Let me get the hottest take you’ll read in this review out of the way upfront: 1997’s The Lost World is the best film in the Jurassic Park franchise. As a technical achievement & a special effects showcase, there’s no topping the original Jurassic Park film from 1993, but The Lost World has a much more exciting, bonkers energy to it as a mean, over-the-top novelty in a way that’s always stuck with me. I prefer Spielberg when he embraces the B-movie spirit of his genre films, which are essentially $100+mil versions of Roger Corman’s schtick, instead of trying to “elevate” them into respectable material. The jump scares, suburban-invasion monster attacks, and raptor-kicking gymnastics of The Lost World strike the perfect B-movie tone needed to bring the Jurassic Park franchise into what it always pretends to be but rarely is: a series of creature features about the horrors of dinosaurs invading the modern world. I wasn’t much impressed by Colin Trevorrow’s recent soft-reboot to the franchise, Jurassic World (outside Bryce Dallas Howard’s laughably awful performance therein), but its own horror-centric sequel attempts the same B-movie revitalization that The Lost World brought to its predecessor in a way I can’t help but appreciate. Fallen Kingdom is dumber, meaner, and more over-the-top than the first Jurassic World, but it leans so heavily into the franchise’s modern world dino-horror tendencies that it feels like a remarkable improvement anyway. The only problem is that its characters & dialogue aren’t anywhere near as interesting as its big picture ideas.
Chris Pratt & Bryce Dallas Howard return as the world’s blandest romantic duo, this time with Howard’s absurdly inhuman performance zapped of its eccentricities so that she’s just as uninteresting as Pratt (although she is introduced in an audience-trolling shot that starts with her infamous high heel running shoes). They team up to rescue the world’s remaining dinosaurs from the island where the previous film was staged, as it is under the threat of a very active volcano. Unbeknownst to them, the privatized military they’re helping “rescue” these endangered dinos are actually villainous capitalists who are tasked with abducting the poor beasts only to sell them as organic weapons on the black market. This sets up a political dichotomy between bleeding-heart animal rights activists dedicated to “Save Our Dinos” and capitalist meanies who only want to ravage the earth for “easy” profit (there’s got to be a better way to make money than herding and capturing dinosaurs). The movie uses that political divide to shoehorn in some painfully unfunny anti-Trump humor with throwaway lines about “nasty women,” CNN scrolls joking about the president’s science denial, and a villainous turn from Toby Jones as a dino auctioneer with a grotesque orange-hair combover. The political humor is too vague & out-of-place to mean much of anything, except that the movie is going to age about as well as a canned fart. Likewise, the volcanic dino rescue is an over-labored setup for the movie’s much more interesting second half, even if its lava explosion action sequence does generate some memorable imagery. Fallen Kingdom opens with a punishing tedium not seen in this franchise since the doldrums of Jurassic Park III, so it’s downright miraculous that the film turns itself around enough to thrive as an over-the-top novelty horror in its second half.
All credit to Fallen Kingdom‘s back-half turnaround as a passably decent horror film goes to director J.A. Bayona (hot off the heels of his undervalued fantasy drama A Monster Calls). Outside a few moments of dino-melting volcanic mayhem in the opening stretch, Bayona treats Fallen Kingdom’s first hour as a necessary evil to bring the movie (and the dinos) to where he truly wants to go: a haunted mansion. Bayona comes alive in the film’s second half, where a dinosaur auction goes inevitably wrong and a small crew of unlikely caricatures are locked in a dark Gothic manor with loose, prehistoric monsters. The better half of Fallen Kingdom is a haunted house horror movie with dinosaurs instead of ghosts, the most exciting the franchise has seen since the suburban invasion themes of The Lost World. The way Bayona plays with odd imagery, like dino shadows being cast by lightning flashes or an encroaching claw reaching to rip a child out of the safety of their bed, is some surreal horror nonsense I can’t help but appreciate for its B-movie flavored audacity. The problem is that the movie tries way too hard to justify the indulgence in its over-labored setup (the same way Rampage over-explained a “plausible” reason for its own monster mayhem earlier this year, when it should have stuck to the simplicity of its video game source material). The script also could have used a few joke punch-ups from writers who are, you know, actually funny. Neither of these issues are necessarily Bayona’s fault, though, and the director makes the best of the material he can when he’s actually let loose to play around with the film’s Gothic horror hook (recalling an absurd revision of his much better-written haunted house film The Orphanage).
The best chance Fallen Kingdom had to be its ideal self was if it were never attached to the Jurassic Park franchise at all. It opens performing the labor of tying its haunted dino house conceit into the mess leftover from the first Jurassic World movie and “closes” by setting up a clear path for the next installment. This post-MCU dedication to franchise filmmaking is a massive burden on the movie’s shoulders, barely leaving any room for its central hook to fully deliver the goods, all for the sake of cross-film storytelling logic. Maybe this burden wouldn’t be as noticeable if the characters were more engaging or the humor successfully landed (that’s generally how it works in the MCU, anyway). As is, Fallen Kingdom barely squeaks by as an enjoyable big-budget Roger Corman descendant, when it should have been the second-best film in the franchise (after The Lost World, naturally). It’s doubtful we’ll ever get another haunted house dino horror film again, so this one’s novelty deserves to be cherished, but it’s also a shame that the opportunity was buried under so much debt to a franchise that doesn’t deserve the effort.