. Nevertheless, that same writer-director got to make his version of what became Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, at least in a way. Because like that movie, Jurassic World Dominion saw Trevorrow return to a franchise where he directed the first installment of the current trilogy, and in which he was now tasked with “ending” not only the current era of films but everything that came before them too.
Also worth noting is that while the critical reactions to both The Rise of Skywalker and Jurassic World Dominion were brutal, each scored far better with audiences at the box office. They also leave their respective “universes” in a place where massive expansion seems inevitable, but in which direction to take it seems elusive. All told, the narrative cul-de-sacs both installments round out reveal a lot about the current state of Hollywood franchise filmmaking, including the value and limits in legacy sequels built on mountains of nostalgia…
Begin with a Nostalgic Revival
In retrospect it is perhaps not coincidental that Jurassic World and Star Wars: The Force Awakens came out within six months of each other. These were, after all, the twin poles that helped coin the term “legacy sequel,” and both movies took turns briefly claiming the opening weekend box office record with their debuts. Jurassic World was only the second movie to cross $200 million in three days when it premiered to $208.8 million in June 2015; The Force Awakens was the third, grossing $248 million in December.
Yet more important than their ability to revive popular franchises that had been dormant on the big screen for a decade or longer, they also were the first to really figure out how to crack the nut of remaking a beloved classic “respectfully.” As has been much discussed over the years, each film, and the army of “legacy sequels” they inspired, is essentially a remake of the first movie from its canon. In Jurassic World, we return to Isla Nublar for the first time since Steven Spielberg’s 1993 classic, and we have an even bigger and more wondrous park that’s fully functional—until the dinosaurs get out and start eating people again. In The Force Awakens, a young desert hero is taken under the wing of a wizened old mentor to join a space war filled with rebels and imperials, dark lords and death stars.
I always thought the term “nostalgia-make” was more apt than legacy sequel. Both films get away with repackaging a beloved classic for a new generation, but they do so in a way without enraging audiences who fondly remember the original. Rather they service that nostalgia by allowing the new generation of protagonists to fawningly look toward the old guard with all the awe a middle-aged moviegoer might remember from their own childhood. It’s the moment where Daisy Ridley’s Rey looks on in wonder when Han Solo (Harrison Ford) says, “It’s true, all of it.” Meanwhile Jurassic World sees two children standing in the ruins of the original Jurassic Park’s visitor center, finding the remains of a once iconic banner that reads, “When Dinosaurs Ruled the World.” They’re left to wonder and dream like the parents of the new movie’s youngest audience members once did.
I am not necessarily condemning either movie. Both worked for me in 2015, albeit The Force Awakens far more so, and each conjured up memories of breathless excitement as a child when the trailer for the next Jurassic Park hit cinemas in 1997. Heck, I still have fond memories of trailers for the Star Wars 20th anniversary re-releases from the same year too.
So perhaps not surprisingly, both TFA and Jurassic World hit well with critics and audiences at large. To this day, Jurassic World is the only Jurassic sequel to hold a “positive” aggregate score on Rotten Tomatoes at 71 percent. The Force Awakens is meanwhile at 93 percent. Both movies also wound up grossing over $1.5 billion globally, with the star war getting across the $2 billion threshold (the only Lucasfilm movie to do so to date).
A Pivot Toward Evolution?
So as one-offs, the Star Wars and Jurassic World innovations were wildly successful. As were their sequels. But a curious thing occurred when it came to both franchises’ second installments in self-styled new trilogies, Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017) and Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018): They were forced to ask what is the actual story after you just redid the original? You cannot keep playing the hits, indefinitely, right? Jurassic World in particular needed to evolve since only the original 1993 movie is universally beloved from the first cycle of Jurassic movies.
Thus the direction both franchises took was, essentially, to blow up what audiences expected and go somewhere entirely new. Written and directed by Rian Johnson, who took over from J.J. Abrams, The Last Jedi was particularly pointed as it continued the trend of reintroducing beloved “legacy characters” in supporting roles, in this case Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker in lieu of Ford as Han Solo, and killing them off. The film’s villain even says, “Let the past die. Kill it if you have to.”
Of course modern fandom tends to ignore that it is the movie’s villain who utters that sacrilegious line, and the heroine eventually rejects the cynicism of Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). Instead she ultimately preserves the old ways passed on to her by Luke via the very Jedi texts he feared were destroyed. Still, the movie attempted to offer a refreshingly original path for Star Wars to walk; one where the new characters learn and build on the lessons (and mistakes) of the past, thereby creating new dimensionality to this universe, and one in which the plot does not mechanically repeat itself.
Whether a small minority amplified by social media or a tangible cross-section of Star Wars fandom, the online reaction to the movie was infamously toxic, and often branched into subsections of racism and misogyny as well. And perhaps most damagingly for Johnson’s vision of a more challenging and interesting Star Wars universe, it made “only” $1.33 billion, or a little more than half of what The Force Awakens grossed. In hindsight, Disney executives took that to heart.
Meanwhile, Jurassic World’s solution to avoid getting in a rut was to literally blow up the island two of the last four movies were set on, and kill most of the dinosaurs from your childhood! Unlike Star Wars, Jurassic still had the same creative team at least in the script writing stage, with Trevorrow and co-writer Derek Connolly once again penning the screenplay (Trevorrow was at the time too busy to direct after landing the Star Wars gig). So directorial duties wound up falling to J.A. Bayona (A Monster Calls), who brought the most aesthetic artistry and beauty the series has seen since Spielberg walked away in 1997.
And yet, it’s worth noting that Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom works a whole hell of a lot less for critics, including this one, than The Last Jedi. It could be my own childhood nostalgia being rankled by the sight of the brachiosaurus in Jurassic Park—the first dinosaur we meet in that classic—being slowly burned to death in what is still an inexplicably cruel creative choice. However, it mostly boils down to Rian Johnson being a far more gifted screenwriter and making his bold creative gambles pay off, culminating in Luke Skywalker’s finest moment onscreen. Conversely, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom seems to fall dangerously close to self-parody by the end when the movie becomes about a raptor-hybrid stalking a child through a (gorgeously shot) haunted house.
Even so, both movies share the creative impulse to do something different and leave their franchise in a place unlike anything we’ve seen before: one where the Jedi/Sith paradigm is broken and the younger generation will have to make a new world on their own, and another where dinosaurs are finally off the island and in our world.
More striking still, both franchises essentially abandoned those elements in their threequels.
Regression and Retreads
When The Last Jedi ended, Driver’s villainous Kylo Ren had finally stepped out of Darth Vader’s shadow. No longer did he wear a fanboy-ish helmet made in Vader’s image, nor was he beholden to the whims and commands of the real greatest evil in the galaxy. In fact, he personally bisected his proverbial emperor and took command of the First Order, throwing the story in an unexpected direction that could no longer carbon copy George Lucas’ playbook. So it’s still pretty baffling that after Trevorrow was removed from Episode IX, a returned J.J. Abrams chose to reverse all that inside of The Rise of Skywalker’s first five minutes, which saw Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) return from the dead without explanation and reduce Kylo back into the role of conflicted lackey in a mask.
The entire story of The Rise of Skywalker felt like little more than a pivot toward embracing and addressing every fan complaint and grievance, no matter how insidious, such as reducing Vietnamese-American Kelly Marie Tran’s role to a cameo after racist incels bullied her off Twitter. The result was an innocuous yet soulless product that reverted to “playing the hits” again, and in this case repeating Return of the Jedi (1983), right down to featuring the same big bad whose defeat will cause his redeemed apprentice to die in the arms of our hero… except this time they kiss?
Curiously, despite featuring one of the same screenwriters of all three Jurassic World movies, Jurassic World Dominion does more or less the same thing. In the film’s hackneyed opening moments (which was not Trevorrow’s original intention for the movie’s opening), we learn that the new status quo arrived at during the last movie has been hand-waved away off-screen, and most of the important dinosaurs are back in a “nature preserve” (read: park).
Sure enough, barring one silly motorcycle chase and an ill-advised MacGuffin about locusts, Jurassic World Dominion becomes what every single one of these movies, save for Fallen Kingdom, boiled down to: a film where greedy rich people’s plan to exploit these creatures fails and the dinosaurs are then free to chase and eat everyone in a jungle.
It’s incredibly lazy, and also incredibly successful. As with Fallen Kingdom before it, Dominion earned an “A-” CinemaScore from audience members polled on its opening night, only slightly down from Jurassic World’s “A.” Also, perhaps more importantly to Universal Pictures, the movie opened to an impressive $143.4 million, down only 3.4 percent from Fallen Kingdom’s debut. By contrast, and much to Disney’s chagrin, despite all the fan-pleasing rewrites, The Rise of Skywalker received a “B+” CinemaScore from moviegoers, down from The Last Jedi’s “A,” and became the first Skywalker Saga movie to receive a majority of negative reviews. And while its $177.4 million opening is higher than two of the three Jurassic World movies, it also was down by an uncomfortable 20.5 percent from The Last Jedi’s opening. It limped its way to “only” crossing $1 billion.
The Profits and Limits in Nostalgia
Creatively and critically, Jurassic World repeated the cycle of the Star Wars Sequel Trilogy, albeit with a greater plurality of fans happy. Yet there are lessons in both trilogies’ ultimately circuitous cycles.
Each franchise began from a place of repetition and mimicry; they’re exercises in finding a way to revisit an old beloved intellectual property by following that old Hollywood maxim of “the same thing, but different.” Yet they took that to an extreme never before considered by figuring out a way to be both remake and sequel at the same time. In the short term this was incredibly lucrative, but it also placed significant limitations on creativity from the outset. And in each case, the immediate sequel was left to almost start from scratch if it wanted to avoid just walking in circles.
But while Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom had a notably smaller drop off from its predecessor than The Last Jedi, falling a mere 21 percent in overall global gross as opposed to 41 percent, it apparently still strayed too far from the formula for some folks at Universal. It’s why the next movie, Dominion, abandoned the paradigm-shifting promise of Fallen Kingdom’s cliffhanger ending, favoring instead repeating itself once again, critics be damned.
It worked. Jurassic World Dominion dropped off smaller than Fallen Kingdom did from its predecessor, and received the same glowing endorsement from fans and its target demographic, which largely includes young families. In comparison, The Last Jedi for whatever its critical laurels, divided the fanbase. The Rise of Skywalker then diminished it. For this reason, nearly three years later there still is no new Star Wars movie in production despite Disney CEO Bob Iger once insisting to investors it was his goal to have a Star War in theaters every year, forever.
Interestingly, despite five of these six movies all grossing at least $1 billion (and Dominion appears poised to continue the trend), they tend to leave the talent in a trap where they’ve conditioned audiences to expect the movies to continue playing the same notes of the original, but what happens when you run out of those notes? Despite being marketed as an “ending,” Jurassic World Dominion clearly sets up a larger universe to be explored by more movies and TV series, just as Star Wars is now intended to be more than only the Skywalker Saga. But given how aggravated fans have become by the introduction of anything new, studios appear fearful to risk trying anything significantly new.
And the unfortunate truth of this seems to be that by playing it safe and recycling the same story, audiences appear ready to reward studios, even if a series risks turning into a caricature of itself. Consider what happens if you zoom out from just the movies and consider the whole media landscape that Disney has cultivated around Star Wars. Unlike The Last Jedi, almost all of the Disney+ TV shows announced or released focus on a character audiences already saw in Star Wars movies or cartoons before Disney purchased Lucasfilm. Even shows about original characters, such as the Mandalorian and Grogu, are intentionally meant to evoke what you’ve seen before: Boba Fett and Baby Yoda off on adventures! As of press time, The Mandalorian is Disney+’s most popular show.
There are serious artistic limits to this approach, and within three movies it left Star Wars and Jurassic Park chasing their own tails. But the financial rewards appear currently unbowed. Dominion and The Rise of Skywalker might reveal the ultimate dead end this quickly leads to, but if a billion dollars could be waiting at that destination, it’s doubtful many executives will attempt to change course.