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Jurassic Park: a retrospective

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With the recent release of 9-minute short, Battle at Big Rock and the news that the main trio (Sam Neill, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum) will be returning in 2021’s Jurassic World 3, now feels like a good time to revisit the previous five entries in the Jurassic Park series.

Welcome, to… 

Jurassic Park (1993)

Jurassic Park really is the cinematic equivalent of capturing lightning in a bottle. A towering critical and commercial hit, it was immediately an iconic work, and perhaps Steven Spielberg’s last great blockbuster. 

It’s packed with incredible moments that are now immediately recognisable, each quotable cultural artefacts: “Shoot her”, “Hold onto your butts”, “Clever girl”, “Don’t move”, “Life, uh, finds a way”. The T-Rex breakout and the velociraptors in the kitchen still stand as two of the finest, tensest sequences in Hollywood history.

There’s wonderful alchemy at work here. Narratively perfecting the blockbuster formula, Jurassic Park is also a technical marvel, using just enough CGI to astound while allowing the film to retain a timeless quality. The cast is perfect, with Neill, Dern and Goldblum all on top form in an ensemble that also includes outstanding turns from Richard Attenborough, Bob Peck and Wayne Knight. In fact Jurassic Park is so good that, on closer inspection, maybe we should have left it here. Because recapturing perfection would prove a rather challenging affair.

The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997)

It’s sad how quickly the franchise navigates into troubled water. The sequel, which largely deviates from Michael Crichton’s own follow-up, takes a gang of eco-activists, led by returning Goldblum, to a new island of dinosaurs, where they take on hunters and again come undone by their encounters with the big scaly beasts. 

So what works? Goldblum’s Ian Malcolm is again a fun presence, even if turning him from the quip-y supporting character to essentially the lead in a sprawling ensemble diminishes the character somewhat. Spielberg (returning to the director’s chair) can’t really direct a film poorly and there are several wonderfully staged set pieces (the velociraptors in the long grass scene is particularly strong). Of the new cast members, Pete Postlethwaite is a terrific inclusion, giving a refreshingly complicated turn in what could be a one-note villain.

However, it seems that many of the problems that have plagued subsequent entries can be found here. The nasty streak that ran through the original goes from a slither to a huge wedge in this film. With an expanded cast that means more grisly deaths for extras and bit-parts. There are more overtly unpleasant characters in The Lost World, a shift from the first, where even the most misguided figures are fun to be around. And the final act move off the island feels the first time the series jumped the shark. There’s trouble ahead for the Jurassic Park franchise and it starts here.

Jurassic Park III (2001)

The third instalment, the first not directed by Spielberg (Joe Johnston steps up), takes things smaller to some more successful results. Neill’s Alan Grant is coerced into returning to the dinosaurs in the search for a missing boy. The more intimate feel with a reduced roster of characters to follow and a simple journey-across-the-island narrative helps here, as does the well-cast inclusion of William H. Macy and Tea Leoni. 

But you’re not here for the people, you’re here for the dinosaurs. It turns out there was a bigger, badder beastie floating around the second island throughout The Lost World. The Spinosaurus may be toothier than the T-Rex but lacks much of the charm, setting the path for ever-more ridiculous dinosaurs in each subsequent instalment. The focus on communicating with velociraptors feels silly, but the addition of Pterodactyl is a stroke of genius, leading to the film’s best moment in an abandoned aviary.

There’s a rushed quality to Jurassic Park III with budget cuts leading to a truncated final act. Intimacy helps undo some of the mistakes of the second but also makes this an oddly small film (ironic given the dinosaurs are starting to get really quite big). But there are moments where this film works, a grisly humour that nicely offsets the nastiness and Neill is still utterly magnificent as Grant, his incredulity matching ours at being back among the same dinosaurs…. again.

Jurassic World (2015)

Returning after an extended break, Jurassic World plays out like several other legacy sequels of late, with a plot that borrows liberally from the original. With a dino-packed park now in full operation, we are introduced to a new set of characters and an extensive range of ‘attractions’. One of these, the genetic hybrid Indominus Rex, breaks out and runs amok around the park.  Jurassic World goes big, with director Colin Trevorrow giving the film a glossy sheen that allows it to stand alongside modern blockbusters. There are times where going big works, with the Mosasaurus being a fabulous, if terrifying inclusion. And certainly this, at least initially, is the entry that feels like it has the most reason to exist after the original.

And yet the film comes increasingly unstuck with a second half that keeps pushing towards crowd-pleasing moments that, on repeat watch, feel just a bit silly (did we really need Chris Pratt riding a motorbike alongside velociraptors). The problems of previous sequels are here again. Poorly written antagonists lead to the only returning member of the cast, who was previously in a handful of key exposition-heavy scenes, being turned into a turtle-necked wearing evil scientists. The mean streak can often leave a bad taste in the mouth with one death in particular (that’s gained notoriety since release) and feels excessively cruel.

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018)

Jurassic World’s incredible box office (over $1.6 billion globally) opened the franchise to new possibilities, revitalising a dormant franchise. It fed into Fallen Kingdom, which awkwardly straddles an appreciation of past series’ highlights with a desire to push on to something new. This plays out in the narrative that is half a Lost World retread (with an added erupting volcano) and something a bit more intimate, a sci-fi, gothic horror hybrid. The script is often clunky, unable to successfully find a through-line between the competing tones at the film’s core. Rejigging characters from previous films and adding a weak set of antagonists, it threatens to derail the entire endeavour.

Yet Fallen Kingdom is arguably the best directed of the sequels. J.A. Bayona is in the driving seat this time and brings his considerable flair for genre films (The Orphanage is a must-watch) to proceedings. The second-half, located in a mansion at nighttime, drips with atmosphere and there are a number of set pieces that go down a treat (the opening is fabulous). 

Though the journey is awkward, the climax opens the franchise out in a bold new direction that we will see play out in Jurassic World 3.

What do you think of the Jurassic Park franchise? Should it die a death, have we got it wrong? Let us know at @flick_whatUK.

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