Like so many action/adventure franchises, the Jurassic franchise that Jurassic Park kicked off in 1993 is bound to a certain formula that filmmakers can only tweak in so many ways. The more you revisit it, the more you risk viewers becoming so familiar with the formula that the films feel stale no matter how much CGI dinosaur special sauce is dumped on them. Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom doesn't really change that, but it does lean into the franchise's more bizarre elements to create what looks like a promising future, at least for now.
**Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers for Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom below**
Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom begins with a new twist on a familiar ethical conflict in the series: Should humans continue to toy around with dinosaurs or should they (finally) resist the urge to play God? As the volcano on Isla Nublar approaches an eruption that will render all the now-freed Jurassic World dinosaurs extinct all over again, the world is divided. There are those who want to save these creatures, and those (like Jeff Goldblum’s Dr. Ian Malcolm, in his single congressional hearing scene) who think it's time to let nature take its course all over again.
Of course, even after the government decides it won't intervene, we get another twist on a classic Jurassic Park trope: The rich people who decide to do whatever they want anyway. So, with the funding of the Lockwood estate, Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) and Owen (Chris Pratt) are back on Isla Nublar, ready to save some dinosaurs. Which brings us to our third twist, a classic Jurassic trope: the bad guys who stand ready to exploit these creatures for money. You can see these bad guys coming a mile away, in part because the film opens with a scene of people stealing an Indominus Rex bone from the island and in part because, when the mercenary Wheatley (Ted Levine) appears on screen for the first time, he is so obviously a Jurassic Park Bad Guy that a friend who was a guest at my press screening burst into spontaneous laughter.
This is the fifth movie in this franchise. We can see these things coming.
So, with this trinity of familiar elements in place — as well as the general familiarity we all have with summer blockbuster formulas in general at this point — where can Fallen Kingdom go to really stand out? What can it do? The first instinct might be to remix these elements in the form of new set pieces, and indeed the first half of the film does exactly that. There are a few jump scares, a lot of running, a jungle standoff involving Blue the Velociraptor, and then the centerpiece of it all: the eruption of the volcano, which makes for several stunning (and one heartbreaking) visuals we can genuinely say the previous films never had the opportunity to deliver.
With the volcano having blown its top, though, the iconic island is all burned up, so then what does the movie do? The obvious choice, again, would be to go the route of The Lost World and set the rescued dinos loose in a populated area. San Diego already got that treatment, but what if San Francisco were next? What if a few dinosaurs somehow made their way to Los Angeles? There are plenty of amusing things that could be done there and beyond, but that's not what this movie does. Instead this movie does something that both cracks the franchise wide open and embraces everything that's truly bonkers about the Jurassic movies.
This movie takes us to a spooky mansion where a brand-new superdinosaur runs around killing evil millionaires.
Remember how the Fast & Furious films started out as crime movies about street racers, and then evolved into films where they chase submarines and parachute sports cars out of planes? This might not quite be that big an evolutionary leap, but Fallen Kingdom feels like it's at least sprinting in that direction with a big ol' toothy grin on its face. In sacrificing its principal setting with a cataclysmic event, the film essentially boxes itself in, if only for a little while.
You can get rid of the island, but that leaves you without the iconic setting of the franchise, so what do you still have? You have the dinosaurs, and you can't really keep making a Jurassic movie if they're not at least trying to kill people. You have the greedy villains who are eager to profit from the dinosaurs. You have the heroes trying to save the dinosaurs. And then you have the wild card of a group of obscenely wealthy people who have always been hovering just out of view of the series' lens. They've always been there, just waiting for their taste, but every attempt to get dino DNA samples or the like to them has failed just enough to keep the creatures contained. Fallen Kingdom, without the park or the island as an excuse to keep things isolated, finally brings the party to those guys, and what a party it is.
By creating this almost cartoonish display of oligarchs throwing money around to get their hands on a "living tank" or a newly designed Indoraptor capable of following a laser pointer to its target, Fallen Kingdom takes all the monster movie zaniness of the previous films and finally blends it with full-blown supervillainy. Sure, no one's got crazy nicknames or armies of brightly colored henchmen, but between the scenery-chewing Russian bidder, the Texas oil barons, and Eli Mills (Rafe Spall) salivating over it all so hard you can practically see dollar signs bugging out of his eyes, it becomes a comic book tableau. The dinosaurs are no longer scientific wonders to be wielded for study and/or profit. They're toys for the world's most corrupt, untouchable titans to play with.
And you know what? That's ridiculous in so many ways, but in the world of this franchise it somehow makes sense. It's ridiculous that the biggest thing anyone's ever done with living, breathing dinosaurs on the planet is build a theme park. It's ridiculous that humans have somehow already grown disillusioned with said theme park. It's ridiculous that we get so disillusioned by the theme park that the theme park then decides to engineer brand-new kinds of dinosaurs. It's all bonkers when you creep even a little bit past Michael Crichton's original premise, and you're never going to beat the raw power and awe of Steven Spielberg's first film.
So, one of the few real solutions if you're hell-bent on keeping this franchise barreling forward is to just push the pedal all the way down and lean into how ridiculous things are. A number of people have asked, even since the first Jurassic World film, why people in this universe are so hell-bent on developing dinosaur soldiers when we live in a world of drones and guided missiles, and the answer is that having your enemies slaughtered by dinosaurs is just awesome.
Fallen Kingdom not only realizes this, but it is entirely comfortable with it for perhaps the first time in the franchise's history. There are a lot of reasons to be cynical about these movies, from the perception that they exist purely to cash in on nostalgia to the criticism that the films lack any real character development anymore to the over-reliance on the same tired tropes. Fallen Kingdom is, if nothing else, deliciously free of these concerns. In the end, it is a movie that just wants to show us dinosaurs fighting evil millionaires in all its corny, high-production-value glory, with all of the Jurassic scares and humor that entails. And then, as if that weren't enough, it gives us a dinosaur as a haunted house villain, and then it blows up its premise even further to set up a third film that is truly a "Jurassic World." Oh, and by the way, there's at least one human clone running around now, too.
Near the end of the film, Mills attempts to defend his exploitation of the dinosaurs for financial gain by dubbing Claire and Owen the parents of a new world. "You can't put it back in the box!" he screams as he accuses them of using the animals just as much as he has, but in a different way. It's delivered as the ravings of a greedy madman, but there's a weird point hidden in that monologue. We can't, for the foreseeable future, put the Jurassic films back in the box. They will continue to sell tickets, and therefore they will continue to be made as commercial exercises even if some viewers no longer see them as artistic ones. In the world of the story, that means our heroes can only hope to be as responsible as possible with the knowledge and power they wield. In our world, that means we can only hope the filmmakers keep finding ways to make these films fresh for us.
When it's at its best, Fallen Kingdom does that. In its giddy popcorn movie way, it's building a new world. If these movies are going to keep coming, a new world for them to play in seems like the best thing this installment can leave us with.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.