Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is pretty well dumb across the board, but there is one respect in which it's kind of so unexpectedly smart that I absolutely have to assume it's on purpose. And that precise combination of "almost entirely dumb, but smart in just enough ways that you can see the filmmakers peering through and winking at you" is what have I wanted from a sequel to Jurassic Park basically since they started making them, and so it is that after four tries in 21 years, I've finally enjoyed the experience of watching a film in this franchise other than the first one.

But I was talking about dumbness. So quickly, the plot of Fallen Kingdom: (written, like its imemdiate predecessor, by Colin Trevorrow & Derek Connolly) a few years after the events of 2015's Jurassic World, the Costa Rican protectorate of Isla Nublar has been left alone as an unmolested preserve for the genetically engineered dinosaurs that live there. Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard), the former head of operations of the now-defunct Jurassic World theme park, has since devoted her time to leading a dino-rights activist group. When we see Claire for the first time, she's just suffered a setback: the U.S. government has decided not to intervene in extracting dinosaurs from the island, which has very suddenly revealed itself to be an active volcano on the verge of eruption. A glimmer of hope comes in the form of Eli Mills (Rafe Spall), the assistant to the enormously wealthy Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell) ex-business partner of the late John Hammond, whose dream this all was in the first place. They want Claire to join a mercenary team to Isla Nublar to help rescue as many animals as possible, and to convince her former lover, velociraptor trainer Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) to come with, in the hopes of saving the very last of the raptors, Blue.

It's different in all of the particulars, but in the general sweep, this feels rather close to the scenario of The Lost World: Jurassic Park, the second film in the series (and one that is alluded to twice, after having been entirely disappeared from the continuity of Jurassic World). The Lost World, of course, is a film that has acquired something of a consensus that one of its most noticeable flaws is that the protagonists are stupid as rocks and make only bad decisions for two straight hours. Here, then, is that stupid-genius that I was talking about up top: Fallen Kingdom also makes its protagonists stupid as rocks, and then they get in trouble for it. We know, because we saw the opening scene in which a group of mercs steal the bones of the great big evil Indominus Rex and inadvertently permit a giant prehistoric seabeast out into the open ocean, that things are bleaker than they seem, but even without that, Claire and Owen are self-evidently gullible for believing everything that they're told, and not just because they're told it by Rafe Spall and Ted Levine (who plays the lead mercenary, and is certainly my pick for best-in-show). So that's stupid-genius part one: recreate the problems of the worst film in the series, only do it knowingly, and thus correct them.

Stupid genius part two is that, having let us assume that Fallen Kingdom will just be a do-over of The Lost World, the film pulls the rug out, and this is actually why it's my favorite sequel. We've had, so far, four movies in a row where people go to a jungle island off the coast of Costa Rica and are chased by dinosaurs, and it's never gotten less contrived. Fallen Kingdom is the one that finally says, "yes, but what if we don't do that?" and so after playing as a by-the-books Jurassic Park sequel for an hour, it changes into something much weirder.

To put it simply, it turns into a Gothic horror movie with mutant dinosaurs, and if they'd described it that way from the start, this would have been one of my most-anticipated films of 2018. Truth be told, the opening hour of Fallen Kingdom really isn't more than just iteratively better than Jurassic World, and in some important ways is worse. The characters in general behave as inexplicably as ever in a franchise where human behavior has long since ceased to be any kind of a priority, and both Owen and Claire are clearly worse than they were in the last film, in writing, motivation, and acting (Pratt especially - Howard isn't really any worse than last time, though that was certainly bad enough). The two new comic relief sidekicks are irredeemably awful, particularly the activist vet Zia (Daniela Pineda) who was written by people with no clear sense of how activists might talk in the real world. Also, though I contend that it's not unaware that it's a fucking stupid movie, it is a fucking stupid movie, whereas Jurassic World was closer to just being goddamn dumb.

Anyway, if we spot the film its characters (which this series has never done well) and its plot (which it has only done sort of well once), I do find that Fallen Kingdom is a substantially more enjoyable thing to watch than the last movie for certain, and it takes absolutely no time at all to establish that. The opening sequence, set on a rain-streaked tropical night, with the ruined contours of Isla Nublar and its monstrous fauna defined almost solely though well-timed lightning strikes, is absolutely the best this franchise has been the "raptors in the grass" scene of The Lost World, and it's not even the best part of the movie. What we have here, quite obviously, is an actually good director in the form of J.A. Bayona, and moreover, good at something that none of Steven Spielberg, Joe Johnston, or Colin Trevorrow were before him: he is good at horror, something he ably demonstrated in his first, best feature, 2007's The Orphanage. The Jurassic Park picture are generally described as "scary", and give or take a few T-Rex silhouettes, this has never really been my experience. Bayona, though, is making a proper monster movie, and almost every time there's an opportunity to use the visual language of a haunted house movie or a slasher film, he takes it. It helps that he has a proper monster, which like everything best in the movie, doesn't show up in earnest until the last 30 minutes, so I feel hamstrung in talking about it; but there are some genuinely great moments, and quite a few moments that aren't "great" but are certainly big and broad in an appealing way.

That's definitely all the film is going for. This is very much a big, dumb, fun movie, the best triangulation of those three qualities in quite some while. And it certainly knows its B-movie history: that's surely the best explanation for why a previously-unimagined volcano pops up in the middle of Isla Nublar, and it's also extremely evident as the film progresses through its second half and Bayona piles up the nods to Universal and Hammer horror movies (there is a shot of a dinosaur baying in front of a full moon while standing atop the intricate Gothic crags of an old British manor home - one that exists on the California coast, but the point remains - and I wold have forgiven the movie many worse sins just for that single image).

Bayona's deft hand at horror imagery helps give the film its own loopy personality, something previously absent from these sequels. But it helps that for the first time since the Godzilla homage that ended The Lost World, the series has decided to do something different: it has turned the series into a ridiculous sci-fi thriller about shadowy men in suits bidding on dinosaurs from the basement of an evil castle, of a super-smart dino monster literally winking at the audi ence before it commits its wicked acts, of ludicrous twists that promise an even trashier sequel than this one. Basically, the film has turned into the most expensive made-for-SyFy, Asylum-level collection of garish sci-fi clichés dressed up with a shockingly good cast (besides Levine, Cromwell, and Spall, the cast also enjoys the talents of ringers Toby Jones and Geraldine Chaplin) and a lovely mixture of practical animatronics and CGI. That, plus Bayona's obvious enthusiasm for making a ludicrously over-the-top creature feature, makes Fallen Kingdom a rock-solid piece of disposable popcorn entertainment: in no conceivable way good for you, and every thought it has in its head is second-hand and very silly, but even at its lowest, I was never not having fun.

Reviews in this series
Jurassic Park (Spielberg, 1993)
The Lost World: Jurassic Park (Spielberg, 1997)
Jurassic Park III (Johnston, 2001)
Jurassic World (Trevorrow, 2015)
Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (Bayona, 2018)