Taking Another Bite of the Jurassic Park Trilogy

Jurassic Park

I remember my first viewing of Jurassic Park quite vividly. The theater was packed so we had to sit uncomfortably close to the screen, leading to the dreaded situation where you have to keep your neck craned for the entire movie. But I was a child at the time, so that didn’t bother me. We also seemed to be pretty close to the speakers, so the sound was nearly deafening at times, which honestly only added to the experience. At the time, to my young mind, this actually seemed like the ideal way to experience this film. My main reason for seeing it was, after all, “DINOSAURS ARE COOL!” and being physically overwhelmed by the sound and picture could only enhance that.

As such, the things that jumped out at me at the time were mostly the obvious iconic moments, the times when the sheer majesty (or terror, or awesomeness) of what was happening pretty much hit you over the head with all the subtlety of a baseball bat. It doesn’t matter if you’re fifteen or fifty, if it’s the first time you’re seeing the film or if you saw it in theaters and then proceeded to nearly wear out your VHS copy, it’s pretty difficult to suppress the instinctual “Whoa!” response during some of the film’s most famous moments. Dr. Grant seeing a live dinosaur for the first time and removing his sunglasses in disbelief, the elation of the t-rex coming seemingly out of nowhere to save our heroes at the last minute, or on the opposite side of the emotional spectrum the mounting dread of the famous water impact tremors followed by the incredible sequence of the t-rex attack.

But looking back on the film now with older, hopefully wiser eyes, what really jumps out at me are the little moments and details that build the foundation upon which these big moments can confidently rest their enormous weight. You could literally teach a class on the importance of setup/payoff in filmmaking using this film. Sometimes it’s as simple as Tim making fun of his sister for being a dorky “hacker” and her computer skills coming in handy much later in the film. Other times it’s much more involved.

For instance, did you notice that basically the entire beginning of the film takes great pains to convince you that velociraptors are really, really dangerous? The very first scene of the film is the delivery of a raptor going horribly wrong despite numerous precautions, resulting in the brutal death of a park worker. Shortly after we get Dr. Grant using his knowledge of raptors to scare the hell out of a little boy (which is simultaneously setting up Grant’s emotional arc, by the way, talk about story/character economy!) And lastly we get the terrified reaction of Dr. Grant upon learning there are raptors in Jurassic Park, and no-nonsense game warden Robert Muldoon’s personal observations of the beasts’ cunning and sincere belief that they are too dangerous to be kept alive. This might sound excessive when described this way, but you really don’t notice it when you’re watching the film. And consider how much of the film’s final act relies on the audience being sincerely convinced that raptors are the most dangerous thing on two feet.

Or there’s the emotional arc Alan goes through with respect to his feelings on children. The film establishes early on that Alan doesn’t like kids, and it doesn’t just tell us. It shows us via his aforementioned almost-cruel lecture to a young boy about how dangerous velociraptors were, leading into a conversation with Dr. Sattler that hammers home the point without overdoing it. And with this thoroughly established, we get Grant’s cold reaction to meeting Hammond’s grandchildren, followed by him warming to them after saving their lives and being forced to spend time with them.

This is all weaved in so seamlessly that you probably don’t even notice it happening if you aren’t consciously thinking about it. It’s little things here and there that just add up over the course of the film. On top of that, even the minor characters have little details that make them feel more like real people without eating up much screentime (Lex is a vegetarian, Muldoon is deadly-serious, Nedry is a slob, Arnold is an easily-frustrated chain-smoker, etc). You also get little moments like Alan pretending to be electrocuted by the inactive electric fence to help break the tension. The film is actually so infused with personality that even the dinosaurs themselves have enormous (no pun intended) screen presence and very distinct-feeling personalities. The way in which the t-rex is terrifying is much different than the way in which the raptors are terrifying, and its overall sense of imposing majesty carries over from when it’s terrorizing our heroes to when it’s saving them.

I think one of the most interesting things about this film is the seeming mismatch of Crichton’s worldview (cynical, reactionary, paranoid, technophobic) and Spielberg’s (optimistic, striving for at least the appearance of being apolitical, enthusiastic, humanistic), and how interesting it is that we got such a fantastic film out of it. And honestly, while the film is frequently saying things that are 100% Crichton, it’s saying them in a very Spielbergian way that frequently dilutes or shrugs off what Crichton is trying to say. I know Crichton has the scriptwriting credit here (along with David Koepp), but I see a lot more of Spielberg’s ideology in the film than Crichton’s, and I have to wonder how satisfied Crichton actually was with the final product.

But yeah, you can probably also just enjoy the whole “running away from dinosaurs before they eat you” thing. That’s probably okay, too.

(S-Rank)

The Lost World: Jurassic Park

Despite acknowledging without qualification that the first film is superior in every respect, I will go to bat for The Lost World. To this day I still think its only unforgivable crime is that if it had been more successful, perhaps it would’ve popularized its baffling “Sequel Title: Series Title” title format. We dodged a real bullet there. In all seriousness, the sequel is infamous with many fans for butchering its source material and for Spielberg later expressing dissatisfaction with his own work. But the only reason Crichton even wrote a sequel book was to justify the sequel movie.

If there is one common criticism I will wholeheartedly support, it’s that The Lost World is extremely one-dimensional, especially compared to its predecessor. The original Jurassic Park was full of peaks and valleys, ranging from light-hearted to suspenseful to majestic to terrifying and just about everything in between. The Lost World pretty much picks one tone (lighthearted action) and sticks with it. And it fills this niche more than adequately, but the ceiling here is much lower than the first film’s.

The film’s main saving grace is its humor, and to that end the return (and expanded screentime) of Jeff Goldblum as Ian Malcolm is a godsend. Probably 90% of the dialogue in any scene he’s involved in is banter, and while that’s probably maddening for some people I honestly love it, especially with his delivery. The other characters on his team aren’t really fleshed out all that much, which is a bit of a shame, but they’re all more than adequate for the most part. Though, Sarah does frequently fall into the frustrating trope of “I’m a female badass character so I’m going to assert my qualifications and show how awesome I am in basically every line of dialogue” vs “my actual actions are going to make me out to be a bumbling idiot who constantly needs rescuing.”

There just isn’t that much to say about this film because there isn’t as much going on as there was in the previous film. It’s occasionally a bit on-the-nose (just look at the scene where the InGen team arrives on the island and everyone on Ian’s team gives us their absolute best “horrified and disgusted” faces), but that same lack of subtlety gives us moments like the great shot of Sarah taking down a t-rex with a tranquilizer dart as a helicopter strafes into frame with much more deadly intentions. Honestly, that shot alone justifies the entire movie.

(A-Rank)

Jurassic Park III

When I started re-watching the Jurassic Park trilogy, one of the questions I really wanted to get to the bottom of was just why I enjoyed The Lost World way better than most but drew the line at Jurassic Park III.

It’s actually pretty simple. It’s because of the dinosaurs. Yeah, maybe I enjoyed some of the character stuff. And there were cute little moments like the group discovering a vending machine and one character searching his pockets and asking if anyone had change and another just running into frame and shattering the glass with a kick. But hey, remind me why I bought my ticket again?

Oh right. It was for cool dinosaur stuff. And… where was all of that, exactly? The only real exciting addition this film brought in that regard was the scene in the pteranodon cage, which I have to admit was pretty well done. This also leads directly into the film’s baffling ending which shows several pteranodons escaping the island while… hopeful music plays? I kind of want to see a fan edit that extends this scene to show the pteranodons swooping down on terrified schoolchildren with the same hopeful music playing.

The spinosaurus could’ve been a pretty interesting addition if it weren’t so lacking in personality. It just chases our heroes around generically, at one point taking down a t-rex so the audience can gasp and realize that the spinosaur is an even bigger, badder predator (or, as actually happened, yawn and realize this movie isn’t getting better anytime soon).

And then there was whatever was going on with the raptors, which the less we talk about the better. The short version is that one of the central thrusts of the movie was supposed to be about how raptors were even more dangerous than we thought they were, but if anything they felt toothless in this one. There’s a totally obligatory chase scene at one point where it never really felt like any of the characters were in any real peril. For a movie about dinosaurs, everything involving dinosaurs here just feels so perfunctory. There’s no suspense, no tension, no… anything.

And therein lies the answer to my question. Jurassic Park was a spectacular film that really doesn’t get enough credit for its storytelling. The Lost World was a goofy film that may have lacked its predecessor’s craft but at least had plenty of personality. Jurassic Park III is just lazy and predictable and totally devoid of identity. And no matter what mitigating factors there might’ve been, that’s just one of the worst things a movie can be.

(C-Rank)


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