“Do you remember the first time you saw a dinosaur?” In Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, that question serves as a way for Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard), the doomed theme park’s former manager, to entice its former dinosaur trainer, Owen (Chris Pratt), to return. But it’s also a naked appeal to the audience’s nostalgia—and, not surprisingly, a centerpiece of the movie’s early trailers—an invitation to step into the wayback machine and propel ourselves back a quarter-century, to a time before three increasingly uninspired sequels had drained the original Jurassic Park of its magic. The then-revolutionary computer effects that let Steven Spielberg conjure up a herd of galloping Gallimimus have since become standard, so commonplace that we no longer wonder “How did they do that?” because we assume we already know. Fallen Kingdom asks us to marvel again at that miracle of creation, and to appreciate anew both its beauty and its dangers.
The return trip starts literally, with Claire and Owen, accompanied by Justice Smith’s wheezy computer whiz and Daniella Pineda’s sharp-tongued dino vet, heading back to Isla Nublar on
a last-ditch rescue mission to remove the Cretaceous creatures from the path of an erupting volcano. But Colin Trevorrow and Derek Connolly’s script then shifts the scene to a sprawling Gothic mansion owned by the dying Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell), the (heretofore extremely silent) partner of the park’s original founder. As he nears his own extinction, Lockwood is concerned with shoring up his legacy, and a ground floor tricked out with dinosaur dioramas and a triceratops skull isn’t enough to leave for future generations. Beneath his ersatz Museum of Natural History is the underground facility where dinosaurs were first brought back to life, and beneath that is a series of cages to hold the rescued animals. (Needless to say, they get loose.) If that sounds like a secret laboratory on top of a dungeon, well, you’re getting a sense of why J.A. Bayona was brought in to direct this installment.
With The Orphanage, The Impossible, and A Monster Calls, Bayona has established himself as a skilled director of both horror and action who has no compunction about putting children through the emotional wringer, either on screen or, should they happen to find their way into the theater, in the audience. He’s a craftsman with no moral sense, able to chart a white family’s efforts to survive a tsunami with heart-racing exactitude, yet uninterested in the hundreds of thousands of Thai victims dying just outside the frame. But that ruthless vacancy is unexpectedly apt for a movie in which the humans are less sympathetic than ever. Fallen Kingdom understands that, as much as Jurassic Park has the shape of an action movie, its roots are in horror, and Bayona takes evident glee in drawing out his scares. The Trevorrow-directed Jurassic World was purely sadistic, feeding its characters to pterodactyls for the sheer pleasure of hearing them scream, but Bayona savors the creak of a ravenous monster’s foot on a wooden floorboard, or the way lightning etches its scaly silhouette against a rain-slicked roof. He wants us to enjoy feeling bad.
Bayona has his sadistic side, too. At one point the movie sets a thick-skulled stygimoloch loose in a crowd and treats the bodies it tosses around like weightless video game avatars. Lockwood’s tween granddaughter, Maisie (Isabella Sermon), is part plot complication and part scream machine, there to be terrified and saved but never established as a character in her own right. (She’s Fallen Kingdom’s Newt.) In general, Bayona’s not much interested in human beings when they’re not running for their lives: He manages the nigh-impossible feat of sucking all the charm out of Chris Pratt, and he can’t be bothered to treat the movie’s villains, a warped idealist (Rafe Spall), a rogue capitalist (Toby Jones), and a gruff mercenary (Ted Levine), as if they’re anything but recycled types. More care went into designing the Indoraptor, a bespoke superpredator spliced together from bits of the past movies’ carnivores, than any of the people who end up in its gullet.
It would be easy to see Fallen Kingdom as the movie equivalent of the Indoraptor, a synthetic contraption assembled from the movies that preceded it, and though Bayona has Spielberg’s knack for finding an image that makes you chuckle at its perfection even as your amygdala throbs in fright, you’re always aware that it’s Spielberg’s knack and not his own. But no movie’s DNA is unique, and better a new hybrid than a straightforward clone.