Before even the opening title card, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom tells you exactly what kind of movie it is going to be. Beginning with a pair of meat sacks who could very well be credited as “Prime” and “Tender,” the first shot follows two poor souls piloting a tiny submarine into the aquatic pool that housed the Mosasaurus in the first Jurassic World. If you don’t recall, that was the water-lizard introduced by swallowing a Great White Shark whole. Up by the shore, another lad who has the whiff of stockyards about him is waiting with his hand on a button. He’ll shut the doors to the water tank once that submarine is safely out of harm’s way.
It’s the kind of scenario that plays less like a scene from a Spielbergian classic, such as Jurassic Park or Jaws, and more like an effectively directed and higher budgeted sequence out of Jaws 3D. And this is the rock and the hard place Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom finds itself between for its entire run time. How do you continue a profitable franchise when, for the story to progress, characters need to make stupid decisions? And not just some characters, or just some of their on screen decisions, but all of the characters, all the time, must make the wrong dino-chomping call. In perpetuity. Otherwise there is no story.
The answer is of course to embrace a narrative where there really isn’t a story, just a series of set-pieces with varying degrees of impressiveness. Thus enters the fifth Jurassic Park movie, a film aware that the nostalgia keg which gave plentifully to the last several entries in the franchise runs the risk of tapping out—so it preemptively scrapes the bottom of the barrel for narrative ideas that include exploding volcanoes and velociraptors rummaging around a haunted house like they’re Christopher Lee.
The setup, for what little there is, involves the unexpectedly timely realization that Isla Nublar’s long dormant volcano is actually about to blow. And while the film acknowledges that Isla Sonar (the island from the original Jurassic Park sequels) still exists, for some unbeknownst reason Nublar is now the only landmass where dinosaurs still roam free. This hook poses an existential question about what to do with the seemingly doomed dinos, however Jeff Goldblum then appears to immediately give the answer. Showing up for a day’s work as the long-missed Ian Malcolm, the actor is at his Goldblum-iest when he tells a group of dithering politicians that the best course of action is to let the volcano take the dinosaurs before they can escape the park and multiply. Hence it’s up to our heroes to do the exact opposite of this.
So returns Jurassic World’s Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) and Owen Grady (Chris Pratt). The couple has broken up since the last picture, but they still maintain that dated will-they-or-won’t-they workplace flirtation/harassment shtick from last time, and they eventually band together to save as many dinosaurs as they can for future generations’ children… Well for the children, generally, but also specifically for Sir Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell), a dying billionaire who was once the business partner of John Hammond.
Lockwood wants to continue Hammond’s dream from previous sequels of opening a preserve on another island for the dinosaurs to be free. Presumably he hopes that one day his granddaughter Maisie (Isabella Sermon), who prowls his palatial seaside estate in Northern California like a ghost herself, will inherit this private island. However, his assistant (Rafe Spall) has different plans—including selling all the dinosaurs to the highest bidder in tiny, breakable cages beneath the mansion’s forested and remote grounds. What could go wrong?
As directed by J.A. Bayona, there are elements to admire about Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. For the first time since Spielberg left the franchise, there is a genuine sense of dread being reintroduced by the director of The Orphanage and A Monster Calls. His strong eye for shadows and love for a more patient pacing help build suspense and make even the most potentially campy concepts—like a Tyrannosaur-velociraptor hybrid lowering itself down from the roof above a young girl’s bedroom window, a la John Badham’s Dracula—have a delicious menace.
This intentionally more Gothic approach also veers away from the nostalgia that was dripping off the frame in Colin Trevorrow’s much more backward-looking Jurassic World. Even Michael Giacchino’s score resists using more than a handful of bars from John Williams’ iconic Jurassic Park compositions. Unfortunately, the film is unable to find anything particularly enticing or exciting to look forward to in the franchise’s future. With a screenplay by Trevorrow and Derek Connolly that is comically unaware of how B-movie its twists and dialogue are, the film still attempts to evoke the wonder of a franchise built on the magic of seeing dinosaurs stomp across the screen, even though the magic is visibly running out.
Whereas Jurassic World coasted by as a breezy summer entertainment by offering the one thing moviegoers all secretly wanted—the chance to go to a fully functioning Jurassic Park—Fallen Kingdom is forced to grasp at the evermore ludicrous rationalizations of a billion-dollar franchise wringing money out of an intellectual property that probably should have only ever been a one-off.
In fact, the film is built around the curious dilemma of human characters acting against their own self-interest to simply give the audience what they want: more dinosaurs. Because even in diminished returns such as these, the dinosaurs are still a splendor. One that it tangibly hurts to see be consumed by volcanic ash and lava, yet is gleefully wondrous to watch devour the rich elite who are buying them at $10 million apiece. More than the human-shaped slices of cardboard they eat, we want to see the dinosaurs thrive.
Which is probably why they will continue to do so, even in films as mediocre as this. Late in the picture, Spall’s weaselly Eli sneers to Claire that “you can’t put them back in the box.” He very well could be speaking about beloved films too, which like the dinosaurs seem destined to be exploited and rebranded into new patents by their oh, so human creators.