Exclusive Features
Anniversaries, Cover Stories, Editorials,
Interviews, Lists, and Comprehensive Rankings

The Jurassic Park Franchise: What the Hell Happened?

on June 11, 2015, 12:00pm

Jurassic Week continues! Tonight, Colin Trevorrow’s Jurassic World opens in theaters everywhere and Consequence of Sound’s related coverage stomps ahead. Yesterday, Senior Editor Matt Melis’ Page to Screen column explored how Steven Spielberg turned Michael Crichton’s philosophical techno-thriller into the action-adventure film we’ve all come to love. Today, Editor-in-Chief Michael Roffman, Film Editor Dominick Suzanne-Mayer, and Senior Staff Writer Randall Colburn try to figure out what the hell happened to the franchise.

jp week logoMichael Roffman (MR): “Welcome to Jurassic Park.” Four simple words that changed my life forever. When I first stepped out of the theater that summer of 1993, my heart was racing, and my head was spinning. I was undoubtedly an Amblin addict and could recite every Lucasfilm export with ease, but there was something truly magical about Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster adaptation of Michael Crichton’s equally blockbuster novel.

And it was more than just seeing the dinosaurs come to life. Yes, that was a major highlight, but it also had to do with the unorthodox cast, the ’90s color schemes, John Williams’ iconic score, the seemingly Kenner-designed set pieces, the dino-sized merchandising, and even something as simple as the white and red font. Everything about Jurassic Park singed the marrow of my bones. I wasn’t just obsessed; I was addicted.

Before Jurassic Park finally left theaters — which wasn’t until 1994! — I had seen the film over 12 times. During that period, I read the book twice front to back (leaving the sweaty confines of my grandmother’s dusty living room and enjoying the unseen areas of Isla Nublar), memorized the Sega Genesis game both as Grant and the Velociraptor, gnawed my way through a Jurassic Jawbreaker, and even built a replica of the island with Legos.

jurassic jawbreaker The Jurassic Park Franchise: What the Hell Happened?

That October, I dressed up as Dr. Alan Grant for Halloween. Most people called me Indy. Considering I was a pudgy kid, I took it as a compliment, even if I rolled my eyes at them and corrected them, holding a fake raptor claw no less. Bottom line: I couldn’t get enough of this franchise. It was my generation’s Star Wars; it belonged to us. We experienced the thrills firsthand, not by recommendation.

By 1997, roughly 110 minutes into The Lost World: Jurassic Park, my divine interest was sucked into a Barbasol can and tossed under cold mud. Whatever feelings I held onto that summer — a long four years removed from the original — fizzled out when Spielberg turned the T. rex into a farcical predator, a dumb Godzilla joke, a stupid plot device. From there, the Jurassic Park name was just another popcorn movie.

But maybe I’m alone. What are your thoughts, guys? When did it all go wrong for you?

jurassic park card The Jurassic Park Franchise: What the Hell Happened?Randall Colburn (RC): Funny story, Mike. I also had a Jurassic Park Halloween costume. My mom bought it at K-Mart, and it was a torn-up t-shirt covered in rips and holes and fake blood; it said “I Visited Jurassic Park.” There were even a few stick-on “scabs” that fell off the moment I pressed them to my skin. I wore it to school, and Carson Brown called it stupid the minute I walked into homeroom. I was embarrassed. Maybe that was the beginning of the end of my love affair with Jurassic Park.

And, let me tell you, that love affair was intense. I mean, Jurassic Park is what led me to read the book, which is what made me want to be a writer, which is how I now make my living. It was the grandeur of the thing, really, its breadth and epic nature. But, more so, it was the characters. Even as a kid, I loved ensembles, and Jurassic Park boasts such a deep bench of weird, nuanced, aggressively non-Hollywood supporting players that I found myself wanting to know more about each of them. I even ended up writing a short story about Samuel L. Jackson’s Ray Arnold (sadly, it was not called “Hold onto Your Butts”) and, later, a 125-page “novel” about a tropical park filled with “monsters” that boasted a supporting cast in the dozens.

That’s a lot. And maybe that’s why my enthusiasm faded in the four years between Jurassic Park and The Lost World. I had all the action figures, the dinosaur models, the snow globes, but did it really make me like the movie more? I read The Lost World and loved it, but I remember feeling a sort of premature exhaustion for the toy cycle that would follow the film. And then I saw it, and though preteen me had yet to learn the word “toyetic,” I grasped the concept and saw the film’s unfaithful adaptation of the book for what it was: a chance to sell more shit to kids like me.

I really, really hated it.

lost world san diego The Jurassic Park Franchise: What the Hell Happened?

Dominick Suzanne-Mayer (DS): I think that concept of “toyetic” is really key here, as far as explaining what happened to Jurassic Park. To complete the circle, I too am in agreement that somewhere between the majesty of those gates opening the first time in Spielberg’s film and a talking velociraptor on an airplane, the series lost its way. The “why,” though, has as much to do with the era in which the sequels were made as it is the sequels themselves, I’d say.

The late ’90s were a key time in Hollywood’s burgeoning realization that a movie didn’t have to be the endgame of a promotional campaign when it could just as easily be one key facet of a larger, fully integrated brand marketing strategy. (This is the model that’s now ruining a much larger chunk of a given year’s big-budget movies.) The Lost World was especially egregious in this department, but it’s hardly the only guilty film. After all, later that same summer Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin would fail spectacularly (despite its acceptable grosses) as a film that was ordered by Warner Bros. to be as toyetic as possible. Or that The Lost World came just after the Christmas fiasco that was Buzz Lightyear. A film like The Lost World, then, was perfectly situated: a guaranteed box office hit that also features innumerable creatures and action set pieces rife for plasticized consumption. Like that scene where Jeff Goldblum aged backward several years and then went hang-gliding:

unnamed (2)

The problem is The Lost World isn’t great. Where Spielberg’s original was more interested in the isolation and wonderment of dinosaur resurrection,The Lost World is a summer tentpole in the Roland Emmerich mold, and without the grand-scale chaos that everybody’s favorite German destruction enthusiast had mastered at that point in the ’90s. Purely excluding the fact that the whole film is based around the conceit of “there was an island … but there’s also another island,” it also takes dinosaurs to the mainland after an incredibly protracted battle between two warring factions; as Twister astutely noted the year before, one group is only in it for the money, not the science. The Lost World wants you to marvel at dinosaurs and then buy many toys that look like them, sure, but what really harms that film is the extent to which it wants you to care about a set of characters that aren’t that interesting. To return to your point, Randall, there aren’t really characters in The Lost World so much as there’s Jeff Goldblum, back in the halcyon days when he could lead a summer tentpole, and a random assemblage of people there to explain the stakes and subsequently die.

And then there’s that third movie. Jesus, that third movie. Somebody else start on that, I need a minute.

the lost world The Jurassic Park Franchise: What the Hell Happened?MR: Before we talk about Jurassic Park III, a sequel so apathetic it hardly puffs past 90 minutes, I’d like to point out a few more issues of The Lost World that really speak to the whole toyetic argument. After Jurassic Park broke box office records and became a global phenomenon, there was a lot of pressure on Crichton to pen another novel, specifically from Spielberg. (Maybe he felt the book would give his sequel a sense of legitimacy? Who knows.) Naturally, Crichton obliged and spent the next two years working on the follow-up, which hit stores in September 1995 and became a best-seller over night. Now, to his credit, Crichton actually pieced together an agreeable sequel, bridging the two stories and introducing some new dinosaurs, characters, and settings in a fresh way. (Granted, he resurrected Ian Malcolm, who died in the original novel and lived in the film, but it’s hardly as egregious as it sounds.) The reason I bring this up is that, despite the urgency for a book, the film itself uses very little of its source material. In fact, it’s as if David Koepp received a little summary on a post-it note (“Isla Sorna. T. rex + trailers. Malcolm.”) and went from there. Slap in the face?

Only in theory. Crichton did receive credit, and those hefty checks from his publisher probably sweetened the deal. Still, the idea that Spielberg wanted a book and then chose to ignore it … it’s just confounding. What’s worse, it set the film up for failure. I’ll buy that not too many people read the original novel prior to the film. But The Lost World? People were rabid for a sequel, and that book was the only answer — and it delivered. (Although, I remember flipping through the pages on day one to see if Grant appeared. And was sad when he didn’t.) So, not only did he cultivate false expectations, but he also failed to offer a compromising alternative. Instead, audiences met underwhelming ghosts of the novel’s principal characters (Slap #1); a predictable assortment of dinosaurs and zero sign of the novel’s main event — the elusive Carnotaurus (Slap #2); and then finally, the aforementioned San Diego debacle (Slap #4-10). That’s not to say Koepp didn’t take creative liberties with the original film, but at least he retained the integral elements that made the book work. With The Lost World, there’s really nothing, save for the trailer scene, that speaks to the ingenuity of Crichton’s vision.

That, to me, is really the beginning of the end. Because as Jurassic Park III proved, there was no attempt to prioritize the story. So much so that director Joe Johnston didn’t even have a final script by the time they started rolling. Five weeks ahead of shooting, he and Spielberg had junked the original draft, leaving screenwriters like Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor to scavenger and provide sheets as production ensued. “We shot pages that eventually went into the final script, but we didn’t have a document,” Johnson later admitted. But hey, they had a formula: As long as you have a new dinosaur (Spinosaur), or another precocious child kids can relate to (Eric Kirby), or a familiar face (Dr. Alan Grant), it’s just enough to get the film across the finish line at the box office. And it did, as the second sequel managed to rake in $181,171,875 nationwide leading to a worldwide haul of $368,780,809. In hindsight, though, that’s a pretty dismal return, especially given 2001’s pathetic crop of films that summer — Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, Burton’s Apes, Pearl Harbor, blech. Couple that knowledge with the fact that Jurassic Park was once the tentpole franchise for Universal Pictures, and, well, here we are.

Toyetic, yes. But also severely mismanaged, too.

jurassic park 3 The Jurassic Park Franchise: What the Hell Happened?RC: *picks up mic that Mike just dropped*

You know what I remember about Jurassic Park 3? Nothing. Not a goddamned thing. Wait, I remember a hang glider. And William H. Macy. I remember liking it more than The Lost World, but at least I remember The Lost World. I remember the bad guys getting yanked under the tall grass, I remember the T. rex’s eye peeking into the trailer, and, oh yes, I remember those gymnastics. The Lost World was big, bold, and stupid, where Jurassic Park 3 was just sorta safe.

Which one’s better? What do we prefer? What, exactly, do we expect from sequels? What do we expect from Jurassic World, for that matter? When I was a kid, I would’ve wanted everything from the original, only bigger and better. As an adult, I hope to enjoy it at least half as much. If I do, I consider that sequel a success. I’ll be at Jurassic World opening weekend, and here’s what I want: a few charming performances, some legit special effects, and a few action sequences that, at least for a moment, make me forget where I am and that breathing is a necessary function.

More than any of that, however, I want it to have an identity. I like that it’s called Jurassic World and not simply Jurassic Park 4. The Lost World and 3 are pale, translucent things, blobs that seek only to emulate a film that could never be replicated. With Jurassic World, the series has a chance to not extend the original’s mythology, but to shatter it or subvert it. It has the chance to tell its own story, not a version of the one Michael Crichton already told. It doesn’t have to be great. It just has to be something.

jurassicworldposter2 The Jurassic Park Franchise: What the Hell Happened?

DS: Man, this series was really hard-targeting the economic subsection of hang-gliding enthusiasts, huh?

Anyway, Randall, I think you raise an interesting question: What is it about the Jurassic Park universe that resonated with people, and what does World have to do to get back to that? Since airborne leisure apparatus clearly weren’t a viable long-term solution, I think a return to form is in order. If anything, where you argue for the opportunity to expand the scope of the series to this point, I actually think a bit of a reduction, or at least a return to basics, is in order. Replication, as you said, wasn’t ever going to be the answer, but if anything I’m more worried about Jurassic World because of the current summer movie landscape than due to its predecessors. The instinct in modern times is to go as aggressively big as possible, lest even the notion of “going home” enter into the conversation. The trailers for Colin Trevorrow’s film have suggested the same: a rugged, masculine type and a brainy lady type go up against a BIGGER MONSTER that will trump any and all pre-existing BIG MONSTERS by somehow being EVEN BIGGER THAN THAT. Instead of the park being a park, it’s now the Disneyland version of Jurassic Park, a place where parents who clearly do not love their children enough can go to marvel at previously dead things.

The strange thing about going back and watching Jurassic Park is how weirdly intimate it feels, at points. Stay with me here. I know that a Steven Spielberg opus doesn’t exactly come to mind when you typically think of “intimate,” but it’s a movie of ruthless purpose with a relatively small cast (a dozen or less people of any real importance), and it allows you to enter its universe without bombing you with modern-day touchstones like extraneous subplots for the sake of maximized scope or anything that takes you off the proscribed track. The original screenplay functions a lot like the rail-based system around which the original park was designed: you see what you need to see, and scarcely waste time on distractions. This was a major issue for both sequels; because the pressure was on to give people even more of the thing they liked, they collapsed under the bloat, The Lost World in particular. (After all, that film came out during a time when Godzilla’s marketing team could tagline their monster movie with “Size Does Matter” and few thought too much of it.)

Jurassic World, to me, is going to live or die based on whether it can get back to that escapist spirit of being taken away to a new and impossible place. It’s hard to say whether a modern moviegoing audience might even respond all that well to such an approach, but it’ll at the very least make for a better movie.

MR: Having seen the film, I can assure you that Jurassic World has both an identity and provides an escape. However, for all the reasons and fears you outlined, Dominick, I can’t fully endorse it. It’s loud, it’s bombastic, and it’s preposterous in both story and character. The four screenwriters behind the film — Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Derek Connolly, and Colin Trevorrow — must have spent a long time in silence because not one person manages to sound like an honest-to-god human being. As you can see from the trailers and the posters, Pratt’s rugged hero plays a certain guardian to the raptors, and they’re so buddy-buddy that I started wondering why Trevorrow didn’t just double down and have them speak English — after all, it wouldn’t be out of question given the idiotic call-and-response plot line of the third film.

Joking aside, you bring up an even better point, Dominick, in that the first film does feel intimate. None of the characters are too complicated or straddled with obvious plot lines, but they’re unique and real enough to care about every single one of them. (There’s even reason to feel bad about the “blood-sucking lawyer”!) And while watching World, I didn’t get any grasp that who I was meeting could carry a conversation past PG sexual innuendo and gluttonous exposition. Which, to say, is such a far cry from the original, where a four-minute dining sequence could exist to provide all the necessary character for what was to follow. Look, we give Spielberg shit all the time, but the pacing and the plotting and the writing of the original film is just ingenious. Think about the way they set up each dinosaur, or how each subtle conversation spoke volumes…

What I wanted out of Jurassic World — and what I knew I’d never get after seeing that first trailer late last year — is a film that isn’t of this time. One that doesn’t subscribe to the unwieldy need to capitalize on larger-than-life set pieces and colossal monstrosities too big to design on screen. Yet everything about this current film highlights the problems of modern mainstream filmmaking, which is (among many things): less character, more action, and zero substance. There’s just nothing to grasp here, and I’m not just talking about Big Themes or Big Ideas. Sure, it would have been refreshing to have a quiet scene that could carry out for more than five minutes without some chaos or splashy visuals, but it also would have been nice to be able to root for a solid block of characters and not just hollow Amblin archetypes. The intention was there, but the execution? Not so much.

Maybe there never should have been a sequel to Jurassic Park. When you really think about it, the conceit of the first film — the idea of cloning dinosaurs and the morality behind it (e.g. “…your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should“) — was an open and shut case. Once the team evacuates Isla Nublar and John Williams’ touching score climbs as the pelicans take us home … that should have been it. There’s no better story to tell and there’s hardly another message that feels fresh or original. Themes of captivity and corporatization were already inherent in everything that was discussed over whatever the hell Hammond fed his observers in that lunch room. But that’s stupid talk because we live in a day and age where nothing ends, no one ever dies, and life always finds a way.

It’s a shame, but … I guess we’ll just have to evolve, too.

2 comments