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 for a series that has gone from somewhat exciting to crassly ridiculous in the span of 22 years and 4 films, with more surely – and sadly – to come.
The movies, based on Michael Crichton’s fine 1990 sci-fi novel, have followed the law of diminishing returns since that first foray into Isla Nublar. Let’s revisit them one by one.
First up is Jurassic Park (1993), the one that started it all. 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 cartoony characters with almost no development. It’s even hard to believe the park’s owner, John Hammond, exists; as portrayed by Richard Attenborough in a one-note performance of saintly wonder (a Spielberg must-have), it’s hard to root for him once his science project runs amok.
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 harrowing, riveting moment, expertly blending animatronics and CG to eye-popping effect, and it jump-starts several more suspenseful 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 less-than-stellar overall tone of the film; Jurassic Park may have its moments, but it’s nowhere near Spielberg’s amazing grasp of direction ten years prior. Rating: 3.5 / 5
Next is The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997). Four years down the line Spielberg returned with this 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 inhabited by dino clones. Along for the ride is his stowaway daughter, his paleontologist girlfriend, a documentarian/eco-terrorist, and a bunch of mercenaries (don’t ask).
It’s all pretty ridiculous and rote, save by one breathtaking moment involving a slowly-splintering piece of glass, and a coda 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. Rating: 2.5 / 5
2001 saw the release of Jurassic Park III (2001), directed by Joe Johnston. 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 this mess. Maybe they needed the money. Nothing here works. Not the cheap action scenes, 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 attack by flying pteranodons can save this turkey. Rating: 1.5 / 5
Finally there’s Jurassic World, this year’s comeback sequel directed by Colin Trevorrow. Audiences have really liked it, probably because it’s nothing more than a complete rehash of the first three movies, making it of interest to younger generations. 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. Ian Malcolm would be ashamed of such drivel. But at least it doesn’t have Téa Leoni screaming, so it gets a rating of 2 / 5 stars. (For a funny and spot-on commentary on Jurassic World, you can also check this entry in the Strange Orphan Boxes blog: Jurassic World – Crapasaurus Rex.)
So should you sit down and watch the four Jurassic Park films again? Stick with the first. At least that one had the benefit of originality, not the automated feel of an assembly line. And Sam Jackson. “Hold on to your butts!”