“Change is like death,” says a character in Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. “You don’t know what it looks like until you’re standing at the gates.” Leaving aside the question of whether that's accurate, let it be noted that these Jurassic movies resist both death and change: We know pretty much exactly what they’ll look like. Directed by Juan Antonio Bayona (A Monster Calls, The Orphanage), Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom understandably doesn’t upset the formula. It looks and feels familiar, and in an era where studio filmmaking has increasingly become an extension of brand management, that should make a lot of people happy. But I can’t say it made me particularly happy.
Still, Fallen Kingdom isn’t quite so awful as its previous iteration, Colin Trevorrow’s doltishly written, cacophonously acted, indifferently directed and generally unpleasant Jurassic World, which played like a ‘roided-up remake of the original Jurassic Park but with everything that made Steven Spielberg’s film fun surgically removed. There are even a couple of imaginatively staged set pieces this time around. The picture kicks off with the best of them, a storm-drenched nighttime multi-dinosaur attack on a salvage crew amid the ruins of the previous films' theme park island, lit with flashes of lightning and flickering spotlights.
After that, Fallen Kingdom sticks to the rough outline of the earlier movies, right down to the obligatory scene of someone marveling at the sight of real-life dinosaurs for the first time. Really, you’d think by this point in the Jurassic timeline that beholding a dinosaur would be like first encountering a Segway – worth a chuckle but that’s about it. (And wasn't it a plot point of Jurassic World that people weren't impressed by the thunder lizards anymore?) Anyway, a gazillionaire has a plan, and needs hero-scientist types to help him realize it.
Following the disastrous events of Jurassic World (“$800 million in damages!”) the world is in the midst of a raging debate over whether to keep the dinosaurs now running free on Isla Nublar alive; the volcano there has become active, and is about to consume the cloned beasts. The earlier film’s heroine Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) has since become a dinosaur rights activist. She gets a call from invalid billionaire Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell) and his slick assistant Eli Mills (Rafe Spall, looking and acting like his character was cloned from the remnants of Paul Reiser’s corporate sleazeball Carter Burke from Aliens). They have a plan to get the dinosaurs off the dying island and into a new, self-sustaining sanctuary, far from humans. Claire enlists the aid of reluctant former dinosaur trainer Owen Grady (Chris Pratt), and they’re off to save the giant reptiles. As Owen himself asks, “What could go wrong?”
Plenty, of course, and quickly. The calamities come with accelerating speed, and everything happens so quickly that you don’t even have time to wonder if you’re having fun or not. The result feels more like a collection of ideas for scenes than actual scenes. There’s a promising bit where Owen, sedated and half-paralyzed, has to awkwardly crawl away from a steadily approaching river of lava, but it’s over in about 30 seconds. There are people trapped in a steel bunker with a fearsome Baryonyx and a hot fire around them, but that sequence, too, wraps up just when it seems to be starting.
The mind reels at what Spielberg might have done with such setups: Both Jurassic Park and The Lost World demonstrate his sadistic fondness for sequences of screw-tightening tension; they’re symphonies of sweet directorial cruelty, perfectly deploying both humor and oh-crap-what-now? escalation. Fallen Kingdom’s impatience is perhaps understandable: The filmmakers want to get everybody off the island and settle into the next stage of its plot. But that seems to miss the point entirely: We go to Jurassic Park movies for those intricate, imaginative set pieces, not for the entirely predictable storylines.
It’s a shame, because Bayona is a director of some visual invention (his 2007 horror film The Orphanage is a masterpiece), and he occasionally gets a chance to show off his splendid eye and flair for the gothic in Fallen Kingdom. He does lovely, creepy things with shadows and close-ups, and he playfully uses tapestries and dioramas — particularly in the film’s final act, which is, intriguingly, set in a giant manor home.
Don’t get too excited, though. Even that idea — dinosaurs in a mansion! — doesn’t get explored in any truly involving way. There are missed opportunities all over Fallen Kingdom. At one point, I began to get excited that this might prove to be an angrier film than its predecessor, more pointed: There’s a whole bit with arms dealers and slimy financiers at the end that seems to be aiming at something. There are even some vague platitudes expressed about man’s hunger for destruction and weaponry and our inability to handle the power we’ve harnessed. But it all just hangs there like so much else in this movie, undeveloped concepts that could one day be turned into a genuinely exciting, surprising film. Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is, sadly, not it.