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Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom Proves That Sometimes, Smaller Is Better

J.A. Bayona adds some sub-genre flair to yet another dinosaur story.

Courtesy of Universal Pictures/Amblin Entertainment, Inc./Legendary Pictures Productions, LLC.

“The park is gone,” the posters for Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom bluntly read. And indeed, about halfway through this fifth installment of the now 25-year-old film franchise, the park—and the whole accursed Isla Nublar—is wiped out, consumed by volcanic fire that, somehow, our heroes are able to outrun. A few dinosaurs make it off the island too, though they’re headed nowhere good, off to be sold and weaponized by various sinister figures. Won’t someone just let these poor creatures live—or, perhaps more reasonably, let them peacefully go extinct again?

That’s an intriguing philosophical-biological question posed by J.A. Bayona’s film—whether it may finally be time to let these majestic, dangerous animals, coaxed back into the world by visionary, incautious humans, recede once more into history, where they almost assuredly belong. Universal Pictures is having none of that, of course, not after 2015’s Jurassic World made a gazillion dollars, re-invigorating a moribund series. But at least Fallen Kingdom considers the idea of letting go, making it a more thoughtful and interesting film than its immediate predecessor.

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Having Bayona behind the wheel, rather than Jurassic World director Colin Trevorrow (who has a writing credit on this one), helps on that front as well. While the first half of the film is a petty perfunctory rehash of 1997’s The Lost World, with poachers rounding up dinosaurs for profit and a little bit of sport, the second half of Fallen Kingdom does something nifty. Bayona revisits some aesthetics and moods from his lauded 2007 horror film The Orphanage by turning Fallen Kingdom into something of a spooky mansion movie, rainy and atmospheric and full of creeping shadows. It’s an unexpected reduction in scale and commitment to specificity, not what we often see in follows-up to smash hits. But these are proportions that Bayona knows how to work in, and from them he crafts something clever and goofy and jumpy. Of course he’s mandated to enlarge the purview of the film—or, really, of the franchise—by the end, but for a while there he gets to play around on his own terms. It’s a surprising delight.

Like King Kong, the Jurassic movies have to strike a careful balance, making us fear outsize monsters while also acknowledging audiences’ love for them. The first Jurassic Park nailed that pretty perfectly, awe and menace melding in an exciting kind of cautionary tragedy. The latter day Jurassic World films don’t have the patience for that, so they each conveniently create a new dinosaur that is unquestionably bad—something we can firmly root against while cheering on our other favorite dinos. The new ghoul built for Fallen Kingdom is a lean and toothy dragon of a thing, sans fire but engineered with hyper intelligence and pure killer instinct. I was sure I’d find this one as tiresome as I did the Indominus rex in Jurassic World, but because Bayona sets this new beast stalking around a big old house, rather than raging out in the open, he serves a worthy purpose, blankly evil as he may be.

The actors escaping his clutches are less integral to the story, but all get their jobs done just fine. Chris Pratt, at medium buff, returns as a raptor wrangler–slash–butt-kicker with a heart of gold, while Bryce Dallas Howard’s formerly cold corporate cynic has become a champion for dinosaur preservation. (There’s a cute little sight gag that announces, “She’s not wearing heels in this one!”) Joining them are Justice Smith as an irksomely timid computer nerd (why is his nervousness such a joke? Everyone should be terrified of these things!) and Daniella Pineda as a sardonic paleo-veterinarian. (“It’s a real thing,” she insists.) That great growler Ted Levine has fun as a mercenary big-game hunter, as does Rafe Spall as a shifty assistant to a dying titan (James Cromwell) who is shoehorned into the Jurassicmythology as a former business partner of the original film’s John Hammond (played by the late Richard Attenborough).

That new backstory invites in surely the strangest plot twist in Fallen Kingdom,which I won’t spoil here. But man, is it weird—or, at least, it’s weird that after it’s revealed, nobody stops what they’re doing and says, “Wait, what?!” Because it’s a pretty big deal, this thing, one with implications far graver and more far-reaching than a stegosaurus tromping through your backyard.

I suppose the series might grapple with all that in the inevitable sequel, which is shamelessly set up at the end of Fallen Kingdom with the help of an old fan favorite. I can’t say I’m all that eager to see what becomes of our prehistoric pals next, but at least their latest adventure gives them proper consideration. There’s a scene in Fallen Kingdom that will stay with me for a little while: a lone brontosaurus, standing on a shore nearly engulfed in ash and flame, stretching its long neck up to the sky and braying out a mournful plaint. In the context of the film, it’s supposed to be saying, “Come back, save me.” But I don’t know; I think it’s possible that, having had enough, this behemoth is actually saying goodbye. Watching it grandly fade into nothing, I found myself wishing that, for once, someone would honor its wishes.

(C)

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