A film review by Craig J. Koban

 

JURASSIC PARK  jjj

15th Anniversary Retrospective Review

1993, PG-13, 123 mins.

Grant: Sam Neill / Ellie: Laura Dern / Malcolm: Jeff Goldblum / Hammond: Richard Attenborough

Directed By Steven Spielberg / Written by Michael Crichton and David Koepp, based on the novel by Michael Crichton.

More 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 films.  

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. 

Regardless 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.  

The 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 tell stories. 

With 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 of the 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. 

Spielberg 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.  

Pre-production 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 use CGI). 

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 history. 

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.

So…the 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). 

Hammond 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. 

The 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 unprotected tour.  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!"

On a 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.

As 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 noble. 

Yet, 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 installment.  

By the summer of 1993 Spielberg had very little to prove as an action-adventure filmmaker, as he already helmed some of the greatest escapist films of all-time previous to JURASSIC PARK’s release, easily cemented himself as the cinema’s most pervasive populist filmmaker.  The monumental success of JURASSIC PARK only reinforced this notion.  15 years after its release, it certainly does not deserve high praise alongside Spielberg’s greatest and most rousing popcorn entertainments (like JAWS, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, and RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK).  The film is a flawed vision with its flaccid characterizations and paint-by-numbers sequences that scare with unavoidable certainty.  Yet, JURASSIC PARK remains an essential and significant film for the medium for the way it dared to look at conceiving what was then impossible and – by using pioneering film making advancements unparalleled for its time – made it possible.  It simply changed the way movies are made, an accolade that only a handful of movies can take credit for. 

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