One week from today is the wide release of Jurassic World, the highly-anticipated fourth installment in the dinosaur franchise that began with Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park. Early reviews indicate that Colin Trevorrow, World‘s director, has delivered a more worthy successor to the original film than Spielberg’s sequel The Lost World or Joe Johnston’s follow-up Jurassic Park III. If that isn’t enough in and of itself, we might root for World to actually be as good as Park rather than just “better than the crappy ones”.
Short of having actually seen Jurassic World yet (I’d be so biased if I had!), the premise is already more akin to the original tale than to the rehashed visits of the second and third films. We won’t speculate too hard about World, and it will certainly need more than a cool premise to survive sequelitis; still, it’s already obvious that the storytelling mentality is focused on a particular point in time that falls between creation and destruction, and the importance of that theme in the Jurassic franchise shouldn’t be brushed aside. In fact, it’s an significant storytelling element of many of Spielberg’s films, and many of Michael Crichton’s works as well.
Start with Raiders of the Lost Ark. We don’t start at the beginning in that film, really, but rather are thrown straight into Indy’s adventuresome existence. The plot is less “there is an Ark” and more “there is an Ark already being hunted by Nazis for use in destroying the world” — things are already well underway. The characters are all new to us, but when Indy encounters Belloq and Brody and Marion and Sallah it’s always someone he’s already familiar with. The scope of Raiders is so huge and hugely believable because we’re dropped again and again into a situation in media res, and we feel a past and a history that we don’t necessarily see. A ton of Spielberg movies operate here, in the space between something big that happened (like the creation of an all-powerful Ark) and something big that could happen (like the use of the Ark for evil).
Michael Crichton practiced this often as well. The Andromeda Strain starts with a village already decimated by a mysterious virus, and the implication is that the virus could spread to an even greater effect on the general populous. The entire story takes place between that initial catastrophe and a future catastrophe that promises to be much greater, and both of these bookends serve to heighten the drama of the story wedged in the middle.
An example of this in a non-Crichton, non-Spielberg (although fairly Spielbergian, anyway) film of late is Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland (yep: spoilers for Tomorrowland — sorry). There isn’t just a magical, wondrous utopia out there for the most ambitious and optimistic young minds to seek out — that’s not enough for a story. There is a utopia, but it’s been broken, eroded, compromised to such a degree that it might cease to exist someday very soon. The past and the future of Tomorrowland are both influential and dependent on the present, which is largely what makes the events of the present worth watching at all.
And Jurassic Park is one of the finest examples of this: a park so wondrous and eye-opening that it might be called “Tomorrowland” if “Yesterdayland” wasn’t more accurate; a vision accomplished almost to the point of perfection; and, ultimately, a shattering of that possibility so it might give way to another after the events of the film. Spielberg and Crichton give us the incredible detail of the work John Hammond and InGen have put in before any of our film protagonists even arrive on the island, from the driverless jeeps to the stocked shelves in the Jurassic Park gift shop to the grandiose fire-rimmed gates large enough to welcome hordes of tourists from every corner of the earth. There’s so much potential in all of this, and our mind might leap to what Jurassic Park might look like if it were open, if only because Jurassic Park makes it so easy to do so.
We never do, obviously, but that’s the most important part of the magic trick — the prestige is that whatever’s coming will either be pure perfection or pure destruction, but the wonder of it all is lost if we ever actually reach that point. “Creation is an act of sheer will,” says John Hammond, “…next time it will be flawless.” He’s talking about dinosaurs and biological evolution, but he might as well be talking about storytelling. Keeping the flawless conclusions out of reach makes Jurassic Park so enduring, makes it so easy to invest in the present of the film, makes that feeling of “wow, dinosaurs walking around is possible” a feeling that remains intact.
The premise of Jurassic World — that the park is now open, realizing Hammond’s vision once and for all — might then seem to undo everything that Park did right. It achieves the vision, attains the perfection that Hammond spoke of, and threatens to reveal that flawless thing. But again, that’s not enough for a story. World is set years after those gates opened during a time when the wonder has already ceased to be so wonderful. As scientists work to create a new dinosaur that will once again entice visitors to the island in the future, things still happen in the present. Hopefully, World will make us care about those things in the same way that Crichton and Spielberg made us care about the present of Jurassic Park.