Review: Camp Cretaceous Season 4

The fourth season of Camp Cretaceous is the best one yet. The animation has continued to improve, and some of the action sequences, including an early one this season set in open waters (that also serves as an homage to Jaws), surpass anything that’s come before on the show and rival some of the scenes from the film. I really care about the characters, too; the campers have been through a lot, have had time to reveal their personalities to each other and the audience, have had time to grow, to develop, to be thoroughly traumatized. This season offers some big payoff on all that development, and every character has at least one interesting issue that guides their motivations and choices throughout every episode. It’s amazing that the show continues to maintain the diverse ensemble cast that it does, expanded further with some adult characters this season, without neglecting any individual characters’ stories.

The removal from Isla Nublar to a whole new island run by the villainous Mantah Corp. allows for a certain level of unpredictability to this season, even while the timeline still hasn’t caught up with the films. It’s a little whackier sci-fi, and the apparent motivation behind the bad guys to simply battle these expensive dinosaurs for the benefit of the rich felt a little flimsy to me, but there’s enough action and emotional character moments that I seldom had a reason to linger on the logistics of the operation too much. The setting also sets up a much larger world even pre-Fallen Kingdom that calls into question some of the absolute statements made in the Jurassic World films (while the larger world might not know, at least some of the Isla Sorna dinosaurs did not end up dead or departed to Jurassic World but were abducted to this new island; plus, Blue was the last of her pack but not the last Velociraptor out there). I think I can detect some plotlines that will end up continuing into Dominion, but frankly I’m uncertain, and I think after the movie comes out I’ll look back on this season (and perhaps the earlier seasons) with surprise about how things were set up.

This season also offers more dinosaurs to empathize with and simply see as animals, which was not at all what I expected. Even the Tyrannosaurus is given a surprisingly gentle moment with one of the human characters. This is a lovely change from the erratic behavior of the dinosaurs in reaction to the monstrous hybrid threat of the last season–and for that matter, we even have some cute baby dinosaur hybrids now that show that being a “hybrid” by itself doesn’t make an animal villainous.

I had a fun time binging this season’s 11 episodes. While still a fairly short season, this is the longest one for the series yet. And there just has to be another season coming with the cliffhanger ending offered! I can’t wait.

Alternate-alternate histories for Jurassic World Evolution 2’s Chaos Theory

At this point, I’ve completed Jurassic World Evolution 2‘s Campaign and Chaos Theory missions, and I’ve tested the waters with Challenge mode, completing the first challenge on easy. The handful of Challenge levels suggest that it’s actually reasonable to try to complete them all on Jurassic difficulty–and it might even be fun. At just over 50 hours of game time, this has proven to be a robust game with enough content to make the price tag worthwhile, and there’s still more to do.

Nodosaurus in nature.

On top of that, compared to the original, the dinosaurs are better-looking and have more realistic behaviors, guests are more varied in interests, and park-building is a deeper and more customizable experience. (Really, the only gameplay elements I wish were different are the still relatively short lifespans of most of the dinosaurs and the lack of breeding in the wild–the latter means you’ll never have an authentic dinosaur preserve, and it’s also a glaring absence given the importance of breeding in Planet Zoo and the significance of breeding and natural survival in the books and films.)

Dilophosaurus death leap.

All that said, there’s something that still feels “light” about the whole experience. If I had to identify a single factor, it would be that there’s very little connective tissue between levels. As I discussed in my original review, the campaign is incredibly short, easily completed in about five hours, with little development in plot or the handful of characters you’re interacting with. Then each Chaos Theory level is its own isolated experience: build Jurassic Park, build Jurassic Park San Diego, capture dinosaurs from Site B for Jurassic World, build Jurassic World, tear down Jurassic World and help the dinosaurs go free. Each is in its own separate alternate universe, so your successful Jurassic Park has no bearing on San Diego or Jurassic World. And there’s very little to explain just how the timelines changed, beyond just your involvement–for instance, why exactly is Ian Malcolm on board with San Diego and why is there no Peter Ludlow in sight? This disconnect between the movie timeline and the isolated alternate universe tales was maybe strongest felt in the Jurassic World level: the Indominus rex is created, and so long as you did a decent job designing a secure pen and catering to its environmental needs, it’s never really a threat to the park as a whole (meanwhile, my “Rexy” died of old age and was replaced just before the Indominus was released). But every level embodied some level of detachment–for instance, in the Jurassic Park III level, the mission runs as a plausible prequel to Jurassic World, as you collect dinosaurs for the new park and witness the death of the Spinosaurus at the hands of a raptor pack, but it decidedly cannot be part of the official continuity because the Spinosaurus still has the ringing phone signature and the Dino-Soar sail can still be found caught in a canopy. The “alternate universe” nature of the level almost seems to be that all the Kirby party survivors died, or were rescued without mention earlier than in the movie.

The end of the Spinosaurus in Chaos Theory.

It’s true that these levels certainly taught me again and again that it was difficult to make an excellent dinosaur park–I had to restart a lot from a hopelessly bankrupt state in the first mission, I never got San Diego to five stars (unnecessary to complete the mission), and I had to fire scientists and hunker down in a slow recovery when I overinvested in synthesizing the Indominus and a replacement Tyrannosaur just as Rexy passed away. But these problems are not the big problems of the movies. It’s true that John Hammond and Simon Masrani had some more mundane management problems, like Hammond’s no-shows and a sick Triceratops or Masrani’s lost and sick visitors, overly rambunctious Pachycephalosaurus, and perpetual need to rekindle visitor interest, but these weren’t the issues that sunk their parks. Hammond claimed to spare no expense but relied too heavily on automation and low-bid contractors who didn’t share his vision. Ludlow never had any vision of his own and rushed into things without fully understanding the risks he was taking. Masrani let Wu take the genetics into even more questionable places without caring to understand the science and allowed the creation of fantastic hybrids with too little oversight. And these three men were all betrayed, not just by park whims, but by deliberate human actions. Hammond was betrayed by Nedry. Ludlow was betrayed by Hammond (and his eco-saboteur). Masrani was betrayed, not deliberately, but by the at first rushed and later panicked actions of the Indominus guards and park staff.

Things going sideways in Chaos Theory.

In short, the problems that they failed to overcome were not ones of simple management, and with Ian Malcolm’s chaos theory messaging, the suggestion is that regardless of what they had done, the control they were attempting over such complex and unpredictable systems would inevitably lead to failure at some point. Therefore, to really feel like you were stepping into their shoes, it would have made more sense to have experiences catered around reacting to unique crisis points. It’s easy to avoid overworking your staff and thus avoid sabotage, so what if the game put more pressure on you to push a little too far? What if you had to design a Jurassic Park that was actually closer in design to Hammond’s vision, with park tours aligned with the map of the park from the film? What if you had ample money, with regular new income from investors, but your problem was not dwindling income streams but rather a deadline? Hammond’s investors were wary and ready to shut down the park close to opening, so you could have had two competing priorities: efficiency versus security. You could be racing to open the park with a test run of the park tour attended by scientific consultants by a certain deadline (with all planned exhibits and attractions in place) without having more than x number of fatalities. Then you’d really be living Hammond’s vision, where the issue wasn’t simply a matter of draining money before opening but dealing with competing demands from investors and employees. I also would have had a set limit of scientists that you have to work with at the start of the game–have to keep the park secret, after all! No extra staff centers to increase scientist count. And you could even have set staff specifically for this level–the “scientists” could be Wu (genetics), Harding (welfare), Nedry (logistics, and with the Entitled Salary trait, of course), and Muldoon (generalist?), for instance. Just because Nedry betrayed Hammond in the film doesn’t mean he’d be the bad actor here, if you happened to keep him more rested.

Jurassic Park Chaos Theory

This process of reconstituting the levels to be better tailored to their respective films could be extended to the full Chaos Theory mode.

The Lost World is challenging because, outside of the promise of San Diego (which is clearly signaled to be a bad idea), there isn’t a clear “park” to deal with here. But Frontier had two Chaos Theory levels that avoided dealing with park-building, and perhaps they should have applied this to The Lost World. I think I would have split this into two levels, with an overarching story: first on Isla Sorna, and then outside San Diego. The big thing is that Frontier never clearly explains why Malcolm has come around on San Diego–it seems like InGen maybe listened to him in this timeline and thus didn’t do the snatch-and-grab, but they still decided to monetize the Isla Sorna dinosaurs anyway. I would make the turning point into a whole level, in which you play as Malcolm’s research/sabotage team. In this alternate timeline, Hammond makes the full team aware immediately of InGen’s plans, and Malcolm agrees to go with Harding, Carr, and Van Owen to get documentation of the dinosaurs to bring to the world to derail their plans. Van Owen makes his sabotage play before departure, the InGen hunter team’s expedition is resultantly delayed, and your team gets to the island with time to spare and a clear deadline once more: you have to get enough observation and footage in within the time provided, or else the InGen team gets to the island. (And if that team gets to the island, you get a losing cinematic in which things play out largely the same–sabotage of the hunter camp, destruction of the research team camp, mass death, and a Tyrannosaurus loose in San Diego.) The mission could be very simple, locking you in to a ranger Jeep (something the game experiments with on some levels already) and having you drive across the island, scanning the dinosaurs and photographing particular behaviors within some species before the hunters arrive, then driving to the old InGen compound to broadcast out your findings. That would launch the second, interconnected level: InGen’s mission was shut down, the dinosaur preserve was established, humans were amazed by the dinosaurs, and there was no big chaotic event like the San Diego attack. Years pass, and InGen executives persuade Malcolm to come on as a consultant once more as Jurassic Park San Diego is set to launch. Rather than importing dinosaurs from Isla Sorna, which again is an untouchable preserve, InGen has restarted its genetics program under Dr. Wu. Wu and Malcolm become opposing narrative factions–Malcolm encourages moderation and a focus on natural preservation and herbivorous species, while Wu pushes the envelope, gradually recreating carnivores for the park that could peak with the return of the Tyrannosaurus. Much like in the existing version of Jurassic Park San Diego in the game, the challenges could be more oriented around the unique environment, the gradual acquisition of more land, and the mundane problems of park management, rather than the unique risks of the prior scenarios. There could be a big final challenge of corporate sabotage–by BioSyn, of course–resulting in the release of the carnivores and a frantic effort to protect the guests, secure the paddocks, and recapture the dinosaurs before fatalities get high enough or dinosaurs get far enough away to shut the park down for good.

The Lost World Chaos Theory

I rather liked what Frontier did for Jurassic Park III, having the level serve as a canon-adjacent backstory for the creation of Jurassic World. But a couple of the nods to the third film–the hang glider and the ringtone–just add confusion as to the when/where/how. Plus, Jurassic World always had dinosaurs from both Isla Sorna and Isla Nublar, so it’s not a definitive story to show the importation of dinosaurs from Site B. I think you can give an alternate timeline to III that acts as both an alternate prequel to that movie and to Jurassic World by changing the focus to InGen’s unauthorized cloning and release of animals on Isla Sorna shortly after Masrani Global’s purchase of InGen. As the Dinosaur Protection Group materials made clear, these new animals included Ankylosaurus, Ceratosaurus, Corythosaurus, and Spinosaurus. This mission could have seen you working with Dr. Wu yet again, this time without a sympathetic foil–the closest, perhaps, being the misguided and naïve Masrani himself. You could set up a small research facility on Isla Sorna, ensure that it is secure from dinosaur incursions, send teams to dig sites to specifically target the creation of these four species, and then create habitats for them that met their needs. Perhaps this climaxes with a unique disease that you have to identify and treat (pulling some inspiration from DX in The Lost World novel, perhaps) that is further complicated by an unusually bad storm. If you get through this with the dinosaurs contained, Masrani decides to export them to Jurassic World right away, rather than allow them to be abandoned, and the mission ends.

Jurassic Park III Chaos Theory

Next up is Jurassic World, and I think that’s another one that’s fairly well-served by its current incarnation. I would have liked a more curated experience of building this park, though–as I suggested with Jurassic Park, it would be nice to be guided in building a park that more closely matched its on-screen counterpart. This could also have a little more guided mission structure, starting with the capture of the Isla Nublar dinosaurs, then the importation of the Isla Sorna dinosaurs, the creation of the Mosasaurus, and the creation of the Indominus. Since Jurassic World collapsed because of the Indominus’s tricks, I think the mission should climax with a scripted sequence in which the gate is opened by a fleeing guard checking on it, resulting in the Indominus getting loose in the park and removing its tracker (so you couldn’t see it on the overhead map or check its status–you’d need a visual confirmation of its location). You could be more aggressive in taking it down quickly, and you’d have the added benefit of using a capture helicopter from the start, so you’d probably be able to contain the threat much more easily than your film counterparts–once more, the goal would be avoiding excessive guest fatalities and restoring order.

Jurassic World Chaos Theory

The last Chaos Theory mission, for Fallen Kingdom, works just fine as is: in this timeline, the volcano is not about to erupt, so Claire is able to clear away the old park and let the dinosaurs loose. I think I would tweak this one only a little, to allow for the development of a more permanent dinosaur preserve without the commercial focus of the preexisting park.

Fallen Kingdom Chaos Theory

I also would have liked more Chaos Theory missions–and I think easy additions would have been updated versions of Return to Jurassic Park, Secrets of Dr. Wu, and Claire’s Sanctuary, offering up alternative sequels/events to Jurassic Park, Jurassic World, and Fallen Kingdom, respectively.

Return to Jurassic Park

I certainly threw out a lot of ideas above, but I recognize that these aren’t the only ways to have offered more expanded alternate stories, and they’re almost certainly not the best ways. I nonetheless think they’d offer more narrative experiences that better suited the stories they’re adapting. I had hoped that Chaos Theory would play more like the original game’s Return to Jurassic Park or Claire’s Sanctuary, which offered some of the better narrative-focused campaigns in the game. Instead, the final implementation feels more “inspired by” the movies rather than directly responding to them. What does exist is not bad. I wouldn’t have already played for over 50 hours if I didn’t like what I was doing. But the overall experience feels detached, narratively light and fluffy, just a series of out-of-context anecdotes oriented around building up or tearing down park after park after park. While the levels are varied, it feels a step back from where the team had been going with the original game’s DLC content. Despite this criticism, at the end of the day, I suppose this is all a testament to the quality of the game, that at 50 hours in, with several Challenge levels left to go, my biggest disappointment is that there is not even more.

The dream of resurrected dinosaurs flourishing on Site B.

Review: Jurassic World Evolution 2

I’ve played a little over 20 hours of Jurassic World Evolution 2. That’s seen the completion of the campaign, the Jurassic Park Chaos Theory mission, three-fifths of The Lost World Chaos Theory mission, and 19 of 44 Steam achievements. That also means that I haven’t touched three of the Chaos Theory missions or any of the Challenge or Sandbox modes. My time with the game has not been brief, but it still feels a tad premature to offer a definitive review–certainly, it can’t be a final impression.

That all said, I’m liking what I’ve experienced so far, and it appears that Frontier have improved upon basically every issue I had with the original game–without entirely resolving those issues. There are more prehistoric creatures, including an array of pterosaurs and marine reptiles, and they look more lovely than ever, with more unique and lifelike behaviors; on the other hand, I’ve watched a Triceratops starve to death, locked in a perpetual state of panic, as its companions grazed peacefully around it. “Too stupid to eat” hardly seems an authentic experience. Much of the busywork has been streamlined; on the other hand, now, instead of manually restocking animal feeders, I’m manually restocking food and fuel for ranger and medical stations. There are more things to do and more unique choices to make; on the other hand, you’re still pulled out of the flow a bit too often by storms, disease, and injuries. And there are some dynamic animations with social behaviors or release of new animals that don’t quite work right at times.

There are some things that are simply better, without exception. You no longer have to constantly placate the frustratingly feuding divisions of the original game; now, you just have to manage your team of scientists, avoiding overwork that can lead to the risk of sabotage. There are more plausible pathways to a five-star park, and there are many areas of research that you can choose to focus on, making even the narrative-focused modes I’ve been playing feel refreshingly open-ended at times. I can’t confirm it yet, but I suspect that the open-endedness should make Challenge modes far more replayable now.

After as much time as I put into the first game, and with the great fondness I felt for it despite its flaws, I followed this sequel pretty closely since its announcement. That means that my experience with the game has been heavily influenced by expectations, for good and bad. The developers often emphasized a more interesting campaign experience with a greater focus on character relationships, but that’s not really here at all, and the campaign itself can be completed in about five hours, so that was a bit of a letdown. What was there was good, focused on ensuring the safety of dinosaurs, people, and other wildlife by setting up nature preserves across America. There just wasn’t very much of it. I get the impression that the developers have more planned, for three reasons: (1) they released DLC with more dinosaurs to reflect Fallen Kingdom content in the original game; (2) the original game had several narrative-focused, alternate-universe stories that were released as later expansions, including one that built on the plot of the base game; and (3) the story that exists so far in the sequel hints at secret goings-on that Claire and Owen don’t yet have insight into. I wonder how much of this will get fleshed out, how much will go unfulfilled, and how much might actually connect to Dominion. If The Secrets of Dr. Wu are any clue, though, I would expect that the story won’t ever end up being that meaty here. The great expansions in the original game, Claire’s Sanctuary and Return to Jurassic Park, were alternative histories of sorts and offered more compelling stories; the same is the case here, as the sequel really shines in its much deeper Chaos Theory modes. I expected to be a bit bored with the San Diego mission because we could see so much of it in promotional advance-play videos, but actually playing it, I’ve had a tremendous time. Its skeletal architecture built out around that iconic amphitheater establishes a clearly defined basic infrastructure but still allows you to build the park out as you wish, especially as you buy more land and expand the area you have to operate in. I love the park I’ve built so far. It was startling to discover how much fun this mission was because the Jurassic Park mission was more of a slog for me. Since the main campaign was focused on nature preserves, Jurassic Park was my first real introduction to the refined park management in this game, and while this sequel benefits from systems that are deeper and more complex, that also means that things aren’t as simple and straightforward as before; some things were more opaque, and I made some bad choices and ran into a lot of bad luck. While I got to five stars eventually, the experience made clear to me that, without the ability to reload, I would have fared no better than John Hammond in opening that island attraction. But by the time I got to San Diego, I understood systems better. It’s funny that the “introductory” experience does provide adequate training, but more through trial and error than a basic guided tutorial.

I think that after maybe a patch or two, at least some of the minor issues I still have with Jurassic World Evolution 2 will be resolved. Even if those fixes never came, this game is already an incredible experience for a Jurassic Park fan and a considerable improvement over the original. Reviews emphasizing the iterative nature of the sequel are not wrong, but I have found my time in the game refreshingly different from the original nonetheless. My main concern is, will this game be able to keep holding my interest when the Chaos Theory missions are done? Will I stick around for the Challenges? Will I reach a point where I’ve exhausted them and have run out of things I want to do? And how many hours in will it take for me to reach that point? I hope that we will see more expansions, as with the original game, to broaden the campaign further and add more features that might add more hours of gameplay. But until I spend more time with the game as it exists now, it’s hard to say how long the base game will continue to engage me.

For now, I’m having a good time. It’s a good dinosaur park management sim, and more robust than the original even if not as deep and customizable as Planet Zoo (another Frontier title). If that’s your thing, or if you’re a fan of Jurassic Park, then you’ll probably like it too.

The Jurassic gap stories I’d like to see

I have a false memory about The Lost World, before the movie even came out. I distinctly remember Velociraptors running through a field alongside a train in what appeared to be rural America. Where’d I get this image from? A dream? A misinterpretation of a trailer? It doesn’t matter. It’s not real, didn’t happen. But even before the movie came out, I remember hoping that dinosaurs would end up on the mainland. When the freighter plows into the dock and the scattered remains of its crew are discovered, I thought maybe this would mean that raptors had snuck aboard and would now wreak havoc along with the Tyrannosaurus. Of course, this was not to be. But because of that specific hope, the difficulty of understanding exactly how the freighter crew was killed off has stood out to me more. If not the raptors, then how did it happen? The juvenile was taken back separately. The buck was in the cargo hold. How did such a large animal get its jaws into the pilothouse, wrenching some poor soul free from a hand that remained firmly clutched to the wheel? Why did it kill the crewmember who closed the cargo hold back on it but left the body apparently undisturbed? And how did the crewmember survive long enough to close the hold? For that matter, why would the Tyrannosaurus voluntarily return to the hold? The pilothouse, more than anything else, stands out to me, because while normally presented in narrow angles, there’s every indication that it’s closed off to the outside and undamaged.

All that to say, I’ve always been intrigued by the idea of a gap story that fills in what happened. I think it’d be fun to have a private investigator hired by one of the family of the lost crew to investigate events. Perhaps this leads to the discovery that more than the Tyrannosaurus was aboard the freighter. Perhaps he encounters disinterested police officials and active resistance from InGen execs determined to minimize the already disastrous events in San Diego. Maybe he runs into a pack of escaped raptors–or something else entirely! I imagine it as a bit of Chinatown meets Jurassic Park.

But there are other stories I’d like to see (or create myself, in the form of a little fan fiction). There are a few moments not relevant to the films that could offer gung-ho action-adventure. For instance, the Dinosaur Protection Group site has in-universe documentation dated October 5, 1994 that reports current dinosaur population levels on Isla Nublar based on a “1994 clean-up” and estimated dinosaur population levels on Isla Nublar based on a 1993 report. So of course, following the mercenary team that went into the island and cleaned things up, collecting and containing and cataloguing surviving dinosaurs, would be an interesting story. TellTale’s Jurassic Park: The Game, which never really quite fit as a direct follow-up on events from Jurassic Park, doesn’t have a narrative that works well with the newer movies, and so that can safely be disregarded, leaving a big opening.

The list of dinosaurs on Isla Sorna is presumably similar to the report that Alan and Billy had reviewed before Jurassic Park III, in which the Spinosaurus was noticeably missing. That same Dinosaur Protection Group page I referenced earlier discusses the illegal creation of other dinosaurs that were abandoned on Site B, resulting in the rampaging Spinosaurus. The page says that the new research happened over nine months and started 100 days after InGen was purchased by Masrani Global, while another page says that bidding for InGen happened in 1997 and the illegally cloned animals were introduced in 1999. A story that chronicled the backroom dealings and unethical science, or the release/escape of the newly resurrected dinosaurs, would probably make for an interesting tale. And there’s another mercenary adventure story waiting to detail the recapturing of the escaped Pteranodons from Isla Sorna in 2001.

I imagine Henry Wu weaving his way through all of these stories: part of the efforts to contain the situation on Isla Nublar, returning from his shipboard evacuation of the island to collect valuable scientific information only to be shut out of further genetics efforts until brought in by Masrani for the illegal experiments in 1999 that I’d like to imagine had to be shut down when the Spinosaurus broke containment, and finally meeting up with Vic Hoskins, forming a fateful relationship that would prove pivotal in Jurassic World, when the ex-military man led the mission to collect the pterosaurs.

Then there are the stories that can happen post-Fallen Kingdom. I’ve already rattled off ideas before, but there’s one concept I’d sort of like to play with at some point. At its core, an enterprising rancher has gathered up a small herd of Gallimimus and plans to grow the herd. He soon encounters two threats: something is hunting his new flock of bird mimics at night, and a government investigator shows up to claim that he’s in illegal possession of contraband intellectual property. The two threats collide pretty quickly, deciding the fate of the rancher’s whole operation. I think there’s some mileage in that for a short story, at least.

Anyone else have any gap or side stories they’d want to see, or any fan fiction they’d like to point out?

Jurassic Park as Metaphor for Family Trauma

The element that takes the Jurassic Park formula beyond simple action-adventure fun is the emphasis on human characters with flaws and clear arcs. That human emphasis has, whether intentionally or inadvertently, often resulted in movies with a subtext about family trauma. This is a topic I’ve thought and talked about intermittently on other platforms, but I want to try to develop it a little more here.

Most of the Park and World films are guided by a loss of family unity and a gradual rebuilding of family around kids. The pattern starts with Jurassic Park: Tim and Lex come to the island to get them away from their parents’ divorce. Through the events of the film, they bond with Grant, who starts out as someone who is very child-averse. As he guides them through the park safely and comes to care deeply about them, he’s addressing the issue in his own otherwise solid relationship with Sattler: she wants kids, but he couldn’t stand them. In the final helicopter flight out, Alan and Ellie share looks that express a great number of things: relief, gratitude, affection…but also there seems to be a shared recognition of how things have changed, as the kids rest against the man who starts out the movie terrifying a child merely out of slight annoyance over an offhanded remark. At least within the scope of the movie, the kids have found a new family, somewhat ironically formed around a man who never wanted one.

The Lost World continues the pattern. This time, Ian Malcolm’s daughter Kelly finds herself torn between separated parents. Her mother’s off on a trip with a new love interest. Her father, a habitual divorcé who’s never made time to nurture relationships with his (ex-)wives or kid(s), acts similarly disinterested in her and inconvenienced by her presence. Rather than be pawned off on one of her dad’s acquaintances, Kelly stows away to come along on his next expedition. The horrors of the island bring her to bond closely with Ian’s girlfriend, Sarah, and Ian finds renewed focus on the safety of both Sarah and Kelly. Ian repeatedly risks his life for both of them. This focus on protecting family ties in rather nicely with the threat from the Tyrannosaurus family that occupies the second and third acts of the film. Once more, the movie ends with a moment of peace for the reformed family, with Kelly, Sarah, and Ian all on the couch; in a reverse on the original, the child stays awake and watches over the sleeping adults.

Jurassic Park III once more finds much of the character motivations in a divorce. The Kirbys have divorced, Paul hasn’t really moved on while Amanda has, and their son Eric is caught in the middle. Eric gets stranded on Isla Sorna because of Amanda’s reckless “fun” boyfriend. The trauma of the island pushes Paul and Amanda back together, and the little nuclear family appears restored by the end of the film. In a separate arc, Grant and Sattler have remained friends but split up; Grant seems to slowly be reintroducing himself to Sattler’s new life of husband and child, but he feels out of place. Ellie insists that Alan can ask for help if he needs it. And by the end of the film, he’s able to do so in a moment of crisis, and she’s there for them. The dinosaurs get their family arc, too, as the Velociraptor pack is desperately pursuing their stolen eggs, and the Pteranodon flock attack to feed their offspring.

By this point, the recurrence of divorce and separation begins to feel somewhere between a fundamental franchise building block and a tired trope trotted out simply because it worked before. Either way, it’s back again in Jurassic World. Brothers Zach and Gray get sent to the titular theme park to visit their aunt Claire while their parents finalize a divorce back home. (Side note: I recall people complaining that the divorce reveal came from nowhere, but this is hinted at from as early as the airport departure scene, and the scene where Karen and Claire talk made that pretty clear to me even though it’s not explicitly stated until a little later on.) Even as their family falls apart, the brothers recommit to each other, and Zach changes his attitude from an aloof bully to a caring and supportive older brother. Claire’s arc echoes both John Hammond (as the most visible face of the park administration’s hubris and a more prominent figure than Masrani) and Alan Grant. From Grant, she gets the same apparent disinterest in kids or parenting, and her commitment to saving her nephews provides a somewhat similar arc, though bogged down in sexism: Grant undergoes an attitude change that is not required by society but simply a natural progression that resolves a tension in his romantic relationship, while Claire is nagged by her sister about how she’ll one day want to have children, stares longingly at a child reunited with their parent, is called out or treated differently because of her awkwardness with kids, and is operating within a larger societal notion that women should be guided by a desire to nurture and raise children. Regardless, while the arc had its missteps, I do believe the intent was to provide an arc that echoed Grant’s. Her relationship with the rugged Owen, from exes to romantic partners, suggests something of a collision of the Sarah/Ian and Amanda/Paul relationships from the other films, as well. Then, of course, as I recently wrote about at length, Owen’s relationship with Blue and the raptor pack provides the dinosaur family narrative for this entry in the series.

Finally, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is partially about people looking for connection and purpose after losing everything. Owen and Claire have split up and slowly reconnect, Owen is motivated to save his abandoned baby Blue, and Claire is guided by a desire to make right her failings at the park and feels deeply obligated to the dinosaurs she once saw as only “assets.” Lockwood fell out with business partner Hammond after using cloning technology to duplicate his deceased daughter. Over the course of the movie, that cloned girl, Maisie, learns the truth about her identity only after she discovers that her “grandfather” was killed by his not-so-loyal assistant. Once more, a family is formed by film’s end, this time between Owen, Claire, and Maisie. As all three characters are returning in Dominion, perhaps this new found family will be a little more permanent. And for the dinosaur family, Owen reunites with Blue, only to part ways once more by the end of the film.

Not only is this deconstruction and reformation of family structures so central to the movies’ narratives, but the movies themselves work as a metaphor for that family turmoil–as I suggested way back at the top. The dinosaurs are a vehicle for children’s wonder, amazement, and curiosity. Family and children were clearly on the mind of Michael Crichton when he wrote the original novel. As he’s quoted as saying in The Making of Jurassic Park:

My wife was pregnant with my first child, and I found that I couldn’t walk past a toy store without buying a stuffed toy. And what I was buying, more often than not, were stuffed dinosaurs. My wife couldn’t understand it. We knew we were having a girl. Why was I buying all these dinosaurs? And I would say, “Well, girls like dinosaurs, too.” But it was clear that I was sort of obsessed with dinosaurs; and the whole idea of children and dinosaurs, and the meaning of what that was, was just on my mind a lot during that period.

(Don Shay & Jody Duncan, p. 3)

Dr. Will Tattersdill, an academic researching the “social history of dinosaurs” in popular culture over the decades, has discussed how dinosaurs “mean a yearning for the past” and allow the observer to experience both human culture and natural history simultaneously. It’s interesting to consider that framework in recognizing that these movies start with characters, especially kids, yearning to connect with the dinosaurs, being awed by the dinosaurs, before the dinosaurs turn against them. The past isn’t enough to shield them from the crisis of the present, and in fact leads to that very crisis, the dissolution of the preexisting family.

It pains me to say that I can’t recall who said this or where it was printed, but I vaguely recall a comparison made between dinosaurs and children’s parents. Dinosaurs are big, objects of affection, at times terrifying, representative of a past before you existed, just as parents are to kids. A divorce or separation causes a considerable amount of chaos and confusion, if not outright trauma, for a young child, and these devoted caretakers also may inadvertently harm the child in the process of an especially bitter divorce. I think there’s something there in the Jurassic Park franchise, in that these kids admire the dinosaurs, the dinosaurs cause them harm, and they ultimately learn to coexist with the dinosaurs and survive. That evolution typically overlaps with the reformation of the family or the creation of a new found family.

At least to my eye, then, the experiences of the characters make literal the emotional harm and healing associated with the largely background family dynamics that inform the motivations and relationships central to every Jurassic Park movie.

Blue’s Story

Jurassic World portrays the Velociraptors as very intelligent, feral animals that can nonetheless be trained, at least to a certain degree. Owen’s pack appears to bounce around in loyalty dependent on the situation, and there’s the constant tension from the beginning that they’re always a moment away from turning on and killing their human alpha. It makes sense that the raptors would be trainable but unreliable. You could expect the same from a “trained” wolf or tiger or bear. And the raptors are super-smart predators from another era.

Still, Fallen Kingdom relies on the audience to root for and trust Blue throughout virtually the whole movie. She’s the Good Dinosaur, if you will. And we’re shown early on in this movie that Blue is actually special in a number of ways, not just smarter than the other raptors but more empathetic. She and Owen have a very special bond.

At first, Fallen Kingdom seems to reverse on the depiction of the raptors from the predecessor film, making Blue, at least, a friendlier killer. But while I’ll admit that it’s at least somewhat of a retcon, I don’t think that the movies are actually in contradiction. Fallen Kingdom invites a different read, in which Blue has been a hero the whole time, a consistently loyal girl to her sisters and her human dad.

It must be acknowledged that this view of Blue is not shared by Owen himself. Owen clearly respects the raptors, but he is also clearly aware that they might kill him given the chance. And that’s undeniable; riled up enough, they probably would kill Owen and move on. But these raptors don’t have any reason to understand just how much weaker humans are; humans always seem in control of the situation, literally above them all, wielding treats and correction from a remove. They could easily kill Owen, but I suspect that were it to happen, it would be an accident. The raptors regularly jostle for rank, it would seem, and what could be an acceptable clash between sisters could be lethal if applied toward a human.

When we first meet the raptors, they’re responding to Owen’s commands (if perhaps a bit reluctantly). We are to understand that this has been a long journey to get them to respond promptly and correctly. But Fallen Kingdom also lets us know that the other raptors are going to be more problematic, that they don’t have the same level of empathy, the same ability for cross-species connection, that Blue has. Blue is the bridge between the worlds. Even Jurassic World doesn’t suggest that they’d kill for no reason. The antics with the pig and the keeper are the result of human negligence; it’s natural that the raptors, instinctively viewing the little fleeing piglet as prey, would be desirous of it, and it’s also natural that they might react with hostility toward a human suddenly and unwantedly dropped into their territory, a human interfering with their pig hunt, a human they have no connection to. They’d definitely kill that keeper; I’m not so sure, however, that they’d have lunged for Owen if he hadn’t rolled away. In fact, it’s not just the roll but his movement to face away from them that seems to trigger them. If they’d wanted to, they could have easily taken him down in the moment, but they were at least tenuously reactive to his commands.

After that, Blue doesn’t ever act aggressively toward Owen. In fact, none of the raptors seem to act aggressively toward their alpha. When deployed on the chase for the Indominus, they’re perfectly content to hunt down their target, running alongside Owen as an integrated pack. Sure, they’re caught off guard by the Indominus; they’d have no reason to expect that it could communicate with them. And it’s certainly big enough to be a real threat! When I first watched this scene, I saw the moment in which all their camera views are trained on Owen as a sign that they’d turned on him, that they were about to attack. Owen certainly believes they’d found a new alpha (after, it should be mentioned, the raptors would have reason to feel betrayed by being fired on). But again, in context of the softer view of at least Blue in Fallen Kingdom, it’s just as reasonable to see that moment as the raptors turning back to Owen for input about how to proceed. Because Owen doesn’t fully trust his pack and can’t intuit their thinking, he perceives it as a threat. But wouldn’t a loyal pack look to their leader, waiting patiently for his cue before proceeding? It’s only when the mercenaries start firing that they turn on the humans–and even then, they target the other humans, not Owen. Owen had warned early in the movie, in that pig-keeper scene, that if the raptors were fired on, they’d “never trust me again.”

Even in the ensuing chaos, there are signs of raptor loyalty. Charlie and Owen made eye contact during the fight, and even though she’d just killed another man, she didn’t react aggressively. She cocked her head, acted curious. She seemed to be awaiting input yet again, only to be killed by a rocket explosion a moment later. Similarly, Owen was able to get Blue to leave Barry alone by whistling for her; it’s as easy to say that she followed him because he was the leader as to say it was because she was hunting him instead. Later, Delta might even have attacked Hoskins because she recognizes him as a bad guy and a threat to both Owen and her pack.

It’s true that the raptors pursue Owen’s party and corner them, but why wouldn’t they? Owen’s their leader, and they’re trained to form up on him. Rather than attack, Blue lets him remove the camera halter. The raptors once more communicate with Indominus and look to Owen for input, which he’s able to actually signal this time. Frustrated by the raptors’ lack of compliance, the Indominus attacks Blue, making the ensuing fight deeply personal for Delta and Echo. The raptors fight for their sisters and their dad to the very end in this final battle. After the fight, lone raptor survivor Blue looks first to the Tyrannosaurus and then to Owen to determine what to do. Subtly warned away by Owen and apparently perceiving that she no longer has a place or a pack, she leaves without any aggression toward Owen or his companions.

Fallen Kingdom‘s additional details about Blue don’t have to undermine or contradict anything that came before. And once more in Fallen Kingdom, Blue feels fiercely loyal to her human dad and his human pack, though once more she ultimately chooses to go off on her own when all the threats have passed, seemingly recognizing that she’ll never fit in without her own raptor companions. She stays long enough to make sure Owen is okay, and then she leaves, choosing a life of isolation and freedom over companionship and imprisonment.

Blue is a loyal hero with a tragic arc. This is largely true for her antihero raptor sisters, as well. Both of the Jurassic World films ultimately support this read, especially when viewed together. And Blue deserves the interpretation!

How I learned to stop worrying and tolerate Jurassic Park III

I’ve never really cared for Jurassic Park III. It’s loud, dumb, and mean. It doesn’t truly do anything new. Once more, people return to an island full of dinosaurs, and bad things happen as a result. Sam Neill’s returning Alan Grant seems as fatigued with the tired cycle as the most cynical audience member, and that fatigue only grows as he puts up with surviving a dino-island yet again, accompanied by idiots. His shock and disbelief at having been tricked back onto one of these islands is matched by my own: it’s quite a contrived narrative that gets him there and in the predicament of once more standing down theropods.

But I’m not here to explain why I didn’t like Jurassic Park III. I’d imagine most people who have seen it could understand that well enough on their own. I’m here to explain how I came to tolerate it within the franchise.

The first step is distance. I return to these movies often enough, but it wasn’t too hard to leave III out of the rotation even as Jurassic World and Fallen Kingdom were added in. Yet I still did return to it, with enough time between viewings that my impression could become more muted and less annoyed.

The second step required me to let go of my frustrations as I gave up on my annoyance. And there were a lot of things that frustrated me: the aforementioned laborious way in which Dr. Grant is brought back, the obnoxious Kirbys, Billy’s fake-out death and abrupt return in the rushed final moments, the lackluster depictions of the dinosaurs, the super-monster version of Spinosaurus, the super-intelligent raptors, the mean-spiritedness of the deaths…Even petty things that aren’t inherently flaws within the film, like the writers’ decision to end Grant and Sattler’s relationship, with Ellie settling down to have kids and Alan refocusing on his digs in isolation. Just let it all go. I had to accept that those things exist in the movie and there’s nothing for me to do about it.

The third step was being goaded to return to the film by people who found things to like about it. And yes, there are things to like about it–it’s a technically impressive film if nothing else. Plus, hearing from people who like it and can re-contextualize some of its less-impressive elements can lead to a little altered, more forgiving perspective when viewing. That leads right into the next step.

The fourth step is reframing some of the things that used to bother me. For instance, it always bothered me that Eric Kirby, a 12-year-old kid, managed to survive alone on the island for weeks; his survival skills appeared to outmatch even Grant’s, whom he rescued, and he appears to have performed a series of death-defying stunts in his parents’ absence, for instance collecting fresh tyrannosaur piss or obtaining a claw from a Velociraptor. But the actual events in the movie can provide an implied narrative that isn’t so outlandish and is a little easier for me to suspend disbelief. Eric was lucky. He wandered onto the InGen site, finding a source of food, water, and shelter. The abandoned tanker truck made a perfectly secure abode that could be sealed from dinosaur threats. He didn’t spend his time becoming a hardened survivalist so much as simply hiding and staying out of the way. Maybe he happened to collect the tyrannosaur urine after having observed one of the tyrants passing nearby with compies scattering before it. Maybe the Velociraptor lost its claw in a fight with a rival or in taking down prey, and Eric just collected it later. When Grant is ambushed by the Velociraptors, it’s not because he screwed up; he was carrying their eggs, and he didn’t know it. They could smell them, surely, and their entire objective was in retrieving their brood. Eric then dashed in with his supply of gas grenades. Once more, it was luck that got Eric through. Clearly, the kid is tough, determined, and smart, but we don’t have to accept the notion that he’s the most badass member of the group.

The fifth step is pure happenstance. As this whole process was taking place, years–now literally decades–after the movie was released, I got really into Jurassic World: Evolution. And some of the coolest dinosaur skins in that game were based off models from Jurassic Park III. Most realistic? No. But coolest. The dinosaurs in that movie are really vibrant. I liked those models. It was a small thing, but it let me come around to their depiction in the movie.

The sixth and final step is to find the things I outright like in the movie and to focus on them. For instance, much of III is a big, fun safari adventure just like The Lost World but with a smaller cast and no rival team. This adventure narrative leads to some very cool action sequences, like the initial Spinosaurus attack, the Velociraptor-induced stampede, the boat attack, or the aviary ambush. And while the movie avoids moments of true wonder that balanced out the first two movies, it does at least have a beautiful aerial sequence when the rescue team first arrives, and there’s the slow-paced moment on the river right after Grant lays out his theory about boys who want to be astronomers versus astronauts. And yes, the raptors are way too smart at this point, and the males’ little fringe of quills was a poor nod to the developing notion that dinosaurs like them would have been feathered, but the elaborate communication was still interesting behavior, and it did serve as a further attempt to present the dinosaurs as animals, not monsters (even as that effort is undermined by the wildly inaccurate and hyper-aggressive Spinosaurus that is fixated on hunting down all humans). And okay, the movie has a mean streak, but it’s okay for the franchise to lean into horror a little more–Fallen Kingdom‘s gothic vibes are great–and anyway, wasn’t I just praising The Lost World for being a darker film?

And that’s how I’ve learned to tolerate Jurassic Park III. Of course, I don’t really need to go soft on a movie in a massive blockbuster franchise. But it’s a franchise I’m otherwise rather fond of, and it’s nice to actually enjoy a rewatch of that third entry.

The Charms of The Lost World

Rotten Tomatoes has Jurassic Park at 92% fresh, in contrast to the rotten 53% of The Lost World and even worse 49% of Jurassic Park III. Clearly, among most critics there’s a widely agreed-upon loss in quality between the first film and its sequels–and audiences generally agreed as well. But while I recognize that The Lost World isn’t as good a movie as the original, I’m with the 53% of critics who had a generally favorable impression of the first sequel.

Part of my fondness for the film is pure nostalgia. I was only 8 years old when the movie released. By this point, I’d watched Jurassic Park many times on home video and played even more hours with an assortment of tie-in toys; I’d read the sequel novel by Michael Crichton (although, curiously, I wouldn’t read the original until a few years later); and while I no longer remember the particular entertainment magazine, I remember flipping through glossy photos of the actors, sets, and dinosaur animatronics while reading behind-the-scenes details in advance. While I had been very interested in Jurassic Park, I was a bit too young for it when it came out; I just loved dinosaurs, but the movie was initially a little too scary for me (I vividly remember covering my eyes the first time during the kitchen scene), and I certainly didn’t get to go see it in theaters. I was primed to love the newer movie in the full, over-eager way a kid can love anything, and with a nearly quadrupled promotional budget over the original, Universal was clearly doing everything in its power to burrow brand recognition and excitement into every young person’s head.

As I’ve aged, my views about the movie have shifted, but I’ve never been able to regard it too harshly. For what it is, it’s a lot of fun: a big, prehistoric safari for the first half that shifts to something resembling survival horror and ends with a King Kong– or kaiju-style monster rampage through San Diego.

The cast is truly great, too. Jeff Goldblum’s return as Ian Malcolm, now the lead protagonist, offers a new spin on the character, who has gone from rock star to worn-out dad. I like that the movie inverts his role within the narrative, especially as it builds on the trauma he endured at the park. I also like that Malcolm is prominently confronted by the consequences of his former cavalier attitude toward women and relationships. Then there’s Julianne Moore, who’s great in everything, as not only an adventurous paleontologist but a sort of maternal force: Sarah Harding argues that dinosaurs nurtured their young and views the island as a way to test her views, she’s supportive of Kelly in a way that Ian isn’t, she attempts to care for the wounded juvenile tyrannosaur, and she protects Kelly when the adult tyrannosaurs show up in the camp site. Pete Postlethwaite is shockingly sympathetic for a poacher, with his wearied no-nonsense attitude in working for yet another rich idiot, his concern for the injured, his focus on problem-solving and willingness to set aside a grudge, his quixotic quest to be the best hunter on the planet, and his eventual separation from the mercenary lifestyle that all together suggest an inner nobility guided by self-imposed rules of honor, like some modern-day knight. Richard Schiff plays loveable tech geek Eddie Carr, completely out of his element but a downright good guy who sacrifices his life for his colleagues (in a truly horrific death that deeply disturbs me every time–I find myself screaming, “Eddie’s a hero! He deserves better!” on just about every viewing); Peter Stormare has a notable side role as Dieter, the asshole second-in-command for the poachers; Arliss Howard is an anti-Hammond whose snide and overconfident façade that barely covers a weaselly inferiority complex is easy to hate; Vince Vaughn plays his usual laid-back-bro-with-a-heart-of-gold; and Richard Attenborough’s single appearance in the film is scene-stealing.

The Lost World also has a little more darkness and moral complexity than the original. After all, it confronts the audience again and again with the proposition, are the heroes even the good guys? Hammond sends Sarah off alone to an island full of lethal prehistoric animals, which just isn’t smart regardless of her survival skills on the African savannah, and he dispatches the remainder of the team without even adequately informing them of the risks–for instance, that another, and much better funded, InGen team would soon arrive to pillage the place. To be fair, he clues in one member of the team, but of course Nick Van Owen is a saboteur and eco-terrorist who’s willing to put others’ lives in danger for the sake of freeing the dinosaurs, and he doesn’t bother to fill anyone in until things get set in motion. Sarah and Nick make several decisions that compromise the safety of both teams: freeing the dinosaurs in the camp, taking the juvenile tyrannosaur with them, keeping the bloodied clothing instead of discarding it so that the tyrannosaurs are all that much more easily able to track them, and taking the bullets from Roland Tembo’s gun. Sure, most of these actions were inadvertent, but it’s also true that most if not all of the deaths can be traced to their choices. Of course, it’s still easy to root for them since they care about the dinosaurs and we know them better than the hunters. And who really wants to cheer for poachers, even commanded by someone as charming as Pete Postlethwaite, when the scummy Peter Ludlow is writing their checks and some of them, like Dieter, are just vicious, uncaring, and brutal? (Whether we should actually devote so much to conserving species brought back from extinction after dozens or hundreds of millions of years is another question entirely that this film doesn’t really wrangle with; Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom at least engaged with that debate but quickly backed away from it.)

Then of course the dinosaurs themselves are great. I love the speculative socialized and nurturing behaviors shown. Would Stegosaurus really have cared for its young like that? It doesn’t matter; it was still some fun behavior to model, a nice counterpoint to dinosaurs as dumb and slow brutes, and the animatronics and computer animation that brought those stegosaurs to life is really something else. In general, the special effects look even better than those in Jurassic Park, showing some impressive updates in technology in a few short years, and all of the returning dinosaurs get a bit of a makeover even as a few new critters make their appearance. And while the Compsognathus / Procompsognathus amalgam is maybe a bit of a miss, most of the other new additions seemed rather true-to-life for the time. Plus, in 1997 paleontologists were only beginning to discover more and more feathered dinosaurs, so it was fair enough (probably) to leave them all scaly.

There are things that I truly don’t like about the movie. The pacing is a bit all over the place, as the plot moves forward in fits and starts, and the San Diego sequence, while exciting, feels like it belongs to a different movie (of course, if you think of the whole movie as an homage to King Kong, which surely would have been in Steven Spielberg’s mind, then the final act makes more sense). And that San Diego sequence offers a tantalizing possibility but in some ways doesn’t go far enough; dinosaurs on the mainland would have been a practical way to move on from the repeated trips to remote islands for similar survival stories, and it wouldn’t be until Fallen Kingdom that the franchise finally took advantage of this. Not that all of my complaints lay in that final section of the film, but also, I can never wrap my head around the logistics of how the Tyrannosaurus buck broke out of the cargo hold, killed everyone, and then was once more trapped; an explanation could exist, and perhaps it would even be something that would satisfy me, but the bizarre appearance of the ghost freighter has always invited the question of what exactly happened–and I don’t think of myself typically as the sort of doofus yelling “plot hole!” just because something’s not explicitly depicted onscreen. Then there’s the one really bad casting choice: Harvey Jason, an English actor, plays Ajay Sidhu, the Indian assistant to Roland Tembo, and it seems to be a textbook example of brownface.

Other than that, though, I wouldn’t say that The Lost World is a bad movie. It’s just tonally different from Jurassic Park. It’s not about the same things, and its recurring characters are (appropriately) different than they were before. This is an adventure movie, a spiritual successor to movies like the original screen adaptation of The Lost World in 1925, or King Kong in 1933, or any of the kaiju movies spawned out of them. It’s part monster movie, part safari adventure, and it maybe feels a bit disjointed because of that. Or maybe it’s because The Lost World is a crueler movie with a less-clear moral center than its predecessor. Doesn’t make it bad, but it does make it difficult to categorize. It’s rough around the edges, more inclined to brutality than awe, with deeply flawed characters filling the roles of protagonists and antagonists. It’s an interesting experiment for such a damn big blockbuster movie. And I’m still charmed by it.