In 2015 two of the most popular franchises returned after many years of absence, and in an odd way both had very similar temperaments. Jurassic World and Star Wars: The Force Awakens each springboarded their new stories off a deep-rooted nostalgia, repeating plot beats and even structure to gift fans with pretty much exactly what they wanted, hence the billion dollar paydays both received at the box office. However there was a noticeable difference, whilst in the moment Jurassic World felt thrilling, fast paced and a great time at the movies, repeated viewings brought to bear its numerous faults. Namely the lack of interesting characters, hole-laden and cringey script writing and a general lack of originality. Force Awakens on the other hand relied on top notch casting, involving characters and teasing plot mysteries to reward multiple watches. Now the follow up to that interplanetary success, The Last Jedi, built on those firm foundations to offer something surprising, exciting and thematically rewarding, could we see something similar within this dinosaur sagas sophomore outing?
In a word, no!! I was hopeful, especially with European director JA Bayona (The Impossible) being lured in to direct. Always a visually captivating and emotionally raw filmmaker (seriously A Monster Calls devastated me), Bayona’s rich eye seemed a good fit for the fantastical yet believable elements of this monster saga. The opening sequence certainly feels promising. Returning to Isla Nublar four years after the theme park calamity witnessed in Jurassic World, in a starkly lit rain lashed scene whereby a bunch of scientists… or mercenaries.. or who knows, it is never made clear, attempt to take specimens from the island before the crowd pleasing T-Rex shows up to put a dampener on proceedings. It is tightly paced, thrillingly executed and culminates in an unexpected moment that would work so well if it weren’t already spoilt in the trailers. Still it hints that this is going to be a harsher, tenser and more surprising film than the last.
Alas things go downhill from there. The basic gist of the story centres on Bryce Dallas Howard’s Claire (foregoing the high heels this time which is captioned in a winking camera shot to silence the haters) as she attempts to save the islands now rampant population from an imminently exploding volcano. Quite why we’ve never been told before that Jurassic Park/World has this ticking time bomb of nature goes frustratingly unmentioned. Only to find the Government, by way of Jeff Goldblum’s staggeringly brief return as Dr Ian Malcolm, will not help. In steps Rafe Spall’s not at all suspicious man in a suit to offer resources and men by way of a sadly underutilised James Cromwell as Benjamin Lockwood. One of many unfortunately shoe-horned in nods to the first film. Lockwood being a previously unmentioned partner of Richard Attenborough’s charming Dr Hammond in the original. However before she can return Claire must retain the assistance of Chris Pratt’s Owen Grady in order to find the island’s most prized asset, velociraptor Blue. There appears to have been an uncomfortable break up between them in the interim since Jurassic World, and yet in a sign of just how ill thought out the script is he agrees to go back with barely a whiff of struggle whatsoever.
If all this sounds a little familiar then you’re right. Fallen Kingdom shares a lot of genetics with The Lost World, Spielberg’s unfairly chastised sequel. Opening with a monstrous attack on the Dinosaur island, before a shadowy part of the Park’s all seeing company owners seeks to send back a player from the preceding film alongside a bunch of vicious hunters with their own agendas. Claire and Owen sharing their journey back with a group of no-nonsense and utterly generic grunts spearheaded by Ted Levine’s interminably thin written heavy. It is a worrying sign that returning screenwriters Colin Trevorrow and Derek Connolly have little in the way of original thoughts in their heads. Although at least they have a mighty fine centrepiece for their story in the erupting volcano. This adds a nice layer of tension to the middle act as the group desperately try to round up as many dinos as possible including the elusive Blue. Fallen Kingdom nicely developing the bond between him and Owen, warmly conveyed in multiple flashbacks to Blue’s training. Bayona sketching a similar human/creature connection as in his triumphant A Monster Calls, only with less dialogue and heart crushing. Sadly it is the only aspect of Owen that we feel anything towards. Pratt tries his best to imbue Owen with that cheeky charisma and touching heart we have come to expect from him, but as a whole his character is written with such leaden weight that we literally know nothing of his internal motivations. Yes he has a heart of gold and is adept at a winking one liner but he simply moves from scene to scene doing whatever the film tells him to do. If he needs to be heroic he is heroic, if he needs to be funny, he is funny, and so on. It is not so much a character as a blank canvas and a dull one at that.
This sense of blandness extends to almost everyone in the cast, Goldblum being the only exception bringing his usual off kilter delivery to bear in barely 2 mins of screentime. Howard struggles to elicit any sense of spark with Pratt, and like him is merely used to be whatever the film needs her to be. Worse still are her sidekicks; Justice Smith as a whimpering whizz kid whose only real interesting characteristic seems to be his ability to scream like a girl, and Daniella Pieda as a spunky capable anthropologist adept at sardonic put-downs. Then we have the villains; Levine’s hopelessly un-scary bad guy, Spall’s weaselly company man (oh look he’s just in it for the money) and Toby Jones in a wig, which is about all the character you get from him. Oh and he looks at his phone a lot meaning he is heartless, jeez this is scriptwriting by 5 year olds!!
Despite all this Bayona does conjure up some terrific moments of visual prowess. The aforementioned volcano set-piece is hugely over the top but features an almost Spielbergien level of increased elevation, lacing in multiple actions beats before combining them altogether into a heart-stopping one take shot under the water. Bayona then follows it with the only real emotionally poignant moment of the entire film, as we witness the death of everyone’s favourite soft hearted dino, the brachiosaurus (you know the one with the long neck) amongst the ash and flames of the volcano, strikingly shot using silhouette. In fact the cinematography by Oscar Faura is beautifully framed and lit throughout, giving the film a distinctive palette compared to its brethren, especially in the third far more low key act. In fact the setting and structure of this section is Fallen Kingdom’s one major saving grace. Pushing against the cliched notion of a final act having to become as loud and explosive as possible, Bayona instead sets that moment within the middle act, opting to shrink things down to a single setting. A nighttime extended set-piece in and around Lockwood manor, as a formidable new genetically created dinosaur is unleashed. Seriously when are these films going to stop with the made up dinosaurs, there are surely plenty of scary ones out there that actually existed.
Building on his stunning debut film The Orphanage, Bayona turns the Jurassic franchise into an out and out horror, dripping in tension, jumps and nightmarish imagery; such as a creeping dinosaur sneaking into a young girls bedroom as she yelps with fear. It is a remarkably fun haunted house sequence but sadly undone by frequently silly interludes (the previously mentioned Toby Jones hair) and inept dire-logue. As for the supposedly “shocking” twist that comes late in the day, I could barely contain guffaws at this utterly limp and pointless reveal. Therein lies the rub, Fallen Kingdom has so much potential at its feet, and in fact the final moments set up an exciting third film that could represent a true shake up of formula, but is squandered by a haphazard script at every turn. Trevorrow and Connolly appearing to have no understanding of what made the original (that they sooo loved) actually work. Multi-layered characters you actually cared about, subtlety and carefully constructed action, wrapped around surface level but weighty ideas of science, creation and flawed humanity. Fallen Kingdom cannot help but feel a tad cynical, limpen and oddly a little boring in comparison. Even Michael Giacchino’s usually thrilling score work feels phoned in (I detected more than one similarity to his War for the Planet of the Apes pieces). ILM have at least brought their usual considerable talents to bear, with the use of models and puppets still as prevalent as ever. Fallen Kingdom is ultimately a disappointment, and although I wanted to resist the need to use this most obvious of statements I am powerless…this is one franchise that should become extinct.
Verdict: JA Bayona tries hard to distinguish this from other instalments via third act genre evolution and a keen visual eye, yet cannot outrun the ineptitude of its simplistic script.