Welcome to Dissected, where we disassemble a band’s catalog, a director’s filmography, or some other critical pop-culture collection in the abstract. It’s exact science by way of a few beers. This time, we sort through the best and worst of the franchise born from a simple question: What if dinosaurs lived again?
For over three decades now, the Jurassic franchise has dwelled happily at the intersection of horror and action, but when digging into them, what stands out is how the ones which feel the least successful are the ones that feel compelled to treat this as a monster movie franchise. Yes, aesthetically a T. Rex and Godzilla have some similarities, but the reason Jurassic Park remains a masterpiece is that it’s a tightly made disaster movie, where dinosaurs are just one facet of the disaster (and entirely blameless as to its initial cause). Other films on this list… maybe get a little confused about this idea.
Which is why one thing you’ll notice immediately about this list is that while typically, ranked features of this type begin with the worst entries before eventually celebrating the best, we’ve reversed things here. This is because — spoiler alert — there really isn’t much of a question as to what the best Jurassic movie is. But while the franchise peaked early, like a high school quarterback who ends up working at Jiffy Lube, that makes the race to the bottom all the more interesting, as every attempt to capture the magic of the original since 1993 has failed to succeed on some level, but usually for very different reasons.
In addition, the other five films of the franchise do have their moments, and with Jurassic World Dominion looking good at the box office its opening weekend, it’s unlikely we’ll stop talking about these movies anytime soon. Because, if nothing else, watching bad people become dino kibble can be an awful lot of fun.
[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers for Jurassic World Dominion.]
01. Jurassic Park (1993)
Runtime: 127 minutes
Director: Steven Spielberg (perhaps you’ve heard of him?)
Cast: Sam Neill, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum, Richard Attenborough, Bob Peck, Martin Ferrero, BD Wong, Samuel L. Jackson, Wayne Knight, Joseph Mazzello, Ariana Richards
Plot: Very rich man John Hammond (Sir Richard Attenborough) had a dream: to create a theme park where all the attractions were totally real — the attractions being flesh-and-blood dinosaurs. Being a very rich man in possession of a cutting-edge biotech company, he was able to make his dream come true. But during a test visit to prove that the park would be a safe and profitable investment for the company’s shareholders, with guests including Hammond’s own grandchildren and some science experts, well… Let’s just say there are a few snags.
“God creates dinosaur. God destroys dinosaur. God creates man. Man destroys God. Man creates dinosaur.”
“Dinosaur eats man. Woman inherits the earth.”
— Dr. Ian Malcolm and Dr. Ellie Sattler
With just seven words, Laura Dern gave birth to an entire generation of proto-feminists. A true hero for our times.
Okay, There Are a Lot of Runners-Up for Best Quote: Sam Neill’s pitch-perfect delivery of “Hammond, after careful consideration, I’ve decided, not to endorse your park.” And also, of course, there is the one and only Samuel L. Jackson with this early career highlight, a real piece of wisdom that resonates to today…
Which Children Are In Danger? It’s not really a Jurassic movie unless at least one minor is in serious danger of becoming dino dinner, and the first children to kick off this proud tradition are the aforementioned grandchildren, Lex and Tim, who Hammond brings to the island as a distraction from their parents’ divorce. Tim’s a huge dino geek! Lex loves computers! Both of those skill sets will come in very handy for both of them, with Lex’s interest in UNIX systems also proving formative for any young person who might have watched this movie at her character’s exact age and as a result began dreaming of becoming, just like Lex, “a hacker.”
Who Most Deserves to Be Eaten By a Dinosaur? A lot of people die over the course of the film due to dino attacks, but probably the one whose death feels the most deserved is Gennaro the lawyer (Martin Ferrero), who abandons Lex and Tim like a damn coward at the Tyrannosaurus Rex paddock.
Does He Get Eaten by a Dinosaur? Hell yeah he does. For his cowardice, he’s awarded perhaps the most embarrassing death in the film — literally sitting on a toilet before being gobbled up by the T. Rex. Suck it, Gennaro.
MVD (Most Valuable Dinosaur): A fun thing about the release of this film is that prior to Park, the scariest dinosaur in the public consciousness was the T. Rex (you don’t get a name that literally means “King of the Tyrant Lizards” without being a little bit of a badass, after all).
But with this film, Spielberg created one of the all-time great screen villains in the velociraptor — all of the dinosaurs on Isla Nublar are scary to some degree, but whose childhood wasn’t haunted by the kitchen sequence from this film? When Sam Neill delivers his iconic monologue to the “six-foot turkey” kid at the beginning, it’s impossible to imagine just how scary such a creature could be… until, of course, Spielberg goes ahead and shows us.
Stupidest Human Decision: The fascinating thing about the plot of Jurassic Park is that while the dinosaurs are in fact scary, everything bad that happens can technically be traced back to one key decision: Hammond’s decision to hire a contractor for the job of creating the park system based on the lowest bid. Nedry is ultimately the film’s biggest human villain, but if Hammond had hired someone else, or if Nedry had been paid properly for his work versus taking a loss on the job (inspiring him to look for additional sources of income), the beta test might have gone a lot more smoothly.
The Verdict: The GOAT for so many reasons, Jurassic Park forever defined a generation of film, while also still remaining timeless in a way that ensures its legacy will go on and on. Beyond its technical achievements, it’s still a whip-smart, tightly paced adventure that delivers no shortage of wonder alongside its thrills — one of the best blockbuster movies ever made.
02. Jurassic Park III (2001)
Runtime: 92 minutes (making it the shortest film of the franchise).
Director: Joe Johnston
Cast: Sam Neill, William H. Macy, Téa Leoni, Alessandro Nivola, Trevor Morgan, Michael Jeter
Plot: In the aftermath of his fateful trip to Isla Nublar years before, Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill) is still working hard to keep his own, fossil-based research into dinosaurs going — which is the only reason why he agrees to take a supposedly rich couple (William H. Macy and Téa Leoni) for a flyover over Site B, a.k.a Isla Sorna, where dinosaurs still roam after the events of The Lost World.
Turns out the Kirbys were lying to Alan a whole bunch — instead of being rich tourists obsessed with extreme vacations, they’re actually a divorced middle-class couple whose pre-teen son went missing on Isla Sorna two months ago, something Alan only learns after their plane lands on the island. From there, it’s a game of survival as their small team simultaneously tries to find a way off the island (that plane doesn’t last long) and also find the Kirbys’ son, Erik. (Since they’re already there and all.)
“I read both of your books. I liked the first one more. Before you were on the island. You liked dinosaurs back then.”
“Back then, they hadn’t tried to eat me yet.”
— Erik Kirby and Dr. Alan Grant
One of the strongest aspects of Jurassic Park III is how it’s centered around Alan’s experience as someone who knows full well how scary it is to be on a dinosaur island, which leads to him making common sense declarations like the above. Yes, it does change your perspective on dinosaurs, if at one point you nearly got eaten by them! Yeah, Alan initially agrees to help the Kirbys a little too easily given his previous declaration that “No force on earth or heaven could get me on that island.” But at least he has a grounded perspective on this whole scenario.
“If I Could Talk to the Dinosaurs…”: The big innovation that Jurassic Park 3 introduces to the canon (one which was perhaps aggressively mocked at the time of its release) was the idea that one could use a replica velociraptor larynx to replicate raptor vocalizations — and maybe even communicate with them? It’s a kinda silly idea, though the whole concept of talking velociraptors did give us the below dream sequence, which is a goofy treat today.
Which Children Are In Danger? The entire plot of the film hinges on the rescue of Erik, who basically plays like a slightly older version of Tim from the first installment, the extra years enabling him to be smart and savvy enough in the ways of dinosaurs to avoid being eaten. The kid certainly isn’t all that annoying (especially in comparison to other characters to come on this list), though he lacks much opportunity to be annoying, given his limited screen time.
Who Most Deserves to Be Eaten By a Dinosaur? The Kirbys are idiots who get a few people killed, but probably the biggest disappointment comes when Alan’s research assistant Billy (Alessandro Nivola) decides to steal some raptor eggs. Billy, you study this shit for a living, you didn’t think that the mama velociraptor might have a problem with that?
Does He Get Eaten by a Dinosaur? After deservedly getting shamed by Alan for stealing the eggs, Billy embarks on what looks like a suicide mission to save the kid — but at the very end, somehow survives to be rescued. (Perhaps so he might appear in another sequel? Alas, it was not to be.)
MVD (Most Valuable Dinosaur): The raptors have their moments in this film, and the Spinosaurus is central to the action as well, but really the pteranodons stand out as the most memorable. The concept of death from above really takes on a new dimension here.
Stupidest Human Decision: Look, if nothing else Jurassic Park 3 offers up a convincing argument that you should never bring amateurs along on a trip to a dinosaur island, but of all the boneheaded choices made by the Kirbys, here’s the biggest — they got mixed up as to which of the two existing dinosaur islands Dr. Grant had been to? They literally targeted him because they thought he had gone to Isla Sorna, not Isla Nublar, but there are only two dinosaur islands, people! This shouldn’t be hard!
The Verdict: There’s a solid case to be made for Jurassic Park III being the closest in quality to the first film, and that’s certainly a big factor in it receiving the number two slot here. But while it’s certainly the tightest and most focused of the sequels, its comparative lack of scope doesn’t help it feel as significant to the overall narrative. If all you look for from a Jurassic film is good dino action, III is exactly what you want. It’s a shame that after all these years, it still feels a little too direct-to-video in its approach.
03. The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997)
Runtime: 129 minutes
Director: Steven Spielberg
Cast: Jeff Goldblum, Julianne Moore, Pete Postlethwaite, Arliss Howard, Richard Attenborough, Vince Vaughn, Vanessa Lee Chester, Peter Stormare, Harvey Jason, Richard Schiff, Camilla Belle
Plot: We’re not going back to the island — we’re heading to a whole different island! Specifically, this is the film that introduces Isla Sorna, A.K.A. Site B, which since the Isla Nublar incident has become a place where dinos just roam free. Going there doesn’t sound like a great idea to Dr. Ian Malcolm, until John Hammond asks him to join an expedition meant to peacefully document this new dinosaur ecosystem — an expedition that just so happens to include Ian’s paleontologist girlfriend Sarah (Julianne Moore).
As is the way with a Jurassic film, things start going wrong quickly once Ian is on the island, thanks to another expedition spearheaded by Hammond’s nephew Ludlow (Arliss Howard) which has a different objective: Capture the dinosaurs and bring them back to the mainland.
After a lot of dying and screaming, eventually Ludlow does manage to bring a T. Rex back to San Diego.
It does not go well for him. Or for San Diego.
“Now you’re John Hammond.”
— Dr. Ian Malcolm
After you watch all six Jurassic movies in a week, it’s easy to get nostalgic for Grandpa the Genetics Wizard, but this line is a very necessary and pointed reminder that John Hammond, as cuddly as Attenborough might make him seem, got a lot of people killed for his own purposes — perhaps altruistic purpose on some level, but probably not worth the murder and mayhem.
Oh Hi, Vince Vaughn: A relatively young and fresh future comedy star gets a lot more of the spotlight than you’d expect, given that theoretically Jeff Goldblum is this film’s official lead. But you can see why Spielberg gave Vaughn such a showcase here, as the character adds an enjoyable spark to the ensemble. (Also, shout out to Moore, who holds her own as well as Laura Dern amongst all the dino-related chaos, and a beard-less Richard Schiff!)
Which Children Are In Danger? Lex and Tim make a quick cameo at the beginning of the film to reconfirm their survival, but they’re otherwise excused from the real dino peril experienced by Ian’s stowaway daughter Kelly (Vanessa Lee Chester). Kelly’s presence in this film serves largely to check off the “must put a child in serious peril” requirement of all Jurassic films, and honestly, given how poorly received her infamous gymnastics attack against a velociraptor was, perhaps this character would have been better off being left out of the mix.
Who Most Deserves to Be Eaten By a Dinosaur? The second team sent to Isla Sorna contains a few truly asshole-y assholes, and it’s honestly a dead heat for worst between Roland Tembo (Pete Postlethwaite) and Dieter (Peter Stormare). But while Dieter does enjoy casually torturing the very cute Compys (who later get their revenge), Roland ultimately wins this award for his insistence on hunting not just any T. Rex, but a male T. Rex, “a buck.” Ellie Sattler would have left him for the raptors with a song in her heart, after hearing him say that.
Does He Get Eaten by a Dinosaur? Actually, no! After his partner Ajay (Harvey Jason) gets killed by the velociraptors, Roland basically nopes out of the rest of the movie, saying that he’s “spent enough time in the company of death.” Really not sure what purpose his character served.
MVD (Most Valuable Dinosaur): While we gave the noble velociraptor this prize for Jurassic Park, the T. Rex really gets a chance to shine in this film. “Mommy’s very angry,” indeed.
Stupidest Human Decision: Oh jeez, just take every single thing that Ludlow does over the course of this movie and lump it all together here. But his decision to hold a late-night press conference on the San Diego docks without actually getting the T. Rex secured on land first probably reigns supreme.
The Verdict: It was a real battle for the number two slot on this list between Lost World and JP III, as some of the action set-pieces of Lost World rival the original film for their inventiveness (including the still-incredible sequence featuring a large trailer, a baby T. Rex, and a slowly cracking pane of glass). But there are massive tonal issues with the third act rampage through San Diego, and while the gymnastics scene isn’t as bad as you might remember, it’s still a pretty jarring misstep from a director like Spielberg. A bad Spielberg movie is still better than 90 percent of the movies out there. But that doesn’t make it good.
04. Jurassic World (2015)
Runtime: 124 minutes
Director: Colin Trevorrow
Cast: Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Vincent D’Onofrio, Ty Simpkins, Nick Robinson, Omar Sy, BD Wong, Irrfan Khan
Plot: Years after things went horribly awry with the first Jurassic Park, InGen is back at it, having opened a fully operational new park on Isla Nublar packed with dinosaurs. Making their first trip to the park are Zach (Nick Robinson) and Gray (Ty Simpkins), the nephews of operations manager Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard), who’s currently a bit distracted managing park operations.
For one thing, there’s InGen’s newest creation to contend with — a massive new dinosaur known as Indominus rex, an original genetic creation who manages to escape from his compound, causing a cascading series of disasters that kill a lot of people, and also lead to the eventual closing of Jurassic World.
“Nothing in Jurassic World is natural. We have always filled gaps in the genome with the DNA of other animals. And if the genetic code was pure, many of them would look quite different. But you didn’t ask for reality, you asked for more teeth.”
— Dr. Henry Wu
This is a sentiment also echoed by Alan Grant in Jurassic Park III — the idea that these “genetically engineered theme park monsters” do not represent actual dinosaurs as they originally existed billions of years ago. It’s a complicated existential question that all of these films grapple with to some degree, with the overriding sentiment being a meta-commentary on the franchise as it exists today: Most people don’t buy tickets for these films for a nuanced discussion of science and technology’s role in shaping our world. They buy tickets because they want to see some damn dinos.
Burt Macklin, Dinosaur Wrangler: Google search that phrase and you’ll find that it’s been around for a while, riffing a bit created by Chris Pratt’s character on Parks and Recreation, who would often switch into “Burt Macklin” mode whenever he wanted to unleash his inner action movie star. The problem with Pratt’s performance here is that it’s basically indistinguishable from the parody he himself originated; while his MCU work manages to lean into the parody aspect a bit more, it’s just jarring to see him attempt to pull off the same persona with no sense of irony.
Which Children Are In Danger? Dear divorcing parents of the world, there are other things you can do with your kids besides ship them off to dangerous theme parks filled with dinosaurs! And yet, Gray and Zach’s parents seem not to have gotten that memo. Then again, Zach kind of hard-core sucks, as so many on-screen teenagers often do, and Gray’s character would be cute if the precocious dial wasn’t dialed up to 11. This is their only appearance in the Jurassic films to date, and that is just fine.
Who Most Deserves to Be Eaten By a Dinosaur? While Vincent D’Onofrio in villain mode does have a blast chewing scenery and Zach embodies all the worst cliches of horny teenager-dom, the extreme hubris of Simon Masrani (Irrfan Khan) proves to be as dangerous as it is misguided. This is a very recognizable breed of tech mogul today: Supremely confident in his choices and abilities, and ultimately wrong to do so, especially on one key issue — being able to pilot a helicopter.
Does He Get Eaten by a Dinosaur? Nope, it’s the helicopter crash that kills him. Which is fitting in its own way.
MVD (Most Valuable Dinosaur): Jurassic World introduces us to Blue, the franchise’s most intelligent dino to date and arguably the most sympathetic protagonist of the three World films. To quote a very different Vince Vaughn-starring franchise — you’re our girl, Blue!
Stupidest Human Decision: Going to get meta with this one… why did Trevorrow cast genuinely funny people like Pratt, Jake Johnston, and Lauren Lapkus and then ensure that they were rarely ever actually funny on screen? All of the World films are relatively humorless, but for this one in particular, it feels like a massive missed opportunity.
The Verdict: For films that are in many ways so similar, there’s something strange about how much more epic Jurassic Park feels in comparison to Jurassic World, even though both films take place within the same geographic confines and World does include plenty of dino action.
Maybe it comes down to the lack of John Hammond and his vision — instead of wistful speeches about wanting to bring children some real joy, we have corporations buying the naming rights to genetically designed super-sauruses. It’s not as cynical as at least one other film on this list, but in revealing the final product of Hammond’s dream — a theme park devoted entirely to dinosaurs — it makes us realize what a dangerous and ultimately destructive dream this whole endeavor actually was.