A much beloved film, Jurassic Park remains to this day one of the great monumental moments in cinema. It was a movie which redefined the summer blockbuster, a rather fitting feat since its director, Steven Spielberg, had previously invented the notion with Jaws, back in 1975. The world hadn’t seen anything like Jurassic Park at the time – the sense of spectacle and the quality of the special effects, combined with the suspenseful plot and fantastic action scenes, made the film into the event picture at the time, and it made a fair mountain of money for Universal – something in the region of 900 million dollars. Park was huge, and an important childhood staple for anyone born in the 80s, one of those seminal movies which literally everyone has seen. Such a movie, so well known, referenced and loved, can be difficult to review, but it’s worth taking a look back at Jurassic Park, and highlighting just why it works so well, and what makes it such a gargantuan summer blockbuster.The film centres on an upcoming theme-park/zoo, a place called Jurassic Park located on an island a few hours outside of San Diego. The park – brainchild of eccentric billionaire John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) – contains actual, real-life dinosaurs – brought back to life using the wonders of genetics – and is set to become one of the most spectacular entertainment venues on the planet. Before opening day however, one of the park’s workers happens to get well, eaten, an event which panics the park’s investors, who call for an expert team to endorse the location. Said team consists of palaeontologist Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill), botanist Dr. Elle Saddler (Laura Dern), and chaos mathematician Dr Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum), though Hammond throws his grandchildren, Lex and Tim (Ariana Richards and Joseph Mazzello) into the mix too. Samuel L. Jackson appears in an early role as a scientist. The group’s tour goes awry when scientist Dennis Nedry (Wayne Knight) attempts to steal some embryos, cutting the power in the process. Dinosaurs get out. People get eaten.The original novel by Michael Crichton has been adapted into more family-friendly fair here, which honestly, works better for the material. Crichton’s novel was more concerned about its thematic intentions – genetics, technology, the need to play God – and focused on such elements at the expense of prose and characters. The movie condenses Crichton’s weighty ideas into soundbites – mainly delivered by Jeff Goldblum, which is a superior approach; the movie becomes lighter as a result but retains its focus. The ideas of the movie – the nature of playing God, the sense that people take systems for granted and the slightest blip can cause chaos – are fascinating and handled well, and the movie makes some interesting comments regarding capitalism and the need to package and sell everything – rather ironic considering the movie’s impressive merchandising. Really though, beside the genius of the central concept, plot isn’t too important in Jurassic Park – it works well enough, but really serves as a means or Spielberg to go wild with the sense of spectacle and scope. This is a director’s movie, not a writer’s one. Spielberg was born to make this movie and in many ways its typical of his style, not that that’s a bad thing. The film carries the traditional John Williams score, one of his best, impressive when you consider that Williams is easily the greatest living music composer. The score is epic, soaring and tense, perfectly capturing the tone of the film, and remains hugely iconic to this day. The sense of scale here is enormous, and the movie, towards the start anyway, comes with a whimsical sense of wonder, there’s a real ‘wow’ factor to the film – particularly the first dinosaur appearance on the field, which looks incredibly good for its age. Special effects at the time were just beginning to take off – James Cameron’s Terminator 2, released a year prior to Jurassic Park, had amazed audiences with its liquid T-1000. Jurassic Park however was the film which grabbed special effects and dragged them into the modern century – arguably, all cinema CGI work to this day owes itself to Jurassic Park. Audiences had never seen anything like this at the time, and its fitting that it would Spielberg who would bring the dinosaurs to life. Occasionally, some of the dinosaur shots (the velociraptors) look a bit dated, but for the most part they hold up exceeding well in 2013, mainly due to the outstanding efforts of Stan Winston, probably the greatest special effects artist in cinematic history. One of the reasons that the dinosaurs still look so good is the use of animatronics – real puppetry will always look better than CGI, simply because it looks weighty and real. And the film runs with its special effects, pushing the boundaries throughout – the first T-Rex attack, for example, is made even more impressive as it takes place in the pouring rain. The work which must have gone into the creatures here is extremely impressive and Jurassic Park stands as a phenomenal milestone in special effects. Nothing would be the same after this movie.Jurassic Park doesn’t just get by on its technical skills – this is an impressively directed movie. The opening sections build up tension and plot, with a great sense of awe to everything, but it’s not until the dinosaurs get out that Spielberg really lets loose. The first T-Rex scene is one of the most impressive and brilliant action sequences in all of cinema – special effects wizardry aside, this is an amazing scene, utterly iconic, with a real sense of threat and menace. It’s a scene to make audiences sit up in their seats and possibly, the best monster-movie-moment ever filmed. The climax – essentially the last half-hour of the movie, is also incredibly tense and very well designed, with the velociraptors and kids in the kitchen standing as one of cinema’s most suspenseful moments. It’s one of Spielberg’s most tense scenes and the man is no stranger to tense scenes, so effective that Spielberg himself mimicked it in War of the Worlds. The action moments in this movie are superb – but the film does a remarkable job of maintaining tension and threat when the dinosaurs are off screen. The dinosaurs, for their price, aren’t actually on screen too often, and whilst some complain that the human scenes are dull, Spielberg uses these quieter moments to highlight the scale of his scattered dinosaur related set-pieces. If the movie was all dinosaurs, all the time, it would rapidly run out of steam, a fact noticeable in Jurassic Park‘s two sequels, which failed to get the balance right.The characters themselves are iconic without being hugely well-developed. They serve their role within the plot and all of the cast are likeable – with Sam Neill, Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum being highlights. Richard Attenborough’s Hammond is the film’s most developed and fascinating character, the character who makes the most mistakes and learns the most too. There is however, a huge difference here with Jaws, the film most similar in tone and style to Jurassic Park. Jaws was, really, a character piece. It was a movie about a small town reacting to a big threat. All of the characters in Jaws are detailed, well-drawn and interesting – Jurassic Parkdoes away with that for the most part, meaning that where Jaws comes across as a narrative with shark attacks,Jurassic Park occasionally feels like a string of set-pieces. But the movie’s pacing is relentless and the scenes so well designed that it’s impossible not to be swept along with it. It’s important to note the difference between Jaws and Jurassic Park however as it indicates a switch in gears for Spielberg. For Spielberg, the 80s were all about big spectacle movies, with ET adding an element of sentimentality into proceedings. It’s clear that by this point in his career, Spielberg had matured as a director and was becoming less interested in films like Jurassic Park – a fact confirmed by the release of Schinder’s List not long after. By the time that The Lost World came out, Spielberg had clearly lost interest, and so the original Jurassic Park in some ways, serves as the summation of Spielberg’s early career. Nothing would ever quite be the same of the director after this, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as Spielberg movies became considerably more mature afterwards – it’s just slightly sad that Jurassic Park probably stands as the last ‘traditional’ Spielberg movie.Jurassic Park though, works on so many levels. The likeable cast, the impressive set-pieces and action scenes, the sense of wonder and awe, amazing direction and score, coupled with some of the greatest special effects to ever grace the silver screen. It’s a powerhouse movie, one for everyone to enjoy, and a defining staple in the blockbuster canon. It crucially, has heart, and is a loveable film, one which everyone should see and enjoy. One of Spielberg’s most fun films.
Be sure to check out The Lost World: Jurassic Park next week. I’ll be looking at how it fails as a followup.