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5 things to know about Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

The latest in the long-running Jurassic Park series has pretty direction, engaging performances, and a soulless center.

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom
Chris Pratt returns to hang out with the dinosaurs in Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom tries mightily, but it can’t escape the gravitational pull of the flaw that defines every Jurassic Park sequel: There’s no real reason for further movies in this particular universe.

The most natural plot for a Jurassic Park sequel — somebody goes to an island now overrun with dinosaurs after the theme park in the first movie failed — was the subject of both movie two (The Lost World) and movie three (the underrated Jurassic Park III). The first Jurassic World movie, released in 2015, started from the premise that the park was finally operational and entertaining tourists, but sooner or later, the dinosaurs gotta start eating people, so it just became an even nastier and more brutish spin on the first film.

There have been proposed sequels over the years involving the dinosaurs escaping to the mainland (though the “T. rex in San Diego” sequence in The Lost World exhausted much of the possibility there) and dinosaur commandos — seriously, this is a thing that almost existed — but “people go to an island and get eaten by dinosaurs” is a time-honored formula, and Universal is loath to mess with it.

That leaves Fallen Kingdom paying homage to almost all of these ideas. There’s an abandoned island with dinosaurs on it. There are dinosaurs in places dinosaurs should not be. There are even hints of weaponized dinosaurs being sold to the military. (This idea also came up in Jurassic World, but if you’re going to tease me with dinosaur commandos then give me dinosaur commandos.) Fallen Kingdom is better than Jurassic World, but mostly in the sense that it’s on the level of the first two sequels. If you didn’t like those, well, it’s doubtful you’ll like this.

But if you, like me, like to see dinosaurs eat people — and boy, do I! — then there are many dinosaurs and several people, and a bunch of those people get eaten. For some of us, that will be selling point enough. For everybody else, here are five additional things to know about Fallen Kingdom while you wait for our official review to drop closer to release.

1) Director J.A. Bayona knows how to push those monster movie buttons

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom
Dinosaur vs. the volcano.

Outside of Jurassic World’s Colin Trevorrow, the Jurassic Park franchise has a solid pedigree when it comes to terrific popcorn directors. The first two movies were directed by none other than Steven Spielberg, and the third featured the work of Joe Johnston of The Rocketeer and Captain America fame. Fallen Kingdom director J.A. Bayona fits well within that tradition.

Bayona is probably best known to American audiences for his 2012 film The Impossible, which earned Naomi Watts an Oscar nomination, and his 2016 kids’ movie A Monster Calls. But my favorite movie of his remains his 2007 ghost story, The Orphanage. Made in Spain and produced by horror maven Guillermo del Toro, The Orphanage is a beautifully creepy little movie about a woman who moves into a former orphanage and promptly starts to lose it. (Or does she?)

What’s strange is how Fallen Kingdom is most similar to The Orphanage in Bayona’s filmography, so much so that large portions of the movie amount to a haunted house movie featuring dinosaurs as the ghosts. Characters cower behind large objects and peek around corners, hoping not to catch a glimpse of certain death bearing down on them. They creep through darkened corridors, only to have loud noises or sudden bursts of light attract attention to them at the worst possible time. You can almost imagine a $10 million version of this, where the dinosaurs are barely seen and mostly suggested — kinda like The Orphanage.

As for computer effects, Bayona is best when he’s working on a small scale. Perhaps the most effective scare beat in the movie features a vicious bounty hunter — played by the always-welcome Ted Levine — leaning over a tranquilized dinosaur, with Bayona occasionally showing the tail twitching in the background of the frame just enough to let you know maybe this dinosaur isn’t as tranquilized as it seems.

He’s less effective when it comes to the gigantic sequences of dinosaurs racing off cliffs ahead of exploding volcanoes, or crowding in corridors like they’re in a live-action remake of We’re Back: A Dinosaur’s Story — but that uneasiness with big effects sequences is part of the story of promising directors being handed giant blockbusters in the 2010s.

Still, he’s got an eye for a gorgeous image, especially when it can involve smoke, shadow, or flame. There are a few shots in this movie that live up to Spielberg’s work on Lost World — technically stunning and fun to look at, but in service to a story so weak that they might end up being all you remember. Speaking of which ...

2) Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard acquit themselves nicely

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom
Her shoes are sensible this time!

A surprising amount of discussion about Jurassic World revolved around whether the fact that Bryce Dallas Howard’s soulless corporate shill Claire wore her high heels out into the jungle was sexist. On the one hand, yes, it was; on the other hand, the entire character arc set out for her was sexist, so complaining about the shoes felt like complaining about a single raindrop in a flood. It exemplified Trevorrow’s problems letting women be anything other than functionaries of the plot (a trend that has also been evident in his other two movies).

As a longtime Howard fan, I really did want to see her have more to do, and Fallen Kingdom (which, it should be said, boasts a script by Trevorrow and Derek Connolly, his frequent collaborator) at times comically overcorrects, like a performative male feminist on Twitter in 2014. The first shot of Claire features her shoes, but fuck you, they’re sensible! She’s still working with dinosaurs, but fuck you, she’s trying to save them from a volcano that threatens to destroy their island! And she’s no longer just there to fall in love with Chris Pratt’s Owen, but fuck you, she can still have a little crush on him! (Wouldn’t you?)

Fallen Kingdom flirts with making Claire its protagonist in a way Jurassic World probably just should have to begin with. (So much of this movie is overcorrection to the first one.) It ultimately loses its nerve and makes the protagonist “dinosaurs,” but Howard gets some fun moments on the way there, and the movie is better about giving her moments when she shows off her intelligence, her wit, and her sweet stick-shift driving abilities. Alas, she’s so naive about trusting people who are obviously going to double-cross her that it’s hard to invest in her journey. But at least the movie tries.

Now it’s Owen who has very little reason to be in this movie, except for Pratt being the bigger star. That said, Bayona realizes that the actor came to prominence as a comedy star for a reason, and he gives him one mid-movie physical comedy sequence that is funnier than anything in any other Jurassic Park movie. Does it fit with anything before or after it? Not really — but it’s funny!

There are other actors in the movie too, but both Justice Smith and Daniella Pineda are largely there to hang out with Claire and Owen and get story arcs so minimal the movie frequently forgets about them. Levine is great, as always, and even calls one character a “nasty woman” (hey, this movie was written in 2016!), while Toby Jones continues the vague “Is this about Trump?” commentary by wearing a truly glorious orange-ish toupee. Also Rafe “Never Trust a Character Played by Me” Spall is here. (Don’t trust him.) But the real stars of the movie are ...

3) The dinosaurs continue to gain personality

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

It’s axiomatic that in any long-running horror or horror-adjacent franchise, the villains will slowly take over the series.

Think of how Freddy Krueger went from an elemental, primal terror literally out of your nightmares to a wisecracking ghoul over the course of the Nightmare on Elm Street films. The monsters are the characters we’ve come to see; the heroes are just there to get ’et.

Fallen Kingdom continues Jurassic World’s trend of giving up even pretending audiences are there to see anything but the dinosaurs. After five movies, the T. rex now evokes the soulful pathos of seeing a once-beloved action star trying to keep up with the new kids, but with a little too much paunch. And Jurassic World addition Blue the Velociraptor is now essentially Owen’s daughter, given how lovingly the movie gazes upon him training her as a baby.

In some fundamental ways, this trend breaks the movies because if the dinosaurs are the heroes, then the humans around them need to be so comically evil and so comically inept that their only real story function is “be eaten.” Then again, these are people who keep genetically de-extincting dinosaurs, so maybe they deserve what’s coming to them.

All I’m saying is the most memorable shot of the movie is of a dinosaur slowly being engulfed in flame, dying a long, mournful death. The longest the movie spends on any one human being killed is when one of them is ripped in two by a pair of dinosaurs fighting over his corpse.

4) There’s a plucky child

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom
Hello, small child.

Why is there always a plucky child?

Look, on the one hand, I get it. These movies — and by that, I could mean the Jurassic Park movies or blockbusters in general — are made to be consumed by as large an audience as possible, which usually includes families. So if you want to keep the kids engaged, this thinking goes, toss in a couple of kids to be endangered by dinosaurs. Voila!

But has there been a single time this plot device has worked in a Jurassic Park movie? The first one comes closest, since the kids there at least knew a lot about dinosaurs and computers, but they still mostly existed to get in trouble and be rescued. (Points, though, for starring in the movie’s two best sequences — the T. rex attack and the velociraptors in the kitchen.)

No offense to young Isabella Sermon, who is quite good as this movie’s token plucky child, Maisie, but everything surrounding the character is a disaster of bad story decisions. There’s a (hugely predictable) major plot twist centered on her, which is meant to set up much of what happens in the film’s closing moments, and none of it lands. She barely even crosses the threshold of being a fun character for kids, since she spends a lot of the movie confined to her bedroom.

Here’s a free pitch, Hollywood: You want some plucky kids in your dinosaur movie? How about just redoing Lord of the Flies on Isla Nublar? A bunch of Girl Scouts crash land on the island and have to fight their way to the shore against dinosaurs. Some of them are eaten. Maybe there’s a dog. I don’t know. Call me.

5) Jeff Goldblum is barely in this thing

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom
Uhhh ... well ... er ... ah ... life finds a way.

A lot of the advertising for this movie has focused on the return of Dr. Ian Malcolm, breakout character of Jurassic Park, uneasy star of The Lost World, and vintage Jeff Goldblum character. What you need to know is that he is in two scenes and has maybe 80 seconds of screen time. You’re welcome.

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom arrives in theaters Friday, June 22, with special preview screenings Thursday, June 21.

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