Dinosaurs: Keep them alive or kill them off? It’s a question that haunts the human characters in between fireball-dodging cardio workouts in “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom.” It’s a spectacularly ho-hum new entry in Hollywood’s longest-running parable about the fatal idiocy of messing with Mother Nature.
At this point in the game — five films deep in a franchise that has grossed more than $2 billion worldwide over a quarter-century — that question might seem less applicable to the dinosaurs than to the movies themselves.
One of the minor pleasures of this series is that it has begun to provide a running commentary on its own existence.
“Jurassic World” (2015), named for a doomed dinosaur theme park on the remote Isla Nublar, tried to enliven its jaw-snapping, earth-trampling proceedings with a strain of self-reflexive humor. The movie, directed and co-written by Colin Trevorrow, poked cynical fun at the mercenary nature of the Hollywood assembly line — basically offering a pre-emptive apology for falling so far short of “Jurassic Park,” Steven Spielberg’s peerless 1993 adaptation of Michael Crichton’s best-seller.
The task of directing “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” has landed in the more confident hands of J.A. Bayona, an expert craftsman who handles scenes of large-scale destruction (“The Impossible”) and intimate, squirm-inducing horror (“The Orphanage”) with equal ease. Both of those action-movie modes come into play here. However, they can’t prevail over the screenplay, a laborious and predictable narrative contraption from Trevorrow and his regular writing partner Derek Connolly.
Still, the writers have made some welcome adjustments right off the bat. The earlier movie’s smirking self-regard and wall-to-wall product placements are largely absent, as is the tired, ugly spectacle of bloodstained tourists fleeing en masse.
Former park employee Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard), previously seen running in high heels from an Indominus Rex, has packed some much more sensible footwear this time around, and her character overall has been conceived along less insultingly vapid lines. Action-wise, she still takes a back seat to her sparring partner and erstwhile love interest, Owen Grady, played again by that muscly charmer Chris Pratt.
ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT
The abandoned park remains a vast, crumbling ruin, albeit a more visually stunning one than ever. That’s because the whole joint is about to be swallowed up by Isla Nublar’s conveniently reactivated volcano, and Universal Pictures appears to have been especially magma-nimous with regard to the CGI lava budget.
All that fire-belching mayhem is accompanied by some similarly explosive moral hand-wringing: Are these genetically engineered dinosaurs entitled to the same U.S. government protections extended to other endangered species? No, argues chaos theorist Ian Malcolm (franchise mainstay Jeff Goldblum, back for a quick cameo).
But Claire and Owen launch their own daring counter-argument, returning to Isla Nublar at the request of aging billionaire Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell), a former colleague of John Hammond (the late Richard Attenborough) and his fellow mastermind behind the original Jurassic Park experiment. Their mission will be to rescue as many of the surviving dinosaurs as possible — including Blue, the extraordinarily intelligent and empathetic velociraptor whom Owen trained as a hatchling — and relocate them to another island sanctuary.
Nothing goes according to plan.
The cataclysmic destruction of Isla Nublar does bring about at least one significant change in direction: After four movies’ worth of lush island backdrops, “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” finally gets the dinosaurs off the coast and onto the mainland, with their well-meaning protectors, money-grubbing exploiters and wretched victims following suit.
Halfway through, the movie effectively turns into “Jurassic Manor,” and the change of scenery is not unwelcome. Certainly there’s no shortage of action-staging areas and hiding places on the sprawling Lockwood estate, including a high-ceilinged gallery of dinosaur fossils that harks back to the chase-thriller pleasures of the original “Jurassic Park.”
It’s possible to watch this movie, in other words, and feel that the series is carving out a new direction, returning to its ancient stamping grounds and sticking to a familiar holding pattern, all at the same time. Such is the repetitive, rudderless nature of so much big-budget franchise filmmaking, even with a proven talent like Bayona behind the camera.
These movies will go on and on, but some of us are still waiting for them to evolve.
WHAT: “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom”
CAST: Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, James Cromwell, Ted Levine, Justice Smith
RUN TIME: 130 min.
RATED: PG-13, for intense sequences of science-fiction violence and peril
WHERE: Marcus Wehrenberg, Westdale 12 in Cedar Rapids, Coral Ridge Cinema in Coralville, Sycamore Cinema in Iowa City