By David Weiner
Published June 8, 2018 in L.A. Weekly
There’s a moment in Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom when Chris Pratt tells Bryce Dallas Howard, “If I don’t make it back, remember you’re the one who made me come here.” That amusing blame-game sentiment may apply to some moviegoers expecting the same menu of predictable Jurassic theme-park thrills in the theater, only to find themselves on more of a bumpy chaos-theory ride with sadistic tendencies in this fifth go-round of big-budget dino mayhem.
Picking up three years after the events of Jurassic World, we find the genetically engineered dinosaurs of Isla Nublar in peril following their destruction of the lucrative Jurassic World theme park. A live volcano on the verge of erupting will wipe out all life on the island, and after a national debate, the powers-that-be have decided to let the prehistoric animals perish. Former park operations manager Claire Dearing (Howard), who has been running a campaign to save the creatures, gets an unexpected opportunity from billionaire philanthropist Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell) to spearhead a secret rescue operation. She recruits reluctant old flame Owen Grady (Pratt) to join her team, as he’s determined to find Blue, the highly intelligent raptor he left on the island.
Like all best-laid plans in these movies, things fall apart quickly as nature proves to be as dangerous and unpredictable as the sinister minions of wealthy benefactors (like the film’s duplicitous foundation baddie, Rafe Spall). As the island literally self-destructs in fire and lava, our heroes stumble onto a sinister plot to sell the dinos on the black market for alarming purposes.
Directed by J.A. Bayona (A Monster Calls, The Impossible, The Orphanage) from a script by Jurassic World director Colin Trevorrow with Derek Connolly, this at-times crowd-pleasing new entry ramps up the action and nail-biting suspense considerably but wanders into disjointed, dark territory that may divide audiences as they exit the theater.
Like its predecessors, Fallen Kingdom is mindful of the moral and ethical dilemmas confronting the genetic frontier that Jurassic Park creator Michael Crichton was so fond of exploring. Does an endangered species have the right to exist if it was genetically engineered by mankind? Should scientists wield their power to genetically manipulate these creations? The film makes an effort to address those lofty quandaries, but those are essentially deep thoughts for a facile entertainment product that we all know is gleefully more interested in finding the most entertaining ways to show a dinosaur eating a human — or, in Owen’s case, a human literally leaping through the jaws of an angry T-rex.
Unlike the previous Jurassic films, which collectively take their time to set the stage before unleashing full views of their dino stars, Fallen Kingdom goes straight for the jugular in the exciting opening sequence, in which a salvage team is looking to claim the bone DNA of the dead Indominus rex from the watery depths. But the new action quickly feels fatiguingly familiar, ticking the boxes of all the tropes that seem to be required for these movies: techs fumbling with equipment right before they become dinner; heartless mercenaries inhumanely rounding up dinos in cages; machine guns versus teeth-and-tail melees; characters trapped in compact vehicles as dinos relentlessly attack, etc.
Don’t get me wrong, this is a fun escape and there are plenty of enjoyable cinematic moments; the volcanic destruction of the island is a special-effects spectacular, the admirable cast sells well-placed comedic moments between scrapes and the immediate jeopardy they face in order to find safety is edge-of-your-seat palpable. And when the action leaves the island altogether halfway through, the franchise as a whole finally feels as if it’s realizing the potential that was teased at the end of Steven Spielberg’s The Lost World when the T-rex chewed up a portion of San Diego. It’s like watching that prehistoric fish crawling onto shore to take in fresh air for the first time after millions of years of swimming in circles. The Jurassic franchise is aiming to try something new, but it’s been a slow evolutionary process.
Bayona is well equipped to handle the demands of a massive, effects-driven popcorn flick, and turns almost every action sequence into a thoughtful, finely tuned set piece with nice attention to details and minimal reliance on jump scares. Playing with tension, Bayona choreographs the chaos with precision, always making sure to focus on the wide-eyed fear and sweat emanating from his players. Once the action switches locations, he savors the opportunity to mine his horror roots and turn Lockwood’s massive estate into a good old-fashioned haunted house with some knowing nods to classic Universal monster movies.
Yet for all of Bayona’s creative efforts to breathe new life into a tired franchise, Fallen Kingdom still feels like a Frankenstein-pastiche of a film — a new creature made of old parts, as they literally say in the movie. And it’s here that the proceedings take a sadistic turn, as the comically cruel villains get their shocking comeuppance in a variety of horrifying ways. This movie’s got a mean streak, embodied by the new star attraction: the deadly, hybridized Indoraptor. Intelligent, aggressive and armed with extended, razor-sharp claws that creep out at the audience from the darkness, this man-made dinosaur is positioned to be more like a bona fide monster, dismembering its human prey, skulking around rainy rooftops lit by lightning flashes and even sneaking into a child’s bedroom, casting a menacing shadow on the wall before he strikes. Parents who choose to bring their little ones to this decidedly PG-13 film, be warned: What starts out as kid-friendly movie excitement eventually takes a sharp turn down a dark alley with no escape in sight. This is the stuff of nightmares.
Fallen Kingdom gets points for trying on some new ideas and venturing into new directions five films into the franchise. Let’s not forget that, first and foremost, it’s a Hollywood studio tentpole designed to deliver thrills in the theater and then deliver thrill seekers to the gates of Jurassic Park: The Ride at Universal Studios. On that front, Fallen Kingdom delivers on its promise and then some. But once fully digested, this high-calorie snack will likely not rank very high on the Jurassic franchise food chain.
Also starring Ted Levine, B.D. Wong, Toby Jones, Daniella Pineda, Justice Smith, Isabella Sermon, Geraldine Chaplin and Jeff Goldblum, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is in Imax and theaters everywhere June 22.
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