Academy Award Wins- Best Sound Effects Editing, Best Visual Effects, Best Sound
Every kid is fascinated by dinosaurs. It’s a universal given, at least in America. The idea of giant monsters stomping around a lush, primordial jungle is the stuff that fuels pint-sized imaginations, and the fact that dinosaurs don’t exist anymore gives them a mythic quality. Understandably, a big Hollywood film purporting to feature realistic dinosaurs was always going to be a gigantic hit. So when JURASSIC PARK was released to record-breaking numbers in 1993, nobody was surprised.
I was very young in 1993, around 8 or 9 years old. I had heard stories of how scary JURASSIC PARK was, and was terrified at the prospect of seeing people eaten alive on-screen. As such, I stayed away from the theaters, and I didn’t see the film until I could watch it in the safety of my own home on VHS. In terms of my moviegoing life and sense of participation in cinematic history, not going to see JURASSIC PARK during its initial theatrical run and experiencing it with everyone for the first jaw-dropping time remains one of my biggest regrets.
For all you punks who were yet to be born in 1993, it’s hard to quantify in words how big of a cultural phenomenon JURASSIC PARK was. It just wasn’t one of the biggest movies of all time, it was a watershed moment in our culture. The advent of computer technology that could convincingly render living, breathing animals that had been extinct for 65 million years meant we had the crossed a line– the cinematic equivalent of Prometheus stealing fire from the gods and bringing it to humanity. We now had the ability to render, on film, anything we could dream up. The possibilities were endless. Unlike CGI-heavy fare nowadays, JURASSIC PARK’s effects stand the test of time due to mixing new technology with old techniques from the early days of cinema: matte paintings, miniatures, animatronics, etc. As a result, not only is JURASSIC PARK just as visually convincing as it was twenty years, ago, but it remains the benchmark against which all other spectacle films are measured.
JURASSIC PARK began with author Michael Crichton’s own fascination with dinosaurs, which he later adapted into the novel upon which the film is based. He had casually mentioned the idea to director Steven Spielberg as they worked together on a medical procedural film that would later become the hit television show E.R. After an intense bidding war that saw four studios bid for the project with their best directors, Spielberg was bestowed the honor out of his desire to do for land what JAWS (1975) did for water. Spielberg obviously knew he had (yet another) massive hit on his hands, but he most likely had no idea at how big the film would actually become.
A billionaire entrepreneur named John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) has established an amusement park on a secret island off the coast of Costa Rica. The attraction? Real dinosaurs, cloned from the DNA discovered in prehistoric mosquitos trapped in petrified tree sap. Hammond wishes to obtain the endorsement of one of the world’s leading paleontologists, Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill), so he invites him and his colleague/girlfriend Dr. Ellie Satler (Laura Dern) for a weekend trip down to the island, where they would preview the park along with a few other members of Hammond’s think tank. Also making the journey is chaos theory mathematician Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum), the anxious lawyer Gennaro and Hammond’s own grandchildren (and target audience for the park), Tim and Lex. They are shocked and stupefied by their first encounters with the dinosaurs, but their wonder and awe is soon replaced by fear and terror when a tropical storm knocks out the park’s power grid and the dinosaurs escape their paddocks. Trapped on the island, this ragtag group must fend off Hammond’s vicious creations and restore power to the park if they are to escape with their lives.
Spielberg’s cast is notable in that, despite the film’s supersized production value, there aren’t any superstar names involved. By going with less recognizable faces, he further enhances the believability of his story and its characters. Sam Neill plays Dr. Alan Grant, the tough rugged paleontologist and our protagonist. He’s somewhat of a technological luddite, which is perfect for a profession focused on the past. His unease about the future is also manifested in the fact that he is not fond at all of children. This was a breakout role for Neill, although he hasn’t really been able to transcend it. In essence, he fell victim to the same curse that Mark Hamill of STAR WARS (1977) did, whereby an actor becomes so well known for a particular role that it’s difficult for them to stand out in others. As Grant’s colleague/girlfriend Ellie Satler, Lauren Dern is the archetypical 90’s feminist—just as tough and rugged as the men.
Jeff Goldblum is easily the audience favorite as Ian Malcolm. Malcolm is a sleazy, yet awesome, womanizer who specializes in mathematics and chaos theory. His enormous intelligence belies his sardonic wit and slick appearance. Goldblum is such a gifted character actor, and he’s only gotten better with age. He was such a hit with fans that he was brought back as the lead character for the sequel, THE LOST WORLD: JURASSIC PARK (1997). Always dressed in an immaculately white suit, Richard Attenborough lends a jovial, grandfatherly air to the entrepreneurial showman Hammond. Spielberg felt a personal connection to the Hammond character due to their shared love of putting on a show. Attenborough is a director himself—his best-known film is the Academy-Award winning GANDHI (1982)—and his inclusion in the film is the second instance of Spielberg casting a well-known director that has influenced him. The first, as you may remember, was French New Wave pioneer Francois Truffaut in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977). Bob Peck plays Robert Muldoon, a South African game hunter who keeps the dinosaurs in check. He’s my favorite character in the entire film, and he gives a subdued and intense performance throughout. His character is responsible for the “clever girl” line, which is still widely quoted today. Martin Ferrero is perfect casting as the nebbish, ineffectual attorney Gennaro. Spielberg has a habit of messing with lawyers in his films, so his insistence that it’s all in good fun rings a little false to me. Joseph Mazello plays the talkative, inquisitive Tim, and made something of a short-lived splash as a viable actor shortly after the film’s release. Unlike a lot of child actors whose careers were ruined by puberty, he has experienced a surprising career renaissance in recent years, even performing for David Fincher in THE SOCIAL NETWORK (2010). Ariana Richards, who plays Tim’s vegetarian, “hacker” sister Lex, didn’t fare as well as Mazello did career-wise—but not for lack of a compelling performance. Like Satler, Lex is also indicative of the 90’s girl-power movement in that she is embraces the typically-male-centric world of computers and technology, and is just as (if not more) proficient at it. And finally, we have Samuel L. Jackson (a year before his PULP FICTION breakout) and Wayne Knight as Ray Arnold and Dennis Nedry, respectively. Ray is the surly, chain-smoking IT guy responsible for the film’s other line still in widespread use: “hold on to yo’ butts!”. SEINFELD cast member Knight gets to indulge his sleazier side as the corporate spy charged with smuggling dinosaur embryos out of the park for a rival company. Nedry is a slimy, vile cretin of a man and Knight plays him with a great deal of glee, relishing the chance to play such an incompetent villain.
JURASSIC PARK finds Spielberg once again working with HOOK’s (1991) Director of Photography, Dean Cundey. Filmed primarily in Hawaii, JURASSIC PARK has a lush, tropical look that harkens back to the primordial era of the dinosaurs. The setting allows for the kind of expansive vistas that Spielberg’s idols John Ford or David Lean might shoot, but Spielberg has the modern advantage of aerial helicopter shots and other expensive toys to create the huge scope. Rick Carter, who previously worked on AMAZING STORIES (1985) for Spielberg, is brought onboard for his first feature with the director as the Production Designer, charged with creating JURASSIC PARK’s primal world. Several aspects of Carter’s design—from the King Kong-esque park gates to the driverless Ford Explorer SUV’s—are now unspeakably iconic. Spielberg’s regular editor Michael Kahn shaped the pacing of film primarily on his own after the near-simultaneous production of SCHINDLER’S LIST that same year required Spielberg to depart and entrust the construction of the film to him.
Of course, no discussion or analysis of JURASSIC PARK worth its salt would neglect to mention the invaluable contributions of the late Stan Winston and Phil Tippet. One of the industry’s foremost creature creators, Winston was responsible for the dinosaur animatronics, which were cumbersome and prone to technical difficulties (especially when rain was involved). The experience was not unlike the problems encountered by JAWS’ animatronic shark, which regularly broke down in the ocean. Winston added several subtle effects, such as the infamous shot of the T-Rex’s pupils constricting in light, which made the dinosaurs come alive. His work was a triumph of his trade, and reinforced the believability of the CGI creations. Phil Tippet was one of the best stop-motion animators in the business, until his craft suddenly became obsolete with the rise of CGI. As consolation, he was given the title of Dinosaur Supervisor (you had one job, Phil!), which allowed him to use his extensive animation experience in consultation with the CG team’s efforts. While you could say this was a tragic story for Tippet, it actually opened up a whole new direction for his career, and he’s still in demand today as one of the industry’s top effects experts. The contributions of these real-life wizards are unfathomably valuable and directly responsible to JURASSIC PARK’s groundbreaking success. More importantly, their efforts paved the way for a new generation of films limited only by their makers’ imaginations.
As expected, John Williams is once again on scoring duties, crafting yet another insanely iconic suite of cues that rival his work on STAR WARS, JAWS or RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981). Williams adopt a big, soaring orchestral sound as well as primal drums to convey the lofty themes of the film, perfectly capturing Spielberg’s tone and joining in our collective amazement of witnessing dinosaurs walk among us.
One aspect of Spielberg’s work that I never realized before is his propensity for making his protagonists scientists, or teachers– people who are on a quest for knowledge. JAWS has Hooper the shark expert, Indiana Jones is both an archaeologist and a university professor, and Dr. Alan Grant is a paleontologist. I suspect this is because Spielberg’s films are about the joy (and alternatively the terror) of discovery, of encountering the unknown. His protagonists not only help deliver otherwise-clumsy exposition through their characterization, but ground his films in fact and reason.
The nature of a movie that takes on an awed emotion in the presence of dinosaurs automatically assumes a child’s perspective. Tim and Lex are there to justify it in a literal sense, but even the adult characters experience a child-like amazement at what their creations have wrought. Additionally, Spielberg’s depiction of the strained father relationship continues with Grant presented as someone with an inherent dislike of children. The events of the story force him to intervene and save the vulnerable Tim and Lex, and he subsequently develops a paternal bond with them. By the end, he’s at ease with his patriarchal relationship to them, and his character arc is complete. This arc continues the inverted trajectory of Spielberg’s own explorations with his father and the softening of their tense relationship in the wake of his own fatherhood.
JURASSIC PARK is the kind of movie that only comes along once in a lifetime. Even when watching the dailies, Spielberg and company knew they had something really special. Their predictions were validated when the film became a box office juggernaut, quickly ascending to become the highest-grossing film of all time (reigning for a short period before James Cameron’s TITANIC deposed it four years later). JURASSIC PARK also received widespread critical and audience acclaim, with the general conclusion being that Spielberg had made a veritable masterpiece. The film’s stratospheric performance resulted in a new franchise that would birth two more sequels in 1997 and 2001 (with a third in development for 2015). It also became an unstoppable merchandising force, flooding the marketplace with toys, t-shirts, lunchboxes, video games, Halloween costumes, etc. The infamous skeleton logo of JURASSIC PARK was inescapable in the summer of 1993. In 2013, it was converted to 3-D and re-released in cinemas to celebrate its twentieth anniversary. While I’m always wary of 3D films in general, I wasted no time in getting myself to the theater. I had missed the boat the first time around, and now I finally had a chance to redeem myself and experience JURASSIC PARK the way I had always wanted to. The 3-D was meh, but the visceral thrill of seeing those dinosaurs up on the big screen was undeniable.
I can’t stress how significant the year 1993 is in the context of Spielberg’s career. He directed two features that year—one being the biggest film of all time and the other being a personal masterpiece. For one director to achieve that in a single year, let alone a lifetime, is a feat that most likely will never be surpassed. This feat also gave rise to the curious bifurcation of Spielberg’s aesthetic and general approach to filmmaking. Spielberg is not a filmmaker like Christopher Nolan, who can infuse a big-budget spectacle film with a layered thematic subtext and characterization usually reserved for a serious drama. Instead, Spielberg has to parse and divide it out. That’s not to say his blockbuster work is devoid of serious moments or in-depth characterization—rather, he makes more of a concrete distinction. This bifurcation tends to occur most blatantly in the years in which he does two films. Just as he 180’d from the soaring spectacle of JURASSIC PARK to the intimate heartbreak of SCHINDLER’S LIST, so did he pivot from the explosive apocalyptica of WAR OF THE WORLDS to the brooding, controlled anguish of MUNICH in 2005. No other director, aside from maybe Steven Soderbergh, is able to flip on a dime like this, going from a “movie” to a “film”.
There’s no understating how much of a cultural transformation JURASSIC PARK brought about. It recaptured our thirst for discovery and science, unburdened filmmakers of the shortcomings of technology, and redefined humanity’s collective interpretation of dinosaurs. When we think of dinosaurs, we think of JURASSIC PARK. The two are inextricably linked now. For Steven Spielberg, JURASSIC PARK not only assured his legacy as a great filmmaker, it enshrined it.
JURASSIC PARK is currently available on high definition Blu Ray from Universal.
Produced by: Kathleen Kennedy, Gerald R. Molen
Written by: Michael Crichton, David Koepp
Director of Photography: Dean Cundey
Production Designer: Rick Carter
Editor: Michael Kahn
Composer: John Williams