In the 1990s, as we marveled at the revelation that dinosaurs could look real in movies, there was still a sense that filmmakers couldn’t do everything they wanted to do. As I’ve said in previous posts, I think 2017 marked the year when we reached a point where anything a filmmaker dreams up is possible to portray on screen (except removing Superman’s mustache). It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” is the first utterly unshackled “Jurassic Park” film. It opens with the franchise’s first underwater sequence, and ultimately fills the screen with a wider variety of dinosaurs than we’ve seen before.
This fifth “JP” entry has the most assured sense of its own style since Steven Spielberg’s iconic original. The first half is an epic actioner that peppers in hints of Gothic horror, and the second half is Gothic horror that never loses its action-film momentum even as the scale gets more intimate. Director J.A. Bayona brings his horror-film chops to bear with new iconic images of dinosaurs roaring in the pouring rain, their snout framed by a full moon, and composer Michael Giacchino provides fitting accompaniment.
“Fallen Kingdom” boasts the saga’s best sense of character continuity as we catch up with “Jurassic World’s” Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) and Owen (Chris Pratt). This is a fast-moving narrative, but Bayona uses smart visual cues to keep us up to date. For instance, Claire is now a dinosaur-rights advocate. The first shot of her – again on an elevator – starts with her sensible footwear, a contrast to the high heels from last time.
And he shows us how other characters are the same. Owen is building a house from scratch, still the consummate do-it-yourselfer. But he agrees to Claire’s offer of a beer pretty quickly, and he’s unconvincing when he says he’s willing to let Blue (the hero raptor from “Jurassic World”) die in the impending Isla Nublar volcanic eruption.
Veterinarian Zia (Daniella Pineda) – who is similar enough to Abby from the “Return to Jurassic Park” comics that I almost wonder if it’s an homage – and dino-rights fundraising volunteer Franklin (Justice Smith) are initially annoying millennials, but they grew on me.
But writers Derek Connolly and Colin Trevorrow – both returning from the 2015 film – do their best character work with the dinosaurs. I admit it’s amusing that Blue has a complete moral arc now, but I’m completely on board with it. Old Masrani Corp. videos show Owen training baby raptors. When he feigns weakness, most of the raptors attack (he protects himself with a falconer’s sleeve). Blue, however, nuzzles up to Owen, showing concern. This is not just training; raptors have the capacity for empathy.
While I initially thought as Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) does, that humanity should let the dinosaurs go extinct – a course correction, since they shouldn’t exist anyway – “Fallen Kingdom” changed my mind. The most epic sequence finds Claire, Owen, Franklin and an incredible array of herbivores and carnivores fleeing a lava flow, only to be confronted by a cliff. It’s heartbreaking to see non-swimming dinosaurs dropping into the ocean, and the sequence is a powerful visual metaphor for dinosaur-kind’s original extinction.
Thematically, “Kingdom” leans into its anti-corporatist viewpoint in a way that should be silly, except that the whole film is so self-aware that it works. “Jurassic World” was “Jurassic Park” on steroids, and this film is “The Lost World” on steroids. The villains successfully remove several dinosaurs from the island and hold an auction – later that day, it seems like. Mr. Eversol (Toby Jones), the head of some dark and twisted version of Christies, introduces the first lot: ankylosaurus, from the late Cretaceous, renowned as a “living tank.” The military- and pharmaceutical-industry bidders practically drool like Kang and Kodos setting eyes on Homer Simpson.
The idea that Henry Wu (BD Wong) has successfully created the most vicious creature yet – a half-Indominous rex, half-velociraptor called an indoraptor – offscreen, in a short time window, is partially absurd and partially an on-point commentary about how genetic technology could race ahead of humanity’s ability to think about consequences.
Still, that fear is less in 2018 than it was when Michael Crichton wrote his novels, not because it’s invalid but because there are bigger things to be scared of. And showing the positive side of genetic engineering is another wonderful surprise – the solution to a mystery that percolates in the narrative’s background. It fits beautifully with the scientific progress in the “JP” saga, yet I did not see it coming.
(Speaking of “did not see it coming,” look for a moment – pointed out to me by my Cold Bananas colleague Michael — that might be the deepest-cut homage to “Jurassic” lore ever: A reference to a joke from an episode of “The Critic” that pokes fun at smart raptors.)
Bayona, Trevorrow and Connolly are playing in the Spielberg/Crichton sandbox, but they know their toys well. “Fallen Kingdom” is the saga’s best sequel by a comfortable margin, and it’s a gift to the overall storyline: It positions the sixth film in a place where we’ll enter rooting for the heroes – human and dinosaur alike.