Boom. Boom. Boom. Something big and ferocious is approaching. As part of a series on Film Sentinel, each week we are revisiting a work from the career of Steven Spielberg. This week concerns one of Steven’s most popular and successful films: the 1993 original Jurassic Park. Based on the 1990 novel by Michael Crichton, Jurassic Park was the highest-grossing film of all time upon release. An unforgettable thriller, the film also heralded a significant step forward both in Steven’s career, and in the motion picture industry at large, for computer-generated imagery.
(For more information on Series Spielberg, a full schedule of reviews, as well as some deeper background on Spielberg’s early life, you can visit the introduction page here).
The Jurassic Park franchise began with the 1990 science fiction novel by the late author and filmmaker Michael Crichton. As a cautionary tale on the emerging science of genetics research, Jurassic Park described an expensive theme park on an island off Costa Rica that offered visitors the ability to see real-life dinosaurs, made possible by cloning DNA found in mosquitos fossilized in amber. As the park eventually broke down and began to eat its guests, Crichton aimed to illustrate the dystopian dangers of science using the implications of chaos theory.
Crichton was no stranger to Hollywood, he had written and directed films at this point in addition to being an author. Having originally conceived of his premise of cloning dinosaurs while intending to write a screenplay, the project eventually evolved into a novel, and before its publication several studios bid for the film rights, with Universal Studios and Steven Spielberg coming out as winners. While experimenting with various visual effects in pre-production, Spielberg found potential in the emerging field of CGI, and it was an extraordinary success.
In the Jurassic Park film, John Hammond (Richard Attenborough), the financier of a mysterious theme park, invites paleontologist Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill), paleobotanist Dr. Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern), mathematician Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum), as well as his two grandkids, Tim (Joseph Mazzello) and Lex Murphy (Ariana Richards) to his park on an island in Costa Rica for an initial tour. Upon arrival, the guests experience wonders beyond their wildest imagination, but the park’s inherent flaws come to light as its dinosaurs escape and begin to wreak havoc.
Michael Crichton wrote the screenplay for the film, and a final draft was completed by David Koepp, who removed some of the exposition and toned down the violence. Minor character revisions aside, the film is largely very close to the novel, and effectively communicates Crichton’s concerns with unchecked genetics research. In addition to the film’s philosophical themes, the movie functions immensely well as a white-knuckle thriller. But something the film offers that the book could not, is the awe and wonder of seeing actual dinosaurs in action.
Since dinosaurs were first recognized by scientists in the 1800s, they have captured the public’s imagination. The idea of dinosaurs evokes an exotic world long lost to the present where savage beasts, epic in size and almost mythic in appearance, dominated all corners of the earth for millions of years. They first appeared on film in 1925’s The Lost World in crude form, and captivated audiences anyway, but it wasn’t until Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park in 1993 that viewers would be able to view what was on screen as actually believable as living creatures.
As computer-generated imagery was still groundbreaking at this point, very expensive, and the filmmakers were not fully aware of everything they could feasibly do with it, they still relied upon the now all-but lost art of practical effects when possible. In result, the hybrid between the two techniques ensures that the film still holds up very well in our current era where CGI has greatly progressed. Visuals that are fully digital inevitably show their age, but the film’s crucial sequences, such as the one with the T-Rex, wisely utilize staggerlingly realistic animatronics.
Just as Dr. Henry Wu used frog DNA to fill in the gaps in the DNA sequence of dinosaurs to achieve the miracle of cloning, the special effects engineers fill in the gaps of the limitations of physical props with CGI to achieve the miracle of Jurassic Park’s visual effects. The film wasn’t the first to use CGI, but it was the first to use CGI to this extent, and it ushered in the new age of digital technology. Just as pundits could blame Spielberg for birthing the age of the blockbuster, they could similarly blame him for launcing the age of CGI, though that wouldn’t be totally fair.
Considering paleontology and the science of dinosaurs is mainly inferential, there is a lot we simply don’t know about them. Much of our modern concept of dinosaurs is based on Crichton and Spielberg’s depiction of them, and they were about as accurate as they could be at the time given available resources, though progresses in the field have inevitably shown some aspects to be inaccurate. For example, the T-Rex didn’t have vison based solely on movement, and many dinosaurs actually had feathers, but Spielberg and Crichton are storytellers, not scientists.
And boy, can those two tell a story. The first act of Jurassic Park functions superbly well by leveraging all of our childhood imagination and wowing us with the reveals of the dinosaurs, and then the second act kicks into high gear by having the park lose power, and everything going to hell. The concept allows Spielberg to flex all of his strengths of shock and suspense to a degree that hadn’t been seen since Jaws, allowing us to reap the rewards of the director returning to the man-vs.-beast genre in which he succeeds so well, and yet he strives so hard to graduate from.
And though the film launched a five-plus film franchise, it was the first and last to offer its beloved set of characters all together at the same time. Knowing the dinosaurs would inevitably demand a lot of spotlight, Spielberg sought to hire a talented, but not especially well-known, cast of stars. First, Sam Neill is the only movie paleontologist we’ll ever need. Next, the lovable Laura Dern is a great match for him. Goldblum’s snarky swagger is perfect for his character, and Attenborough is endearing as the sweet and ambitious, but misguided, John Hammond.
Also, Samuel L. Jackson is iconic as the cigarette-smoking park engineer Mr. Arnold, and his line “hold on to your butts” is permanently emblazoned in movie-lore. Mischievous wise-guy Wayne Knight is some perfect casting for the shady Dennis Nedry, and the kids are also very charming. John Williams, teaming up with Spielberg yet again, submits one of his most cherished film scores, contributing perfectly to the suspense in scenes such as the T-Rex attack and the raptor chases, and offering one of the most adored of film themes. Jurassic Park is a certified classic.
We’ll be returning to Jurassic Park, but first we’re going to revisit one of Spielberg’s most pivotal accomplishments: 1993’s Schindler’s List. The film is available on DVD and Blu-Ray, for streaming on Netlfix, and for rental from digital retailers. Give it a watch, and I will see you next week.
Universal Pictures, Amblin Entertainment.
Directed by Steven Spielberg.
Written by Michael Crichton and David Koepp, based on the novel Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton.
Starring Sam Neill, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum, Richard Attenborough, Bob Peck, Martin Ferrero, BD Wong, Samuel L. Jackson, Wayne Knight, Joseph Mazzello, and Ariana Richards.
Released June 11, 1993.