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‘Jurassic Park,’ ‘Last Action Hero,’ and the Meta-Blockbuster

Twenty-five years ago, two films did battle at the summer box office. The one about dinosaurs rendered the Arnold Schwarzenegger nearly extinct. But how do Steven Spielberg and John McTiernan’s high-concept popcorn movies play today?

Columbia Pictures/Universal/Ringer illustration

About 90 minutes into Last Action Hero, Arnold Schwarzenegger falls into the La Brea Tar Pits while trying to defuse a bomb. After splashing around for a while, he emerges like the Creature from the Black Lagoon into an exhibit of scale-model dinosaurs. Of all the dozens of cinematic allusions in a movie that plays like an extended film-school in-joke, this accidental nod to Jurassic Park is the one with the most poetry and staying power after the fact. Not only does Arnold look humiliated underneath all that tar (no feathers, sadly), but he’s badly outflanked: The reptiles have him surrounded.

In the summer of 1993, coming off of two Terminators and Total Recall, Arnold was the biggest movie star in the world, a status that his new comedy-thriller was meant to simultaneously satirize and solidify. Last Action Hero was hyped as a new kind of blockbuster—a star vehicle with the hood popped so you could watch the pistons pumping away. The product of Wesleyan grads Zak Penn and Adam Leff’s spec script Extremely Violent was, in their words, a “reverse Purple Rose.” The premise involved a movie fan sucked into a fictional screen world, more specifically a late-’80s action movie presided over by an LAPD supercop who’s part Dirty Harry, part John McClane, and as ripped as, well, Arnold Schwarzenegger (the character’s original first name was Arno). Instead of a Woody Allen–ish love letter to the enchantment of classic cinema (with its built-in warning about the gap between fantasy and reality), their concept was a proto-Tarantino exercise in audience flattery, reaching out to viewers already in love with Die Hard and Lethal Weapon.

The flattery extended to Schwarzenegger, who signed on to play both Jack Slater and himself as a Planet Hollywood pitchman and red carpet ham. Last Action Hero would show that an actor who was already skirting self-parody on- and offscreen—a walking Simpsons character—could take a joke while laughing all the way to the bank.

Of course, the punch line turned out to be the movie itself. Having committed a then-massive $60 million budget to a conceptually promising but unpolished script, Columbia sent Last Action Hero through multiple revisions, dismissing Penn and Leff and bringing on Shane Black (who pumped up the violence, female objectification, and snarkier-than-thou attitude) and then William Goldman (who dialed it all back down again and injected fairy tale sentimentality à la Princess Bride).

Goldman once famously said of Hollywood that “nobody knows anything,” and in this case, truer words had never been spoken. Last Action Hero limped into theaters with the worst pre-release buzz since Ishtar. Sony’s stated plan to up the ancillary ante benchmarked by Batman in the summer of 1989 by turning the property into a soundtrack, a video game, and a Burger King combo meal, among other things, was hardly a sympathetic look. And Schwarzenegger’s schadenfreude was summed up by the 75-foot-tall balloon likeness of Jack Slater released into the airspace around Times Square a few weeks before the film’s release. It was the perfect symbol for an over-inflated vanity project about to pop.

As with most flops, there was plenty of blame to go around, starting with Schwarzenegger’s fanatical plan to “take himself less seriously” at any cost, reimagining his brand as a kindergarten cop with a license to kill. The hiring of director John McTiernan was also a mistake in retrospect. While asking a filmmaker who’d created a modern genre template with Die Hard to take it apart made sense in theory, the material really demanded a wry, anarchic sensibility like Joe Dante, whose Gremlins 2: The New Batch had played similarly self-reflexive games (or maybe in the wake of Reservoir Dogs, they should have offered it to Quentin Tarantino).

The main culprit, according to most versions of the story, was Columbia Pictures honcho Mark Canton, who rushed a flawed screenplay in front of the cameras in an attempt to meet a mid-June release date already staked out by Steven Spielberg, whose backers didn’t budge. They knew they had a winner on their hands.

In his excellent 2004 book Blockbuster: How Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Summer, author Tom Shone suggested that the showdown between Last Action Hero and Jurassic Park was more than a game of chicken between Sony and Universal. It was a battle between tradition and modernity, with Arnold as a tragic hero finally meeting his match. In T2, the actor’s flesh-and-steel persona had scored a temporary victory for analog action heroes over the encroaching CGI menace represented by Robert Patrick’s shimmery, shape-shifting T-100. Jurassic Park would rewrite the rules of engagement once and for all, and the ones and zeros were victors. “On the one hand,” Shone wrote, “you had Schwarzenegger, ruled by the old Newtonian laws of mass and muscle. And on the other you had Spielberg’s dinosaurs, devised by computers whose rules were as different again as Einstein’s had been from Newton’s—a world in which T. rexes could be whisked up to bone-shattering speeds with the flick of a mouse.”

Shone’s analogy holds up. It’s still very much Spielberg’s (Jurassic) world, while Last Action Hero remains a relic of a fallen kingdom. The struggle endures only as a cautionary tale and a joke, with Spielberg winkingly including a reference to his one-time box office foe in Ready Player One, when a movie theater marquee reading Jack Slater III flashes onscreen seconds before the appearance of the T. rex. This juxtaposition is a rib on Zak Penn, who was (in)famously quoted as saying back in 1993 that he was looking forward to seeing Jurassic Park more than his own movie (and who has done just fine since then). And yet when I rewatched Last Action Hero, I was struck by how much of its DNA is still swimming around in the blockbuster bloodstream, especially in Deadpool’s smarmy fourth-wall breaking and acknowledgment of its own clichés, and Ready Player One’s swirling maelstrom of pop culture references.

Spielberg’s adaptation of Ernest Cline’s novel basically thematizes Penn and Leff’s underlying conceit that if real life suddenly became a movie, the nerdiest and most attentive among us would have a built-in advantage. You can almost imagine Ready Player One’s Wizard of Oz figure, James Halliday, insisting that Last Action Hero was a misunderstood masterpiece.

The more common analogy among critics has been to link Halliday to Jurassic Park’s John Hammond—technocratic, introspective showmen whose creations grow beyond their control. Both of these characters have been seen as avatars for Spielberg himself, with Jurassic Park standing as one of the first of its director’s self-portraits (following Hook’s tentative, grown-up Peter Pan). The interpretation of Richard Attenborough’s multi-millionaire theme park impresario John Hammond as the director’s avatar makes sense (he got his start getting fleas to hit their marks), except in the movie Hammond is punished (and, unlike in the novel, redeemed) once his creations get out of hand, while Spielberg used the story to remind audiences of his own peerless control as an action director.

What holds up best about Jurassic Park is the bristling, relentless suspense of the set pieces—the T. rex attack on the jeep and the raptor attack in the kitchen, are both shot, edited, and scored to perfection. But the stuff with Sam Neill’s Alan Grant and his young charges (Ariana Richards and Joseph Mazzello as Lex and Tim Murphy) has dated poorly, and not only because of the slightly sexist suggestion that Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern) is using the situation to evaluate her mate’s daddy potential. (As much as Twitter enjoys memeing Dr. Sattler’s joke, “Dinosaurs eat man; woman inherits the earth,” the character doesn’t really do much besides tend to a sick triceratops and look relieved on the helicopter ride home.)

In Jaws, Spielberg had a little boy eaten to show that nobody was safe. By contrast, the rugrats in Jurassic Park are like a promise to the audience that nothing too terrible is going to happen (except to Newman, who deserved it).

Spielberg’s sentimental view of childhood isn’t always a liability. In A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, he leaned into it fully and came out the other side with one of his greatest and most misunderstood movies. But it is ripe for parody, and this is where Last Action Hero really dropped the ball. I’d forgotten that in addition to the (unintentional) Jurassic Park joke at the tar pits, the film contains a slapstick parody of E.T. where Austin O’Brien’s Danny Madigan, the audience surrogate who enters the world of Jack Slater with a magical ticket, is sent flying on his bicycle against a full-moon backdrop. Sadly, I’d say the movie would have been improved if Danny had died on impact because it’s his annoyingly wide-eyed gee-whiz-ness—the Spielbergianness of his presence—that really dulls the film’s edge.

In the original script Extremely Violent, Danny was a 15-year-old movie geek; aging him down to prepubescence was a by-product of Last Action Hero’s difficult development process. The result is a bizarro version of Terminator 2, where Edward Furlong played John Connor with a sarcastic maturity well beyond his years and gave Schwarzenegger a genuine foil to parry against in good-guy mode.

T2’s script plunged a not-so-innocent teenager into an R-rated world of gore, gunplay, and four-letter words, while Last Action Hero stranded Danny (and the audience) in a PG-13 purgatory (a place that happens to be Spielberg’s sweet spot). It’s not just that the film’s Roger Rabbit–ish moments when different characters and genres keep bumping up against each other (like Danny DeVito’s inexplicable vocal cameo as a cartoon police cat) make no sense; it’s that they’re ultimately innocuous. In trying to do his job and make a movie for everybody, McTiernan (a specialist in bloody, unrepentant carnage) directed like a man whose hands were tied.

What’s really interesting in retrospect is Schwarzenegger’s performance, which I believe is one of his best. The Jack Slater character isn’t really in his wheelhouse—it’d make more sense for Bruce Willis or Mel Gibson—but he inhabits the world-weary sarcasm of the dialogue with Eastwoodian self-awareness. He’s actually pretty touching in the scenes where he realizes he doesn’t really have any agency of his own. (“I’m sorry to disappoint you,” he tells Danny in a moment of reflection, “but you’re gonna live to enjoy all the glorious fruits life has got to offer—acne, shaving, premature ejaculation ... and your first divorce.”)

“Schwarzenegger is good at squinting, smirking, and standing up while keeping his back straight, but not at convincing the viewer that he’s anyone other than Arnold Schwarzenegger,” wrote Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, touching on the uniqueness of a star persona defined by its lack of real-world believability. In Total Recall, Paul Verhoeven sent up Schwarzenegger’s star persona by having him play a guy who’s desperate for some excitement; in True Lies, James Cameron would have him reprise Jack Slater with a touch of James Bond as a super-spy whose domestic life is the illusion. In between these two (superior) movies, though, Last Action Hero gives us an Arnold who doubts his own abilities. Even if the film ultimately vindicates the Jack Slater/Schwarzenegger persona, it’s just observant enough to play as critique, and its influence can be felt in more explicitly witty, cult-of-celebrity satires like Being John Malkovich and J.C.V.D.

At the end of Last Action Hero, Slater makes the trip back to his celluloid dimension after a brief stay in the real world. Along the way, he literally cheats Death (played by Ian McKellen in Ingmar Bergman drag), and there’s an implication that he will keep making sequels forever. But notwithstanding True Lies, Schwarzenegger’s run at the top was pretty much over. By the 2000s, he was a dinosaur, only really surfacing every few years to play the Terminator and run for governor. “You know, tar actually sticks to some people,” Danny tells Jack as the latter towels dry: 25 years later, the stain hasn’t ever really come off.