Tuesday, November 1, 2011

JURASSIC PARK: Ultimate Trilogy Blu-ray (Universal 1993, 97, 2001) Universal Home Video

Written as a cautionary tale against mankind’s blind tinkering with the unknown quantities in medical science, Michael Crichton’s 1990 novel, Jurassic Park is a disturbing, often philosophical critique of the ways greed and personal ego effectively turn our most ambitious, and perhaps high-minded dreams into our worst nightmares. Crighton’s great gift for melding DNA fact with science fiction cleverly masks what is essentially a morality play, using the façade of a dinosaur caper to lure in his readership. In translating the book into a movie these more subliminal messages are buried by director Steven Spielberg's verve for creating a sci-fi blockbuster, the theoretical contemplation distilled into mere snippets or discarded outright in favor of an all-out cinematic roller coaster ride.
At times, Jurassic Park (1993) the movie teeters dangerously close to the edge of schlock horror. But Spielberg's zeal for good storytelling prevents the more gruesome elements from running totally amuck. The film stars Sam Neill as paleontologist Allan Grant. Together with paleo-botanist Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern), Grant is in the middle of a daring excavation when he is encouraged by billionaire theme park developer John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) to attend a weekend retreat on his remote island of Isla Nublar off the coast of Costa Rica. There, Hammond and his team of biologists have genetically re-engineered dinosaurs based on DNA found in mosquito fossils. Grant is intrigued, although highly skeptical. However, when Hammond offers to fully fund Grant’s current archeological dig to its completion Grant and Ellie reluctantly agree to be Hammond’s guests for the weekend – a decision they are soon to regret.
Also invited for the getaway are 'rock star' chaos theorist Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) and Donald Gennero (Martin Ferraro), the attorney representing Hammond’s investors. Once on Isla Nublar, Dr. Grant is forced to confront his own anxieties about having children when it is decided that Hammond’s grandchildren, Tim (Joseph Mazzello) and Alexis (Ariana Richards) will accompany the group on their first motorized tour through Jurassic Park; a sort of prehistoric zoological attraction. Unfortunately for all concerned, the park’s chief computer programmer, Dennis Nedry (Wayne Knight) has accepted a bribe from competing interests. He sabotages the attraction, steals vials of the dino DNA and escapes on the eve that a major hurricane makes landfall.
The shutdown disables the park’s protective parameters; the net result being that humans and dinosaurs are suddenly thrust together after an absence of roughly six million years. After Donald is eaten by a tyrannosaurus, Alexis and Tim take refuge with Dr. Grant in a tree to escape a similar fate, while Ellie and the island’s doctor, Gerry Harding (Gerald R. Molen) rescue Malcolm who has been injured in the attack. The rest of the movie is essentially a race against time to restore the protective barriers of the park and escape before the wilder inhabitants devour their human creators. Some make it; some don’t.
Returning to Jurassic Park some eighteen years removed from all its marketing hype and tie-ins the visual pioneering of digital technologies and puppetry that made the melding of dinosaurs and humans so believable still works. After a bit of a rocky start the screenplay by Michael Crichton and David Koepp is quite successful at balancing the adventurous bits of nonsense with the more subdued intimate drama that plays between Dr. Grant and Ellie with Malcolm feathered in as glib comic relief. Overall, the performances are solid.
So popular was Jurassic Park that Universal Studios undertook another excursion to the island with The Lost World: Jurassic Park II in 1997. Regrettably for director Spielberg, and despite having Crichton’s novel to draw from, he was unable to secure Crichton’s participation on the screenplay, leaving Koepp to create a patchwork of narratives so convoluted and meandering that the net result remains a movie painfully marred by false starts and disassembled bits of melodramatic incoherence. This time out Hammond has bribed Malcolm to visit his auxiliary site for dinosaur experimentation, Isla Sorna by already sending Malcolm’s girlfriend, Dr. Sarah Harding (Julianne Moore) on ahead. Unbeknownst to Malcolm his daughter from a previous marriage, Kelly (Vanessa Lee Chester) has managed to smuggle herself along for the trip with the laboratory equipment. Having lost control of his vast holdings to an unscrupulous nephew, Peter Ludlow (Arliss Howard), Hammond is determined that Malcolm and Sarah document the validity of his original experiments before Peter transforms them into a freak show for the masses. Too little, too late, Malcolm and Sarah discover that Peter and a veritable army of his cronies have captured and sedated a female tyrannosaurus and her baby and are en route to San Francisco to debut the pair as the first featured attraction of Jurassic Park U.S.A.
Crichton wrote his second novel under considerable duress from Spielberg and Universal who desperately wanted a novelized sequel to the 1993 blockbuster. However, upon publication in 1995, Crichton officially bowed out of the film project and refused to have anything to do with the movie version. It was a wise move. The Lost World is a lost cause; rarely coming to life with special effects not quite so special the second time around and, on occasion, painfully below par. The sequences taking place in San Francisco after the female T-Rex has escaped are a shameless patchwork of digital effects not so seamlessly married to obvious miniatures.
Robbed of the more stoic performance of Sam Neill in the original, Jeff Goldblum’s Dr. Malcolm spends much of the film running around spewing cautionary advice that is never heeded by anyone. Whereas there were definite sparks of flirtation between Grant and Ellie and even Ellie and Malcolm in the original film, there is zero romantic chemistry between Goldblum and Moore in this sequel, thereby bankrupting the emotional center of the piece as well. Surprisingly, given the abysmal reviews and rather tepid box office response to the sequel, Universal chose to take a third crack at decoding dino DNA in 2001, this time with Joe Johnston directing and Peter Buchman, Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor penning the screenplay. At just one hour and 33 min. Jurassic Park III is an entirely more successful enterprise on every level.
This time, Dr. Grant (Neill) and his assistant, Billy Brennan (Alessandro Nivolo) are tricked into visiting Isla Sorna by divorced parents, Paul (William H. Macy) and Amanda Kirby (Tea Leoni). Seems the Kirby’s teenage son, Erik (Trevor Morgan) was parasailing near the island with a custodian when the boat trailing their line was sabotaged by a pair of hungry velosoraptors, leaving Kirby to fend for himself on the abandoned natural preserve surrounded by carnivorous dinosaurs. Grant thinks he is accompanying Paul and Amanda on a flight over the island, but learns the truth too late. Not only are the Kirbys not the millionaire benefactors they report to be – and therefore cannot fund Grant’s expedition on the mainland (the only reason he consented to accompanying them to the island in the first place), but they are also ill equipped to provide adequate protection against the onslaught of raging prehistoric beasts that quickly devour three of their crew once their plane has crashed.
Dr. Grant and Billy are separated on their journey across the island. Billy decides to steal a few dino eggs that he hopes will fetch a price on the mainland to fully fund Grant’s expedition. Unfortunately, that theft also becomes the focus of the rest of the plot as the egg’s parents hunt for their missing offspring. What is particularly palpable on this third visit to the franchise is the overwhelming sense of desolation created when the best of intensions are turned under by human greed and corruption. Isla Sorna is not so much a biological preserve anymore as it has become a decaying monument to the errors of mankind.
The massive facilities; warehouses, visitor’s center and huge bio-chem labs once built to house state of the art technologies are now hollowed out shells; foreboding relics to bad science. The overriding feeling of the entire film is very apocalyptic, emphasizing humanity’s smallness rather than exercising its capacity to achieve great wonders. This sense of doom works to accentuate the immediate dangers presented our heroes even when no carnivorous creatures are in their midst. In the final analysis, Jurassic Park III restores the mantle of quality established by the first movie, rendering the waning impact of Part II as moot as ever.
Universal Home Video's Blu-ray tri-pack of the Jurassic Park movies represents a quantum leap forward in all aspects of presentation. The image quality throughout is head and shoulders beyond what these films have looked like on home video. The most impressive transfer of the lot is on the first film, with bright bold colors, natural flesh tones, superb realization of fine details throughout and a seamless melding of digital effects and models with the live action. Part II's model work and digital effects look more obvious by comparison on this new Blu-ray. Part III's color palette is curiously subdued. True enough, the first film was photographed by Dean Cundey, Part III by Shelly Johnson - so some account must be taken for stylistic differences between these two cinematographers. And Part III is a darker film both visually as well as in its story-telling.
Still, Part III on Blu-ray seems a tad dull in its visual presentation. The richness of the lush island vegetation as well as the capturing of all its fine leafy detail just isn't there. Wan flesh tones and a decidedly muted color palette give the image a softer look. Don't misunderstand - Part III looks great upon first glance, but overall it did not live up to this reviewer's scrutiny or expectations on Blu-ray.
The audio on all three discs has been upgraded to HD-DTS, successfully reproducing that epic powerhouse sonic experience from the theatrical engagements. Each disc contains an all new bonus extra feature 'Return to Jurassic Park' that comprehensively provides a retrospective on the making and impact of all three movies. These documentaries are presented in hi-def. All of the old and extensive extras from the DVD 'franchise' collection have been amassed herein. Regrettably, none of these extras have been color corrected or remastered beyond 480i. They are faded and riddled with edge enhancement. Bottom line: Jurassic Park on Blu-ray is a no brainer upgrade. Universal has done an outstanding job on remastering all three movies for the new digital medium. Bravo, and just in time for Christmas.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
Jurassic Park 3.5
The Lost World 1
Jurassic Park III 3

Jurassic Park 4.5
The Lost World 4.5
Jurassic Park III 4


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