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Jurassic World Dominion review: Dinosaur doldrums

After five films that collectively earned more than $5 billion and a trio of Academy Awards, if there’s one thing the Jurassic Park franchise should be good at by now, it’s giving audiences plenty of exciting dinosaur-fueled action in each installment. After all, the dinosaurs are the real stars of the films, aren’t they? It might seem like that should go without saying, but Jurassic World Dominion appears to have missed the message.

The concluding chapter in the Jurassic World sequel trilogy might be full of fun reunions for the franchise’s characters, but in pushing dinosaurs to the background in favor of a more conventional, action-adventure ensemble feature, Jurassic World Dominion abandons too much of what made the franchise so reliably entertaining.

On familiar stomping ground

The cast of Jurassic World: Dominion stares up at an approaching dinosaur.

Directed by Colin Trevorrow (Jurassic World) from a script he penned with Emily Carmichael (Pacific Rim: Uprising), Jurassic World Dominion picks up four years after the events of the last film. Dinosaurs roam the Earth again after the destruction of Isla Nublar, and humanity is struggling to coexist with the resurrected creatures from its past. When yet another company looks to exploit the dinosaurs for financial gain, the scheme brings together various characters with plenty of experience with each of the parks — both the recent iteration and the original islands — to deal with another dino-catastrophe.

It’s a familiar formula that has been successfully repeated throughout the franchise over and over again, with a mix of groundbreaking visual effects and set pieces that find new, creative ways to put the human characters in peril while delivering a satisfying — and surprisingly unique — experience in each chapter of the saga.

Dominion breaks from that tradition, though, with a film more focused on its talented cast of actors hailing from both the original, franchise-spawning 1993 film and the recent trilogy. Sam Neill, Laura Dern, and Jeff Goldblum reprise their roles from the original film, while Jurassic World and Fallen Kingdom stars Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard also return for the latest adventure. Various other actors from both the sequel and original trilogies return in supporting roles, with each of them getting an on-screen nod or two in a film that often feels more like a reunion tour than a fresh adventure.

A dinosaur approaches two characters on the ice in a scene from Jurassic World: Dominion.

The five aforementioned actors make for a crowded cast, but Dominion does its best to move them around and mix them up in varying combinations, letting characters from the franchise’s past and present play off each other in some entertaining ways. Bringing Neill and Pratt’s characters together, for example, creates the opportunity for some funny exchanges about the pair’s differing approach to handling the dinosaurs in their respective adventures. Still, some of the film’s most amusing moments come from Goldblum, who has no trouble stepping right back into the role of snarky mathematician Ian Malcolm, whose commentary on the events unfolding around the cast walk the fine line between in-character observations and self-aware recognition of the franchise and what’s made it so popular.

Franchise newcomers Mamoudou Athie and DeWanda Wise also deliver strong performances, with Athie doing a remarkable job of holding his own alongside Goldblum and giving his character a lot of depth in limited scenes, and Wise making a strong case for herself as a bona fide action hero when given the opportunity.

Unfortunately, it says a lot about Jurassic World Dominion that the film’s highlights all center on the ways it finds to get the cast together, and not the dinosaurs.

A dinosaur movie with not enough dinosaurs

The cast of Jurassic World: Dominion tries to avoid the jaws of a dinosaur attempting to reach them.

Despite the presence of top-tier actors in nearly every installment of the franchise, the dinosaurs — and the myriad ways the characters have found themselves awed, hunted, and even killed by them — have always been the films’ most reliably memorable elements. The Jurassic Park (and later, Jurassic World) films have done so well, in fact, that the franchise has essentially held exclusive rights to big-budget dinosaur blockbusters for two decades now. That’s rare, and the franchise’s ability to stake such an unchallenged claim on the dino-disaster genre speaks volumes to how well it handled the dinosaurs in its films over the years.

The dinosaurs take a back seat in Dominion, though, often used as narrative commodities or MacGuffin-like plot devices than living, breathing creatures instilling terror in everyone around them. They exist in the background of Dominion, rarely seeming all that threatening — and when they do come into play in the story, they tend to be elements the characters navigate around rather than survive. Outside of one brief, harrowing scene featuring Howard’s character hiding underneath the surface of a lagoon as a dinosaur sniffs the water inches above her, the film largely lacks the sort of signature, tension-ratcheting moments that were hallmarks of past films — whether it’s a shaking glass of water that heralded a dinosaur’s arrival in the original trilogy or characters in a see-through gyrosphere getting caught up in a herd of stampeding dinosaurs in 2015’s Jurassic World.

Losing its edge

Jurassic World Dominion | Trailer 2 [HD]

Whether this shift in tone is a conscious effort to downplay the dinosaurs in favor of the human characters or simply a function of the franchise’s evolving mythology — which now has dinosaurs living among humans throughout the world — the dinosaurs in Dominion have lost their edge, and the film is far less exciting without the spark of terror they typically bring to the story. Sure, they’re still big and capable of terrible carnage, but even when the characters themselves are forced to get up close and personal with them, the sense of danger simply isn’t there, in most cases. And when the characters never seem scared, Dominion never makes a strong case for the audience to be scared for them, either.

It’s not a bad film, ultimately, but Jurassic World Dominion has big, dinosaur-sized shoes to fill when it comes to capping off the modern trilogy — and perhaps the franchise, for all we know. That the film seems to have sidelined its dinosaurs in this chapter of the saga is a pity, because the massive beasts have always managed to steal the spotlight in prior installments, regardless of who’s on screen. By investing all its attention in the human characters at the expense of the dinosaurs, Jurassic World Dominion feels like a half-formed film, and not the fond farewell to the franchise it’s intended to be.

Universal Pictures’ Jurassic World Dominion is in theaters now.

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