When Steven Spielberg made Jurassic Park in 1993, he injected fear into the veins of the family-oriented blockbuster. The digital dinosaurs were cool and wondrous, but they were also scary, a matter less of technical wizardry than of old-fashioned tools such as haunted-house-movie pacing.
Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, the sequel to 2015's Jurassic World, features an actual haunted house (well, technically, a ridiculously huge gothic mansion). Its director, J.A. Bayona, made the excellent Spanish chiller The Orphanage. Yet this movie barely summons a shiver.
Why not? Maybe because the blockbuster template of 2018 no longer permits the kind of slow burn that Spielberg used so effectively. If Jurassic Park were made today, the terrifying T. rex wouldn't be introduced gradually, to build anticipation — it would be rampaging in the first scene.
Fallen Kingdom opens with full-blown (but PG-13) carnage on Isla Nublar, where dinos overran their own theme park in the preceding film. Three years have passed, and a volcano menaces the remaining reptiles. While Congress debates whether to let dinosaurs go extinct again (with Jeff Goldblum's Ian Malcolm saying yea), profiteers arrive to harvest their DNA for further cloning. There are casualties.
Once the film has grabbed our attention with a chomping Mosasaurus, it reintroduces us to Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard), formerly the cynical operations manager of Jurassic World and now a crusader for dino rights. How she got so warm and fuzzy is never explained, but since none of the film's characters have any depth — or much charisma — it's hard to care.
Millionaire Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell), former partner of the original film's John Hammond, pitches Claire a plan to move the surviving dinosaurs to an island refuge. Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) will come along to handle the superintelligent Velociraptor Blue and provide (not enough) comic relief.
While standard blockbuster heroics happen on Isla Nublar, it's soon clear that dark intrigue is afoot in Lockwood's California manor. When his little granddaughter, Maisie (Isabella Sermon), ventures into the basement, a talon looms in the gloom, and dinosaurs briefly become scary again.
Screenwriters Colin Trevorrow and Derek Connolly seem to have decided that, since Jurassic Park is basically a mad-scientist story, they might as well take it all the way back to its Frankenstein roots. It's a bold decision, and the film's latter half is definitely more interesting, if only by dint of clashing bizarrely with the first.
When the film goes full gothic, Bayona pulls off lovely plays of light and shadow, evoking classic horror cinema. But visuals can't obscure the lack of a compelling protagonist or the fact that the new dinosaur we're supposed to find scarier than any dinosaur ever is just another rehash.
Upping the ante is the MO of modern sequels, but maybe the Jurassic movies need to stop trying to terrorize us with new creatures and find better ways to use the ones they have. The T. rex didn't have to be smart to scare us, and Velociraptors didn't have to be huge; it was enough that both could hunt us down and eat us, and Spielberg used all his tricks to make us feel like prey.
In Fallen Kingdom, genetic engineering has given us dinosaurs so advanced they barely seem reptilian; at times, we could be watching an alien-invasion movie. And with that, the franchise loses what set it apart: a commitment to re-creating monsters that once existed. It's hard to tremble at the awesome power of nature when what you're seeing is clearly a fantasy.