There are at least four movies stuffed into Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, and about a third of one of them isn’t half bad. I don’t think that math adds up to a decent film, but if all you need is a roaring dinosaur every 15 minutes or so, it might not matter.
Fallen Kingdom’s opening act returns to the island that holds the since-abandoned Jurassic World tourist park from the previous film. Velociraptor trainer Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) and former park manager Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) have been convinced to go back in order to assist a conservation effort to save the remaining dinosaurs. Why not simply let them be? Well, the island’s volcano is threatening to erupt at any moment, which would wipe the creatures out.
Given the Spielbergian sense of suspense director J.A. Bayona brought to natural disaster in The Impossible, which traces a vacationing family’s efforts to survive a tsunami, it’s remarkable how little tension he wrings from this volcano setup. There are a few ominous shots of simmering smoke, but mostly the eruption just … suddenly … happens. The aftermath, at least, provides the movie’s most purely entertaining sequence: desperately fleeing alongside the island’s creatures—it’s as if they’re all racing toward Noah’s ark—Owen, Claire, and two other researchers try to avoid being trampled while also dodging lava bombs. It’s giddy, outrageous, and electrifying, with an unforgettable money shot of one enormous beast delivering a prehistoric roar just as the mountain explodes behind it. The sequence climaxes with Claire, who has ducked into one of the park’s gyrospheres, rolling off a cliff into the ocean below, various dinosaurs plunging into the water around her. Bayona then zooms in from the tumult for a claustrophobic single take as she tries to escape before water fills the sphere.
This is easily Fallen Kingdom’s most successfully sustained sequence, a burst of B-movie imagination, A-list visual effects, and confidently choreographed chaos. Things are pretty much downhill—and into an ocean of inert oddness—after that. It turns out the conservation mission was actually part of a black-market conspiracy that’s at once Byzantine and bizarre; we also learn about new experiments intended to develop an even more lethal species of dinosaur; and there’s a young girl (Isabella Sermon) who lives on a vast mountainside estate with her ailing grandfather (James Cromwell), who is somehow connected to the original Jurassic Park. The last third of Fallen Kingdom takes place in that enormous mansion, where Bayona tries to rekindle some of the eeriness of his masterful debut, The Orphanage. But it turns out subtle scares are hard to come by when you’re dealing not with ghosts, but rampaging dragons.
It’s remarkable how little tension is wrung from the volcano setup.
To its credit, Fallen Kingdom does try to make up for the cruelty and callousness that Jurassic World exhibited toward its dinosaurs. Unfortunately, it does so by quadrupling down on the scenes of forced wonder and emotional manipulation. We get an early tear of amazement at the sight of a lumbering brontosaurus, as well as a hand-wringing emergency-surgery scene involving Blue, Owen’s pet velociraptor from the first film. The island section of the movie climaxes with another brontosaurus (or maybe the same one) forlornly watching a container ship pull away while volcanic ash surrounds it. Bayona holds the image forever, as more and more humans gather on the deck of the ship to watch the dinosaur disappear into the cloud. We get it; it’s a very sad brontosaurus.
Then there is the film’s finale, in which we’re faced with the prospect of watching a basement full of caged dinosaurs (including a cute baby triceratops) succumb to poisonous gases. Unlike its predecessor, Fallen Kingdom doesn’t seem to be getting its kicks from killing dinosaurs, but the movie is still exploiting their vulnerability to play with our emotions.
Kudos to Pratt and Howard, I suppose, for managing to play all of this straight. Too bad they still have a lack of chemistry that becomes increasingly apparent the harder the movie works to position them as a couple. I can’t think of another franchise in which the leads—even though played by charming, capable actors—seemed so inconsequential. OK, I can: Transformers. In fact, the sad truth after two films now is that the Jurassic franchise seems closer to those ridiculous robots than it does to Jurassic Park.