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Dinosaurs: Keep them alive or kill them off? Ask that of 'Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom'

This image released by Universal Pictures shows Bryce Dallas Howard, left, and Justice Smith in a scene from the upcoming "Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom." (Universal Pictures via AP) NYET243
This image released by Universal Pictures shows Bryce Dallas Howard, left, and Justice Smith in a scene from the upcoming "Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom." (Universal Pictures via AP) NYET243
Published Jun. 18, 2018

Dinosaurs: Keep them alive or kill them off?

It's a question that haunts the human characters in between fireball-dodging cardio workouts in Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, the spectacularly ho-hum new entry in Hollywood's longest-running parable about the fatal idiocy of messing with Mother Nature.

At this point in the game — five films deep in a franchise that has grossed more than $2 billion worldwide over a quarter-century — that question might seem less applicable to the dinosaurs than to the movies themselves.

One of the minor pleasures of this series is that it has begun to provide a running (and I do mean running) commentary on its own existence. Jurassic World (2015), named for a doomed dinosaur theme park on the remote Isla Nublar, tried to enliven its jaw-snapping, earth-trampling proceedings with a strain of self-reflexive humor. The movie, directed and co-written by Colin Trevorrow, poked cynical fun at the mercenary nature of the Hollywood assembly line.

The task of directing Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom has landed in the more confident hands of J.A. Bayona, who handles scenes of large-scale destruction (The Impossible) and intimate, squirm-inducing horror (The Orphanage) with equal ease. Both of those action-movie modes come into play here, though not for sufficiently inspired stretches to prevail over the laborious and predictable screenplay.

Still, credit where credit is due: The writers have made some welcome adjustments right off the bat.

Former park employee Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard), previously seen running in high heels from an Indominus rex, has brought some much more sensible footwear this time around, and her character overall has been conceived along less insultingly vapid lines. Action-wise, she still takes a back seat to her sparring partner and erstwhile love interest, Owen Grady, played again by that muscly charmer Chris Pratt.

The abandoned park itself remains a vast, crumbling ruin, albeit a more visually stunning one than ever. That's because the whole joint is about to be swallowed up by Isla Nublar's conveniently reactivated volcano, and Universal Pictures appears to have been especially magma-nimous with regard to the CGI lava budget. (Jurashic World, anyone?)

All that fire-belching mayhem is accompanied by some similarly explosive moral hand-wringing: Are these genetically engineered dinosaurs entitled to the same U.S. government protections extended to other endangered species? No, argues chaos theorist Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum, back for a quick cameo).

But Claire and Owen launch their own daring counter-argument, returning to Isla Nubar at the request of aging billionaire Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell), a former colleague of John Hammond (the late Richard Attenborough) and his fellow mastermind behind the original Jurassic Park experiment. Their mission will be to rescue as many of the surviving dinosaurs as possible — including Blue, the extraordinarily intelligent and empathetic velociraptor whom Owen trained as a hatchling — and relocate them to another island sanctuary.

Nothing goes according to plan, which may lead you to wonder why it all doesn't feel more surprising. Naturally, Claire and Owen enter the field with some wisecracking backup from a gutsy paleo-veterinarian (Daniella Pineda) and a scaredy-cat tech whiz (Justice Smith), the latter sufficiently annoying to make you actively root for his demise. And it wouldn't be a proper Jurassic movie without at least one endangered moppet in the mix, this one a clever, mischievous 10-year-old named Maisie (Isabella Sermon). (A Henry James reference? That's a surprise, I guess.)

The cataclysmic destruction of Isla Nubar does bring about at least one significant change in direction: After four movies' worth of lush island backdrops, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom finally gets the dinosaurs off the coast and onto the mainland, with their well-meaning protectors, money-grubbing exploiters and wretched victims following suit. (Rafe Spall, Ted Levine, Toby Jones and series regular BD Wong round out the ensemble as exploiters of various degrees.)

Halfway through, the movie effectively turns into "Jurassic Manor," and the change of scenery is not unwelcome. Certainly there's no shortage of action-staging areas and hiding places on the sprawling Lockwood estate, including a high-ceilinged gallery of dinosaur fossils that harks back to the chase-thriller pleasures of the original Jurassic Park.

It's possible to watch this movie, in other words, and feel that the series is carving out a new direction, returning to its ancient stomping grounds and sticking to a familiar holding pattern, all at the same time. Such is the repetitive, rudderless nature of so much big-budget franchise filmmaking, even with a proven talent like Bayona behind the camera.

Those scaly green dinosaurs, while hardly devoid of brains or emotions, elicit little more than shrieks and the occasional "aww"; no matter how many genetic upgrades are administered, they exist to stomp, rage, bite, claw and terrorize. The metaphor is so obvious it practically ceases to be a metaphor: These movies will go on and on, but some of us are still waiting for them to evolve.