Jurassic World Dominion opened to big box office this past weekend, along with some of the worst reviews of the six-movie franchise — a 30% score on Rotten Tomatoes — which is saying something, given that most of the entries in this series have been panned by critics.
And yet, it’s really not all that surprising that the films that sprung from the source have all been of negligible quality, given that the original 1993 Jurassic Park, directed by Steven Spielberg from the bestseller by Michael Crichton, really wasn’t very good to begin with. Yes, it earned solid reviews at the time (along with grumblings by Roger Ebert and others), and, yes, it remains treasured by ’90s kids. But looking at it without the lens of nostalgia or the excitement over digital dinosaurs that fueled its initial success, I argue that it doesn’t hold up well at all.
Jurassic Park often feels uncinematic
Things feel amiss from the opening scene in which a mysterious dinosaur is delivered to the park preserve. The action is compelling, but not quite up to Spielberg’s usual standards. The filmmaking is more chaotic, less fluid than we’re used to from him, and the arrangement of amethyst-tinted flood lights in the dark evokes similar compositions at the finales of better Spielberg movies, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The scene memorably climaxes with a park worker tumbling into the pen to become dino dinner, but the set-up feels contrived. The worker only finds himself in this position because he has to climb up and close the gate manually — yet everything else in the state-of-the-art preserve is automated?
While the incident may not be altogether convincing, at least it’s sufficiently tense. The main problem with Jurassic Park emerges in the next scene as men discuss insurance and divorce and inspections. Whatever menace Spielberg evokes in the opening dissipates over the next 40 minutes as he crams in reams of Michael Crichton’s exposition from the novel — the first of many occasions the director drains the suspense in this manner.
Nothing is less inherently cinematic than people talking to each other (Hitchcock famously said movies didn’t really require dialogue at all), and it’s part of the reason why most of the movies made from Crichton novels — Sphere, Congo, Disclosure — are so awful. Crichton at heart was an explainer. He loved to regurgitate all his research to the reader around the barest bones of melodramatic plot, along with some supposedly incisive “take” that was sometimes problematic — the anti-Japanese sentiments of Rising Sun, or the premise of Disclosure that men are just as liable to be victims of sexual harassment at the hands of powerful women.
Jurassic Park, at least, has a great, non-political movie premise: What would happen if we cloned dinosaurs from DNA trapped in mummified mosquitoes, turned an island off the coast of Central America into a giant zoo, then invited the world to check them out? It’s no wonder Spielberg and Universal bought the movie rights before the novel was even published. It surely helped that Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill in the film) was the prototypical Spielberg character from his movies up to then. He’s part Chief Brody from Jaws (the everyman with the relatable flaw, here technophobia); part Indiana Jones (field scientist in a fedora); and part guy who learns what’s really Important in Life (Hook, Always, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade).
What’s really important to Spielberg is family, but it’s the last thing on Grant’s mind when we meet him knee-deep in Montana fossil dust. When he tries to explain his theory that dinosaurs were more like birds than reptiles, the gathered crowd laughs. Grant insists these folks listen to his radical proposal — though whether they are grad students or groupies, shouldn’t they already be intimate with his work? He doesn’t get far into his disquisition before some obnoxious 12-year-old sneers at it. Who is this kid? Where did he come from? Was he lost in the Badlands? Did he wander in from The Goonies? It doesn’t matter. He exists to be lectured at. These early scenes are the first of many in which things will be explained directly to the viewer in long, inherently undramatic speeches using a proxy audience.
Scaring the kid makes Grant look kind of like a jerk. But never fear, fellow researcher and love interest Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern) is there to titter away all of his imperfections, her lilting laugh suggesting what a charmer this long-winded curmudgeon is if you give him half a chance. It’s a thankless role. She’s supposed to be a brilliant scientist, but nothing makes her happier than the prospect of domestic bliss with Grant. Later when mathematician Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) explains his precious “Chaos Theory” to her, she giggles and bats her eyes like a sophomore sorority ditz, rather than somebody who has spent half her life in advanced academia.
Spielberg’s boredom with the scenes in which people talk at each other is evident throughout. When Jurassic Park owner and operator, John Hammond (Richard Attenborough, doing a Scottish accent about as convincingly as Star Trek’s James Doohan), drops into Montana to enlist Ellie and Grant in assessing his island, the director hardly bothers to move the camera. Consider by contrast a movie like Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies. That film mostly consists of men talking to each other in cloistered rooms, but the master’s shooting and staging are so fleet you barely notice how little action there is.
Attenborough is hammy, but then nobody is very good in this film, though Goldblum tries to bring some flair with his signature scene-chewing. I believe Goldblum is a national treasure as much as anyone (Deep Cover is one of my favorite movies), but can we finally all admit that the only reason he ever got so much attention for this role is that everybody else in the picture is insufferably generic and bland? Of course, viewers would respond to any character with a hint of personality.
The worst, though, is Wayne Knight as Dennis Nedry, the slobbering jerk in charge of park security who tries to sell out Hammond by stealing dino DNA. How did this character and subplot make it into the movie beyond the fact that it exists in the original novel? The Spielberg who made Jurassic Park should have sat down with the Spielberg who made Jaws and Raiders of the Lost Ark and had a frank discussion about the essence of narrative economy. And yes, I get that Seinfeld was the hottest show going when Jurassic Park was in production, but watching Knight on that sitcom in even a minor role as Jerry’s adversary, it’s obvious he can’t act. Casting him here was a serious miscalculation.
More surprising for a Spielberg film are several filmmaking issues (though, granted, the director was operating in a brand new arena with the digital F/X). After the group arrives on the island, Spielberg lingers on Grant’s astonished expression until we finally see he’s gawking at a towering brachiosaurus stomping and bellowing alongside their Jeep. Even if we believe they didn’t see it extending above the treeline on their approach, surely they would have heard it and felt the ground shake. Later in the same scene, another trumpeting dino alerts a dumbfounded Grant to the revelation of a nearby herd that, given his eyeline, he clearly already would have been looking at.
All of this is, for lack of a better term, cheap directing by Spielberg, and this is before he pulls the same trick twice with the T-Rex. The characters initially can hear and feel the booms and shaking of its approaching footsteps a mile off, but the giant monster is quiet as a midnight prowler the second it needs to sneak up on somebody. Maybe Spielberg was banking on viewers being too stunned by the jaw-dropping visuals for continuity issues to bother them.
Once they arrive at the compound, the movie grinds to a halt for its most tedious scene, in which our brave heroes watch a short documentary that explains the plot to them. Here we’re treated to the equivalent of the worst attraction at Disneyland, the educational shows on Main Street kids only sit through because their parents make them, while they’re itching to get to Space Mountain the whole time. It’s the worst — though far from the only — example of Spielberg’s preternatural fluency in the language of cinema deserting him in this movie. Compare this scene to the 25-minute point of Jaws, when we are already rapt, our pulses aflutter with tension that has been building from the first shot.
There’s plenty of exposition in Jaws too — also sourced from a novel — but it’s mostly in the service of what the sharks will do to you if you swim out too far. The very thought is blood-chilling, which explains why one of the few effective explaining scenes in Jurassic Park comes when the park’s game warden describes the intelligence of the raptors, how these supposedly dumb reptiles can calculate, even strategize, about how they are going to eat you. But Spielberg again squanders the tension by following it with a long lunch scene in which everybody lays out various freshman philosophy-of-science positions.
Finally, the movie delivers extended action around the midpoint. And yes, the Tyrannosaurus Rex sequence still packs a punch, because it’s the one Spielberg takes the most time to set up (it also features the best special effects). As such, the jeopardy is palpable when the T-Rex stomps onto the scene looking for a kiddie meal consisting of actual kiddies (which, honestly, had the squealing tykes been devoured, the movie would have improved vastly).
Great dinosaurs distract from the weak stuff
The T-Rex scene (and the later scene of raptors hunting Hammond’s grandchildren in an industrial kitchen) does shed light on why people were especially impressed by this movie 30 years ago. Dinosaurs are awe-inspiring and we had never seen them convincingly presented on screen (the charm of Ray Harryhausen’s stop motion dinosaurs notwithstanding). But the dirty secret nobody wants to admit, no doubt fearing that it will spoil their youthful memories, is that — the T-Rex and raptor material aside — it’s mostly pretty boring. The characters are unmemorable at best, annoying at worst. The movie is also not much to look at. Despite a few memorable shots, it lacks the lyrical image-making of Spielberg’s most inspired visions. A lot of this has to do with the design of the park itself – the ugly lettering of the signs, the junky-looking computer command post, and the garish primary colors on the cars and elsewhere.
Neither is this John Williams’ finest hour. The composer’s main theme is a little too high, a little too brassy, for the dark material, and it lacks the memorably melodic personality of his best work. The scoring in between the main theme is standard-issue thriller stuff or typical trilling flutes meant to signify wonder. But how could the music feel anything other than generic, given what Williams had to work with?
Finally, the climax is a cheat. Not only is it a Deus ex machina, with the T-Rex saving our heroes at the last moment like the Eagles at Mordor in Lord of the Rings, but it again relies on Spielberg’s con with sound. Earlier the T-rex could be heard and felt deep in the jungle. Here, it somehow manages to get inside a building with no one noticing, which just reminds us that all movies are smoke and mirrors, but this one more than most.
Jurassic Park was a watershed moment in cinema that changed both what was possible and what audiences would come to expect. Though Spielberg effectively raised the bar with this movie, it’s simply not among the director’s best. Its reputation is bolstered by nostalgia, and it looks better compared to the diminishing returns of subpar sequels, which whip up the anticipation of seeing those dinosaurs again and again, then disappoint with even lamer stories. Jurassic Park certainly wasn’t the first movie to use dazzling visual effects to conceal a middling script and wooden performances. But its legacy may be that it ushered in a digital filmmaking era in which the magic of the movies seems ever more manufactured.