It’s a testament to Jurassic Park (1993) director Steven Spielberg unparalleled skills behind the camera that we’re still here, twenty-five years later, talking about that movie’s latest sequel. Despite being a landmark is special effects technology integration and a genuine classic in its own right, in truth it’s just a second-tier Spielberg flick: nobody’s favorite out of his extensive filmography and not even the best movie that he made that year (that honor instead goes to Schindler’s List).
Lincoln (2012), Minority Report (2002), Saving Private Ryan (1998), Schindler’s List (1993), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and Jaws (1975) are all unquestionably better than it. And when it comes right down to it, it’s only really about as good as the underrated Adventures of Tintin (2011), bolstered by every little kid’s absolute fascination with dinosaurs and Hollywood’s perplexing unwillingness to serve it up in any other form than movies more and more tenuously based on the work of author Michael Crichton. Not only that, but after two terrible direct sequels and solid reboot that nevertheless failed to win over the more cynical crowds, it’s genuinely impressive that the franchise hasn’t yet sunk under the weight of its own inequities and the enduring legacy of that one great movie way back when.
And yet here we are, again, shaking off the dust of that last movie and looking ahead toward this franchise’s evidently limitless future. Sure, the latest Jurassic Park — oh, wait, I’m sorry, World — was a sizable step down from the Bayona’s first outing with the franchise, and the film’s marketing dishonestly amped up franchise mainstay Jeff Goldblum’s brief cameo appearance as Dr. Ian Malcolm, but it was ultimately good enough for this franchise: not great, but laying a firm foundation that future films can build off of in order to become genuinely great films in their own right.
This time around, the franchise’s iconic setting, Isla Nublar, and its dinosaur denizens are threatened by extinction. The island’s long-dormant volcano has reactivated, and if nothing is done, dinosaur’s will be wiped off the face of the Earth for a second time. Park founder John Hammond’s (Richard Attenborough from the first movie) estranged business partner, in one last, desperate act of redemption for bring these creatures back into the world, assembles a team consisting of former park manager Claire Dearing, raptor behaviorist Owen Grady, paleo-veterinarian Zia Rodriguez and system analyst Franklin Webb to rescue as many of the eleven remaining species on Isla Nublar before the island goes up in smoke, to be relocated to an island sanctuary where they can live out their remaining days in peace: no tourists, no mad scientists, no industrious entrepreneurs trying to turn a profit.
And… that’s all that I can really get into without delving into some pretty major spoilers. Despite being more than enough story to fill out an entire movie — returning to the now ruined island (where the former inmates are now running the asylum) to rescue a monstrous race of animals against the increasingly apocalyptic ticking clock of the island’s about-to-burst volcano — all of that really only covers its first act. After a brief prologue where Claire is convinced to “get the band back together,” only the first third of the movie is actually set on the island proper with the intention of gathering endangered species before nature wipes the slate clean once more.
While the twists and turns that the movie takes afterwards are all good and earned and interesting, they really should have been an entirely separate movie on their own: picking up after the fact and once more requiring the collective attention of our returning (now four) protagonists. The first act setup was easily robust and interesting enough on its own for this movie, and director J. A. Bayona does that side of the story a profound disservice by rushing through it to get through what was undoubtedly seen by Universal studio heads as “the good part.”
And, rest assured, regardless of whether it should have been its own movie or not, those “good parts” are really good. It’s the same claustrophobic mix of action and dread that continue to make the first movie, functionally, most kids’ first “horror movie.” It has its own interesting narrative hooks, setups, characters, climaxes and payoffs that all land when all is said and done. And the closing shots of the film setup what might prove to be the most interesting take on the concept of movie dinosaurs ever committed to film (now THERE’S a movie that I’d love to see!). It’s just that all of them could have used a bit more breathing room to make work on their own terms, without being gimped by a setup that is completely divorced from the kind of movie those second and third acts wanted to be a part of.
Even though Claire and Owen were technically supposed to be co-leads in the last movie, it was a dynamic that I never quite bought into. The movie seemed to think that Owen was the coolest human being alive: a rugged man’s man who spent his days training raptors and his nights drinking outside of his dinosaur island cabin — and, when called upon to do so, would ride into battle against super-dinosaurs in the prehistoric jungle while flanked by his loyal raptor pack. Claire… well, Claire simply wasn’t that. She was a cold, emotionless business woman, an ultimately absentee aunt and basically a helpless damsel who sauntered into danger in three-inch stiletto heels, only to find herself in desperate need of Owen’s manly rescuing. The movie was basically The Owen Grady Hour and Claire was reluctant girlfriend.
Thankfully, Fallen Kingdom has taken demonstrable steps toward balancing that narrative dynamic, to the point that Claire does in fact seem to be as important to the story as Grady is. She’s more assertive and self-actualized than her male counterpart and has a crucial and complimentary skill set to match his. Not only does she actually feel like a character here, but she’s actually a pretty interesting one: with important things to say and a necessary role to fill on the team. Even if I’m still not a fan of their continued romantic dynamic in this film, they are at least both still present for the action at hand and never feel indebted to the other.
When all is said and done, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is a fine film: fun, exciting and everything else that a big-scale, summer blockbuster ought to be. Its runtime might be overstuffed with enough plot and happenings for two movies, its new supporting cast might be under-developed (or downright infuriating at times) and it certainly doesn’t live up to the quality of even its immediate predecessor. But, if you’re a fan of the franchise thus far, it is certainly worth both your time and money, and promises of much better sequels to come.