What I’m Into: Fall 2021

It’s been a long time since I’ve had posts just talking about what I was into at a given moment. Not review, or analysis, just an overview of everything engaging me at the moment. Those posts were sort of aimless, but also sort of fun, because I’d just talk about whatever was absorbing me at the moment. I’ve had so much narrowed focus on big franchise things lately on the blog that I think one of these sorts of scattered, aimless, free-form posts is long overdue.

So, what am I into right now?

What I’m Reading

I’m reading quite a few things, hopping between them. I’m finally around to Michael Crichton’s posthumous Dragon Teeth, which so far has been an enjoyable Western adventure romp with the fairly unique focus on the Bone Wars and early field paleontology. Marsh and Cope are characterized quite colorfully but the rest of the cast, including the protagonist, are fairly bland. I’m simultaneously reading Star Wars: Master & Apprentice by Claudia Gray, which does a great job portraying Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan at an especially fraught moment in their relationship before the events of the prequel trilogy, alongside a lot of cool Jedi Stuff. Then I’m reading Jon Dubin’s Social Security Disability Law and the American Labor Market; it’s been a while since I’ve tackled a truly academic book, and so I’m making slow progress through this dense text despite the rather slender physical packaging, but it’s very worthwhile, and I’m sure it would be a tremendous resource not just for disability law scholars but practitioners like me and perhaps even a general reader seeking to better understand the arbitrary and archaic way that the Social Security Administration attempts to account for an individual’s ability to perform other work and to determine how much of that work actually exists, and in what form, in the national economy.

I’ve also been churning through the published materials for the Alien RPG from Free League. This is just tremendous stuff. I’m not particularly interested in published adventures in general but the cinematic mode gameplay modules that have been published so far offer some really tense, vivid, horrific scenarios. And mechanically, there are a lot of ways to make the players feel insecure, underpowered, under-resourced, and facing threats they can’t possibly comprehend or defeat. (I’ve seen at least one reviewer suggest that agendas and effects like panic take the roleplaying out of the players’ hands, but players would still have to play out how things happen–this if anything just sets up more dramatic opportunities and encourages a feeling of loss of control at key moments that reflects the horror focus of the game.) Just as importantly, the RPG recognizes that the Alien franchise has been about a lot more than the alien from the very beginning, and it builds out enough complicated politics between interstellar governments and mega-corps to provide entertaining storytelling possibilities for their open-sandbox campaign mode. I hope to get some friends to play through at least one or two of the cinematic games in the near future. I think I’ll have more to say about all the materials when I’m through reading them, but of course a proper review of a game is rather incomplete if not based on play experience, so you’ll have to take it with a grain of salt unless I get a group together for this quicker than I think likely. In fact, there are a few different Alien/Aliens posts coming up, but I’m going to keep them to a single day, rather than another series spanning multiple weeks; Halloween seems appropriate.

What I’m Playing

I’ve been in a bit of a tabletop gaming mood lately. Way back in February, I wrote about a routine I had of playing Ring Fit Adventure, a single-player RPG, and then Star Wars: Squadrons with friends over the course of the week. All of that’s changed since then. Ring Fit Adventure play is now quite sporadic. The single-player video game of choice varies a lot as well. And the Squadrons play changed over to (virtual) tabletop roleplaying with those friends; one of them has always been an exceptional gamemaster and has been leading us through an Edge of the Empire campaign, and I haven’t had this much fun with a tabletop RPG in years. I’ve even led a couple of sessions with some side characters set within the same continuity. So between that and reading the Alien materials more recently, I’ve been really energized to try to get to more tabletop roleplaying. As usual, I’ll probably spend a lot more time thinking about settings and stories than actually playing any of these systems, but it’s generative creative energy either way. In addition to the aforementioned materials, I broke down and purchased the Cypher System Rulebook and its Predation supplement because the Terra Nova-meets-Dinotopia-meets-Xenozoic setting looks too damn cool.

I also just pledged on Kickstarter to back a physical printing of Matthew Gravelyn’s survival-adventure journaling game Clever Girl because I can’t get enough of dinosaurs in games and fiction. It’s not the only unlicensed work heavily inspired by Jurassic Park that I’ve recently purchased–about a month ago, I got Dinosaur World from Pandasaurus; it’s a delightful competitive game about building the best dinosaur park you can, producing dinosaurs amid other attractions and amenities and attempting to keep interest in your park maintained through constant expansion and greater risk (it’s also a sequel to their previous Dinosaur Island, which I haven’t played). My wife and I have only played Dinosaur World once so far, and it took a while for us both to get a feel for how the rounds flowed and everything that we should be keeping in mind during the different phases. Once we got that down, it was a lot of fun, and I’ve been itching to play again with a full four players (it’s for 2 to 4).

We technically attended Gen Con this year, but we were only there for part of a day (Sam really struggles with crowds and being in public now). Nonetheless, between Gen Con and online purchases, I’ve picked up quite a number of board games–nothing super-new but certainly games released over the last few years that I’ve been wanting to play. Aside from Nemesis, the ones I picked out this year have been mostly licensed stuff. I’ll write more if/when I get around to these games. I also might write about some of the older games we haven’t played in a while if we pull them out in the coming months–which I hope to be the case more and more as we’re trying to set aside some time for board games, both between the two of us and with a couple friends, on a recurrent basis. Hopefully, there will be no dramatic new developments in the pandemic that would require us to back off from that.

Normally, I would have brought up video games sooner, but I haven’t been playing as much lately. I’ve been intermittently playing Mass Effect: Legendary Edition. I’m trying to do three playthroughs of each game in the trilogy (on top of the playthroughs I had in the original releases of these games). I’m currently on the second playthrough of the second game with my only Renegade character, and even without being a pure Renegade, I don’t enjoy how much of a dick you are with this playstyle. But I’ve been just as likely to play a little bit of Jurassic World: Evolution (yes, I keep coming back to it after all) or The Sims 4. I’ve even given Alien: Isolation another try, finishing…most of it. I’ll have a post about that experience on Halloween, as well. The video game I’m most excited about isn’t even out for about another month: Jurassic World Evolution 2 looks like an improvement on the original in about every way–and at 280 hours recorded, I’ve now put more time into this game than any other in my Steam library.

What I’m watching

I re-watched “The Ninth Jedi” and “The Elder” from Star Wars: Visions this weekend. They’re so good. I’ve also been watching Letterkenny, Marvel’s What If…?, DC’s third season of Titans, and Only Murders in the Building. I’m only current on Only Murders, which is hilarious while simultaneously being surprisingly heartfelt and mysterious. Martin Short, Steve Martin, and Selena Gomez are all delivering fantastic performances every episode. Lastly, for television at least, I’ve started watching The Haunting of Bly Manor, just as most people are now talking about Mike Flanagan’s latest Netflix series, Midnight Mass. Ah, I’m forever behind the times.

I don’t think I’ve watched very many new or new-to-me movies recently, or at least not since The Suicide Squad, which has already been nearly two months ago. Once more, it’s what’s in the near future that my attention is more focused on. I’ll be seeing The Many Saints of Newark, actually in a cinema, sometime this week, and I’ll also be going to Dune in theater later this month or early November. I’m sure I’ll be posting reactions to both when I can.


I’ve written before about trying to balance consumption of big franchises and existing IP with original creative works. Looking at my blog posts this year, and paying attention to what I’m currently engaging with, I am a little disappointed to realize how heavily my consumption has favored the former this year. But since 2020, life has been tumultuous for a lot of people, and that’s certainly been true for my house. Plus, work has remained quite busy for about a year now. So I guess it’s okay if I’m taking in more junk comfort entertainment. I’d also argue that even though these creative works most benefit large corporations and often regurgitate existing ideas, characters, plot structures, and so on, some of the current franchise productions are managing to mine new territory and do really interesting things. Still, it’s something worth being mindful of, and it might gradually lead to a rebalance of what I’m spending my time on.

I think I’d like to sign off by doing something a little differently and talk specifically about what I’m into creating instead of just consuming. Outside of this blog and the briefs I prepare for work, I haven’t written consistently in a long while now. But I do have sporadic bursts of creativity. I try to jot ideas down in a journal. Over the past few months, a few dreams have connected with other, older ideas and led to two full outlines for fantasy stories set in a shared universe. I think they’re each maybe novella length, at least, and I’d really like to devote some time to writing those stories in full. I’ve also been dabbling with fan fiction, though I haven’t completed any of those projects. Some of it’s been related to those Jurassic Park gap stories I mentioned in that series of posts on here. The fantasy stories are closer to my heart and so even if I finish them, I probably won’t post more than some excerpts here, but I think I very well might just post any finished fan fiction to this blog. Maybe writing this here, publicly, will get me to commit to completing some of these projects.

And that’s just about everything I’m into, for now.

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.

Jurassic Park: Book vs. Film

It’s common knowledge that the book is always better than the movie. Except for when it isn’t. Jurassic Park is a fairly unique case, in that the movie is an incredible achievement and is distinctly superior to the book, and yet in adapting from print to screen, it takes some liberties and changes some characters and plot arcs for the worse. While I do believe that the best version of Jurassic Park exists on the screen, there are some notable caveats that go with that statement, and depending on your storytelling priorities, it’s perfectly reasonable to favor the book. It’s sort of a tie, then, isn’t it?

Below are the elements I favored in each version.

Better in the Film

  1. Almost all of the characters. Except for the case of Gennaro (made into a symbol of corporate greed and embodied primarily by cowardice) and Nedry (who remains a fairly simple bumbling villain, and yet another character motivated by greed), they’re all more human and complex.
    1. Hammond is refreshingly reformed, not a simple corporate bad guy or “evil Walt Disney” like the book, and I think his realization over the course of the film that the park was a bad idea, his recognition that his consultants’ concerns about power, control, and chaos were right, provides a fantastic character arc that also serves to reinforce the central theme of the movie in a better and more subtle way than the preachy lectures from Malcolm in the novel; this also provides a nice setup for Hammond’s reformation and attempt to get the dinosaurs left alone that motivates him to act in The Lost World.
    2. Grant has a fantastic new arc, becoming more comfortable with children and developing paternal characteristics that had otherwise been lacking and suggest a likely improvement in his long-term relationship with Sattler (and so I’ll never really forgive Jurassic Park III for bringing the two back as exes, with Sattler having found another partner to start a family with).
    3. Speaking of Sattler, the sensitivity and fearful resolve brought to the role by Laura Dern make for an improved character over the more generic Action Hero Woman defined solely by beauty and nerves of steel in the book.
    4. Malcolm is made to be hipper and funnier, somewhat less a boring know-it-all, in part thanks to far fewer speeches and in part due to the magnetism Jeff Goldblum naturally produces.
    5. Switching the relative ages of dino-nerd Tim and scaredy-cat Lex, and then making Lex a computer geek, makes Lex far less annoying and gives her something practical to do while retaining Tim’s function in the story. Helpful, endearing kids–who are still kids and require protection–make Grant’s arc even more plausible and, more importantly, make it easier for the audience (or at least me) to care when the kids are imperiled. (I literally gasp every time I watch that Explorer slide over the edge with Grant and Lex barely grasping the line to safety in time.)
  2. The design of the park is gorgeous, the sets are amazing, and it looks better than I could have imagined from reading the book alone. In fact, the book makes the park seem smaller, in a way, even though there’s a more involved tour and then the extended river raft sequence to show more of it and more of the dinosaurs in it. (Tough to beat the lush Hawaiian ridges in the background of the film for making the island and park seem enormous.)
  3. The movie focuses on a smaller set of intense action scenes with plenty of smaller character moments in between. The book is too much a run of threat after threat, with virtually no character development (I’ll talk in the next section about the cool moments of meandering the book gets into, but they’re not there for character development).
  4. The movie really nails moments of awe. In the book, there’s more sickening dread throughout. Whereas the movie still opens with the Velociraptor attack, it then shifts to introducing our characters, and when we get to the island, we get the cool Brachiosaurus scene. The book lingers on moments of horror, characterized by the introductory scene in which a maimed man is brought back to the mainland to die, followed by a prolonged subplot about several Procompsognathus that have escaped to the mainland to prey on infants.
  5. The movie ends with a sense of hope and renewed purpose. The book ends on a darker note, with a much higher body count, the island napalmed, predators escaped to the mainland, and the surviving protagonists held prisoner.

Better in the Book

  1. Gennaro is done a great disservice in the film by combining his character with Ed Regis and killing him off early. I really like the Gennaro of the book. He’s still representative of corporate greed and irresponsibility, but he’s frankly not a bad man, and he’s provided an opportunity for reluctant redemption. Gennaro’s also the book’s everyman and therefore makes for the most relatable viewpoint character, in contrast to the author’s mouthpiece that is Malcolm or the Action Heroes of Grant and Sattler.
  2. There is not a single best version of Muldoon, but the book’s version has some strong points in his favor. I love Bob Peck’s portrayal, but I also like the older, alcoholic, roguish figure of the novel. I also enjoy Muldoon’s meatier role, as he becomes centrally involved in the subplot of attempting to get the park back online, doing things like tranquilizing the adult Tyrannosaurus, finding Nedry’s corpse, and distracting the raptors when attempting to restore power. And there’s the fact that Muldoon makes it out alive in the book. I do prefer the film’s treatment of death–anyone and everyone is at risk, and even though the body count is lower, it’s not the simple use of violent death as moral consequence that Crichton tends to employ in his books. Still, Muldoon’s a character I want to make it off the island; he knew better, and he actually paid attention to the threat the dinosaurs represented. It’s especially humiliating for the film version of the character in that he’s taken down by the dinosaurs he’s supposed to know and respect/fear.
  3. The dinosaurs in the book are more accurate, at least for the time of publication. The film takes too many liberties with some of its dinosaurs, though they are still mostly quite realistic (again, for the time of release) and certainly dynamic in a way that most audiences hadn’t seen before. Even the weird divergences in the book, like Velociraptor actually being Deinonychus, are explicitly discussed, and the speculative behaviors presented for some of the dinosaurs are exactly that–speculative, not necessarily inaccurate.
  4. The book actually answers the questions raised by its central mysteries. The movie never explains why the Triceratops keeps getting sick (nor does it even bother to suggest that Sattler is right) or how the Velociraptor were breeding without notice or able to escape their confinement to lay eggs in the park. The novel simply had more raptors, so it was easier to imagine them secretly disappearing at night in small numbers, but the movie has only the three, so it’s a little harder to imagine that no one would ever notice (then again, they had a skeleton crew to run the park, even more so in the movie).
  5. The book also spends more time fleshing out how the park is run and staffed, how things go to hell and how systems are restored, and even what the dinosaurs really are. I liked the moments spent with Muldoon, Wu, and Harding and the more behind-the-curtain elements that their stories, and Hammond’s, provided. While I’d never want to see a movie remake of Jurassic Park, which is more or less perfect as is, I really wouldn’t mind at all a television series that adapted the novel and mirrored its more meandering pace and curiosity about every element of how this park could possibly exist. Spielberg rightly focused on the awe and spectacle, but I like Crichton’s intense focus on rationalizing everything, on making it seem real, like an incident that had actually occurred. Crichton was interested in the infrastructure and logistics of it all, and I suppose I am too.

A fairly neutral point is how each version left the state of the fictional universe for potential sequels. Certainly sequels are never necessary, but we’ve certainly had plenty of sequels nonetheless, and it’s interesting to consider how the changed landscapes at the conclusions of the original stories impacted what later stories could reasonably be told.

The book closes off any option of a return to Isla Nublar, given its dramatic napalm bombing finale. However, it does leave the dangling thread of some of the dinosaurs having reached the mainland–at least some Procompsognathus and what is suggested to be Velociraptor. That might have been a rather limited scope for a sequel, but you’d immediately be in a world where dinosaurs were coexisting with remote human populations, and that could have been interesting. I’m rather glad we didn’t see that sequel, though, because I don’t think I’d much care for such a scenario where there were only a few small theropods left. Sure, it could have been an interesting story about preserving and containing de-extinct and now endangered life that was nonetheless an invasive species, but I bet it would have been more a monster narrative about killer dinosaurs.

Ultimately, it was the better choice for Crichton to abandon this subplot. And, given his interest in a plausible prehistoric park and in the nuts-and-bolts infrastructure of it, the existence of a Site B makes a lot of sense and is a good starting point. It doesn’t feel like a do-over, but more a reflection that Jurassic Park would have required considerable facilities for genetics, manufacturing, incubation, and raising the young dinosaurs that likely would have to be larger than the infrastructure suggested even in the book’s version of the park. It’s a natural development. I’m also hardly alone in finding that Crichton’s best stories tend to borrow themes and structures from classic literature, so it shouldn’t be surprising that he turned to perhaps the most signature adventure story of humans stumbling upon a lost prehistoric land for the sequel, lifting even the title of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World for his novel. Once more, Crichton spends a lot of time on nuts and bolts, building out a plausible sequence of events for the characters to discover this lost world and articulating a coherent explanation for its existence and abandonment. But the plot itself suffers, and he reuses character types from Jurassic Park, down to bringing along two kids. Truly, once the team gets to the island, the plot takes a backseat to a series of mostly disconnected action set pieces, interesting speculative dinosaur behaviors, and long-winded philosophical debates among the protagonists. The central mystery on the island–how can the ecosystem support so many carnivores?–is not especially interesting and keeps getting derailed by the next action scene. And the central antagonists are just bumbling poachers, as Crichton apparently felt it necessary to bring the BioSyn corporate antagonist behind Nedry back into the mix in a rather mundane way. Perhaps the most unusual carryover from the first book is the return of Ian Malcolm, a character who was quite dead. While a bizarre choice, I imagine this was an acquiescence to audience interest and the very living version of the character in the movie. It might perhaps be another nod to Arthur Conan Doyle, who in addition to writing The Lost World was of course the creator of Sherlock Holmes, whom he once killed off and later brought back.

Spielberg and screenwriter David Koepp had their own loose ends they could have followed up on. After all, there’s no mention of bombing the island. There could have still been dinosaurs on Isla Nublar. Perhaps InGen could have sent in a team to try to control the situation, encountering new threats and exploring previously unseen areas of the park. The mysteries left unanswered in the film could have been addressed. And while the lysine contingency would have gone into effect with the absence of human intervention, the animals’ continued survival would have been another mystery to answer–after all, that was another question left to address on Isla Sorna either way. While they largely scrapped the broad adventure plot of Crichton’s sequel, they did pull in several of the characters, a few of the action sequences, and the broad concept of the second island, so Nublar was left neglected. Of course, the films did eventually get back to Isla Nublar and a reorganized park, but in the process, they left the fate of the dinosaurs on Isla Sorna in shadow. Why was the volcanic eruption on Isla Nublar a potential threat of re-extinction for the dinosaurs if they were thriving on Site B? The only for-certain explanation, provided in ancillary materials like the Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom Survival Guide, is that the animals were relocated from Isla Sorna to the new park on Isla Nublar. Were they all moved? How did InGen get around the apparent preserve status set up for Isla Sorna after the events of The Lost World, especially if they completely depleted the newly established ecosystem in the process? Regardless, it would have been nice if each film didn’t act as though there was only one island with dinosaurs on it, that island being whichever one was the focus of that given film.

But now I’m way off topic. The bottom line: there are a great many things I like about both the book and movie version of Jurassic Park, and I’m glad they both exist.

The Verdict: Bone Wars

Seems every time I claim there won’t be a change to my posting frequency, that’s exactly what happens. Consider last week’s missing post an anomaly, though–it’s been a busy month, and not just with the new job and new volunteer role. In just over a month, Sam and I have been to two weddings and participated in several more social events than I’m used to. It’s been fun but time-consuming, and we’re both just tired now!

Honestly, the most fun I’ve had in a long while was just yesterday. We went to “The Verdict: The Bone Wars” at the Indianapolis Children’s Museum. It was an adults-only night of food, drinks, live entertainment, and dinosaurs. The “live entertainment” portion was a mock trial, presented by local attorneys and actors, that addressed the rivalry of paleontologists Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh in the 1870s. If you were trying to find a more perfect confluence of subjects that were more in line with my interests, it would be difficult: history, paleontology, and law, all accompanied by as much delicious food and as many strong cocktails as I could want.

While there wasn’t a real trial to replicate, the ridiculous antics of the friends-turned-rivals provided more than enough fodder for this reenacted dispute. That said, and while it’s all in good fun, I was surprised that the audience ultimately found for Cope, here in the role of plaintiff in a lawsuit for libel, when there wasn’t all that much evidence presented (within the mock trial) that Marsh actually published anything clearly libelous. The central complaint, his continued mockery of Cope’s reversal of the Elasmosaurus reconstruction, seemed quite firmly rooted in fact. And both men were involved in enough skulduggery and field site dynamiting. I think people just felt sorry for Cope!

What was also cool was that the reception and after-party events were hosted in the museum’s “Dinosphere,” so we could wander around and look at the fossil displays. It’s been years since I was last there. Friendly and informative staff were on hand; I learned a little bit about fossil prep and storage, and even a little sauropod anatomy, from a paleontologist working in a display lab on site, and I learned about developments in fossil reconstructions and displays, as well as future plans for the Dinosphere in light of the Mission Jurassic project, from a museum exhibit interpreter. Plus, the Extraordinary Scientists-in-Residence for Mission Jurassic answered audience questions and provided their perspectives on paleontology past and present after the mock trial ended. So it was all really informative and entertaining!

This was the second year for “The Verdict,” and while the use of a paleontology theme is just a one-off, Sam and I are both very interested in attending future years’ Verdict events.

I’m in a particular dinosaur-focused mood now, so I’m rather eager to get to some books that I’ve been sitting on. There’s Donald Prothero’s The Story of the Dinosaurs in 25 Discoveries: Amazing Fossils and the People Who Found Them, a library hold waiting in my pile of books; Brian Switek’s My Beloved Brontosaurus: On the Road with Old Bones, New Science, And Our Favorite Dinosaurs, unread in my own personal collection; and Michael Crichton’s posthumously published Dragon Teeth (which just so happens to be about the Bone Wars), a book I keep meaning to get around to but haven’t bothered to obtain yet. We’ll see when and if I get around to them all, though.

Review – Jurassic World: The Evolution of Claire

The Evolution of Claire (Jurassic World)The Evolution of Claire by Random House

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The Evolution of Claire is fairly small in scope, intimate even, especially for a title set in the Jurassic Park–excuse me, Jurassic World–franchise. Author Tess Sharpe details a nineteen-year-old Claire Dearing’s summer internship on Isla Nublar for the Masrani Corporation, in the final months before the new park would open. While there are many misadventures and some moments of wonder as the interns interact with dinosaurs in the park, the central focus of the novel is Claire’s budding romance with another intern. A B plot is a series of mysterious happenings around the facilities that seem somehow connected with a fabled class of Phantom Interns from the year before. The central culprit behind those happenings is a spoiled, mysogynist intern who is so obviously villainous and yet so obviously not the true antagonist that he’s basically Red Herring from A Pup Named Scooby Doo.

So it’s a YA novel with dinosaurs. It was a fun read. There were issues with continuity that sometimes annoyed me. I would have enjoyed more about the creation of the dinosaurs (Sharpe seems aware that mosquitoes alone would be insufficient for this resurrection miracle, yet never references potential alternative DNA sources–even Crichton’s original book, and the recent game Jurassic World: Evolution, at least refer to bone fragments and other potential alternative sources). Isla Sorna is mentioned, and it’s suggested that most if not all of the animals were to be moved to Isla Nublar (after several had been thinned out by poaching), but this plot thread still feels nebulous. The interns freely hop between radically different assignments, like security, genetics lab work, and vet work, though most of them are not qualified. The interns themselves seem rather young for such a selective and intensive program, having only completed a semester of undergrad, although maybe that’s commonplace among the hyper-competitive. There were some good dinosaur moments, but I wanted more dinosaurs in general; Brachiosaurus and Triceratops got spotlights, Tyrannosaurus had its moment, and there was a big showdown in the climax with an angry Velociraptor, but other genera had fleeting glimpses or name drops if they appeared at all. With so many dinosaurs to choose from, so many dinosaurs we know were at the park, it’s disappointing that the author settled on the highlights of the original film. And while Claire is no specialist and therefore doesn’t necessarily know how to interpret what is happening, there’s a general lack of detail that is disappointing in contrast to the rather specific world-building found in the Crichton books and Spielberg films (the latter show that depth does not need to bog down the story with exposition). So there are things that I would have preferred to be different, but nothing that ruined the reading experience.

There’s a good deal of melodrama, particularly in the last third of the book, but there’s also a lot of authentic depiction of trauma and grief in those moments as well. I’m not sure that I would have made the decision to have yet more death at this park before it even opened if I were making narrative choices here, yet it does do a lot to provide a clear character arc for Claire that extends through both of the films in which she appears. Over the course of the book, we see her go from an ambitious, bright-eyed optimist who is truly amazed by the creatures she encounters to a hard-edged, jaded young woman who sees protecting people from those same creatures as a driving purpose. It’s more complex than that; I was truly impressed with the character development, which really helped explain who Claire was and made clear why she would make the decisions that she did in Fallen Kingdom. Most surprisingly, the book does a lot to renovate Dr. Wu’s appearance; he’s driven, but his ambitions are motivated at least in part by his coping strategies for the loss of close coworkers at the first park. It’s a more effective portrait than the mad scientist of the Jurassic World films.

All in all, this isn’t a bad book by any means. It’s light and enjoyable. It’s not really what I would want out of a book in this franchise. But it does character development better than Crichton ever did. With expectations accordingly set, the average Jurassic World fan should be able to appreciate the experience.

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Review: The Making of Jurassic Park

The Making of Jurassic ParkThe Making of Jurassic Park by Don Shay

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is an enjoyable account of the making of Jurassic Park. It’s easy to forget how revolutionary the special effects were at the time, and this narrative really drives home those elements of the production. There are also a lot of great teases about the development of the screenplay from the novel to the final product, with three screenwriters (starting with Crichton himself) taking a swing at it.

This could have been a fairly safe narrative, but the hardships of production are described, often in detail, and there are at least hints of tension and conflicts (the shifting prioritization of stop-motion, animatronics, and CGI was an interesting dramatic narrative). And there were some quotes where the creative team could be surprisingly frank. My favorite, from screenwriter David Koepp: “Here I was writing about these greedy people who are creating a fabulous theme park just so they can exploit all these dinosaurs and make silly little films and sell stupid plastic plates and things. And I’m writing it for a company that’s eventually going to put this in their theme parks and make these silly little films and sell stupid plastic plates. I was really chasing my tail there for a while trying to figure out who was virtuous in this whole scenario–and eventually gave up.”

Visually, the book is packed with concept art, behind-the-scenes photographs, and astounding images of the visual effects development process. My parents got me this book as a kid (like Tim, and many/most kids, I’ve always had dinosaurs on the brain), and the book was always a delight just for the pictures alone. Amazingly, while I had skimmed many passages before, this was my first time reading it cover-to-cover (sadly, not the same childhood copy).

The book accomplishes what it sets out to do: it tells the story of the making of Jurassic Park. A longer, more robust, more complicated and detailed narrative would have been fascinating, and I would have preferred if the story had been told in pure chronological order rather than inserting details as they made thematic sense (as some of the conflicts and detours would be more apparent that way, and the whole project would seem less destined). Still, I enjoyed reading it and will continue to enjoy idly leafing through the artwork.

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P.S. The three screenwriters were: Michael Crichton, Malia Scotch Marmo, and David Koepp. Marmo’s version was ultimately unused, but she provided extensive feedback on Koepp’s version, which evolved into the final script.

Revisiting the JP Books

It has been a while since I last read the Jurassic Park novels. Believe it or not, I don’t always just rehash my same old interests over and over every time a new release comes out! I didn’t read the books when Jurassic World came out. I’ve read both Jurassic Park and The Lost World a few times, but probably college was when I last revisited them. Fallen Kingdom felt like such a fresh approach to the franchise, though, and at the same time, Evolution drew so heavily from the books. So read them again I did.

My biggest disappointment is that every time I reread these books, I like them a little bit less. Crichton always had such cool ideas with every book, but then execution typically followed the same action-horror formulas. Many of the characters just feel like repeats from other books, and it’s hard not to jump from, say, Jurassic Park to Timeline to Prey without getting hit repeatedly with déjà vu (I’m sure that Crichton’s Westworld would fit right in, but I have never seen the film). And the biggest flaw of Crichton’s books is that he tends to be self-righteously preachy and philosophical. While his messages vary, they often come down to a fundamental mistrust of scientific industry. And there’s typically at least one character to take on the authorial voice.

In Jurassic Park and The Lost World, the authorial voice character has been Ian Malcolm. Unlike Jeff Goldblum’s goofy mathematician/”rock star,” book Malcolm is a never-ending speechifying machine. He goes on and on about chaos theory, and frankly, it’s hard to want Malcolm to be right when he’s so pretentious, self-absorbed, and long-winded. We’re talking pages of monologue from Malcolm, especially later in the book.

But Jurassic Park makes many odd character decisions. Grant, for instance, is a gruff, outdoorsy, manly man who disdains more academic scientists. He’s positioned as the protagonist, and he does shepherd the kids through the park like in the film and helps uncover the truths about the breeding dinosaurs and their nesting sites. But he’s not very likeable. He’s an asshole to many of the characters and makes snap decisions about people, often choosing to dislike them. Plus, he’s incredibly belligerent toward Gennaro.

Now, that might seem like a weird complaint if you haven’t read the books. But Gennaro is actually Crichton’s everyman viewpoint character here. He’s smart, even though he’s not an expert in the scientific fields and so needs to get up to speed on some points. Even while his law firm is invested in Jurassic Park, he is quite willing to close it down if it’s unsafe, and he doesn’t fall for Hammond’s bullshit. He never gets caught up in greed, and he’s not a coward (the one to flee the T-rex attack is Ed Regis, PR guy for Jurassic Park). And he accepts responsibility for his role in enabling the place, often tagging along with Muldoon to handle some of the most dangerous tasks in attempting to restore order to the park. But Muldoon and Grant remain hostile to him basically the entire time.

Then we have characters reduced to the blankest of archetypes, ready for morally acceptable dino-snacking: Hammond is a sinister industrialist who cares little about the loss of life happening in his park, Regis is a slick corporate executive who proves to be cowardly and stupid, Wu is blinded by his scientific ambition, Arnold never really understands the complex systems he’s tasked with running, and Nedry is a greedy fat slob with very little motivation for being so easily corrupted. Basically all the characters are improved in the film.

Meanwhile, Sattler is Sattler. The other characters often look at her lustfully, or are surprised that she’s a woman. But she herself is incredibly competent, a Sigourney Weaver-type action protagonist. I think even Sattler is improved on-screen, though, because she’s allowed more emotional vulnerability and human reaction than she gets in the book. Interestingly, in The Making of Jurassic Park by Don Shay and Jody Duncan, Steven Spielberg is quoted as saying that the selection of an actor for Sattler “was a tough choice.” He added:

I never thought of Laura [Dern] in the context of Jurassic Park because I saw her as kind of frail and always being pursued by circumstances and men. I never envisioned her as a tough gal, like Linda Hamilton or Sigourney Weaver. But, actually, she didn’t need to be. She wasn’t required to play that kind of character in the film. Ellie is more of a brain–a paleobotanist who loves animals and plants and is pretty much a creature of the earth. And when I got to meet Laura and spend some time with her, I found that was pretty much what she was. So it worked out nicely.

The only character I genuinely prefer in book-form is Robert Muldoon, who is depicted at first as a hyper-competent park warden with years of experience but ultimately reveals himself to be a belligerent drunk under pressure. And yet he still manages to pull off some ridiculous feats–tranquilizing the tyrannosaur and blowing up a raptor, for instance.

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The Lost World ends up repeating many of the same plot points and characters. Seriously, most of the characters seem interchangeable with their Jurassic Park counterparts. The engineering professor Thorne is a gruff, physical, materialist character like Grant. Eddie Carr is a young, out-of-his-depth city kid like Ed Regis (he even has the same first name, while his last name bluntly echoes his role as mechanic); Carr, unlike Regis, is actually heroic, but he also meets a grisly fate. Dodgson returns to take on the direct role of greedy and corrupt villain that Nedry previously inhabited. Malcolm rises from the dead to be Malcolm again (his return from a very clear death in the first book echoes the return of Sherlock Holmes from death, which seems fitting given the heavy debt Crichton obviously owed to Arthur Conan Doyle’s own Lost World). Harding is the new Sattler. Kelly and Arby are the new Tim and Lex. Levine is…I don’t know who the hell Levine corresponds with, but he’s obnoxious as hell. In fact, Levine’s survival to the end and Carr’s death are supporting evidence for my theory that The Lost World was largely Crichton’s attempt to correct perceived errors in the original book–we move away from moralistic death scenes to having characters killed or surviving by random chance (even Howard King on the villain’s team really is a sympathetic guy after all and doesn’t “deserve” his horrifying death at the hands of the raptors).

I have to wonder why Crichton decided to focus on the characters he settled on. Grant’s absence is especially jarring. Book Grant escapes the Jurassic Park crisis more or less unscathed. He was quick-thinking and quick-acting. Sometimes his plans worked great, sometimes they backfired, and sometimes he survived by luck alone. But he kept persevering. He was always the scientist, even seeking out the raptor nest voluntarily when he could have stayed safely back at the control center. He was intrigued by the raptor behavior up until he was evacuated. Knowing there was another island would easily perk up the Grant of the novel and motivate him to launch another expedition.

Instead, we have Malcolm–a character Crichton had to bring back from the dead–in the main role. Film Malcolm was heavily traumatized by his experiences; book Malcolm suffered even worse and carried physical traumas for years afterward, so his willingness to look for and go to yet another island feels arbitrary. Plus, he’s now focusing on evolution and extinction events, trying to apply chaos theory to the subjects (yawn) and acting like an expert in a field he didn’t know anything about until after Jurassic Park. And then we have Levine, a sniveling, foppish nuisance, as a new paleontologist brought into the fold (who is far less likeable than Grant). Finally, Thorne takes on Grant’s physical traits and personality. So we now have three characters in Malcolm, Levine, and Thorne to represent Grant’s role as protagonist, paleontologist, and outdoorsman.

While I genuinely like Sarah Harding, I wouldn’t have minded seeing Grant and Sattler launching an expedition to discover a continued source of dinosaurs following the events of the Jurassic Park crisis. And since Harding is basically a stand-in for Sattler (young, competent, intelligent, attractive, and an expert in her field), Harding would become less necessary (although really, having more than one woman as protagonist wouldn’t be the end of the world, jeeze). And there were already dangling threads for a sequel in Jurassic Park that were never explored: we know that some animals made it into the mountains of Costa Rica and were surviving with targeted diets (and they were probably velociraptors and procompsognathids), and we know that InGen still had ample genetic materials at its main base in California.

I understand the impulse to have Dodgson return–he’d want to make good on his promises of dinosaur embryos in the first book, and he’s already an established villainous character. But his cartoonish brand of villainy, yet another evil corporate type, makes him an uninteresting character to spend time with. I liked the larger-scale InGen expedition to recover resources launched in The Lost World film–the villain wasn’t so much Peter Ludlow as it was simple corporate greed, embodied by Ludlow, yes, but existing regardless of what he did. Ludlow was just a guy trying to salvage his company; he was arrogant and greedy and too-slick, but he was just embodying the failings of an institution. He was his own person, not defined simply by greed, and he had ambition (now that I’m thinking about it, Ludlow is rather like the book version of Hammond, greedy and exploitative to a fault and lacking in empathy but not really evil).

In short, it’s like I said up top: I’m disappointed. Crichton had a lot of cool ideas, and he obviously had good bones to his stories for the film adaptations to have turned out so well, but both books fall short of greatness. They end up feeling more like pulpy sci-fi horror. And yet, ideas and scenes and dialogue keep getting mined from the books for each new installment in the franchise.

Now, what’s the point to all the above? Honestly, hell if I know. But let me know if you have anything to add, or if you disagree.