New from Sarah Welch-Larson on Substack: 5: Earnestness and Dinosaurs

I watched two movies this week that were diametrically opposed to each other. The first, Jurassic World Dominion, is a tentpole with a massive budget that opened this weekend to terrible reviews; it promises to make a boatload of money at the box office. The other is an indie movie called Marcel the Shell with Shoes On; it’s based on the series of stop-motion web shorts about a little shell with shoes from about ten years ago, and it will come out in a couple of weeks. (I’ll be writing more about Marcel in the coming weeks.) In terms of revenue, I’m certain that the dinosaurs are going to eat the shell’s lunch. The two films have almost nothing in common, but the crucial distinction I want to make has nothing to do with plot, setting, financial backing, or genre. It’s about tone. Marcel worked on me because it’s completely unpretentious; it’s a movie that’s small, and knows it, and manages to be meaningful in its own smallness. Jurassic World Dominion feels like a cynical cash grab because it doesn’t know how to be earnest.

The first Jurassic Park works precisely because Steven Spielberg knows how to convey a sense of awe. The scene where Alan Grant (Sam Neill) and Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern) first see the living dinosaurs for themselves is the example that gets held up the most frequently, but that sense of awe permeates the rest of the movie. Grant lies flat against the side of a dinosaur with a look of wonder on his face as the animal’s breaths move him up and down with it; Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) freezes up every time he sees the T. Rex. (So does the camera—we never cut away quickly, as though we, too, have been transfixed by the dinosaur’s gaze.) The velociraptors remain scary for the film’s entire runtime. We never get used to the novelty.

Jurassic World Dominion, on the other hand, keeps telling us that Grant and Sattler are “never gonna get used to” dinosaurs invading the earth, but it keeps showing us evidence to the contrary. Dinosaurs are about as common as squirrels, and the camera treats them as such, skipping over their presence and relegating them to the margins. Director Colin Trevorrow’s camera never really lingers like Spielberg’s did. We don’t get to take the same long, lingering looks at the new dinosaurs in this installation that we could take for the original film. Dinosaurs should be cool, and scary, and a lot of fun to look at, but the movie’s treatment of them feels perfunctory. (Over at RogerEbert.com, Matt Zoller Seitz broke down an action sequence that also left me cold; he speculates how Spielberg would have handled the same sequence in a way that made me wish, once again, that I’d just watched the original Jurassic Park.) I was left wondering if Dominion would be a better movie if there were no dinosaurs in it at all.

It’s almost as though Trevorrow is embarrassed by the dinosaur element of the story, because it’s silly that there are velociraptors roaming the streets of Malta. This embarrassment extends to the interpersonal relationships; when Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) communicates his tenderness toward his surrogate daughter Maisie Lockwood (Isabella Sermon), he immediately undercuts his feelings by making a face and saying something ironic to defuse the emotion. The rest of the film treats interpersonal connection as a joke, something to shy away from. Moments of connection are treated as setups for ironic punchlines. All vulnerability gets cauterized away, so that we can focus on the frenetic action instead. The movie feels like it’s trying to skip over everything quickly enough that we can’t notice the silliness, because by the time we do notice it, it’s been replaced by something else.

Dinosaurs roaming the planet is inherently silly. I just wish the movie would be willing to embrace that silliness instead of trying to hold it at a remove. Stop commenting on how weird it is that there are dinosaurs on every corner, and show the practicalities of what it’s like to have velociraptors roaming the neighborhood. How would we cope? I want to see that kind of creativity, instead of hearing a few tossed-off lines about it.


What I talked about:

On this week’s episode of Seeing & Believing, we paired Jurassic World Dominion with the 1931 Universal monster movie Frankenstein. (Your scientists were so preoccupied with the question of whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think about whether or not they should.) Kevin and I had a great conversation about hubris and the craft of moviemaking, which was gratifying, because Jurassic World Dominion is one of the worst movies I’ve seen this year.

I also talked about patriarchy and Florence + the Machine’s song “King” on the Think Christian podcast. Even if you’re not a Florence + the Machine person, you should still check out the episode—there’s a good conversation about Alex Garland’s Men between Josh Larsen and Abby Olcese in there too.

What I watched:

My husband and I pick up The Expanse in fits and starts, and this week, we started up again, midway through season 3. We’ve been watching irregularly for about a year; we’ll probably finish the show sometime in late 2023 at our rate. That’s okay, though. I’m enjoying spending the time with these characters.

What I’m reading:

I’m in the early chapters of Queering Wesley, Queering the Church by Keegan Osinski. In it, she reframes ten of John Wesley’s sermons through a queer-affirming lens. Feels appropriate for June, especially as students, faculty, staff, and alumni conduct a weeks-long sit-in at my Free Methodist (Wesleyan!) alma mater over the university’s refusal to hire LGBT staff and faculty. (For more theological reading about this specific issue at this specific school, I recommend Samuel Ernest’s essay about SPU’s affiliation. Sam is a doctoral student in theology at Yale; he and I went to SPU together, and his thoughts have helped shape and inform my own when it comes to sexuality and the church.)

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