A Jurassic Park Retrospective

film reviews | movies | features | BRWC Holy Jesus F*****g Christ It’s A Dinosaur!!

It’s not long now before we get the next instalment in one of the largest blockbuster franchises of all time. Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom has a lot of hype built up behind it, with the promise of a different feel and the master craftsmanship of J. A. Bayona at the helm. I’m certainly looking forward to it and will be seeing it opening day if I can. To build myself up for it, I watched the four films before it in preparation – I was marvelled, entertained, and also surprised by how the series changed and evolved. Not always for the better mind you. In retrospect, the Jurassic Park franchise remains one of the key franchises in cinema history – yet, like Star Wars, it seems to have fallen into irrelevance. What was it that made it so great? And where did it all go wrong?

The first film was released in 1993, and from the get-go had everything going for it. It was based off an excellent book by legendary author Michael Crichton and was directed by the one and only Steven Spielberg. Jurassic Park was released not long before I was born (that was 1994), but I saw it when I was very young – in-fact, at the age of two you’d probably argue that I was too young – and I loved every minute of it. I always remember the feeling, I wasn’t watching a film, I was watching relatable and likeable people on an island with living, breathing dinosaurs. I saw it again when it was rereleased in 3D, and the effect was the same. I love this film with all my heart – it is, without question, my favourite film of all time.

Jurassic Park is heralded as one of the greatest blockbusters of all time and is seen as a landmark in cinema history. It’s not an exaggeration when people say that Jurassic Park changed film forever. At the forefront of this, of course, are the effects. To put things into perspective, CGI was a baby. Before Jurassic Park there were only a handful of CG examples – Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan, Young Sherlock Holmes, The Abyss and Terminator 2: Judgment Day being the go to titles. Even then, T2 was the only on to use it extensively throughout. But these were just images on a screen, or creatures with reflective surfaces. Spielberg decided to use this technology to bring not just one dinosaur to life, but a lot of different species of them, all of which look different. And they would be in daylight most of the time, so lighting would be a greater issue. And they had to match the animatronics that they’d also use seamlessly. The result is still impressive. I’ve seen CGI from 2009 look way worse that anything in this film!

The life size dinosaurs, which included an over 40-foot-long t-rex, were among the best ever put to screen. It’s the mix of the effects that makes Jurassic Park age well and still impress today. Typically, CG wasn’t used that much – it was mostly there for the long shots, where the dinosaurs would run or jump, or just do something that an animatronic couldn’t do. It was never used for close-ups or as a cheap way out. A good thing, because some of the dinosaurs might have looked hideous otherwise. Everyone remembers the motorised triceratops and dilophosaurus, but it’s hard to forget that the raptors in the kitchen was mostly puppetry too. As was the rex wrecking the car. Some of the CG is so impressive that I still think that these are real dinosaurs. Very few moments show the films age – the brachiosaurus is pretty bad now, and there are some questionable raptor shots, but that’s it really.

Jurassic Park is always remembered as a technical wonder, but that’s not why it’s considered a classic. Spielberg brought every bit of charm and thrill that had made him a force to be reckoned with in the first place. The characters, while not that deep or even that interesting, are all memorable and likable. Sam Neill’s Grant and Jeff Goldblum’s Malcolm are the stand outs, as well as the late Richard Attenborough’s eccentric John Hammond. There’s a very nice arc involving Grant and the kids at the centre of the film, which helps carry weight to the situation. The story is creative, fast paced with some nice build up and, despite some fun and silly action, is actually very smart and educational. This is the film that made the public know what DNA really was.

And, of course, the thrills are…well, thrilling. Raptors stalking children in a kitchen, a t-rex chasing a car at high speed, and the traitorous Dennis Nedry (Wayne Knight) getting his comeuppance from a poisonous dinosaur. It’s all great stuff. Between all of that rests a heart that only Spielberg could capture. It’s inviting. You feel warm between the action. It’s a family film at its core – as well as thriller, sci-fi and horror, a group of genres that no longer get made of the family audience anymore. Gone are the days of Ghostbusters, Gremlins, Tremors, Critters and Jaws. As a kid, it made you feel older for watching it. As an adult, it makes you feel younger. It’s perfect for all ages.

Of course, Jurassic Park is far from perfect, what film isn’t? The script isn’t particularly strong, with character development suffering the most. Again, some effects do show their age now. Being a book adaptation, there is the simple fact that some things the book did a little better – although the film is the better telling of the story overall. I also find the exposition the first act to be a little too vague. It wasn’t really until I read the book that I realised who Dodgson was and what he wanted the embryos for. There’s even a moment involving a triceratops that raises a good question that is just left unanswered. This will have been for pacing I’m sure, but it’s an odd thing to drop. But none of that really matters, when the film is so powerful as to silence a loud cinema when the t-rex roars after breaking out of its pen. The film is summed up in its money shot – where the t-rex roars victoriously as a banner with “When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth” falls before it – it’s big, impressive, awe-inspiring and just plain cool. I never get sick of it, I never will. There’s more I could ramble on about, but just saying that I love this film more than any other I’ve seen should be praise enough for it.

Jurassic Park swept the box office and even won some Oscars. Until Titanic came along, it remained the highest grossing film of all time. Naturally, that meant that a sequel was quickly put in the works. On paper, The Lost World: Jurassic Park sounded too good to be true. Spielberg was back, as was the beloved character of Malcolm. John Williams, who’s score still thrills all who hear it, returned to supply more great music. And it was to be based off of another book by Crichton, titled The Lost World. When the film came out, audiences rushed to see it, and upon leaving they all shared a single thought – what went wrong?

An easy place to start is that, while Jurassic Park the novel was excellent, The Lost World was an entertaining but hollow read. This is very prophetic of what the film became. What good people remember about this film is the action scenes. In particular is the entire trailer section. While it goes on a little too long, it’s a well shot, brilliantly realised and edge-of-your-seat scene. The cracking glass is something that doesn’t leave the mind easily. I also appreciate the very silly death scene at the end of this sequence – although the character in question is sadly one of only two likable characters in the film. The raptor sequence – barring the embarrassingly stupid gymnastics moment – is seen as a good bit of dumb fun too. Peter Stormare’s death and the girl at the beginning are good fun too. But there lies the issue – these are just moments in an over 2-hour film.

I often blame the films short-comings on David Koepp’s script. It’s not only surprisingly bad for a usually good story-teller, it’s confused and filled with extremely unlikable characters. There’s a lot of scientific talk (much like in the book) and eco-political discussions. But where in the first film, and in both the books, this was interesting to listen too – they made you want to learn more to an extent – this is pretentious and completely unengaging. It’s full of fun facts but is lacking natural dialogue. If the goal was purely to send a message about mankind against nature then that’d be fine. But the film also wants to be the first film, even to the point of copy and paste at times – copied shots of t-rexes behind glass, one party member splitting off to turn on power, the big raptor chase through a lab complex – and just general monster movie silliness. This gives the film a huge identity crisis, where we have a horror film opening and a Godzilla movie ending.

The major issues are with the unlikable character, particularly Vince Vaughn’s character – who is just despicable considering the amount of people his actions cause the deaths of – and with Spielberg himself. Again, Vince Vaughn is awful, far worse than Julianne Moore, who comes off as just stupid really. Gone is Goldblum’s energy, leaving us watching a shell of his former self. The only two characters I liked were the guy who got ripped in two by the rexes and the late Pete Postlethwaite, who played his hunter character with superb charm and charisma. As for directing, Spielberg made an odd choice in showing more of the creatures, and mostly at night. There’s a short-lived moment of wonder with some stegosaurus, but the rest of the film lacks awe and wonderment. It’s all thrills, and without that sense of wonder it all falls flat. And as cool as it is seeing a big t-rex head attacking people, it’s way to over-used.

The cinematography is very mixed too. Sometimes there are great tracking shots or pulse-pounding close-ups. Other times the camera is so far away or so dimly lit that I can’t tell what’s going on. It’s not fun to look at. The forest is less welcoming than the jungle setting and it’s just too dark to be colourful at all. I have my suspicions, which have apparently been confirmed but I’d take that with a pitch of salt, that Spielberg lost interest in the film part way through it. It feels pretty half-hearted for him. There is still some elegance to it, but that mostly happens at the end. Speaking of which, let’s look at that moment.

30 minutes away from the end, the t-rex is taken to San Diego and goes on a rampage. This entire act of the film is almost parodical. We have the t-rex from Jurassic Park drinking from swimming pools, eating David Koepp and crashing a bus into a video-shop, with a poster advertising King Lear starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. It’s bizarre! It’s the point of contention for most. Personally though, this act saves the film for me. The rest of it was so disappointing that I don’t mind how silly it is. Honestly, I really like the silliness and fast pace – compared to the dull slog before it. I make it sound like I hate this film. I don’t, but I don’t like it either. The final act and some fun action do keep me coming back to it now and then, and I will keep watching it. But I can’t recommend it. I did love it as a kid though, so perhaps it has a place for audiences.

The Lost World: Jurassic Park did gain a growing cult following among fans and was a box-office hit. But when I said that The Lost World had a bad script, Jurassic Park III had an even worse one. Spielberg returned only as producer to the Joe Johnston directed sequel. It’s common knowledge now that the production of Jurassic Park III was plagued by issues. These mostly stemmed from Johnston’s indecisiveness of what story he wanted to tell. If you look it up, you’ll find a plot about a creature murder mystery, where Pterodactyls were the culprits. Unused stories and scenes actually sound more interesting than what we actually got – which was as bare-bones as they come.

The script features no character development, not much in terms of plot and only serves to move us from action scene to action scene. When a risky choice is made – which is twice – they do not pay off and come off as insulting. This makes people hate this film. Once, that included me too. Johnston is a noticeably weaker director than Spielberg. His sets look ugly, as do his dinosaurs, his editing’s choppy and he has a strange habit of speeding up the footage at multiple points of the film. Great actors like Sam Neill, William H. Macy and the late Michael Jeter are wasted on the awful script, written by the writer of Eragon no less. We also have an awful fight between the t-rex and the new big bad, spinosaurus – where the latter comes out on top. It was a miscalculation to kill the rex, but that the fight is less than 30-seconds long and lasts only five moves only makes things worse. Worse than that is splitting up Grant and Ellie from the first film, completely degrading the original’s story and character arcs.

Yes, I most certainly hated this film as a kid. But time has made me soft on it. I’m not saying that Jurassic Park III is a good film – it’s not! But I like it better than The Lost World: Jurassic Park. Most of that is admittedly because of the length. It barely reaches 90-minutes long. This means that the film doesn’t mess around. Within the first 20-minutes, we are introduced to our characters, have a reason to get to the island and get a fun action scene with the spinosaurus. While Lost World was a confused mess, Jurassic Park III knows what it is – an efficient monster movie.

Sam Neill is a better lead than Goldblum, being charming and likable despite the script. The action is also strong throughout the film. The stand out moments being the spinosaurus attacking the plane, and again attacking the boat and the entire Pterodactyl pen scene. I also have a fondness of the moment the raptors attack Michael Jeter’s character. It amuses me because, not only is it surprisingly brutal, but the male raptor does it just to be mean. If you watch it, it’s being called away, so it won’t eat him, and it makes sure that the other people are watching. I don’t know why, but something about a raptor killing someone just to shock the people is so baffling that it amuses me a little – how they display such human emotions, which is pretty much the only theme the film features. Thinking on it, the raptors in this one are very strong and interesting – outside of a horrible design choice in using feathers. Yes, it’s scientifically accurate but it looks wrong for the series. If I wanted nothing but accuracy I’d watch a documentary, not a dinosaur adventure with all the brains of a Doug McClure film.

Jurassic Park III made less than those before it and was panned on release. That and a general lack of ideas and directors succeeded in putting the series on ice. It was 14 years before the series was picked up by Colin Trevorrow and given a new make-over. The land of blockbusters had changed, now they had to be big, bombastic and had to appeal to mass audiences. Effects simply don’t wow us anymore. The other three films, while showing their age in moments – particularly in Jurassic Park III – were marvels of effects. That’s what drew people to them. Now that time is past – now we have to buy into action scenes and nostalgia. You know, as opposed to strong stories with interesting characters.

I might have sounded harsh so far, but I’ll clear the air by saying that I really liked Jurassic World. I think that, while certainly not the best, it’s easily one of the most entertaining films I have seen this decade. In a world where Star Wars is revitalised (and even bombed!), comic books and YA novels dominate the screen and we’ve received countless sequels, prequels and remakes, I find that Jurassic Park has leant itself to the new cinema better than most. That is partly because of the aforementioned action and nostalgia. It also works because the inventive story – although I do find myself remembering 1999’s Deep Blue Sea when I watch it – decent performances and sense of scale and fun.

Jurassic World is constantly compared to those Sci-Fi Channel or Asylum films, and I tend to agree. Story and character-wise it fits that bill well. It’s very silly and knows it. In a way it knew what we wanted, although something was missed. We wanted to see more dinosaur action. We wanted to see more dinosaurs. We wanted to see new ideas being toyed with, such as hybrids and trained dinosaurs. We wanted to see an operational park that we could imagine visiting ourselves. We wanted a film that felt like a revitalisation of the series we once loved. All of these it succeeds in. With the spectacular action to boot, this was a film to be reckoned with. But the key ingredient missing was heart.

I am constantly entertained by Jurassic World, but even I am marvelled with how uninvolved I am for the majority of it. This is something I’ve sadly gotten used to. It started with the later Harry Potter films for me – I’ve struggled to get myself involved with a lot of Blockbusters lately. Usually I only come to be entertained, and they often succeed there, but a film like Mad Max: Fury Road, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and Logan is a rare thing for me nowadays. It doesn’t help that the characters aren’t very memorable. They’re not unlikable like in The Lost World: Jurassic Park or as hollow as in Jurassic Park III, but they don’t really stick out. Bryce Dallas Howard as Claire does, that’s a character with an arc and Howard delivers the best and most amusing performance of the film, making you care for her and enjoy seeing how far she has come by the end. But Owen never gets past being Chris Pratt to me – I love the guy, but I want a character not just the actor. Vincent D’Onofrio is doing a good job, but with a truly awful character. It’s rare you find a villain so cartoonish, incompetent and stupid in any film.

I think that the huge amount of product placement is a little distracting but makes sense in how and why it’s used in the film – I imagine Starbucks would open up in a park like this, for example. The nostalgic references are a mixed bag – I like the waterfall returning for a shot and I think the t-rex breaking through the spinosaurus skeleton at the end was a nice touch, but then we get a man wearing a Jurassic Park shirt and a kid looking at night-vision goggles, these are too on the nose.

But mostly it falls into the same trap as the other sequels, albeit handled better. There’s very little awe and charm and it’s mostly just thrills. Some effective, some cheap. There are three awe moments – the first is seeing the open park, which was great. The second was the herbivore enclosure, which might have worked, if the effects weren’t awful in that scene. Then there’s the dying brontosaurus, where the only animatronic (at least that I could see) was used, which is another nice and effective moments. The rest is thrills and gore. But give credit where it’s due, we got a great pterodactyl scene – with a death scene that offended some but entertained many others, including me – and the final fight between the t-rex, Blue the raptor and the indominus rex was incredible.

For some the lack of charm made the scripts sillier elements and underdeveloped characters stand out all the more, putting them off the film – or at least holding back their enjoyment. I can understand that sentiment. It is a tonally unbalanced experience, and I don’t remember the characters all that well myself, and I watch it annually. For me, and many others, the film was just fun. It was so much fun that it reminded us of how enjoyable the films have been since the original. Even if it didn’t feel that way. A friend of mine called Jurassic Park a horror film and Jurassic World an action film, which I think sums up the differences between them well. While Park was aimed at families and appealed to everyone, World was aimed at teenagers and appealed to that and those just outside of that demographic. They are different, but it’s very clear which of the two has the most stopping power. Then again, one is directed by one of the greatest directors of all time, and the other is from the man who gave us The Book of Henry. So, there is that.

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom’s marketing has done its job for me. The trailers have me interested and most of the news I hear from it does have me excited. J A Bayona is one of my favourite working directors, so that too is a bonus. Yes, I’m one of those who saw the carnotaurus and thought it was the coolest thing, but it’s the story and ideas that we’re being promised that have me interested. It looks a little less conventional for the series and will hopefully be a welcomed escape from the island – no pun intended. Maybe the returning characters will improve this time around too. Jurassic World’s score of one of the highest grossing films of all time proves that people are still interested, and everyone I know is excited. I even know people who have told me that it will be the only film they’ll make the effort for this year.

History with this franchise had kept me from hoping for too much. We’ll never reach these heights again, it’s too different a world in cinema now. As a series, it has irreparably changed too. But we can look forward to it, with our hype or dread in check. We can only hope that life will find a way.

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Callum spends most free days with friends (mostly watching films, to be honest), caring for his dog, writing, more writing and watching films whenever he can find the chance (which is very often).