Like an ancient volcano thundering to life, the “Jurassic” realm keeps roaring onto film screens with unexpected energy. The fifth episode in the series, “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom,” is the latest and arguably greatest of all.
It equals many achievements of Steven Spielberg’s 1993 breakthrough in computer-animated fantasy and, in smart-alecky, self-satirizing ways, even surpasses it. This is the T. rex of franchise entertainment, bigger than its rivals, bolder and coming on strong from the get-go to the very last moment. Run away, “Star Wars Story” spinoffs, you cannot compete with this.
There’s a lot of standard sequel material here, of course. You can’t win the global market with a dinosaur movie lacking angry raptors on the run and heroic humans in breakneck escapes. But the basic ingredients of the script (co-written by Colin Trevorrow, who directed the monumentally successful “Jurassic World”) are layered with idiosyncratic ideas and ironic subtexts right in plain view.
It isn’t on the gonzo level of series star Chris Pratt’s “Guardians of the Galaxy” goofs, but it’s still outstanding. Like the sci-fi satires “District 9” and “Starship Troopers” or the recent, serious “Planet of the Apes” trilogy, it has the feeling of a classic slam-bang thrill ride updated for the paranoid funhouse of the current moment.
The action begins on a dark and rainy night at the fabled South American dinosaur sanctuary of Isla Nublar, as a security squad learns that cages and huge barrier walls aren’t always effective. We move to a TV news feed about the disaster that notes the president doesn’t believe dinosaurs ever existed. Add a cameo of Jeff Goldblum, who played scientist/philosopher Dr. Ian Malcolm in the first two “Jurassic Park” films, warning about man’s responsibility to nature at a U.S. Senate hearing conducted by self-important nitwits.
If all that doesn’t seem relevant, check out the Hawaii-style lava apocalypse about to melt down the island menagerie. Things feeling familiar now?
Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard return as Owen and Claire, former employees of the failed dinosaur getaway, which closed as a luxury theme park after a feeding frenzy by tall, toothy reptiles in the previous chapter.
Owen remains a dinosaur whisperer whose spiritual connection to the creatures has led him to train the most intelligent examples of the species, and to work for the protection of all. Claire, the resort’s former manager, developed moral objections to the whole enterprise, which was almost equally fatal to vacationers and Velociraptors.
The film properly handles the actors’ lack of romantic chemistry by informing us that Claire and Owen had a brief bygone fling and remained friends. Now they work like a brave-big-brother/plucky-little-sister team, fighting to rescue the island’s remaining dinosaurs from new threats of extinction. Those include the rivers of lava coursing from Isla Nublar’s erupting crater, and greedy mercenaries allegedly preserving the remaining creatures for aged gazillionaire Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell).
Nearly a fossil himself, Lockwood lives in a gothic mansion in Northern California with his 10-year-old granddaughter Maisie (Isabella Sermon). He says he wants to use the cloning technology he invented to maintain the ancient species. As most viewers will instantly suspect, it’s more complicated than that.
The film is directed in high style by Spanish filmmaker J.A. Bayona, who made one of the era’s prime horror films with 2007’s “The Orphanage.” He clearly enjoys Spielberg’s first two forays in the “Jurassic” empire. In terms of precise pacing, trim character work and flawless optics, there’s hardly a shot here that couldn’t have come from the master himself. But Bayona is conducting that familiar symphony with his own energy.
The film’s most visceral moments are not all about humans being ripped apart and eaten. They take place amid the animal skeletons displayed in the old tycoon’s manor house. There, the jungle monsters creep around like evil spirits, creating hair-raising frights through their unexpected shadows, slowly extended claws and gargoyle-like images atop the steeply slanted roof amid a lightning storm. It plays like a menacing passage from a supernatural thriller, patiently building up Maisie’s vulnerability until she, and we, are scared to smithereens.
Some fans may grouse that too few people are seized, chomped and swallowed, but less feels like just enough. If sequel-itis has become the incurable infection of big-studio filmmaking, an antidote may lie in this movie’s fusion of proven material and singular creative flair.