Posted on Monday, September 7th, 2009 by David Chen
It’s Labor Day, folks, so instead of the normal pace of film news, we’re taking it a little bit easier than usual. The following is an editorial that has to do with the Jurassic Park series of films, so those expecting something relating to what’s going on in Hollywood right now should look elsewhere (i.e. skip this article). Otherwise, your thoughts are welcome in the comments! And of course, spoilers abound for the Jurassic Park movies..
On a recent episode of the /Filmcast, my colleague Adam Quigley mentioned in passing that Jurassic Park was his favorite movie of all time. I have fond memories of Spielberg’s 1993 film, but I hadn’t watched it since it had been on VHS (I still have a copy of that cassette on my shelf). To some degree, I actively avoided revisiting that film; I was scared the effects wouldn’t hold up and that my adult-self would not have the sense of child-like wonder I had way back when I first sat down to see the film in theaters. Perhaps seeing it in a new light, my memory of it would be forever tarnished, and I wanted to hold onto that memory, as it was a special one.
The other day, I found myself shopping at Costco when I saw the entire trilogy on sale for $13 on DVD. Never one to pass up a good deal deal, I went in for the kill and over the weekend, I watched most of the trilogy in fits and starts.
Much to my relief, a viewing of the first film revealed that it is still indeed magnificent. While today (16 years after its release) it’s extremely easy to tell the difference between when they used CGI vs. practical effects in the film, some of the sequences are still visually impressive (e.g. the way the Tyrannosaurus Rex’s humongous pupil convincingly contracts and dilates when Lex shines a light upon it). And of course, no dated special effects work can detract from the fact that Spielberg crafted a film that featured thematic heft, great character work, and the most tense set-pieces ever devised in the history of film.
More disturbing was the chasm in quality between the first film and the third film. Jurassic Park 3 came out eight years after Jurassic Park, so at the time, it was easy to forget the quality of the first film when indulging for one final visit back to Isla Sorna. But when the two movies are juxtaposed, the lack of care and attention given to every single element in the third film is stunning. The purpose of this post is to highlight the differences between these two films, using analogous scenes from both.
In both films, there’s a scene through which Dr. Grant is enticed to visit Jurassic Park. In the first film, a mysterious stranger makes a grand entrance that disrupts Grant’s dig. Grant is infuriated, only to discover that the stranger is in fact John Hammond, the man who is funding his dig in the first place:
This scene is highly enjoyable, but it also lays out a mystery (i.e. what are these “attractions” that Hammond speaks of) and does some pretty subtle and deft character work. The fact that the scene works can be attributed to the energy of Attenborough, who plays the part of billionaire Hammond with infectious aplomb.
Compare this to a similar scene in Jurassic Park 3.
Gone is Attenborough, replaced by Tea Leoni and William H. Macy. I don’t have too much to say about Leoni as a general matter, but Macy is certainly a skilled actor who is worthy of far better material than this: His dialogue is simplistic, and the delivery somewhat stilted. The entire scene almost made me cringe. In the end, this minute-and-a-half long scene played as perfunctory setup, something the movie had to get over with, to rush through in order to get the adventure. And in the end Grant is revealed as avaricious, willing to surrender not only his morals but his sense of self-preservation, just for some cash (the same reason he agreed to go to the park the first time around. Has he learned nothing?!). Very disappointing overall.
The first Jurassic Park film struggled with scientific ethics in a fairly complex way. The dialectic between Hammond’s intrepid scientific exploration (and exploitation) of nature and chaotician Ian Malcolm’s insistence that nature not be messed with made for a great dynamic. But none of the characters were one-sided. Take this scene between Attenborough and Laura Dern. At this point in the film, several people have died in Hammond’s park and the fate of his grandkids is still in question:
Hammond becomes such a tragic figure and his monologue is utterly heartbreaking. At the same time, Dern has to send Attenborough crashing back to earth because she’s right: People have died, and left unchecked, humans will always fuck things up to an unimaginable degree.
None of the other Jurassic Park films really deal with these issues to any meaningful extent. The closest that JP3 comes to anything resembling ethical dilemma is this scene between Sam Neill and Allesandro Nivola, about Nivola’s theft of dinosaur eggs:
Jurassic Park was able to thrill audiences and make them think. While Jurassic Park 3 had some decent set pieces (Johnston is undeniably a skilled director), it did neither particularly well.
Something the first Jurassic Park film achieved, which none of the other films in the franchise were able to (and I include the Spielberg-directed Lost World in that category) is that sense of wonder at the fact that dinosaurs freaking exist and are walking the earth with us. Nowhere is this more clear than in the scene when everyone first arrives on the island and sees a brachiosaur for the first time. As John Williams plaintive JP theme plays in the background (other adjectives are also appropriate for that theme, like “iconic” and “legendary”), Laura Dern and Sam Neill do their damndest to sell the fact that yes, they are in fact witnessing an actual, real-life dinosaur, and yes, it is the perfect culmination of their life’s work. As it dawns on them what exactly Hammond has created, so too does it dawn on you, the viewer:
One of my favorite moments of the film is when Neill, upon hearing that they have a T-Rex on site, falls to his knees in a combination of astonishment and gratefulness. As he looks upon the herds of dinosaurs across the way, tears well up in his eyes, and he exclaims, “They’re moving in herds…They DO move in herds.” It is a validation for everything he’s ever worked for in his entire professional career. It is a dream come true. And it’s what Spielberg made happen for every one of us when he created a movie that made us believe that anything was possible.
Unlike, say, the Saw films, the Jurassic Park franchise quickly demonstrated the law of diminishing returns: While the budget for each film was comparable, the subsequent films in the series made less and less money. Equally important, the quality of the series also dramatically declined. The spark that gave the first film life had burned itself out, leaving only the empty, depleted husk of a once-grand idea (similar to the dilapidated ruins of the Jurassic Park compound in the third film).
Jurassic Park 3 always struck me as an ill-conceived project from the start. There was great pedigree in the project, with Johnston’s talents (I’m a huge fan of October Sky and of course, I still remember seeing the Rocketeer in theaters) and Spielberg’s blessing, as well as the screenwriting abilities of greats such as Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor. But with no book to start from, it always felt like a cash grab rather than the fruition of a well-conceived idea.
While it’s possible to make a great third film of a trilogy, history has shown that it’s usually an uphill battle. Jurassic Park 3 lost this battle decisively, and to the dismay of JP fans like me everywhere.
Discuss: Obviously there wasn’t enough room here for me to bring up all the great scenes from the first film, nor the terrible scenes from the third film. What do you guys think of the Jurassic Park trilogy? What do you think of the first film compared to the third film?
You can reach David Chen at davechensemail(AT)gmail(DOT)com or follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/davechensky.