Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom isn’t the best or worst film in the franchise, but it’s certainly the most dully competent. Twenty-five years after Steven Spielberg ruled the summer with his vision of an island overrun by the most magnificent, terrifying dinosaurs you’ve ever seen, director J.A. Bayona provides us with just one more perfectly below-average blockbuster that occasionally grasps what’s so primal and wondrous about the subject matter. In between those moments, though, we have a lot of boring humans and narrative juggling, all in the name of setting up the next installment. In Hollywood, the only thing more relentless than rampaging reptiles is the marketing push to get us pumped for a future sequel.
The film deals with the fallout from 2015’s Jurassic World, which ended with the dino-centric amusement park imploding and most of the mighty creatures being killed. But three years later, scientists discover that an active volcano on the island is going to kill off the last of the dinosaurs, a fact that troubles Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard), who has become a fierce advocate for preserving their various species. Now regretting her role in running a park that profited off these mammoth reptiles, she enlists former love Owen (Chris Pratt) to help rescue the beasts. Providing manpower and resources for this daring operation is Eli Mills (Rafe Spall), who oversees the empire of Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell), the former partner of original Jurassic Park mastermind, John Hammond.
Accompanied by a heavily armed private military force—not to mention the sort of “edgy” younger supporting characters (Daniella Pineda, Justice Smith) who are allowed one smart-ass or comic-relief reaction per reel—Claire and Owen return to the island, having to work quickly before lava obliterates everything. Don’t expect to win any points by correctly guessing that Eli’s professed desire to provide sanctuary for these fabulous creatures is a ruse—he wants to sell the dinosaurs to weapons dealers and rogue states—and soon Fallen Kingdom becomes an elaborate battle as Claire and Owen fight to save the dinosaurs from Eli’s men.
Bayona first made his name with 2007’s atmospheric horror movie The Orphanage, but his two subsequent films more deeply inform what he brings to Fallen Kingdom. As with The Impossible, he cannily dramatizes the raw destructive power of the natural world—there’s occasionally a mythic quality to the mixture of terror and awe that goes on at the island. (And although it’s a baldly manipulative moment, Bayona also wrings some nice pathos from a relatively quiet interlude involving one solitary, stranded dinosaur.) And drawing on A Monster Calls’ fable-like vibe, the Spanish director taps into the fantastical thrill of pairing puny humans with towering creatures, especially in the film’s later stretches once the dinosaurs are taken off the island.
In these fleeting instances, Bayona puts aside plot machinations and uninteresting twists to give us what should be central to the franchise’s appeal, which is that giddy grandeur of our childhood daydreams of ferocious dinosaurs being brought to stunning life on the big screen. Fallen Kingdom rarely does this, though: Like the middle chapters of some trilogies, it’s too wrapped up in providing the connective tissue between the first film’s overblown carnage and the next film’s ultimate resolution. As such, Bayona mostly has to make sure the trains run on time, balancing some decent spectacle with flimsy script rationalizations for why the dinosaurs get transported from Point A to Point B—and why certain complications occur that make Claire and Owen’s quest even tougher. Too often, Fallen Kingdom has all the soul and grace of a well-prepared business proposal—you can sense all the money being invested into an intellectual property in order to reap a sizable windfall and ensure the franchise’s continued commercial viability. It’s as scintillating as a retirement plan.
Much of the first Jurassic World was concerned with the forced sexual tension between Claire and Owen—she’s an uptight business lady, he’s a rugged dinosaur-training dude—and so it’s a blessed relief that Fallen Kingdom decides to abandon that strategy, depicting them as platonic buddies trying to save the dinosaurs. Clearly someone at Universal got the memo that Claire came across as the most generic of damsels in distress in the first film, and so the sequel allows her to shoot guns, drive cars and be more assertive. She’s still not much of a character, though, and Howard mostly just hangs out in the film, waiting for something else bad to happen.
Meanwhile, Pratt isn’t as demonstrably Indiana Jones-like in his portrayal of Owen as he was for Jurassic World, but like with Claire, the filmmakers haven’t decided what he should be instead. Both actors have been appealing elsewhere, but the Jurassic World franchise reduces them to blandly attractive nothings—just more pixels on a screen already populated by exploding volcanoes, sprinting dinosaurs and moody lighting.
This is not to say that Fallen Kingdom doesn’t have Meaningful Things to Say About Our Modern Age. Jeff Goldblum makes a cameo as the offbeat scientist Ian Malcolm—his job is to give congressional testimony that, very handily, highlights the trilogy’s underlying themes in ominous tones. There’s meant to be some dark moral complexity in these films’ depiction of humanity’s desire to create its own dinosaurs—we’re playing God!—but like so much of this silly, by-the-numbers tentpole, the intellectual handwringing is really an excuse for self-perpetuation. The evil masterminds behind the creatures’ abduction just want to make a buck, and so does everybody responsible for Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. Such financial expediency isn’t going to go extinct anytime soon.
Director: J.A. Bayona
Writers: Derek Connolly & Colin Trevorrow (screenplay); Michael Crichton (characters)
Starring: Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Rafe Spall, Justice Smith, Daniella Pineda, James Cromwell, Toby Jones, Ted Levine, BD Wong, Isabella Sermon, Geraldine Chaplin, Jeff Goldblum
Release Date: June 22, 2018
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.
Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.