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Jurassic Park hit theaters 25 years ago. It is a beloved film—many adults now in their twenties and thirties remember it fondly as the first “scary” one they saw in a theater—and yet it is easy to forget what made it such a success. Aside from Steven Spielberg’s singular direction and John Williams’ iconic score, which would instantly become a classic, Jurassic Park was a marvel of plausible pseudoscience, strong characters, and careful pacing.
The sequels, including 2015’s Jurassic World, could not match those highs simply because the initial awe over dinosaurs is gone. Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom attempts to sidestep the original film with a “kitchen sink” approach to blockbuster entertainment. Director J.A. Bayona and his screenwriters include elements of a jungle adventure and a disaster film, along with Indiana Jones-style action and even gothic horror.
This is a marked improvement over Colin Trevorrow’s direction of Jurassic World—Bayona knows how to tell a story with a remarkable image—and yet the script’s incoherence is its greatest failing. No one expects airtight plotting or thoughtful dialogue in a tent pole entertainment like this, but when plot twists are so goofy that they break the suspension of disbelief, something is clearly wrong.
In the years after the events of Jurassic World, dinosaurs have free reign over the island where Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) once oversaw the world’s most exciting theme park. Now the dinosaurs face a dangerous threat—the island’s volcano is about to erupt—and a debate rages over what to do about them. Claire leads the effort to save the animals, which attracts the attention of Eli (Rafe Spall)—right-hand man to the wealthy scientist Lockwood (James Cromwell)—who wants Claire and raptor wrangler Owen (Chris Pratt) to lead the rescue mission. It goes without saying that the mission does not go as planned. Mayhem ensues once the dinosaurs get on the mainland.
Bayona’s prior credits include horror film The Orphanage, along with the disaster film The Impossible, and both experiences serve him well here. The highlight of Fallen Kingdom is what happens on the island. The volcano erupts in dramatic fashion, so Owen, Claire, and the others must deal with threats from all sides. The mix of evocatively colored ashy clouds also leads to striking images, like when one poor dinosaur is left behind on the island’s shores. All the action is breathless, so it is easy to ignore that volcanoes do not actually erupt this way. There are even clever callbacks to films like Raiders of the Lost Ark, like when Owen rushes toward the camera, shouting that everyone must run from the danger right behind him.
All that energy and excitement deflates once the characters leave the island. In a predictable twist, shadowy men auction off the dinosaurs so they can serve as weapons. From Alien onward, there have been films about shadowy men wanting dangerous creatures to be biological weapons. It has never worked, ever, but not until Fallen Kingdom have they gotten so close. This leads to questions like, “If an arms dealer wins the auction, how do they ship the dinosaur home? What does dino-battle even look like?” These plot concerns are beside the point; fans of Fallen Kingdom will repeat the refrain “it is just a movie.” And yet the basic elements of moviemaking, such as the narrative and acting, are not convincing enough to accept it.
The climax of Fallen Kingdom involves a dangerous, genetically engineered super raptor called the “Indoraptor” wreaking havoc around a gloomy, spacious mansion. There is a storm alongside dramatic gothic facades—the mansion is like the castle in Beauty and the Beast—so Owen and Claire do not fit into this macabre setting. The screenplay by Trevorrow and Derek Connolly solves this problem with another important character: a little girl named Maisie (Isabella Sermon) who loves dinosaurs and has secrets of her own. Perhaps the film counts on the audience worrying about a girl who is being hunted, except that is not enough. Someone explains the Indoraptor has superior hunting ability and intelligence, and yet it stalks Maisie through the mansion like a dimwitted lizard. Owen and Claire save her, and while Pratt and Howard do not have the thankless, sexist dialogue that plagued Jurassic World, they lack the charisma to elevate this material.
One intriguing streak throughout Fallen Kingdom is a halfhearted debate over whether the dinosaurs should be allowed to exist at all. In what amounts to a glorified cameo, Jeff Goldblum reprises his role as Dr. Ian Malcolm to argue against dinosaur survival. Claire, on the other hand, fears such wonderful creatures going extinct. But “extinct” is not the right word, since it implies that these cloned creatures were subject to ordinary biological growth. If anything, they’re the intellectual property of the corporation that oversaw their development. Now a debate along those lines would be worth having, and would honor the pseudoscience of Jurassic Park along the way. Fallen Kingdom halfheartedly attempts something that engages our minds, only to abandon it in favor of a creature feature that borderline insults our intelligence.
Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom opens Friday in theaters everywhere.