“No one’s impressed by a dinosaur anymore,” said Bryce Dallas Howard’s Claire Dearing in Jurassic World. But that sentiment haunted the Jurassic Park films long before Colin Trevorrow’s 2015 blockbuster, given the franchise’s increasingly mad attempts to capture our attention since the release of Jurassic Park in 1993, from the bigger-is-better approach behind Jurassic Park III’s Spinosaurus to the hybrid dinos of the Jurassic World theme park.
But in the first five minutes of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, director J.A. Bayona proves you don’t need bigger teeth and sharper claws to grab an audience. All you need, it turns out, is the comparatively humble presence of a Tyrannosaurus rex. The film’s opening set piece, which sees a team of shady mercenaries on a covert mission to the abandoned Jurassic World, derives its incredible tension from the inquisitive warble of a Dilophosaurus, the way the camera slinks across the ground, and the unnatural sway of the trees. By the time the mercenaries desperately scramble toward a getaway chopper’s dangling ladder, your adrenal glands will be in overdrive.
The T. rex, Jurassic Park’s original Big Bad, has still got it—and so, we hope, does Owen Grady (Chris Pratt), whose raptor-wrangling expertise is once again required at Jurassic World. Claire and her fellow members of the Dinosaur Protection Group, Dr. Zia Rodriguez (Daniella Pineda) and Franklin Webb (Justice Smith), have convinced him to go back to Isla Nublar, which was abandoned to the dinosaurs three years ago. A dormant volcano has awoken and threatens to re-extinct the creatures, and despite their repeated attempts to make brunch of her, Claire apparently feels sympathy for the beasts.
The United States government moves against the notion of intervening, at the behest of Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum). Fortunately, the team is secretively sponsored by Sir Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell) and his ambitious young associate, Eli Mills (Rafe Spall), whose plan is to whisk the dinosaurs to a private island, and simply let them be. Lockwood, we are told, was John Hammond’s partner, and, before the creation of the original Jurassic Park, cooked up the first batch of dinosaurs in his basement.
Throughout the film, director J.A. Bayona draws on the childlike fear of things that go bump in the night.
As you may have whiffed, Grady’s skills might have been put to better use taming the screenplay, which resembles the chimerical monstrosity at the film’s heart. In Jurassic World, we had the Indominus rex; in Fallen Kingdom, we have the Indoraptor, an agglomeration of raptor, Indominus and T. rex, frog, and any number of common household appliances. Dr. Henry Wu (B.D. Wong) pops up again to explain the latest creature creation, using 3D holograms of DNA double-helixes. But we don’t need all this gene-sequencing argot to yet again portend the potential horrors of such cloning around.
There’s always been a reflexive streak running through these films, where the scientists and theme-park execs become indistinguishable from the filmmakers: those wry shots of merchandise in the original Jurassic Park, presaging the wave of ’90s dino-mania that came about as a result of the film’s success; and Goldblum’s line, which may as well have been directed at Spielberg and his team of F/X wizards, “You did it. You crazy son of a bitch you did it.” Now, this meta touch is tinged with desperation. “Do you remember the first time you saw a dinosaur?” says Claire, ruefully. “It was a miracle.”
Indeed it was. Thanks, in part, to Industrial Light & Magic, but mostly to Spielberg’s knack for sublimating childlike wonder into blockbuster perfection. Bayona lunges for something similar, drawing instead on the childlike fear of things that go bump in the night. There are flourishes that signal the return of something that Spielberg seemed to take with him when he left the series behind: ingenuity. Invoking Nosferatu, one sequence sees the Indoraptor’s shadow slither across pale wallpaper toward a girl in her bed. Another sees the beast atop a mansion, wreathed in fog and howling at the moon. Such gothic imagery suggests opioid hallucinations, and a welcome escape from the doldrums of the writing, but they seem at odds with the rest of the film.
Fallen World’s final act, which sees Jurassic World’s rescued dinosaurs auctioned off as weapons to a souk full of villainous bidders, is the logical—and cynical—terminus for the creatures, whose post as theme-park divertissements always smacked of underemployment. You’ve got to admit, weaponizing them makes sense, and by the end of Bayona’s film, you’ll likely be bored or bemused to the point where you’d sooner see the back of them. “These creatures don’t need our protection,” says Lockwood, when he first meets Claire. “They need our absence.” If only the folks at Universal Pictures would listen, and finally leave these dinosaurs alone.