I’m a little envious of kids today. Judging by the fifth Jurassic movie, ‘Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom’, it’s clear they are unlikely to wake up drenched in sweat and palpitating after being hounded by a T-Rex or a Raptor. When did the T-Rex become our friend? When did we get to a point where a Raptor swoops in to save the day? I guess this is the point that separates the last two Jurassic movies from their predecessors. 2015’s ‘Jurassic World‘ set the new tone and ‘Fallen Kingdom’ doubles down on it.
That’s not to say a dinosaur doesn’t set its self apart as the primary source of terror. Recycled plot machinations conspire to serve us with another vicious quasi-prehistoric killing machine. It’s all a bit too calculated. Man versus nature in its most primal sensibilities is infinitely more terrifying. The new crop of Jurassic Park films want to tell us nature is on our side. The only nature we need to fear is humankind; when it taps into its pathology of hubris, greed and bloodlust.
‘Fallen Kingdom’ picks up three years after the events of Jurassic World. It spends its first half trying, somewhat successfully, to solicit sympathy and tears for the dinosaurs. The dinosaurs on the now-decayed Jurassic World theme park on the fictional island of Isla Nublar are now threatened with a second extinction by a venting volcano. There are campaigns to save them. The US Congress is having hearings on the matter, in which Jeff Goldblum makes a cameo. As a voice of reason, Goldblum (as Dr. Ian Malcolm) aptly tells us God didn’t drop the ball when dinosaurs went extinct the first time around. Touche.
But if reason was our marker, we wouldn’t have a film, would we?
That’s where our two returning leads come in; Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard without the heels. Howard’s Claire runs a foundation pushing to save the dinosaurs. They have rights too, we are told. But the US government wants no part of this and all seems to be lost. Then one of the brains behind the tech that gave dinosaurs a second chance intervenes. Sir Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell) reaches out to Claire offering her the means to rescue the various species of dinosaurs on Isla Nublar before the lava flood. She reaches out to her ex-bae, Owen (Pratt), who’s building himself a cabin by a lake, and after the obligatory apprehension, he gets on board.
I rooted for the dinosaurs in ‘Jurassic World’. I don’t remember that I actually cared for them. This script has actually done some thinking about the bond between man and dinosaur. Consider Owen’s relationship with the raptor Blue (last seen in the tag team with a T-Rex). He misses the hyper-intelligent prehistoric carnivore, and though sentiment the film tries to milk is not entirely earned, it did have me musing on man’s responsibility as a custodian of nature, no matter the circumstances.
Director J.A. Bayona really comes into play here. Unsurprisingly, he is suffocated by corporate interests. However, he knows how to convince when dealing with man and monsters, even if in spurts. He effortlessly works the empathy for the dinosaurs crafting a few standouts; especially one beautifully haunting moment woven into widespread destruction which nods ever so slightly to Godzilla.
He cleverly frames moments that are meant to mirror images of pure terror and dread we may have encountered in our various cinematic journeys. Like in his last film, the moving fantasy drama ‘A Monster Calls‘, he has a child (Isabella Sermon), in the thick of the action, and hints at the deeper levels this film could have burrowed to if more ambition had been allowed.
Bayona’s bread and butter is putting our characters in intense precarious predicaments and having them escape by the skin of their teeth. This happens one too many times, undercutting attempts at suspense at key moments of the film. From the moment things go left for our protagonists, it’s all about meandering around creeping masses of smoldering lava or lunging past snapping jaws. In terms of pure entertainment value, the exhilarating escape from the volcano eruption is an immersive cinematic high – the one time I was truly on the edge of my seat.
Corporate interests and humankind’s hubris check the antagonist box. Same old same old. B.D. Wong shows up again and after three seasons of ‘Mr. Robot’, he just needs to show up to fill a room with ominous vibes. As Claire and Owen set out on their rescue mission, they have no idea there are a ton of scientist sciencing their way to yet another bloodthirsty dinosaur that might as well have been a Xenomorph, without the acid blood.
There was talk of weaponising dinosaurs in ‘Jurassic World’ and in this film, we are pretty much at that point. This sets the stage for Toby Jones at his most weasley to slither onscreen and oversee an auction for some the worst and meanest of a global underworld that manages to convene under incredibly short notice. Not that I was complaining. Mine was to sit and wait for the dinosaurs to rip through Russian oligarchs and the like who feel having a pet T-Rex is a great idea.
There are components for a great film here. It just lacks in-depth engagement with some of the more interesting ideas prodded at as it expands the scope of the franchise. As an example, there is a game-changing reveal that is frustratingly only really used as a plot device when it was ripe for an exploration of familial longing. Nonetheless, what story we are given is coherent enough and commendably realised; possibly a blueprint for next steps in the franchise.
‘Fallen Kingdom’ is much better than ‘Jurassic World’. More heartfelt too. But the former benefits from the relative novelty and wonder of romping dinosaurs returning to the big screen. It had been about 15 years since the last Jurassic Park film. Subsequent lipservice, like we see here won’t be forgiven. It’s fair to say we expect and deserve another great Jurassic Park film.
Bayona is certainly capable and a proven talent. It’s just that he is clearly crammed into a box content with just churning out product. We seem to forget that year zero of the blockbuster genre was about invention, thrills and spectacle. The former two seem to be going extinct or cheapened as the medium devolves into a barrage of tedious spectacle.