Warning: This review contains spoilers for Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom.
Bryce Dallas Howard is wearing sensible footwear.
It seems important to mention that right off the bat, since Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, really wants us to notice it. Directed by J.A. Bayona (A Monster Calls, The Impossible), this second installment in the rebooted franchise even includes a slow shot of her black combat boot exiting a plane, as if to confirm to viewers: "You see? We listened."
The backlash that came from the sight of her character, Claire Dearing, running through the jungle in stilettos for most of Jurassic World's two-hour run time has clearly had an effect on its sequel. And yet, like much of Fallen Kindgom, it feels overdone — less of a wink than a stomp on the head from a lumbering brontosaurus. It's just always doing the absolute most.
That starts with the premise, which goes as follows: It's been three years since catastrophe befell Jurassic World, and the remaining dinosaurs on Isla Nublar are about to go extinct. The volcano on the island, once dormant, has suddenly become active, and is threatening a species eradication on par with, well, the last one. This has caused uproar among animal rights activists, including Claire Dearing (Howard), now head of the Dinosaur Protection Group, who are calling on Congress to intervene to save these creatures from a fiery death. On the other side, meanwhile, Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum, sans leather jacket but looking dapper in black nonetheless) is busy making his own case for why we don't deserve to have nice things like dinosaurs around anymore.
"This is a correction," he says in a congressional hearing. Mankind, Malcolm argues, has consistently proven unable to handle the immense power it has been able to scientifically engineer. First, there was nuclear proliferation — what if genetic tampering were to be next? What happens when men play God is always an interesting philosophical question, the substance of which gets somewhat lost in the ham-fisted dialogue by Colin Treverrow and Dylan Connolly. (There is a "nasty woman" joke slipped in at one point, for kicks.)
In the course of her lobbying, Claire is called to the California mansion of the ailing Sir Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell), introduced as John Hammond's (Richard Attenborough) partner in creating the original Jurassic Park. (the reason we've never heard of him in the course of four films is because they had a falling out over something I won't spoil, but might make your eyes roll out of your head.) The man running Lockwood's company and de facto owner of Isla Nublar, Eli Mills (Rafe Spall), tells Claire that they have a whole Noah's Ark plan to extract certain dinosaur species before the volcano erupts, and bring them to a human-less sanctuary where they can flourish unbothered.
But there's a catch. (Isn't there always?) To pull this off, there's one species they absolutely need to locate: Blue, the empathetic raptor from the last movie (and one of the only women with real agency in this one). And of course, the only man who can track her is Owen (Chris Pratt), Claire's ex, and expert dinosaur wrangler who has been living out the last three years living in a bus while he builds himself a log cabin. (We get it, Chris Pratt is a strong manly man!)
And so, with Owen in tow, Claire, and her new colleagues, sarcastic paleo-veterinarian Zia (Daniella Pineda) and scaredy cat tech guy Franklin (Justice Smith), head out to Isla Nublar to save the dinos. But of course, nothing is that simple. There's an added reason Mills wants Blue, and it has nothing to do with peaceful survival, and everything to do with money, arms dealing by heartless capitalists, and yet another dinosaur hybrid.
What follows is a lot of Big Action, dinosaur chases, lava spills, and one very goofy auction. And that's fine; this is a blockbuster, after all. But somewhere down the line, the emotional core gets lost in all those explosions, namely: What do we do with these creatures when we can no longer use them for entertainment? And do we even have a right to decide?
The original Jurassic Park was an ode to science, and the people who pursue knowledge (and sometimes abuse it). It was an exciting, thrill-packed way of grappling with ethical questions as grand in scope as life itself. But a protagonist like Owen flies in the face of that tradition — he cares about Blue, but the awe isn't there. He's an action hero, a big dude with pecs and a mushy heart somewhere underneath. On the flip side, Claire's repeatedly expressed reverence for the majesty, beauty and sheer power of these creatures comes off as naive, especially when faced with some difficult decisions. But maybe that comes down to the fact that Dallas-Howard isn't given the opportunity to develop her character beyond "lady who wants to save dinosaurs and loves burly man." (And as Aly Semigran noted in her piece about Jurassic World's woman problem, that's not so much Dallas-Howard's fault as it is the poor material she's given.)
There are some redeeming factors to this sequel, however: For one, it nails the relationship a child has to fantastic beings. Through Maisie (Isabella Sermon), Lockwood's granddaughter who spends her days roaming around a gothic mansion filled with dinosaur bones, Bayona manages to convey the combination of wonder, curiosity and fear that Spielberg did in the original movies (no doubt inspired by his work on A Monster Calls). What's more, the cinematography, courtesy of Oscar Faura (The Orphanage, A Monster Calls) is truly beautiful. Certain scenes, like one in which we see a lone brontosaurus slowly disappearing into a cloud of smoke and fire, or that famous one from the trailer with the all the fleeing dinosaurs jumping into the ocean, just ache to be freeze-framed, and their composition analyzed. (Faura plays with lighting and shadows throughout the film, actually, to wonderful effect.) And — no small detail in a movie about them — the dinosaurs look pretty damn cool.
There will be a sequel. The ending makes that abundantly clear. But in all honestly, I'm rooting for one. Because Fallen Kingdom kind of feels like one big set-up for a much more complex, nuanced, and interesting premise (and no hybrid dinosaurs!). Let's just hope it's one we're able to handle.