Three years ago, director Colin Trevorrow brought Steven Spielberg’s long-dormant Jurassic Park franchise back to life, with a storyline about a futuristic wildlife park that was so desperate to keep selling tickets, it was willing to genetically modify its creatures in the name of spectacle. Jurassic World wasn’t just a blockbuster, it was a meta-movie. The sinister Masrani Corp. was a stand-in for Hollywood and its obsession with bigger-than-big sequels, and the new Indominus rex dinosaur hybrid was the same kind of amped-up cash-in that movie audiences are sold every year. Trevorrow’s mildly subversive take worked for audiences, and the film grossed more than $1.67 billion worldwide, making it one of 2015’s biggest successes.
It’s hard to know where its sequel, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, would fit within that thinly veiled metaphor. Director J.A. Bayona (A Monster Calls, The Orphanage) brings a darker, horror-minded sensibility to the material, but it’s an uneasy match with the franchise’s Spielbergian moments of whimsy and wonder. Rather than amping up the scale and spectacle, the latest franchise installment trades the vast landscapes of Isla Nublar for a claustrophobic setting that ultimately makes the whole thing feel like little more than an average haunted house flick. And the script, by Trevorrow and longtime co-writer Derek Connolly, repeats all the mistakes of the first Jurassic World, while taking so many new bizarre leaps of logic that it becomes difficult to suspend disbelief. They may have wanted Fallen Kingdom to be a self-aware blockbuster asking interesting questions, but they ended up with the kind of dumb, cynical blockbuster that the first Jurassic World was warning audiences against.
The film opens several years after Jurassic World. The park on Isla Nublar has fallen into ruin, and an active volcano is now threatening the lives of all the creatures left on the island. The US government is holding hearings on whether the dinosaurs should be rescued — Jeff Goldblum’s Ian Malcolm briefly pops in to offer his testimony — though they ultimately decide not to intervene.
But Jurassic World’s Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) has become an animal rights activist, and is trying to lobby support to save the creatures from extinction. She’s contacted by an old acquaintance named Eli Mills (The Ritual’s Rafe Spall), who works for billionaire philanthropist Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell). In a bit of convoluted backstory, Lockwood originally worked with Jurassic Park creator John Hammond (the late Richard Attenborough) until they had a falling-out. Lockwood wants to save the Isla Nublar dinosaurs as a testament to his old friend, and has created a secret island sanctuary where they can live in peace, without humanity meddling. But to pull off the secret rescue mission, Mills needs somebody with park expertise, and that’s where Claire comes in. They also need help capturing the velociraptor Blue, who they prize for her superior intelligence, so Mills asks Claire to bring in Blue’s trainer, Owen Grady (Chris Pratt).
This all sounds like a perfectly serviceable narrative setup. There’s undoubtedly a story to be told about a noble dinosaur-rescue mission that goes horribly awry, and the plotline dovetails nicely with the warning bells the film sounds about the dangers of genetic manipulation. But the creators of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom seem utterly disinterested in their own premise, and they rush through this bit of storytelling as quickly as possible, pushing forward until the story can leave the island altogether.
Fallen Kingdom’s first act feels like a Jurassic Park greatest-hits reel. There’s a technician stalked by a dinosaur in the rain. A young hacker named Franklin (The Get Down’s Justice Smith) works magic rebooting the park’s systems. Owen patiently tracks Blue through the forest, until the Bad Guys Who Don’t Get It (led by Ted Levine) shoot her with a tranquilizer. It’s as if the filmmakers are rotely checking off a list of Jurassic Park signifiers, and their apathy is palpable.
Bayona’s work is the only exception. Throughout his career, he’s excelled at building tension and creating atmospheric unease, and on a sheer filmmaking level, that’s no different here. Occasionally, he even gets to fully embrace his horror-movie sensibilities. But all too often, the script hinders the impact. Fallen Kingdom’s characters are so bland and thinly written that the actors have little to do but look scared and run around, making it nearly impossible to care about what actually happens to them. One particularly bravura moment, a single-shot sequence in which Owen has to rescue Claire and Franklin from a gyrosphere that’s been thrown into the ocean, is remarkable not for Bayona’s technical skill, but in how emotionally unaffecting it actually is.
Fallen Kingdom’s main twist — if you can use that term for something that’s spoiled extensively in the trailers — is that Mills is actually trying to capture the dinosaurs so he can sell them on the black market. His plans include yet another new genetic hybrid — this time, something they’ve dubbed the “Indoraptor.” To its credit, Fallen Kingdom doubles down on making the audience emotionally invest in the dinosaurs as actual animals. One moment in the first half of the film, where a dinosaur faces certain doom, is more emotionally affecting than anything that happens to the human characters. And the attempts to make the dinosaurs relatable and realistic are all driving toward exploring the moral implications of genetic engineering. If an animal is brought back from extinction, should it then be protected as an endangered species? If something is created by man, does it have the same right to exist as something created by nature?
Like its predecessor, Fallen Kingdom is overstuffed with ethical conundrums, and not sophisticated enough to fully engage with them. And the movie’s villains become such cartoony caricatures that it’s impossible to take Fallen Kingdom’s attempted philosophical musings seriously. This is the kind of movie where the audience knows Mills is bad because he yells at a kid, and dinosaurs are auctioned off to an international group of would-be Bond villains. It’s all absurd — even for a movie about man-made dinosaurs — and it becomes even more ridiculous when the movie leaves behind the grand, epic vistas of Isla Nublar for a much smaller dinosaur jail located beneath Lockwood’s estate. Normally, the creatures lend this series a built-in sense of awe and wonder. Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom strips that majesty away and turns the focus on the human characters, who are markedly unengaging.
Viewers who aren’t already invested in Owen and Claire won’t find anything fresh here to hold onto. Pratt’s familiar dumb-guy schtick is as entertaining as it is in hits like Guardians of the Galaxy and Parks and Recreation, but his scenes with Howard are largely chemistry-free, and one romantic moment plays as shockingly unearned. Justice Smith and Daniella Pineda, as Claire’s eager young colleagues, disappear from the film for long stretches, and when they are on-screen, the script doesn’t give either of them any meaningful material. A subplot with Lockwood’s granddaughter is bafflingly pointless, until it becomes clear that the character exists only to manufacture some third-act jeopardy, and to make a ham-fisted point about genetically engineered dinosaurs that will likely leave audience members shaking their heads.
Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of all is the way the film ends, by clearly telegraphing the setup for the third Jurassic World, which already has a 2021 release date. But this movie crosses certain boundaries in a way that can’t be undone, and if audiences don’t like where things are headed at the end of this film, they aren’t likely to have those concerns addressed in the next installment.
If you squint, you can see brief glimpses of a thoughtful, interesting Jurassic World sequel somewhere in Fallen Kingdom’s scattered bones. A particularly generous reading might claim that Fallen Kingdom’s weaknesses are their own clever subversion of the franchise, that they strip away the distracting, pandering spectacle that made this series work in order to reveal how cruel and corrupt the entire conceit has always been. In a post-Last Jedi and Deadpool world, audiences seem particularly open to deconstructing the things they’ve loved in the past. But Jurassic Park: Fallen Kingdom doesn’t have the dedication to pull off that particular magic trick. It tries to echo what came before, while also undercutting it. It tries to ask intelligent questions, without making the characters smart enough to understand them. There is action, and there are explosions, and there are dinosaurs running around and fighting in sequences that will thrill some audiences, but there is no anima behind it. It turns a once indelible franchise into something generic, flat, and utterly forgettable.