JURASSIC PARK Saga (1993, 1997, 2001)

Adventures 65 million years in the making...

To celebrate this weekend’s release of Colin Trevorrow’s Jurassic World (22 years after Steven Spielberg’s monster hit cinemas), below are retrospective reviews for the original trio of action-adventure films; directed by Steven Spielberg and Joe Johnston, released between 1993 and 2001…

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Jurassic Park (1993)

It’s easy to exaggerate the impact of Jurassic Park back in 1993, but I consider it my generation’s Star Wars in terms of advancing entertainment technology, and our Jaws for how it impacted pop-culture. Moviegoing was never the same after Steven Spielberg’s dinosaurs ruled the summer box-office, and re-watching this childhood favourite continues to be a fun experience—if not as jaw-dropping as my first time in a darkened auditorium, when the T-Rex’s roar caused ripples in my Diet Coke.

Based on Michael Crichton’s 1990 page-turner (a loose reworking of the author’s own Westworld, which likewise concerned a high-tech malfunctioning theme park), Jurassic Park concerns a Scottish billionaire called John Hammond (Richard Attenborough), who invites four experts to his South American island of Isla Nublar: palaeontologist/technophobe Dr Alan Grant (Sam Neill), perky palaeobotanist Dr Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern), oddball mathematician Dr Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum), and his investor’s lawyer Gennaro (Martin Ferrero). Hammond’s guests are there for an advance preview of his crowning achievement: a reservation populated with dinosaurs, cloned from blood siphoned from ancient mosquitos trapped in amber. Their sneak peek doesn’t go well, thanks to a disgruntled computer nerd (Wayne Knight) shutting down the park’s electrified fences in order to abscond with stolen dino embryos for a rival organisation, the exact moment a tropical storm rolls in…

Jurassic Park‘s revered for its ground-breaking visuals, which utilised newfangled CGI to bring extinct animals to the screen with unprecedented realism. It’s a cliché that all children love dinosaurs, but when this film was released I’d never cared for them as a 14-year-old—perhaps because they were often presented as talking cartoons, magnified lizards, or bogus-looking stop-motion animations. Undoubtedly, Jurassic Park was a quantum leap forward in presentation—although it’s worth remembering the abundance of traditional puppetry used throughout (CGI was time-consuming and expensive back then), and the massive role sound effects played in making you believe in these primeval creatures. The shrill squeals of the velociraptors are an unforgettable, nightmarish sound.

There’s a lot more to Jurassic Park than sit-back-and-gawp filmmaking. There had to be, considering this film’s effects are dispensed so economically. It’s worth remembering just how conceptually imaginative and enthralling the film was, too. The pseudo-science Crichton created continues to feel oddly plausible, and even inspired plenty of of tie-in documentaries investigating the truth behind Jurassic Park‘s concept. And the notion of these people going on the ultimate safari trip was analogous to the seated experience of cinema-goers—who were likewise promised dinosaurs by the year’s trailers, and duly got them. The film even contains examples of the Jurassic Park merchandise that flooded toy shops, with the iconic emblem becoming almost as ubiquitous as 1989’s Batman symbol.

Truth is, the once cutting-edge visuals of Jurassic Park are beginning to show their age now—although not as badly as its use of CD-ROM’s and Macintosh Quadra 700’s (which arguably feel more prehistoric than the brachiosauruses). The animatronics are more noticeable than ever before, the compositing of actors against CGI looks sketchy by today’s standard, and I was disappointed the bravura T-Rex attack no longer had me gripping my seat. Interestingly, it’s the raptor’s attack in the kitchen which now gets my heart racing. I marvel at the trailblazing technical achievements this film made, but I’m no longer quite as spellbound… although you’d have to be made of stone not to respond to John Williams’s majestic score, which took an unexpectedly upbeat approach.

22 years later, my experience with Jurassic Park focused more on the characters and their shared journey together. I questioned the logic of Hammond bringing Malcolm, a mathematician, to the island; mulled over the strange ambivalence surrounding Dern and O’Neill’s characters as lovers or friends (more on that later); noted Hammond and his chief engineer (Samuel L. Jackson) willingly send their guests into a dangerous environment they know is suffering from hundreds of computer glitches; caught stray moments of great dialogue that often goes overlooked (Ellie to Hammond: “It’s still the flea circus. It’s all an illusion”); and responded more to the character arc of curmudgeonly Dr Grant learning to become a parent—by protecting Hammond’s grandkids Lex (Ariana Richards) and Tim (Joseph Mazzello) from ferocious creatures that shouldn’t themselves be able to reproduce.

Hey, life finds a way…

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The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997)

Given the seismic impact of Jurassic Park, it was inevitable a sequel would follow—although one wonders why Michael Crichton had to (slightly reluctantly) write a follow-up novel before production began. Did a property like Jurassic Park need the legitimacy of a literary source? Maybe Steven Spielberg wanted someone of Crichton’s nous to chart a course, before screenwriter David Koepp could cherry-pick the novel’s best elements? Whatever happened, The Lost World: Jurassic Park became a still-rare sequel for Spielberg.

Presumably picking up four years after the first adventure, The Lost World made the interesting decision to promote Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) to leading man status. Spielberg recognised his character was the most intriguing from the original? Perhaps. Or maybe Goldblum was just more bankable in the ’90s. Interestingly, we learn that Malcolm encountered difficulties with InGen’s lawyers after the events of the first film, and has now become a figure of global ridicule for insisting modern dinosaurs killed people on a remote Costa Rican island. Nevertheless, he’s still accepting calls from John Hammond (Richard Attenborough), who invites Malcolm to his mansion and reveals the existence of “Site B”: Isla Sorna, where InGen bred dinosaurs before transporting them to the main island for the tourists. Trouble is, the remaining dinosaurs have overcome their failsafe genetic programming (“life finds a way”, remember) and formed their own ecosystem—which capitalist-turned-naturalist Hammond is keen to protect from prying eyes. However, to do this he needs public opinion on his side, which necessitates a fact-finding expedition he’d like Dr Malcolm to lead.

Joining Malcolm this time are more lambs to the slaughter than before: girlfriend and palaeontologist Dr Sarah Harding (Julianne Moore); teen daughter and gymnast Kelly (Vanessa Lee Chester); documentarian Nick Van Owen (Vince Vaughn); and field equipment specialist Eddie Carr (Richard Schiff). Upping the ante, we soon learn that InGen have sent a competing team to their founder, under the leadership of Hammond’s slippery nephew Ludlow (Arliss Howard), who are tasked with capturing various species to populate an amphitheatre in San Diego—including character actors like Peter Postlethwaite as a big-game hunter keen to bag himself a T-Rex, and Peter Stormare.

Back in 1997, I don’t recall being excited by the release of The Lost World—perhaps because Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla was promising a T-Rex squashing behemoth in a campaign of trailers that sucked the wind from Lost World‘s sails? Emmerich being the German director fresh off the enormous hit of Independence Day, a year before Lost World debuted, also starring Goldblum. We all know which movie stands up best nearly two decades later, of course.

In watching this sequel again, I still think it’s of mixed quality and hobbled by awkward pacing, but taken as a chance to deliver two-hours of spectacle, it works. The dinosaurs are more interactive with their environments this time, and while there’s still a use for animatronics (the T-Rex attack on a high-tech trailer is almost entirely done with large hydraulic heads nudging windows), CGI is more extensively deployed and more believable. The effects can look fuzzy at times (perhaps a reason so much of The Lost World takes place during inclement darkness), but the ambition is higher and Spielberg’s team clear the technological hurdles.

The frustrating thing about The Lost World is that the characters and storyline aren’t close to as enjoyable as last time. Goldblum’s the only actor who even registers amongst the main cast, and it feels like the plot is just a sequence of situations leading to action set-pieces—some of which are very good (such as the imperilled trailer over a cliff-edge, which is largely dinosaur-free; or the velociraptor’s attack on a dilapidated compound). Spielberg can always be relied upon to craft effective sequences and memorable visual tableaux, too—from the palm-sweating tension of Moore on a pane of glass slowly cracking under her own body weight high above a cliff, to a waterfall turning red when a T-Rex chows down an unlucky human, or a group of ‘raptors flattening tall grass as they approach a group of explorers lost in a field.

But without a truly involving story or characters you care about, The Lost World is an emptier parade of action and visual effects than its illustrious predecessor. The first movie’s sense of childlike wonder is replaced by a much darker tone, courtesy of Spielberg’s now-regular cinematographer Janusz Kamiński, who washes out the jungle environment’s colour to make the film appear like it’s been shot through ditchwater.

There’s enough good action and droll humour to make this an acceptable blockbuster sequel (even ignoring head-slapping moments like a gymnast-versus-raptor tussle, or the shoehorned T-Rex rampage through the streets of nighttime San Diego), but it’s ultimately a less crowd-pleasing chance for ILM to demonstrate the progress they’d made in four years. There’s a half-buried theme of parents protecting children that runs through everything (it’s what Malcolm spends the movie doing, echoing behaviour common to Stegosaurus and T-Rex parents), but it’s not fleshed-out enough to go anywhere deeper. And despite a few scaly additions to the monstrous menagerie, the script’s reliance on the Tyrannosaurus and velociraptors to carry the biggest thrills, again, felt like a misstep, considering the thousands of species that could’ve been used instead.

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Jurassic Park III

I don’t remember Jurassic Park III being this bad, but of the original trilogy it’s aged the worst. By this point in the franchise’s history (which in 2001 was still less than a decade old, incredibly), Jurassic Park had become a cash cow trading on its huge pop-culture reputation. The opening credits sequence features studio logos rippling beneath invisible water tremors, and the on-screen title displays the “III” as stupid claw tears the camera pushes through. Joe Johnston (The Rocketeer) takes over from Spielberg (who upheld a promise to his old friend about succeeding him), and it would take Johnston a decade to recover from this stinker with Captain America: The First Avenger. And who even remembers Johnston was behind that Marvel venture?

There was no Michael Crichton novel to base JP3 on (although a handful of scenes are lifted from book sequences the previous films didn’t have time for, or didn’t think were strong enough). One thing I do like about the earlier Jurassic Park movies is how each sequel focuses on the return of a character from the original lineup, with Dr Grant now tricked into playing tour guide on a flyover of Isla Sorna financed by a wealthy couple, unaware his paymasters plan to land and go looking for their lost 12-year-old son (Trevor Morgan), who’s stranded on the island after a parasailing accident.

It was interesting catching up with Grant in the earlier scenes, too—as we discover he’s still excavating fossils despite cloned dinosaurs having become public knowledge after the “San Diego incident”, and is still friends with his ex-student Ellie and her husband. The latter being a particularly odd decision, as the story would have worked better if Grant was married to Ellie and the father of Charlie, a toddler who plays a vital role in his party’s rescue at the end. Indeed, the relationship between Alan and Ellie has always been oddly ambiguous in the films, but less so in the books (where they enjoy a very platonic student-teacher relationship). Spielberg himself cut dialogue in the original Jurassic Park that made it clearer the film versions of the characters are romantically involved, which is why I can’t help feeling that was the case. O’Neill and Dern were clearly playing the roles as lovers with an age-gap throughout Jurassic Park, and yet JP3 has them most definitely in each a mutual friend-zone.

Barely interested in building a sense of anticipation at seeing dinosaurs again (CGI was becoming passé by now), JP3 gets down to business very early. Dr Grant’s again lured into action by a pay-cheque written by millionaires Paul (William H. Macy) and Amanda Kirby (Téa Leoni), joined by another protégé, Billy (Alessandro Nivola)—but everything’s less enthralling this time. Johnston sets a low bar with a dinosaur-less opening sequence, before serving audiences their first (talking!) dinosaur as part of a dumb dream sequence. The first major action sequence (involving a lumbering Spinosaurus attacking a jet during a hasty takeoff) is a spatially illogical mess, with the added misfortune of segueing into a disappointing fight between the Spinosaurus and the saga’s iconic villain, a T-Rex. It was supposed to evoke the King Kong vs. dinosaur fight from that 1933 classic, I think, but utterly fails.

Disappointment continues to appear around every corner. There’s only once set-piece that works well (the rescue party being attacked by pteranodons inside a giant aviary), and the rest is either poorly choreographed or difficult to draw excitement from because nothing feels fresh. The Kirby’s are a terrible blunder, with Amanda’s personality being particularly irritating—yelling for her son through a loudhailer the moment she sets foot on the dinosaur island, then later convulsing in terror for a good ten seconds after a skeleton touches her skin. The women in the previous films were cool professionals who could hold their own with the guys, physically and intellectually, but Amanda’s a cowardly idiot who endangers everyone throughout the film.

JP3 is a half-hour shorter than its predecessors; but it doesn’t feel nimble and ferocious as a result, it feels repetitive and unsubstantial. ILM’s dinosaurs are more textured and colourful than their browny-grey digital ancestors, but that’s not praise. There’s a herd of brachiosaurus’s ambling along a riverbank that genuinely look like something from the Spielberg-produced cartoon The Land Before Time. The behaviour of the dinosaurs also turns preposterous, at times, with one raptor posing still just to scare someone foolish enough to gaze into its unblinking eyes. You once believed in the reality of these dinosaurs because they felt realistic in their decision-making, but here they’re examples of the “theme park monsters” Grant ironically describes his first encounters as.

There are few positives about this film, alas; perhaps because the original script was abandoned five weeks before shooting began. You sense Johnston was working from an incomplete story at times—particularly when the outrageously abrupt climax arrives, with Isla Sorna’s beach suddenly teeming with marines who just airlift everyone to safety.

All three films have a strong parental theme running through them, so at the very least I was pleased JP3 didn’t forget that—as the estranged Kirby’s bond over the search-and-rescue of their lost boy, and become stronger as a result. Just a shame none of their growth impacts bachelor Dr Grant, who remains a reluctant voice of experience and reason to the dimwits who endangered his life again. Jurassic Park III may not have caused this franchise to go extinct, with Jurassic World hoping to recapture the magic of the first adventure, but it’s certainly the reason it’s been trapped in stasis for awhile.

Cast & Crew

directors: Steven Spielberg ('Jurassic Park', 'The Lost World: Jurassic Park') & Joe Johnston ('Jurassic Park III')

writers: Michael Crichton ('Jurassic Park'); David Koepp ('Jurassic Park', 'The Lost World: Jurassic Park'); Peter Buchman, Alexander Payne & Jim Taylor ('Jurassic Park III')

starring: Sam Neill, Jeff Goldblum, Richard Attenborough, Laura Dern, Samuel L. Jackson, William H. Macy, Julianne Moore, Vince Vaughn, Téa Leoni, Arliss Howard, Pete Postlethwaite, Ariana Richards, Joseph Mazzello & Alessandro Nivola.

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