There are few movie series that embody their tag line more than Jurassic Park. “Life finds a way” perfectly describes a franchise that opened with an all-time classic and followed it up with the worst movie Steven Spielberg has ever directed and a fun third entry that still somehow managed to reduce Tea Leoni to a shrieking peril klaxon. Even Jurassic World, which should have been a slam dunk, managed to stumble into some weird evolutionary dead ends: Claire running through the jungle in high heels. Owen being a just staggeringly unlikable leading man. The weird, violent glee it took in killing Katie McGrath’s character, Zara. For every evolutionary step forward, Jurassic World took two back. But it still landed well enough to get a sequel. Life still found a way.
And the good news is that Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is far better than at least two of its predecessors, and may just be the second best movie in the franchise. There’s still a precipitous drop off between the original Jurassic Park and that number two slot but Fallen Kingdom makes a strong play for it, and breaks surprising new ground in the process…
Directed by J.A. Bayona, Fallen Kingdom picks up three years after Jurassic World. The catastrophic events of the previous movie have closed the park for good, and it’s reverted to a wild ecology where the dinosaurs mingle and fend for themselves. But Isla Nublar’s dormant volcano is not dormant anymore, and now the dinosaurs face extinction for a second time. Claire, now head of a dinosaur advocacy group, is approached by Eli Mills, a representative of John Hammond’s silent partner, Sir Benjamin Lockwood. They can save at least eleven species of dinosaur, if they go now. But to make sure that Blue the raptor is one of them, Claire is going to need Owen, too…
So let’s rip the band-aid off. When the movie doesn’t work—something that happens at several points in the film—it really doesn’t work. The opening scene features the most hilariously half-arsed corporate commandoes in recent movie history. Toby Jones and Ted Levine play epically terrible characters, a Trumpian arms dealer and cretinous redneck big game hunter, who bring the movie to a juddering halt every time they’re onscreen, which is far too often. Justice Smith plays a nerd character so stereotypical it’s like he’s fallen through a hole in time from 1990. He’s also written out of the movie—along with the excellent Daniella Pineda as Zia, a magnificently unflappable dinosaur veterinarian—for basically an entire act. This choice is almost certainly not a conscious effort to make sure the non-white cast members never grab the spotlight, but it sure as hell feels like it at times. Especially when you remember that while Owen returns for this movie, his partner in Jurassic World, played by Omar Sy, does not.
Speaking of the main cast, Bryce Dallas Howard’s blockbuster curse may finally be broken. After years of being treated dismally by every genre movie she’s been in (Terminator: Salvation and Spider-Man 3 both spring to mind, however desperately I wish they didn’t), she gets an actual, honest-to-god arc here. Claire as a dinosaur advocate feels realistic and earned. She’s determined, guilt-ridden, and completely willing to do what needs to be done. Plus, there’s no “yeah, but women aren’t complete unless they’re mothers” plot this time! Win!
Owen is still pretty unlikable, but there are some real attempts made to humanise him in this film. Like Claire, he’s faced with the consequences of his actions and, unlike Claire, is given a parental plot that makes perfect sense. His relationship with Blue is actually moderately emotionally charged and gives the film a couple of its best moments. Throw in a bunch of physical action that really plays like Pratt’s auditioning to be the new Indiana Jones and you’ve got a male lead that’s still a tenth as charming as he thinks he is, but far more charming than the last time he was on screen. If he can go an entire movie next time without negging Claire then we might even have a real winner.
So looked at this way: Fallen Kingdom is a flawed, mostly fun blockbuster that continues the slow process of steering of the franchise back on track. But it’s also vital to note that there are a few moments along the way that hint at something truly great slowly, but surely, growing in the franchise’s labs.
[Spoilers for the end of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom follow…]
Bayona has an instinctive understanding of the scale and power of the dinosaurs that almost no other director in the series has shown, and that’s never more evident than in the way the film uses the Brachiosaurus population of the island. The “veggiesaurus” from the original movie shows up three times in this latest installment, and two of these scenes are perfect. The first is when one of the dinosaurs marches serenely through the frame, completely unconcerned with the military convoy at its feet and the characters just stop and stare in wonder at this magnificent, ridiculous animal. It’s a subtle, even poignant callback to the initial dinosaur reveal in the first movie and is shot through with the same wonder and sense of power.
The second time is much harder to sit through. As the pyroclastic cloud from the eruption sweeps across the island, the humans barely escape. A Brachiosaurus isn’t so lucky. Trapped on the dock, the colossal animal yells mournfully as the cloud envelopes her. We see a flash, we see her fall in silhouette and we see Claire’s face, streaked with tears. The message is simple; the park is dead, and so is the spirit of innocence and wonder that drove its best intentions, embodied in the massive, serene veggiesaurus.
The third time we see these dinosaurs is… odd. We’ll get to that in a moment, but first, we need to talk about the new ground the movie breaks—because the way that life finds here is both utterly new for the franchise and deeply surprising.
The script, by Colin Trevorrow and Derek Connolly, cleverly and quite literally grandfathers its new characters into place. The big third act reveal is that Lockwood and Hammond fell out when Lockwood used their genetics technology to clone his dead daughter, creating the young girl who is now his “granddaughter” Maisie (played very capably by Isabella Sermon). It’s a smartly handled idea, and one that both excuses and provides necessary context for the changes the movie makes. More importantly, this reveal carries us to the moment that catapults the entire franchise out into entirely new territory.
The genetics technology, as explained by Doctor Ian Malcolm in a pair of bookending monologues, can’t be controlled now. The results of it can’t be constrained, either, and the movie ends with the idea of creating dinosaur hybrids dead, but the dinosaurs themselves back in the wild. Many are sold to dealers for experimentation, hunting, or breeding. The remainder are set free in a scene that, on first glance, I really didn’t like—but the more I think about it, the more I think it may be the best thing the franchise has ever done.
After the closing fight, the holding pens for the unsold dinosaurs begin to be flooded with poisonous gas. Claire is faced with an impossible choice: release the dinosaurs into the wild and change the world forever or preside over their second extinction.
She doesn’t push the button. She makes the choice to let the dinosaurs die so that the world can be spared as much of the untidy biological singularity they represent as possible.
Maisie pushes the button instead.
At first this massively annoyed me. It felt like the latest in the long line of terrible choices this franchise has always made with its female leads. However, the more I think about it, the more this ending impresses me. Claire gets her big moment—she gets to make the difficult moral choice to let the dinosaurs die. The fact that they’re released anyway doesn’t invalidate or take away from her choice, but it does shift the lens of the movies solidly to Maisie and her generation. From here on out, children will be born into a world where two eco-systems are fighting for dominance, where dinosaurs aren’t a tourist attraction but a real, and present, threat, as well as asset. Owen and Claire helped make Jurassic World. But it’s Maisie, born from the same technology, who truly unleashes it. And the fact that a Brachiosaurus is seen in the resulting triumphant stampede suggests that the original spirit of the park remains alive. Yes, the world will be redder in tooth and claw than it’s ever been before. But dinosaurs are real. And now, dinosaurs are everywhere.
And ultimately that’s why Fallen Kingdom works. It’s scrappy, untidy—tonally, it’s wildly uneven (Levine’s character either has the best or worst death scene in the franchise and I still cannot decide which it is), but it’s never less than interesting. Whether it’s Bayona’s brilliant use of scale in presenting the dinosaurs or Claire flat out refusing to lie down and be rescued, the film is always reaching for something more, something better. It sometimes doesn’t entirely grasp it, but the effort is unmistakable, and the end result is far more fun than I was expecting. Better still, the stage is set for a third movie that, if it continues to build upon and subvert the mistakes of its predecessors, may finally see this franchise truly rise from the near-extinction of the original sequels. After all, as we’ve been told, life finds a way.
Alasdair Stuart is a freelancer writer, RPG writer and podcaster. He owns Escape Artists, who publish the short fiction podcasts Escape Pod, Pseudopod, Podcastle, Cast of Wonders, and the magazine Mothership Zeta. He blogs enthusiastically about pop culture, cooking and exercise at Alasdairstuart.com, and tweets @AlasdairStuart.