The fifth installment of the money-spinning dino franchise delivers thrills with a side of facepalms.
Change is like death…you don’t know what it looks like until you’re standing at the gates.
Three summers ago, I published the thing I’m probably least proud of since I started this little venture: a positive review of Jurassic World. In my defense, 1) I’m still an unapologetic Jurassic nut, 2) I thought it was more purely entertaining than Lost World and JPIII, and 3) the production design was objectively terrific. But I let a lot of things slide in the interest of “Dinosaurs!,” including its retrograde gender dynamics and astonishingly dumb plotting. You can like or dislike the film for myriad reasons, but to say it was good? No, it was not good.
So when I lead off this brief review of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom by saying “It’s better than Jurassic World,” you have every right to be skeptical. You might also think that that’s not saying much, and you’d be right about that too. But if a sequel to the fifth-highest-grossing film of all time was inevitable, Spanish director J.A. Bayona (The Orphanage, A Monster Calls) at least manages to put his personal stamp on Fallen Kingdom, providing some haunted-house chills while pulling the 25-year-old franchise in a bold and fatalistic new direction.
Every Jurassic film kicks off by attempting to answer one question: Why are people dumb enough to go to this island where massive dinosaurs will eat them? Fallen Kingdom’s creaky premise imagines a world where the hot-button issue of the day is whether to protect the terrible lizards from Isla Nublar’s impending volcanic eruption. (Apparently, it was not on the radar of the original Jurassic World planners.) There are protests and congressional hearings, where Jeff Goldblum’s Dr. Malcolm makes a cameo to prophesy darkly. Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard), now leading a non-profit called the Dinosaur Protection Group (don’t laugh), takes an offer from John Hammond’s old partner, Lockwood (James Cromwell), to trade her infamous pumps for combat boots and join a rescue operation. Her old flame, Motorbike McRaptorman (Chris Pratt), rightly says this is dumb, but goes anyway because he’s still attached to Blue, the true hero of the last film and, eventually, this one. (These recent films have really done wonders for velociraptors’ PR.)
Once we actually get to the island, however, Bayona — working from a script by Derek Connolly and Colin “White Male Privilege Poster Boy” Trevorrow — finds himself on firmer footing. Before long Howard, Pratt, and appealing newbies Daniella Pineda and Justice Smith (she’s sarcastic, he’s terrified, I liked them both, sue me) are quickly outrunning hot lava, panicked dinosaurs, and the mercenaries that were of course double-crossing them all, and just when the familiarity gets fatiguing (one nifty “single-take” shot inside a sinking gyroball aside) the film shifts gears, setting its entire second half inside the sprawling, gothic Lockwood estate. I’ll say this: it’s not great, but it is different, and different is interesting.
The multilevel mansion serves as a playground for Bayona, whether setting sequences in dino-dioramas, the Secret Lab underground, the sloping, rain-drenched roofs, or the auction room where war criminals and pharmaceutical magnates bid on the increasingly angry creatures. It’s hard to hate a third act where the worst humanity has to offer becomes dino food, and tellingly, all of the dinosaurs are treated like victims — save the brand-new, exceedingly creepy Indoraptor, a mean-spirited hybrid of a hybrid (so…in-bred?) that stalks Lockwood’s granddaughter Maisie (Isabella Sermon) through the house in a more nightmarish version of The Lost World’s San Diego climax. Maisie is also the key to Fallen Kingdom’s dumbest and least necessary “twist,” but that’s neither here nor there.
To Bayona’s credit, though the film is filled to the brim with dino action, he uses more animatronics than any Jurassic film since the first one, and the CGI is good enough that in a few places I couldn’t tell the difference. He and cinematographer Oscar Faura unabashedly pull from Spielberg’s bag of tricks in their use of silhouettes, effective close-ups, and letting the action dictate the camera movements, not the other way around; in interviews, the director has talked about seeing the dinosaurs like a child would, as mostly teeth and eyes, and he pulls that off without resorting to jump scares or mean-spirited deaths of supporting characters. Composer Michael Giacchino also takes a different bead on his score, which is darker, brassier, and with a heavier vocal component. Jurassic World, though your mileage may vary, wanted to be an adventure; Fallen Kingdom goes for the spooks and often succeeds.
Everyone in the film is concerned about whether these “un-extinct” creatures, created by a private company, have rights; Malcolm’s perspective is that it doesn’t matter, because now that genetic power is unleashed, humanity is inexorably on the path to its own destruction. Forget the question of whether the dinos are worth saving: are we? Fallen Kingdom doesn’t really try to answer that, but the fact that it poses it at all is a step above your typical creature feature. These films can’t ever hope to have the character development or pathos of the Planet of the Apes series — and I’m not sure they should try, but it would be fascinating to watch for a few minutes — but there’s no going back from the decisions made at the end of the film, and characters’ empathy for the pitiless creatures they made may prove just as deadly as the hubris and greed of others. That’s…a downer.
The film’s message seems to be that scientific progress can’t go back in the bottle, and we can’t be trusted to wield it responsibly. And honestly, I can’t spot the lie. This goes back to one of Malcom’s key lines in the very first film: “You were so preoccupied with whether or not you could, you didn’t stop to think if you should.” (According to the franchise’s dinosaur consultant, we’re maybe “five years” from making dinos in real life. What could go wrong?) In Fallen Kingdom, Malcolm serves as the film’s Greek Chorus (which I’d like to see Goldblum do in, say, every film), warning us from his all-knowing perch: the species about to go extinct is us, and we probably deserve it. Maybe the Jurassic team can make one more good movie before it happens.