Director: J. A. Bayona
Starring: Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, B. D. Wong, Rafe Spall, Justice Smith, Daniella Pineda, James Cromwell, Toby Jones, Ted Levine, Jeff Goldblum
After 25 years and several sequels of, shall we say, variable quality, some of the novelty has started to wear off the dinosaur-delivering Jurassic franchise. Sadly, this latest entry sees the series continue to teeter towards extinction: though director J. A. Bayona (The Orphanage, A Monster Calls) injects some style into proceedings, the relentlessly stupid Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom contains far too much CGI, and far too little actual thought.
Initially, at least, the film offers a slight twist, a sort of cosmic turning of the tables. This time out it’s the dinosaurs, not the humans, who need saving, as an erupting volcano on their island refuge threatens to wipe them out. Alarmed at the possibility of the dinosaurs going extinct for a second time a group of eco-activists, led by Ben Lockwood (James Cromwell), the aged and wealthy former business partner of the original Jurassic Park‘s John Hammond, makes plans to save them. At his behest scientist Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard, mercifully having swapped her heels for boots this time out) and animal behaviouralist Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) return to the island to help evacuate the dinos to a new home. But time is running out, and Lockwood’s oily CEO (Rafe Spall) may have something different planned for the scaly evacuees.
Hey, Blue! You know me. Come with me. You know you can’t stay here.
The first thing you notice about Fallen Kingdom is how much of a hurry it seems to be in. This is a film that practically sprints from scene to scene, leaving no time for either its atmosphere or characters to develop. Big ideas (most notably the possibility of human cloning) are thrown in and then forgotten about almost instantly in the rush for the next big action set-piece. This might be more forgivable if those set-pieces paid off more often than they do, but too often they fall flat, rendered inert by the overuse of CGI (some of which looks decidedly ropy for a film with a reported budget of $170 million). Even the film’s intended show-reel piece, in which dinosaurs and humans flee the oncoming eruption en masse, feels oddly lifeless and anti-climactic.
It’s a malaise that extends even to Fallen Kingdom‘s dinosaur stars, who (with the possible exception of one particular underwater leviathan) no longer inspire the same awe and terror as they once did. Instead, they feel more like window-dressing, colourful background characters intended to add a little exoticism to proceedings but little more than that.
These creatures were here before us. And if we’re not careful… they’re going to be here after. Life cannot be contained. Life breaks free. Life… finds a way.
Even those dinos that take more prominent roles feel oddly defanged. The T-rex shows up in a couple of crowd-pleasing cameos, but these days the big beast is more cantankerous-but-loveable-fogey than horrible monster. The velociraptors, once the true terrors of Jurassic Park, have been reduced to mostly tame pets in a way that fans of the original might find rather depressing. Even the film’s newly introduced reptilian antagonist plays like the dino equivalent of a campy moustache-twiddling silent era villain. At one stage, as it prepares to pounce on an unsuspecting human, it practically winks at the camera. It’s not scary. It’s just silly.
Indeed silliness and stupidity are sadly rather a hallmark of Fallen Kingdom. It is the kind of movie that insists on its characters saying and doing the most idiotic things purely to advance the plot – in one memorably moronic moment, a character enters a dinosaur’s cage (leaving the door unlocked of course) so that he can reach into its mouth to extract a tooth for reasons that are dumber than you can possibly imagine. The motivations for the corporate baddies are the same as those of the corporate baddies in the previous Jurassic World – they made no sense then, and they make even less sense now. By the time the film reaches its final act, it has essentially given up on logic entirely – this is blockbuster cinema at its most imbecilic and patronising.
If I don’t make it back… remember that you’re the one that made me come here.
Oddly though, it’s this final stretch that finds Fallen Kingdom at its most fun. Shorn of the need for anything so encumbering as plot or reason, it can instead focus entirely on thrills and spills, becoming in the process an asinine but undeniably entertaining creature feature. Bayona uses his past experience as a horror director to good effect, generating some ghost-house chills in a cat-and-mouse pursuit through a creepy mansion.
He also shows some real visual flair in a number of scenes, so much so that at times you can make out the core of a much better film hidden behind the mindless excess. In the film’s standout sequence, a diplodocus is silhouetted against an onrushing firestorm – it’s a genuinely haunting scene, one that stands amongst the series’ finest.
But inevitably these moments are temporary pleasures, and Fallen Kingdom always finds a way to frustrate you. These frustrations extend to the cast, who despite mostly committed performances are largely wasted on cardboard cut-out roles. Spall and Ted Levine (here playing an obnoxious hunter) are always a pleasure to see on screen, but they just can’t make their one-note bad guys interesting. Justice Smith and particularly Daniella Pineda give enjoyable performances as members of Claire and Owen’s rescue team, but both vanish from the screen for long stretches, as does Geraldine Chaplin as Lockwood’s loyal servant, whose disappearance from the film is so abrupt that I can only assume she was the victim of some brutal editing. Even Jeff Goldblum’s much-vaunted cameo is disappointingly brief.
Genetic power has now been unleashed. You can’t put it back in the box.
Indeed among the supporting cast, only young newcomer Isabella Sermon (who gives an impressively sparky performance as Lockwood’s young granddaughter) and the ever-wonderful Toby Jones are truly able to make an impact. The latter plays a morally bankrupt arms dealer, whose orange toupee is incidentally just one of a number of apparent digs at the current US president buried within the film.
As for the leads, Pratt’s performance is as irreverent and likeable as we’ve come to expect from him, and he shows a knack for physical comedy in a scene involving him trying to escape from a lava flow while not in complete control of his limbs. But compared to, say, Pratt’s role as Peter Quill in Guardians of the Galaxy, Owen just isn’t as much fun or as charming. What’s more, the chemistry between he and Dallas Howard is never particularly convincing, although the misogynistic overtones of the previous film have thankfully been toned down.
To be fair to Fallen Kingdom, the Jurassic series’s human stars have always played second fiddle to their dino counterparts. This is not a film entirely without charm: if you can switch your brain off, there’s some genuine enjoyment to be had, and it’s pacey enough that it feels considerably shorter than its two-hour-plus running time. But occasional moments of dumb fun are a poor substitute for the genuine wonderment offered by the original Jurassic Park. Fallen Kingdom‘s ending sets up an inevitable sequel, but on this evidence, this is a series that increasingly deserves to go the way of the dinosaurs.