In a movie-world before superheroes and comic books and franchises and universes, Concept was King, and in 1990 author Michael Crichton came up with a doozy. Imagine, Crichton fantasized, that a mosquito drew blood from a dinosaur and then got covered in tree sap — frozen in amber. Then imagine that tens of millions of years later, modern-day scientists uncovered that mosquito with a bellyful of still intact dinosaur DNA.
Then they cloned the dinosaurs!
Then they opened a dinosaur wildlife park!
Then all hell broke loose!
That is as good as a concept gets. Who doesn’t want to see that movie? Naturally, Crichton’s book was a bestseller and Hollywood came running. Luckily for us, director Steven Spielberg was interested. Lucky for him, as well; 1993 would end up being the height of his now-five decade career.
Almost six-months before releasing his multiple Oscar-winner “Schindler’s List” in December of 1993, Spielberg’s “Jurassic Park” landed in theatres on June 11 and promptly blew the doors off of the box office — and everyone’s minds.
The franchise would romp on through 8 years and three more films before entering a 14 years period of hibernation. The dry spell ends Friday with the release of “Jurassic World.”
Here’s a look back…
Jurassic Park (1993)
My wife had the flu and wanted me out of the house. For good reason, too. I was a neurotic mess. It was June of 1993, I had just turned 27 and was about to take the biggest professional gamble of my life.
“Go to the movies.”
“I’ll be fine. Go to a matinee.”
“You just want me out of the house.”
“Here’s some popcorn money.”
“Jurassic Park” is why I’m in love with the movies. During one of the most stressful periods of my life, for a full 127 minutes, all those problems evaporated. For 127 minutes, I was swept away in a world filled with wonder, excitement, humor, humanism, imagination, thrills and action. The best movies work like a drug that way, and because it was so needed and worked so well at the time, I’ve always had a special affection for Spielberg’s still-amazing dinosaur romp.
On the tropical island of Isla Nublar, the billionaire philanthropist John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) has cloned dinosaurs and placed them in a theme park owned by his bioengineering company InGen. Except for a few kinks, Jurassic Park is ready to open to the public. One of those kinks involves the death of a worker at the hands of a velociraptor. Solely for cya purposes, spooked investors demand a trio of experts certify the park as safe.
Hammond gathers paleontologists’ Alan Grant (Sam Neill) and Ellie Satler (Laura Dern), along with Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum), a mathematician whose specialty is chaos. So sure is he of the wonder and security of Jurassic Park, along with the experts, Hammond sends his two young grandchildren along for the tour.
You can guess the rest.
The T-Rex attack that prematurely ends the tour and kicks off the rest of the story, is still a marvel to behold. Before CGI cartoon’d everything, Spielberg had a giant animatronic T-Rex built and used it to create one of the finest action sequences you’ll ever see in an adventure film.
“Jurassic Park” still employs plenty of computer effects, which hold up just fine after two decades, but the practical in-camera effects are the real wowsers.
Spielberg’s blockbuster cost just $63 million to produce and would eventually haul in more than a billion dollars worldwide. During its original domestic run, “Jurassic Park” grossed $357 million, which is a mammoth hit now, so you can imagine the impact more than two decades ago when $100 million was the magic threshold.
Every penny earned was deserved. Universal Studios and Spielberg made a big promise and more than delivered.
In 1975, Spielberg singlehandedly created the summer blockbuster with “Jaws.” Eighteen years later, he changed it forever (and into what it still is today) with “Jurassic Park.”
“Jurassic Park” was the perfect summer popcorn film.
It still is.
The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997)
Four years later, Spielberg, his screenwriter David Koepp, and star Jeff Goldblum reunited for “The Lost World: Jurassic Park,” another larger-than life adventure that owes much to the greatest adventure film of them all: “King Kong” (1933).
Goldberg’s Ian Malcolm is not only still traumatized by what happened on Isla Nublar, he’s been unfairly smeared as a crank. Everything that happened at Jurassic Park was disavowed by InGen, so no one believes Malcom’s warning about InGen’s dangerous tinkering with dinosaurs. Today, he’s a national joke whose academic reputation is in tatters.
John Hammond (Attenborough) hasn’t fared much better. His own nephew deposed him as head of InGen and he’s pretty much confined to his bed. His scheming (and arrogance), however, is as strong as ever.
You see, there was another island, Isla Sorna, and it was here the dinosaurs were raised before being transferred to Jurassic Park. For four years, and without detection or human interference, they have roamed free and created their very own ecosystem. Hammond wants Malcolm to join a team to record the dinosaurs. Malcolm refuses until he learns his girlfriend (Julianne Moore) is already there.
The set-up is completely illogical (and, in fairness, based mostly on Crichton’s sequel-novel). In fact, detailing all of the movie’s plot holes would take up the rest of the Internet. No matter, “Lost World” is still a blast. Thanks to some terrific dinosaur action and a humbled, self-aware Ian Malcolm assuming the voice of the audience and commenting hilariously on the action, once we hit the island, nothing else really matters.
How do you top the T-Rex attack on the vans in Jurassic Park?
You don’t. You do, though, come close with a twin T-Rex assault on a pair of buses at risk of being pushed over an Oceanside cliff. Julianne Moore finding herself lying on a sheet of cracking glass, the only thing between her and certain death, is pure Spielberg.
Critics were tough on “Lost World,” as was Spielberg, who would eventually claim he regretted making the sequel. “Lost World” also made a lot less money — just $229 million domestic and $619 million worldwide. With just a $73 million budget, that’s still a sizable profit, so a sequel was inevitable.
The obnoxious, sometimes overbearing Greenpeace politics didn’t help. It was completely unnecessary to pile on an animal rights theme to a franchise already exploring human arrogance. Besides, this is the one chapter where there are no dinosaurs made vulnerable by illness or willing to be reasoned with. They all needed some killing.
For my money, thanks mainly to Goldblum’s performance, “Lost World” is almost as good as “Jurassic Park.”Another wonderful touch is the Goldblum character’s black daughter, a relationship presented as the most natural thing in the world.
Jurassic Park III (2001)
The budget jumped $20 million, to $93 million, and Joe Johnston took over for Spielberg (who stayed on as an executive producer). This time it is Sam Neill’s Alan Grant who returns (Laura Dern has an early scene, but a very good one). Once again, Grant is lured back to the land of the dinosaurs by much-needed research money. The money is dangled by a couple (William H. Macy and Tea Leoni), who con Grant into much more than a sightseeing tour of Isla Sorna from a safe altitude.
The couple is looking for their son, who they believe is on the island after a parasailing accident.
“Jurassic Park III” is better than I remembered. A sequence set in a giant birdcage (a stunning reveal) is beautifully staged. At just 93 minutes — closer to 85 without end-credits — Johnston created an unpretentious carnival ride that delivers fast-moving action and thrills. There is just enough plot to move from one satisfying action sequence to another, and that will always be good enough for me.
Audiences, though, were much less impressed (the wild child surviving alone for all those weeks is a real buzzkill). The threequel made just $181 million domestic and $368 million worldwide — almost $700 million less than the original.
It would take another 14 years for “Jurassic World” to come together.
For all their flaws, and there are many (especially in the sequels), the “Jurassic Park” franchise has thus far delivered the goods. At least once during each chapter, you have been left thunderstruck by something. How many movies fail to accomplish even that? Besides, that wondrous John Williams’s score makes up for a lot.
From the trailer, “Jurassic World” looks like it will deliver that something. And judging from that shot of Star Lord leading a pack of raptors on a motorcycle chase, it will also deliver some dumb.
Follow John Nolte on Twitter @NolteNC