Retrospective: Jurassic World (2015)

Welcome back to the final entry in the Jurassic Park retrospective! In this entry we we will be looking at the latest film in the franchise, Jurassic World. After years of false starts, could the Jurassic Park franchise rejuvenate itself for a new audience? Read on to find out…

There was a more “traditional” Jurassic Park poster, but this was probably the big one and demonstrates how the franchise’s marketing has shifted in the 14 years since Jurassic Park III.

Following the release of Jurassic Park III, the franchise entered a protracted state of development hell. Spielberg and Johnston hinted at a number of ideas that they had for sequels, including pteranodons attacking the mainland as hinted at the ending of Jurassic Park III. However, development seemed to shift away from following-up on Jurassic Park III‘s loose threads and onto other ideas. One of the first which seemed to gain traction involved the dinosaurs spreading uncontrollably, with Sam Neill, Jeff Goldblum and Richard Attenborough reprising their roles and the lovely Keira Knightley being rumoured to play a grown up Lex Murphy. Stan Winston’s studio moved forward with special effects planning, filming locations were scheduled and actors were signed on, and it seemed like Jurassic Park IV was underway.

However, not all was well on the project. A script couldn’t be agreed on, perhaps because the central premise was bonkers – pretty much every story that they came up with revolved around some sort of genetically modified dinosaurs being used as mercenaries and wielding guns. Drew McWeeny, who saw an early version of the script, probably said described the situation the best: “I think it’s well-written and certainly inventive, but I also think it just might be the single most bugfuck crazy franchise sequel I’ve ever read, and I’m not sure we’re ever going to see this thing onscreen. It just doesn’t seem possible that Universal would make something this vigorously whacked out.” Suffice to say, the film continued to have issues putting together an acceptable script and its production dragged on longer and longer. Years after the fact, concept art from this time in the film’s development leaked online, which featured a variety of ass-ugly dino hybrids.

Between 2006-2008, a variety of stories, scripts and filming rumours were bounced back and forth, but still nothing was materializing. Then, on November 4, 2008, Michael Crichton passed away and it seemed like the general consensus was that the franchise should die as well. However, rumours surrounding a fourth film persisted regardless, with Johnston stating in 2010 that there were plans in place for another trilogy.
It wasn’t until early 2012 that Jurassic Park left development hell and began to materialize into what would become Jurassic World. Retrospectives veterans Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver were brought on to script the project after the success of Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Brad Bird (of The Incredibles, The Iron Giant and Mission Impossible 4 fame) wanted to work on the film, but was preoccupied with Tomorrowland, so instead he suggested that producers Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall consider Colin Trevorrow. Trevorrow had only directed one full-length film at this time, Safety Not Guaranteed, but the producers were sufficiently impressed by it that they brought him on board. Juan Antonio Bayona, director of the tsunami disaster film, The Impossible, was also considered, but was unable to commit to the project. He would eventually be brought on to direct the sequel, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. Trevorrow became involved with rewrites of the script along with Derek Connolly, and they incorporated three ideas that Spielberg wanted – a functional theme park, a human who has a relationship with trained raptors and an escaped dinosaur antagonist. A few scenes were also inspired by sequences in The Lost World novel, namely the velociraptor motorcycle chase and the Indominus Rex’s ability to change colour.

Chris Pratt was cast in the lead role of Owen Grady, a role he landed just prior to his big breakthrough in The Lego Movie and Guardians of the Galaxy. As a result, he was inadvertently the first real “movie star” to lead a Jurassic Park film, an inadvertent situation that the marketing was quick to capitalize on. Bryce Dallas Howard, an actress I admire who (at the time) had been looking for her big break as a lead actress for about a decade, was cast as the female lead, Claire Dearing. The film features two child leads played by Ty Simpkins and Nick Robinson, who play Claire’s nephews who are visiting the park. The film’s human antagonist is Vincent D’Onofrio as Vic Hoskins, who wants to use the dinosaurs for military operations. Rounding out the main cast is Irrfan Khan as Simon Masrani, the owner of Jurassic World after the death of John Hammond. The only returning character is B.D. Wong’s Dr. Henry Wu, who had a small role back in the original Jurassic Park as the scientist responsible for creating the dinosaurs, and who returns here in a small but important role.

The story of Jurassic World picks up in the present, where John Hammond’s vision of a dinosaur theme park has been realized and has been a fully-functional success for years now. The film follows Claire Dearing, the park’s administrator who is preparing to launch a new attraction involving the park’s first hybrid dinosaur, Indominus Rex, but there are security concerns regarding how dangerous it is. She is asked to have the park’s raptor handler and trainer, Owen Grady, to come and inspect its paddock to ensure that it is safe. Meanwhile, Claire’s two nephews, Gray and Zach, travel to the island to see her, but she is too busy with work and they end up having to sight-see together. While Claire and Owen are inspecting the Indominus paddock, the Indominus engineers an escape and the pair then have to try to stop the rampaging beast, protect the safety of the park guests and find Gray and Zach.

If the previous two films in the franchise were meant to be distillations of what Jurassic Park is, you would think that dino-carnage is the only thing that actually matters in this series. However, the dino-carnage in Jurassic Park only mattered because of a number of other elements which made the film so much more than those b-movie roots – strong characters, spectacle, a compelling narrative and a fascinating sci-fi hook. Jurassic World recaptures at least a couple elements of this formula which the other two sequels had lacked, and is definitely owes more of its structure to the original film than any other movie in the franchise. In addition to the theme park angle, it also explores some ideas which were largely brushed aside in the other sequels, such as the theme of humans tampering with genetic engineering.

Seeing a fully functional park is definitely cool and easily one of the best aspects of Jurassic World. It actually takes 40 minutes for things to start getting bad, so we get some time to see attractions and how the park operates. While it isn’t as interested in the spectacle and logistics of running a theme park as Jurassic Park was, it does use this to help ratchet the stakes up as the film progresses. As things get worse and worse, the guests’ safety becomes a concern, as does the fate of the park itself, which can’t survive another major PR disaster. That said, the portrayal of the park and its safety is also very questionable, and I’m pretty certain that this wasn’t intentional either. Like, how has the Mosasaur never jumped into the crowd and killed anyone yet? How have the raptors never jumped out of their enclosure’s low walls or dragged the handlers down by their poles? Didn’t Jurassic Park insist that raptors were basically diabolical? And why does the gyrosphere ride have no rails and allow people to drive around virtually endlessly amongst herds of dinosaurs? Even the Jeeps in Jurassic Park were on rails. These are just a few of the weird issues that permeate throughout Jurassic World‘s portrayal of its titular park, and while they’re really just small niggles, they’re just weird, distracting and rather obvious engineering problems.

The other fantastic idea that Jurassic World presents is the idea of a hybrid dinosaur. In the novel, genetic engineering was a more important element of the plot than the actual dinosaurs were, so the franchise probably should have exploited this element a long time ago*. The Indominus Rex makes for a truly fearsome antagonist, to the point where I don’t know how future films in the franchise are going to manage to live up to it. I mean, any dinosaur antagonist will feel like a step down now, and human antagonists have never been compelling. What makes it so fearsome is its unpredictability and high intelligence – the twist that it is part-raptor was quite clever and makes for a great “Oh shit” moment when it turns Owen’s pack on their human handlers. It also doesn’t hurt that the Indominus Rex is brutally violent. It immediately leaves an impression with its first victim, who you can see getting his leg ripped off as the Indominus devours him. Moments later, it chomps down on a helpless security guard without mercy. Then when the ACU try to contain it, it annihilates the squad and one gets messily devoured while blood showers the camera. These first couple scenes really establish how nasty (and questionably PG-13) the Indominus Rex is, and the film is always at its best when it is involved in the action.

Remember how I said that strong characters were one of the core elements of Jurassic Park? Well… Jurassic World did not get that memo, and it suffers greatly for it. Owen does some cool things, but he’s such a generic American action hero – he’s always right, he’s a man of action, he is brash and standoffish, he doesn’t adhere to authority he disagrees with, etc. One would hope that more of Chris Pratt’s natural charisma would get to shine through, but unfortunately it is mostly buried underneath a bland character. Claire is similarly just an archetype, the workaholic woman who learns to ease up over time. Bryce Dallas Howard does her best (and kind of succeeds), but the role is… questionable to say the least – I’ll get to that later though. As for the two kid characters, Zach and Gray, they live up to the series’ legacy… which is to say that they have one character trait and are otherwise useless to the plot outside of being a burden. Gray is implied to be a high-functioning autistic genius who is obsessed with numbers, but this never really actually impacts the plot any. Zach is his older brother, who is just an insensitive dick for most of the film until he decides to become a better brother.

Outside of the leads, the new owner of the park, Masrani, is actually pretty cool. He actually takes responsibility when things go south and is surprisingly heroic… I just wish that he got to do more before his unfortunate death. The character of Lowry is also a mixed bag – on the one hand, he actually has some good comic relief moments, particularly his subverted “action romance scene” moment. However, he’s also borderline insufferably meta, being an extremely obvious audience surrogate and Jurassic Park fanboy who makes no sense within the context of this universe. He is kind of funny the first time you see the movie, but he just gets cringier on repeat viewings.

Vic Hoskins is also so terrible that he brings the movie down along with him. The character himself is just irredeemably evil for the sake of being evil, to the point where he sees dinosaurs attacking the innocent guests and grins about it. The moment he appears on screen you know that a) he’s going to be the bad guy, and b) he’s going to get munched on before the film ends. More crucially though, Hoskins is the vector through which the film introduces its idea of having raptors trained as military weapons. This idea was already tenuous enough in Aliens, and here it makes even less sense. Like, there are a host of really obvious reasons that real world militaries are turning to drones and cyber technology rather than training animals for combat (reliability, cost, practicality, ethics, etc). Really, this is the sort of idea where creating genetically engineered humans might actually make sense at some point within the Jurassic Park universe, but the technology is clearly not there in this film. It’s just an awful subplot which unfortunately only gains prominence as the film moves towards its conclusion and weakens the latter-half of the story.

That’s part of my problem with Jurassic World – it has some clever ideas, but it often just decides to take the dumb or lazy route for the sake of convenience. Maybe the most eye-rolling example of this is that everyone’s radios/phones stop functioning properly at the absolute worst times. This is an inexcusable trope in most films when it happens once, but this happens at least four freaking times in Jurassic World. Even worse, Zach and Gray’s phone won’t get any reception one minute, but then the next it suddenly works and alerts the Indominus Rex to their position because convenience. There’s also a moment where Masrani is told that, despite being the owner of Jurassic World and InGen, that he’s not authorized to know what genetic modifications were made to the Indominus Rex, a claim which he doesn’t even question, because the film wants that to be a twist later. The characters also make just so many stupid decisions for the same reason – because it’s what the plot needs. For example, after being told to return to the park, Zach drives off in the gyrosphere with Gray and, after seeing a hole torn in the fences, decides that that would be a good time to go off-road. Oh, and predictably, the gyrospheres have no override system, or anything to stop them from leaving their enclosure. Hell, the whole plot hinges on character stupidity – when Owen and Claire think that the Indominus Rex has escaped, instead of calling the control room to figure out where it is, Claire speeds off in her car and then calls them, because the plot requires her to be a) away from the Indominus Rex paddock, and b) in the control room. Even worse, Owen and a couple workers decide to saunter into the paddock before finding out where it is, which ultimately leads to the Indominus Rex escaping.

This issue of laziness and convenience is so bad that I feel like I need to break down a whole sequence just to demonstrate how egregious it gets. So, first off, Owen and Claire are being hunted by the Indominus Rex in the ruins of the old park when Masrani flies overhead with his helicopter. This causes the Indominus Rex to give chase to the helicopter, which it somehow gets ahead of. Then Owen and Claire suddenly teleport to be right beneath the helicopter as it chases the Indominus Rex into the aviary. Pterodactyls and dimorphodons escape and begin flying towards the park guests. This is where the editing (unsuccessfully) tries to mask the ridiculous leaps in distance, time and logic that unfold in order to make this scene work. The dinosaurs pursue Zach and Gray’s jeep back to the park, while Owen and Claire somehow run to some command centre** before the flyers can make it to the guests and attack. Zach and Gray make it back and then minutes later, Owen and Claire arrive with the ACU before things can get too out of hand. And then, to make things even more silly, Owen and Claire make out while people are getting mauled all around them. The time/space dilations here are on the level of the latter seasons of Game of Thrones, where they’re clearly just throwing logic out the window to craft the scene that they want and to get characters where they’re needed, and expecting us to be too passive to notice. I’m not sure if this is on the script, the editing, or Trevorrow’s direction, but it is Jurassic World at its worst.

In regards to Trevorrow’s direction, it is generally decent throughout. He takes a cue from Jaws in hiding the Indominus Rex from full view until well over an hour into the film, which was a wise decision. However, his action sequences are hit-or-miss affairs. Unlike Spielberg, whose films both had long and extremely tense action set-pieces, Trevorrow’s action sequences are far more frequent, but lack the same sort of punch. The first two Indominus Rex attacks are exciting, but brief, and final battle is exciting (in part due to its fanservicing), but most of the action sequences don’t really stand out all that much to me. Sure, they’re bigger and louder than the dino carnage of the other films, the body counts are considerably larger, and they somehow managed to work multiple explosions into a film involving dinosaurs, but they lack that same level of investment and excitement. This might be because the story isn’t compelling enough, or that we don’t really get all that invested in the characters, rather than that the sequences themselves fall flat on their own.

The special effects are also worth noting in Jurassic World. Previous Jurassic Park movies always relied skillful utilization of animatronics, puppetry and top-notch CGI to bring the dinosaurs to life. Jurassic World, by contrast, switches almost entirely to CGI for this purpose, and it really shows. The creatures are clearly rendered with far more detail, but they don’t feel nearly as real to me. Contrast the gallimimus scenes in Jurassic Park and Jurassic World as an example, there’s something about how the dinosaurs and characters interact which doesn’t hit the same chord. The early sections of the film impress that “no one’s impressed by a dinosaur anymore”, which is a clear commentary on the status of blockbusters since Jurassic Park III came out. Since then we’ve been inundated with so many CGI-heavy blockbusters that relying exclusively on CGI just makes Jurassic World lose any sort of special feeling that the series used to enjoy. Hell, say what you will about Jurassic Park III, but the spinosaurus was an animatronic in half of its action scenes, and a bloody impressive one at that. As far as I can tell, animatronics were used a grand total of once in Jurassic World, when Owen and Claire find a wounded apatosaur. This was actually a wise time to use animatronics too because it makes the scene feel more real and sad as it slowly expires in the characters arms.

Finally, as I alluded to earlier, it wouldn’t be an I Choose to Stand post without mentioning the film’s, um, troubling gender relations. There have been many words said about whether Jurassic World is sexist, but is this merited? Thanks to memes, most of this conversation was boiled down to “Claire wears heels, because sexism”, but is there more to it than that? Well, the film portrays Claire as a workaholic, uninterested in other people and too busy to have normal relationships with people. She is also very clearly written to be obsessed with maintaining control. The character’s entire arc is about learning to stop putting so much value into her career and more into getting a relationship and having children. This could be a totally fine arc if handled well, but Jurassic World makes some really strange decisions which make me question whether it is just archetypically sexist, or just ridiculously ignorant of the implications its narrative is conveying. Like, there’s literally a scene where Claire’s sister tellers her that she should have kids, which Claire says is unlikely, but her sister insists that she will and that it is worth it. I mean… are they aware how condescending this scene comes across? Are they aware that this is in any way a potentially touchy subject? As The Daily Beast puts it, “Jurassic World is not about corporate greed, anti-militarization, crass commerciality, disrupting the food chain, or dinos eating the shit out of people. No. It’s about a woman’s ‘evolution’ from an icy-cold, selfish corporate shill into a considerate wife and mother.” Meanwhile, her relationship with Owen just reinforces this – he is belligerent, but always one who takes control when he can, which seems to be what attracts her to him. He’s basically the definition of a manly man, and she isn’t able to be truly fulfilled until she ditches her icy exterior for him.

Beyond Claire’s characterization, the death of Zara also has attracted some questions of sexism, mainly due to the way the rest of the film treats women and just how over-the-top her death is. While I personally feel like this is another clear instance where Trevorrow was just tone-deaf about how this might come across, I’ll just leave you with this quote from him where he is oddly excited by the notion that he’s going to get to murder a woman in spectacular fashion:

“It was the first time a woman was going to die in a Jurassic Park movie. We’re an equal opportunities bunch of murderers! So we felt, ‘Alright, let’s make it the most spectacular death we can possibly imagine – let’s involve multiple animals from sea and air…’ I love this moment so much. We’re playing on the audience’s expectation and jadedness. […] But we definitely struggled over how much to allow her to earn her death, and ultimately it wasn’t because she was British, it was because she was a bridezilla. […] In the end, the earned death in these movies has become a bit standard and another thing I wanted to subvert. ‘How can we surprise people? Let’s have someone die who just doesn’t deserve to die at all.'”

All-in-all, Jurassic World is kind of a mixed bag for me. On the one hand, it’s hard to deny that it’s probably the best Jurassic Park sequel we’ve gotten… and yet, due to its bland characters, lazy plot and general stupidity, I kind of hate a good deal of it. It’s an odd situation, where I appreciate the first half of The Lost World enough to give that film some love, and I truly enjoy the dumb fun of Jurassic Park III, but find myself turned off by how lazy and generic Jurassic World gets at times. The film could just have been so much better if they trusted in their audience’s intelligence a bit more.

6.5/10

So, what does the future look like for Jurassic Park? Well, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom releases this year, so it doesn’t seem like we’ll need to wait another 14 years until the next entry. That said, Fallen Kingdom looks… intriguing. The first trailer definitely turned me off – on the one hand, at least it’s trying something different and we’ve been told that the bulk of the plot is being kept secret for now, but is the volcanic eruption the crux of the plot? Trying to evacuate the dinosaurs? I’m sorry, but that doesn’t sound like the basis of a particularly compelling film to me. However, the Super Bowl trailer dropped just days before this was posted (and after I had written this retrospective), and was considerably more intriguing. Looks like dinosaurs on the mainland again? Maybe as a more central part of the plot, it could work this time.

If I was going to write a Jurassic Park film, I’d probably push the genetic engineering element even further forward. The films have kind of ignored the impact of their own tech on the wider world. For example, while human-dino hybrids are an awful idea, the idea of more genetic manipulation in general is under-utilized outside of the Indominous Rex. And what about rival corporations? Part of the concern was that InGen didn’t earn their knowledge, but how much worse would it be for the corporate knock-off brand of dinosaur? Why do they need to go to InGen for weaponized dinos, why not go after a competitor which they obviously would do if InGen won’t suit their needs? Why even use animals for their weaponized creatures anyway, why not just create super soldiers? There are plenty of angles that can be covered, but the issue with Jurassic Park continues to be that audiences expect the same plot structure in each one.

This is how I’d rank the series from worst to best:
Jurassic Park – 9/10
Jurassic World – 6.5/10 (I waffle between this being the best and worst sequel in the franchise though)
Jurassic Park III – 6/10 (arguably the worst, but it’s at least more consistent and fun than The Lost World in my opinion)
The Lost World: Jurassic Park – 5.5/10

*I actually heard an interesting fan theory that the spinosaurus in Jurassic Park III was actually InGen’s first weaponized experiment, which would explain its considerably heightened aggression compared to the dinosaurs in the previous films. The film hints that InGen has been working on other dinosaurs in secret, but it never actually followed up on that plot hint. It would be an obvious retcon, but it’s a cool idea that I kind of hope that Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom will follow up on.
**One could argue that this command centre was somewhere close to the old park ruins and the aviary, but I’m not buying that. First of all, there are a lot of people here, and if that was the case then Zach and Gray could have just headed here instead of back to the park, since an active building would have been marked fairly obviously. Secondly, if it was there then couldn’t Owen and Claire have gotten some help? Or maybe Masrani could get some ground support? And why wouldn’t the Indominus Rex have gone here instead of hunting the heroes if there were other people close by? It’s an obvious plot hole, and one which we’re supposed to ignore for convenience’s sake. Unfortunately, at a certain point, convenience gets abused to the point where I can’t help but notice it as the pile just gets higher.

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Retrospective: Jurassic Park III (2001)

Welcome back to part three of the Jurassic Park retrospective! In this post, we’ll be diving into 2001’s Jurassic Park III. After the muted reaction to The Lost World and Spielberg’s decision to step away from the series, would a new director inject fresh life into the franchise? Read on to find out…

After The Lost World, Spielberg was ready to step away from directing the franchise and instead went on to produce. Joe Johnston instead was brought on to direct after having offered to direct the previous entry. Johnston would later go on to be well-known for The Wolfman and Captain America: The First Avenger, but at the time he was already famous for making quality family-friendly, special effects-heavy blockbusters such as Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, Jumanji and The Rocketeer. Without a novel to form the basis of the plot, a new story had to be written from scratch for the first time in the series history. The first draft of the script revolved around teenagers getting stranded on Isla Sorna, but this was ultimately rejected when Johnston was officially brought on board. The second script revolved around Pteranodon escaping from Isla Sorna and killing people on the mainland and featured a number of characters which would make it into the final film, including Alan Grant and Billy Brennan. This script would have had two main plots – one with Grant and company crashing on Isla Sorna, and another investigating the attacks on the mainland. Production went underway for this version of the script, with sets, costumes and props built to support it. While it was not based on any previous works, some action sequences were inspired by scenes from the novel versions of Jurassic Park and The Lost World, such as the aviary and the spinosaur attack on the river.

However, in an Alien 3-style turn of events, the script was rejected by Johnston and Spielberg only 5 weeks before filming was scheduled to begin, with $18 million already poured into the production and a series of sets which now needed to be worked into a non-existent story somehow. The parallel plotlines were deemed too complicated and the film was ultimately truncated into a single rescue mission plotline, with a script getting rushed to meet the filming schedule. A final script was never actually completed during the production, which is never a good thing to hear (although some films, such as Iron Man, prove that this can still work out in the end).

As I alluded to before, the only returning character in a major capacity in Jurassic Park III is Sam Neill as Dr. Alan Grant. Laura Dern makes a delightful return in an important cameo role as Ellie Sattler, although some fans might be disappointed to see that Grant and Sattler did not work out as a couple. Considering that she very much wanted kids and he did not, it’s not surprising to see, but Neill and Dern have great chemistry still and there’s a sad undercurrent in their interactions which shows that they clearly still really like one another. Of the new cast, the most notable is definitely William H. Macy of Fargo, Boogie Nights and Shameless fame, who plays Paul Kirby. Téa Leoni also appears as his ex-wife, Amanda Kirby, and Trevor Morgan as their son, Eric Kirby. Rounding out the main cast is Alessandro Nivola as Billy Brennan, one of Grant’s dig assistants who is a bit of an adventure-seeker. The cast is actually rather small and not nearly as strong compared to past films in the series, but most of them put in solid performances (barring one, but I’ll get to that later).

The plot of Jurassic Park III revolves around the Kirby family, whose son Eric gets stranded on Isla Sorna. Desperate, they con Alan Grant and Billy Brennan into helping them find their son, but soon get stranded on the island and have to fight for survival as they are hunted by a relentless spinosaurus and a pack of velociraptors… wow, I’m actually kind of surprised that I got the whole plot summarized there in only two sentences, but that just goes to show that Jurassic Park III is a very thin film on the plot side of things. Considering that the script never was completed, this should perhaps be not so surprising, but Jurassic Park III is content to just be a fairly standard B-movie action-adventure story. Compare the set-up and character establishment we get in previous films in the franchise to Jurassic Park III. In Jurassic Park, we get nearly an hour before the running and screaming starts. In The Lost World, we get nearly 40 minutes. In Jurassic Park III, we get only 20 minutes to get to know people before the film rushes us into the running and screaming. On the plus side, at least the rescue mission set-up gives the audience and characters direction, provides emotional catharsis and a bit of time to breathe between action sequences and allows the characters to develop a bit, but no one is going to say that Jurassic Park III ever takes its time to get anywhere.

Perhaps owing to the rushed script, much of Jurassic Park III‘s plot feels incredibly contrived. While the idea of someone getting stranded on Isla Sorna is an interesting idea, the entire plot gets thrown into motion because Eric and Ben (Amanda’s boyfriend at the time) are parasailing and the crew of the boat they chartered gets devoured without explanation within minutes of arriving after passing through a fog. This is just the first of a number of “convenient” events which occur which don’t really make a lot of sense or which aren’t really explained. Like, within minutes of landing on Isla Sorna, the characters are attacked by the spinosaur, the “professional” mercenaries with the big guns are wiped out and their plane crashes, putting the rest of the plot in motion super conveniently. Then there’s just lots of little moments that are done for a cheap scare or “because plot”. Why is Ben’s skeleton still hanging in the tree he crashed in? Why does the raptor hide behind the glass tank motionless? Why is the spinosaurus even hunting the humans anyway (at least The Lost World went to great pains to justify why the t-rexes would be following the moveable feast)? And who the hell is constantly calling Paul’s satellite phone every second of the day!? Hell, we even get another Chekhov’s Lucky Pack for the second film in a row.

On the character side of things, it’s nice to see Alan Grant back. While Malcolm’s the funner, more dynamic presence in Jurassic Park, Grant was always my favourite character. In this film, he has gotten surlier, more world-weary and disillusioned after the events of the first film. Billy provides a nice counter-point to him, with some youthful enthusiasm and optimism, although his character isn’t as well developed as one might have wished. As for the Kirby family, Paul is definitely the likeable and learns to grow braver and more capable as the film progresses. Eric is also rather interesting, being probably the most capable character in the film, although once he gets rescued he just becomes more of a tag-along. That said, he’s the first child character in this series to not be a complete burden and is probably therefore the best child in the whole franchise. Finally, we have Amanda Kirby, and oh my God is she annoying. Eric isn’t the burden in this film, because that role goes to Amanda, who is constantly making insufferably stupid decisions. I’m not sure if she’s supposed to be so annoying, or if that’s Téa Leoni’s fault, but bloody hell you’re going to wish that she would become dino chow, even though within the first 10 minutes you know exactly who is going to live and who is going to die in the film. Of the obvious cannon fodder, I actually rather like Udesky, who knows that he’s in way over his head and just wants to get the hell off of this island. He tends to be good for a laugh at the expense of his cowardice, he lasts just long enough to leave an impression on you and gives us probably the best death in the film to boot.

Joe Johnston is a very competent director, but he doesn’t bring the same sort of energy to the proceedings as Spielberg. He may not have had his heart in The Lost World, but that film still had its standout sequences which Jurassic Park III can never really match. The first spinosaur attack and the aviary scene are both quite exciting, but the action sequences tend to not stand out quite as much as they did in the past. That’s not to say that they’re bad, but they just aren’t given the same sort of flair. Sometimes the direction/editing is wonky as well, most notably when Grant gets knocked out on the plane, which is handled with a first person perspective fade to black. The film moves at a brisk 90 minutes, which could be down to the fact that there was no script in place more than anything else. Also worth noting is that the special effects are still very good, the CGI is well-utilized and the animatronics are still central to bringing the dinosaurs to life.

Perhaps due to his past as a director of kid-friendly family blockbusters, Jurassic Park III is much lighter in tone than previous entries were. The emphasis seems to be on fun and humour and rarely on building tension and horror, which is further aided by the way the film telegraphs very obviously who is going to live and who will die. The only character whose fate is up in the air throughout is Billy and in the film’s standout sequence, it appears that he is killed by a flock of pteranodon (we can even see a lot of blood in the water as he is washed downstream). However, the film totally cops-out in the ending when it reveals that not only did he somehow survive this attack without any sort of explanation, but the US Marines also manage to find and secure him before Grant and his group. It’s a bullshit ending that makes absolutely no sense and just feels like someone threw it in at the last moment to give us an unearned feel-good ending.

Jurassic Park III is certainly the divisive film. Some people like it more than The Lost World, but there is also a sizeable chunk of the fanbase who despise it for a number of reasons. There are some people who dislike the admittedly lazy and throw-away plot, or the shift from a serious and tense tone to one that is much more light-hearted. The sense of wonder has also been largely jettisoned in Jurassic Park III, focusing instead entirely on the running and screaming with one very short scene of admiring the herbivores late in the runtime. The portrayal of the dinosaurs also has definitely caused some fanboy rage. The spinosaurus is less of an animal and more of a terminator as it chases the survivors around the island. Fans also hate that the spinosaurus beats a t-rex in a fight early in the film, which is thrown in as an obvious way to establish that “this new dinosaur is better than the one you already like”. The rage that scene inspires is bad enough that the Jurassic Park wiki page for it has to include warnings not to get butthurt about it. Some fans also hate how the velociraptors are portrayed, although they are definitely more menacing than they were in The Lost World in my opinion.

For my own part, I’m a bit mixed. I definitely acknowledge Jurassic Park III‘s obvious problems, but it’s obvious from the get-go that the film is aiming to be little more than a b-movie filled with unpretentious dinosaur fun and I feel like it succeeds in its aim. It’s certainly less disappointing than The Lost World, which aimed higher but missed the mark, even if Jurassic Park III‘s aims are far lower as well. It’s definitely a throw-away film, but I always enjoy myself when I watch it so I feel like it deserves some points for that at least.

6/10

Be sure to come back soon as we round out this retrospective with Jurassic World!

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Retrospective: The Lost World – Jurassic Park (1997)

Welcome back to the Jurassic Park retrospective! In this entry we’re going to be looking at the second film in the franchise, 1997’s The Lost World: Jurassic Park. After the first film set box office records and captivated the imaginations of audiences everywhere, a sequel was practically guaranteed. Could Spielberg and company recapture the same magic which made the original film so special? Read on to find out…

As I said in the previous entry, The Lost World: Jurassic Park apes the original film’s poster hard, only really differentiating itself with rougher, decayed design and a cool tagline.

After the success of the first novel and film, Michael Crichton was pressured to write a sequel. Most fans (myself included at the time) had expected the sequel to involve Nedry’s embryo canister in some way, and even Spielberg explored this option, although it was ultimately dropped and never explored outside of the Jurassic Park Telltale game. After discussions with Spielberg and others, Crichton eventually relented when he got an idea for a sequel, which would be published in 1995 under the name The Lost World. However, by the time the novel was nearing publication, Spielberg was uncertain if he was going to return to direct, with Joe Johnston (who would eventually direct Jurassic Park III) offering to take his place. Shortly after The Lost World was published, Spielberg announced he would direct the film, although with some reluctance.

The Lost World novel was… not great, to say the least. It’s pretty clear that Crichton’s heart wasn’t truly in it, and the plot definitely suffers for it. The story of the novel revolves around Ian Malcolm hunting down a scientist who is stuck on Isla Sorna while Lewis Dodgson (the guy who Denis Nedry betrays John Hammond for in the original book and film) attempts to capture dinosaurs at the same time. Lots of mindless dinosaur-based carnage ensues. The film wisely discards most of this plot set-up, retaining only the most skeletal bits of it, most notably the idea of a “site B” where the dinosaurs were bred in secret in their own ecosystem. Perhaps notably, Crichton was not involved in the writing of the sequel. Other than that, the film also features a sequence from the novel where t-rexes knock a vehicle off of a cliff, which ended up being the standout moment of the film. The Lost World also features a number of sequences inspired by the first novel, including the opening beach attack, a character being swarmed and killed by procompsognathus, and a t-rex attacking characters hiding behind a waterfall.

Other inspirations on the film included Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World (which obviously inspired Crichton as well) and the film Hatari!, which apparently influenced the scenes of hunters capturing dinosaurs. The ending was also changed three weeks before filming began, because Spielberg decided that he wanted to see dinosaurs attacking the mainland instead of the originally-planned ending which would have seen the characters attacked by pterodactyls as they attempted to flee the island.

The only actor returning in a major role is Jeff Goldblum’s Ian Malcolm. As the standout of the first film, this was a rather inspired idea, although this film sees him becoming more of a standard action hero than the sardonic, doom-saying mathematician he was in the first adventure. Richard Attenborough, Ariana Richards and Joseph Mazzello appear in cameo roles as their characters John Hammond, Lex and Tim, respectively, but they do not have a huge impact on the plot. New additions to the cast included most notably Julianne Moore as Sarah Harding, Ian’s lover. Vanessa Chester is also brought in as one of Ian Malcolm’s daughters, a spunky African-American girl named Kelly (the fact that she’s a mixed race child is actually quite surprising and notably refreshing, considering how rare this still is to this day). Rounding out the heroic cast is a young Vince Vaughn also appears as a resourceful and opinionated nature photographer, Nick van Owen, who is joined by Richard Schiff’s detail-oriented engineer, Eddie Carr. On the other side of the coin, the film’s primary antagonist is Hammond’s nephew, Peter Ludlow, played by a weaselly Arliss Howard. The film also features a couple standout performances from the hunters, particularly the late, great Pete Postlethwaite as Roland Tembo. Of the new cast of characters, Roland is by far the most entertaining and badass, easily stealing every scene he’s in with his intensity. Also worth mentioning is Peter freaking Stomare as a seemingly sadistic mercenary, Dieter Stark. All-in-all, a good cast nearly on par with the original, and once again no one puts in a poor performance.

The Lost World picks up 4 years after the first film ended. InGen has covered up the incident and Ian has been discredited after he tried to go public with what happened. However, after a dinosaur attack on a wealthy family, it is discovered that InGen is hiding a second island full of dinosaurs on Isla Sorna, where they would breed them before their delivery to the park. Hammond commissions Ian and a team to document and protect the creatures in their habitat, and Ian initially refuses until he finds out that his girlfriend, Sarah Harding, was approached as well and is already on the island. He and his team head to Isla Sorna to rescue her and realize that Ian’s daughter, Kelly, has stowed away on board as well. Before they can do anything about this realization, a group of hunters led by Hammond’s corporate nephew, Peter Ludlow, arrive on the island and begin rounding up the dinosaurs to take to the mainland. Nick van Owen and Sarah free a bunch of the dinosaurs and destroy the hunters’ camp, but discover an injured t-rex infant and try to rescue it. The baby’s parents follow them back to their trailer and attack it, leaving both teams stuck on the island and having to band together to survive…

Remember how I said that there was a current of child-like wonder running through the first film? The Lost World is much darker in comparison, with some really nasty scenes punctuated throughout: the opening scene where a child gets mauled by procompsognathus, Eddie getting ripped in half by a pair of t-rex, Carter getting stomped on by a t-rex and sticking to the bottom of its foot, Dieter and Burke’s deaths ending with a shower of blood, raptors wiping out probably two dozen hunters mercilessly and the civilians getting chomped in San Diego. It’s still PG-13, but it’s certainly darker and scarier than the first film was, without the awe that the first film inspired at times. In spite of this, the film is also clearly aiming for a younger demographic than the first film as well, as it is quite clear that the studio was building in merchandising opportunities whenever it could. This is felt most obviously in the InGen hunting team’s equipment, which includes elaborate vehicles like something out of a G.I. Joe cartoon. I can actually remember the toys that they were selling at the time, and the hunters’ vehicles were featured quite prominently there. This clearly mandated merchandising is just one example of how The Lost World is a film which doesn’t have nearly as much heart put into it as the first did, being largely made due to fan and studio pressure.

The film also suffers from a weak script. While no one puts in a bad performance, it doesn’t help if your actors aren’t given anything to work with, and The Lost World definitely fails nearly everyone in this regard with a plot which is far too thin. For example, we’re given only 30 minutes to establish all the characters and make us care about them before the “running and screaming” starts, which is only really 1 or 2 scenes for most of the principal cast. The script just doesn’t flesh anyone out enough or give them time they need to make us care. Kelly suffers most egregiously from this, being nothing more than a burden and only contributing in one cringe-worthy scene of Chekov’s gymnastics to save Ian from a velociraptor. Sarah Harding and Nick van Owen also suffer greatly from the scripting deficiencies, with us only really getting the thinnest sketches of their characters before the action begins. Making things worse, we don’t really get any development of any sort for the characters after their 1 or 2 scenes of establishment, which just makes it even harder to care about anyone.

Furthermore, the characters tend to act stupidly for little more than plot convenience. For example, Sarah (a paleological behaviour expert) decides to start petting a baby stegosaur while in the middle of their herd, which obviously leads to the rest of its family attacking her to defend their baby so we can get an early action sequence. She also later tells the group that the t-rexes will be tracking them with their superior sense of smell and then in the next scene is seen with a jacket covered in baby t-rex blood smearing it all over the trail behind them like a total oblivious idiot when Roland points this out to her (and of course, not even Roland thinks to actually ditch the jacket at that point). Nick is also a common victim of this problem, most egregiously when he decides to rescue the baby t-rex by bringing it back to the team’s trailer, thereby bringing the wrath of the parents down upon them. Even Ian isn’t immune to this – one minute he’s desperately trying to get Kelly off of the island, and then the next he’s helping Sarah and Nick sabotage the hunters before trying to get the radio to work again so Kelly will be safe (of course, Sarah and Nick’s sabotage operation destroys all the radios on the island, whoops!).

All that said, the film is buoyed significantly at the 45 minute mark by the t-rex attack on the trailer. This is easily the best part of the film, which ramps up the tension as we wait for the t-rexes to approach, to their attack which flips the trailer and leaves it leaning precariously over a cliff while Sarah lies helplessly on a breaking pane of glass, to Eddie’s heroic rescue attempt and subsequent tragic death. It’s a major shot in the arm right when the film needed it and arguably one of the best single sequences in the entire franchise. And honestly, character development issues aside, The Lost World is basically as good of a sequel to Jurassic Park as you could expect up until this point… however, the moment that trailer falls off the cliff and explodes, the film suddenly nosedives significantly, turning into a series of running, screaming and senseless death (Roland himself says it best when he calls the group of faceless mooks a “moveable feast”). As I said in my retrospective of the first Jurassic Park, that film could have been worse in its second half when the characters stop developing and just run away from the dinosaurs, but we already had gotten to know and like them by that point so it wasn’t an issue. The Lost World does not have that luxury. It has a hard enough time making us care about its principal cast, not to mention the dozens of nameless, faceless cannon fodder which are suddenly brought into the fold at this point. Sure, we get some interesting action sequences here, such as the t-rexes attacking the hunters’ camp and velociraptors ambushing them in the long grass, but these scenes lack the emotional punch of the first film and instead trade that for sheer visceral excitement. They succeed to some degree, but it is not a worthwhile trade-off by any means.

The film also suffers in the notoriously half-baked t-rex escape in San Diego. You can definitely tell that Spielberg rushed this ending into the film, because it very distinctly feels like it was filmed and conceived separately from the rest of the movie. The idea of a t-rex rampaging in a populated city is actually rather interesting and fits well into the series’ themes, but the film does not set it up well enough for it to feel like an earned payoff. Instead, it plays out like a very bog-standard monster movie and jettisons all but two of the characters we were supposed to be trying to become attached to throughout the rest of the film. In a lot of ways, it reminds me of Die Hard with a Vengeance and its clearly half-assed ending. It does serve as one of the big showcases for the CGI though, which has improved significantly in the intervening 4 years between films. In fact, I’d say that The Lost World deserves the reputation that Jurassic Park‘s special effects are so often bestowed with, because the CGI is utilized more often and holds up nearly flawlessly. That said, the animatronics and puppets are still being used frequently in this film, which is great to see as well and helps to ensure that the film’s effects still remain great to this day.

All-in-all though, The Lost World is disappointingly mediocre. It has promise, but it seems content to just squander all of it and turn into a mindless romp packed with as much dinosaur carnage as possible by the halfway point. The non-existent character development also cripples any sort of emotional investment in the film, making the carnage far less engaging than it was in the first film. In fact, The Lost World is the 3rd-lowest-scoring film in Spielberg’s filmography, after Hook and 1941, making it something of a black mark on his directoral career. Maybe with a bit more time in the oven and a bit more enthusiasm, Spielberg could have spun gold again, but as it is, The Lost World falls short.

5.5/10Tune in next time as we tackle the third film in the franchise, Jurassic Park III!

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Retrospective: Jurassic Park (1993)

Holy shit, surprise, it’s another Retrospective series! I honestly wasn’t expecting to do another one of these, since they tend to take quite a bit of time, work and effort to put out to a level I’m happy with. That said, I was thinking back on the Jurassic Park film franchise just the other day and it was making me think of how interesting this series’ journey has been, which started giving me that writer’s itch. And so, let’s launch into this with the first entry in the series, 1993’s Jurassic Park

Pretty much the definition of an iconic poster. Simple, but so evocative. In fact, it’s so iconic that every subsequent poster in the series has aped it wholesale.

Normally I beat around the bush and try to act coy about what my overall thoughts on a film are in one of these reviews. I’m not even going to bother with that pretense here – Jurassic Park is a bloody classic. You know it and I know it too. I mention that up-front because it’s relevant to note that the film is based on the Michael Crichton novel of the same name which, somehow, is even better than the movie in my opinion. The novel hits most of the same beats as the film, although basically every scene or character is different in some manner. Some particularly fun examples of differences from the original novel are that the lawyer, Donald Gennaro, was originally written as a muscle-bound badass who punches a velociraptor in the face when it bites him in the arm, John Hammond is originally a petulant and unrepentant corporate villain, and that the big climax with the raptors involves far more of the creatures on the loose which the heroes end up having to fight with freaking rocket launchers. In addition, the novel has much more detailed discussions about chaos theory, while also fitting in so many action sequences that the novel would still be plundered for inspiration in the next 2 sequels. The novel is also notably far more violent, with scenes including such gory imagery as babies being eaten in their cribs, men being disemboweled and eaten alive and dinosaurs getting blown in half. I actually wrote a paper in 12th grade about all the differences between the film and novel and the only element which survives basically intact is Denis Nedry’s character, who is just as much of a slobbish buffoon in both mediums.

Anyway, before the novel was even published, Crichton and Steven Spielberg were in talks about the premise, which Spielberg thought was fascinating. A bidding war between 4 studios broke out, but Spielberg and Universal won it and got underway producing the film. Notably, Spielberg wanted to make Schindler’s List, which would be funded after he directed Jurassic Park. Basically, in the year 1993, Spielberg ended up putting out 2 of the best movies in their respective genres because the man is just that much of a legend.

Also key to the film’s success were its ground-breaking special effects work led by Stan Winston (of Aliens, Predator and Terminator fame) and Phil Tippett (who did stop-motion effects on Star Wars and RoboCop). Originally the dinosaurs were going to be achieved through a mixture of animatronics and stop motion, but Spielberg found the stop-motion effects to be unsatisfactory. Dennis Muren of Industrial Light and Magic claimed that they could use computer generated imagery to achieve the desired effects, which he demonstrated with footage that would form the basis of the scene of the T-Rex chasing Gallimimus (which prompted this exchange immortalized in the film: “When Spielberg and Tippett saw an animatic of the T. rex chasing a herd of Gallimimus, Spielberg said, ‘You’re out of a job,’ to which Tippett replied, ‘Don’t you mean extinct?’“). The CGI tends to get all of the praise, but most of the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park are actually brought to life with puppetry and animatronics, which are all top-notch and help to make the effects work even more impressive and life-like. That said, the CGI is often heralded for being better than anything that gets put out today, which is definitely a stretch. It is usually quite good, shockingly so for 1993 special effects, but you can often tell when CGI is being used and when animatronics are. In fact, at times the CGI is just straight-up poor, most notably in the “big reveal” scene where Alan Grant sees the brachiosaurus for the first time, and we end up seeing this unconvincingly-textured behemoth marching across the land. That’s actually rather unfortunate because it dilutes the impact of the scene a bit, although it would have been mind-blowing in 1993. Thankfully, CGI is never over-utilized, only being relied on when it is needed.

Jurassic Park is also gifted with a very talented cast, none of which puts in a poor performance.* Jeff Goldblum’s character, Ian Malcolm, is the clear standout just by virtue of Jeff Goldblum playing his usual brand of eccentricity, but he’s only a bit more entertaining than Sam Neil and Richard Attenborough’s characters. Hell, even the bit parts are intensely watchable, from Bob Peck’s badass game warden Robert Muldoon, to Wayne Knight’s bufoonish villain Denis Nedry, to Samuel L. Jackson’s sarcastic Ray Arnold. As I wrote earlier, nearly every character differs from their book counterparts, but the changes to John Hammond are the most impactful on the plot. Taking him from being a curmudgeonly and greedy bastard to a well-meaning, enthusiastic entrepreneur lends the film an air of tragedy, most keenly felt in the scene when he bemuses on his past with Ellie Sadler (capped perfectly with a heart-breaking reading of his signature line, “spared no expense”).

The very first thing that strikes you about Jurassic Park is John Williams’ score, which sets the tone perfectly. It puts you on edge when it needs to and swells you to excitement at the perfect times. When I was writing my notes while watching the film, literally my very first one was “Immediately, oh God the music”. Tying into this feature, the script and Spielberg’s direction build so much suspense that any sort of comprehensive list would just be a plot summary. That said, the t-rex attack is probably the textbook, standout example of how to build suspense in a major action sequence.

Jurassic Park is a film of two halves. The first half is used to establish the setting and plot, begin building up suspense, and (primarily) to provide the audience with speculative wonder and adventure. This emphasis on wonder actually makes the second half more impactful, because we get to see how amazing this island is and the creatures which inhabit it. It’s very easy to get caught up in John Hammond’s own enthusiasm for the park and root for its success in spite of any concerns of its safety, particularly during the “Mr. DNA” scene (which also happens to be an ingenious way to explain the admittedly ponderous scientific elements of the book in a quick and palatable way). Even when the film shifts from adventure into an action and horror in the second half, the sense of inherent wonder at this island still lingers at times, such as when Grant, Lex and Tim take shelter in a tree and witness a herd of brachiosaur feeding.

The second half of the film is where things go pear-shaped for the characters and all of the suspense that has been building up boils over into basically non-stop action-horror for the next hour. The survival-based half of the film seems to have been the main thing which has been seized-upon with subsequent Jurassic Park films, rather than the sense of wonder which sets this film apart so much from its sequels (not to get too ahead of myself, but Ian Malcolm lampshades the plot structure himself in The Lost World when he says “Oh, yeah. ‘Oooh, ahhh,’ that’s how it always starts. Then later there’s running and um, screaming”). This is notable because one of the most common complaints about Jurassic Park is that after the first hour, the characters basically spend the rest of the movie running away from dinosaurs rather than being developed. Only Grant and Hammond learn some small lessons in this whole time, but otherwise you could swap nearly any character out for another without impacting the plot any as everyone’s just running and reacting to the dinosaurs hunting them. That said, I don’t feel like Jurassic Park truly suffers because of this – it’s a notable weakness, but luckily the characters were already established well in the preceding hour and given distinct and likeable personalities, so we still care about them when the film isn’t giving us more reason to.

Other than that, I can only point out a couple other weak points with the film, but they’re really nitpicky. One would be the kids, Lex and Tim, who are basically just burdens. They do have thematic significance (helping to develop Grant’s character), provide some additional wonder and Lex manages to get the security system working again briefly, but otherwise they can be a bit of an annoyance and would begin the “obligatory child character” trope which would plague the series going forward. I also am mixed on the t-rex’s vision, which Grant conveniently knows is based on movement. On the one hand, it provides some more tension, but it’s also super convenient and largely ignored in any subsequent film (Crichton’s sequel novel even tries to retcon it out in very clumsy fashion). There are also some mise-en-scene issues with the cliff suddenly appearing in the t-rex paddock, but this could just be down to poor explanation of spacing, plus the film does a good job of making you not notice this anyway. Other than that, it’s kind of silly that the wrecked car chases the characters down the tree, but again… nitpicks. This movie freaking rocks, is a defining film from my childhood and is definitely amongst my favourite films of all-time. It’s a classic, no question.

9/10

Be sure to tune in soon for the next entry in this series, The Lost World: Jurassic Park!

*In fact, literally the only performance in the film which I would classify as “poor” is Gerald Molen, who plays Dr. Harding (aka, the guy who is looking after the sick triceratops). This is probably because he’s actually more of a producer rather than an actor who… wait… he produced 2016: Obama’s America? What the hell!?! Ugh, well now I’m going to cringe twice as hard every time he says, in response to the triceratops’ pupils being dilated, “They are? Well I’ll be damned!”
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