J.A. Bayona’s Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is a worthy sequel to a less-than-stellar film. In many ways, it far exceeds Colin Trevorrow’s 2015 film in terms of pure, unrelenting action and suspense. Where that film was required to spend a lot of time reestablishing the world of cloned dinosaurs and the capitalists that exploit them, this film is able to jump right in, with our heroes in constant peril dodging dinosaurs and volcanic eruptions on Isla Nublar. From beginning to end, Fallen Kingdom throws us into the middle of one horrifying situation after another, leaving us barely enough time to catch our breath. It is exhilarating – even in the midst of a story that is astonishingly ludicrous and, frankly, pretty stupid – but also has moments of surprising mournfulness. This combination of spectacle and introspection shouldn’t really be that surprising, given director J.A. Bayona’s filmography, but it was certainly unexpected in a series that has increasingly shown very little interest in narrative coherence.
Shortly after the events of Jurassic World, it is discovered that the long-dormant volcano on Isla Nublar is now active, threatening the lives of the hundreds of dinosaurs living on the island. There is a national debate regarding what role we humans should or shouldn’t play in the continued existence of these animals, with dying billionaire Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell) eventually taking matters into his own hands. He recruits Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) and Owen (Chris Pratt) to accompany a team of hunters to go back to the island and retrieve as many dinosaurs as possible, which will then be transported to a biological preserve. Of course it goes without saying that some people involved in the expedition have ulterior motives, and soon dinosaurs are running amok on the mainland.
If this story sounds familiar, it should. It bears shocking structural resemblance to Steven Spielberg’s 1997 film The Lost World: Jurassic Park, demonstrating that there are apparently only so many ideas possible within this series (and, indeed, this genre, as the corporate plans for the dinosaurs are really no different than those of Weyland-Yutani for the xenomorphs almost forty years ago). However, the differences between this film and Spielberg’s Jurassic sequel are notable, as they definitely set up a ticking clock element, and move things along at a breakneck pace.
This would all be so much more recommendable if not for the eye-rollingly one-dimensional characters. Where Claire and Owen showed the slightest semblance of a pulse in the first Jurassic World, they aren’t even allowed that here, relegated to the most standard and boring of action hero cliches. The new characters, played by such reliable veterans as Cromwell, Ted Levine, Toby Jones, and Geraldine Chaplin, do what they can, but ultimately fall into their predetermined roles, with all the perfunctory emotional beats that go with them.
Perhaps, though, this is by design, as it can be argued that the real stars of this franchise have always been the dinosaurs themselves. And, on that level, the film delivers. Not only do we see the return of Blue, Owen’s favorite velociraptor, but also of the tyrannosaurus rex, brachiosaurus, triceratops, and more. One great thing about the continued improvement in visual effects over the years is the ability of CG artists to imbue these creatures with subtle hints of emotion that help the audience to relate to their plight.
And it is that plight that I think Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is most interested in. After twenty-five years of mostly paying lip service to the responsibility that the humans have over these cloned animals, Bayona and his writers finally explore the true horrors of playing God. The film understands that, eventually, one must make a choice, between attempting to restore the natural order or preserving one’s own creation. The geneticists in these films have spent so much time figuring out the logistics of their process that they failed to realize the implications they will have on the animals themselves. Much like Frankenstein’s Monster, these animals didn’t ask to be created, but are nonetheless bearing the brunt of the consequences.
These films have always been more than willing to feature humanity’s hubris in its relationship to nature, but this may be the first of the films to really play up the inherent sadness of it. Given Bayona’s 2016 masterpiece A Monster Calls, it’s no surprise that this film would bring a mournful weight to the proceedings.
And perhaps the film mourns most that which it lacks: a sense of awe. With each successive film, the amazement that the park visitors – and the series’ audience – experience has lessened a little bit, until it is now officially gone. In the face of imminent destruction, there is no time to marvel at these creatures. Bayona understands this, and acknowledges it in a brief scene featuring the first dinosaur ever seen in the series, slowly enveloped in ash and smoke, as the last remnant of childlike wonder crumbles to dust.
It has always been my contention that the first Jurassic World, within its thin characterizations and uneven story, was surprisingly introspective, exploring what it means to be a modern blockbuster. J.A. Bayona’s follow-up to that film continues that exploration, with a film that, while not always the most narratively satisfying, contains tremendous action set pieces and a deep understanding of the sad implications of living in this technologically advanced world.