Don’t tell the Feds, but I had a copy of Jurassic Park on a pirated VHS growing up.
I must have been six or seven years old, and I’d put this grainy-looking, tinny-sounding video on every day before going to school, without fail. I could recite every line in the film (the ones I could make out, at least), and I’d laugh to see a man stand up in front of the cinema projection, just ahead of the iconic T-Rex attack by the downed electrified fence in the storm. He never knew what he was missing.
I loved Jurassic Park. I had all the toys (I still have the rubbery-skinned T-Rex figure), I had the pyjamas (I still have a vintage JP t-shirt) and I had the video games (I was playing the Aftermath tie-in game on Oculus Quest just this week). I still love Jurassic Park.
And, I was forever waiting for lightning to strike twice. But after a string of progressively worse sequels, and on the cusp of the release of Jurassic World: Dominion, the sixth and (presumably) final entry into the series, I’ve realised I was looking in the wrong places.
With Apple’s new TV show Prehistoric Planet, I think life may have finally found a way to fill the dinosaur shaped hole in my televisual soul.
The sins of the Jurassic Park sequels are many – perhaps not as egregious as those that have befallen other tentpole blockbuster franchises, like Star Wars (opens in new tab) or The Terminator films.
But following Steven Spielberg's initial foray into ancient natural history, it's been a case of diminishing returns not only for Spielberg, but the directors that followed him with sequels of their own: Joe Johnston, Colin Trevorrow and J. A. Bayona.
It’s as if they were unable to follow the philosophy that the original movie laid out. Jeff "Ian Malcolm" Goldblum's oft-quoted line could have been directed at the sequel makers themselves: "Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn't stop to think if they should."
Whereas Jurassic Park urged respect in the presence of the natural world, and balanced the awe and dignity of these behemoths of time with the horror their ferocity (and man's intervention) could inspire, the sequel's, somewhat ironically, abuse them as theme park thrills.
The muddled Jurassic Park: Lost World devolves into a lowest-common denominator monster movie with its San Diego T-Rex rampage finale. Jurassic World literally introduces a Frankenstein mash-up dinosaur – as if the real deal isn't compelling enough. Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom reframes the franchise as a straight-up horror movie – conceptually interesting, but dull in execution and (as excellently analysed in this Film School Rejects piece), sees the majesty and enormity of the creatures contained by formulaic framing.
It's an unpopular opinion, but it's Jurassic Park III that I have the most love for among the sequels. It makes many of the same mistakes listed above, but does so almost unashamedly, as if it acknowledges that the original can't be topped and that, really, all audiences are here for now is the dinosaurs – of which it squeezes as many in as possible, back-to-back, breathlessly, into a 92 minute run time.
It's the thrills without the moralising, and it at least delivers the thrills well – the 'birdcage' scene is among the series' action at its best.
I can't pretend I have no love for these films, then – stick a dinosaur on a screen and my heart still flutters. But whatever the magic combo of elements was that made the original Jurassic Park so compelling has been mostly missing in all the sequels.
Prehistoric Planet, however, is about as close as I've felt to those incredible early memories of Jurassic Park, all those years ago.
Life finds a way
A joint production between the BBC and Apple's fast-growing Apple TV Plus streaming service, Prehistoric Planet has gravitas and production chops to spare.
Mixing cutting-edge CGI work with real-world location filming and an adherence to the most up-to-date understandings of prehistoric life, it's a real feast for the eyes.
Premiering this week on the Apple platform, with a fresh episode debuting each day, Prehistoric Planet kicks off with an almost unfair advantage: it features the expertise of David Attenborough, whose voice is like natural history knowledge incarnate.
Attenborough, though best known for on-location filming with real-life animals, has branched out over the past decade into CGI-driven documentaries which have allowed him to present natural history as what we'd call 'dramatised fact'.
You can't send a camera crew back through time to capture footage of the dinosaurs, but if you could, Attenborough's work would be the exact way you'd want to see it presented. That he happens to be the brother of the late Richard Attenborough, the actor who brought Jurassic Park's founder John Hammond to life, is a fitting coincidence.
Each episode of Prehistoric Planet will showcase a different range of creatures, habitats and behavioural patterns from tens of millions of years ago, with the debut episode focussing on coastal scenes and the parenting techniques of these giants of old.
These are presented with such vivid detail that it's often easy to forget you're watching computer animated creatures, and not herds of resurrected reptiles. The BBC's Natural History Unit teamed up with Jon Favreau (director of Iron Man and creator of Disney Plus hit The Mandalorian) and VFX house MPC (which worked with Favreau to bring to life the Savannah animals of the 'live action' Lion King Remake).
The results are stunning – from the minute muscular twitches of a full-sized T-Rex to the watery breaches of various Mosasaurs to the menacing glare of a flying Phosphatodraco on the prowl, the presence of these digitally-rendered creatures is fully realized.
But perhaps what Prehistoric Planet nails best of all is the sheer wonder of these once-dominant creatures. With no franchise to serve, and a plot only dictated by how science believed these reptiles would once have behaved, Prehistoric Planet again captures the breathtaking, almost unbelievable fact that these multi-ton creatures once walked the same Earth as us.
Jurassic Park: Dominion, the forthcoming Jurassic Park sequel, looks to capture that same emotion, but with a story that's contrived to set dinosaurs on a rampage around the modern world. Even as a long-term apologist for the franchise, I feel it's wholly overestimated the audiences' interest in the narrative arc of a single velociraptor and its relationship with star Chris Pratt, which has seen this new trilogy essentially boil down to Lassie with dinosaurs – 'One Man and His Raptor'.
By humanizing its once most-feared onscreen presence with Blue the raptor, Jurassic World and its sequels have lost their bite, and their reverence to these exciting creatures.
But by stripping away the meddling humans, the need for trailer-sizzling explosive set pieces, by backing the endeavor with a trusted natural historian and presenting it with premium production values, Prehistoric Planet has once again inspired the latent paleontologist in me. For Jurassic World: Dominion, it's now got Rex-sized boots to fill.