Ranking the Jurassic Park Series
Few franchises embody the joys and excesses of the summer blockbuster like the Jurassic Park series. When Steven Spielberg’s dinosaur adventure film first came out in 1993, it broke box office records and announced to the world that CGI had truly arrived. (For instance, the film convinced George Lucas that CGI had advanced sufficiently for him to begin work on the Star Wars prequels.) Over 25 years later, Jurassic Park still has the power to move and excite, even if the sequels that came in its wake have failed to match its signature power.
In the spirit of the summer movie season (and because few films this summer outside of Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood demand much discussion), I’ve decided to rank the five films in the Jurassic Park series and explore what makes each of them notable summer blockbusters, even if the original is the only film to belong on the all-time great blockbusters list. Expect this ranking to be updated once the final film in the Jurassic World trilogy is released.
1. Jurassic Park (1993) dir. Steven Spielberg
Jurassic Park is perhaps the perfect summer blockbuster. In many ways, it perfected the “movie as theme park ride” concept, transforming the experience of watching a big-budget film into something similar to riding a rollercoaster. But this is not all that Jurassic Park is, and exclusively focusing on its entertainment value undermines its other remarkable qualities. For one, it’s a work of stunning efficiency. The film wastes no time introducing characters or establishing themes, and it continually circles back to the character conflicts and large thematic interests throughout its collection of set pieces. If you want an example of how to craft a good blockbuster story, you can do no better, and it’s no surprise that so many blockbusters crib from the movie’s structure.
As well, Michael Crichton and David Koepp’s script is immensely quotable. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) gets the lion’s share of great lines—“Life finds a way.”, “Yeah, but if The Pirates of the Caribbean breaks down, the pirates don’t eat the tourists.”—but even expository dialogue is delivered with a wit and brevity lacking in modern blockbusters.
Most significantly, the film is an astounding work of action filmmaking. The way that Spielberg builds tension is masterful. The jeeps being on tracks allow Spielberg to replicate with his narrative a conveyor belt structure that promises an escalation of attractions, while also giving him a structured build-up to tease the audience. For instance, the raptors devouring the cow in horrific fashion lets us know the raptors are vicious, clever, and adjacent to the main buildings, which prepares us for the final scenes of the film. The goat in the T-Rex pen being introduced early and then still present when they return to the enclosure during the rainstorm, only to disappear once power goes out, announces the T-Rex’s arrival. All of this builds anticipation for action scenes that do not disappoint. In particular, the T-Rex attack is among the best action scenes ever made.
Jurassic Park marked the arrival of CGI in a major way, not just as a means of achieving the impossible onscreen (as in The Abyss and Terminator 2: Judgment Day), but as a means of conjuring awe and wonder in the audience. It also helps that it used CGI to bring to life dinosaurs, which already fascinated children, but not to nearly the extent they have since the film came out. The film remains the gold standard of filmmaking as entertainment and will never be topped by any future films in the series.
2. The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997) dir. Steven Spielberg
If Jurassic Park is defined by awe in both its postive and negative forms (both wonder and danger), The Lost World is defined by fear. Dinosaurs are still beautiful here, but they are primarily things to be feared and avoided. For instance, the first film approaches dinosaurs in much the same way Alan Grant (Sam Neill) does: he’s moved to tears by the sight of them, but also knows how dangerous they are. This film, however, borrows Ian Malcolm’s perspective, which is not only that nature will inevitably upend order and reestablish chaos, but also that humans and dinosaurs are not meant to coexist without one becoming prey to the other.
Think about how much of the film is dedicated to hunting and imagery of predator and prey. The T-Rexes hunt the humans after they capture the infant Tyrannosaurus. The “great white hunter” (Pete Postlethwaite, who’s terrific) hunts the male T-Rex. The Velociraptors hunt the humans in the tall grass. Hell, even the tiny Compsognathus hunts Peter Stormare’s Dieter Stark.
This makes for a nastier film than the first one, but still an exceptional showcase for action and monsters. The scene of the T-Rexes attacking on the cliff ledge offers a fascinating variation on the T-Rex scene in the first film (and is the only action set piece in the sequels to come close to matching those of the first film). But even later moments conjure striking images that communicate dinosaurs’ capacity for fear—the best of these being Spielberg’s overhead shot of the raptors closing in on the humans in the tall grass, nothing but their tails visible, like shark fins above the surf. And let’s not forget the first epic introduction to dinosaurs en masse, with the InGen scientists capturing the beasts and the motorcycle driver riding between the legs of a Mamenchisaurus, which clearly establishes the conflict between humans and dinosaurs.
Moments in The Lost World stretch logic to its breaking point, such as what happens on the boat en route to San Diego (raptors are clearly involved, but it’s never clarified), but the quick pace and numerous action scenes do the heavy lifting. The Lost World is far more monster movie than any other film in the franchise—its ending, which brings the T-Rex to the mainland, makes it a variation on King Kong. But it’s the only sequel to truly add anything to the franchise, instead of merely trying to recapture the wonder of the first film.
3. Jurassic World (2015) dir. Colin Trevorrow
Jurassic World is nostalgic, but also self-aware about manufacturing that nostalgia, making it a deeply cynical film that’s as much a calculated cash-in as an affectionate fan film. It’s both a reimagining of the original film, and a commentary on how it can never be as good as the original.
Like in many of the sequel/reboots of the 2010s, the plot of Jurassic World is redundant and repetitive of the most popular film in its franchise. The repetition of storybeats from the first film (dinosaur park is made, things go wrong, and a raptor expert has to save some kids from the dinos) is overly calculated, as are the forced family dynamics between the two boys lost in the park and Bryce Dallas Howard’s park director, Claire. But within this repetition, there is some clever room for commentary, occasionally delivered by Jake Johnson’s wiseass technician or Chris Pratt’s cool dude raptor trainer (continuing the series’ tradition of having a hero who wants to be Harrison Ford, but isn’t). The film knows it’s a corporate product and yet displays utter contempt for corporate malfeasance. Is the metacommentary enough to compensate for the lazy storytelling? Not quite, but it’s better than pure regurgitation.
Furthermore, for all of Colin Trevorrow’s deficiencies as a storyteller, he is good at mimicking Spielberg’s formal style. The action sequences have worth and there are some genuinely striking images here, especially the one of Chris Pratt riding into the jungle on a motorbike surrounded by his raptors. The climax is also endearing in a go-for-broke, dumb B-movie way, with the T-Rex teaming up with the head raptor, Blue, and the Mosasaurus to dispatch the artificially-engineered Indominus Rex. At the very least, the film understands that the T-Rex has never been the true villain of the series, even as it misguidedly tries to reposition the raptors as heroes, when they’ve always been the most potent and deadly threats in the first three films.
4. Jurassic Park III (2001) dir. Joe Johnston
Jurassic Park III has the Spinosaurus kill the T-Rex, which is unforgivable, and a huge miscalculation of why people watch the Jurassic Park films. But generally-speaking, it’s also a lean action film and kind of fun. Joe Johnston has always been a good director of action and the various dinosaur encounters here are all competently constructed, especially the encounter with the pteranodons in the aviary.
Unfortunately, the film also shows a lack of imagination that none of the other films demonstrate. It has no real reason for existing and the plot lacks any defining attributes. In many ways, it’s a rescue film, as Alan Grant is tricked into heading to Isla Sorna in order to save the son of the couple (William H. Macy and Tea Leoni) that hired him, but the main arc for the characters is Grant once again learning to bond with an annoying kid, which already happened in the first film.
As well, instead of leaning into the magnificence of the dinosaurs, the film uses them as simple monsters. And despite the lean runtime, the approach grows monotonous. Here, the dinosaurs are nothing more than CGI villains, and we don’t get memorable moments of genuine awe or majesty in the midst of all the gnashing of teeth and claws.
5. Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018) dir. J.A. Bayona
Fallen Kingdom has moments of surefire pop brilliance and moments of overwhelming stupidity. As the darker, more Gothic sequel to Jurassic World, Fallen Kingdom is likely the weirdest film in the series, blending both a natural disaster film with a haunted house horror film. But for a film with a few moments of overwhelming scale, it’s a bizarre artistic choice to shrink down the scale of the climax and double-down on the most preposterous elements of the story.
By these preposterous elements, I mean the Indoraptor and the cloning plotline, which conjures up a heretofore unintroduced partner to John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) known as Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell) and delves into human cloning, and creates an even more ridiculous genetically-enchanced dinosaur than the last time round. It also loses the meta-commentary, no longer commenting on the nature of remakes, but instead making some muddled anti-military and environmental message. As always, there is some memorable imagery during the haunted house climax, particularly the Indoraptor creeping into the girl’s room and stalking over her bed like Dracula in a B-movie horror film, but anything that requires characters to talk or make decisions during this stretch of the film reveals how dumb the writing is (which may be the point, as the climax is obvious aping aspects of Vincent Price B-movies and even the Resident Evil video games).
Compare this climax to the first half of the film, which focuses on saving the dinosaurs of Isla Nublar from an erupting volcano, and you have a study of contrasts and a demonstration of how the latter approach is appropriate to these films and the former is not. The volcano eruption is a thrilling demonstration of spectacle, both awesome and terrifying, and leans into the B-movie fun inherent in these films. The much-advertised shot of the T-Rex roaring against the backdrop of the erupting volcano is magnificent. Even better is the tragic ending of the Brachiosaurus, which succumbs to a lava cloud while crying on the dock, abandoned by the heroes in the heat of their escape. It’s a tragic image and beautiful. Sadly, the rest of the film can’t hold a candle to its effectiveness.
Jurassic Park (1993, USA)
Directed by Steven Spielberg; written by Michael Crichton and David Koepp, based on the novel by Michael Crichton; starring Sam Neill, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum, Richard Attenborough, Bob Peck, Martin Ferrero, BD Wong, Samuel L. Jackson, Wayne Knight, Joseph Mazzello, Ariana Richards.
The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997, USA)
Directed by Steven Spielberg; written by David Koepp, based on the novel by Michael Crichton; starring Jeff Goldblum, Julianne Moore, Vince Vaughn, Pete Postlethwaite, Vanessa Lee Chester, Arliss Howard, Richard Attenborough.
Jurassic Park III (2001, USA)
Directed by Joe Johnston; written by Peter Buchman, Alexander Payne, and Jim Taylor, based on characters created by Michael Crichton; starring Sam Neill, William H. Macy, Tea Leoni, Alessandro Nivola, Trevor Morgan, Michael Jeter, Laura Dern.
Jurassic World (2015, USA)
Directed by Colin Trevorrow; written by Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver and Derk Connolly & Colin Trevorrow, based on a story by Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver, based on characters created by Michael Crichton; starring Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Vincent D’Onofrio, Ty Simpkins, Nick Robinson, Omar Sy, BD Wong, Irfhan Khan.
Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018, USA)
Directed by J.A. Bayona; written by Derek Connolly and Colin Trevorrow, based on characters created by Michael Crichton; starring Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Rafe Spall, Justice Smith, Daniella Pineda, James Cromwell, Toby Jones, Ted Levine, BD Wong, Isabella Sermon, Geraldine Chaplin, Jeff Goldblum.