By Preston Wilder
Are dinosaurs cute? Well, they’re no bunny rabbits. Scaly, bony, lizard-looking creeps is more like it. Still, little boys feel a certain affection for the dinosaur toys on their bedroom dressers – and it’s all about the dinosaur toys, if we’re talking Jurassic Park and Jurassic World. Even John Williams’ music for the 1993 original was a lilting, poignant thing, quite unlike his pulse-pounding themes for Superman or Raiders of the Lost Ark; turns out there’s a grandeur to the beasts, which may operate as a more awesome version of cuteness. The first time you see a dinosaur is “like a miracle,” marvels Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) in Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom.
And the umpteenth time? Is it still so miraculous? Obviously not, and franchise fatigue is a problem in this sometimes-striking blockbuster – but Fallen Kingdom takes a new tack by viewing dinosaurs not as monsters but endangered species, on a par with the giant panda. The plot kicks off with the island inhabited by the man-made dinos from Jurassic World (2015) about to be destroyed by a volcanic eruption, and Claire – who heads an NGO called the Dinosaur Protection Group – determined to save them; the fate of these creatures has become “the animal-rights issue of our time,” says a TV presenter. Jurassic World was about control, especially corporate control; Fallen Kingdom is about compassion.
It’s not the most suitable theme. Dinosaurs, as already mentioned, aren’t cute, they’re terrifying; any sane society would be glad to see the back of them. The one exception is ‘Blue’, the smart super-raptor who bonded with Owen (Chris Pratt) in World; she’s a dino who shows – yes – compassion, a clear sign of high intelligence (when Owen pretends to be weak, she doesn’t attack, she comforts him). Still, the monster-from-Mensa angle is bound to be a red herring; no-one goes to a dinosaur movie for inter-species companionship, they go to see people getting chomped – and Fallen Kingdom admits as much in the extended climax, where the critters revert to type and eat most of the bad characters while carefully avoiding the nice ones.
That finale is actually a weak link, partly because director J.A. Bayona (who made A Monster Calls and the Asian-tsunami drama The Impossible) doesn’t have a Spielberg’s flair for action – but also because the dinos look too similar. Everybody knows a brontosaurus from a triceratops (they’re the Loch Ness monster and the rhino-with-a-horn, respectively) – but the creatures here, the allosaurus and indoraptor and indeed ‘Blue’ herself, are mostly variations on the T-Rex model of giant lizards with big teeth. It’s a lack of imagination that permeates the rest of the movie, which suffers mightily from reason-to-exist syndrome: Jurassic World was a grand reboot of the dinosaur franchise after 14 long years – but Fallen Kingdom is just a bid to cash in on the unexpected success of Jurassic World.
As usual, the best bits are on the fringes – in the real-world ideas reflected in the movie – while the action, though exciting in parts and boasting one excellent set-piece (the escape from the island), is afflicted with repetitive moves and a steady stream of ‘Really?’ questions. (Really? That truck was just sitting there without a driver, and with the key in the ignition?… Really? They didn’t give the T-Rex enough tranquillisers to ensure it would stay asleep while being transported?) If the film is worth seeing at all – and I guess it is, though I wouldn’t watch it again – it’s mostly for its echoes of a world where genetic engineering (of animals, and even humans) increasingly looks like a fait accompli. The single most chilling moment comes near the end, in the suggestion that clones might eventually work in solidarity with each other, placing other clones above humans and changing our world into one that suits them better.
The film needed more such moments, though it’s bound to be a hit anyway. Much of it feels secondhand: an ‘eww, gross’ bit with Owen getting slimed by a triceratops, a Jeff Goldblum cameo as franchise talisman Dr. Malcolm, Toby Jones as an evil one-percenter with what sounds like a speech impediment, Justice Smith saddled with a manic-nerd routine as a timid techie. “Back for more, huh?” quips Mr. Pratt – and I guess we are, but you have to wonder what comes next for this played-out franchise.
Actually it’s clear from the ending what comes next, at least in the minds of studio executives: an endlessly malleable monster-movie template with dinosaurs loose in the world, in the versatile style of, say, Godzilla. I imagine future instalments trying to mix it up a little, placing the beasts in various unlikely settings, just as Fallen Kingdom opens underwater: dinos in Vegas, dinos in a war zone, dinos at the Natural History Museum. There’s a lot you can do with dinosaurs – but they’ll still be dinosaurs, and that’s always going to be a limiting factor. The giant-panda thing? Not gonna happen.
DIRECTED BY J.A. Bayona
STARRING Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Rafe Spall
US 2018 128 mins