Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is not directed by Steven Spielberg. This is unsurprising since Spielberg has not directed a dinosaur movie in over 20 years; he made the massive hit Jurassic Park, the somewhat less massive hit sequel The Lost World, and then jumped over to the executive producer role for the next three sequels, including this new one out Thursday. This means that J.A. Bayona, the director of Fallen Kingdom, gets to participate in what has become a Hollywood ritual: the on-the-job search for a director who can at least kinda-sorta do what Spielberg does.
What Spielberg does has, of course, long since expanded beyond his early-career forte of impeccably crafted, energetic, and heartfelt blockbusters like Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and E.T. But as Spielberg has expanded into war pictures, historical drama, outright family films, and dark sci-fi, his industry has clearly pined for more people who can seamlessly combine special effects and human interest. M. Night Shyamalan enjoyed a moment of speculation, around the time of Signs, that he could wear the crown, but both his subsequent failures and recent successes have revealed him as too idiosyncratic to rule the box office.
Spielberg himself has been involved in the unofficial search, producing for the likes of Robert Zemeckis (who sort of became his own deal with hits like Forest Gump and Cast Away) and Joe Johnston (who hasn't worked quite often enough, despite successes like Captain America: The First Avenger, to cement his status). Spielberg even produced the J.J. Abrams film Super 8, as naked a Spielberg pastiche as ever attempted outside of student films.
Abrams isn't a bad pick; he has a similar eye for casting and clearly makes movies with the audience in mind, even if his movies can feel like an expert cover band. But not every Spielberg protégé can even reach that level; Colin Trevorrow, handpicked to make Jurassic World, delivered both a massive hit and an object lesson in knowing the words but not the music. His Jurassic Park sequel moves at a Spielbergian clip, but both the wonder and the sense of play — the feeling that he loves wielding his camera — is sorely missing. Which brings us to the sequel to that movie, Fallen Kingdom.
At first glance, J.A. Bayona may not seem like an obvious successor, in part because blockbuster filmmaking has trained us to expect the white, male, American director of an indie hit to be promoted too fast and/or beyond his skillset. Bayona, who is Spanish, has made several movies in a mode studios don't always care about: mid-budget pictures with human drama. His The Impossible follows a family in the aftermath of a tsunami, while A Monster Calls uses its fantasy elements to tell the story of a grieving young boy. Neither of them are great movies, but they're well-made, as is his expertly creepy horror film The Orphanage.
It's this kind of genre diversity that's missing from a lot of wannabe Spielbergs, and to the degree that Bayona elevates the very silly Fallen Kingdom, it's because he applies some Spielbergian craft and wit in unexpected places. Part of the film is another island adventure set in the ruins of a dinosaur theme park (albeit with a newly active volcano thrown into the mix), and part of it returns stateside for a weird haunted-mansion/endangered-orphan vibe not far removed from The Orphanage, albeit with way more dinosaurs. Like his other work, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is not a great movie. But it's a more inventive bit of ridiculousness than its nostalgia-minded predecessor.
Still, Bayona's set pieces (including a terrific opener that includes a helicopter and an underwater craft) don't quite reach the level of, say, The Lost World. There's a natural ingenuity and adventurousness to Spielberg's technical filmmaking that can't be reproduced just by adding a cute kid or an unexpected emotional moment, as Fallen Kingdom does during a scene of spectacular destruction that's the most dino-sympathetic moment in this entire series.
Bayona is talented, but the gulf between talent and Spielberg-level skills is especially noticeable in a year where Spielberg himself has dipped back into his old game, at least briefly, with Ready Player One. Unlike his best early movies, Player One's human element isn't especially satisfying, but Spielberg hasn't lost a beat on stunning setpieces. There are any number of popular superhero movies with stronger characters than anyone in Ready Player One, but damned if Avengers: Infinity War or Deadpool 2 fail to provide a single action scene as well-directed as the two or three best sequences from Ready Player One. Maybe the fact that Spielberg didn't make a "great Spielberg movie" out of Ready Player One illustrates just how personal his populist-looking skill set actually is. He's had no trouble making more interesting movies out of less traditionally Spielberg-friendly material like Bridge of Spies and The Post.
Ultimately, one of the most admirable things about Spielberg's career — its combination of diversity and productivity — may not be something anyone is all that interested in reproducing.