Jurassic Park Review
Another big-hitting franchise evolves into a new medium with a lavish Blu-ray boxset as Jurassic Park Ultimate Trilogy roars its mighty way onto platters on both sides of the Atlantic from Universal. This review is for the US edition.
As with my earlier coverage of the sets for Superman, LOTR and Star Wars, I think we can safely dispense with much in the way of introduction or plotting. You've seen these movies, and possibly quite a number of times too, so you will already be hugely familiar with this procession of jaw-dropping effects, breakneck set-pieces and furiously wrought suspense. As Jeff Goldblum's Chaos Theoretician, Dr. Malcolm, so brilliantly puts it in the second instalment - “OOHHHHH, AHHHHHH … that's how it starts … and then it's RUNNING and SCREAMING.” We meet the beautiful side of Dickie Attenborough's tampering with dino-DNA and we gape alongside the characters, our breath snatched away. We hear of the grandiose plans and the vast aspirations for dredging up the past and thrusting it into a brave new world and, for a tantalising moment, it all seems so very plausible. But then things go awry – as things in movies tend to do – and then the beasts turn the tables and Nature stops doing what we tell it to do and puts us back in our place, and Man, once again, becomes nothing more than a tasty morsel to snack-on. We've looked at science-gone-mad many times, very recently in the incredible Island Of Lost Souls (see BD review), and Jurassic Park, based on Michael Crichton's best-selling novel, is possibly the most overt and extravagant example of the form.
As big on ideas and speculative science as these films were, they were also glowing examples of what American Cinema has sought to warn us of for decades – that you cannot trust big commercial companies. They will exploit you along with the planet's natural resources. They will contractually stitch you up and sell you down the river. They will turn their deadly follies into a way of suing the pants off you … and if you have the misfortune to die as a result of their idiocies, then they will besmirch your name and screw your family over instead. Thus, JP's INGEN joins the ranks of Weyland-Yutante and the Tyrell Corporation in the annals of sinister conglomerate organisations with the powers and the funding of the gods.
For a man who has made some of the most successful films ever created and sat pretty with the marketing and merchandise that goes along with such popular triumphs, this is both mischievous and refreshingly ironic.
“It looks like we're out of a job.”
“Don't you mean extinct.”
It may be one of the all-time action/adventure classic of modern years, but Michael Crichton’s tale of DNA-altered dinosaurs running amok in a specially created theme-park is just a reworking of his earlier Westworld, in which character-robots in various designated guises – cowboys, knights, Romans - short-circuit and revolt against the guests and cause mass carnage.
Since the day of Ray Harryhausen's stop-motion for Harry Hoyt's 1925 adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World to the rapturous animation in Disney's Rites of Spring sequence in Fantasia, to Hammer's men-in-suits and clumsy large-scale props terrorising Raquel Welch and a slew of glamorous cave-girls in their sixties monster mashes to the Brit-glory of Gorgo, and from the Japanese nobility of Godzilla to loopy absurdities of all those beastoids chasing after Doug McClure. We've seen cowboys fighting dinos, we've seen giant apes battling them, we've trembled as they have toppled our cities, and we've even fought to protect them from vicious exploitation (the often forgotten Baby: Secret of the Lost Legend). It is fair to say that the notion of outsized creatures running amok has been popular since pretty much the dawn of cinema.
But nothing has really captured this interest and captivated more than one generation with as much universal acclaim is the Crichton/Spielberg blockbuster.
Sam Neill is a great and dependable presence as the gobsmacked fossil-loving Dr. Alan Grant, who is drafted over to the about-to-be-launched Jurassic Park on Isla Nublar to check out the sort of thing those fossils tended to come from, along with Laura Dern's Dr. Ellie Sattler. Cleverly but also a touch wryly, Spielberg sets Grant up as one of us. He has to contend with Jeff Goldblum's all-knowing, all-charming new-wave egghead, Dr. Ian Malcolm, a penny-pinching company bean-counter in the form of Martin Ferrero, and, worst of all, the irritating nephew and niece of the Dino-DNA instigator, himself. It is through his mesmerised eyes and confused/excited/fearful/elated/transformed outlook that we fully appreciate the traumatic experience.
The first movie, then, is part adventure, part monster-flick, part fanciful SF theory (some people still cling to the mosquito-amber-DNA notion) and part rites-of-passage. It is ambitious and it is crowd-pleasing. But I have to admit that I've never been fully smitten with it. Barring two blistering chapters, I found most of the characters unbelievable at best, downright annoying at worst, and the combination of shock and saccharine too frothy and wince-inducing to fully swallow. Whereas Spielberg totally nailed Jaws by just making a straight-ahead and serious monster-movie filled with unfailingly realistic characters, he mixes-up the moods with Jurassic Park until it become a stew of ill-assorted flavours that don't always complement each other. Therefore he goes for broke with the kills as the dinos get loose and go after their creator/captors, but he also adheres rather heavy-handedly with the sugary stuff for the kids. For me, back in 1993, this was when Spielberg began to lose his way somewhat, and enter into a different creative mindset.
The initial T-Rex escape and attack is, I’ll feely admit, one of the best and most successfully sustained suspense set-pieces that Hollywood has engineered. But then it should be too. Spielberg made Jaws and Raiders Of The Lost Ark. He would go on to make Saving Private Ryan and War Of The Worlds. This sort of protracted tension, reveal and reaction is in his blood. But the scene is so good that it becomes the perfect mini-movie in its own right. From the first distant thud and tremor in the glass of water to the realisation that the goat has gone, Spielberg's concentrated sense of unease is excellently drip-fed into our consciousness. The tentative testing of the once-electrified fence by inhuman fingers gives way to the sudden appearance of a big beady eye and a stomping foot, the scene becoming instantly iconic and the first imagery that springs to mind whenever someone mentions the film's title. We'd seen kids in danger before, but never quite like this. And what makes it worse is that fact we still give a damn about them even though we may hate the idea of kids being in the movie in the first place. These kids in particular. This is what makes the character of Alan Grant so empathetic to us. He can't stand the brats either, but his natural instincts are to protect them. Damn you, Spielberg, we feel the same way! Despite his sugary schmaltzy side, in the back of our minds we know that we can't always trust him. He killed a boy in Jaws, and Bruce the shark was merely another blameless predator just doing what comes naturally … so we don't go baying for T-Rex blood either.
As the beast noses the tour-car over onto its roof and begins to squash it flat, you really aren't sure how far he is going to go with this ordeal. I can remember the first time I saw this in the flicks. The collective heart-stoppage of the audience was as terrifying as the set-piece unfolding before us. I thought we'd be needing a fleet of ambulances. What certificate is this again? was the thought on everybody's mind. The sight of little Timmy, hushed-up and in shock, sitting in the dark of the car as it hangs perilously in the branches of a huge tree is really humbling. “I threw up,” he murmurs and it is a startlingly human moment that cuts through all the cinematic wizardry and fantasy. It is a turning-point for the child-hating Dr. Grant and, although too contrived, it still resonates. The theme of coming to terms with children, or of the new generation, and of the twisted emotions of the whole birthing process is prevalent throughout the entire series.
Sadly, there are three elements in this film that really detract from the experience for me. Firstly, and most cloyingly – and also most obviously – are those kids. The lad, Timmy (Joseph Mazzello), is okay on his own as I've pointed out – in fact, he is very likeable), but his sister Lex, played by Ariana Richards, just wants the Assault On Precinct 13 treatment. Give her an ice-cream and then put a bullet in her and let’s get on with the film. She’s terrible. Over-acting. Over-screaming. Overkill. Over and out, guys. She just gets in the way and reminds you, constantly, that this is, indeed, a family-film – when, to be honest, it so wants to be a much harder, more mean-spirited affair than its musical score and mood would often seem to imply.
The second would be the once-great Richard Attenborough. Oh dear God, he’s bloody awful in this. I don’t buy it. I just don’t it at all. This grandfatherly tycoon with a dream – like a misguided Santa Claus – rides too high and too prominently over a story that simply doesn’t need such sugary whimsy. “Hellooo John!” his interactive clone calls from the video tutorial on “How to grow a dinosaur” … cue eccentricity meets technology which, in a more forgiving mood, I could agree was the most pertinent metaphor for the entire story, but here becomes cutesy-wutesy rubbish with bone-headed and condescending implications. “You have a T-Rex?” stammers the erstwhile Dr. Alan to the simpering, smug-faced John Hammond after somehow managing to initially miss the sight of a vast plain full of grazing dinos. And then, aaargghhhh, Dickie Attenborough replies with sick-inducing, breathy and soporific whimsy …”We have a T-Rex.” Well, I know that I’m probably alone in this hostility, but I regard this delivery as one of the worst I have ever seen and heard in a motion picture. JOHN HAMMOND, as portrayed by Sir Dickie, IS NOT IN THE LEAST BIT BELIEVABLE. In the book he is harder-headed and more determined. Attenborough ruins this character by being the DNA-Father Christmas … and if the bloody T-Rex he’s so proud of only dipped its snout and wrenched his patronising head off his shoulders I would have bigged-up Spielberg’s adaptation without a second thought.
Oh, and there’s the third element.
Now, regular readers will already know how much of a score-aficionado/collector/obsessive I am, so it may come as some surprise to learn that I cannot stand John Williams’ hugely acclaimed music for Jurassic Park. He strives for the wonder of it all, which is only appropriate, of course. But the beauty and awe of seeing these regenerated beasts indulging in gene-reconfigured natural hedonism is hugely offset by the savagery of the scenario that plays out. His main theme, as classic as it has now become, does nothing for me.
Of course I’m being fussy. But this is one of the biggest adventure films of all time. It actively cries out to me to be criticised. God, with everybody else going out of their way to sing its praises, I feel I should redress the balance … a little bit. I wish we'd been permitted to view the grating Mr. Arnold (the always overrated Samuel L. Jackson) getting dismembered, if only to see that bloody cigarette dislodged from his whining lips. But the stalking scene of Bob Peck's safety expert getting outsmarted by the Raptors is great. “Clever girl ...” he utters in the perfect in-the-field encapsulation of Dr. Malcolm's theory that life will find a way.
And the escape-and-evasion in the visitor centre and the kitchens would be the perfect showstopper if it didn't then climax with a pure Disney-esque scramble over the fossil-statue of a T-Rex. This seems to sum up Jurassic Park for me. Great bits let down by naff bits.
The Lost World: Jurassic Park
“Violence and technology … not good bedfellows.”
Although it is not at all a “good” film, this is actually my favourite of the trio. This one ups the scale and the action, opting for a darker heart and a far meaner spirit. It is also an extremely lavish and loving homage to the original King Kong, with John Williams' new and much improved score even joining the nostalgia party to recall the wonderful, trend-setting music of Max Steiner's awesome and bravura great grandfather of all film-scores. The big ship that carries the T-Rex to and from San Diego is called The Venture after the vessel that broke the veil of mist to arrive at the mythical Skull Island back in 1933, and the entire cast are reduced to legging-it, hell-for-the-leather, through the jungle pursued by something monstrous … just as the crew did in the Great Ape's first outing.
But if the theme of the first JP was one of dealing with offspring, here, it is one of parenthood. Although it is only a tenuous thread that doesn't actually make any major observations, humans and dinos vie for who is the most loyal and devoted in family terms. Swapping Alan Grant for Ian Malcolm is a bit of a head-scratcher, though. After the T-Rex attack in the first film, Malcolm was pretty much sidelined for the rest of the film and nobody on Earth would ever have believed that the character had any right to crop up in a sequel … yet here he is, with daughter in tow, as well as palaeontologist girlfriend, Sarah, played by Julianne Moore.
Right, we should get one thing straight immediately. The Lost World ends when the survivors are airlifted off the dangerous paradise of Ingen's secret Site B. The furiously and idiotically tacked-on San Diego finale is so utterly wretched and bone-headed that it should be avoided at all costs. In one ludicrous twenty-minute chapter of completely unnecessary rampage, Spielberg almost undoes all the good stuff that came before. I remember seeing a press screening of this movie when it first arrived on our shores – this was, indeed, the very first film that I ever reviewed, folks - and the collective deflation that filled the auditorium as this sequence played out was palpable. There was much sighing and mental scribbling from the assorted journos and critics. For someone of Spielberg's calibre, this is truly unforgivable. A ship manned by the dead, with a T-Rex locked in the hold …? Whatever cockeyed excuses you may want to give for this are rendered moot in a film that makes no attempt whatsoever to explain them, itself. No, this is terrible.
Sadly, the film, most of which I'm actually a big fan of, starts off badly too. The little high class English beach-party going wrong on the forbidden beach of Isla Sorna is okay, but the shoehorning-in of the returning Dr. Malcolm is just plain contrived and horribly awkward. I love the fact that Goldblum was back, but we need to be honest about this – he's only there because Sam Neill isn't. Yet, this actually winds-up being one the film's aces. Because Goldblum is such an unconventional action-hero – looking like a steroidal Mr. Bean and sounding like an intelligent cat doing a crossword puzzle – he is weirdly easier to side with. He's goofy and unpredictable, and this is a winning combination in the right hands. Even so, this casting-gambit could've fallen at the first fence. He pretty much petered-out in the previous film, so he's got some work to do in order to win us over. The little reunion with those bloody kids from the first outing is horrible, back-patting stuff that makes the teeth itch, and the introduction of Malcolm's daughter makes you shudder because now you realise that Spielberg has only gone and replaced two sparky little brats with one sassy bigger one. But, and this is the thing, once we hit the island, Lost World becomes the far superior thrill-ride … and one that blissfully swaps awe and sentiment for a brutal jungle bodycount flick that has a huge number of protagonists to chew and gnaw upon.
With the great Pete Postlethwaite playing big game hunter and all-round hard-man Roland Tembo (the famous deleted scene showcases just how hard he really is), and the always edgy Peter Stormare as his rub-you-up-the-wrong-way cohort Dieter Stark, we get some interesting dynamics. Tembo and his army of chasers, trappers, hunters and mercenaries provide a hefty assortment of bush-tucker for the reptiles. We initially hate them all, but the clever thing is that, under the assured command of Postelthwaite, we get to see the platoon as a lot more than mere menu-items. They start out as the swine, but we realise all-too-swiftly that the dinos have little to fear from them. Graham Norton lookalike Vince Vaughn and Richard Schiff even things out for the standard good guys, and seem to have a fair amount of fun in their role as gutsy eco-warriors.
You could argue that the pace becomes almost too ruthless, with one aggressive situation and chase seguing pretty much directly into another one, but I love the constant driving momentum. This is precisely how Willis O'Brien's King Kong played out. It just didn't let up and had poor sailors running for their lives almost continuously and being plunged from horrific encounter directly into another one just behind the next tree. The action is superb. It is harder and more protracted than before, the sense of jeopardy actually greater and the kinetic nature of the confrontations more brutally relentless.
The initial hunt sequence when Tembo's mobile goon-squad go on safari is staggeringly exhilarating. This is like Mad Max 2 meets Valley Of The Gwangi. Motorcycles play rodeo with the stampeding dinos, pimped-up catch-vans extend shooting-perches and customised buggies play tag with sprinting reptiles. In a shot that clearly heralds Weta's Rhohirrim charge through the legs of the mighty Mumakil in The Return Of The King, a biker scoots underneath a rampaging Parasaurolophus and we tail-gate him all the way through. It still looks amazing now, I mean you really get the impression that you've just gone through a dino-tunnel.
The raptors make their savage return with elaborate gusto, forming an alien-like design in the long-grass as they intercept and ambush the terrified human convoy caught in the middle. Stephen Sommers would ape this sequence in The Mummy Returns. The nasty blighters then play with their prey in the battleground of the ruined visitor centre. Malcolm's hide 'n' seek through windows and cars is gripping enough, but the interaction that a hungry twosome have with Julianne Moore as she struggles on the edge of a roof is literally palm-sweating. However, I have to concede that when young Miss Malcolm (Vanessa Lee Chester) displays her gymnastic abilities and takes one of the raptors out, it is a pure eye-rolling embarrassment for all concerned. And it was all going so well until then.
But, by far, the greatest set-piece we have is the tour de force of the mobile science-lab hanging over the side of a muddy cliff after not one, but two T-Rexes have led a coordinated hit-and-run to get their injured baby back. Doffing his cap with a stylish flourish to both Hitchcock and Argento with violence, excitement and truly heart-stopping intensity, this is the worthy successor to the big T-Rex attack from the first film. The cracking glass sequence is a wonderfully constructed knuckle-whitener. By the time characters haul themselves to safety, you really feel as though you've been put through the wringer alongside them.
Williams' score is outstanding for this film. We hear memories of Kong, elements modified from Jaws and the template for what would come in the next three Star Wars episodes … before they would actually devolve into chaotic, over-complicated mush.
Jurassic Park III
“Reverse Darwinism … survival of the most idiotic.”
The franchise entered quick, for-the-thrills money-grabbing with this entry from Steve (The Wolfman) Johnson, but was, arguably, all the better for cutting down the running time, upping the relentless intensity of the adventure and just setting out to entertain. Gone was the saccharine, theme-draped wonder of the first film, save for one fawning thirty-second down-river travelogue. Gone was the ridiculous tacked-on finale from the second. This was a film that knew we knew the parameters of the set-up. Contrivance be-damned, the aerial displacement of a dangerous sport-loving teen – who winds-up lost and alone, and surrounded by hungry predators on that secretive and shunned failed Site B island enclosure – was a good hook to get us back into Dino-territory without messing about with samey scientific shenanigans or loopy big game hunting of the first two instalments. This was pretty straight and, compared to its waffle-loaded predecessors, a lean, mean, pared-to-the-bone actioner. Although considerably shorter than either of the first two, this managed to do what neither of them could – it actually got the balance of action, drama and sentiment just right. None of the ingredients felt swamped by the other flavours in the new recipe DNA stew.
The return of Laura Dern for what amounts to just an extended cameo is regrettably naff. Although she didn't fit in with the story, this was another awkward attempt at closure – just as we'd seen with the brats reappearing in Lost World – and sits uncomfortably with all the usual “running and the screaming”. I don't rate her that highly as an actress. She's not all that good in the first film either, to be honest, and her placement here is a sure-fire irritant. On the plus side, Sam Neill, coming back into the fold, is typically excellent. The guy can bring gravity and humanity to even the most insipid and clichéd of characters. His involvement stinks of umbilical connection to the birth of the franchise, but it is Neill who makes it work. Admittedly, it is a tenuous grabber that gets him back on the island but, once there, his practical and adaptable side kicks-in with reliable vigour. The addition of William H. Macy and Tea Leoni, as the parents of the lost teen, could have grated very badly, but they are surprisingly agreeable. Leoni does a fair bit of screaming … but then so would you if the dino-roster had been spruced-up with a squadron of pterodactyls and a naval bombardment courtesy of a sinister Spinosaur.
In spite of this breakneck pace, the film also has a fair stab at Disney-esque family values, albeit with a modern-day tweak. We've seen how the first two films dabbled with the concept of kids and parenthood, and Part III doesn't neglect this subtext with the estranged ma and pa fighting tooth and nail to save their wayward son and, in so doing, rekindling their affection for one-another in the midst of their own fight for survival. As the errant son, Erik, Trevor Morgan valiantly staves-off the annoying-kid curse and turns in a performance that actually doesn't really register … either way. In fact, I hardly notice the kid though, to be fair, I like the little nod to Newt in Aliens in his ability to survive, alone, in a dino-infested environment for eight weeks!
Interestingly, this outing doesn't harp on about the nefarious INGEN, with this adventure being decidedly covert, so we don't have a plethora of scientists or hired hunters to be devoured. But the film still boasts a few frenetic highlights and ensures to off characters that you really expected to last a little bit longer. Perhaps this was a little influence from Deep Blue Sea, another saga of scientific common-sense going AWOL in favour of a doomed dream.
The action is pell-mell and non-stop, but Johnson isn't the best at handling it. He forgets the important stop-gap between set-pieces that allows for a change of tone to occur. This is why the film so often feels like moving wallpaper. Although there are plenty of things happening, there is little to no suspense built up during the various encounters until we get to the bird-cage sequence and the river-boat attack. The Raptors don't have the same sense of menace - over-exposure can account for this, but Johnson just seems to want to hurtle through the jungle with as much running and screaming as possible, when he could create some more atmospheric turns. We had this in Lost World, in which this style worked very well. Then again, he was saving himself for the newcomers, wasn't he? The sight of the pterodactyl coming through the mist is genuinely creepy, and the Jaws-riff out on the rain-lashed river is most welcome, even if he does then cheapen things with mobile-phone slapstick.
But the less said about the appalling arrival of the Marines, the better.
This time around, John Williams didn't compose the score. After supplying one of his beardy buddies with A.I. he was busy toiling away on the first Harry Potter, as well prepping Attack of the Clones for his other beardy buddy. So the task fell to The Matrix's Don Davis, who turned in a very respectful and energised broadside of fury. He kept the main theme as well as some other familiar motifs, under the auspices of the studio and Williams, himself, who oversaw the project from a safe distance, but struck out with bold and strident cues of his own, the resulting score actually one of his least memorable or distinctive.
Personally, I still get a kick out of the third film. I don't know, maybe it is just seeing Macey, with that 'tache, going all heroic. It shouldn't pass muster, but it adds something of the goofball nature that Goldblum brought to the table.
Although I cannot argue with the event-hyped spectacle of these movies, I do find them all less entertaining than many. I love monsters and adventures and all-out spectacle, and thrusting all three into one roaring, flesh-shredding cavalcade of CG, animatronics and puppetry would normally send me into a dizzying stupor of endorphin-saturated nirvana, but I have never been quite as smitten with the Jurassics as most other people. But, as radical game-changers in terms of visual effects and sound design, these pretty much set the benchmark for the genre and technology to follow. The first film is a bonafide classic, but if I am brutally honest, I find it wanting action. The second two films many insist have too much action , and all at the expense of story. Well, as far as I am concerned, none of the characters are really that interesting to begin with. They really only serve the narrative to stop and stare in either wonder or terror – a sure-fire, tried-and-trusted Spielberg motif - and then to run and scream.
As with so many huge franchises – we have the accepted treasure that becomes a true phenomenon, and the inevitable then happens with time-worn monotony, and the idea is just stretched out with no real care or imagination. But, if you're looking for dinosaur action, you know that this series is your first port of call.
Jurassic Park 7/10 – awesome, yet still very annoying
The Lost World: Jurassic Park (naff title, that) 7/10 – more enjoyable and action-packed, but let-down by some serious flaws
Jurassic Park III 6/10 – unnecessary addition, yet still surprisingly exciting and good fun.