“Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” opens underwater, as two intrepid contractors patrol a submersible in the depths of the Pacific Ocean. It’s eerie, it’s silent, and it’s presumably lousy with dormant Megalodons itching for a snack. How do we know this? The first line of movie gives it away. “Relax,” says one of the future dinosaur pellets. “Anything in there would be dead by now.”
That’s the kind of movie “Fallen Kingdom” is: a witless, intellectually hollow spectacle trading in self-conscious clichés and shopworn callbacks to the original “Jurassic Park.” A slow dolly on a character gazing wide-eyed at her first Brontosaurus? Check. The tired focus on a side-view car mirror, with its feeble warning that “objects”—aka dinosaurs—“in mirror are closer than they appear?” Check. The inevitable moment of pin-drop quiet in an interior setting, as a preying raptor lurks, waiting for one of our heroes to shift or sneeze? Check.
The 2015 reboot was not totally immune from these echoes either, but it had a scruffy, amiable nostalgia to it. I liked the first “Jurassic World” a great deal, in fact: For a blockbuster, it had genuine emotional gravitas and thematic sophistication. Read between the lines—and sometimes the lines themselves—and the movie functioned as a cautionary tale against genetically modified organisms, updated for a 21st century wokeness.
It also bristled with suspense that was carefully balanced with charm—two aspects that are absent in this passively engaging sequel. Of all the missed opportunities in Colin Trevorrow and Derek Connolly’s personality-starved screenplay, the failure to build on Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard’s Tracy-and-Hepburn chemistry tops the list. They’re so busy being slingshot from one apocalyptic scenario to another that the writing leaves little time for human connection.
The story picks up three years after the events of the first “Jurassic World.” Following the destruction of the theme park on the fictional isle of Nublar, hundreds of millions of dollars have been dispensed to victims’ families, and the protection of the dinosaurs still roaming the island has become a cause célèbre for animal-rights activists in the U.S.—especially with a volcano soon to erupt on Nublar.
A billionaire humanitarian with a connection the original Jurassic Park has a solution. Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell, in real life an animal-rights advocate), partner of Jurassic Park creator John Hammond, aims to make amends for his colleague’s Pandora’s-box folly by transporting the dinosaurs to their own tranquil remote island, free from tourism and the caprices of humanity. He enlists Claire Dearing (Howard), now heading a pro-dino nonprofit, to oversee the transfer; she, in turn, corrals her ex-boyfriend, animal behaviorist Owen Grady (Pratt), and a pair of young specialists from her office.
Taking place largely on the pulverized Nublar and in Lockwood’s cavernous mansion, “Fallen Kingdom” is rife with hidden intentions and double-crossing antagonists, each revelation duller than the last. It has an occasional point to make about the way we treat animals, and about how even the best technological intentions can be exploited by the military-industrial complex. But these soon become afterthoughts to the onslaught of action set pieces, as our heroes evade ever-more-compromising and inescapable situations, and the one-dimensional villains do not. (At one point, the screenwriters try inject a political pop-culture reference into the mix, linking the callous mercenary Ken Wheatley, played by Ted Levine, to Trump: When outclassed and outsmarted by a female character, he mutters, “What a nasty woman,” a reference to the 2016 campaign that feels instantly dated; in the advance screening this week, nobody responded to it.)
Director J.A. Bayona, unable to transcend the inertia of the screenplay, strums a familiar song with only the slightest variations: Once again, this “Jurassic” entry proves that captivity doesn’t work. Whether it’s a theme park, an island or a cage, the enterprising beasts will find a way out, and we will pay for our hubris. This is such old news that the headlines are barely visible—when they’re not being trampled by raptor claws.
There’s a three-quel in the works, of course, as “Fallen Kingdom” ends on an admittedly intriguing teaser. But next time, I won’t be entering it with my hopes up.
“Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” opens Friday in most area theaters.