At one point late in “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom,” a harried Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) asks Owen Grady (Chris Pratt), her romantic interest, whether he remembers the first time he saw one of John Hammond’s cloned dinosaurs. It was, she sighs, like a miracle.
Many viewers of “Jurassic Park,” the 1993 special effects extravaganza Steven Spielberg made from Michael Crichton’s bestselling potboiler, felt much the same way as Claire. They were amazed, and terrified, by the realistic prehistoric beasts in the movie, and made it a smash. But the magic plummeted in Spielberg’s inferior 1997 sequel “The Lost World,” and Joe Johnston’s 2001’s “Jurassic Park III” suggested that the franchise had little more to offer but tired repetition.
Then there was a lull until 2015, when “Jurassic World” appeared. It was basically a retread of the first “Park,” except that the dino-centric amusement park that in “Park” was but a glimmer in Hammond’s eye had now been built (as one character remarked, the lessons of the past installments—that the creatures could not be controlled—had been conveniently forgotten), and the place was filled with visitors who could serve as potential dino-dinner. Meanwhile the staff, headed by mad scientist Henry Wu (B.D. Wong), was busily engaged in genetically creating new, more interesting species to keep the crowds coming. Naturally things went awry, and much mayhem ensued, which Claire, then the manager of the place, and Owen, its resident dino-whisperer, survived.
Now we get the sequel to “World,” and the dinosaurs on the island that housed the abandoned amusement park are now an endangered species, with lots of discussion as to whether they should be killed, simply left to die, or rescued by those who argue that since man created them, he now has an obligation to care for them humanely. (One participant in the debate is Jeff Goldblum’s Dr. Ian Malcolm, who sagely testifies before a congressional committee about the danger of messing with Mother Nature.) The leader of the do-gooders who espouse the dino-cause is none other than Claire, who, after Congress declines to act, is approached by Benjamin Lockwood (John Cromwell), Hammond’s onetime partner, to help him collect the remaining dinosaurs for transport to a remote sanctuary he’s prepared, where they can romp about free of human interference.
Soon Claire enlists smart-alecky Owen to join her in an expedition to the island to locate the dinos, especially Grady’s beloved Blue, the ultra-bright velociraptor he’d bonded with. Accompanied by Zia Rodriguez (Daniella Pinenda), a so-called paleoveterinarian, and Franklin Webb (Justice Smith), a high-strung IT whiz, they join up with Ken Wheatley (Ted Levine), the gung-ho mercenary hired by Lockwood’s right-hand man Eli Mills (Rafe Spall) to oversee the dino-exodus by corralling the beasts and shipping them off to a supposedly better life.
Of course, Lockwood’s offer turns out not to be quite as benign as originally advertised, and the critters are intended for a rather different fate than Claire supposes. The result is that our four intrepid heroes find themselves back at the Lockwood estate, where they encounter a nefarious fellow named Gunnar Eversol (Toby Jones) who brings along with him some even more deplorable people, as well as Dr. Wu and his latest menacing creation. On a happier note, they also link up with Lockhood’s spunky granddaughter Maisie (Isabella Sermon), who has a soft spot for the dinosaurs, too. (Her presence, of course, checks off the franchise’s signature children-in-danger box.)
The visual effects are typically fine in “Fallen Kingdom,” but the thrill is gone. That’s immediately evident in a prologue, set partially underwater, of a crew trying to extract dinosaur bones for DNA; it’s murky in spots (one of the instances in which Oscar Faura’s cinematography loses focus), but more importantly, it simply fails to generate the big opening shock it’s obviously meant to. Throughout the VFX crew work overtime to make us squirm and scream—and the actors (especially Sermon) do likewise in the many scenes where they find themselves in peril—but even the most flamboyant moments feel fairly rote and ineffectual. Perhaps that’s explained by what seems to be director J.A. Bayona’s natural inclination toward restraint in the horror department, something that was also a factor in his previous films, including “A Monster Calls.”
Bayona’s tastes might also be behind the picture’s attempt to treat the dinosaurs in sympathetic terms, even when they chow down on humans; even at their worst, it seems, they’re the misunderstood result of man’s meddling. (It helps, of course, that their victims are always villainous types who deserve to be eaten—especially since they’re such a bland, generic bunch of baddies.) One of the most striking images in the film is of a hapless brontosaurus left behind on the island, mournfully moaning on the dock as it’s swallowed up in a billowing cloud of volcanic flame and smoke.
The most obvious example of the Good Dinosaur, however, is Blue, who by the close has evolved so markedly that she intervenes heroically when her friends are in danger. Blue is one of the critters that, as “Fallen Kingdom” ends, are not only alive but loose in the California countryside. It appears that this projected second “Jurassic” trilogy is heading in the direction of a dino-centric version of the template established by the recent “Planet of the Apes” franchise. As much as one might like dinosaurs, however, it’s unlikely that Blue can ever challenge Caesar in terms of empathy—not even if Andy Serkis takes over the role.