Why aren’t the ‘Jurassic Park’ movies scary anymore? (Movie commentary)

In my review of “Jurassic World,” I mentioned that these movies aren’t scary anymore, but I didn’t theorize about the reason beyond noting that I’ve outgrown being scared of dinosaurs. But there’s more to it. In the ensuing days of discussing the film with fellow movie fans – some of whom loved “JW,” some of whom loathed it – I’ve formulated five theories of why the “Jurassic Park” films are no longer scary. (Spoiler warning: Plot points from “JW” will be discussed.)

First, I (and other young “JP” fans of 1993) have grown up. This knee-jerk theory does have some merit. I was 14 when I saw “Jurassic Park” and 36 when I saw “Jurassic World.” As a kid, I was naïve about the evils of the real world. I wasn’t necessarily all-in on the idea that dinosaurs could be cloned and I’d therefore face the threat of a T-rex or velociraptors eating me and my family, but I didn’t dismiss the idea. Reading up on the logic leaps of Steven Spielberg’s and Michael Crichton’s story, along with witnessing two decades of almost zero progress in excavating dino DNA, has allowed me to understand that cloned dinosaurs should rank off-the-charts low on my list of things to be scared of.

Second, everyone’s quipping in the sequels; the characters were too scared to quip in the original. Lex and Tim are scared shitless when there’s only a pane of glass between them and the T-rex. Ellie seems frightened as f— when running from the power shed into Grant’s arms. Grant tries to stay cool around the kids, but even he says “Oh damn” when the fence is powering up. Muldoon gets dead-serious when hunting the raptors.

While Malcolm makes some nervous quips like “We must go faster,” he is decidedly less quippy when the shit really hits the fan; we just see him injured and in pain in the film’s latter stages. “The Lost World” – the whole of which has stakes similar to the end of “JP” — is a Jeff Goldblum quip-fest (“Mommy’s very angry”), so the viewer is cued in that we don’t have to be scared anymore. Other characters also joke in tense situations: Sarah and Nick place fast-food orders with Eddie during his desperate rescue attempt.

Granted, “The Lost World” is the worst example of the over-quipping. “JW” brings some of this back with Owen, but I give Chris Pratt credit for his line deliveries. When he says creating the I-rex was “probably a bad idea,” it’s not arrogance, it’s just a factual statement.

Third – this deserves special mention — even the kids aren’t scared anymore. As noted, Tim and Lex are unambiguously terrified. Joseph Mazzello and Ariana Richards give fine performances, and “JP’s” production team also gives attention to detail such as the kids looking increasingly dirty and beat up (Lex getting drenched in mud, Tim’s electrified hair). Tim throwing up, and then being ashamed to tell Grant, is also a nice humanizing touch.

“JP” proves that you can make kids into competent characters without sacrificing the threat of the dinosaurs. With adults protecting her back, Lex’s computer skills save the day. But in the sequels, the kids actively take on the genetically modified killing machines. In “The Lost World,” Kelly’s arc is about self-esteem and bonding with her dad, rather than fear of dinosaurs. She fails to make the gymnastics team, but then performs an amazing uneven bars routine to kill a raptor (and then Malcolm makes a quip). In “Jurassic Park III,” young Eric survives for eight days alone on a dino-covered island by using ingenious and brave adult-level outdoorsman skills, including collecting T-rex urine.

“Jurassic World’s” kids, brothers Zach and Gray, are a step back toward the realistic direction of Tim and Lex, but they are still remarkably cool under pressure, from jumping into the river to escape the I-rex to finding an old Jeep and powering it up (without any backstory of either of them being auto-repair geeks). While “JW” somewhat beats up its characters through grime, bruises and ripped clothes, these siblings don’t endure physical or psychological horrors on Lex and Tim’s level. While having Gray vomit would’ve been too much of a callback, maybe he could’ve crapped his pants or something.

Fourth, fewer people die in the sequels. I understand the commercial reasons why kids, and probably their close relatives too, can’t be killed off in blockbuster movies. But Spielberg found a nice balance in “JP.” The kids’ temporary protector, Gennaro, is killed, as are respectable authority figures Muldoon and Arnold. We get a happy ending with the makeshift family – plus the cool guy, Malcolm – surviving, but it’s bittersweet because of all the deaths.

The first instance where I realized the franchise was getting gun-shy was in “The Lost World” when Nick survives. He is the Dennis Nedry equivalent, in that his actions lead to the chaos, yet he’s allowed to survive. Placed against traditional disaster-movie structure, “The Lost World” is a confused film. In some ways, this makes it interesting, but mostly it creates a muddled message. Nick is structurally a villain, but because he’s well-meaning and because he survives, a casual viewer won’t think of him as the bad guy. And the (structural) main villain, Hammond, gets the film’s final word with an impassioned speech about the beauty of nature. Meanwhile, good guy Eddie bites the dust one of the franchise’s most vicious scenes: One T-rex tosses him in the air, the other catches him, and they rip him in half.

In “JP III,” everyone with a character arc survives. Following traditional horror structure, Tea Leoni’s annoying Amanda (who, technically, is the story’s villain, along with her husband) should get devoured by the spinosaurus. And if Billy is to miraculously survive the pteranodon attack, that’s fine, but it shouldn’t happen off screen.

“Jurassic World” takes a step back toward the original’s approach in that does bump off the brothers’ temporary handler, Zara: It is strongly implied that she’s eaten by a pteranodon, which is then eaten by a mosasaur. But the camera is shy about showing it. And I’m suspicious that Zara’s lack of characterization, and the fact that she is scripted to be killed, are linked. Masrani, who implicitly bites the dust in the helicopter crash, is more fully formed, but the script makes sure to not make him too likable; he is, after all, the guy who opened this deadly park against the wishes of Hammond.

We’re now starting to get a lot of “respectful camera pull-aways” from characters’ deaths. Granted, “JP” sort of does this: Muldoon is eaten behind a large leaf frond, and we just see Arnold’s severed arm. But there was little question of their fates (although Arnold does return in the “How It Should Have Ended” “JP” parody.) Zara and Masrani both could’ve returned a la Billy in “JP III” and it would’ve been plausible, albeit dumb.

Hoskins, the bluntly villainous military industry man, does get a Nedry-style death, in another sign that “JW” took a step back toward the principles of the first film. But overall, “JW” continues the gun-shy pattern. I’d have to do the math to be sure, but it’s possible that “JW” only tops the tame “JP III” in body count. Thousands of people are on this island when hundreds of vicious eating machines get loose, yet the kill tally is roughly the same as the first film, and far less than “The Lost World,” which merely featured dozens of people and dozens of dinosaurs.

Fifth, the dinosaurs have been anthropomorphized and given character arcs. Hold in your mind the images and sounds of the raptors viciously tearing up that cow in their pen in “Jurassic Park” (“Yes. Well. Who’s hungry?”) Then scroll forward to the end of “JW,” when the T-rex and the raptor exchange a knowing, respectful glance before parting ways. And then Owen and the raptor do the same.

The humanizing/de-animalizing of the raptors starts to get out of control in “The Lost World” when our heroes rather easily escape a pack of them, and one raptor even does a Wylie Coyote pratfall at the hands (well, feet) of budding gymnast Kelly. “JP III” brought it to the next level when the raptors simply let the humans go after Grant blows through a horn and they hand over the eggs. (A great way to fix this scene would’ve been to have the military come in in the nick of time and blow away one of the raptors, causing the others to flee.)

And now we have raptors allied with humans in “JW.” Don’t get me wrong. I’m not opposed to raptors being intelligent (the door-opening scene in “JP” is rightly a classic) or even the idea of a raptor whisperer. The latter was done effectively in the comic series “Jurassic Park: Dangerous Games,” and “JW” gives the concept verisimilitude with the notion that the raptors imprinted on Owen from the moment they hatched.

However, we should’ve been reminded of their animal nature with Blue eating Owen’s second-in-command, Barry; with more serious attacks on the other humans; and with far less hesitation before the raptor kills Hoskins. The raptors should be villains, not heroes. When they become the heroes, your franchise is in danger of jumping the shark (or mosasaur, as it were).

Spielberg beautifully stages the end of “JP” so the T-rex attacking the raptors fits the “heroic rescue” trope yet it is clear that the rex does so out of its animal nature, not out of wanting to rescue the humans. The end of “JW” is much less clear; in fact, those aforementioned rex-raptor-Owen glances imply altruistic motivation behind the animals’ actions. The use of the T-rex from the first film, and the way it gets a “heroic” reveal, is cool. (Interesting trivia: A deleted scene from “The Lost World” tells us the Isla Nublar dinos were destroyed. Because that scene was deleted, it allows for the return of the hero rex.) But when a viewer feels like a human could jump on the T-rex and say “giddy-up,” you’ve gone way too far with the humanization of these small-brained eating machines.

Simply put, if a real Jurassic World were to open, a parent could screen “Jurassic Park” for their kids as a lesson in the degree of respect that should be granted to these creatures. If you’re screening the sequels for this purpose, you’d do just as well to screen a “Barney” episode.

How to get back on track: For “Jurassic Park V,” the franchise – in addition to keeping in mind the missteps in the sequels so far — should hire a horror-film director. I’m not so cynical that I can’t get drawn in by a scary movie crafted by an expert.

The next movie will probably – finally – feature masses of dinosaurs outside a contained environment, as the increasingly unethical Henry Wu and his colleagues slink off with some embryos in “JW” in a clear case of sequel baiting. While I and other fans often say there has to be an epic “dinosaurs versus the military” movie somewhere down the road, if I really think about it, I’m not sure I want “Jurassic Park’s” version of “Godzilla.”

Instead, the franchise could mix a mystery with some “Predator” stylings and do jungle-based horror (perhaps after an opening sequence where the military allegedly kills the last of the escaped dinosaurs). Crichton hinted at this direction in the opening chapters of both of his novels, where raptors reach mainland Central America. And the comic series “Jurassic Park: Devils in the Desert” is an outstanding horror story featuring the escaped pteranodons from “JP III.” “JP V” wouldn’t even need to explain the bevy of escaped dinosaurs, as scenes from all three sequels have strongly hinted that several dinosaurs are already off the islands.

One thing “JW” definitively proves is that the technology is now in place — not to clone dinosaurs, but to put on film any story about cloned dinosaurs you can dream up, including scary ones.