WASHINGTON — Not only was Steven Spielberg’s “Jurassic Park” (1993) a groundbreaking film, for those of us of a certain age, it remains a cultural touchstone of why we love the movies.
After a pair of disappointing sequels, “The Lost World” (1997) and “Jurassic Park III” (2001), the franchise was on the brink of extinction until writer/director Colin Trevorrow revived it from fossilized amber for “Jurassic World” (2015), a solid sequel that effectively hit the reset button.
Now, hold onto your butts for “Fallen Kingdom,” a disappointingly dark fifth installment that offers a few fleeting moments of nostalgia, while taking a giant dino step backward for a brand that was once beloved for all the right reasons and now exists for all the wrong ones.
Set three years after the destruction of the Jurassic World theme park, an erupting volcano threatens to destroy Isla Nublar, the island off the coast of Costa Rica and site of the original park. So, the late John Hammond’s founding partner Ben Lockwood (James Cromwell) sends Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) and Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) on a rescue mission to save the dinosaurs, battling greedy poachers who want the dinos for nefarious purposes.
You’ll be thrilled to see Jeff Goldblum’s Dr. Ian Malcolm make his triumphant return in the opening scene, testifying before the U.S. Senate, as lawmakers debate whether dinosaurs deserve the same protections as other wildlife. Unfortunately, Goldblum disappears for the rest of the movie, returning only for the epilogue. To have him only featured in the bookends is deflating, especially after watching him steal the show recently in “Thor: Ragnarok” (2017).
Instead, our leading man is once again Chris Pratt, who was underrated in both “Moneyball” (2011) and “Zero Dark Thirty” (2012) before exploding in “Guardians of the Galaxy” (2014). With the right material, Pratt can be charming as hell, but his comedic talents are wasted here as he runs from an overkill array of CGI dinosaurs. After such repetition, you’ll root for his beloved raptor Blue to eat him like “Grizzly Man” (2005). At least that would be unexpected.
Co-star Bryce Dallas Howard poses more interesting thematic questions, evolving from park operations manager to an activist for the Dinosaur Protection Group. You’ll notice that she arrives in a blatant close-up of her high heels, a hilarious jab at critics who complained of her unrealistic footwear last time. Don’t worry, she still ditches the heels when the killing starts.
In all seriousness, her heels aren’t the problem; it’s the over-the-top “heel turns” of the bad guys. Eli Mills (Rafe Spall) overexplains his master plan with exposition; Gunnar Eversol (Toby Jones) sticks around too long after a disrupted auction; and Ken Wheatley (Ted Levine) spoils his early promise as a ruthless mercenary by making a boneheaded mistake in a dino cage.
Here’s a tip, dear readers. When minor supporting characters like Dr. Henry Wu (B.D. Wong) do a sudden heel turn and become very pivotal villains, you know you’ve jumped the shark.
Speaking of sharks, the opening scene plays like “Jaws: The Revenge” (1987) where the over-sized shark laughably jumped out of the water. This time, the giant monster isn’t a shark (you’ll have to wait for Jason Statham’s “The Meg”), but rather a genetically modified Indo-Raptor, which is supposed to be even meaner than the last movie’s hybrid Indominus Rex.
Unfortunately, the terror is immediately taken out of the beast by having it wink not once but twice at the camera, breaking the fourth wall and making it impossible to take the movie seriously. You would have never seen this in the Steven Spielberg original, which admittedly featured moments of comic relief, but never by undercutting the gravitas of the dinosaurs.
Never fear, there are still plenty of callbacks to the 1993 classic. You’ll find a car mirror with the familiar warning “objects in mirror are closer than they appear.” You’ll find a young girl (Isabella Sermon) trying to close the door of a dumb waiter like Lex in the raptor kitchen. And you’ll find the upside-down car that fell out of a tree toward Dr. Grant and Tim, who was more enjoyable in his precociousness compared to the annoying screams of Franklin (Justice Smith).
Beyond the “Jurassic Park” references, you’ll also find meta nods to other flicks. At one point, Pratt runs over a hill being chased like Indiana Jones in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981). At another point, a wave crashes on Pratt and Howard just like “From Here to Eternity” (1953). Best of all, a shot of Buffalo Bill cuts to the line “Hi, Claire” inside a jail cell like “Hello, Clarice.”
These are no doubt intentional homages by director J.A. Bayona, who’s been on the rise ever since his horror gem “The Orphanage” (2007), but even he can’t save a lazy script that jumps from one attack scene to the next. We see flashes of his talent, particularly a bedroom scene where the Indo-Raptor enters through blowing curtains, recalling his fantasy film “A Monster Calls” (2016). Sadly, these moments are lost in the chaos of countless action set pieces.
Bayona’s most lasting image is a moaning brontosaurus disappearing into the volcanic ash, epitomizing a dark, negative film that punishes viewers as much as it punishes the dinosaurs. The premise of a volcanic eruption is not a bad setup for a return to the island, but it’s handled so unrealistically (i.e. a tranquilized Pratt crawling away from lava). Bayona can do much better, having mastered a natural disaster with a tsunami in “The Impossible” (2012).
Here’s hoping Bayona and Trevorrow get back to original material, rather than trying to spruce up a franchise that is itself a “Fallen Kingdom,” reminding us of its faded glory every time composer Michael Giacchino echoes John Williams’ score. I won’t go as far as to call it “one big pile of s**t,” as Goldblum said in the original. No, there is a far more apt quote:
“You didn’t earn the knowledge for yourselves, so you don’t take any responsibility for it. You stood on the shoulders of geniuses to accomplish something as fast as you could, and before you even knew what you had, you patented it, and packaged it, and slapped it on a plastic lunchbox, and now [bangs on table] you’re selling it, you want to sell it. Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.”