The original version of this review was published in the online magazine Examiner in 2015.
The Jurassic Park Films (1993 to 2018)
written by Michael Crichton, David Koepp, Peter Buchman, Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor, Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Derek Connolly, and Colin Trevorrow
based on the novel Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton
directed by Steven Spielberg, Joe Johnston, Colin Trevorrow, and J.A. Bayona
In the very first Jurassic Park film in 1993, Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) says that building a theme park full of cloned dinosaurs is both irresponsible and dangerous. He angrily exclaims that the park creator “…stood on the shoulders of geniuses to accomplish something as fast as you could, and before you even knew what you had, you patented it, and packaged it, and slapped it on a plastic lunchbox, and now you wanna sell it!”
It couldn’t be a more apt metaphor. The movies, based on Michael Crichton’s fine 1990 sci-fi novel, have mostly followed the law of dimishing returns since that first foray into Isla Nublar. Let’s revisit them one by one.
By 1993, Steven Spielberg had already directed his very best films: Jaws (1975), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), and E.T. the ExtraTerrestrial (1982). He’d also done some pretty bad ones, like The Color Purple (1985) and Hook (1991). Jurassic Park falls somewhere in the middle. It has a clunky, badly edited first hour which interminably explains the mechanics of the plot (as if we cared, since we just want to see the dinosaurs), and an abundance of undeveloped characters you couldn’t care less for.
But then, of course, the Tyrannosaurus rex escapes. In one of the best known scenes in sci-fi motion picture history, the dinosaur attacks two SUV’s, eating a lawyer (always a good move) and almost killing Hammond’s grandchildren Lex (Ariana Richards) and Tim (Joseph Mazzello). It’s a stunning moment, expertly blending animatronics and CG to eye-popping effect, and it jump-starts several superb action sequences; once you get to the velociraptors searching for prey in an industrial kitchen, all other faults in the film have been forgotten.
It’s well known that immediately after wrapping Spielberg flew to Poland to film Schindler’s List (1993), supervising post-production on Jurassic Park remotely. That may account for its awkward first half. But it doesn’t excuse the haphazard overall tone of the film. Jurassic Park has its moments, but it’s nowhere near Spielberg’s amazing grasp of directing ten years prior.
Four years down the line and Spielberg returned with The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997), a misbegotten sequel which manages to make the first film a masterpiece by comparison. Ian Malcolm, the smartass mathematician from the first film, travels to Isla Sorna, a second island where cloned dinos roam free. His mission is to help document the existence of the creatures before a bunch of mercenaries and hunters capture them for their own nefarious purposes. It’s pretty forgettable, save by one breathtaking scene involving a slowly-splintering piece of glass, and a climax in which Spielberg gets his King Kong on by letting a Tyrannosaurus rex loose in San Diego. It’s the only fun moment in a film painfully lacking in fun. You know you’re in trouble when Jeff Goldblum, the best character in Jurassic Park, looks utterly bored throughout the whole thing. But hell if it isn’t better than the next two films in the franchise.
It took three writers – including Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, who would go on to win the Academy Award for best adapted screenplay with Sideways (2004) – to come up with the mess that is Jurassic Park III (2001). Maybe they needed the money. Nothing here works. Not the cheap action, not the talking velociraptors, not the return of Sam Neill as Dr. Alan Grant. Certainly not Téa Leoni as a mother searching for her son in dino-infested Isla Sorna, possibly one of the most annoying characters ever put on film. Spielberg smartly stepped down from the director’s chair, but this installment was so by-the-numbers it would take the franchise 14 years to make a comeback. Not even an admittedly cool attack by flying pteranodons can save this turkey.
More than a decade later the franchise was revived with the tepid Jurassic World (2015), a complete rehash of the first three movies. Sure, it’s bigger and shinier, sporting all manner of new dinosaurs including a genetically enhanced hybrid called the Indominus rex. But the film literally lifts everything we’ve already seen: Two children in danger of becoming dino food? Check. Science overcome by rampant capitalism? Check. Evil mercenaries out to exploit the dinos? Check. A climax with a furious T. rex? Check. There’s nothing new here, making this the laziest piece of product to come along from Hollywood in a long time. Worse, the suspension of disbelief is seriously off in this one, with park visitors going on rides right next to a bunch of prehistoric creatures (!). Ian Malcolm would be ashamed of such drivel. But at least it doesn’t have Téa Leoni screaming.
For a funny and spot-on commentary, you can also check out this entry in the Strange Orphan Boxes blog: Jurassic World – Crapasaurus Rex.
It’s hard to believe after Jurassic World, but I actually liked Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018). The reason? It goes for something different… and mostly succeeds. The first part of the film introduces some welcome moral quandaries (should the dinosaurs be saved from an impending volcanic eruption or allowed to become extinct again?), while the second moves the action from the island to an old mansion in California, effectively becoming a weird haunted house movie on steroids. Credit director J.A. Bayona (2007’s The Orphanage) for adding his usual visual flair to the franchise, making Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom the most artistic entry yet. Don’t overthink it, this is a pretty good popcorn flick.
Carlos I. Cuevas