Full disclosure: My reviews of the first four movies are lightly-edited reposts of reviews I previously posted on Letterboxd a couple years ago. There’s a reason this one isn’t going up on Patreon first. Also, this review will contain unmarked spoilers for every movie in the series up to and including Jurassic World: Dominion.
Also, also: holy shit, Jurassic World: Dominion was actually kinda good??? There, that oughta keep you reading. (Or at least scrolling all the way down to that review to find out whether or not I fell and hit my head on something heavy.)
Jurassic Park (1993)
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.
It’s also kind of jarring to realize how many of this movie’s best/most famous action scenes are in the second act, because the post-MCU blockbuster world has basically conditioned me to expect second act action scenes, if they happen at all, to be obligatory and underwhelming compared to the big third act setpiece (with obligatory giant blue beam of energy shooting into the sky).
… okay, you’re going to have to indulge me for a second, but I need to nitpick a few completely inconsequential details because I’m me. Velociraptors are babies. The “velociraptors” were actually deinonychuses (and not utahraptors, which is what I kept hearing and repeating in grade school when “um actually”ing). Also also, Lex makes a big deal about being a vegetarian early in the movie and even though I’ve seen this roughly 45,000,000 times I keep expecting them to bring up her vegetarianism when they reassure her about the brachiosaurus but they never do? I don’t know, just feels like a weird missed opportunity to me. And speaking of Lex’s vegetarianism, in the famous bit where her and Timmy are gorging themselves and then she freezes in terror because she sees a raptor shadow, she has Jello on her spoon because it adds a nice effect when it’s shaking and it’s kinda funny and scary at the same time, which is genius! Except Jello is NOT VEGETARIAN, so that’s kind of awkward.
… okay, sorry! Pivoting back to things that actually matter.
Aside from all the obvious and aforementioned, 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.
The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997)
Despite acknowledging without qualification that the first film is superior in every respect, I frequently find myself defending The Lost World in conversations. 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.
But by far the loudest complaint I often hear about this one is that a lot of it was “designed to sell toys” which reminds me an awful lot of criticisms of other 90s blockbusters like Batman Forever and always makes me want to respond, “But… it did sell a lot of toys. I should know, I made my parents buy most of them.” I understand what the complaint is getting at, but I don’t think it’s a reason to write off a movie out of hand. (It is a great reason to overthrow capitalism, though, so like… let’s do that!)
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. So, you know.
Yeah okay fine I’m probably rating this way too high, but you know what? They’re my ratings, get your own!
Jurassic Park III (2001)
Yeah, maybe I enjoyed some of the character stuff in Jurassic Park III. 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.
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.
Jurassic World (2015)
This movie isn’t completely awful (though it certainly has many of the elements needed for that), but I think the fact that I’m often pretty forgiving of most easily-accessible blockbusters has a whole lot to do with that opinion.
It’s easy enough to see how sexist this movie is (but of course, some people “just don’t see it”). Every single woman in this movie is the embodiment of some kind of stereotype. But what’s really frustrating is the way the movie approaches Bryce Dallas Howard’s character, its one female character that’s more multifaceted in any way. The way the movie treats her makes absolutely no sense. Her sister is angry at her for having a career and not wanting kids, and the movie’s narrative seems to bear that out. Her boss thinks she’s too worried about metrics and finances… which is literally her job? You know, the one you hired her for? If he wants her to do something other than her job, he should’ve hired her for a different job. And the movie constantly undermines her in order to play up how perfect and right Chris Pratt’s sweaty masculinity is.
Even when the movie gives her badass moments, it proceeds to completely ignore them. When she’s reunited with her nephews late in the film, the first thing they see her do is beat a pterodactyl off of a helpless Chris Pratt and then shoot it over and over with tranq darts like some kind of action movie badass. Next, Chris Pratt helps them escape by… driving a car backwards really fast? And after seeing these two things very nearly back to back, they’re convinced that he’s some kind of superhero. I’m sorry, what? In what fucking universe is being able to drive a car backwards more indicative of the ability to protect you from dinosaurs than literally saving you from being mauled to death by a dinosaur?
I know it’s been well-documented and even been the subject of entire articles, but I feel like I can’t get away with not mentioning that one awful torture porn-esque death was. The character in question was given the kind of leering, comeuppance-ladden orgy of violence death that you reserve for some despicable evil character to leave the audience happy, and it was for… what, exactly? Talking on the phone? Having two little shitheads she was in charge of intentionally run away for no apparent reason? (Seriously, why did they run away from the lady that could get them VIP access to the entire park? I never got this.)
But don’t worry! The movie doesn’t just make no sense in its approach to its female characters. It also doesn’t make any sense in its approach to Chris Pratt’s character. It’s just that its approach to him is that he is so cool, and right about everything, and so cool, and knows everything somehow even though there are supposed to be entire teams of people with more expertise than him in charge of those things, and he’s just so cool you guys. And like, okay, I won’t pretend seeing him ride around on a motorcycle with raptors wasn’t fucking awesome. (Again, there’s a reason I don’t entirely hate this movie.) But how we got there is he was learning how to train raptors to take orders for military dudes… but he’s… uh… really against raptors taking orders from military dudes. Maybe don’t take that job, then? And maybe don’t have your big picture argument with your boss, like, when they’re almost ready to implement the thing you’ve been working on for years? Maybe bring that up a bit earlier in your relationship? The thing is, the script isn’t approaching his character with any kind of logic, it’s approaching him as he’s the good guy, so he has to do cool shit like ride around on a motorcycle with his trained raptor buddies, but he also needs to be mad about the idea of riding around on a motorcycle with his raptor buddies, because the idea of training animals to serve military purposes is pretty damn unpalatable. This is just the most bloody obvious example of wanting to have your cake and eat it.
You also just have to shrug your shoulders at how much this movie doesn’t understand the function of a lot of the bits of the original movie it’s constantly aping. John Williams’ dramatic flourish, appropriate when the first movie uses it to reflect the wonder of someone seeing a dinosaur for the first time, is here used for the dramatic purpose of… a kid seeing a theme park from his hotel room balcony. This continues all the way to the ending, where we’re supposed to be satisfied by the sight of a t-rex roaring as it stands above the park. It would be a pretty fabulous image if I gave a damn? But I just can’t imagine being one iota as attached to any of the characters in this movie as I was to Drs. Grant, Sattler, and Malcolm, or John Hammond, or his grandchildren, or any of the numerous interesting side characters who wound up as dinosaur food one way or the other. I mean, I could actually see loving Bryce Dallas Howard’s character if the movie treated her with the respect she deserves, but that’s pretty much it.
The other biggest problem with this movie is that I just do not find the genetically engineered dinosaur antagonist remotely interesting. Like, there’s a whole hell of a lot you could’ve done with that if you decided that was the direction you wanted to go, but “t-rex but he’s got some raptor DNA and also he can camouflage or whatever the fuck” is just not doing it for me, and I get the sense that I’m really not the only one.
Again, it probably seems like I hate this a whole lot more than I do. It’s not the worst thing I’ve ever seen by any stretch of the imagination. It’s a perfectly watchable blockbuster that provides a few thrills, a few frustrations, and absolutely no urgency to ever see it again. I’d still rather watch it than something that’s just going to bore me to tears, but that’s just a matter of personal taste.
And like… I’ve kind of gotten super into theme parks as a result of going to Disney and Universal a bunch of times with some of my partners, so the fact that Jurassic World really does feel like a real theme park but with dinosaurs does wonders for wish fulfillment. I think that might be about my favorite thing about the movie.
(… okay, CW: vore, but I do also have to admit that, even though the indominus rex is still a stupid dinosaur with a stupid name, some of the maw shots and predatory behavior gave me very strong subby and prey feels. I’m not sorry.)
Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018)
The nicest thing I can say is that this movie very helpfully demarcates its halfway-decent part by setting it entirely on the island, while everything that happens after that is just the most boring shit in the entire series. Seriously, it’s actually that straightforwardly divided.
Like, this movie is actually technically better than its predecessor in a few concrete, quantifiable ways? The character writing was, for the most part, 900% better. Especially the female characters. Like, oh my fucking gods. The one exception to this is that the bad guy was just comically evil without any clear motivation, and did not seem nearly smart or patient enough to have been pulling the wool over his employers’ eyes for literally decades. Seriously, he’s just having Extremely Obviously Evil phone conversations at the slightest provocation.
Other improvements? Director: There appears to have been one. Tonal control: It had it. Coherence: It had it. There were one or two cute/clever dinosaur moments. The indoraptor, despite being literally a miniaturized version of it, was way more interesting than the indominus rex? And finally, the most noticeable heavy use of the original Jurassic Park theme was a woman who loved dinosaurs seeing a dinosaur for the first time and almost crying. Much better than a kid opening a fucking window in his fucking hotel room to see a fucking theme park.
So, like… yeah! All of that is progress, actually! But despite how much better it sounds on paper it’s still just an awful movie, and much less than the sum of its parts. Proving, as always, that you just can’t focus group your way to a good movie. There has to be something vital and real at its core. You have to care, and you have to make us care. And this movie just does not do that at all. If it were wiped from history, literally nothing would change except for how much money was in a few people’s pockets.
So, yeah, it’s not great.
Jurassic World: Dominion (2022)
… what the heck were you guys expecting out of this, exactly?
Seriously, everyone is just dumping nonstop on this movie, and it’s easily the best Jurassic World movie? And the only reason I don’t think it’s the second best Jurassic Park movie is because I like The Lost World way more than most people?
Seriously, I’m genuinely at a loss. I really need someone to explain to me the mountains of hate this thing is getting. I’m not saying it’s an amazing movie–it’s a Jurassic World movie, guys–but it’s just… it’s just not that bad! It’s actually shockingly good!
Jurassic World: Dominion does the legacyquel thing by bringing back all three main characters from the original movie, something that neither of its direct sequels did by the way. And I know we’ve got like a 50% success rate on movies like this not being exercises in empty nostalgia, but I thought Ellie and Alan absolutely carried this movie? And Ian’s part in it made perfect sense and added quite a bit.
Obviously Claire and Owen have never been my favorites, but I actually love them here? In the previous movie Claire took a baby step from corporate executive to director of a liberal “grassroots” dinosaur rights nonprofit. Which, you know. It’s better, clearly, but not to the degree that Rachel Maddow or whoever the fuck wants you to think it is. Here, she’s taken a giant leap from there to “fuck it, I’m gonna live in a cabin in the woods with my boyfriend and adopted daughter and do some eco-terrorism.” So, yeah! I’m into it. And I actually laughed out loud at Owen’s first appearance because of course he’s doing some ridiculous dinosaur cowboy bullshit.
The movie seemed interested in giving the new generation a trio of their own to match Ellie, Alan, and Ian. You could argue they were already there with Maisie, but she’s just a kid and spends a lot of the movie kidnapped. (Jealous! Or rather I would be if she hadn’t been kidnapped by basically the Apple corporation and just kinda left in a room.) So if they wanted any kind of symmetry there they were gonna need to add a new adult character, and yeah what they went with there worked pretty well for me. DeWanda Wise plays a hardened pilot with a heart of gold and a strong moral compass whether she wants it or not. Basically Han Solo but if he were a black lady with a haircut that made every lesbian and bi girl in the audience fan herself.
Speaking of the bad guys basically being the Apple corporation, okay yeah they didn’t really try to hide that at all. The compound is… I mean, I live near it, so I can confidently state that it looks an awful lot like the Apple campus. And the aesthetics everywhere and the way everyone talks… it’s just Apple, guys! The bad guy–also a legacyquel import from the first movie, and not one I was expecting!–is… is just Tim Cook. He’s a perfect bad guy because he’s immensely evil, and doing harm on a scale that is difficult to even think about… but he’s also just kind of a huge weenie? Like, he’s so cowardly and ineffective. And yeah, I’m sorry? This is kind of just the perfect setting for “wow, this is really cool and I hate all of it.” They even have a fucking hyperloop. This is so effectively hateable.
Apple’s probably getting a bit lonely in that bad guy seat, so how about we also let Monsanto have a turn? Because Biosyn’s evil plan to control the world’s food supply by breeding giant extinct locusts might be far-fetched, but genetically engineering them to spare only Biosyn’s patented crops… isn’t that far off from things Monsanto has been credibly accused of.
Literally my only substantive complaint (aside from things that are kind of unavoidable in a Jurassic World movie) is that the CIA are presented as good guys. Which, you know. That’s a pretty big problem, obviously. But at least that’s only relevant for like a scene or two.
Oh hey wow, you know what we didn’t talk about yet? The fucking dinosaurs! You know, the reason we’re here! So, the last movie did a terrible job of getting us here, but having dinosaurs just sort of out and roaming in the world fucking rules. It leads to stuff like Owen’s aforementioned dinosaur cowboy career path, and it’s just refreshing to see this franchise finally doing something different with its dinosaurs instead of “hey let’s try making the first Jurassic Park but not as good again.”
Maybe my favorite dinosaur moment in the movie is actually a very small one. Ellie pets a baby triceratops and it’s super cute and she says something like “you never get used to it.” I also actually love, love, love Owen and Blue’s relationship in this! Especially him promising to rescue Blue’s daughter and risking his neck to fulfill that promise, and Blue nonverbally acknowledging and thanking him at the end of the movie. It’s so good, you guys!!! Also also on top of all the obvious legacy dinosaur cameos, we get a freaking feathered raptor in this!! And the scene it was in with the breaking ice was just freaking awesome!!
… okay, I should, uh. Yeah. Okay. Fine. So. The new dinosaur big bad in this is the giganotosaurus. Which, thankfully, is just an actual dinosaur and genuinely does pose an interesting foil to the t-rex and other classic dinosaurs. So, uh. The thing about that is… (CW: Vore) … yeah, so, in a late action scene in the movie the heroes are almost eaten by the giganotosaurus several times… and there are some very nice maw shots and some roars and growls that made me squirm in my seat… and we saw it in IMAX… and, uh. Yeah. You guys are gonna be shocked, but I got very vore prey-horny. Seriously, I’m so glad we saw this in IMAX.
If this is the last Jurassic Park movie, it’s honestly a pretty great sendoff. If it’s not the last Jurassic Park movie, I only have one request. Do not do a reboot or whatever you want to call it and reset the status quo to make another “the first Jurassic Park, but worse.” Please. Even if you want to start over with new characters/etc, pleasepleaseplease either continue with the current status quo (dinosaurs and humans walking the earth together, or catching hyperloops I guess) or come up with a new one. That’s all I ask.