God creates dinosaurs, God destroys dinosaurs. God creates man, man destroys God. Man creates dinosaurs, dinosaurs become reptilian John McClanes that operate like covert commandos and leap through windows to evade death-by-fireball! Dinosaurs rule!
This is the scientific basis for Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, the excessive, exasperated, yet occasionally exuberant sequel to 2015’s tedious Jurassic World. After rebooting the franchise with a referential romp — they, uh, built another park? — Fallen Kingdom mutates the remaining DNA from Steven Spielberg’s original movie into what’s essentially the highest-budgeted direct-to-video creature feature of all time.
A direct-to-video version of Fallen Kingdom may have been a total blast. Universal Pictures, the studio behind the Jurassic franchise, has made a cottage industry out of Netflix-ready movies, having produced legitimately good sequels to Tremors, Child’s Play, The Scorpion King and even Jarhead. In a parallel universe, Fallen Kingdom is one of those churned-out installments. In reality, the version we get is impaired by its big-screen stature.
Director J. A. Bayona employs every genre tactic up his sleeve (the horrors of The Orphanage, the disasters of The Impossible, the colossus choreography of A Monster Calls) to stimulate our senses, but writers Colin Trevorrow and Derek Connolly overreach for Spielbergian prestige when the movie begs to be boiled down to 90 minutes of on-a-budget CG mayhem. The evolving drama of Jurassic World’s multi-film story is no match for Bayona’s primal action instincts.
[Warning: This review contains mild spoilers for Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom.]
Like the geneticists who dreamed of zoological resurrection, Fallen Kingdom revives Jurassic Park without consequence. A daring task, considering Spielberg couldn’t even figure it out in his half-baked Lost World — what happened in that first movie (or even the first reboot-sequel) will always haunt the next installment.
So the idea that, after the events of Jurassic World, Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) would pivot to dino-rights activism, Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) would live a DIY life in the woods and together they’d take an assignment from a billionaire to rescue Isla Nublar’s prehistoric population, is befuddling from minute one. How many times does Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum), who bookends the movie, have to explain that we need to let the critters die off? Still, the ex-lovers wrangle two helping hands and head to the tropical haven, just in time for a volcano to erupt and magma-soaked chaos to ensue.
This is where choices are made. Instead of shuffling past the forced starting point, Fallen Kingdom’s script spends too much time trying to sturdy the plot with tons of twists and playful banter between two lovable actors. The buildup to the Isla Nublar expedition is like raptor claws on a chalkboard. While it’s nice to see Claire with agency and a life-on-the-line mission that Howard’s spirit can empower (sans heels), Pratt is a vacant presence beside her, and the circular dialogue that carries us from one action beat to the next is a steady drone that forces composer Michael Giacchino to overcompensate.
Pratt and Howard mine some gold out of a scene in which they have to extract blood from a sleepy T. rex (an A+ practical model), but so often Fallen Kingdom’s characters feel like collateral damage of screenwriting conventions. If the dinosaurs didn’t need flesh to scratch, stomp and in some cases rip apart, the franchise would benefit from scrapping humans altogether. Just give Blue the Raptor top billing already!
Luckily, Bayona delivers on the action. After Claire and Owen infiltrate an abandoned Jurassic World park, a sea of lava instigates a stampede, and each hyperventilating moment threaded through it — a semi-paralyzed Owen dragging himself The Revenant-style away from molten rock; Claire and computer whiz Franklin (Justice Smith) scrambling up a ladder to outrun a Spinosaur; a dusty gyrosphere’s escape and eventual cracking under meteoric debris and dino feet — is pulpy fun. Bayona’s choices even make the maudlin an absurdist pleasure: The image of a Brachiosaurus standing on the shores of Isla Nublar as its home succumbs to the liquid hellscape is so over-the-top that your heartstrings may snap from overload. The manipulation is welcome.
Fallen Kingdom’s disaster grandeur dies down in the second half, when the action shifts to a mansion compound where Claire, Owen, Franklin, Blue the Raptor and not-here-for-this-shit dino M.D. Zia (Daniella Pineda) discover yet another explanation for why people still think playing God could work out in the end. The ambition to say something about science, commerce and mankind gets in the way of genetically engineered assassin dinosaurs blowing through wooden walls. As does the introduction of a precocious 9-year-old girl with a target on her back and a grand conspiracy that never pays off. Like Lost World, Fallen Kingdom makes tons of promises with little payoff.
Through a back half full of exposition, Bayona again latches on to a visual that would make direct-to-video directors proud: the Indoraptor, a much-teased superdino, as a stand-in for Freddy Krueger. When dabbling in the slasher genre, or swerving into the aforementioned Die-no Hard, Fallen Kingdom goes full gonzo and escapes Spielberg’s shadow. The movie takes stabs at recapturing the original’s awe, where a herd of Brachiosauruses could drop Dr. Grant’s and viewers’ jaws, but they’re tar pits compared to Bayona’s slick haunted house ride, and what the special-effects artisans at Industrial Light & Magic can cook up when two carnivores go full kaiju battle. To reiterate: A dinosaur jumps away from an explosion in this movie. Every scene needed a dinosaur jumping away from an explosion — at least in spirit.
If only the human element didn’t feel so extinct. There will be “turn off your brain” arguments in defense of Fallen Kingdom, but they’re insidious; a movie can have personality, pathos, stakes and a Tyrannosaurus rex that rips throats. What we all really want, and what Bayona’s direction gets that Trevorrow and Connolly’s script doesn’t, is a silly blockbuster to do the brain-turning-off part for us. Universal’s direct-to-video franchises have the luxury of building a ride around the setpieces they can afford. Fallen Kingdom, in an effort to serve both the audience’s appetite for action and a bunch of suits who want this franchise to live on and on and on, creates an imperfect experience. John Hammond could relate.