Dinosaurs: Keep them alive or kill them off? It's a question that haunts the human characters in between fireball-dodging cardio workouts in "Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom," the spectacularly ho-hum new entry in Hollywood's longest-running parable about the fatal idiocy of messing with Mother Nature. At this point in the game — five films deep in a franchise that has grossed more than $2 billion worldwide over a quarter-century — that question might seem less applicable to the dinosaurs than to the movies themselves.
One of the minor pleasures of this series is that it has begun to provide a running (and I do mean running) commentary on its own existence. "Jurassic World" (2015), named for a doomed dinosaur theme park on the remote Isla Nublar, tried to enliven its jaw-snapping, earth-trampling proceedings with a strain of self-reflexive humor. The movie, directed and co-written by Colin Trevorrow, poked cynical fun at the mercenary nature of the Hollywood assembly line, basically offering a preemptive apology for falling so far short of "Jurassic Park," Steven Spielberg's peerless 1993 adaptation of Michael Crichton's bestseller.
The task of directing "Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom" has landed in the more confident hands of J.A. Bayona, an expert craftsman who handles scenes of large-scale destruction ("The Impossible") and intimate, squirm-inducing horror ("The Orphanage") with equal ease. Both of those action-movie modes come into play here, though not for sufficiently lengthy or inspired stretches to prevail over the screenplay, a laborious and predictable narrative contraption from Trevorrow and his regular writing partner Derek Connolly.
Still, credit where credit is due: The writers have made some welcome adjustments right off the bat. The earlier movie's smirking self-regard and wall-to-wall product placements are largely absent, as is the tired, ugly spectacle of blood-stained tourists fleeing en masse.
Former park employee Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard), previously seen running in high heels from an Indominus Rex, has brought some much more sensible footwear this time around, and her character overall has been conceived along less insultingly vapid lines. (Action-wise, she still takes a backseat to her sparring partner and erstwhile love interest, Owen Grady, played again by that muscly charmer Chris Pratt.)
The abandoned park itself remains a vast, crumbling ruin, albeit a more visually stunning one than ever. That's because the whole joint is about to be swallowed up by Isla Nublar's conveniently reactivated volcano, and Universal Pictures appears to have been especially magma-nimous with regard to the CGI lava budget. ("Jurashic World," anyone?)
All that fire-belching mayhem is accompanied by some similarly explosive moral hand-wringing: Are these genetically engineered dinosaurs entitled to the same U.S. government protections extended to other endangered species? No, argues chaos theorist Ian Malcolm (franchise mainstay Jeff Goldblum, back for a quick cameo).
But Claire and Owen launch their own daring counter-argument, returning to Isla Nubar at the request of aging billionaire Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell), a former colleague of John Hammond (the late Richard Attenborough) and his fellow mastermind behind the original Jurassic Park experiment. Their mission will be to rescue as many of the surviving dinosaurs as possible — including Blue, the extraordinarily intelligent and empathetic velociraptor whom Owen trained as a hatchling — and relocate them to another island sanctuary.
Nothing goes according to plan, which may lead you to wonder why it all doesn't feel more surprising. Naturally, Claire and Owen enter the field with some wisecracking backup from a gutsy paleo-veterinarian (Daniella Pineda) and a scaredy-cat tech whiz (Justice Smith), the latter sufficiently annoying to make you actively root for his demise. And it wouldn't be a proper "Jurassic" movie without at least one endangered moppet in the mix, this one a clever, mischievous 10-year-old named Maisie (Isabella Sermon). (A Henry James reference? That's a surprise, I guess.)
The cataclysmic destruction of Isla Nubar does bring about at least one significant change in direction: After four movies' worth of lush island backdrops, "Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom" finally gets the dinosaurs off the coast and onto the mainland, with their well-meaning protectors, money-grubbing exploiters and wretched victims following suit. (Rafe Spall, Ted Levine, Toby Jones and series regular BD Wong round out the ensemble as exploiters of various degrees.)
Halfway through, the movie effectively turns into "Jurassic Manor," and the change of scenery is not unwelcome. Certainly there's no shortage of action-staging areas and hiding places on the sprawling Lockwood estate, including a high-ceilinged gallery of dinosaur fossils that harks back to the chase-thriller pleasures of the original "Jurassic Park."
It's possible to watch this movie, in other words, and feel that the series is carving out a new direction, returning to its ancient stomping grounds and sticking to a familiar holding pattern, all at the same time. Such is the repetitive, rudderless nature of so much big-budget franchise filmmaking, even with a proven talent like Bayona behind the camera. There are exceptions to the rule, of course, notably the recently reprised "Planet of the Apes" cycle, which invested a moribund intellectual property with an emotional and philosophical depth rarely seen in recent studio movies.
I mention "Planet of the Apes" because its thematic concerns — how we treat our fellow species in the wake of global environmental catastrophe — are entirely consistent with those of the "Jurassic" movies, especially the ones advanced in this new-and-faintly-improved iteration. The key difference, of course, is that "Apes" brilliantly subverted genre conventions by bringing the viewer into deep empathy with its simian population, effectively redefining humanity for a post-apocalyptic world.
Cataclysmic though the circumstances may be in the Jurassic Cinematic Universe, it would be hard to imagine this Spielberg-produced franchise pulling off an equivalent shift in perspective. Those scaly green dinosaurs, while hardly devoid of brains or emotions, elicit little more than shrieks and the occasional "aww"; no matter how many genetic upgrades are administered, they exist to stomp, rage, bite, claw and terrorize. The metaphor is so obvious it practically ceases to be a metaphor: These movies will go on and on, but some of us are still waiting for them to evolve.