‘Jurassic World Dominion’ Review: Laura Dern and Sam Neill Are Back in a Franchise That’s Stubbornly Determined to Repeat Itself

‘Jurassic World Dominion’ Review: Laura Dern
©Universal/Courtesy Everett Collection

With 1990’s “Jurassic Park,” novelist Michael Crichton took a hard look at what was happening in the field of genetic research and warned, via mathematician Ian Malcolm, “Scientists are actually preoccupied with accomplishment. So they are focused on whether they can do something. They never stop to ask if they should do something.”

Across six movies and massive advances in visual effects technology, Hollywood has been wrestling with a version of that same craven because-they-can impulse. The original “Jurassic Park” film was the kind of accomplishment whose creation effectively justified its existence: Steven Spielberg’s 1993 blockbuster pushed the limits of what movies could depict, while keeping audiences focused on the ethical questions that had concerned Crichton.

Sequels were inevitable, and there, Malcolm’s words rang true as the franchise became guilty of the very thing it pretends to criticize: unleashing dinosaurs on the world with no real purpose other than profit. Each subsequent installment teased some version of the question, “What if dinosaurs ever escaped the island?” But not a one has been up to the task of following through. “The Lost World” came closest. Remember the scene of a renegade T. rex rampaging through San Diego? It chased a bus through the window of a Blockbuster Video store. Those are the kind of consequences the franchise has been promising all along. But the latest cycle, which bears the misleading “Jurassic World” moniker, has kept the action relatively confined.

Director Colin Trevorrow’s 2015 reboot — essentially an amplified remake of the original, just with less compelling characters — took place back on Isla Nublar. The dinos escaped the island in “Fallen Kingdom,” only to spend most of their time terrorizing 11-year-old Maisie Lockwood (Isabella Sermon), while leaving the rest of the planet largely unbothered. While lousy, that film at least was directed by Spielberg’s spirit-successor J. A. Bayona. And just before credits rolled, it offered a glimpse of the movie most of us thought we were getting all along: We saw a Monosaurus stalking surfers and a T. rex roaring at a captive lion — king of the beasts meets king of the beasts — while Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) remarked, “Humans and dinosaurs are now going to be forced to coexist.”

At long last, with “Jurassic World Dominion,” it’s time to take Crichton’s concept to its dystopian conclusion. “Dominion” opens with a few clever examples of dinos among us: A Monosaurus upending a fishing boat in the Baltic Sea, Pteranodons nesting on the roof of the tallest skyscraper, etc. But it doesn’t include the impressive five-minute prologue released last fall, in which a T. rex attacked a drive-in movie theater. Instead, “Dominion” spends very little time worrying about how humans get along with these fearsome reptiles, sending most of its characters to another remote dino habitat.

Surprisingly, the greatest threat facing humankind in “Dominion” is devastating swarms of giant locusts, resurrected by the Monsanto-like BioSyn corporation. Yes, locusts. You know what else is resurrected, lifted from “Jurassic Park” like so much prehistoric DNA? The locust problem is an excuse to bring back Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern) and Alan Grant (Sam Neill). For the franchise’s teenage target market, the original is a “classic” movie too old for many of them to have seen. However, for slightly older audiences, this reunion is a gift, recombining the chemistry that worked nearly three decades ago (Goldblum’s also along for the ride).

Back at BioSyn, mad scientist Henry Wu (BD Wong) explains that our best shot at beating the buggers is to reverse-engineer a genetic process used on the aforementioned girl. Turns out Maisie Lockwood was not only the world’s first human clone, but one cured of her mom’s terminal disease via a process that reprogrammed the DNA of every cell in her body. I suspect that Crichton would have approved of this kooky sci-fi twist. He loved to exploit our fear of technology. But that’s not how “Dominion” operates: Instead of interrogating this latest genetic manipulation, the script passes it off as an infallible solution, focusing the rest of its attention on the same thing every previous installment has — namely, likable characters running from dinosaurs, while the bad guys get their hands and heads bitten off.

Of the three “Jurassic World” movies, “Dominion” is the least silly and most entertaining. But that’s not saying much. This “stop to ask if they should” cycle’s human characters were never especially interesting, and why should we trust Trevorrow to suddenly make them so? Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) has always been basic, while her rugged, raptor-wrangling boyfriend, Owen Grady (Chris Pratt), should’ve been dino chow long ago. (Does anyone really believe that holding an open palm up to a super-predator will keep it from mauling you? Just ask Siegfried and Roy how well that works.) Together, Claire and Owen have adopted Maisie, keeping her hidden in a remote cabin, where liberated mama raptor Blue runs wild with her baby, Beta. While the Jurassic World dinosaurs were all bred to be sterile, we need only refer to Dr. Malcolm once again — “Life finds a way” — to explain how Blue reproduced on her own.

Now 15, Maisie’s reaching that age where she’s curious about her origins and wants to see the world. That wish is soon granted when BioSys goon Rainn Delacourt (Scott Haze) kidnaps her and Beta, shipping them off to a black market in Malta. Claire and Owen jet off after her, reuniting with Barry Sembène (Omar Sy), now conveniently employed by French intelligence, for the film’s most dazzling sequence. In Malta, “Dominion” gives us a taste of how smugglers and other shady characters might exploit the existence of dinosaurs: We see the creatures sold as exotic pets, sampled as rare meat and pitted against one another in cruel cockfights. It’s a criminal underworld not unlike the one Jabba the Hutt ran in “The Empire Strikes Back,” and watching the good guys disrupt it is a thrill. There, we meet Kayla Watts (DeWanda Wise), a Han Solo-like pilot for hire with no allegiances who agrees to help Claire and Owen.

“Dominion” also introduces several new species, nearly all of which reinforce the notion that dinosaurs were best left extinct. In Malta, henchwoman Soyona Santos (Dichen Lachman) unleashes her Atrociraptors, which latch on to whatever target she chooses and pursue it until one or the other of them is dead. The ensuing chase is the most effective action sequence Trevorrow has directed yet and suggests he may actually be the right guy for the job. The earlier “Jurassic World” was a big step up from time-travel indie “Safety Not Guaranteed,” but ultimately proved beyond his competence level, while “The Book of Henry” — the only film he’s made in between — was just yikes. Here, he’s found his groove, if not necessarily the film’s reason to exist.

Ellie and Alan eventually convene with Claire and Owen at BioSyn HQ, where Campbell Scott appears as Lewis Dodgson — different actor, but the same guy who’d paid Dennis Nedry to smuggle embryos in “Jurassic Park.” In other words, this guy’s overdue to get eaten. He outlasted the competition, and now he owns the science behind all these dinos, using it to clone locusts for some reason. Owen plays him as a sociopathic Steve Jobs type, constantly popping Chiclets to calm his nerves (I’m not sure what Apple did to tick off Hollywood, but Jobs and Elon Musk have become the model for many a corporate villain of late). Meanwhile, Dodgson’s next-in-command, Ramsay Cole (Mamoudou Athie), is a surprisingly engaging character, thanks largely to the original way Athie delivers impossible expository lines. A better version of this movie might have focused on Ramsay trying to assist the various scientists in dealing with dinos out there in the real world.

Everything that happens at BioSyn goes more or less according to the “Jurassic” playbook. Still, it’s fun to see Dern and Neill together again on-screen, and Goldblum is great at making doomsday sound like a done deal. Trevorrow packs the movie with sly winks to the earlier films, plus “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and other Spielberg movies, and he commits to staging many of the dino interactions the way the master once did, by blending practical, animatronic critters with state-of-the-art CGI.

The movie promises yet another bigger-than-T. rex apex predator, the Giganotosaurus, destined to do battle with the unlikely underdog — though the duel is partly obscured in the background (been there, done that, I guess) until the arrival of a surprise ally. Nearly all the other species appear designed to prove Crichton’s theory that dinosaurs did not go extinct but became birds. Several of them feature primitive feathers, while others can fly. Fine, but it’s not the kind of evolution audiences are looking for from “Dominion.” Once again, the movie ends with images of dinosaurs mingling with humans, leaving us to wonder when this franchise is ever going to really engage with that idea in a meaningful way.

From Variety US