When Jurassic Park was released back in theatres last week in 3D, I leapt at the opportunity to watch one of my most beloved childhood movies on the big screen.
I left the theatre with two principle observations: the character stuff in the movie is predominantly painful; and the dinosaur stuff holds up amazingly well.
Jurassic Park was a major turning point in big budget special effects. While James Cameron dipped his toes into the CGI (Computer Generated Imagery) waters with The Abyss and Terminator 2: Judgement Day in 1989 and 1991, respectively, 1993's Jurassic Park dived in headlong with the first fully-formed photo-realistic creatures created inside a computer.
The possibilites for big screen monsters suddenly seemed limitless.
It's remarkable to note that twenty years after it was released, the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park still hold as some of the best examples of CGI-created big screen movie monsters.
The film opened the floodgates for such elements in movies, but few of its successors understood how to present them as successfully as Jurassic Park.
This deft combination of CGI and practical animatronic effects techniques went a long way to maintaining a suspension of disbelief in the Steven Spielberg's dino-saga. It's not the only way to do big screen monsters right, but it was undeniably successful in this instance.
In this blog entry I am going to assess the success of notable big screen movie monsters since Jurassic Park, and highlight some of the best and worst examples.
One of the first big monster-inclined blockbusters (there used to be other kinds) to hit theatres after Jurassic Park was 1996's Independence Day. The filmed relied plenty on CGI for its spectacle, but mainly took the practical apporach for the HR Giger-influenced alien exoskeletons, designed by the perennially derivative Patrick Tatopolous (Underworld; Godzilla; Pitch Black).
Independence Day is a fun movie, but the aliens in it don't really do much outside of their spaceships, and the one we spend the most time with is dead. Iconic movie monsters these were not.
Released the same year was Dragonheart the first big film to really hinge on CGI monster renderings to be released since Jurassic Park (if you don't count Jumanji. Which I don't). The marketing played up Sean Connery's involvement as the voice of Draco, the film's dragon, which conformed to the four legs plus separate wings variety.
The casting coup must've seemed great on paper, but Connery's iconic, familiar voice was distracting, and made it harder to accept the character. Also not helping was the decision to give Draco human-style lips to match Connery's articulations. Seeing a dragon natter away like that really drained its power.
Talking aside, the creature CGI was pretty impressive throughout Dragonheart, and the film contains several dynamic visual set-pieces.
I always preferred the look of the dragons in 2002's Reign of Fire which are of the two hind legs plus wings on the arms style. Reign of Fire was not without value, but like Dragonheart, it failed to become anything more than the sum of its individually impressive set-pieces.
The first monster movie to really build on the promise of Jurassic Park was Paul Verhoeven's initially misunderstood 1997 sci-fi satire Starship Troopers. The scuttling nature of the giant swarming space bugs suited the limitations of CGI and the larger plasma-spewing creatures were even more impressively rendered in all their lumbering glory.
The credit must go to special effects legend Phil Tippett, a master of stop-motion animation who feared extinction when Spielberg decided to go the digital route with Jurassic Park, but who subsequently successfully transitioned into the CGI era with the spectacular work seen in Starship Troopers.
The same year's The Relic featured a nice-looking monster designed by Stan Winston, the man behind both Predator and the Alien Queen from 1986's Aliens. Executed with a combination of digital and practical techniques, the beast in The Relic isn't particularly memorable, but benefits from never quite being fully revealed.
1997 also saw the release of Alien: Ressurrection, the fourth film in the iconic monster franchise which somehow managed to be even more of a disappointment than 1992's Alien 3. The only monster unique to the film, the human/alien hybrid newborn is one of the worst-looking creatures ever to be seen in a big budget monster movie, let alone among the then-high standards of the Alien series.
Expectations further dimmed with the unimaginative subsequent entry, 2004's Alien vs. Predator, although the monster lover in me has a soft spot for the CGI-assisted Alien Queen rampage finale.
The less said about 2007's Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem and 2010's Predators the better, but even the many detractors of last year's divisive prequel Prometheus (which I LOVED) would admit there are some pretty cool monster designs in there.
Back to 1997, and no Jurassic Park wannabes were making the grade, so it took Spielberg himself to reschool everybody in monster mechanics with the strangely under-appreciated The Lost World: Jurassic Park. Judged in objective terms, separate from the ground-breaking newness of the first film, The Lost World is a better movie in almost every regard. The set-pieces are all fantastic, none more so than the insane mainland-set finalé.
Boringly, they went back to the island for 2001's hugely disappointing Jurassic Park III for which Spielberg handed the directorial reigns to the often-great Joe Johnstone (The Rocketeer; Captain America: The First Avenger).
By ignoring the expansion of the series that the end of the previous film suggested, Jurassic Park III felt inherently 'small'. The film's bland fate was further sealed by hanging its tension on a highly-touted, stupid-looking monster: the duck-billed Spinosaurus, which was about as scary as a homemade Loch Ness monster rig.
Let's hope lessons have been learned for the upcoming Jurassic Park IV.
Special mention must be made of 1997's Anaconda, which demonstrated how, in the right hands, there is much B-movie monster fun to be had with a CGI giant snake. It inspired a straight-to-DVD subgenre which thrives today.
One of the most underrated post-Jurassic Park monster movies is 1998's Deep Rising, which builds considerable tension by not unveiling a full shot of the CGI monster until the finale of the film. The witty adventure horror is a longtime favourite of mine, and I strongly recommend you check it out if you haven't. Cliff Curtis is in it if that helps.
Deep Rising's director Stephen Sommers went on to bigger monster success with 1999's The Mummy (which I still like) but his two subsequent efforts faltered; 2001's The Mummy Returns (which is shocking) and 2004's Van Helsing (which is even worse). I think it's the right time for a Deep Rising sequel.
2008's Sommers-less The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor failed on the dragon front, but presented some moderately nifty yetis.
1998's Godzilla remake feels like the nadir of the post-Jurassic Park era, with Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin's take suffering from an inconsistent scale; crappy design and an assinine plot. I have much higher hopes for the new remake which is being directed by Gareth Edwards, whose 2010 indie Monsters promised a bright future.
Godzilla clearly inspired 2008's J.J. Abrams-produced found-footage movie Cloverfield, a master-class in monster movie tension-suspension which deserves to be lumped in with the greats. The impressively unique monster at the heart of the film was designed by Neville Page, who would go to make his creation seem less and less unique by designing suspiciously similar monsters for J.J. Abrams' Star Trek (2007) and Super 8 (2011). The monsters from both these films look great on screen, but suffer from being clearly derived from Page's Cloverfield design. Or maybe it's a good thing that his work is so consistent?
1999's Deep Blue Sea made a strong argument for CGI-assisted shark attack monster movies, but the middling fate of the films in its wake (2011's Shark Night; 2012's Bait) have not convinced the studios to mount a Jaws sequel/remake. Yet.
The aforementioned Phil Tippett's stop and go-motion animation techniques brought the various creatures in the original Star Wars trilogy to life with such success that many people (well, me at least) were looking to the prequel trilogy to do deliver some serious monster mayhem when The Phantom Menace came along in 1999.
But as we all now know, just like with many other aspects of the films, George Lucas relied too much on CGI for the monsters in his prequels. There are some nice designs (I especially like the trio of monsters in the arena scene in Attack of the Clones), but none of the creatures in the prequel trilogy made nearly as much impact as the Rancor in Return of the Jedi, or even the holo-chess figures in A New Hope.
None of the monsters in the prequel trilogy movies are as heinous a CGI presence as good ol' Jar Jar Binks, but we probably should've taken heed when Lucas inserted the godawful digital Jabba the Hut into the 1997 Special Edition re-release of A New Hope.
Just as the prequel trilogies were taking the shine off Lucas' Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) - the longtime standard bearer for CGI creature effects - Peter Jackson's Weta Digital was blowing minds with their amazing monster work in the Lord of The Rings films.
One of the greatest movie monsters of the post-Jurassic Park era is the Balrog from The Fellowship of the Ring (and The Two Towers). He alone made the trilogy for me, and that's before we factor in all the cave trolls; the squid-like Watcher In the Water; the Fellbeasts; the Mumakils and Shelob. Not to mention Gollum, an awesomely believable CGI creature that achieved everything Lucas attempted with Jar Jar, and then some.
The Lord of the Rings trilogy upped the ante for movie monsters as much as Jurassic Park did a decade earlier, and made the big studios hungry for monster-friendly fantasy films.
The films most directly inspired by the success of the LOTR trilogy were Andrew Adamson's adaptations of the Narnia books; 2005's The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe and 2008's Prince Caspian. Both films feature handsomely rendered fantasy characters and creatures, but little in the way of memorable monsters.
However, the third film in the series, 2010's The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, which was directed by the Seven Up series' Michael Apted, featured a particularly awesome sea serpeant in its finale.
Like the majority of those in the Chronicles of Narnia films, most of the monsters that turned up in the Harry Potter series suffered from a certain kiddie-friendly generic blandness. The dragon in part four being a notable exception.
Other films which served the Lord of the Rings-driven demand for big screen fantasy monsters with little memorable to show for it include 2006's Eragon; 2010's Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief (an even-more monster-centric sequel comes out later this year); last year's Snow White and the Huntsman (which had an okay ogre) and this year's Hansel and Gretal: Witch Hunters (which had a crappy ogre).
But the most egregious example is 2010's Clash of the Titans which squandered a huge budget on depressingly uninspiring monster set-pieces. Last year's sequel was even worse. The lost potential of these films is heartbreaking.
Guillermo del Toro has the potential to set a new benchmark for monsterism with his upcoming blockbuster Pacific Rim, which I am looking forward to more than any other film this year. He's displayed an impressive proclivity for monsters in previous works like Pan's Labyrinth and the Hellboy movies, although they were mainly in the fantasy realm. I can't wait to see him unleash on the real world.
ILM went some way to re-establishing their CGI monster credentials with stellar work in the 2003 Hulk film (2008's The Incredible Hulk had some pretty cool monster moments aswell) and the groundbreaking gaggle of digital nasties that populated Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (2006), most notably the squid-faced Davy Jones.
Just like Steven Spielberg reaffirmed his supremacy in the post-Jurassic Park era with The Lost World, in my opinion Peter Jackson made the best post-Lord of the Rings monster film when he mounted his long-desired King Kong remake in 2005.
Purely in terms of monsterism, Jackson and Weta outdid themselves with King Kong, creating the first ever completely believeable giant gorilla (all respect to the 1998 Mighty Joe Young remake) and surrounding him with some of the most creatively disgusting movie monsters ever created.
If we can all politely agree to ignore certain shots during the dinosaur stampede, the monster set-pieces in King Kong are all executed with a dazzling creativity I haven't seen in a comparable movie since.
That's not to say there haven't been great monster movies since then, I'm just saying King Kong is the current standard-bearer for me. But Pacific Rim comes out soon so....
Other movies from the post-Jurassic Park era that deserve mention for doing something interesting with monsters include: the 2006 Korean film The Host; James Gunn's Slither (2006); Frank Darabont's Stephen King adaptation The Mist (2007); the great District 9 (2009) and of course James Cameron's Avatar, a singularly impressive monster movie which nevertheless failed to outdo King Kong in my mind.
I was tempted to include Ivan Reitman's Evolution (2001), but no. Ditto Scooby-Doo 2: Monster's Unleashed.
Agree/disagree? Favourite post-1993 movie monster? Which movies monsters have I missed Comment below! Don't nobody bring up no Twilight movies.