During my latest revisit of 1993’s Jurassic Park, I was struck by this thought: You can learn everything you ever need to know about blockbuster filmmaking just by watching this movie.
From its technical wizardry — which almost seamlessly blends its practical and prototypical CG effects — to its careful attention to detail, character, pacing, story structure, sound, tone, exposition, and clever foreshadowing, there are only a few blockbusters (if any) more expertly crafted than Steven Spielberg’s monumental masterpiece. It’s a roaring triumph in nearly every sense. It captivatingly combines the intellectual stimulation of Michael Crichton’s source material with all the rousing crowd-pleasing thrills of a truly great popcorn classic.
So it’s a tragic but fitting irony that every successive Jurassic Park film has fallen significantly short. Even Spielberg’s own sequel, 1997’s The Lost World: Jurassic Park.
Mankind is doomed to never learn the right lessons. History will always repeat itself because of our inherent hubris and inability to let a good thing lay idle. Jurassic Park was simply too big of a hit, too accomplished, that it couldn’t stand still as a standalone achievement. There was always more money to be made in the park, and there was no need to spare any expense. The audience would always be willing to return to the park in whatever form, even if their expectations were doomed to fail and fail and fail and fail once or twice more.
Irony found a way.
Thus, one of the greatest blockbusters ever made has inspired one of the most middling film series of the modern era. And that tradition sadly continued with this month’s Jurassic World Dominion, which is quite easily the weakest Jurassic Park installment to date.
Should the marketing stay true to its word, Jurassic World: Dominion will serve as the final chapter in the long-running and sorely mishandled Jurassic Park franchise. If that is truly the case, then the film series that started with a roar will leave us with a disengaged whimper — a conclusive finale that lacks interest, enthusiasm, charm, or wit from any of the principle players, including returning cast members Sam Neill, Laura Dern, and Jeff Goldblum, all of whom reprise their roles from the 1993 classic and visibly wonder, “How exactly did any of this happen?”
Certainly, Jurassic Park isn’t subtle in its messaging about the dangers of tampering with the natural order and assuming that one’s doomed fate will actually play out differently this time around. It’s yet another humorously sad irony to add to Jurassic Park’s exasperated legacy: a franchise that detailed the troubles of exceeding one’s grasp and assuming one can simply will greatness back into existence through calculated strategizing has failed, time and time and time and time again, to bring back the spark of the original’s lightning in a bottle success. Spielberg could try remaking Jurassic Park 100 times and would likely never properly recapture what made that first movie such an undeniable success.
The “lost” opportunity.
Sadly, that was made quite evident with The Lost World: Jurassic Park, 1997’s misbegotten attempt to try and extend the public’s joy and wonder for the technical wonderment that was 1993’s biggest movie. Though The Lost World isn’t without its fans, it’s hard to find someone who will say it’s on par with its predecessor. Not unlike this month’s Dominion, there’s a curious feeling throughout of “what exactly are we trying to do, and what exactly are we trying to say?” Everything about it, from Michael Crichton’s confused source material to Spielberg’s half-hearted direction, carries the energy of an apathetic shoulder shrug.
Especially upon revisiting the movie, there’s such a flat, deflated sense of disengagement with everything happening onscreen, that when Dr. Ian Malcolm (Goldblum) gets courted into going back to the land of the dinosaurs, they might as well have waved his paycheck at the audience. Surely, the screen could’ve been a still image of a dinosaur for 90 minutes and it would’ve been one of the biggest movies of the late ‘90s.
But its utter disinterest in exploring and exercising the expansive thrills of the original movie help make clearer what made the original Jurassic Park as good as it was. Though The Lost World isn’t without its high points — including an impressive mobile lab sequence, a few inspired sequences with a T-Rex roaming the suburbs of San Diego, and a delightfully snarly performance from the late Pete Postlethewaite — it’s still cynical. It’s still lackluster.
Third time, only a little charm.
In contrast, Jurassic Park III (2001) is significantly more modest in terms of scope and scale. And frankly, it’s all the better for it. Sam Neill’s Dr. Alan Grant returns to the fold, along with Laura Dern’s Dr. Ellie Sattler for a couple of scenes, but this third installment owes more to the “dino B-movies” that were inspired in Jurassic Park’s wake, even more-so than the previous two films in the franchise. We return to the land of the dinosaurs with perilous stakes, but also a more agreeable runtime, a goofy charm, and splashy characters, including William H. Macy’s Paul Kirby. Still, Joe Johnson’s sequel is underwhelming as a once-final chapter in this film franchise. It’s still cynical. It’s still lackluster.
Upon nostalgic reflection, however, Jurassic Park III at least feels like a step in the right direction for the wayward corporate future of this mishandled series. Rather than try in vain to live up to the impossible standards of the original film and risk falling short of its greatness, why not simply try and make something that is a little shlocklier? A little sillier? And, ultimately, more fun as a result?
A Jurassic Park sequel has to be a lot of things, but it doesn’t have to be high art. If you have a director like Johnson who can balance tech prowess with loving pastiche and cheap-seat thrills, then you have what it takes to make something more agreeable as far as Jurassic Park sequels are concerned. Alas, while this movie is much easier to like and enjoy compared to other sequel attempts, the fact of the matter is that it’s still called Jurassic Park III. Were it instead called Escape from Dinosaur Island or something along those lines, it’s my belief that Jurassic Park III would’ve been appreciated just fine.
The engineered legasequel.
Next comes Jurassic World, which was broadly considered the return-to-form that the franchise was looking for. It came with a new cast, a meta premise, an up-and-coming director (at least at the time), and the renewed promise of seeing dinosaurs on the silver screen again with modern CG effects. Of course audiences came out in droves to see such a spectacular spectacle in 2015.
Much like Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which would debut in theaters months later, Jurassic World featured both the comfort of the past and the promise of a bright new future for everyone’s favorite intellectual property. It was a chance to let a new generation of moviegoers experience a film approximating the original Jurassic Park, with new actors and filmmakers taking the keys to the park and trying their hand at running operations.
But unlike Star Wars — which hasn’t had a great track record under Kathleen Kennedy’s watch overall, but has developed and excelled in at least some notable ways — Jurassic World carried with it that familiar, ugly cynicism, even from the jump. While it wasn’t without a few moments of genuine wonder and glee (something that was notably missing in The Lost World), it still lacks the whirlwind, intangible appeal of Steven Spielberg’s original effort.
There’s a smugness to it, for lack of a better word. The characters are generally unappealing, and it has a weird distaste for women in business, particularly women with, say, cell phones and high heels. It’s not a disaster, to be clear. It’s watchable and even enjoyable at times. It’s hard not to get pumped when the climatic T-Rex showdown ensues. But while the reception at the time was strong, it’s understandable that time hasn’t been too kind to the movie and audiences have grown more critical of what it unleashed.
Fallen is right.
This might explain why Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, its 2018 follow-up, didn’t earn the same critical or commercial success. Though not a flop, Fallen Kingdom has received a more tense, dissatisfied reaction from fans compared to its predecessor, though it arguably contains many of the same problems that befell its predecessor. It’s plagued by poor characterizations, illogical story beats, and an overstuff ambition that still somehow comes off as unmotivated.
Simply put, Fallen Kingdom is a missed opportunity. It could’ve done far more to improve upon what actually worked in Jurassic World, but it misses the mark wildly by veering off in bizarre directions. It does help that the movie has a better director at the helm, with J.A. Bayona taking over as director from Colin Trevorrow (who maintained a co-writing credit). But it’s still cynical. It’s still lackluster. It can’t help but lack a clear sense of purpose.
It’s almost as if it’s trying to be two sequel ideas stuffed into one movie, as we follow the explosion of Jurassic World’s island with a horror movie-type set-up in the estate of John Hammond’s never-before-mentioned business partner. Perhaps the greatest sin this sequel commits is being mostly forgettable. It has some nifty scenes, but it’s missing Spielberg’s competence or even Trevorrow’s prickly gusto. It’s a movie with no real identity, much like The Lost World. Though at least it’s having a little bit of fun, like Jurassic Park III.
And, finally, extinction.
The same certainly can’t be said for Jurassic World Dominion, Trevorrow’s return to the series and supposed final installment in this pained, long-winded string of unfortunate sequels. At this point, competent pacing, intriguing story ideas, and even enthusiasm form its primary cast has gone extinct. Dominion combines the shoulder-shrug lack of energy or desire of The Lost World with the cynical underbelly of Jurassic World, along with the staggering incoherence of Fallen Kingdom and quirky ambivalence of Jurassic Park III.
In essence, Dominion is a movie that maintains many of the long-standing weaknesses of the franchise with few of the elements that made the original such a smashing success. History repeats itself, yet every wrong lesson has been applied for one massive dud of a sixth film. Where the original movie had heart and wit, Dominion is a bone-headed black hole. It doesn’t even have the decency to be more than witheringly dull. It doesn’t even have the energy to be offensive, though the movie’s primary antagonist, played by Campbell Scott, can arguably be seen as a less-than-appealing depiction of autism.
And perhaps that is simply the conclusion we deserve for such a painful franchise. Jurassic Park never needed a sequel. In fact, it warned us about the very dangers of bringing great things back at all. And much like the characters at the center of this whole series, we didn’t listen. The studios kept making bad sequels and we kept showing up. Like Ian Malcolm once quipped, studios spend so much time wondering if they could that they never stopped to consider if they should. But it doesn’t matter. They made their money, Jurassic World Dominion is on a lunchbox, and we’re now left with nothing but the fossil of a great movie from 30 years ago.