"Do you remember the first time you saw a dinosaur?" asks Bryce Dallas Howard in the latest instalment of the Jurassic Park franchise. We do. It was 25 years ago, as John Williams' iconic score built to its majestic climax and the cast of Steven Spielberg's iconic blockbuster rose from the seats of their jeep, tore off their glasses and stared wide-eyed at a beautiful, towering Brachiosaurus.
It's been a quarter of a century since the first Jurassic Park captured the imagination of moviegoers the world over and ushered in the brave new world of CGI-enhanced filmmaking. The whole thing was classic Spielberg: a rollicking, family-friendly adventure that pushed the boundaries of innovation whilst remaining grounded in entirely relatable human stories. Its extraordinary success made sequels inevitable, but unfortunately none except perhaps 1997's The Lost World have come even close to recapturing the magic and wonder of the original. In Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom we have a film significantly better than its immediate predecessor, yet one that still falls well short of the bar set back in 1993.
Much of the problem with this instalment lies with the franchise's so-called villains. In Jurassic Park the combination was perfect: flawed human antagonists in Dennis Nedry and John Hammond, existential menace in the form of technological hubris, and, of course, those dinosaurs. Between the thuggery of the T-Rex, the cunning of the raptors and the toxic spit of the Dilophosaurus, every step through the failing park held unbearable peril for its characters, instilling a dread that overflowed into the audience.
Since then, however, the Jurassic movies have relied largely on a generic recurring villain: InGen, the unscrupulous genetics corporation behind all that Dino-DNA splicing. Even worse, the raptors and T-Rex have become, thanks to their broad popularity, inadvertent heroes, leaving the Dino-threat to come from species that never even existed. Here again in Fallen Kingdom it's that same formula at play: InGen is secretly cooking up some new dinosaurs to sell as weapons (still as ridiculous a concept as it was in Jurassic World), and the big scary dinosaur is a genetically-engineered ultra raptor. Around them are cookie-cutter human bad-guys in the form of mercenaries, big game hunters and money-hungry suits, as well as franchise regular Dr. Henry Wu (B.D. Wong), the original Jurassic Park geneticist who continues to learn precisely zero from all his past mistakes.
There is still a lot of fun to be had here, and even a few unexpected feels as director J.A Bayona (A Monster Calls) reminds us that monsters of choice are always worse than monsters of instinct. The film's central conceit, too, is a compelling one: a volcano on the island upon which the dinosaurs currently reside is poised to erupt, meaning they will again become extinct without human intervention. To rescue or not to rescue becomes the burning question for Owen Grady (Chris Pratt), Claire Dearing (Dallas Howard) and returning fan favourite Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum). InGen, predictably, wants the animals saved for far less noble reasons than preservation.
The scenes set on the island are the strongest in the movie, and include perhaps the most affecting moment in the entire franchise in the form of a heart-wrenching callback to that iconic Brachiosaurus shot from all those years ago. Thereafter, Fallen Kingdom transforms into a semi Gothic horror film as the action shifts to an isolated mansion in which the characters are stalked by Wu's latest creation. Toby Jones and James Cromwell give spirited performances during this phase, but the weaknesses of the script refuse to be covered up. The bad get eaten whilst the good survive, and it honestly never feels like our heroes are in any genuine peril.
As part two of a planned trilogy, the end-point of Fallen Kingdom certainly offers some interesting possibilities for the final instalment. That said, absent a more nuanced and, dare we say, sympathetic villain, this franchise, like Dr. Wu, seems destined to repeat the mistakes of its past.