The triceratops was my favorite dinosaur growing up. I’m not sure why exactly, but I think it had something to do with the horns and the hard plate. He was scrappy and could fight back against the predators. I wasn’t the first to think this either. Due to the same bias, Steven Spielberg switched out a stegosaurus in the Jurassic Park novel with a triceratops for a pivotal scene onscreen. When Sam Neill puts his head against a magnificent animatronic creation and admits “she was my favorite as a kid,” Spielberg wanted that creature to have three horns recreated by human hand.
Thirty years later, there are precious few flashes of that same, simple childhood wonder in this long in the tooth franchise. Early in Jurassic World Dominion, Bryce Dallas Howard’s Claire Dearing rescues a baby triceratops from the cruelties of man when she stumbles upon one in a cage. And for the first time since Jurassic World dropped “Park” from the title, the filmmakers are again using delightful animatronics instead of only CGI. It’s a “real” baby triceratops Claire and other characters feel like they can reach out and touch—realizing once again that John Hammond (and thereby Spielbergian) dream.
If only these moments weren’t so fleeting.
Despite Jurassic World Dominion beginning from that scene, and looking poised to make good on a cliffhanger screenwriters Colin Trevorrow and Derek Connolly set up four years ago in Jurassic World Fallen Kingdom, where the not-so-gentle giants finally made it to the mainland, the sixth entry in the Jurassic franchise isn’t all that concerned about exploring the horror or joy of dinosaurs in our world. There are montages here, and brief glimpses there, like the aforementioned baby triceratops in a cage or Chris Pratt riding a horse majestically across a Montana landscape alongside a herd of parasaurolophus. There are also teases of the apocalyptic side of this development as once hinted at in Michael Crichton’s far more cynical book, such as when a fishing vessel is pulled to the depths by the fearsome mosasaurus.
But you’ve already seen these moments in trailers and pricy short films that do more with the concept than the awkward, uneven, and ultimately pointless movie they were promoting. In the actual, reportedly $165 million summer blockbuster though? It’s background. White noise. A hue of paint to cover the digital walls behind the actors as Jurassic World lazily reverts back to what it always is: the same familiar faces running around a jungle at night where it seems like only the baddies get chomped.
Dominion is more of that again, except with more familiar faces, more dinosaurs, more teeth, and more jungle. It’s also so much less.
Among the faces are all your personal favorites from any generation of Jurassic. Pratt’s Owen Grady and Howard’s Claire are still playing house with young Maisie (Isabella Sermon) from the last movie. If you don’t recall the specifics, rest assured you’ll discover more than you want to know about Maisie’s genesis as a genetically engineered clone of her previous “mother.” Alas, Trevorrow and Emily Carmichael’s screenplay (Connolly only has a story by credit this time) forgets to give Ms. Sermon anything to do beyond embody moody teen tropes. But I suppose there’s plenty to be sullen over since disreputable types stalk her new family’s homestead, looking for the clone that got away.
Meanwhile, and totally unrelated, Laura Dern’s Dr. Ellie Sattler blows in from out of the past, emerging from a better, smarter time for this tired franchise. She’s come back to sweet talk grumpy old Dr. Alan Grant (Neill) into leaving his self-imposed exile in the wilderness and help her perform corporate espionage alongside old pal Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum). See, she and Malcolm want to get to the bottom of menacing prehistoric locusts, which are being used by a new malevolent corporation mucking in genetic research to seemingly disrupt the global food supply chain. And if you’re asking yourself right about now if dinosaurs will actually matter in your dinosaur movie, you won’t be alone.
Beyond a handful of chase scenes, the “terrible lizards” (or birds) inexplicably matter less than a half-dozen other things the movie is trying to do, most of them revolving around giant bugs and wheat fields. There’s just too much else going on in a movie this bloated for dinos to be anything better than glorified security for the film’s surprise and fan servicing villain.
Indeed, after Fallen Kingdom ended on the enticing image of a T. Rex staring down a lion in a zoo, we find everyone’s favorite predator captured again (off-screen) and once more kept in a nature preserve, only now it’s in an isolated valley instead of on a remote island. And simply getting half the characters to that location involves some tediously extended patches of nonsense where Pratt does his best mediocre James Bond impression during a chase scene, except with dinosaurs, while Howard escapes a bar that looks like the Mos Eisley Cantina from Star Wars… except with dinosaurs.
More so than even the frankly misguided attempt to do a “haunted house” movie in the last Jurassic World picture, this carcass of a summer spectacle has clearly been nibbled to the bone by a thousand studio notes determined to squeeze in undercooked set pieces riffing on every other, better blockbuster out there. Perhaps that’s why the CGI for Blue the Velociraptor is so shoddy this time? As a result, this approach evokes less the splendor of ‘90s era Jurassic Park than it does the excess of ‘90s summer catastrophes like Wild Wild West or 1998’s Godzilla. At a certain point, you’re left to scratch your head and wonder who the hell it’s even supposed to be for anymore?
The one thing the film has going for it—other than a few practical dinosaur effects and one nifty set piece involving Howard hiding in swamp water—is nostalgia. It’s genuinely nice to see Neill and Dern back in their roles, despite the fact the movie gives them nothing of interest to do. Goldblum isn’t serviced much better, but at least Malcolm gets to eventually mock the film’s paper thin plot. In one scene, he’s literally munching popcorn as he asks Pratt, “You made a promise to a dinosaur?” The smirk on Goldblum’s face is almost begging you to consider how smart the characters in this franchise were 30 years ago, and how much dumber we all seem to have gotten in the interim.
It’s an open question whether moments like this were designed by the filmmakers to acknowledge they know they’re making a stupid movie, or if the director just let Goldblum improvise. Either way, it doesn’t really matter. As Malcolm might say about the film’s cardboard supervillain, this is a movie committed to exploiting these creatures until there is nothing left. And any fruitless stabs at self-awareness have not prevented this film’s real capitalist forces from making something ugly, abominable, and devoid of that precious childlike wonder.
Jurassic World Dominion opens in theaters on Friday, June 10.