A film review by Craig J. Koban
15th Anniversary Retrospective Review
1993, PG-13, 123 mins.
Grant: Sam Neill / Ellie: Laura Dern / Malcolm: Jeff Goldblum /
Hammond: Richard Attenborough
often than not, the most memorable movie experiences are the ones that
seem to provide effortless, jaw-dropping awe and spectacle.
Steven Spielberg’s 1993 thriller, JURASSIC PARK, is one of those
Consider one early scene in the film when a scientist (played played by Sam Neil) stands in a vast, open plain and stares up into the heavens with a wide-eyed smile and a childlike enthusiasm and excitement. Far, far above him stands the towering brachiosaurus having a mid-day snack on a hundred- foot palm tree. He lovingly gazes at the prehistoric beast with absolute wonder and admiration.
As viewers, I
think we had the same reaction.
of whether or not JURASSIC PARK deserves worthy ranking among
Spielberg’s finest escapist works (in my humble mind, it doesn’t),
there should be no doubting that this is one of the director’s most
important films in the way it transcended the medium and helped usher in
a new visual effects revolution. The
film, much like 1977’s STAR WARS, radically altered the landscape of how
movie effects were achieved with its virtuoso usage of then
state-of-the-art computer generated images.
Yes, there had been some landmark CGI-laced films pre-PARK (James
Cameron’s THE ABYSS from 1989 and his later TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY
comes easily to mind, not to mention that the 1985 Spielberg produced YOUNG
SHERLOCK HOLMES had early CG visuals), but JURASSIC PARK remains a benchmark achievement in
the annals of movie effects work that spawned – for better or for worse
– the way filmmakers conjured up their own film worlds.
Like Lucas’ STARS WARS, Spielberg’s film took a noteworthy quantum leap with existing technology and pushed the envelope as no other
film previous to it attempted.
film can hardly be overlooked as one of the small handful of works that
unavoidably and irrevocably changed the movies.
It can be argued that the last 15 years of big budget, special
effects heavy films that came in PARK’S wake would have never been
attempted if it were not for the film's newfangled effects work.
It is the breakthroughs that Spielberg and ILM launched that paved
the way for future pioneering films that championed the use of CGI: epics
like Cameron's TITANIC, Peter Jackson’s THE LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy and Lucas’ own STAR
WARS prequel trilogy may not have been
possible if not for JURASSIC PARK. Certainly,
Spielberg’s film (much akin to the original STAR WARS) ushered in a huge
number of future popcorn entertainments that tried – albeit, with inconsistent
success – to match the wow factor of PARK’s eye-popping images (the
very acronym ‘CGI’ seems to be so ubiquitous now in terms of
criticizing a film’s overuse of the technology).
Nevertheless, like the advent of sound and color, JURASSIC PARK can
be reasonably placed on a short list of films that prompted new methods to
so much that has been discussed and written about the film’s
technological efforts, very little is usually said about the uniqueness
of the film’s underlining premise.
The film itself was based on a fantastic 1990 techno-thriller novel
same name by Michael Crichton.
Like all great sci-fi, the book was essentially a morality and
cautionary tale, not too unlike Shelley’s FRANKENSTEIN, which commented
on the implications and consequences of genetically cloning dinosaurs for
the purpose of showcasing them in a lavish, multi-billion dollar island
amusement park. More so in
the book than in the film, Crichton's story was ripe with interesting
philosophical questions (for example, if you could clone a long extinct
species that could be potentially dangerous to modern society, should
you?) alongside honing in on how cooperate greed oftentimes supercedes
scientific and ethical responsibility.
As a work of thought provoking rhetoric and nail-biting suspense,
the book was a proverbial page-turner.
caught wind of Crichton’s book even before it was published.
In October of 1989, while working of the script for what would
eventually become the TV show ER, Crichton spoke with the director about
PARK, which was then a work in progress.
Even before the book was finished and published, Spielberg was
hooked on the idea of cloned-dinosaurs run amok and Crichton immediately
negotiated a remarkably shrewd deal with Universal Pictures to get his
book made into Spielberg’s next film opus: He got an up-front,
non-negotiable fee of nearly $2 million as well as a sizable chuck of the
film’s future profits (which hindsight has shown to be gigantic).
By 1990 Spielberg and Universal then paid the author an additional
$500,000 to adapt the book into a screenplay, and was later assisted by
David Koepp (who would later write Spielberg's WAR OF THE WORLDS remake
and was handpicked by Spielberg and George Lucas to write the upcoming
INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL). On an
interesting historical footnote: Spielberg initially wanted to film
SCHINDLER’S LIST before PARK, but Universal would only greenlight
Crichton’s film if Spielberg made it first.
even began on the film long before the book was even completed.
Realizing that appropriating the novel’s lavish and large scale
visuals and action sequences would be daunting, Spielberg first turned to
Stan Winston Studio’s, who were the unprecedented leaders of cutting
edge animatronic puppets. Contrary
to what many believe, Spielberg’s first inclination was to not use CGI
at all, but rather to incorporate a combination of large dinosaur animatronics for
close shots and then using Phil Tippett to create go-motion dinosaurs for
long shots. Spielberg’s
originally feared using any computer assistance on the film, thinking that
the resulting look would have too much of a video game quality (a
condemnation that has befallen many future – and current - films that
Tippett did produce many test go-motion shots, which despite being absolutely marvels of animated trickery and artistry, were not to Spielberg’s liking. ILM animators Mark Dippe and Steve Williams were brought in and created test footage of a full CG Tyrannosaurus Rex, which proved to be so remarkable and lifelike that Spielberg then bravely conceived most of PARK’s dinosaur effects should be computer rendered.
The rest is movie
Perhaps it should be of no surprise that the effects take a heavy weight in the film over characters and story, both of the latter elements being unfortunate casualties in JURASSIC PARK. Perhaps it was Spielberg’s insatiable desire to tell a spin-tingling action adventure picture like the original KING KONG (a self-described favorite of the director) or his enthusiasm to take the new-fangled CGI to create mammoth set pieces that have never been attempted before. Regardless of the rationale, it is JURASSIC PARK’s preponderance on spectacle, intrigue, and visuals are simultaneously its chief asset and strongest weakness. The film is, no doubt, a stirring, tense, scary, and unapologetically exciting thrill ride and a masterpiece of visual effects ingenuity; but on a level of thoughtful characters, polarizing ideas and absorbing themes (as presented in the book), the film is negligible, which is made a bit disappointing considering films that effectively married spectacle and interesting personas of Spielberg’s past resume like CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND and JAWS. Spielberg also forgot that the key to the thrills in JAWS was the fact that you see very little of the shark at all until well into its third act, which creates a scary implied sense of menace. By comparison, JURASSIC PARK feels rushed and hurried - we see a full shot of a dinosaur within the first 20 minutes.
effects are staggeringly efficient and powerful, but the human characters
are fairly stiff and lifeless, often at the mercy of man-hungry dinos that
want to make them their next meal. After
a sensational and scary opening sequence, the film settles down by
introducing us to Hammond (Richard Attenborough) who is a billionaire that
has a P.T. Barnum-sized ego and appetite for spectacle.
It appears that he has envisioned the ultimate theme park
attraction on a very little known Costa Rican island that promises to have
exhibits that will literally dwarf anything else on earth.
His scientists have managed to find an ingenious method of
extracting fossilized dinosaur DNA from amber-entombed mosquitoes that
once bit the dinos (the film has one of those Disneyland-esque animated
shorts that explains to visitors on the island how the technology works).
has a problem: One of his
employees was killed during a job that entailed moving a deadly
velociraptor to the island and the family is now suing.
They have sent a lawyer (played as a one note caricature of slimy, greedy
lawyers) to oversee the safety of the island (gee…I wonder if he’ll be
the first eaten by a dino?). Hammond then realizes that he needs a scientific liaison on
the inspection, so he hires two dinosaur experts (Sam Neil and Laura Dern)
to assist him. Also along for
the ride are a kooky, Rock ‘n Roll-mannered mathematician (Jeff Goldblum,
whose quirky, nervous energy is great here) and Hammond’s two young grandkids, whom will no doubt be the
first to recoil in fear and scream for bloody mercy louder than anybody
later when in danger.
rest of the story progresses fairly mechanically as Hammond’s guests go
on an automated tour of the park, which reveals all types of dinosaurs in
their prime. Of course,
Hammond has one greedy SOB of an employee (played in a hammy performance
by Wayne Knight) who conspires against the park to shut down all internal
defense structures that protect the humans from the dinos in an effort to
smuggle hidden dino DNA off-shore to a lucrative buyer. Things go bad for the film’s only human villain (rather
predictably) and things go even nastier for the others on the now
Of course, Hammond takes everything in stride, correctly stating that when
Disneyland opened it was beset by glitches. However, Godlblum's
wacky scientist wisely deadpans back to him, in the film's best line,
"Yeah, but when 'The Pirates of the Caribbean' breaks down the
pirates don't eat the tourists!"
Of course, Hammond takes everything in stride, correctly stating that when Disneyland opened it was beset by glitches. However, Godlblum's wacky scientist wisely deadpans back to him, in the film's best line, "Yeah, but when 'The Pirates of the Caribbean' breaks down the pirates don't eat the tourists!"
positive, the effects of the dinos, as already mentioned, are astonishing,
and many of the action sequences involving them are expertly handled by
the veteran Spielberg. Certainly,
many of the sequences play up to standard monster movie clichés, but
Spielberg rises above that by delivering tangible thrills and scares.
An early sequence involving the introduction of the ravenous T-Rex
is the film’s highlight, as is a later montage where the kids try to
hide themselves from a trio of salivating velociraptors in a kitchen.
A moment involving a few of the characters trying to climb an
electrified fence that is shut down (but will be be turned on) is thrilling. The film even manages to throw in some much needed light
comedy amidst the carnage, as is the case with a very funny insert of a
side-rear-view-mirror that states “objects in mirror are closer than they may
appear” as the T-rex fully engulfs it with his gapping jaws.
They are other moments where the dinos look a bit too cute, as is the case
when the kids try to feed a brachiosaurus that appears to have a wickedly
bad cold which results in a unnecessary gross-out gag.
They are other moments where the dinos look a bit too cute, as is the case when the kids try to feed a brachiosaurus that appears to have a wickedly bad cold which results in a unnecessary gross-out gag.
easy at it is to admire the film’s polish and effects wizardry, JURASSIC
PARK is lazy from a script and character level.
The problematic scientific arguments and debates that typified
Crichton’s novel are largely vacant (we get one very small dinner table
scene where characters discuss the pros and cons of dino-cloning, but
that’s about it) and some of the characters are less developed entities
and more or less just screaming victims.
Hammond’s character, to a large degree, is awkwardly handled and
seems to suffer from a bipolar level of motivation.
Sometimes he’s portrayed on the level of a mad scientist gone
afoul and other times he’s a wise, good-natured, and benign
industrialist. The manner
with which the film flip-flops him from a casual villain to a man that
realizes the errors of his ways in the end are woefully convenient. JURASSIC PARK could have been much more intriguing if the
script approached Hammond for the inwardly tormented and troubled Dr.
Frankenstein figure he is; instead, he comes across far too clean-cut and
fans of the film won’t care, as the film became a box office monster
when released in the summer of 1993. By the end of its theatrical run it outgrossed then then
Number One box office film of all-time, Spielberg’s own E.T. – THE
EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL. Beyond the
film’s universal appeal to filmgoers at the time, JURASSIC PARK also
generated increasing interest in dinosaur studies (the recorded number of
enrolling students in paleontology hit record highs after the film’s
release). Despite the fact
the film received fairly lukewarm reviews by critics, it still dominated
the technical awards (and rightfully so) at the Academy Awards, winning
for Best Sound, Best Sound Effects Editing, and Best Effects.
Spielberg’s other 1993 effort, the unanimously respected
SCHINLDER’S LIST, emerged out of PARK’S popular shadow to become the
director’s most revered – and celebrated – films.
JURASSIC PARK was so cherished that sequels were painfully inevitable;
Spielberg returned to helm the lackluster first sequel THE LOST WORLD
(arguably one of his least accomplished films) and a third film
(directed by Joe Johnston) was released in 2001, which was laughingly mediocre.
There are even talks of Spielberg returning to the director's chair for a fourth
JURASSIC PARK was so cherished that sequels were painfully inevitable; Spielberg returned to helm the lackluster first sequel THE LOST WORLD (arguably one of his least accomplished films) and a third film (directed by Joe Johnston) was released in 2001, which was laughingly mediocre. There are even talks of Spielberg returning to the director's chair for a fourth installment.