By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Starring Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard and Ted Levine
Directed by J.A. Bayona
Written by Derek Connolly and Colin Trevorrow
JURASSIC WORLD: FALLEN KINGDOM opens with a vivid, good ’n’ scary sequence making it clear that this series entry has more horror in its DNA than last time around. These prehistoric creatures—some of them, at least—are monsters, and they eat people.
The storyline nonetheless hinges on the idea that there are good dinosaurs and bad ones, and that overall they are animals whose lives are worth saving. Chief proponent of their survival is Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard), who weathered $800 million in lawsuits from the disaster at the Isla Nublar park she once ran, and now heads up an activist group devoted to preserving the creatures that still survive there. Time is of the essence given that a volcano on the island has begun actively erupting, and Claire is approached by wealthy Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell), who conceived the dinosaur-cloning process with Jurassic Park founder John Hammond way back when. Lockwood wants to preserve the dinosaurs’ future by bankrolling an operation to move them to a new island habitat, and enlists Claire to spearhead the team.
A key dino targeted for transfer is Blue, the velociraptor raised to respond to human guidance, which of course means that Claire has to track down Owen Grady (Chris Pratt), its trainer and her former love interest, and convince him to come on board. Needless to say, the old spark is rekindled over the course of the ensuing adventure, and their bantering relationship is more engaging and less annoying, as scripted by returning Colin Trevorrow and Derek Connolly, than it was in the first JURASSIC WORLD. This isn’t the only thing FALLEN KINGDOM does better than its predecessor: The B-movie idea of weaponizing the dinosaurs, as crudely embodied by Vincent D’Onofrio’s Hoskins in the first picture, is more fleshed out and persuasive in FALLEN KINGDOM, and the young brothers and their inconsistent behavior in the original are replaced here by the plucky and likable Maisie (Isabella Sermon), Lockwood’s granddaughter.
The most crucial upgrade has been made in terms of craft and style. For all its technical finesse, the previous JURASSIC WORLD, which Trevorrow directed, has a generic megapicture sheen to it; FALLEN KINGDOM looks more like it has a real filmmaker at the reins. That would be Spanish director J.A. Bayona, marshalling both the skill at big-scale survival drama he evidenced in the underseen THE IMPOSSIBLE and the confined tension and terror seen in his debut feature THE ORPHANAGE. (7337, the title of the short that led Bayona to make that film, gets onscreen shout-outs in FALLEN KINGDOM as a keypad combination.) The operation on Isla Nublar does not go as planned and is rudely interrupted by the angry volcano, and this lengthy, apocalyptic setpiece is brought off with great panache and excitement by Bayona and his visual effects team. (The scenes of lava-borne destruction have eerie parallels to the current real-life disaster in Hawaii, especially given that that’s where the Isla Nublar exteriors were shot.)
Bayona also demonstrates some of JURASSIC majordomo Steven Spielberg’s knack for cause-and-effect bits of action and even pulls off moments of black comedy in FALLEN KINGDOM, as when Owen attempts to overcome dart-induced temporary paralysis while molten rock creeps closer, and some violent slapstick later when a hard-headed Pachycephalosaurus runs amok. The latter occurs in Lockwood’s mansion, where the second half of the movie takes place to give the JURASSIC saga a much-needed change of scene. Bayona takes full advantage of the opportunity to take the science-fiction premise into the realm of Gothic suspense, as the rampaging reptiles stalk and pursue the humans through shadowy hallways, stairwells and expansive rooms containing both ancient fossils and the latest hi-tech equipment.
The new setting and atmosphere help FALLEN KINGDOM overcome a certain sameness that has settled into the franchise by now. It’s hard to elicit quite the same wow factor with the dinosaurs five films in (or even four; the first JURASSIC WORLD paid lip service to public apathy for the animals, then showed huge crowds massing to see them), and a few specific FALLEN KINGDOM callbacks to classic moments from the first JURASSIC PARK acknowledge the familiarity of the overall scenario. On a setpiece-by-setpiece basis, though, FALLEN KINGDOM is the best in the series since the 1993 original, eliciting both empathy for its dinosaurs as living creatures (particularly in a movingly shot scene at the end of the Isla Nublar portion) and genuine fear when the more vicious of them go after human prey.
While the people themselves aren’t especially deep, the actors (also including Ted Levine as the military support leader of the Isla Nublar expedition and Rafe Spall and Toby Jones as men seeking to exploit the beasts’ commercial potential) fill their roles well, eliciting sufficient rooting interest for and against them for FALLEN KINGDOM to work as solid, pulpy big-ticket entertainment. The movie also makes good use of cameo-ing Jeff Goldblum, back as Dr. Ian Malcolm, who helps set up what looks to be another beneficial change in direction for the upcoming third in this trilogy.