Think back to 1993, an ancient era when cavemen in flannel roamed the earth, a gentleman named William Jefferson Clinton was President and Twitter was not even a toxic gleam in Jack Dorsey’s eye. You’re sitting in a darkened theater, waiting for a movie to start, when the trailer for an upcoming Universal Pictures release fills the screen. Sir Richard Attenborough is speaking of “attractions so astounding that they’ll capture the imagination of the entire planet.” Sam Neill, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum and several kid actors stare at something offscreen with a look of wonder and awe. There are glimpses of massive creatures, viewed from the ground up, but only glimpses; the closest things to money shots are a scaly foot plopping down in the mud and a T. Rex’s eye peering into a car window. But your imagination is, like these millennia-old feral beasts, already running wild.
Even if you didn’t know the premise of Michael Crichton’s bestselling novel Jurassic Park — scientists recreate dinosaurs from DNA samples, somebody builds a tourist-trap theme park for them, chomp chomp chomp — you knew what Steven Spielberg could do with scared onlookers and a giant, toothy animal. You had the sense that this would be something big, something mind-blowing, or at the very least, a lot of summer-blockbuster fun. And when the movie adaptation finally came out in June of that year, and people saw how the filmmakers blended animatronics and bleeding-edge digital effects to bring these gargantuan lizards back to life, and Spielberg worked his suburban-Hitchcock, multiplex-seducing magic (the scene with the reverberating water glass still inspires goosebumps), it genuinely produced a buzz. You might not have even liked the movie. You still appreciated the art of the cinematic thrill ride.
That original Jurassic Park moment now feels as temporally distant as the age that’s namechecked in the title; so, for that matter, does the world that existed when Jurassic World hit theaters as well. (When the inaugural movie of this second trilogy was released on June 12th, 2015, Donald Trump was still four days away from officially announcing his intention to run for the presidency.) Returns had been diminishing since the very first Jurassic sequel in 1997 — no offense, Julianne Moore and you’re-so-money–era Vince Vaughn. And given the way these new movies didn’t add much to the Jurrasicverse other than a rough-riding, more-rugged-than usual Chris Pratt and jokes about Bryce Dallas Howard dodging dinos while in heels, let’s just say that expectations were best kept low. Still, the sheer sloppiness and slapdash vibe of 2018’s Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom was a bit of shock; you’d have thought the movie was assembled on the go while its creative team was being chased by an extremely angry Indoraptor. At the time, we declared it to be the worst of the Jurassic movies to date. We now owe that film an apology.
Were Jurassic World Dominion not already the conclusion of this nex-gen reboot cycle, you would naturally assume that it’d be the last entry — or more accurately, the final straw — of this series as a whole. It’s not so much a movie as an extinction-level event for the franchise, one in which the last remaining bits of good will and investment in this particular intellectual property are snuffed out like so many unlucky Stegosaurses. This is a film that’s been handed a rich set-up: Having been released from captivity at the end of the previous chapter, all of these recreated apex predators and lumbering, prehistoric behemoths are now roaming, stomping and wreaking havoc among us. And then, after a poorly executed opening sequence and a preamble that mashes together news scenes of dinosaurs skulking through the streets, it then spends the rest of its two-and-half-hour running time acting like it can barely be bothered to acknowledge that scenario at all. The use of the word “dominion” following the brand in the title is a joke. This is a movie that keeps going out of its way to be any kind of blockbuster except an actual Jurassic World movie.
Not that JWD doesn’t assemble as many current and formerly inactive series members as it possibly can. It naturally brings back Pratt’s trainer Owen Grady, now wrangling Parasaurolophuses on the open plains, and Howard’s Claire Dearing, who’s leading the equivalent of a dino-PETA organization. Daniella Pineda’s spiky paleo-veterinarian and Justice Smith’s geeky I.T. guy from Fallen Kingdom are here too, as is Omar Sy’s ex-World employee, B.D. Wong’s twitchy scientist and Isabella Sermon’s perpetually-in-peril adolescent/park founder’s granddaughter, who holds the key to several dozen of the film’s hundred-plus plot points. And for all you original Jurassic Park fans, the original holy trinity of Dern, Neill and Goldblum are along for the ride as well, with the first two investigating why dachshund-sized locusts are decimating crops throughout the Midwest.
What connects all of these characters, even as the film flings them all over the globe and plays musical chairs with its parallel narratives, is a slimy tech guru named Lewis Dodgson (Campbell Scott) — think Steve Jobs meets Elon Musk meets a sociopathic whippet. He’s hoping to use all of the genetic info to “make the world a better place,” which translates to generating a huge profit for his company, Biosyn. It’s why he wants to bring Sermon and a baby Velociraptor to his remote Bond-villain lair by any means necessary, in the hopes of unlocking some key DNA info that’s “the most valuable intellectual property on the planet.” (Technically, Marvel currently holds that distinction, but we’re not about to split hairs.) Oh, and the fact that Goldblum’s Dr. Ian Malcolm also happens to be an employee of Dodgson’s is a happy coincidence.
It’s hopefully not a spoiler to say that, after following a lot of respective pairings in lots of different locales, all Jurassic-related parties eventually converge in one place for a big franchise family reunion. Who wouldn’t want to see Howard and Dern’s characters share a set piece, or hear Goldblum’s brainiac doctor bust Pratt’s alpha-male balls? And yet even this, which is designed to be Dominion‘s biggest no-brainer coup, feels like an easy nostalgia grab that turns into a no-go dead end. Why stick two generations of Jurassic MVPs together, only to drop them into listless action sequences and rehashed rescue-mission bits, armed with little more than stale banter and a Taser? Compare this to the gathering of webslingers in Spider-Man: No Way Home, which treated its cross-generational team-up with genuine affection, humor and a sense of going above and beyond the call of fan-service duty, and you can see how weak this attempt at an all-star game is. The mere herding of players onto the same screen isn’t enough. You have to give them a story and a shared experience that’s worthy of them — and of the moviegoers who’d presumably find this crossover to be a gift from the I.P. gods.
That would mean Dominion would also have the desire to committing to actually being a Jurassic movie, however, and despite the fact that director Colin Trevorrow was the helmer behind the original Jurassic World — and cowriter Derek Connolly had a hand in the other JWs — there’s a sense that they’re more interested in giving audiences a blockbuster buffet than a well-cooked entrée. A chase scene involving Pratt, a motorcycle, some dinos and the winding streets of Malta that, while thrilling, is designed to remind you of every other spy thriller of the past 20 years; meanwhile, a pursuit over rooftops and through apartment windows feels directly cribbed from the Bourne movies. You can pick out elements from Black Widow, the Indiana Jones films, the Fast and Furious saga, and a lot of other popcorn-movie flotsam and jetsam that are being haphazardly thrown together in the name of one-size-fits-all entertainment. Even the new characters — notably Mamoudou Athie’s corporate lackey and DeWanda Wise’s world-weary pilot — are stock archetypes borrowed from the Pop Culture 101 stockpile. (Wise’s entire performance actually feels beamed in from a much better franchise.) The dinosaurs barely even feel like supporting players here. They’re practically extras.
You’d never accuse the original Jurassic Park of being pure — it’s an old giant-monsters-run-amuck flick done up in fancy Nineties duds. Yet the way that Spielberg and his cast worked those drive-in movies chills and leaned into those genre curves made it feel exhilarating, if not sui generis. It was a sleeker model with impeccable craftsmanship, a slab of passionate pulp with a high-gloss. Dominion feels like a contractual obligation at best, and a D.O.A. attempt to wring one last drop out of an already depleted brand at worst. At one point, a T. Rex wanders into a scene and surveying everything around him, throws back his head and let’s a long howl of rage. Had he done that for over two hours, he would have known exactly how we felt.