Other than “dinosaurs,” I no longer know what there is to like about the Jurassic Park franchise, especially after Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. There was a brief moment in this ongoing story when the majesty and spectacle of the extinct creatures was treated as more than window dressing for a condemnation of mankind’s extreme hubris, but after five films (and another already announced), the franchise itself has become a living testament to it: filmmakers have become so preoccupied with whether or not they could make another sequel that they didn’t stop to think if they should. Thanks to a skilled and undoubtedly sincere effort by director J.A. Bayona, Fallen Kingdom clears the extraordinarily low bar of being better made than its predecessor, but Spielberg’s appointed heir apparent Colin Trevorrow returns as screenwriter and executive producer, crafting a follow-up to his own capital-b bad film with a story that’s not only broader and dumber, but built on so much craven and cheaply manipulative fan service that it grinds to dust the last ounce of appeal that this series had.
Bryce Dallas Howard and Chris Pratt return as Claire Dearing and Owen Grady, whose on-off relationship is sadly set to off, but they must put aside their irreconcilable differences and what the filmmakers insist is smoldering physical chemistry in order to rescue Blue, Owen’s velociraptor protégé, from dying in a volcanic eruption that threatens the remaining dinosaurs who now roam freely in the abandoned park. What they soon discover, however, is that Eli Mills (Rafe Spall), the financier of their expedition to Isla Nublar, has different plans for the beasts than he initially suggested: he plans to auction them off to the highest bidder for whatever research, entertainment or military purposes they may have in mind. Following the animals to Lockwood Estate where they’re set to be sold, Claire and Owen attempt to once again rescue their charges from being exploited, only to discover that Mills has already crossbred them to create a new dinosaur – the “Indoraptor” – that promises to be smarter and deadlier than any they’ve encountered before.
The irony of Jurassic World was that its central thesis was “people don’t think dinosaurs are cool anymore,” but never explores that, or worse, bothers to try and make them any cooler than they’ve been in the other movies. Fallen Kingdom wisely forgets that notion but replaces it with an almost hilariously oblivious philosophical quandary: what responsibility do humans have to dinosaurs after they’ve brought them back from extinction? Since the ones in the movies are either latex or computer-generated, the probable answer is “a story worthy of them,” but quite frankly, Claire and Owen’s efforts to save the dinosaurs feel exactly as naïve as when it didn’t occur to them they would ever have to. That doesn’t stop the movie from repeatedly paying lip service to Claire’s “realization” that the dinosaurs deserve to be saved, or underlining the moral relativism of her former role running Jurassic World and Mills’ current one trying quite literally to capitalize off of them by selling them. Not to mention the fact that not since the original Alien has “a corporation wants to harvest animals for weapons” been a fresh premise for heroic conflict.
Quite frankly, a movie where The Army uses dinosaurs to, like, fight terrorists sounds much more interesting than any story this franchise has told since the first film, especially since Fallen Kingdom essentially repeats so many of the choices of its predecessors. (If you were wondering if there’s a scene late in the film where people gather test tubes full of “DNA” and put them into briefcases to be whisked to an undisclosed location for safety, rest assured they got you covered.) The only reason I can divine that Trevorrow has become so beloved by Spielberg and producer Frank Marshall is that he, or at least his writing, seems to be built solely from the component parts of scripts from the 1980s, down to formulaic characters, hacky jokes, and narrative conveniences that were, to be fair to Amblin et al, at least sort of original at the time. Just using the very opening scene of the film – one of its best – for example, why would a gate need to be wifi enabled to close when it’s literally the only thing between a giant underwater fish and the rest of the world? And are we still doing the thing where the radio signal of a guy’s headphones drops out because of weather at the most dangerous moment possible? There’s something profoundly exciting about the idea that animal instincts are sharper than humans, but this is a film where 90 percent of the dinosaurs’ success in tracking down their prey is attributable to human error, or more likely, stupidity.
Howard and Pratt are marginally more likeable than in the first film, where they seemed to be reading their lines from behind cardboard cutouts of Corporate Bitch and Rugged Hero character types, but again, I don’t know anyone who sits watching these movies Really Hoping These Two End Up Together. Their supporting cast, including Daniella Pineda and Justice Smith as, unfortunately, Plucky Female Scientist and Nerdy Computer Hacker, Pretty Much, enliven the film occasionally, but both characters feel like a missed opportunity and a fairly anemic way to inject some diversity or progressivism into the film. That leaves Spall as Mills and Toby Jones, who’s apparently given up serious acting, as the Evil White Men In Charge, and they are predictably loathsome, albeit more in the lethargy and broadness of their performances than in the sophistication of their villainy.
That said, there are a handful of truly great moments in the film, including some (other) shots in that opening sequence, and a long moment after the humans escape Isla Nublar, looking back at the destruction they both escaped, and in some ways caused. And to be fair, this is a much scarier and more intense movie than Trevorrow’s film, thanks to Bayona’s fascination with evoking (or outright imitating) the scenes from the first two where audiences could feel a palpable sense of danger for the characters. But given the fact that Universal already announced that Trevorrow will return to co-write and direct the third film, so much of what happens in this film feels like a lot of white noise en route to the story they really want to tell – namely, what happens when prehistoric creatures encounter the modern world. (Which of course they did, if only briefly, in The Lost World.) In which case, Fallen Kingdom is, like every Jurassic Park film since the first one, another ride that largely ends in disappointment, because it seems far happier to remind you of the twists and turns that you previously liked than to bother creating any new ones.