There’s a classic scene in Jurassic Park in which chaos theorist Dr. Ian Malcolm chides Dr. John Hammond, owner of the titular theme park, for his scientific irresponsibility. “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should,” Malcolm says, correctly anticipating that Hammond’s new, dinosaur clone-driven business venture would end in tears.
The scene serves as a pointed warning against hubris in the face of nature, however, Malcolm’s speech also doubles as a valuable lesson regarding the general folly of doing something without fully thinking it through. So, it’s somewhat ironic that those in charge of the Jurassic Park franchise forgot this exact lesson the moment the first movie became the highest-grossing film not just of 1993, but of all time, too.
Indeed, production companies like Universal Pictures and Amblin Entertainment were so preoccupied with whether or not they could make Jurassic Park sequels, they didn’t stop to think if they should – and the result was five follow-up films that all fell woefully short of the original.
In hindsight, the likelihood that Jurassic Park would yield increasingly mediocre sequels seems as obvious as Malcolm’s prediction about the fate of the theme park itself. After all, so much of the appeal of Steven Spielberg’s 1993 action/sci-fi flick lies in the wonder of seeing dinosaurs convincingly realized on the big screen for the first time in history.
Watching a seemingly living, breathing herd of Gallimimus gallop past your eyes, craning your neck to get a better glimpse at Brachiosaurs munching on tree leaves, or peeking through your fingers as a T-rex stomps through the rain – moments like these are the definition of “movie magic”. Even now, when the Oscar-winning visual effects by ILM and Stan Winston Studios are starting to show their age, there’s a raw power to seeing “real” dinosaurs in Jurassic Park that will never fade.
The rest of the movie isn’t quite so unassailable. Sure, there’s some timely (and timeless) stuff in the script by the original novel’s author Michael Crichton and co-screenwriter David Koepp about the dangers of playing God, and the eternal conflict between humanity and nature. There’s also a stellar score by master composer John Williams – including the now iconic main theme – and Spielberg delivers the most nail-biting scenes of his career since Jaws.
Yet Jurassic Park is also arguably one of Spielberg’s slightest films, in terms of plot and (especially) characterisation. Stars Sam Neill, Laura Dern, and Jeff Goldblum bring a certain amount of movie star charisma to their respective roles as they bounce from set piece to set piece, however, only a very generous viewer would describe Alan Grant, Ellie Sattler, and Ian Malcolm as more than two-dimensional creations. Child stars Joseph Mazzello and Ariana Richards fare even worse as Hammond’s grandchildren, which is hardly surprising considering they’re not playing characters so much as plot points designed to give Grant the closest thing to an arc Jurassic Park can muster.
And honestly? That’s fine. Jurassic Park is enough of a thrill ride to steamroll over its numerous shortcomings. At the same time, it also doesn’t tell a story that cries out to be continued. There are no dangling plot threads to resolve, no characters to develop further, no themes to expand on. It’s the textbook example of a “one and done” popcorn blockbuster.
That’s probably why the two direct Jurassic Park sequels, 1997’s The Lost World: Jurassic Park and 2001’s Jurassic Park III, are so frustratingly underwhelming. The filmmakers involved were tasked with somehow wringing more narrative juice out of a tale that’s already been fully told – and not even Crichton writing an additional novel (as he did in the case of The Lost World) was enough to prevent things from feeling grossly derivative.
Nor did the superficial storytelling gimmicks littered throughout both movies. Undeniably cool new ingredients like setting a T-rex loose in suburban San Diego and spotlighting several previously unseen dinosaur species spiced up the underlying Jurassic Park recipe to some extent, but ultimately weren’t enough to make it seem truly fresh again. Spielberg himself has since acknowledged that The Lost World was a mistake, admitting what many fans already knew: that the franchise’s sequels were and continue to be driven less by artistic integrity than they were by commerce.
The absence of any real artistic inspiration is obvious in every frame of that film and its even more watered-down sequel. And the worst part isn’t even the way that Spielberg and his immediate successor, Joe Johnston, fail to capture the awe-inspiring grandeur of the first Jurassic Park – because really, how could they? Photorealistic dinosaurs just aren’t as breathtaking the second or third time around. It’s that they – along with screenwriters like Koepp, Peter Buchman, Alexander Payne, and Jim Taylor – couldn’t come up with anything to replace this sensation and justify either sequel’s existence.
Certainly, we don’t get to know Ian any better in The Lost World than we did in the first movie, and the same applies to Alan and Ellie in Jurassic Park III. We don’t get to dig any deeper into the franchise’s subtext, either. The Lost World just rehashes the same themes as its predecessor, whereas Jurassic Park III essentially forgoes any real attempt at anything even remotely intellectual in favour of focusing almost entirely on its admittedly impressive action set pieces. It’s as if Johnson innately understood that there was little to say about the hubris and greed of individuals and corporations that Jurassic Park hadn’t already said, and just decided to say nothing at all, instead.
In fairness, the same can’t be said for the more recent Jurassic World trilogy, which brings several new ideas to the table. The problem here, though, is that these ideas are either conceptually goofy (training raptors as pets), thematically undercooked (humans and dinosaurs learning to co-exist), or just plain uninteresting (human cloning). In particular, the increased focus on genetic engineering – while a logical way to expand on the cloning element of the franchise’s mythos – quickly bogs down the trilogy’s narrative by unnecessarily complicating its elegantly simple premise of dinosaurs alive in our own time.
It’s also not as if Jurassic World and its sequels, Fallen Kingdom and Dominion, aren’t guilty of recycling material from earlier in the franchise. On the contrary, all three movies prove as large a predator as the Giganotosaurus itself, repeatedly cannibalising each other and the earlier trio of Jurassic Park installments for plot points and themes. Heck, by the time Jurassic World Dominion rolls around, the revived franchise’s reliance on nostalgia to survive couldn’t be more apparent, with Neill, Dern, and Goldblum all drafted in to help drive up ticket sales.
Yet even in this, the sixth and supposedly final Jurassic Park movie, they’re still lumped with the same thinly sketched roles they first played back in 1993. The same goes for their successors, Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard, whose considerable acting chops can’t transform the Jurassic World trilogy’s protagonists Owen Grady and Claire Dearing into people we actually give a damn about. The series’ dinosaurs may have evolved over the last 29 years, but for some reason, writer-director Colin Trevorrow and co-writer Derek Connolly still can’t work out a way to inject some real human drama into proceedings.
And while this same storytelling deficiency didn’t prevent Jurassic Park from becoming an instant classic, it’s enough to ensure that Jurassic World Dominion ends the franchise’s overarching narrative not with a triumphant T-rex roar, but rather with a wounded Triceratops whimper. And the thing is, all of the disappointment that led us here could’ve been avoided – if only the studio executives and filmmakers in charge of the Jurassic Park property hadn’t forgotten Ian Malcolm’s greatest lesson.