The “Jurassic Park” Trilogy Didn’t Know When to Go Extinct

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I was born the same year that Jurassic Park was released in theaters. It was a strange time, or so my mother tells me. Dinosaurs were everywhere – on shirts, mugs, window decals, and Weird Al covers. I was lucky enough to escape the prehistoric merchandising onslaught – my parents never forced me to wear a T-Rex onesie, and none of my plush toys were modeled from the Mesozoic. (Unless you count Barney. But I don’t, nor will I ever, count Barney.)

Still, I’ve long felt a special kinship with the original Jurassic Park, by far the highest-grossing film of 1993. I’ve watched it multiple times, and it never gets old – the scares are still scary, the thrills are still thrilling, and even 25 years later, the special effects are a wonder to behold.

In the span of that ensuing quarter-century, Spielberg’s prehistoric blockbuster has become a merchandising powerhouse, far beyond the random shirt or “Tea Rex” mug. There have been video games, comic books, a theme park ride – and, of course, a whole slew of sequels. Universal has just unleashed the fifth Jurassic film on the blockbuster-hungry public, and a sixth has already been confirmed.

Perhaps at some future point I’ll write more about the more current Jurassic World films – but for now, we’re going back to the (not-quite-prehistoric) past, to examine the franchise’s original “trilogy.” Yes, for a long time, there were only three Jurassic Park films, respectively known as “The Best One” and “The Other Two.”

While most fans would agree that the franchise’s original film remains its creative peak, I’m still going to talk about The Other Two as well. Partly out of nostalgic respect for the series… and partly because I don’t get to write enough negative film reviews on this site. Let’s begin with:

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Jurassic Park (1993)

Jurassic Park sent shockwaves through the film industry at the time of its release – the special effects outstripped anything audiences at the time had ever seen. Spielberg knew that in order to truly draw audiences into his latest wonderworld, the dinosaurs needed to look as realistic as possible. Computer-generated effects were a new and exciting advancement (they’d achieved their first real cinematic breakthrough in 1991 with Terminator 2), and could have provided a convenient means to bring the Mesozoic monsters to life. But Steven and his team wisely chose to minimize their use of CG, instead opting for state-of-the-art animatronics.

The result is nothing short of riveting. Scenes in which a T-Rex looms over a park rover, or where two raptors pursue a pair of kids through the lab kitchen, are not merely well-staged and directed, but thoroughly engrossing, and even scary. Seen in 3-D (as the film was redistributed in for its 20th anniversary in 2013), these scenes are even more intense – you half-expect one of the raptors to lunge into the audience.

But while the film’s effects have served to cement its place in the hallowed halls of great cinema, its more conventional aspects also deserve mention. Jurassic Park is an expertly-paced film, building slowly and carefully to each of its well-timed scares. Modern action-adventure flicks tend to move quickly, speeding from one thrilling setpiece to another for fear that a slackening in tone will cause audiences to divert attention elsewhere. Jurassic Park existed at a simpler time – a time when audiences were willing to stick around for the good stuff. And this film most certainly delivers on that good stuff.

Jurassic Park is not a perfect film – its characters are too pat and predictable to be fully engaging, and too many seem shoved into the film to serve as potential dino chow. (The most memorable character is Ian Malcolm, played with standoffish charisma by Jeff Goldblum in the days before he’d drifted into awkward self-parody.) But it’s a terrific film that stands the test of time exceptionally well. I’ve seen it several times in the past, and I expect I’ll return to it many more times in the future.

Score: A

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The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997)

Even before the first Jurassic film had made it home video, a sequel to the smash hit was inevitable. What was less inevitable was whether Spielberg would return to direct a second dino-pic. Surprisingly, the Master agreed. Sounds like he had some fresh ideas to build on the first film. Right?

Sadly, no. The first strike against The Lost World was its source material – Michael Crichton, who had penned the excellent book the first film was based on, wrote a follow-up novel largely to serve as a basis for a second movie, and his new book was far less well-received than its predecessor. Critics accused it of being lazy, repetitive, and uninspired – complaints they would further lob at the Lost World film, released in the early summer of 1997.

Arguably one of the worst films with a “Directed by Steven Spielberg” tag, The Lost World falls victim to virtually every bad sequel cliché in the book. There are jarring plot contrivances (a second island with more dinosaurs!), exaggerated supporting characters, and the insatiable need to outdo the original film. That last stumbling block sends a T-Rex to suburban San Diego, in a story development almost too laughable to invest in.

The Lost World still benefits from some impressive effects and Spielberg’s impressive staging, and it features a handful of moments which invoke the fresh inventiveness of the first film. (A scene in which a group of raptors bear down, shark-like, on a group of fleeing innocents is particularly clever.) But the film never quite justifies the need for its existence, particularly given the high pedigree attached.

Score: C

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Jurassic Park III (2001)

By the time the third Jurassic film was announced, much of the clamor surrounding the franchise had begun to fade. As such, the film itself was granted a smaller price tag and shorter running time (just over 90 minutes) than its two predecessors. Absent also was Spielberg, whose seat was now filled by Jumanji director Joe Johnston. (Steve is credited as a producer, but had no direct involvement in the film itself.)

And depending on how you view it, Jurassic Park III is either an improvement over The Lost World or a franchise-killing slide into true mediocrity. In any case, the brief running time helps, as does the easily digestible story – involving Dr. Grant (star of the first Jurassic film, though absent from the second) returning to the original island after being bribed by a wealthy couple (the chemistry-free, miscast pair of William H. Macy and Tea Leoni) in search of their son.

Jurassic Park III offers nothing really new to the franchise, apart from swapping the franchise’s signature T-Rex with a Spinosaurus. It offers the obligatory scares and jumps (including a particularly goofy, much-memed image of a raptor on a plane calling to Dr. Grant: “ALAN!”), but it’s over quickly enough, before you have any real chance to lose patience with it.

As you may infer from the tone of this review, I don’t quite hate Jurassic Park III as some folks do. It’s a fine film for a lazy summer afternoon, the sort of thing to entertain the undemanding action-adventure fan. The delusions of grandeur which afflicted The Lost World are refreshingly absent. This film only exists to carve 90 minutes out of your life, and there are worse ways to carve them.

Score: C+

As for Jurassic World? It’s better than the other sequels, albeit still rather overblown by blockbuster standards. Hoping Fallen Kingdom is an improvement, although the reviews aren’t painting the prettiest of pictures. Looks like it’s time to break out a copy of the original film once again…

All three Jurassic Park films, plus Jurassic World are available on DVD and for digital download. Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is currently playing in theaters.

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2 thoughts on “The “Jurassic Park” Trilogy Didn’t Know When to Go Extinct”

  1. Have to disagree with at least some of these comments, some of which are a little too on the nose (ie many reviewers, online or otherwise, revert to the same very cliched analysis of The Lost World and JPIII – I want to hear people’s actual opinions).

    The Lost World suffered in its writing and conversion to film, and while the book is very good sequel to the first book, the film uses perhaps ONE scene from it. That’s right, only one actual scene survives the transition. The characters suffer from too much Hollywood-amalgamation, too. Of the characters transferred from page to screen, only a couple are not horrible mish-mashes of multiple characters from the book. Case in point is Sarah Harding – while the book character is a strong-willed scientist with something of a thing for Ian Malcolm in their shared past, the film mashes her character up with that of Richard Levine (another scientist, the one they are trying to save in the book). Levine is the reckless, brash scientist who goes to the island just to prove a point to Malcolm – but because they wanted to cut down on characters he’s just not present and his exaggerated traits given to Sarah instead. She is then by dint of bad screenwriting guilty of some of the most stupid decisions in the entire franchise.

    In the main, if you rush-adapt a book to screen (or in places actively IGNORE the book that was supposed to be written so you could make the film), it will come off as half-baked. Fallen Kingdom manages to do the ‘take dinosaurs from the island’ plot without overcomplicating the plot and oversimplifying the character actions/motivations.

    I also must disagree regarding Jurassic World, which you seem to be eager to call overblown despite it being neither exaggerated nor pretentious. It does what it does, riffing on the themes that made JP good in the first place while updating the ‘genetic power is dangerous used in the wrong way’ message for a new generation. While it doesn’t have the same ‘wow, dinosaurs’ factor as the original…it was NEVER going to. It was impossible, by the very fact that it is a sequel to it. Compare the televised moon landing in 1969 to a repeat of the same today – the original event will always have the advantage because it was the first time, it had wow factor. Jurassic World does exactly what it should have (reintroduce us to this world) while also moving the story off into a new direction. It’s a very worthy and very good sequel.

    Fallen Kingdom is also easily better than TLW and JP3. What it manages to do is get you to consider the plight and the future of animals recreated via genetic engineering. Some advocate letting them die, others counter that we are equally responsible for them as we are any other life on earth. The film then – after a fantastic action sequence better than anything since the original – takes a left turn into territory the franchise has never quite seen before, but which in some moments channels the raptor sequences from the first film.

    Here’s hoping Critically Touched gives these films a fair shake, because they’re very good.

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    1. Fallen Kingdom essentially felt like a patchwork quilt of previous Jurassic films – virtually every scene felt like something we’d seen before, albeit just fine-tuned enough so as not to be considered a direct copy. It’s well-directed and modestly entertaining, but nothing I’m motivated to write extensively about.

      As for the other sequels – I can’t help if my opinions sounds cliched, can I? 🙂 Much has already been said about the second and third films, and I tend not to venture much into well-trod territory, but I was feeling nostalgic this weekend.

      And Jurassic World is still a good sequel. I never expected it to be as good as the original; I was mostly hoping it would champion tension and good pacing over wanton violence. (It did not.)

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