'Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom' surpasses predecessor

by Sebastian Wurzrainer | 6/29/18 2:30am

“Jurassic World” is a lousy film barely kept afloat by a marginally entertaining screenplay. Its sequel, “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom,” is a wonderfully creative film occasionally hampered by a subpar screenplay. The fact that the screenplay for the second film is superior to that of its predecessor says quite a lot about the monumental difference in quality between the two.

To be clear, “Jurassic World” isn’t utterly atrocious. In fact, it’s quite entertaining. I’d argue that the story’s central conceits — a fully-functioning dinosaur theme park, humans training Velociraptors, and a genetically engineered hybrid dinosaur — are so solid that the filmmakers simply couldn’t ruin the fun. But they certainly tried, chipping away at a captivating edifice with lackluster direction, TV-quality cinematography and a dose of thinly veiled misogyny. Such mediocrity might be exactly what one would expect from the fourth entry in the “Jurassic Park” series, but director Colin Trevorrow was tasked with a far greater challenge. “Jurassic World” was meant not only to revive the series, but to also begin a new trilogy in the franchise. Rather than set up a promising trajectory, the film placed the future of its own trilogy on unstable footing. That “Fallen Kingdom” is an improvement over its predecessor is the barest minimum of an accomplishment. That Spanish director J.A. Bayona has managed to create the best film in the franchise since Steven Spielberg’s 1993 original is far more impressive. 

There are five key creative positions on any given film: director, producer, writer, cinematographer and editor. It’s extremely telling that four of those five positions on “Fallen Kingdom” are occupied by Bayona and his close collaborators — including producer Belén Atienza, cinematographer Óscar Faura and editor Bernat Vilaplana. The sole exception pertains to the screenplay, written by Trevorrow and Derek Connolly. As alluded to earlier, the screenwriters’ skills as storytellers is the film’s only major weakness. “Fallen Kingdom” is a case study in how excellent filmmakers can make inspired entertainment out of middling material.

Three years after the events of the previous film, the volcano on Isla Nublar — the island that once housed the Jurassic World theme park — is on the verge of erupting, threatening to plunge the dinosaurs into yet another extinction. Benjamin Lockwood, co-creator of the cloning technology that brought dinosaurs back to life, hires former park manager Claire Dearing to save the endangered animals. In turn, she recruits ex-dinosaur trainer and ex-boyfriend Owen Grady, and together they embark on their mission. 

The first half of the film proceeds as expected — it’s a disaster film featuring a volcano and dinosaurs. However, things take an unexpected turn when the dinosaurs are returned to the Lockwood Estate and auctioned off, quickly transforming the mansion into a labyrinth of death. Conceptually, the two halves of this story sound disjointed, but instead they are seamlessly blended in a film that manages to recapture the spirit of the original “Jurassic Park” while also covering new territory. 

Bayona understands what Trevorrow failed to capitalize on: dinosaurs are wonderous creatures. Moreover, the fear and awe that they elicit are intrinsically connected. Given that Bayona is mostly known for his psychological horror debut “The Orphanage,” it’s no surprise that “Fallen Kingdom” is more intense and gothic than the other “Jurassic” tales. Still, Bayona always remembers what this franchise has too often forgotten: dinosaurs are cool.  

Not only are the dinosaurs cool, but the humans are finally cool too. The problem with Claire and Owen in “Jurassic World” had nothing to do with the actors and everything to do with the framing. Owen’s toxic masculinity was always valorized, whereas Claire was consistently demonized merely for being a working woman with a brain. While “Fallen Kingdom” can’t fully escape this misogyny — after all, Trevorrow’s greasy fingerprints are still all over the screenplay — Bayona does his best to mitigate the problem. For example, Claire is portrayed as both infinitely more sympathetic and more competent. Meanwhile, Owen is brought down to the level of a flawed, culpable human being. Occasionally, the dissonance between the screenplay and the rest of the filmmaking results in moments of contradictory characterization. But given that Bayona and his team were essentially placed in a no-win scenario, I have nothing but sympathy for their valiant efforts. 

Similarly, they can’t fully paper over the abundance of plot contrivances and conveniences, but it’s hard to be bothered by such minutiae when the film is so stylish. This is all heightened by Faura’s gorgeous cinematography; the color palette and lighting revel in wonderfully creepy overtones. A word to the wise, though: “Fallen Kingdom” is not interested in subtlety. Whereas Trevorrow’s mistake was to take the premises in “Jurassic World” far too seriously, Bayona lacks any such restraint. For some, that might be a deterrent. For others it will be the film’s saving grace. In fact, there is a scene near the end that directly visually references F.W. Murnau’s German Expressionist classic “Nosferatu.” It serves as a perfect litmus test for the film. If the silliness of “Fallen Kingdom” has already jumped the shark for you, then the “Nosferatu” reference will come across as laughable. But if you’re enjoying the visual wit and the gothic atmosphere, then the scene will be the perfect cherry on the sundae. 

After he was fired from directing “Star Wars: Episode IX,” it was announced that Trevorrow would return to helm the final entry in the “Jurassic World” trilogy. It should come as no surprise that I dread the damage he could once again do to the franchise. This is a shame because under any other circumstances, I would be looking forward to the third film based on how much I enjoyed the second. Nonetheless, if “Fallen Kingdom” is the only good thing we get out of this trilogy, it will have all been worth it. The film may be far from perfect — there are plenty of flaws that I didn’t even have space to mention — but it manages to transcend these flaws on the merits of good filmmaking. “Fallen Kingdom” is proof that cinematic craftsmanship can save a franchise, even if only temporarily, from otherwise imminent extinction.