Jurassic Park broke new ground by shifting the limits of possibility in the world of cinema, but it also established a formula that has remained virtually untouched since 1993, a formula embraced wholeheartedly by moviegoers who made Jurassic World the fifth-highest grossing movie of all time. At this point, we’ve all accepted that these movies are just sheer popcorn entertainment. They bank on a simple universal truth: dinosaurs are cool. So, with the latest installment in the series, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, the challenge becomes whether or not this high-speed roller coaster offers enough stimulation to offset the long lines and price of admission. The answer is an unsatisfactory, “sort of.”
In the wake of the events of the last film, the park has been completely abandoned, with its main attractions roaming around without the influence of humanity. However, an active volcano on the island is projected to erupt, threatening the extinction of the dinosaurs for a second time. Once again, Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) and Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) are called upon to save the day, each following precisely the same character arc as in their previous entry in the saga. The cast is rounded out by a one-note villain (Rafe Spall), a couple of forgettable new comic relief characters (Daniella Pineda, Justice Smith, and a startling lack of Lauren Lapkus), and Jeff Goldblum, who showed up to set for a single day in order to reprise the role of Dr. Ian Malcolm in service of a shot-for-trailers glorified cameo.
For better and for worse, Fallen Kingdom feels like the middle chapter of a trilogy. It splits much of its run-time between retroactive explanations for questions raised by its predecessor and setting up the narrative path toward the final film in the series. Of course, in true belated sequel fashion, the film is sure to include plenty of fan service callbacks to the beloved Spielberg-helmed films. Although, surprisingly enough, as a continuation of this universe, Fallen Kingdom offers minimal character development, simply using A-list stars to anchor its big budget spectacle.
Stunning visuals are definitely a strength of the film, with tactile, textured dinosaurs on display through the nearly seamless marriage of CGI and animatronics. Fallen Kingdom is the first Jurassic Park sequel to truly build upon the technical style of the original. Even when we are looking at a performer in a motion capture suit, it never feels that way. We are treated to each individual rivet on the dinosaurs’ hardened skin. These impressive visuals aren’t lost on cinematographer Óscar Faura (The Imitation Game, A Monster Calls), who nudges the camera right up close and personal with the dinos, exploiting their intricate production design.
Director J. A. Bayona’s presence is felt in the film’s elaborate set pieces – often mirroring those from the original film – which aim to outdo those in Jurassic World. Everything is bigger and louder here, with a particularly impressive underwater sequence done in a single shot without the use of stunt doubles. While some of the boisterous action sequences are memorable, they work to offset all of the self-serious conversations that happens in between them. Rather than commit to a single tone, the film often opts to jump the velociraptor. Much of the brilliance of Jurassic Park was in its relative simplicity, as the brilliant staging of Steven Spielberg’s camera only afforded the audience a keyhole view into its expansive universe, leaving them constantly wanting more. Here, the door is flung wide open, leaving almost nothing to the imagination.
Plot-wise, Fallen Kingdom is an absolute mess. Bayona aims to create a giant, flashy amusement park sensory experience while also focusing on some of the least interesting aspects of this world, notably a collection of nameless, cartoon-y crime lords buying dinosaurs at a black market auction and a half-hearted ethical discussion about what inalienable are bestowed upon man-made creatures. In its second half, it blossoms into an intimate, claustrophobic horror piece that feels entirely removed from anything that came before it. The movie continuously plants the seeds for several different ideas but never truly elaborates on any of them.
The outlandish plot already requires quite a bit of logical gymnastics, but it continues to test its audience’s loyalty through the addition of these contradictory elements. The film is caught in an identity crisis, which can make for a rather tedious viewing experience. For the sake of damage control, the characters will all but break the fourth wall to either explain muddled situations or comment on how asinine individual plot beats are: “What could go wrong?” These remarks seem as oblivious as when the film’s predecessor took jabs at brand deals, even though it was chock full of obnoxious product placement.
One of the main issues with these movies is that there have been five of them. Loyal viewers know all of the usual rhythms by rote at this point. So many of the proposed thrills rely heavily on the element of surprise, but the series has forfeited any chance at that decades ago. We know exactly when the big, scary dinosaur is going to pop out of the forest, so, naturally, we aren’t at all startled when it does. The film’s tolerance of predictability slows the pace down and alleviates it of any real consequences for these characters.
The Achilles’ heel of many of this year’s hopeful blockbusters (A Wrinkle in Time, Solo: A Star Wars Story) was the lack of personal vision behind them. Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom avoids this pitfall with the distinctive touch of J. A. Bayona, who boasts a clear voice that permeates the film, even when the benchmarks he sets for himself prove to be too much of a challenge. His fervent adoration of gothic horror adds a level of sinister suspense that raises the stakes for our heroes, even resulting in a tasteful nod to F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu.
Much of the film’s failings fall on Colin “The Book of Henry” Trevorrow’s script, not the least of which being its decision to leave the fictional island of Isla Nublar behind. Once we move away from the prehistoric ecosystem, the universe loses nearly all of its sense of wonder. It’s difficult to recapture the magical moment when Sam Neill and Laura Dern first encounter a brachiosaurus grazing in the wild when your chief set piece is a dingy basement. Trevorrow appears to have learned nothing from the missteps of The Lost World, where that film’s momentum completely grinds to a halt when the action is moved to San Diego in its final act.
Much to the detriment of its prospective thrill ride, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is often overly dull, mainly because it’s afraid to embrace its own silliness. Keeping in line with the other Jurassic Park sequels, it misses what aspects of the original viewers initially latched onto, aiming instead to raise the stakes by genetically engineering the dinosaurs to be even deadlier. Rather than wallow in underdeveloped metaphors, the saga should instead lean into the cheeky merriment of it all. There is hope for the future of the franchise, as the film ends on its most engaging note. We are sold the possibility for the next chapter to be dexterous enough to juggle indulgence alongside intellect. But unfortunately, that hopeful speculation is the best Fallen Kingdom has to offer.