Spoilers for the film are included here, so if you haven’t seen it yet, consider this your warning!
I like to say I don’t have a favorite movie, but if I were to make a list of the possible contenders for that title, the original Jurassic Park would be near the top. A classic tale of science run amok and idealism undercut by avarice, it’s also a fantastic adventure film packed with memorable moments, lines and characters. The special effects were revolutionary at the time, and most of them still look great twenty-five years later. What makes that film work is a mix of visual majesty and strong writing, something which the sequels haven’t so much tried to recapture as completely ignored.
The subsequent films in this franchise, especially the Jurassic World titles, are beginning to feel a bit like their own dinosaurs: things that probably weren’t a good idea and will just lead to disaster. As the great Dr. Ian Malcolm once said, “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.” 2015’s Jurassic World was presented as an attempt to revamp the franchise for a new generation after its long absence, but it was ultimately a soft remake that only served to remind you how much better the first film is in comparison. This year’s sequel, Fallen Kingdom, aims to take the series in an all-new direction. And take it in a new direction it does, but only after two acts of predictable story, annoying characters, and tedious pandering. And when the film does finally break new ground, it’s ground that never should have been broken.
The Plot: Three years after the events of Jurassic World, the eponymous theme park still lies abandoned with its predecessor. An impending volcanic eruption threatens to consume the ruins of both parks and wipe out the dinosaur species still living on Isla Nublar. Former park manager Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard), believing the animals shouldn’t be left to perish, joins forces with John Hammond’s old partner Benjamin Lockwood to travel to the island and save as many dinos as possible before time runs out. To find the elusive Velociraptor Blue, which Claire’s patrons are particularly anxious to capture, Claire needs the help of raptor trainer Owen Grady (Chris Pratt), who reluctantly agrees to come on the trip. When their team reaches the island, however, they find themselves trapped in a fight for their lives as it’s revealed that the higher-ups’ motivations for saving the dinosaurs aren’t so altruistic after all.
The plot of Fallen Kingdom sounds simple enough, but in execution, it’s a mess. This is in part because the story feels like two different scripts forced together. The first act is a long action sequence on Isla Nublar, while the third act brings the characters to the mainland for a horror-style moonlit chase through a Gothic country estate. Between them is a long stretch where little of note is happening and the film is resting solely on its characters to keep the audience’s attention. And while Pratt and Howard are both fine actors, the characters they’re playing are about as compelling as cardboard standees. Owen is someone who has barely changed or grown at all in the time the audience has known him. He was the same person at the end of the first film that he was when it began, and the same can be said of him in this film. Claire is a bit better, although it feels like most of her development happened between the films. She goes from being blindly determined to save the dinos to realizing the destruction they can cause when under the control of the wrong people. So basically, the arc that has been played out multiple times in this series already. At least Owen and Claire are more tolerable than the supporting characters, who are one-note plot devices at best. The worst of them by far is the aggressively unfunny Franklin Webb, an IT technician who tags along on the first-act expedition for…reasons. Most of his screen time consists of him not wanting to be helpful, screaming like a little girl and loudly wondering if every approaching dinosaur is a T-Rex. The only thing worse than him is how the narrative goes out of its way to not kill him. Again, for…reasons.
Rounding out the supporting cast are the characters at Lockwood Estate, where the third act unfolds. Rafe Spall’s character Eli Mills is just another one-dimensional antagonist driven by greed, essentially a Dennis Nedry with slightly more dignity but less charm. Toby Jones and Ted Levine have amusing roles as a black market auctioneer and a tooth-collecting big game hunter, respectively. They’re fun to watch, but by the time their best scenes happen, it’s too little too late. No, the most important character here is Maisie, granddaughter of Benjamin Lockwood and the obligatory JP kid character. And boy, is she among the most unlikeable kid characters this series has had. Not because of her actress, who’s fine (albeit a little grating at times), but because of her role in the story. See, the #BigTwist at the end of the film is that she’s not a normal girl at all, but the product of human cloning meant to replace Lockwood’s deceased daughter. Now, my main issue is not with the twist itself. It’s a dumb but not implausible way to advance the science in this series, and the psychological fallout of this revelation would be a fascinating thing to explore. But the movie isn’t interested in exploring it at all. Its only purpose is to offer a weak justification for the ending, where Maisie makes the frankly horrific choice of releasing the surviving dinosaurs into the human world rather than letting them perish. Her only defense? “They’re alive, like me.”
I can already hear Jeff Goldblum saying “Now, ah, see, that is, ah, what we call a, ah, false equivalency.”
If you thought about going to see this movie just for Jeff Goldblum, by the way, don’t bother. All of his scenes are in the trailers. Despite that, he still manages to be a highlight of the film. His words of wisdom are, as always, ignored.
A positive thing I will say about the film is that it’s quite well-directed. J.A. Bayona, who takes over for Colin Trevorrow this time around, has made his mark with visually striking projects like The Orphanage and A Monster Calls. His talent and dark sensibilities really come out to play in the third act, which offers up some gorgeous shots and setpieces. I’m a little surprised that Universal never tapped him for one of their horror remakes: he seems like he’d be a good fit. The many rooms of Lockwood’s mansion make an elegant backdrop to the carnage carried out by the fearsome Indoraptor. There’s also a great comedic scene where a young Stygimoloch is let loose in the middle of the villains’ underground dinosaur auction and causes havoc. If the rest of the film had been more like this, we could have had a really fun summer action/horror flick. As it is, the last third just highlights the glaring flaws of the first two thirds.
The title Fallen Kingdom presumably refers to Isla Nublar, but it’s also a good way of describing the JP franchise itself: a once proud establishment revered by all, now reduced to ruins by clunky storytelling and unnecessary sequels. If you want to watch one of the JP movies, go back to the original. If you want to watch a good modern reinterpretation of Michael Crichton’s work, Westworld just finished its second season. This movie, like the dinosaurs, should probably just be left to fossilize.
Another writing advice essay is coming up soon, so stick around. Thanks for reading!