The latest dinosaur romp abandons ’90s nostalgia and instead gets high on its own supply.
Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is a bad movie. It’s bland, uninspiring, and utterly soulless, a far cry from the effortless wonder that Steven Spielberg channeled into the classic original. In its best moments, it abandons its science-fiction roots and becomes something else entirely, namely a mediocre little haunted-house thriller that happens to be about a big toothy dinosaur. But one thing Fallen Kingdom isn’t is nostalgic. Where 2015’s unspeakably atrocious Jurassic World settled for an inferior franchise rehash, Fallen Kingdom quickly becomes something else entirely. Is it something better? Maybe.
It’s hard to precisely decide which Jurassic World film is worse. They’re both bad in their own special way, taking totally divergent paths towards the same common goal: a bizarre determination to make once-astonishing CGI dinosaurs completely and totally ordinary. Where Jurassic World has the barest scrap of a straightforward story structure (even if it is just the story structure of the original Jurassic Park), Fallen Kingdom is nearly narratively incoherent, jumping from save-the-dinosaurs eco-thriller to children’s haunted house adventure to weirdly inexpensive dinosaur auction without so much as a warning. Thanks to director J.A. Bayona, Fallen Kingdom also has a surfeit of style, even if that style is hung on a coat rack that’s missing all of its screws. Jurassic World looks like a car commercial. This looks like a movie, even if it feels like less of a movie.
Part of that strange feeling comes in the form of Fallen Kingdom’s peculiar use of iconography. Jurassic World trafficked in empty references to the original Jurassic Park, in Mr. DNA cameos and bright orange Jeeps. Fallen Kingdom doesn’t abandon that particular strain of hollow pandering — there are plenty of raptors opening doors and John Hammond name-drops here — but for the most part, it embraces something much different, and far more creatively stifling: It refers back to Jurassic World.
Fallen Kingdom picks up a few years after the Indominus Rex rampaged through the newly opened Jurassic World, but it plays its cards like it’s returning to a long-dormant franchise. Bayona treats an abandoned Margaritaville sign like J.J. Abrams treated a crashed Star Destroyer in The Force Awakens, lovingly panning over collapsed buildings as if trying to invoke some kind of nostalgia for a film that came out less than three years ago. The centerpiece action scene of the first act involves a Gyrosphere left over from the events of Jurassic World. That Gyrosphere is dead-center on the poster, and even dominated the film’s first trailer, surely pulling in all of those hardcore Gyrosphere fans who might have otherwise felt betrayed. It’s a tactic that doesn’t seem to be succeeding at the box office, and one that speaks to a longtime Hollywood trend: totally misjudging what an audience liked about a movie and doubling down on it in desperation.
Jurassic World was one of the biggest box-office surprises of the last five years, a movie with moderate buzz and a mediocre marketing campaign that managed to blow past The Avengers and briefly become the highest-grossing non-James Cameron movie in history. The film was expected to do moderately well, but not a single expert predicted numbers that high. And in the wake of its success, Universal and its competitors scrambled to determine how to duplicate it. Disney decided the X factor had to be director Colin Trevorrow and hired him to guide their new Star Wars trilogy to a close (So much for that idea). Meanwhile, Universal decided their best bet was zeroing in on Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard.
And don’t get me wrong: Chris Pratt is a box-office draw, and his inclusion in the first Jurassic World came on the heels of a star-making performance in 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy. But the reason Jurassic World did as well as it did wasn’t Pratt, or Trevorrow, or Ty Simpkins. It was dinosaurs.
People really like dinosaurs. And the Jurassic Park franchise has a literal monopoly on dinosaurs (unless you’re counting Transformer dinosaurs, I guess). More than 10 years after the last Jurassic Park movie, audiences were aching for dinosaurs. It’s the simplest explanation, but Fallen Kingdom is more interested in getting the gang of the first film back together than even entertaining the possibility that all that people want is dinosaurs.
The most difficult thing about building a film around references to Jurassic World, right down to the sinister genetically engineered dinosaur, is inherent in the concept: Jurassic World was already built around references to Jurassic Park. You can’t invoke nostalgia for a film that hasn’t even had the time or the cultural standing to create nostalgia in an audience, and you can’t continue to invoke nostalgia for a 25-year-old film that has been so milked of references that we’re reduced to treating glorified extra B.D. Wong like he’s a conquering hero returning to a trademark franchise. Fallen Kingdom makes time for an extended Jeff Goldblum cameo and then spends it on some pseudo-philosophizing about the events of Jurassic World. It paws at you desperately, trying to remind you how much you love Blue the velociraptor, and then twice repeats the same deus ex velociraptor, dino-on-dino action from the last film. It’s an ouroboros of unoriginality, a punishing and dull experience that just leaves you desperate for a time when dinosaurs were special.
The film ends with a promise that next time will be different, but not even the image of pteranodons circling Las Vegas is enough to make this franchise feel fresh again. It’s just a fresh coat of paint on a park that’s long been creatively bankrupt. Like the ill-fated scientists of Jurassic World with their dino DNA options, Hollywood is running out of IP to resurrect. Soon, their only options will be corpses that were already resurrections in the first place.