When the last film in your franchise earns nearly $1.7 billion worldwide, life (or rather studio executives), uh, find a way to make a sequel. Although 2015’s sequel/reboot Jurassic World reined in dino-sized piles of cash for Universal, the film’s approach rubbed some fans the wrong way, with its heavy-handed nostalgia and familiar narrative beats. Especially coming out the same year as similar franchise revivals like Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Creed, Jurassic World needed to set the stage for a film that would take the series in a radical new direction. And Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom does. Eventually.
The film’s plot centers on Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) and Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) reuniting for a mission to rescue the remaining dinosaurs from the imminent volcanic eruption on Isla Nublar, which would render the animals extinct (again). Between films, Claire has apparently become an activist for dino rights, and Owen is only drawn back into the fray because of his emotional connection to Blue, the sole surviving raptor from the events of Jurassic World. The latter motivation is far more convincing and essentially serves as a crystallization for the animal rights metaphor at the heart of Fallen Kingdom, one that results in some of the film’s most poignant moments.
That being said, the first half of Fallen Kingdom does adhere closely to the formula laid out by its predecessors. An orchestra-swelling sense of wonder regarding the dinosaurs? Check. Stock military and/or corporate villains? Check, check. A benevolent mission organized a wizened tycoon that goes awry? Check, check, check. We even basically get Indominous Rex redux in the form of another soulless hybrid dino-monster. This year’s model is called the Indoraptor, which is exactly what it sounds like. For a series that is all about evolution, Jurassic Park has sure had problems doing just that. So fans expecting (hoping for?) the same ol’, same ol’ will probably be relatively pleased by Fallen Kingdom for a while.
Then the film does something somewhat shocking. It cuts ties with everything you think you know about the Jurassic Park franchise, venturing into uncharted territory for, well, really the first time. It’s not clear whether longtime fans will bristle at this the same way Star Wars fans balked at The Last Jedi‘s unexpected twists and turns — it’s also not as successful as Rian Johnson’s film in reinvigorating its respective franchise — but director JA Bayona (A Monster Calls) finds a way to move beyond the confines of what Fallen Kingdom essentially appears to be. Though it doesn’t quite play into Bayona’s horror experience as expected, the film does embrace the implicit B-movie schlock of it all. After all, this franchise has struggled to execute its “island full of dinosaurs” conceit, theme park or not, for 25 years in an effort to recreate the magic of Steven Spielberg’s 1993 classic, a feat the filmmaker himself couldn’t pull off in The Lost World: Jurassic Park.
Fallen Kingdom shines most brightly when it doesn’t try to, when Bayona’s vision and that of executive producer/co-screenwriter and Jurassic World director Colin Trevorrow (who helped mapped out this new trilogy with Spielberg) tries something different. Sure, there are plenty of callbacks and direct homages to previous Jurassic films — including an unnecessary but effective Jeff Goldblum cameo — but Fallen Kingdom also features a handful of sequences unlike anything else in the series, including one divisive one that captures the perverse way in which the modern world views these creatures as mere commodities. Conversely, some of the best moments fall on the wackier side, such as Blue’s heroic brushes with death and a particular standout that sees one of the more insidious dinosaurs basically smirking at the camera before she strikes.
Of the performances, both Howard and Pratt are fine but unspectacular. The former doesn’t do as much running in heels as she did last time; so hopefully we can avoid all of that pedantic chatter this time around. And the latter returns to his slightly gruffer Star-Lord lite routine. The supporting players either fall into the unwitting shock and awe camp or fulfill all-too-familiar roles, like the Hammond-esque Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell) and the no-nonsense military leader (Ted Levine). The real find in Fallen Kingdom is young Isabella Sermon. In her first film role, the actress makes the most of her subplot and is a notable improvement over the half-baked kid-centric story in Jurassic World. Even though her storyline winds up being one of the most puzzling and undeveloped in the film, Sermon is certainly one to watch going forward.
Fallen Kingdom may not solve any of the problems some had with its predecessor — in fact, it doubles down on them in many cases — but at least it takes the franchise into a new direction. The question is whether what comes next will live up to that promise and if the awkward transitional phase that is Fallen Kingdom will ultimately prove to be worth it. The film throws a lot of ideas out there, and while not all of them stick, it represents a definite sign of growth, though fans who consider it all too little too late certainly are justified. For those willing to go along for the ride, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom squeaks by thanks to the self-awareness of what kind of film it wants to be and by sheer virtue of the fact that it ends with a better premise than it begins with.