It has been almost 20 years since Jurassic Park came out. That film—a heavy-handed morality fable about leaving Nature well enough alone—remains the best dinosaur film ever made. Even the two sequels didn’t come close to the quality of the increasingly dated first installment. And all this makes me wonder: Will there ever be another great dinosaur movie?
Most dinosaur movies are awful. That much is beyond dispute. (If you disagree, watch the Carnosaur series and get back to me.) The fact that dinosaurs are made-to-order movie monsters—easily accessed through conceits of time travel, lost worlds and increasingly, genetic engineering—has made them top picks for films in need of charismatic creatures. And more often than not, the dinosaurs are only there to threaten our protagonists as the embodiment of nature’s wrath. The only thing that changes is exactly how humans and dinosaurs are brought in contact with one another. And that’s the critical element so many screenwriters and directors have skimped on.
I have no doubt that dinosaurs will always have a place in Hollywood. The more we learn about them, the stranger and more wonderful they become. And despite being discovered over a century ago, Tyrannosaurus rex remains the uncontested symbol of prehistoric ferocity. As much as I love dinosaurs, though, I can’t help but feel that the creatures are poorly served by the scripts and plotlines that invoke them. Jurassic Park, based on Michael Crichton’s bestselling novel, was magnificent because it outlined a new route for dinosaurs to come stomping back into our world. The film gradually traced the story of how the dinosaurs came to exist and used that premise to present further mysteries about how creatures that were supposedly under human control could come back to power so quickly. The movie, like the book, wasn’t so much about dinosaurs as it was about our desire to control nature and the unexpected consequences that come out of that compulsion.
Jurassic Park worked as well as it did because of the human story. As ham-fisted as the plot was, the overarching commentary about the manipulation of nature drove the story. (The original Gojira trod similar ground before. New, powerful technology spawned horrific consequences.) The film wasn’t perfect by any means, but it’s still the best of what prehistoric cinema has to offer. Dinosaurs served the storyline. The storyline didn’t serve the dinosaurs. And that’s where so many dinosaur features have failed. Spend enough money and hire the right experts, and you can have the best dinosaurs money can buy. But without a compelling story, those monsters will aimlessly wander the screen, chomping up whoever blunders into their path. Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake of King Kong featured a slew of dinosaurs, for example, but the computer-generated creatures were only there for massive set pieces. And while the virtual dinosaurs ably fulfilled their roles as ferocious antagonists, they were there only to threaten Kong and the imperiled human crew.
Well-rendered, carefully crafted dinosaurs are an important part of any movie featuring the prehistoric creatures. But a good story is just as important, if not more so. What’s the good of bringing dinosaurs to life if you’re constantly rooting for them to thin out the annoying and aimless cast? That’s the way I felt about Jurassic Park III—I kept wishing that the Velociraptor pack would enact swift vengeance on most of the film’s principal players. And during Disney’s cloyingly anthropomorphic Dinosaur, all I wanted was for the silent Carnotaurus to dispatch some of the yammering herbivores.
With the exception of movies that feature only dinosaurs, such as the aforementioned Dinosaur, dinosaur films are about the relationship between humans and creatures like Triceratops. Like any other monsters or creatures, dinosaurs are best used when exploring grander themes—often about time, evolution, extinction and how we interact with nature. Without that component, you might as well be watching a violent video game that you can’t actually play. A monster works only if it means something—if there’s some lesson to be learned from the curved claws and ragged jaws.
I certainly hope that there will be another great dinosaur film—a movie that isn’t just a hit with fans of the prehistoric but that can stand on its own merits as art. A new way to bring people and dinosaurs into contact would certainly help open new possibilities, but even among the classic subgenres, there’s still plenty of opportunity to write human-centered stories that employ dinosaurs to keep the narrative moving along at a brisk pace. I don’t think that Jurassic Park IV, if it ever comes to be, is going to do much to revitalize dinosaurs in cinema—especially since it seems the story is going to revolve around genetically engineered abberations—but we are only really limited by what we can think of. Dinosaurs don’t have to be kitsch, kid’s stuff, or ineffectual monsters. In the right hands, they can again embody our fascinations and fears. I eagerly await the day when such dramatic and deadly creatures once again stomp across the screen.