By tapping into his lifelong passion for horror films and creepy Gothic storytelling, Spanish-born director J.A. Bayona (The Orphanage, The Impossible, A Monster Calls) has made Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom into something quite different than all of the other entries in this shaky but highly successful franchise. In truth, Fallen Kingdom is several movies in one, with some sections working better than others. In most cases, the moments that work seem to align with the times when the story plays into Bayona’s roots. And perhaps most interestingly (some might see it as an annoyance), this is first of the Jurassic films that ends on something of a cliffhanger, which I’m assuming means we have more to come.
Set four years after the last movie, the beginning portion is designed as a rescue mission. The volcano on the remote island of Isla Nublar has become active again, threatening to wipe out the few remaining dinosaurs on Earth. Some (including myself) might say this might be a good thing, putting an end to any future threat of dinosaurs posing a danger to humans moving forward. But like many of the other movies in this series (save the first one), people are always making the worst decisions when it comes to allowing humans and dinosaurs to interact.
There’s actually a debate happening in the world of the film about whether these creatures are worthy of being saved—animal rights activists led by Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) are setting up meetings in Congress to discuss the issue. The screenplay by Derek Connolly and Jurassic World director Colin Trevorrow actually crafts interesting arguments for and against saving the dinosaurs, even though the idea that these animals were artificially created out of the natural order seems to have escaped everyone’s memory. Everyone, that is, except that of briefly returning Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum), who once again repeats his warning from the first film that we’re essentially asking for trouble by allowing dinosaurs to share the planet with people.
In a rare moment of clarity, the government decides not to save the dinosaurs, which of course means it’s up to the 1 percent to save the day. Claire is contacted by the estate of a dying old man, Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell), the former partner of Jurassic Park founder John Hammond, who would very much like to bring as many dinosaurs as possible to a sanctuary (as opposed to a theme park), where they will be left alone. Lockwood lives in a massive, creepy castle, assisted by a suspicious right-hand man (Rafe Spall), a granddaughter and his sole living heir Maisie (newcomer Isabella Sermon), and her nanny (Bayona regular Geraldine Chaplin). The Lockwood storyline gives the film an added, bizarre dimension that makes me truly curious where certain plot threads will lead in any future films.
With an extraction of this size, naturally Claire can think of only one man to assist in the task, Owen Grady (Chris Pratt), and after some corny back and forth that passes for banter between the two, they are on their way to the lava-covered island. Naturally, not all about the Lockwood situation is as it seems; there are double crosses, treachery, and human stupidity that allow the dinosaurs to get the upper hand both during the extraction (via a sizable container ship) and at their final destination. There is always someone in these movies trying to make money on living dinosaurs, and why no one anticipates this is the ever-present mystery to me.
The back half of Fallen Kingdom is more of a straightforward creature feature/action-adventure that attempts to get creative with some of the settings and feels more like a monster-in-the-dark tale than simply a story about people running from wild animals. Bayona has a real gift for ratcheting up the tension in a scene using unconventional methods—catching a glimpse of something moving toward our heroes, rather than showing it outright. He’s also not above leaning into the nostalgia of the series (something I loathed about the last film), and anytime he gives a nod to anything that has come before (there’s a shot of a side mirror on a trashed Jurassic Park jeep that comes to mind, but there are many more), I cringed or rolled my eyes.
There are also a pair of young scientists/animal activists—Daniella Pineda as Zia and Justice Smith as Franklin—who accompany Claire and Owen on their adventure, and while the film probably would have survived without their constantly getting into trouble or screaming from fright (Franklin more than Zia), Pineda in particular has a couple of nice moments that make their inclusion tolerable. They still aren’t especially three-dimensional characters, but many they’ll be around for the next film.
Despite this being a better offering than the previous entry in the franchise, Fallen Kingdom is still a frustrating experience, beginning with Goldblum’s contribution to the film, which is basically two scenes during which he doesn’t interact with the other characters at all. Perhaps they are planning to up his contribution the next go-round, but knowing that doesn’t fix how little he does here. Also, this film doesn’t have any genuine surprises; most of the big reveals are telescoped for days.
That said, some of the film’s actual twists are so strange, I’m not sure what to make of them. I don’t need all of the answers now (it’s not a dissimilar feeling to the one I had after Avengers: Infinity War), but I want some indication that they will be worth waiting for, which I’m not convinced is the case here.
Pratt and Howard are far more interesting as a team this time around; their chemistry feels more balanced. There’s even a noticeable close-up of her footwear in this film, to emphasize that her days of wearing heals in the jungle are over, because that seems important. Supporting roles by the likes of Toby Jones and Ted Levine are simply exercises in taking dinosaur-sized bites out of the scenery, but they’re fun actors, so it’s tough to penalize them for going too far in a dinosaur movie.
On the hopes that things continue to improve as this new series continues, I’m mildly recommending this one, if only because I really disliked Jurassic World. Bayona is a welcome addition to the creative team, and here’s hoping they keep him on board moving forward. Beyond that, prepare yourself for sharp teeth, loud screaming, and a final shot that is admittedly quite effective, and gives me hope for the next chapter.
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