Undoubtedly, Jurassic Park is one of the greatest blockbusters ever made, if not also one of the greatest films ever made full-stop. Director Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of the Michael Crichton novel is a terrifying, thrilling adventure packed with some of the filmmaker’s best-executed set pieces ever, as cutting-edge technology brought dinosaurs to the big screen in a massive way. Audiences responded in droves, and the film’s $47 million opening weekend broke the box office record set the previous year by Batman Returns. It surpassed E.T. as the highest-grossing film ever worldwide, and it wasn’t eclipsed until 1998 during Titanic’s unprecedented reign.
Unsurprisingly, given the box office and critical success (the film won three Oscars), Universal Pictures started work on a sequel. And then another sequel. And then eventually a reboot. These subsequent films were released to varying degrees of box office success, but on a core story level none of them came close to matching the heights of Jurassic Park. Why? Because Jurassic Park never should have become a franchise in the first place.
What makes the original Jurassic Park so great, and so effective, is the film’s mix of awe and terror. The awe comes in the form of seeing giant dinosaurs in stunning detail for the very first time. Spielberg was originally going to create the wide shots of the dinosaurs using go-motion animation, but buoyed by James Cameron’s success with computer-generated effects in The Abyss and Terminator 2, visual effects supervisor Dennis Muren suggested creating the dinosaurs digitally. This was the first time creatures of this size had ever been created using computer generation, and thus when audiences saw them onscreen in 1993, their reaction mirrored those of Alan’s (Sam Neill) and Ellie’s (Laura Dern). It was awe-inspiring.
Then there’s the terror. We know Spielberg is the king of blockbuster filmmaking, but he’s also lowkey one of the best horror directors in history. Films like Jaws and Jurassic Park aren’t straight horror films, but they both use elements of the genre to tremendous effect. Take the first T. rex set piece in Jurassic Park, for instance. Spielberg doesn’t shoot it like an action scene with wide angles and lots of cuts. He shoots it like a horror set piece, holding on the performers’ terrified faces and revealing the T. rex as if he’s a masked menace lurking in the shadows. This is why the scene is so effective—it’s scary as hell.
By the end of Jurassic Park, Dr. Hammond’s (Richard Attenborough) experiment has failed. He began the film as overly confident, ignoring concerns and warnings, but after experiencing the terror of dinosaurs on the loose he comes to the conclusion the park should never be opened. Man and dinosaurs were never meant to walk this earth together, and trying to control that is a fool’s errand.
And yet, The Lost World: Jurassic Park happens. Spielberg actually returns to direct this sequel, and while it’s widely considered one of his lesser films, it’s actually not as terrible as you might remember it. The “using gymnastics to defeat a velociraptor” scene is still pretty embarrassing, but the craft is on point (Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography here is superior to Dean Cundey’s in the original), Spielberg makes an all-timer set piece with the trailer sequence, and from the get-go Dr. Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) has the correct reaction. When Hammond reveals he’s sent Malcolm’s girlfriend to Site B—an island where the dinosaurs were bred before being shipped off to Isla Nublar—he immediately shifts into rescue mode and doesn’t look back. He never once stops to say, “Hey maybe if we do it right, we could try this again successfully.”
That’s one of the inherent issues with making Jurassic Park a franchise: Who in their right mind would repeat the same mistake twice? It kind of works in The Lost World because the film posits that InGen covered up the Isla Nublar incident with ironclad Non-Disclosure Agreements, but it still comes off as pretty bone-headed when a gaggle of hunters traipse around the island as if they’re on a safari.
Additionally, in The Lost World the awe-factor is gone. By 1997 visual effects had advanced greatly, and Spielberg and his team take the opportunity to show off by showcasing various dinosaurs in wider, more brightly-lit shots. The result is kind of bland, and the dinosaurs themselves end up looking less “real.” There are a few scenes where the magic trick still works, like the trailer scene, but overall the sense of wonder is lost. The best Spielberg can conjure is joy, as in the San Diego coda where he lets a T. rex loose in a major city and has the most fun he possibly can. By this point, Spielberg’s no longer leaning on the horror aspect—he’s making a monster movie.
If The Lost World was squeezing the final drops out of the franchise’s central premise, Jurassic Park III was running on empty. On this 2001 film, Spielberg handed over the director reigns to Joe Johnston, who had originally offered to direct The Lost World before Spielberg decided he wanted to do it himself. Though successful at the box office, Jurassic Park III is barely a movie. This time Neill returns instead of Goldblum, and the story finds him stranded on Site B’s Isla Sorna with a family looking for their lost child. The plot is paper thin, and the whole movie rests on thrills, which are in short supply.
Again, advancements in technology skyrocketed, but again the dinosaurs still don’t come close to matching the wow-factor of the original. Moreover, since this is the second sequel, it’s no longer enough just to present the audience with T. rex frights. A new dinosaur is introduced, a bigger, badder, bolder one called the Spinosaurus. It offs the T. rex in the first act and serves as the primary antagonist throughout the film, and it is wildly underwhelming both in visuals and ultimate effect. It’d be like if Halloween III had replaced Michael Myers with Rob Zombie’s bigger, more hulking version of Michael Myers. It just doesn’t work.