‘Twas a dark and stormy night… not unlike the one in Jurassic Park.
The dilemma facing any Jurassic franchise director is how to add anything new. Like the customers of Clare’s destroyed dino park, we’ve forgotten the first time we saw live dinosaurs; and we too want them bigger, with more teeth.
We tut at the hubris of the billionaires behind the prehistoric theme parks, to the extent that even those who seem to have retained some humanity, like Simon Masrani in Jurassic World, had to die; sin-eaters to assuage our own guilt.
But we’re actually most like Dr Henry Wu (BD Wong), creating yet another monster while simultaneously wringing his hands at his superiors’ demands.
At least Clare (Bryce Dallas Howard) retains her sense of wonder that they actually brought back an extinct species – “a miracle” – even though both publics, real and on screen, are becoming jaded and bored.
Director JA Bayona has taken the only route possible; a new setting, a new, toothier creature, only this time it’s also brilliantly clever.
But also, to stave off accusations of repetition, he’s crafted deliberate homages to the previous films.
The first scenes are knowing and audacious. A man in yellow waterproofs crouches in the darkness of Isla Nublar, torrential rain pouring down; trying to concentrate on his tasks while behind him trees rustle ominously. Soon there’s a death, someone we thought had reached safety.
Armoured vehicles trundle in a line across the island. Bearded security stalk with bullets and tranquilliser darts. Later a dinosaur climbs to the top of a grand house, roaring against a bright moon. Pterodactyls are outlined against the sky, flying to freedom.
Then there’s wiry, wily security head Ken Wheatley (Ted Levine), latest in a line from Bob Peck in Jurassic Park, each one less bright and more avaricious than the last. Like the new dinosaurs, this one also has more teeth, taken as souvenirs.
Blue too is back. She’s initially in danger of becoming cuddly, resembling one of those yappy little dogs that has a bravery several times its size as it throws itself at a giant rottweiler.
You’d be forgiven for feeling slightly cheated though. Not because Fallen Kingdom doesn’t deliver what we expect in the way of stampeding giant lizards, well-loved characters running for their lives, and debates about who is to blame for the moral dilemma they face – it does.
But because it’s not really about the island and its now-active volcano at all. Much of the action takes place in a gothic piece of Victoriana in California, the ornate home of Sir Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell), original business partner of John Hammond.
I find grand American mansions spooky and fake. They look like intruders; unlike in Britain where a big house will be built on centuries of family history, and previous dwellings of ever-decreasing comfort as we go back in time, a product of past and environment. (Even though originally those owners too stole the land they built on.)
So it’s telling that this one becomes the setting for a showdown between man and monsters that may hark back to the past but are really modern creations.
Lockwood is dying and spends his time with his motherless granddaughter Maisie. He’s tasked the head of his foundation, Eli Mills (Rafe Spall), with rescuing some of the threatened dinosaurs on Isla Nublar. They’re to be sent away from natural and man-made disasters: “these creatures don’t need our protection, they need our absence”, Lockwood says.
He brings in Clare Dearing, previously head of Jurassic World, now leading the Dinosaur Protection Group and owner of the world’s most valuable handprint.
Owen (Chris Pratt) too is back, leaving the cabin he’s building on the tidiest building plot I’ve ever seen. Also coming to the island are vet Zia Rodriguez (Daniella Pineda), and systems guy Franklin (Justice Smith). As so often happens in films nowadays, she’s the brave forthright one and he wants to go home.
Back on Isla Nublar the technology still works surprisingly well, every display easy to understand. Buttons say what happens if you press them; I still have to google what to do every time I take a screengrab on my Mac.
But others are not so altruistic, and once again corporations and governments want to weaponise these creatures. Big money is at stake, driven by Toby Jones’ seedy salesman, though if I’m honest not as big as I was expecting. Like the first Austin Powers film, where the villain sells himself entirely short when it comes to setting his ransom, the dinosaurs have price tags that seem to me rather low. You could get quite a few for the price of, say, Van Gogh’s Sunflowers.
At times Fallen Kingdom is surprisingly moving; I challenge you not to shed a tear at the mournful wail of a Diplodocus on the shore, watching the rescue boat sail away as lava races towards it.
The spectacle is certainly bold and sometimes new. There’s a terrific scene as lava bombs crash into the sea and dinosaurs struggle to swim, water half-way up the camera lens. I also liked a half-tranquilized Owen trying to escape the lava, moving jerkily forwards like a human slinky. And there’s a revelation I never saw coming, linked to the dinosaurs but not about them.
We even avoid “who here are the real monsters?” handwringing. The bad guys are so clearly bad even the dinosaurs know to eat them first. But the question this time is who should take responsibility for getting us to this point. It’s a question going back to John Hammond in the first movies, but now expanding the guilt and responsibility to include Clare, Owen and us.
Nature has been twisted to bring back these animals; should we now leave them to die to prevent further damage? Or are we duty-bound to rescue living creatures we created? “This is a correction” says Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum), questioned by a government panel.
Like the volcanic island, Goldblum is not as central as the film’s marketing has made out. He’s an iconic presence though; you can almost believe the cod-philosophy he’s spouting makes sense.
Fallen Kingdom is undeniably dark, as Jurassic Park 3 was (which I loved). Bayona does a good job moving the franchise slightly to one side. It can’t really go forward, its eternal weakness – but he’s mixed it up with meta wit and verve.
When I say wit, I mean story and direction, not dialogue, which is clunky as hell; but Jurassic films are about spectacle, with an overlay of pretend philosophical moralising that sounds head-noddingly clever until we think about it later. Though the movie itself is cleverer the more you think about it.