Welcome to Jurassic Park


The theatrical release of Jurassic World attests the enduring appeal of Steven Spielberg’s groundbreaking 1993 blockbuster.


I saw Jurassic Park three times in theaters back in 1993, and I vividly recall two things from that time. One is my wife, Suzanne, screaming and reflexively whipping up her legs onto her theater seat when the velociraptor leaps up toward the camera at a young girl’s dangling legs as she tries to climb into an air duct. The other is my brother-in-law, Dave, getting a bit misty when Sam Neill’s Alan Grant, witnessing Jurassic Park’s dinosaurs for the first time, murmurs in awed astonishment, “They’re moving in herds. They do move in herds.”


Making viewers scream and jump is one of the movie’s oldest and most familiar tricks.  Rarer is the sense of awe and wonder inspired by Jurassic Park’s unprecedented vision of the most mythologized creatures ever to walk the earth, brought to life by a still-convincing blend of early computer imagery and animatronics.


In the twenty-odd years since Jurassic Park pioneered the use of photorealistic computer-animated living creatures integrated into a live-action film, computer animation has become even more prevalent. Yet in all that time, it’s hard to think of a single blockbuster spectacle that uses computer imagery to achieve a similar sense of awe and grandeur. (Avatar and perhaps Interstellar are the best candidates I can think of.)


Loosely based on Michael Crichton’s cautionary novel about an ill-fated project to clone dinosaurs from DNA recovered from bloodsucking insects preserved in amber, Jurassic Park showcases Spielberg’s mastery of visual storytelling and audience manipulation about as well as any movie he’s made. That doesn’t mean, of course, that it’s in the same league as his best movies.

Jurassic Park plays like a lightweight hybrid of the two prior Spielberg films to spawn sequels: Jaws and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Dr. Grant bears more than a passing resemblance to a better-known brainy, fedora-wearing action hero who does field work digging up old stuff. And the scary thrills of an island full of ancient predators are like a theme-park funhouse-mirror version of the primal terror of shark-haunted Amity Island.


Of course, Jaws is an intelligent, mature thriller with complex characters and thoughtful dialogue—one that many consider an improvement on the misanthropic novel by Peter Benchley. Jurassic Park is a simplistic popcorn spectacle that dumbs down Crichton’s cerebral novel with a cartoony account of chaos theory and a literal cartoon explanation of the dinosaur-cloning scheme.

Raiders, too, towers over Jurassic Park. The characters in Raiders may not be complex, but they’re unforgettable; the story may be silly, but it’s never slack. Jurassic Park is full of notable actors—Laura Dern as Grant’s partner Dr. Ellie Sattler; Richard Attenborough as John Hammond, the billionaire creator of Jurassic Park; Jeff Goldblum as mathematician Ian Malcolm; Samuel L. Jackson as the park’s chief engineer—but, other than Neill and Attenborough, it’s hard to say they’re particularly well used.


Even Grant is underdeveloped. Notably, where the protagonists of Jaws and Raiders have dramatically important phobias—Brody is afraid of water, Indy of snakes—Grant’s only foible is that he is uncomfortable around children and leery of the commitment of becoming a parent.


Of course he’s saddled with a pair of children: Hammond’s grandchildren, Lex and Tim, for whom Grant must take a kind of paternal responsibility. By the end of their ordeal, Grant, Sattler, and the two kids have become a kind of quasi-family unit, at least until they get back to their real lives. Perhaps Grant will be willing to become a father after all.

Jurassic Park is often described as a technophobic cautionary tale about the dangers of scientific hubris and technology run amok—a warning the movie never makes particularly persuasively. (Still less persuasive is Malcolm’s whimsical theological spin: “God creates dinosaurs…God creates man…man destroys God…man creates dinosaurs…” Least persuasive of all is Sattler’s facetious coda: “Dinosaur eats man…woman inherits the Earth.”)


More credibly, the film can be seen as a critique of irresponsible commercialism. “The problem with the scientific power you’ve used,” Malcolm tells Hammond, “is it didn’t require any discipline to attain it. You read what others had done and you took the next step…. You stood on the shoulders of geniuses to accomplish something as fast as you could, and before you knew what you had. You patented it, packaged it, slapped in on a plastic lunch box, and now you’re selling it.”


None of this, of course, is what we remember about Jurassic Park. We remember, above all, the nerve-wracking details Spielberg paints so well: the rippling water in the plastic cup; Grant and Lex trying to remain motionless while the snorting T-rex knocks off Grant’s hat; the slow-motion scramble down the tree with the car in pursuit; Tim noticing Lex’s widening eyes in the cafeteria as she registers the shadow of the raptors behind him; the steam of the raptors’ breath on the kitchen door window as they figure out the latch.


And, of course, the joy on Grant’s face as he lies against the abdomen of a triceratops listening to its breathing and the sense of wonder running through the film as a whole. Crucially, even in the scariest sequences, the film’s dinosaurs are presented not as movie monsters, but as animals, as part of the natural world, however unnatural their reappearance might be.


In a quiet coda, the film subtly links its awe for dinosaurs with the world of today: As the helicopter flies away from the island, Grant looks out and sees, not a last glimpse of dinosaurs, but a few pelicans gliding above the water’s surface. But of course the point of the shot is that we are seeing dinosaurs, or their modern-day descendants; they are around us all the time. It’s far from the movie’s most memorable shot, but it’s the most poetic—and, for me, the most resonant.


Jurassic Park is suitable for teens and up.

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