Bracing for Jurassic World: My Personal History with the Raptors

jurassic_park_iii_ver1_xlgJust like every other moviegoer on the planet, I had a blast attending the theatrical opening of Jurassic Park in 1993. I remember laughing for joy at the blissful terror of the T-Rex’s entrance, and laughing even harder when I saw my friends Eric and Matt crawling under their seats.

But I was having fun in spite of the movie’s screenplay, which felt cheap and sentimental even for Spielberg at the time. I thought then — and I still think — that it’s B-grade Spielberg.

This weekend, I went digging for any writing I might have done back then, and could only dug up this old paragraph:

One cannot help but assume the reason the characters in the film are so scared is because they’re so poorly developed. Spielberg was so excited about directing the dinosaurs that he forgot to check the quality of the script. This is not such a bad thing, really. The corny dialogue and aspirations to social and environmental relevance seem to suit this old-fashioned thrill-fest. Who comes to this movie to be intellectually challenged? And OH MY GOODNESS, those dinosaurs are scary! Jeff Goldblum is the only human interesting enough to distract us from the creatures, which, I’m sorry, must be real. I don’t buy all this digital animation jibberish… when you see the T-Rex, you’ll agree. That’s a real dinosaur. (And while we’re on the subject, Goldblum kinda resembles a dinosaur himself, doesn’t he?) By the end of the movie, something called an “impact tremor” will be a permanent part of your nightmares, the way a fin breaking the ocean’s surface fried all our nerves in Jaws. The T-Rex should have been nominated for an Oscar.

Then came The Lost World: Jurassic Park (or Jurassic Park II). And I was not too happy about that one. I wrote:

If you liked Jurassic Park, you’ll probably like this one quite a bit less. What the first film did poorly, this film does much worse. But the dinosaurs still look great, and there are plenty of chilling action scenes.

The Lost World is the same movie… it just has more of everything. More plot holes, more completely illogical events, more things that break down when you think about them, more blood, and, oh, yeah, more dinosaurs.  The dinosaurs look even better this time around, but there aren’t any sequences nearly as terrifying as the classic “introducing the T-Rex” scene of the original.

I’ll see it twice, because I think the creatures are beautiful, and Jeff Goldblum makes the most of his paper-thin character. I just can’t help but be a little depressed to see Goldblum, Postlewhaite, and Moore — three of my favorite actors — running around screaming when a good script might have given them a chance to act.

Way back in 2001, I was writing a column for Christianity Today called “Film Forum.” I would continue that column year after year after year — because it was so much fun. In it, I weighed the responses of Christian media to movies opening that weekend.

Early in my column’s run, Jurassic Park III opened. I thought it might be fun, considering the reviews coming in for Jurassic World, to look back and see what Christian media voices — and others — said about that film.

So join me for a walk down memory lane.

[This text was originally published at Christianity Today.]

Jurassic Park 3 was a sure financial success. (It’s made $81.4 million at this writing, six days after opening.) People love dinosaurs; no matter how poor the movie’s script, they’ll line up to see prehistoric monsters stomp through the woods and chase people. I admit it: I’m a sucker for the genre. I love the amusement-park thrill of being scared, and there’s something healthy about recognizing ourselves as we run screaming from the very trouble our own god complexes can set in motion. (My full review is online at Looking Closer.) For most audiences, though, the biggest suspense about JPIII is whether there is enough amusement in the Park.

Naysayers had T-Rex-sized complaints. Carrie Rostollan at Christian Spotlight on the Movies walked in saying, “Please let this movie be something more than eye candy.” She was disappointed. “JPIII falls flat, simply a vehicle for a long string of action sequences with no memorable moments. It’s less preachy about evolution, but it doesn’t find anything new to say, either.”

Megan Lenz at The Phantom Tollbooth demands more plausibility from her summer rollercoaster: “Are we really to believe that the collective governments, armies and scientists of the world are allowing dinosaurs to run amok on various islands in the Pacific? Are we really to believe that the members of the original Jurassic Park posse will continually and voluntarily get within spitting distance of said islands?”

On the other side of the electrified fence, Phil Boatwright reacted to the implausibility claim: “If you are searching for any kind of in-depth storyline, what are you doing in a second sequel to a movie about dinosaurs?” He’s pleased with the portrayal of “a separated couple rediscovering their love, and the more noble characters being willing to lay down their lives for others. It also has very impressive special effects, with the huge dinos looking very real, and very menacing. This film is all about action.”

Peter T. Chattaway of The Vancouver Courier writes, “Surprise, surprise … [JPIII] just may be the purest thrill ride of the summer. [Director Joe] Johnston … doesn’t waste time on preachy lessons about the evils of capitalism, the lessons of chaos theory, and the virtues of trusting in nature. Instead, he takes us, as briskly as possible, from one narrow escape to the next, and along the way, he throws in just enough new creatures to make the whole experience seem fresh again. Jurassic Park III is cynically amusing, not least when it takes digs at the previous films, and, most surprising of all, it actually may leave you wanting more.”

Other critics were on the fence. John Barber at Preview reports that “Moviegoers expecting the twists and turns of the original Crichton novel or the movie magic of Spielberg’s direction may be disappointed … but those who want action-packed fun with plenty of special effects wizardry and panoramic cinematography will find it.”

Focus on the Family‘s Bob Smithouser notes that the hero, Alan Grant (Sam Neill), “reverently alludes to Darwin and evolutionary theory, yet later comments that the dinos were created by scientists who were ‘playing God.’ So, Dr. Grant, which is it, an impersonal emergence from the primordial ooze or a benevolent Creator who can bless people?” He adds, “The writing here is actually pretty good. I liked the way a fractured family is drawn together as they try to keep from being—quite literally—torn apart.” Still, he’s not completely swept off his feet by the flying and fierce pteranodons: “Sure, audiences get plenty of dino-bang for their buck this time around, but the franchise hasn’t evolved much in eight years.”

The U.S. Catholic Conference shrugs, “Johnston reduces dialogue and characterization to throwaway status but turns in an energetic sequel whose action sequences deliver the accustomed thrills and spills.”

Taking an altogether different approach, David Bruce of Hollywood Jesus digs up traces of truthfulness in the mythic backbone of this practically prehistoric genre. “This film is loaded with metaphors,” he argues. “The film is basically about the horrors of family breakup. The dinosaurs represent the psychological traumas that the children of feuding parents must unfortunately face. Eric, with childhood resilience … goes into total isolation from everyone, and has to learn how to survive on his own … the plight of the children of divorce. Our forbidden island choices (deception, divorce, money, seduction) can adversely affect the lives of other people. There are consequences to our actions—we truly reap what we sow.”

While most mainstream critics were ho hum about the whole affair, Anthony Lane of The New Yorker turned in a memorably funny and thoughtful review. He writes, “The first two installments of Jurassic Park … were baggy and bloated affairs, a chance for [Steven Spielberg] to prove that he could still be a journeyman. They did nothing for the shape of his genius and everything for the tumult of his cash flow. Jurassic Park III is the leanest and most headlong of the series.” I like Lane’s description of the debut appearance by Spinasaurus: “The look on the face of Tyrannosaurus Rex, the hero of the previous sagas, when he encounters this new and larger species on the block is, according to film historians, absolutely identical to that of Sylvester Stallone when he first got wind of Arnold Schwarzenegger.”

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