Revisiting Jurassic Park

jurassic_park_t_rex_bannerJurassic Park stands boldly and proudly as a monumental classic. As a franchise, however, it’s somewhat of a disappointment. With each subsequent outing, the filmmakers lost the essence of the original and hurled the franchise towards extinction. It would take the better part of a decade to even muster the courage to try again. Gearing up for Jurassic World, I’ll be looking back on the first three films to see how we ended up here, and why the series deserves to breathe life again on the big screen. Welcome back to Jurassic Park.

The Classicbanner_873Jurassic Park holds up remarkably well. The effects are so well preserved that you forget the film was made over 20 years ago. Credit goes to Stan Winston and the folks at ILM for helping Spielberg craft this timeless journey. But, Spielberg reminds us that it’s not about the special effects.

Spielberg exercises a skillful restraint that’s unusual by today’s standards. He does get giddy once the dinosaurs come into play, but he never dares to show off, nor jump the gun. In the prologue, we barely get a glimpse of the raptor, just peeks. From then on, Spielberg spoon-feeds us the spectacle, which serves the film better in the long run. Because he wants us to get swept away with the awe and wonder. But what we don’t realize is that he’s also showing us how dangerous this can be.

Instead of going right into the action, Spielberg diverts our attention to the ethics (or lack thereof) involved in engineering dinosaurs. He raises some necessary questions, questions worth pondering throughout the film. So once the T-Rex breaks through the fence in the film’s centerpiece sequence, you feel the impact of Dr. Malcolm’s warning, even though he lives to regret it.

Ah, the T-Rex. Nothing gives me more chills. It’s interesting to replay that scene and analyze how Spielberg builds the tension to a breaking point. In Jaws he did it with music. Here, he pulls away the music and gets you to focus on the environment: the iconic trembling cup, the missing goat, the faulty fence – thus, the nature of things to come. Sure, a T-Rex is scary, but what’s even scarier is a T-Rex on the loose. Of course, this terror wouldn’t have the same impact if the script didn’t ponder the ideas that would inevitably lead to this.

Jurassic Park succeeds because it shows us what happens when you tamper with nature – a far more fascinating concept in the context of a survival film. Spielberg was clever enough to combine the two and still make it entertaining despite the horrific implications of the story. Its sequels, however, would haphazardly recycle these ideas and dare to call themselves sequels.

The One That Lost Its Way960Audiences clamored for more, as they always do when there’s dinosaurs involved. Spielberg, unfortunately, became a slave to himself as a sequel-maker rather than a storyteller. As it turns out, the two are not mutually exclusive.

The Lost World opens with a shaky prologue that already points to a few plot holes. There’s a second island? How did this family happen to stumble on it? And why isn’t it being closely monitored given what’s living there? The notion of a second island would’ve been cooler had it been better integrated into the story. Hammond points out that Isla Sorna was where the dinosaurs were bred, only to be transported to the park facilities on Isla Nublar. None of this was touched on in the first film. Plus, we clearly saw them breeding animals on Isla Nublar. This already goes to show how the story has been reengineered to service the plot.

The plot does hold promise. John Hammond’s successor is looking to take control of In-Gen’s properties and fulfill his own vision of a park. Hammond, however, seeks to preserve the dinosaurs in their natural habitat and enlists the help of researchers to prove that these are animals who should be left alone. For the most part, Spielberg is successful in bringing themes of preservation to light. It’s only when the explosions happen that Spielberg forgets about the story he’s telling.

Once the movie becomes about survival, the characters quickly forget who they are and succumb to horror movie clichés. When the Tyrannosaurs ambush the camp (I have no idea how a T-Rex can sneak up on anything), everyone, including Sarah, runs for their lives. Malcom knows better and hides, but Sarah, a paleontologist, should know that running won’t solve anything. And, when the T-Rex corners them into a waterfall, a fellow paleontologist gets alarmed by a snake of all things and practically leaps into the T-Rex’s mouth.

To make matters worse, the film also dumbs down the raptors. Kelly, somehow, uses her gymnastics to kill a raptor and save the day. In the first film, it took a Tyrannosaurus to take them down, and now you’re telling me that I stand a chance so long as I have gymnastics training? Sign me up, I guess.

Overall, The Lost World isn’t a bad film. There’s something refreshing and exciting about Malcolm leading the charge. The film also has a heart-pounding sequence featuring not one, but two Tyrannosaurs! And Spielberg makes all of our nightmares come true by unleashing one of them on an unsuspecting city. Though short-lived, it’s still thrilling to see, and enormously worthy of the big screen experience.

I don’t think Spielberg was trying to make a better film. He was just trying to tell a bigger story with tons more action. For all of the script’s ludicrousness, at least he went for it. He learned the hard way that the mythology of Jurassic Park isn’t dependent on action so much as it is on compelling ideas. Still, I’d take this film any day over what is perhaps the worst film in the series.

The One That Suckedjp3cPardon my bluntness, but I have a bone to pick with the third film. The opening has the same gaping plot hole as the second one. Is In-Gen this lenient on letting people trespass? The writers expect us to sidestep this, just like it expects us to believe that a thirteen year-old boy could survive eight weeks on an island with dinosaurs. Still, that’s not even my biggest complaint.

HOW ARE DR. GRANT AND DR. SATTLER NOT TOGETHER??? Weren’t they in love and talking about the possibility of a child in the first film? Jurassic Park III crushes those hopes. But at least we’re reunited with Dr. Grant. As expected, he makes it abundantly clear that he’d never go back. Of course, the plot says otherwise, but I can’t help but wonder if Mr. and Mrs. Kirby would’ve fared better with Dr. Grant had they told him the truth. Money got him on the island the first time. Did the writers really have to lean on that again? Couldn’t they have tried to appeal to Alan emotionally? It would’ve saved a lot of senseless bickering in the jungle.

On the plus side, the film doesn’t overstay its welcome. Set at a breezy 90 minutes, director Joe Johnston has an idea of a roller-coaster ride, except he leans too heavily on the Spinosaurus to pull it off. I’ll admit, Spiney is pretty badass. But he’s also villainous, which doesn’t fit with the mythology of the series at all. The T-Rex wasn’t a villain; it was a force of nature. The Spinosaurus, however, has a strange need to chase the characters, presumably to eat them, but they wouldn’t make much of a meal for a dinosaur of its size. Johnston even goes so far as to unseat the Tyrannosaurus as the king of the jungle. The fight between the two, though cool, is over in a heartbeat. If that doesn’t disappoint you, the CGI somehow looks dated despite being the most recent film. That says a lot.

None of the interactions between characters are particularly engaging, not even when the parents have reunited with their son. They are so annoying that at times I was rooting for their demise. They’re just an excuse to get back on the island. Even then they’re so thinly drawn. I don’t know why they had to be divorced when their arc clearly dictates they’ll wind up back together again. It’s lazy, safe, and predictable, which is about as much as I can say about the film.

Most of this film comes and goes. The Spinosaurus chases them for a time, then walks off after a fire. Not a memorable exit. The raptors take over just to show off how super smart they are. They can communicate now, and it’s unintentionally hilarious. Johnston feels like he’s stripped down Jurassic Park to its bare essentials but really he just has a B-movie in mind, and a total misunderstanding of what made the first one so great. This is more of a parody of Jurassic Park than an actual Jurassic Park film. If the first two films are about the consequences of meddling with nature, then the third film is about what happens when you mess with a classic.

Revisiting Jurassic Park, it’s easy to see why Universal Studios was so desperate to reopen the park. Throwing humans and dinosaurs together is enough to get anyone lining up. It’s also a timeless concept that has so much potential. But did they provide a sufficient reason for another go-around? We’ll see.

Tomorrow, my review of Jurassic World.

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