The Jurassic World movies’ main concern has always been to raise the stakes. It’s right there in the name: Jurassic World. It’s not just a park anymore. The park is gone, in fact, as its posters repeat, an ominous slogan splashed across scenes of dinosaurs roaring in terror as their island explodes. It’s a scene anyone has seen if they’ve ever picked up a picture-book that addresses the end of the dinosaurs — except now (in the world of Jurassic World) it’s real, and it’s our fault.
Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom picks up three years after the first Jurassic World left off, with the revamped park on Isla Nublar in shambles and about to succumb to a newly active volcano. Building a theme park on a volcanic island seems pretty par for the course for a bunch of people who thought a dinosaur theme park would be a good idea. Anyway. The question then becomes, do we save these dinosaurs artificially created by man’s hubristic science, or do we let nature take its course? In a particularly cold cameo, chaos man Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum, picking up his check) explains to a room full of decision-makers that the best thing to do is to do nothing.
But, of course, we can’t have that, and, Hammond-style, an elderly gentleman with lots of money (James Cromwell, carrying John Hammond’s amber-tipped walking stick) contacts our two heroes from the first Jurassic World and entreats them to go with his crew on one last mission to save at least some of the species from their second extinction. Bryce Dallas Howard’s Claire Dearing — introduced stiletto heels-first (a not-so-subtle joke for those of us irritated by that in the first movie?) in one of those up-the-body shots that I really thought someone like J.A. Bayona would have been too good for — and Chris Pratt’s all-American boy Owen Grady find the prospect of saving Blue, the good Velociraptor, too tempting to resist, and go along with the plan, unwittingly helping a group of exotic species traffickers to kidnap a bunch of dinosaurs to sell to a group of billionaire bidders. Oh, and, yet again, there’s a new hybrid dinosaur that’s even bigger and badder than the Indominus Rex that some villains think they’ll somehow be able to sell as a trained weapon.
Claire and Owen are joined on their journey by dull romantic chemistry and two young members of the Dinosaur Protection Group environmental nonprofit, a hacker named Franklin Webb (get it???) played by The Get Down’s Justice Smith, and a palaeoveterinarian named Zia Rodriguez (Daniella Pineda), who, though she calls herself a palaeoveterinarian, had never actually seen a live dinosaur before she set foot on the island. Both are fun, interesting characters, particularly Franklin, whose stereotypical dislike of being outdoors and queasiness around anything remotely frightening are offset by Smith’s hilarious physicality. At one point, when someone asks him if he’s okay after some harrowing chase scene, he incredulously yells, “No??”
The dinosaurs in Fallen Kingdom do look much better than the ones in Jurassic World, though it still kills me that these movies have utterly sacrificed the slow menace of practical-effects creatures for ones that move fast but are completely made up of pixels. One thing I will say: Fallen Kingdom, unlike Jurassic World, really gets how much we love the dinosaurs that have become familiar to us over the years. Both the Brachiosaurus — the very first dinosaur Alan Grant and his group see when they get out of that Jeep — and the Tyrannosaurus Rex from Jurassic Park have big moments in this movie, as if to remind us that these are the characters who have followed us through all five chapters of this story. One of my favorite dinosaurs, Pachycephalosaurus, gets a big feature in this movie, generally causing chaos wherever it goes and ramming its thick-skulled head into anything that stands in its way (the animators even gave it slitted goat eyes, a fun touch).
It’s been interesting to see, over the course of the two most recent movies, how our relationship to the dinosaurs has changed. Ever since Jurassic Park III, the T. Rex has become the character who saves the day. Jurassic World went even further with the Velociraptors, treating them like dogs or dolphins that can be trained and empathized with, rather than creatures we know next to nothing about who were probably really, really good at killing stuff. Fallen Kingdom at least doesn’t treat the dinosaurs like zoo animals, or pets, but we’re still a long way off from the affecting mixture of fear and respect the creatures were treated with in the first movie.
There is a little bit of the wonder and joy that made the original so special embedded deep within Fallen Kingdom, which I credit to Bayona, whose primary drive, even in genre fare like this, has always been to sprinkle just enough emotion into the stories he tells. The plot of this feels less forced, and overall less cynical, than Jurassic World, though I don’t think I could ever believe that in the reality of these movies dinosaurs are treated like a boring commodity, bought and sold and updated and improved upon in order to still be interesting — much like how Universal has treated this whole franchise, forcing it to evolve without considering whether or not it can, or should, survive.