Jeff Goldbum has only a few minutes of screen time in “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom,” and boy, he looks tired. As self-described chaotician Ian Malcolm in “Jurassic Park,” he predicted that attempts to resurrect dinosaurs for a theme park would go wrong for everyone involved; 25 years later, a bearded, greying Dr. Malcom is pleading his directly to Congress. But it’s clear that in a franchise defined by diminishing returns, no one will listen to the sole voice of reason. The franchise’s latest entry takes its cues from the knuckleheaded plotting and CGI overload of “Jurassic World,” where super-sized dinos face dumb capitalists and bleeding-heart environmentalists toil to save the day. We all know the drill.
In the wake of the box-office lunacy that drove “Jurassic World” to become the fifth-highest grossing movie of all time, “Fallen Kingdom” is a frustrating display of overconfidence. It’s occasionally elevated by director J.A. Bayona’s penchant for taut human-versus-dino showdowns, but fleeting moments of inspired filmmaking can’t overshadow the broader tendency of this material to sag into stupidity. Campy dialogue and ludicrous plot twists abound: The fate of these resurrected creatures remains uncertain, but the formula for their movies will never go extinct.
If nature simply ran its course, “Fallen Kingdom” would run a lot shorter than two hours and 10 minutes. As the story begins, a disastrous volcano has erupted on Isla Nublar, the Pacific Island where misguided entrepreneur John Hammond first launched his park all those movies ago. Humans abandoned the chaotic place at the end of the last installment, and news anchors wrestle with an ecological conundrum: Do nothing, and this ill-fated experiment will end with a second dinosaur extinction; or, save the critters from certain death. There’s a tantalizing allegory for modern ecological activism lurking somewhere (and fleeting glimpses of Washington protests briefly take the movie in that direction) but ultimately this setup provides just enough backstory for Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard to start running through the jungle again.
Animal activist Claire (Howard) ended “Jurassic World” in the arms of buff trainer Owen (Pratt); they’ve since split up, but fate — or, rather, a lame sequel — thrusts them back together. When Claire fails to get official government funding to help save the dinosaurs, she’s recruited by Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell), Hammond’s original business partner, to aid a private venture back to the island to capture the dinosaurs for part of a mysterious scheme. Lockwood seems harmless enough, but his right-hand man Eli Mills (Rafe Spall) harbors a devious agenda tied to wildlife trafficking and genetic engineering yada yada. (Cue Spall’s devilish grin and slicked-back hair.)
The archetypes thus telegraphed, Owen finally gives in to join the expedition. He wants to save his favorite raptor, Blue, the predator he trained from birth in the previous movie. But Blue’s just another MacGuffin in a movie filled with them. Pretty soon, Owen and Claire are running from all kinds of angry dinosaurs, and lava, joined by a pair of half-hearted companions who could probably anchor a more intriguing movie. Computer geek Franklin (Justice Smith) and Dr. Zia Rodriguez (Daniella Pineda) are so much more compelling than the on-off romantic chemistry that defines Pratt and Howard it’s a wonder the movie even bothered to keep them at center stage.
But there they are, contending with the anarchic island and gun-wielding lunatic Wheatley (Ted Levine), a gruff military man imported from whatever computer code creates gruff military men for movies these days. He’s been assigned by Spall’s character to haul the dinosaurs off the island however possible, and so he does. One cramped boat ride (and an absurd dino-E.R. rescue mission) later, and “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” shifts focus to a gothic mansion, where an auction for caged dinosaurs provides a unique setting for more PG-13 slaughter.
At least the shift in scenery gives Bayona a different sort of playground. With dinosaurs running loose in tight corridors and stony basements, “Fallen Kingdom” becomes less like a slavish imitation of its predecessors and more like a poor-man’s “Gremlins.” It’s still pretty hollow, but in this day and age there’s a certain subversive kick involved in watching appalling business types run in terror from the same thing they’d hoped to monetize.
The movie’s second half also allows for a more distinctive lead character, with newcomer Isabella Sermon as Maisie, who lopes through narrow corridors and elevator shafts as she evades dinosaur attacks (as well as a few human ones). Her quiet shock and astonishment at the lunacy surrounding her brings a credible gaze to circumstances in dire need of it. “Fallen Kingdom” could have used more of her.
Instead, Pratt’s Indiana Jones swagger and constant eye-rolling leads the day, while Howard remains in the dispiriting role of second fiddle, almost always at the mercy of his decision making. Even when she takes charge, it’s treated as a crass revelation: Look! The woman you thought was useless did a thing!
Despite the awful characterizations and plot twists of Derek Connolly and Colin Trevorrow’s screenplay, it appears that Bayona made an effort to mine great set pieces from the material. It often seems like he’s trying to stuff elements of his three previous features into a single blockbuster jolt: There’s the creaky house of his masterful horror movie “The Orphanage,” the child-versus-beast dynamic of “A Monster Calls,” and the apocalyptic natural chaos of his tsunami survival story “The Impossible,” all packed with all the organizing principles of a sandbag. Look for a nifty long take in the confines of a flooded capsule, a genuinely eerie bedroom showdown, and another one that finds humans battling a giant carnivore while dangling from a roof made of glass.
It’ll keep you watching, but to what end? “Fallen Kingdom” is at its worst when attempting topicality (the testosterone-fueled Wheatley refers to one of our heroes as a “nasty woman”) or when beefing up its crass plot. The invention of souped-up dinosaurs feels like half an idea, much like it did the last time around. The Indoraptor, a laboratory-designed monstrosity designed to attack anything with a laser pointed at it, seems like a pretty costly hassle when computerized machinery can do much worse. Then there’s poor BD Wong, the only other actor who appeared in the first “Jurassic Park” reprising his role here as a bland mad scientist role that degrades the more sophisticated sci-fi themes at play in the original.
On the other hand, there’s a strange intellectual undercurrent lurking beneath all this inanity. “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” works overtime to reflect its current moment. While it falls short as a movie, it does manage to epitomize an age of anxiety defined by the unexpected threats of the Trump era. The idealism of “Jurassic Park” today looks mighty quaint; as Dr. Malcolm concludes, we’re getting used to “sudden, radical, erratic changes woven into the fabric of existence.” To that end, the second wind of this franchise caught our culture off guard, but now it has found its groove. The new movie ends on a cliffhanger, anticipating the next installment already in the works, and winds up as an example of the very thing it’s designed to indict: Mediocrity produced on a grand scale, and the means of getting away with it.
“Jurassic World: The Fallen Kingdom” opens June 22.