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Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is the feel-bad blockbuster of the summer

Somebody’s headed for extinction. It should probably be us.

A dinosaur roars at Owen (Chris Pratt) in Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom.
He’s baaaaaack.
Universal Pictures
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

In 2018, it feels like the main function of a blockbuster is to entice you to buy a ticket to the sequel, with ongoing franchises becoming a sort of unending movie matryoshka.

Even by those standards, though, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom feels like a bridge movie, a way of getting the concept behind the whole franchise from one location to a much bigger one, with much higher thematic and moral stakes. Judging from the title — with the previous installment, we moved from a Park to a World — it’s a necessary step, though I found myself wishing it hadn’t taken them two entire Jurassic World movies to get to whatever will come next.

Viewed through that lens, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is pretty okay. Its humans are as head-smackingly dense as they were the last time around, and its plot points still swing on a pendulum that moves from hackneyed clichés to unforced plot holes and back again.

But it’s got just enough surprise in it to keep things interesting. Eventually it spirals into “gothic horror, except with dinosaurs,” a concept I personally can get behind. Even if it continues to insist on the romantic pairing of Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard, the couple with the least screen chemistry in the history of time, it does lack the weird, pointless misogyny of its predecessor, 2015’s Jurassic World.

Most of all, though, Fallen Kingdom understands the moral weight of the setup it’s been handed by the previous five movies. Even when it stumbles as a film, it has a definite point of view on what a humanity callous enough to revive a species for its own pleasure and inquiry ought to experience in return.

Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom.
Jeff Goldblum, alas, only very briefly appears in Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom.
Universal Pictures

The dinosaurs are back, and they need rescuing

In the days before the film’s release, a three-year-old story from Entrepreneur resurfaced on the internet: “Scientists Say They Can Recreate Living Dinosaurs Within the Next 5 Years.” Theoretically that means we’re about two years out, but the joke, of course, is that we really ought to know better. We have the Jurassic franchise to warn us about the dangers of not just playing God but commercializing our frolics as well.

Fallen Kingdom leans hard into that aspect of the series. If you’d ever harbored delusions that the dinosaurs and humans could coexist peacefully, Fallen Kingdom is here to wipe those out. In fact, the film suggests, it might just be better altogether if humanity gets wiped out too.

The film picks up a few years after the end of Jurassic World, as a volcano on Isla Nublar is about to blow, and a battle is raging in public opinion and in Congress (surprise, surprise) over whether the dinosaurs there should be rescued from their imminent destruction. Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) is busily trying to get Congress to release funds that would aid in saving the doomed dinos when she’s approached by a man representing Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell), a partner of the original park’s founder.

He lives with his granddaughter Maisie (Isabella Sermon) in a shadowy mansion in Northern California that seems to have been constructed in the 19th century and then sort of frozen in time. It’s got a tiled, multi-peaked roof and a dumbwaiter and a collection of dinosaur skeletons that makes it look like a natural history museum left behind by a Victorian naturalist. And there’s a dungeon below — yes, a dungeon — with curiously dinosaur-size cells and, unexpectedly, a state-of-the-art lab.

A scene from Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom
It’s a very, very shady house.
Universal Pictures

Lockwood contacts Claire through his emissary, telling her he wants to save the dinosaurs through private philanthropy and move them to a wildlife sanctuary, away from the volcano’s path. There’s a hitch: They need to get to the park on Isla Nublar — closed since the events of Jurassic World — and rescue the animals, and for that, they’re going to need the help of Owen (Chris Pratt).

Claire finally locates him building a house in the wilderness (seriously, no male character in any blockbuster has ever been as predictable as charmless Owen) and convinces him to come, accompanied by a vet who specializes in prehistoric creatures (Daniella Pineda) and a scaredy-cat tech-whiz kid (Justice Smith). What they discover when they get to Isla Nublar will not particularly shock you: Everything is not as it seems.

Luckily, that all happens rather quickly, and by about 40 minutes into the movie’s two-hour runtime, we’ve moved permanently back to Lockwood’s estate in California. That’s when the movie starts to get interesting.

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is not very optimistic about humanity’s survival

As with its predecessor, Fallen Kingdom feels the need to have its characters make very bad choices — at one point, one of the bad guys decides he’s just going to saunter into the cage holding what he thinks is a dead but deadly dinosaur and pull out a tooth for his trophy collection. And a “twist” that’s more or less telegraphed through a megaphone early on carries such low stakes that it seems completely pointless.

But there’s some merit to Fallen Kingdom too. We saw dinosaurs-on-the-island in four successive movies, and each of those movies became more and more of an adventure film laced with sci-fi. They all had exciting sequences, but the visceral horror that accompanied the first Jurassic Park movie was gone.

Chris Pratt chills with Blue in Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom
Chris Pratt chills with Blue in Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom.
Universal Pictures

That’s what Fallen Kingdom brings back. Director J.A. Bayona made The Orphanage, The Impossible, and A Monster Calls, bleak but lush films that lean unexpectedly hard into their darkness and don’t resort to typical Hollywood pablum when confronting things like guilt, despair, and death.

So he’s a good match for Fallen Kingdom, which is, at its core, a movie about the very heavy topic of extinction. Who deserves to go extinct, and who gets to decide the answer to that question? From the start, the film asks whether dinosaurs deserve the same protections from humans as other endangered species, since it is humans who brought them back to life in the first place.

The film continues to play with that notion throughout: If we’re the ones who revived them, are dinosaurs then here for our use? Or is the mere fact that we revived them for our own use — as creatures to gawk at and experiment on — enough to damn our own species? A typical Hollywood answer to this (see virtually any apocalyptic sci-fi movie of the past decade) is that humans will find redemption in their care for one another. Love saves us.

But Fallen Kingdom isn’t so sure about that. Like a few other recent films (the new Planet of the Apes trilogy in particular), the movie seems to suggest we may have engineered our own extinction, and that may be what we deserve. There’s always been an element of moral questioning to the Jurassic movies, but in Fallen Kingdom — which even in its name seems to be making a roundabout allusion to the erstwhile Garden of Eden — that question becomes more of an answer. We did wrong, and we should suffer for it.

So this is not a “humanist” movie, and we’re not supposed to feel particularly good about it. It’s staged as a horror film to draw on our feelings of revulsion, especially toward some of the wickedest characters in the film — and one in particular, who’s both egomaniacal and an idiot (and drops an eye-rolling line about another character being a “nasty woman”). As in other movies in the franchise, people and creatures get ripped apart and eaten, but the staging ratchets up the gothic horror stakes; at one point, a dinosaur stands on the roof of the mansion in a nighttime lightning storm and roars at the sky, looking precisely like a gargoyle come to life.

Since gothic horror has always been interested in who gets to be considered human and what role our own mortality plays in the answer to that question, it’s a good vehicle for Fallen Kingdom. It seems unlikely that the next film in the series will continue to play with those same tropes, but if the filmmakers are smart, they’ll recognize that the best way to think about the future of humanity isn’t as a sci-fi thriller. If we really are going to get the message about playing God for profit, then the Jurassic series needs to keep embracing the horror at its core.

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom opens in theaters on June 22.