“Do you remember the first time you saw a dinosaur?” says Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard), returning from 2015’s Jurassic World having ditched the corporate career (she now heads up a dinosaur-protection group) and with it those goddamn heels. “The first time… it’s like a miracle.”
Such is the problem that each new Jurassic movie faces – no matter how ILM’s effects continue to improve, no matter how dark (The Lost World: Jurassic Park) or rollicking-fun-in-a-fanboy-kinda-way (Jurassic World) the franchise gets, and no matter how much artistry a filmmaker brings (there are savagely beautiful shots in J. A. Bayona’s Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom), you just can’t recapture the wide-eyed wonder provided by a Brachiosaurus craning its neck to nibble at some leaves. Or, indeed, replicate the thrilling terror of a lunging, roaring T-rex chasing after a jeep.
Bayona, to be fair, gives it his best shot, opening with a shiver-shudder set-piece that immediately reminds us that this is the guy who made The Orphanage. Set at the now-derelict, overgrown Jurassic World theme park on Isla Nublar, it cuts between two guys in a submersible inching their way through the murky waters where the gigantic Mosasaurus once wowed punters, and, on land, a bloke in a yellow rain slicker trying to mend some electrics. Rain lashes, lightning pulses, and terrible beasts are glimpsed before all hell breaks loose in a stroboscopic shit-show.
The plot and characters are not quite so thrilling. The first Jurassic World was designed to launch a three-film arc; so we’re back with raptor wrangler Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) and the aforementioned Claire. The pair are tempted back to Isla Nublar for more running and screaming by an extinction-level event: the island’s pesky volcano has gone all Dante’s Peak on the dinos. US Congress, advised by Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum in an all-too-fleeting cameo), has opted to let nature run its course, so it’s up to John Hammond’s start-up partner Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell) to save the day by flying in our bickering protagonists and a squad of tough-but-tender guys to coral the creatures. An idyllic sanctuary awaits: “No fences, no cages, not tourists… just as Mother Nature intended,” purrs Lockwood’s right-hand-man Eli Mills (Rafe Spall).
The tough-but-tender guys, led by Wheatley (Ted Levine), of course turn out to be plenty tough but not so tender, and the first half of Fallen Kingdom plays out similarly to The Lost World: dinos roaming free; good guys oohing and aahing and administering aid; bad guys snarling and firing tranqs. Now, 25 years and four films on from Jurassic Park, it’s standard stuff, the beasts no longer miracles and the humans bland. “You’re a better man than you think you are,” says Claire to Owen. “You should write fortune cookies,” comes the reply – one of the better lines in the movie but also drawing attention to how Fallen Kingdom’s dialogue exists inside speech bubbles.
Thankfully, the central set-piece is spectacular, with the volcano blowing and every beast on the island hightailing it from gliding lava and colliding fireballs. It culminates in a shot of terrible beauty, its poignancy recalling the sight of Kong tumbling from the Empire State Building. It also reminds us that Bayona is here making a monster movie: the second half of Fallen Kingdom, which relocates to Lockwood’s gothic mansion, is all scares and soul. Bayona, don’t forget, is the man who also made adult fairytale A Monster Calls, and no Jurassic movie has before conjured such feeling for the animals, with myriad close-ups of eyes the size of hubcaps offering windows to their souls.
The exception being man-made mutant the Indoraptor. Fallen World’s beast in show, this test-tube titan is a splice of the series’ trusty Velociraptor and Jurassic World’s Indominus rex, a lithe, fiercely intelligent predator with a high-frequency roar and spidery talons like Nosferatu’s – all the better for making evil shadows on walls, creeping out from behind billowing drapes and tip-tapping claws over a child’s bedsheets. Spielberg himself has a kinship for the horror genre (as well as making Duel and Jaws, he produced Poltergeist, Gremlins and Arachnophobia), and he, like us, will surely get a kick out of the, ahem, scaled-down, suspenseful sequences that dominate Fallen World’s second half.
And with a crafty ending suggesting the third instalment will bring all-out, Planet Of The Apes-alike war, it appears that life does indeed find a way: another Jurassic World movie is an exciting prospect. Now that’s a miracle.