It's finally happening. After years of rumors, including speculation and consternation about Black Ops raptors, it seems that Jurassic Park 4 is actually going to happen. According to the latest news, writers Amanda Silver and Rick Jaffa are working on the script, and producer Frank Marshall has said that he'd like to see the film hit screens by the summer of 2014. That's awfully soon, so I can only imagine that we're going to be hearing a lot more about the fourth film in the dinosaur-filled franchise soon. The only thing we know for sure? Despite rumors that have been circulating for years, the sequel will not feature "weaponized dinosaurs".
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I'm of two minds about the news. I saw the first Jurassic Park film when I was ten, and it only concentrated my love of dinosaurs. I had never seen anything like it before, and I was shocked by how realistic the dinosaurs looked (especially compared to the stop-motion creatures that perpetually stampeded across basic cable monster movie marathons). I was young enough to enjoy the adventurous spirit of the second movie without thinking too much, and, like many others, I was let down by the third installment. Given the franchise left us on a sour note, and it has been almost a decade since Jurassic Park III came out, I have to wonder if we really should go back to those dinosaur-infested islands. Or, to paraphrase Ian Malcolm's admonition from the first movie, perhaps the filmmakers should stop thinking about whether they could make another Jurassic Park and start thinking about whether they should.
Don't get me wrong. If and when Jurassic Park 4 hits theaters, I'll see it. I can't stay away from silver screen dinosaurs. The question is whether the sequel is going to revive the franchise, or whether I'll be sitting there in the dim auditorium, face-palming the whole time. The difference isn't going to be in how much screen time the dinosaurs get, or how well-rendered they are, but how the filmmakers employ the dinosaurs.
Monsters only work if they mean something. There has to be something more to them than just their ability to eat you. Godzilla is iconic because he embodied the nuclear atrocities unleashed on Japan by the United States; Frankenstein was a tragic creature that reflected our fear of the unknown and the power of science; and the dinosaurs of the original Jurassic Park made us question whether the world is really ours, or was just ceded to us by a stroke a cosmic luck that wiped out Tyrannosaurus and friends. The second and third Jurassic Park films faltered because they forgot the symbolic power monsters hold–the dinosaurs simply became sharp-toothed aberrations that had to be escaped, and that's all. The dinosaurs didn't lead us to question or reexamine anything about how we interact with the world. If Jurassic Park 4 is going to outshine the other installments, its creators have to think of what dinosaurs mean, not just the devastation dinosaurs can cause.
Unless the writers, director and producers of the next installment have something truly original planned, maybe we should just let sleeping Velociraptor lie. The watered-down "don't mess with nature" storyline of the first movie was standard moralistic claptrap, but that didn't matter because audiences had never seen dinosaurs like that before. I was blown away when I saw the movie during opening weekend–Stan Winston and the assembled team of special effects artists had made the closest thing to living Tyrannosaurus and Velociraptor that I had ever seen. You can only pull that trick once. The franchise tried to spice things up with a second island, a scientific expedition, dueling egos and more imperiled children–Steven Spielberg's favorite kind–in the following two movies, but, by the end, the series just felt tired. Despite all the effort put into envisioning and recreating the dinosaurs, the filmmakers seemingly had no idea what to do with them, and so we reverted to a big-budget version of the yarns I used to create with dinosaur toys in my sandbox as a child. If the dinosaurs don't have a purpose–some lesson that they can teach us–then perhaps we should just leave them alone on their island.
Let's be optimistic, though. I truly hope that the scribes behind the new story have something novel in mind. And I'm sure Universal knows all too well what can happen if sequels aren’t carefully planned. Look what happened to another blockbuster monster franchise spawned by Spielberg–JAWS. The first film is a classic, the second is acceptable popcorn fun, the third is a moronic gimmick film that's still worth riffing on after a drink or two and the fourth is an abomination that will forever stain the career of Michael Caine. Spielberg was wise to duck out early. What else can you really do with a giant, human-chomping shark who relies on the stupidity of people to feed? I feel we're approaching the same point with the Jurassic Park series, if we're not there already. I adore dinosaurs–there's no question of that–but I'd hate to see them brought back to life simply to be mindless Hollywood contrivances whose only role is to virtually menace our protagonists.
Provided that Marshall's ambitious timeline is on the mark, we'll see Jurassic Park 4 in a few years. All the same, I'd hate to see one franchise with a relatively narrowed set of storytelling options monopolize silver screen dinosaurs. The time is ripe for new ideas, or a more nuanced take on classic plots like the ever-useful "lost world" storyline. Why not give Ray Bradbury's classic "A Sound of Thunder"another try (with some real effort this time, please) or, even better, expand S.N. Dyer's "The Last Thunder Horse West of the Mississippi," about what happens when 19th-century paleontologists E.D. Cope and O.C. Marsh race to capture the world's last-surviving sauropod. There's a vast literature out there, ready to be mined, not to mention whatever original ideas screenwriters might concoct. The point is this–rather than holding our breaths for another Jurassic Park, perhaps filmmakers should start exploring dinosaur tales that reflect our collective hopes and fears.
Dinosaurs will continue to roar and stomp across the screen for many years to come. Whether it's in a Jurassic Park sequel, a comic book adaptation, a remake or something else, dinosaurs are too popular and bizarre to rest for long. They're perfect monsters. What we should remember, though, is that the most wonderful and terrible monsters are the ones that help us put our world in context. In one way or another, they change the way we perceive our relationship with the world around us. Teeth and claws are their weapons, but, to be truly effective, those weapons have to be given a reason to inflict the awful damage they evolved to do.