We recently wrote about the horror roots of Jurassic Park and I wanted to expand upon that idea by diving into something else that’s unique to the first film in this dino franchise. That of course is how Steven Spielberg’s 1993 original film respects and dives into death, while subsequent sequels, including and especially the Jurassic World films, all but disregard this important factor.
I think one of the key things that makes for a great horror film is how limited death is in these films. When a monster or a killer in these kinds of movies kill a character, whether they’re named or not, the impact and significance of the act is felt much more when the film has less of it. We don’t become desensitized to it during the runtime because it’s something of a rare and unexpected event. Take the original Halloween film, which saw only five people get killed by Michael Myers compared to the 2018 film of the same name, which sees 17 people meet their end on or off screen, 16 of those by Michael’s hand. The more death there is, the less shocking it becomes. As evidence by the trailer for the upcoming Halloween Kills, it looks like those kills will be much more bloody and shocking, something we’re not so certain about.
The same can be said for the Jurassic films. The first film treats death as a serious and horrifying event. Named characters, save for the raptor wrangler in the introduction, all meet their end after some level of characterization. Arguably the most one dimensional (yet awesome) character in the movie is Muldoon. He’s the game hunter that Hammond hires to help run the part. He’s largely there to give exposition on the raptors, but is interesting and grounded enough to not be a cartoon or a throwaway character. Grant (Sam Neil) gets crucial information about the raptors from him during the feeding scene and helps with the plan to get the park back online. Yet he meets his end in a most heinous fashion: the raptors attack him in the exact same fashion that Neil hypothesized in the beginning of the movie, by being blindsided by the unseen raptor.
By setting up this death in the beginning of the movie, Spielberg and writer Michael Crichton have actually given us “unseen expiation” that pays off by having Muldoon, the hunter, get hunted himself in a most heinous fashion.
The other deaths in the movie are equally memorable. Dennis Nedry, the lazy and greedy engineer at the park played by Wayne Knight, is the cause for the downfall of the park before it even opens. He attempts to steal the embryos of the dinosaurs and smuggle them off island. Only the storm throws him off course and is killed by a seemingly docile yet toxic (like Dennis) dinosaur. Arnold is killed off camera by the raptors in an attempt to get the parks power back online and the blood sucking lawyer is eaten alive by Rexy the Tyrannosaur. Each one of these deaths are much more meaningful due to us having significant time with these characters, none of them being annoying or cartoony and that their deaths feel sudden and impactful, as if they could happen to anyone.
More Death, Less Horror
On the other side of this ideology is, well, the rest of the franchise. To help focus it, I’ll be focusing primarily on 2015’s sequel Jurassic World. In this movie, Hammond’s vision of a dino park has been fully realized and the park has been operational for many years now, to the point where audiences are getting bored of dinosaurs (as if!). The engineers at Jurassic World cook up a hybrid dinosaur, which naturally breaks free and goes on a rampage. But while Jurassic World is a dumb, fun monster movie, it fails at delivering tension by taking away the horror of what these dinosaurs are truly capable of once the wonder fades away. The best scene in the movie is when the Indominius Rex escapes containment and hunts the guard and Chris Pratt’s Owen Brady. We never see the whole body of the Indominus and see death happen largely out of frame.
But as Jurassic World charges forward, death becomes much more prevalent and more insignificant at the same time. It isn’t long until a team tries to sedate the Indominus and all 10-20 members of the team get eaten or killed. But we didn’t know this team and as such, don’t care about the deaths. The Indominus chomps through them like they’re nothing, because the movie saw them as nothing. Even The Lost World: Jurassic Park gave more time to the C-team than most of the characters who die in Jurassic World.
When the aviary is breached and the swarm attacks the park, countless guests die yet they’re background fodder. Only Claire’s assistant, Zara, is given a focused death and it genuinely doesn’t feel earned, nor do we care about her as a character so don’t have an emotional connection to the act. John Hammond’s successor, Mizrani, isn’t anywhere as engaging as the old man and his death comes almost randomly without much fanfare (a helicopter crash). The only named character who is killed on screen is Vincent D’Onofrio’s villainous Hoskins, but since his character was so one dimensional and weak, we don’t care at all about a raptor eating him. We’re supposed to feel joy at the raptor eating Hoskins, but the man just got eaten by a raptor, it’s pretty messed up to be glad about something like that. Even Dennis in Jurassic Park, the greedy employee, got more sympathy out of audiences with far less screen time. Karma certainly got to him, but what happened to him was nothing short of horrific, we didn’t want to clap, despite his actions being the catalyst for the entire franchise. Hoskin’s death is engineered to be a “crowed-pleasing moment”.
This movie’s sequel, Fallen Kingdom, attempted to go down the horror route in some instances, including a surprisingly well done and tense opening scene, but often confuses horror and scares with non-stop adrenaline at best and at worst, looney action. The death of Eli Mills by the T-rex is once again supposed to get audiences to cheer and clap for the dinosaur taking out the villainous corporate douche, but the impact isn’t anywhere close to when Gennaro, the “blood sucking lawyer”, is also killed off by the same dinosaur in the first film. What should have been genuinely shocking was the death of Ted Levine’s character but instead comes off as silly and predictable because his character was written to be aggressive and antagonistic, so he obviously will get what’s coming to him by ways of primal karma. Gennaro’s death on the other hand is stemmed by fear and fluke. He ran away from the dinosaur instead of trying to protect the kids. He represented the shareholders and couldn’t wait to make a fortune off of the island, catering the park to the super rich. His character was never slimy but his death was more impactful because it could honestly have happened to anyone in that scene (except Grant, who understood T-rex behaviour). It was Malcolm’s actions that led directly to the death of Gennaro, who just wanted to hide and feel safe. His death, despite being there as a “red shirt” for Rexy, instantly hits closer to home because we understand his fear.
A Return to Horror?
The best scares the franchise has been able to produce since the first film was in fact a short film that director Colin Trevorrow released online after the release of Fallen Kingdom. With dinosaurs now on the loose in the wild, people have to be on their guard for unexpected guest. This short has no deaths to speak of, yet the act of having a wild Allosaurus hunt down a family in their camper is nail biting because the horror is confined to a single, confined location and the hungry predator is relentless in it’s pursuit of its prey. Children are once again in mortal peril but aren’t baggage and help the family fend of the dinosaur’s savage attack.
Could this be a sneak peak of what’s to come in Jurassic Park Dominion? One can only hope that the concluding chapter to the franchise respects character death and goes in for terror and fear versus dinosaurs eating people for the sake of entertainment.