A reply to 'Entertain The Elk'
The latest instalment of the Jurassic Park franchise, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (an apt subtitle, as we’ll see), offers opportunity for revisiting the series and wondering: Where did it all go wrong? It is hard to watch any of the sequels right after the original and not feel your mood decline in conjunction with the quality of filmmaking and storytelling. Just listen to the way Ian Malcolm, in Fallen Kingdom, mimics John Hammond and examine the difference: “Welcome,” Malcolm says ominously, “to Jurassic World.” Hammond’s welcome to Jurassic Park is a hopeful promise. Malcolm’s is a threat. Entering the sequels is an arduous labour, while we still rush for readmittance to the original.
One of my favourite analyses of this situation was in a video-essay by Adam Tinius on his channel, “Entertain the Elk”. He describes the franchise as an “undeniable classic, made by an iconic filmmaker at the peak of his career,” followed by “mediocre sequels”. Tinius tackles the way the Jurassic Park series failed internally, how its own structure and narrative broke down and compromised everything that succeeded in the first film. (Do watch his video-essay to find out in which movie and in which scene he pinpoints the death.) Overall, I agree with his analysis, and I think we can take his critique further to show how the series of Jurassic Park films also fails conceptually; that is, rather than any particular scene or character undermining the quality of the movies, forcing it into a franchise was another way of killing the spirit of that great first film.
“You read what others had done and you took the next step. You didn’t earn the knowledge for yourselves, so you don’t take any responsibility for it.”
~ Ian Malcolm, from the film
Tinius takes the franchise to task using two criteria: spectacle and suspense. Of the former, he says, “It’s impossible to sustain the same sense of awe and wonder across multiple instalments.” None of the sequels have ever been able to capture the same sense of spectacle the first created and sustained so well – 25 years later, I still get chills at John Williams’ score, a thrill of pleasure at the Brontosaurus and the character reactions to it, and childlike excitement when they pass through those large gates welcoming them to Jurassic Park. Token gestures are made in some of the sequels to nod at this wonder, with gigantic dinosaurs and sweeping renditions of the original music, but these are cheap, half-hearted, and missing the point.
Tinius highlights how the “inferior sequels” manipulate the audience’s attention away from plot problems with “shiny distractions in the form of mementoes” of nostalgia. This is plagiarism designed to hack the first movie’s achievements and shortcut the sequels to something passing for wonder. The spectacle of the original movie is not achieved again and certainly not achieved anew with a fresh take, it is simply pointed to so we, the viewers, remember what we felt for the first and attach it to the sequels. Malcolm cuts this cynical and lazy method down in the first movie, saying of the science behind the park, “You stood on the shoulders of geniuses, uh, to accomplish something as fast as you could, and before you even knew what you had, you patented it, and packaged it, and slapped it on a plastic lunchbox.”
Perhaps the solution, then, is not to replicate that sense of spectacle. Perhaps the answer is simply to leave it as it is in the first film. Spectacle need not be the aim of future dinosaur movies. To the extent that Fallen Kingdom comes close to any kind of success is to the extent that it almost becomes a monster movie. This is pointedly not what Spielberg wanted to do with his Jurassic Park, but it could be exactly what a new dinosaur movie based on an original concept might need to work. Or an action-adventure with globe-wandering dinosaur hunters capturing prehistoric animals that have somehow ended up in the twenty-first century. (Clearly, these ideas need a lot of work; I’m not a Hollywood screenwriter.) Whatever the take, however, it must heed Ezra Pound’s modernist dictum: “Make it new.” Move on, find new wonder. We are in no danger of a shortage of things to marvel at in this universe.
“Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”
~ Ian Malcolm, from the film
The second of Tinius’ criteria is suspense. In critiquing the mannered way in which the sequels multiply dinosaurs and extend their screen time to increase suspense – which the original movie, and Jaws, and all good horror movies never have to do with their beasts – Tinius notes, “It’s the often misguided philosophy that more is better.” He argues the opposite and lists some of the most successful antagonists with the least amount of screen time. I want to take this further and suggest that the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park may not only have limited time on screen in each movie before each is unsuccessful, I think they have limited time on screen full stop, regardless of how many films you spread that across. The first movie gave us enough dinosaurs.
The fact that all of us who loved that film desperately want to see more is not evidence against this idea, it is proof of it: Successful films and books leave you wanting more. By definition, failures are those you wish not to see again. Nobody wants another Jurassic movie because they want more Tyrannosaurs running around downtown L.A., or more Chris Pratt being Chris Pratt, or more talking raptors (thank you, Jurassic Park III for nothing). They want another Jurassic movie because the first was successful and the sequels failed to deliver. We don’t need to see fewer dinosaurs in the sequels, we need to see fewer sequels.
There is a third S that directly informs suspense: It is surprise. Suspense is a feeling of nervous or excited uncertainty about what is going to happen. That uncertainty is why surprise matters to these films – without it, there is no uncertainty and therefore no suspense. The central question that brings each character to the island the first time is, Is this park safe? The characters are now in a state of suspense, waiting to see if they will be surprised. We as the viewers understand why they would trust things to work out, even if we can surmise that things will go horribly wrong. From our point of view, we don’t know exactly how things will go wrong, nor the structure or tropes of a Jurassic Park movie, because so far this is the only one, and these are all surprises to be had that keep us in suspense. Now, though, no one can go into a Jurassic Park movie with any uncertainty about the safety of this island, or whether the dinosaurs will eat anyone, or how the film will structure itself. (Act One: Light-hearted humour, a bit of awe. Act Two: Crisis and running. Act Three: Big set-piece with the T-Rex. The End. These sequels might as well open with the onscreen text, Eat your popcorn and shut up, you idiots.)
This lack of surprise comes from forcing the sequels into a recognisable format so they can stick the Jurassic label on them and continue the franchise. As a result, the sequels lack originality, authenticity, and heart, as well as Tinius’ notion of suspense. “What makes a monster terrifying isn’t necessarily their presence,” Tinius says in his essay, “but the anticipation of their presence.” Absolutely, and this is why the only suspense the Jurassic Park sequels make me feel is in the dread of anticipating the possible announcement of another.
“They have what I call ‘thintelligence’. They see the immediate situation. They think narrowly and they call it ‘being focused’. They don’t see the surround. They don’t see the consequences.”
~ Ian Malcolm, from the novel
All of this might be of interest to fans of Jurassic Park or cinephiles, but Art Of Conversation is about taking a wider view of film and literature to examine the larger culture. So why does any of this matter outside of the subsection of people who like dinosaurs in their movies? I think it’s important because it questions the very nature of innovation, originality, and corporate interests in art. We can tackle these questions by comparing the concept of a franchise to a crossover universe (which I have previously written about).
The difference between a crossover or shared universe and a franchise is their motivating principles. A shared universe deepens and enriches the experience of subsequent and preceding stories: David Mitchell’s novels or Tolkien’s Middle-earth stories, for example, inform the other works in the series and layer up to produce a whole from its parts. A franchise comes about because someone, usually a studio executive or focus group, finds a way to re-use an older property. The Jurassic Park films fall into this second category because, first, you cannot fail to see the fingers of the studio pulling at the strings of these movies, and second, because the sequels do little to expand the universe in which these stories are set. They are almost exclusively placed on one of the two islands near Costa Rica, they all rely on the same technology to create dinosaurs, they all say similar things (to the extent that the sequels “say” anything) about scientific hubris and technology vs nature. The latest had a lazy go at suggesting an only slightly different use of the technology (taking them four movies to go from cloning dinosaurs to cloning humans). And, of course, the dinosaurs are now off the island and in our world. Will this save the upcoming sixth Jurassic Park movie by making us re-evaluate the previous movies and see this “universe” in a startling new way? I will be a realist rather than a cynic if I doubt it.
Franchises can succeed but only in so far as they also exploit the artistic potential of the shared universe. The Marvel movies are both a shared universe and a franchise, and they work. The Jurassic Park movies by comparison are only a franchise, unimaginative attempts to relive the success of a previous movie. Clearly, the studio will not allow the directors and writers working on these films the kind of freedom needed to expand these stories and this world in a satisfying way. For evidence, just look at the way Owen and Clare were shoved together in an unearned and incestuously-awkward kiss like two dolls the studio executives pushed around. The writers had left no room for this romance, and it was unneeded in this film, but they’re of opposite genders and decent-looking and love-stories sell tickets, so why not? Well, because it got in the way of character arcs that might have been more interesting, and it confused viewers, who were left wondering, Wait, was I supposed to want them to hook up? This is what happens when the narrative is subordinate to marketing. This is the downfall of all failed franchises.
“You know, at times like this one feels, well, perhaps extinct animals should be left extinct.”
~ Ian Malcolm, from the novel
Tinius finishes his essay by expressing his fear that “this endangered franchise will eventually become extinct”. Here is the only point on which I disagree. I think John Hammond was right in his speech at the end of The Lost World, when he called for the “preservation and isolation” of the island – we should preserve and isolate the legacy of the brilliant first film. It is time that the franchise goes extinct, but like the long gone dinosaurs themselves, the original will continue to engage our imaginations and inspire wonder.
In the novel of Jurassic Park, Malcolm rants, “People worry about losing species diversity in the rain forest. But what about intellectual diversity – our most necessary resource?” This touches on so many of the issues facing mainstream cinema today. Diversity of representation – portraying a more accurate picture of our increasingly diverse societies – is encouraged by having a diversity of stories. There have been attempts to achieve representation by casting women in remakes of franchise films that originally starred men (Ghostbusters and Ocean’s Eight) and remakes of Disney properties with actors who are not white and passing themselves off as the Other. But this is a half-measure that strikes me as a little condescending – the cast-offs of the dominant strand of society tossed to minorities to play with. Why not hire these actors, directors, and writers to tell their own, new stories?
If we abandon the franchise formula and support original movies, intellectual diversity across the board stands a better chance of flourishing, with all kinds of new ideas and unique visions given a place on our screens. Perhaps we should learn to let our favourite movies and books live as they are and not perpetually attempt to do them again. Perhaps it is time for the Jurassic Park franchise to die. Perhaps the takeaway from all of this should simply be: Always listen to Ian Malcolm.
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• Entertain the Elk video-essay, The Day Jurassic Park Died (2018)
• Michael Crichton, Jurassic Park (1990)
• Jurassic Park, dir. Steven Spielberg (1993)
• Jurassic Park: The Lost World, Steven Spielberg (1997)
• Jurassic Park III, Joe Johnston (2001)
• Jurassic World, Colin Trevorrow (2015)
• Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, J A Bayona (2018)