For the film franchise that coined the term “Life finds a way,” the Jurassic Park movies have done little evolving of their own over the course of five pictures, clinging to the DNA crafted by Steven Spielberg in the groundbreaking 1993 original. Time and again, we’ve returned to tropical theme parks where dinosaurs roam, each new outing rendering a little less of that awe-struck magic that made Jurassic Park such a wonder to behold. With Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, the awe begins to creep back in and, finally, the franchise takes steps toward necessary evolution.
Set three years after 2015’s franchise reboot Jurassic World, Fallen Kingdom begins with a chilling cold open prologue that finds a paramilitary scientists breaking into Isla Nublar to snatch a sample of dinosaur DNA and, naturally, getting more than they bargained for. It’s the best opening scene since the original Jurassic Park and immediately establishes director J.A. Bayona’s playbook for the film — when in doubt, crib from Spielberg, just make sure you do it with style. And Bayona’s got style. The prologue paints a stormy world of inky blacks and piercing bursts of bright red light, where monsters lurk around every corner, and for the first time in a long time, Bayona makes those dinosaurs a little bit scary again.
Back on the mainland, we learn that Isla Nublar is about to blow. A dormant volcano has roared back to life an as the “extinction level event” nears, threatening to wipe out all remaining dinosaur life on the island, a national debate rages on about how to handle the incumbent disaster. Should dinos be protected like any other endangered species, or should mankind take the catastrophe as an “act of god” that will undo the arrogant scientific meddling that brought the dinosaurs back in the first place? Bryce Dallas Howard’s Claire is leading the charge to save the animals, heading up a volunteer organization dedicated to rescuing the prehistoric critters from their second doom.
Enter Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell), a heretofore silent parter of Jurassic Park creator John Hammond, and his smarmy associate Eli Mills (Rafe Spall), who recruits Claire for a rescue mission. A self-funded Noah’s Ark, the goal is to take a team back to Isla Nublar and relocate as many species as possible to a remote island sanctuary. Except they need Claire’s handprint to tap into the park’s security and they need Owen (Chris Pratt) to find his old raptor pal, Blue. This is all very silly, and it’s just the beginning. Fallen Kingdom has no pretensions about being a completely ridiculous movie, but that’s part of its charm.
Like a prime pair of fools, Claire and Owen head back to the island that almost claimed their lives with the help of a wise-cracking dino-biologist Zia (Daniella Pineda) and a neurotic, genuinely funny tech wiz Franklin (Justice Smith). Once they’re back on Isla Nublar, Bayona manages to conjure some of that awe and wonder the franchise has been sorely missing, and serves up easily the best set-pieces since Spielberg left Jurassic behind. Bayona also conjures a surprisingly effective (if heavy-handed) through line of empathy for the dinos, culminating in a heartbreaking shot of a Brachiosaurus in peril that pulls on all the nostalgia heartstrings.
That empathy, a bleeding heart for Frankenstein’s monster, becomes the drive of the film, and when Claire and Owen’s team are betrayed and left for dead by a merciless mercenary (Ted Levine), they follow the action back to the mainland and Lockwood’s sprawling gothic mansion, where they team up with a peculiar young girl (Isabella Sermon, an amazing find) and Bayona flexes his spookshow muscles. Bayona directs the hell out of the script from Colin Trevorrow and Derek Connolly, eagerly playing with light and shadow to bring Jurassic Park back to its horror roots and punching up the action with a thrilling sense of danger. Set loose in a gothic manor, Bayona shoots his dinosaurs like they’re the stars of a haunted house picture, putting all the best tricks he learned on The Orphanage to grand use.
And it’s not just Bayona’s visuals that elevate Fallen Kingdom above its predecessor, he also mines better performances from his actors — especially Howard, who gets to move Claire away from the her wide-eyed incompetence in Jurassic World toward a much more compelling version of the character (who also has much more sensible footwear, thank you very much) and mercifully. Owen is more enjoyable this time around too, and Pratt’s killer comedic skills are given bigger room to breath. He even gets a full-on fisticuffs fight scene. What’s more, the character’s actually seem to like each other and Fallen Kingdom seems to like its characters more too. At least the good guys. You’ve never seen a more archly villainous group of baddies in a Jurassic film (Toby Jones is a particular delight as a hammy black market auctioneer), which means they’re prime for dino-chompin’.