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Why Jurassic Park is one of the best action films ever (and how the sequel seems to flub it)

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For the purposes of this opinion piece, which may turn into something of a rant, I’m going to ask for your indulgence while I state that Jurassic Park is one of the best action films ever made.

Not only is it one of Steven Spielberg's best films in terms of both scares and wonder, but it stands above most movies of its kind due to its brilliant use of both CG and practical effects. It's the rare event film that never seems to age. The most immediately dated aspect of the film is Samuel L. Jackson's character smoking indoors.

What made the film special wasn't how it was made, however. The important part was how it thought of its stars: the dinosaurs.

Animals doing what they do best

One of the central themes of Jurassic Park is that man will never find the supremacy over nature that he craves. The attempt to bottle nature and sell it to tourists was doomed to fail from the start, and it was folly to expect a long-dead ecosystem to be tamed for a tourist attraction.

John Hammond wanted to bottle life on the island, to turn animals that haven't been seen on this planet for millions of years into a glorified roadside attraction. He wanted to give people "something that was real," as he explains in the moving monologue about flea circuses, of all things.

He may look and sound like an enthusiastic old man trying to give his children an amazing birthday present, but his actions point to nearly endless hubris. He wasn't just trying to tame nature, but to turn back time to both recreate and control an unknown and unknowable ecosystem.

By sheer force of will and what has to have been a near-unlimited budget, he was able to turn his island into a habitat for dinosaurs, even though he lost control of that island nearly immediately, at great cost of human life.

He wasn't recreating the past — these dinosaurs lived millions of years apart from each other, and the ratio of predator to prey on the island was way out of whack for a normal environment. He was trying to create a sort of fantasy world using elements of the past.

Every dead lawyer in Jurassic Park is just collateral damage

What happens when the fences break down isn't a return to a past version of our planet; it's a terrifying vision of anarchy, as the animals loose in the park attempt to return to a niche that can't be filled in their current environment. While they're struggling with that reality, the few humans also loose in the park are just trying to survive.

The conflict is man versus nature, even though in this situation "nature" consists of long-extinct beasts. The now-freed dinosaurs are trying to find some sort of order in their new home, and they have no reason to give humans safe passage as they try to do so. It's a humbling film in that we're not really driving the plot; every dead lawyer in Jurassic Park is just collateral damage.

One of the most thrilling scenes of the film takes place inside a galloping herd of dinosaurs as they attempt to escape a T. rex. One of our heroes first takes a moment to learn about the behavior of these animals before realizing that this isn't a situation he's going to be able to view from a safe distance.

It's a dinosaur film that treats them as both animals and existential threats. One of the more interesting aspects of the sequels is that the writers have to keep coming up with valid reasons for people to go back to islands that everyone knows are more death trap than nature preserve.

Freddy was scary in the Nightmare on Elm Street films because at some point you have to sleep, but Jurassic Park? Just don't go the island. Problem solved.

The further the sequels moved away from this idea of the dinosaurs as animals and humans as the invader, the weaker they became. The first sequel devolved into a monster movie as a T. rex skulked around a suburban environment. The third film had a hard time justifying its own existence as anything more than a money-making scheme, but at least it continued the idea that the islands should simply be quarantined.

The next sequel is a monster film

Which brings us to Jurassic World, a film I'll likely see on opening day because I'm a sucker for dinosaur movies. Still, there's almost no hope that it will recapture the magic of the original film, due to the strange need of the creative team behind the movie to create a villain — a villain that's a monster created by messing with the DNA of existing dinosaurs.

The Jurassic Park series looks like it has finally given up the ghost and become a straight horror franchise, complete with a fantastical monster that never existed in nature. What was once a parable about man's inability to control nature now seems like a cheap knock-off of the Frankenstein story. The trailer even suggests the raptor as a fierce, intelligent hunter has been replaced by the raptor as funky sidekick to Star-Lord.

When Jurassic World is released, I'll watch it and judge it based on the film it is, not the film I want it to be, but I'd love for a return to the idea of dinosaurs as natural creatures, able to fill us with both awe and fear.

We're already ignoring scientific reality to paint a picture of dinosaurs that's more comfortable than accurate, and treating these creatures as grist for drive-in-style monster movies is the sort of missed opportunity that would make even Hammond blush.