Zombie Franchises: Jurassic Park
Franchise filmmaking finds a way, long after its extinction date.Movies Features jurassic park
Zombie Franchises is a series of occasional articles in which Ken Lowe examines one of the shambling intellectual properties that plod onward under sheer force of box office money. Be wary of spoilers for movies that have been out for a while.
It was a different world in 1993, when Jurassic Park stomped into theaters hard enough to disturb the surface of improbably placed drinking water. Steven Spielberg, the essential inventor of the blockbuster, wasn’t even 20 years on from Jaws, the movie that first danced the steps that pretty much every wannabe summer hit still follows. Jurassic Park followed those steps exactly: a special effects-laden extravaganza with a saturation bombing approach to marketing. It was all in service to a movie that delivered spectacle in a way that felt new.
It was great. It was a landmark, quotable, unforgettable adventure story with a soundtrack that manipulates the emotions of grown adults like mind control. Zombie Franchises is a case study in why a particular property doesn’t work, yet continues to insist that no, really, it totally still works and you should pay us money to keep making them. Sometimes the reasons why are inscrutable. In the case of Jurassic Park, you can almost see why, 25 years later, a one-note premise continues to chug along, even when it isn’t really doing it in the spirit of the original.
A Triumph of Science
Watching Jurassic Park again is like being shown a case study for how you should perform spectacular filmmaking—that is, filmmaking that revolves around spectacle. Jurassic Park seems like a smart movie because even as the spectacle feels bigger than the characters on the screen who are reacting to it, it’s also actually telling a story with neat little setups and payoffs. This is key, and it’s something a lot of movies seem to have completely forgotten. It’s partly why the new 2014 Godzilla movie was way better than its script, and it’s why Jurassic Park seemed so massive and epic when it debuted at a time when special effects were leagues behind where they are today.
Everybody remembers the damn dinosaurs. The damn dinosaurs are very cool, and in most cases they still hold up upon viewing the film again today. A combination of incredible animatronics, computer-generated imagery in situations where the dinosaurs are far enough away that their movement is more important than their fine details, and a strong sense of scale and kinetics in every single scene in which they appear are the ingredients that make the movie a must-see classic instead of just another summer spectacle movie.
Yes, the kids were kind of annoying, but they also sold the story.
Most importantly, that sense of scale in every scene is hammered home by the presence and the reactions of human actors who look every bit as if they’re responding to giant freaking lizards that are threatening their physical space. Nor is this confined to big moments, either, as the scene in which our heroes are deeply affected by the birth of a little baby dino breaching the shell of its egg reminds us. It is a good reminder that no matter how rooted in special effects your storytelling may be, it means nothing without the context of the human element to put you in the scene.
All of this is in service to a story that hums along without a hitch. The opening scene, in which a velociraptor dines on some of the nameless guards trying to transport it, foreshadows the horror movie elements of the movie and even manages to illuminate the character of alpha hunter Muldoon (Bob Peck, who manages to be another memorable part of the movie despite only crucially figuring into a handful of scenes).
We know everybody’s motivations after seeing them in one scene. Grant (Sam Neill) is a child-hating curmudgeon forced into a situation that awakens his nurturing instincts. Hammond is a hubristic visionary more interested in his own dreams than in acknowledging the messy realities he tries and fails to subvert to create his fantasy land.
The movie’s themes remain on point throughout, too. The dinosaurs function as a force greater than humanity and outside its morality: The traitorous code monkey Nedry (Wayne Knight) gets his comeuppance at the hands of a poison-spitting dino and the opportunistic lawyer Donald (Martin Ferrero) is devoured by the very creature he seeks to exploit, but Muldoon bites it, too, despite his evident respect for his saurian foes.
Also, we need to acknowledge that there is Jeff Goldblum in this movie. His character doesn’t really have an arc, but that’s because he functions as the very necessary chorus. What other movie have you seen lately which features a scene where a bunch of adults sit down and debate the terrifying ethical implications of resurrecting extinct species? This is not why the movie is good, but Goldblum is in it and he is good in it and this is better than if he were not in it. It’s also better (I’m just saying) than putting him in it for about 35 seconds so you can use one of his handful of lines to back every single one of your trailers.
There, you’ve seen him.
Jurassic Park was a great movie. The problem with a story so well-told, so cleanly wrapped up, so satisfyingly concluded, is that you have nowhere to go. Call it the Highlander conundrum: How can you keep a larger story going when it has nothing further to say?
A Failure by Hubris
I had not ever done a sequel before and would always say, “There won’t be one.” … It’s a very difficult structural problem because it has to be the same but different; if it’s really the same, then it’s the same—and if it’s really different, then it’s not a sequel. So it’s in some funny intermediate territory. —Michael Crichton on his decision to write a sequel to Jurassic Park
The original Jurassic Park was based on the novel by the late Michael Crichton, whose works have given us everything from this to the original Westworld to Timeline. Jurassic Park remains far and away his largest successful adaptation, and it completely threw out a good portion of his book, and so much the better. Crichton was a speculative fiction author who was interested in coming up with wild ideas about genetic engineering and time travel, and much less so with writing dialogue that didn’t sound like it was coming out of a robot. The Lost World, the 1995 novel that was the sequel to Jurassic Park, was the first sequel he had ever written, and it sounds like fans and director Steven Spielberg’s runaway success with the film are chiefly what badgered him into doing it.
The book retconned the death of Goldblum’s character, Dr. Ian Malcolm, and made him the star of the story. It is a return to a second site island where more dinos are running amok. Hot on its heels was the film adaptation, The Lost World: Jurassic Park, which progressed more like a retread of Aliens than its predecessor, with the story focused around a well-armed and somewhat arrogant military force getting dunked on by nature, just like you knew they would. It let a T-Rex rampage around an American city, somehow retconned Malcolm as having kids, and then had one of those kids defeat a velociraptor with a power gymnastics routine.
Another four-year gap transpired before Jurassic Park III came out in 2001, and I struggle valiantly to remember literally anything about it: The story again revolves around a survivor of the original park incident—Sam Neill’s Alan Grant—being called reluctantly out of dino-surviving retirement to go perform some rescue mission again. Once again, he’s the Ripley character, the sole voice of reason next to the increasingly stupid people who keep thinking it’s a good idea to mess around with freaking dinosaurs that have shown time and again that they excel at breaking out of enclosures, evolving past the biological kill-switches implanted in them by feckless scientists, and then murdering the unwary.
There is nothing new there, and there’s nothing fascinating or affecting or human there, either, and it showed. While The Lost World and Jurassic Park III both made some decent money, neither came anywhere near close to the insane success of Jurassic Park, a film it seems everybody went to see thrice and then bought on VHS. The franchise crawled off into the brush to lick its wounds.
A Whole New Jurassic World
The overseas market has driven Hollywood to turn to reboots over the last several years. You want a hit in the States which will have some built in brand recognition, but you also want to freshen up an idea and repackage it for China. You can’t have too much really complicated dialogue—no tense debates about the ethics of de-extinction. You want things to be easy to follow, nice and broad, so that humor translates well even if subtitles don’t always.
Jurassic World and its newly released sequel Fallen Kingdom, are competent movies in that even the most unkind reviews have something nice to say about them, but they also seem cranked out by committee at every stage. A famous Chris (Pratt, in this case), the same basic setup as the original, and a commitment to going bigger were pretty much all that distinguished Jurassic World from the original, if you don’t count the troublingly dismissive attitude toward women inherent in the whole subtext of the thing, which sees Bryce Dallas Howard’s career woman reduced to a starry-eyed damsel and completely murders the hell out of the beleaguered female assistant who’s just trying to take care of a pair of ungrateful brats.
With its plot about weaponizing dinosaurs for nefarious purposes, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom at least tries to go somewhere different, and it seems already to have handily earned its money. It’s gotten middling reviews already, but that won’t keep them from making another that’s more about action than about the wonder and terror and unknowability of nature.
But it does have plenty of dinos in it, and they’re still just as hilariously scientifically inaccurate as always, though more so now that scientists are reporting they had feathers.
I’m going to go ahead and make a prediction right now: Jurassic World 3, which will probably drag poor Laura Dern back into its gilded hands, is going to catastrophically underperform and Universal is going to wonder why, when it’s evident to most people that the beating heart of the series has long gone extinct.