Jurassic Park (1993)

When it’s on: Sunday, 14 June (1.35 pm)
Channel: ITV1
IMDb Link

It’s almost certain that we will be visiting the cinema this weekend to watch Jurassic World, so I thought it might be timely to talk about Jurassic Park, Steven Spielberg’s 1993 behemoth of a movie that kicked it all off. Everyone else is discussing it, after all, and I am rather enjoying the number of podcasts I listen to at the moment, often managed by people who would have first seen it when they were children, where the critical faculties have given way to gushing and memories of younger years, the sheer joy of the first time they caught it. I was 21 when Jurassic Park came out and, whilst suitably enchanted, it seems to be regarded as something really special by those who were around the age I was when I first saw something like The Empire Strikes Back and knew, innately, that I’d experienced greatness at exactly the right age to experience it.

For the record, my trip to watch Jurassic Park at the Showcase Cinema in Stockton with a group of friends was one of my first times at a multiplex. Several screens were showing it; at one point I nipped to the loo and returned, sat down, and then carried on watching for several minutes before I realised the film wasn’t at the right point, I was sat next to complete strangers and, eventually, that I’d walked back into the wrong theatre. D’oh!

It’s worth remembering that, before this one, Spielberg was undergoing a bit of a lull. His previous films, Always and Hook, whilst not exactly bad, were widely viewed as below par works from him (I’ve no particular desire to see either again, which says it all for my feelings), so there was something ‘make or break’ about Jurassic Park. 1993 would turn out to be an annus mirablis of sorts for Spielberg. With his pet project, Schindler’s List, also released that year, the two films formed the consummate home run of home runs, instantly conferring on him both the commercial and critical crowns, the latter building to Academy Award glory with Oscars showered on his story of another Oskar. Over the years, my views on both movies has changed somewhat. I can’t watch Schindler’s List without getting the sense that my feelings are being manipulated, when the subject matter is surely powerful enough to stand on its own without the need to deploy such cinematic tricks (the girl in the red coat, good grief). I should save my comments on that particular work for another day, suffice it to say here that, as far as I’m concerned, all the praise seems to be for the devastating subject and the film’s success in bringing it to peoples’ minds, rather than its greatness as a piece of cinema.

As for Jurassic Park, I’ve grown to love it, even now – numerous viewings down the line – soaking up the tension, the special effects, the brilliant design work, the very fine acting, the masterly way it conveys swathes of exposition and scientific background to viewers without collapsing under its own weight. That last point is important. We’re asked to take in a lot of information about (i) how the dinosaurs were artificially created (ii) the reasons for doing so (iii) what dinosaurs actually were (iv) how the park works (v) the man who would steal its secrets, and yet it never really slows down. That’s some damn fine storytelling. We’re kept waiting for the first full shot of a dinosaur, and it’s worth the wait, the little jeep carrying Sam Neill and Laura Dern stopping long enough for them to gawp in helpless wonder at the sight of Brachiosaurs eating. It works for two reasons. One is the reactions of the actors, which only adds to the moment’s sense of authenticity and gravitas. The second is the use of CGI. Jurassic Park was like a great leap forward in special effects technology. Before this, the only way to see dinosaurs on film was the stop-motion animated models shot painstakingly by Ray Harryhausen and his peers. Suddenly, all that was consigned to cinema history thanks to digital effects, work that holds up today because Spielberg knew how to use CGI judiciously rather than too often, also when to deploy animatronics instead for the more interactive scenes.

Naturally, the film’s story of a theme park housing real-life dinosaurs reaches its point when the security breaks down and its denizens start running amok, looking for food. Jurassic Park is careful to describe the creatures as animals rather than monsters, which makes them feel more real. In the meantime, Jeff Goldblum’s character is a chaos theorist who argues that the park’s creator, John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) has shown a critical lack of judgement in reviving beasts that are extinct for a reason, which comes to pass when things start going horribly wrong. All this makes the attack by a Tyrannousaurus Rex the perfect exercise in tension. Announced by the now famous water ripples formed by its approaching footsteps, the king of carnivores sees two young children as lunch and goes to work, systematically destroying their oh so fragile car in its efforts to reach them. The combination of CGI and puppetry to create the dinosaur looks seamless, and whilst it must have been painstaking to develop and film there’s no doubt it’s great to watch, not to mention listen to with the Rex’s roar filling the screen every bit as much as its body.

The Tyrannosaur is the main star from a dinosaur perspective, but its impact is overshadowed by the smaller Velociraptors, those pack hunting hyenas of the reptile age. A little larger than human height (though in reality, they were about the size of chickens) and working together in order to attack from all directions, the raptors make for fantastic pursuers as the human characters try to run and hide. The scene in the park kitchen is much celebrated and rightly so. John Williams’s score is absent – as it is for the Tyrannosaur attack – to allow the natural noises of the dinosaurs and the panicked movements of their prey to take over. Whether you’re hearing a talon tapping on metallic work surfaces or a raptor snorting into the air, it all leads to a gripping chase that’s a masterclass in tension and classy editing. A quick further word on the sound design, which is truly excellent, adding an iconic and quite unique soundtrack of animal life that sounds completely alien because it’s been extinct for 65 million years.

For all their brilliant realisation, the dinosaurs actually occupy little screen time overall, harking back to Spielberg’s earlier Jaws, in which the shark was rarely seen. Investment therefore has to be made in the actors, both for their reactions to what’s happening and their overall characterisation. Spielberg went for a cast devoid of A-list stars, going instead for reliable character actors to tremendous effect. Sam Neill leads as Alan Grant, a serious minded fossil hunter who has no time for children (so naturally, he ends up caring for Hammond’s grandchildren) but an innate knowledge of dinosaurs, so that he can provide the survival tips when faced with carnivores. His partner, Ellie Sattler, is played by Laura Dern. She’s more an expert on extinct plant life, is practical enough to dig with her hands through a pile of droppings to investigate the ailments of a sickly Triceratops, and fends off the attentions of Jeff Goldblum’s suave Ian Malcolm with wry amusement. The latter provides the film with its questions of philosophy and morality, having some great sparring conversations with Hammond, who in Attenborough’s hands is a well meaning, grandfatherly figure (with a Scottish accent that, ahem, comes and goes) rather than the heartless businessman as presented in Michael Crichton’s source novel. Of the supporting players, Samuel L Jackson puts in a pre-Pulp Fiction appearance as a chain smoking site engineer, Bob Peck is on hand as the big game hunter who finds himself ultimately out of his depth, and Wayne Knight plays the treacherous Dennis Nedry who kicks off the story of the park turning to hell before meeting his own ‘sticky’ end.

If Jurassic Park’s effect has dimmed a little over time, then there are those lesser sequels to take into consideration, the second one a further Spielberg helmer that has some good moments but little of the original’s sense of majesty (it’s a monster movie, pure and simple) and the rather tired third instalment, which largely replaces suspense with CGI. But this first episode is really good. There’s a lovely sense of characters being genuinely awestruck by the returning to the world of long dead creatures, helped along by Williams’s music, which gives the whole thing an air of respect and legitimacy.

Jurassic Park: *****

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20 Replies to “Jurassic Park (1993)”

  1. I guess I was around the same age when I first saw this. The effects were, and I think still remain, quite impressive due to the restraint when it came to CGI. Yet it’s not a film I love. If I’m honest, It’s the kind of movie I’d probably sit through if I stumbled upon it on TV but wouldn’t go out of my way to see again otherwise.
    And I feel the age thing is key here – these kinds of fantasy-based works have their greatest impact if you catch them at the right time in your life. If not, they never hold the same significance for you.

    1. Thanks Colin. I know what you mean; it’s one I’ve grown to enjoy more over the years, for its technical achievement but on the whole because all departments seem to be working in top gear. Unlike John Hammond, they didn’t spare no expense in making it, but the amount of imagination and creativity poured into it was absolutely from the top order.

      And yet I get where you’re coming from – if I’d been a little kid I would have been absolutely captivated (I had a brief obsession with dinosaurs at primary school, as most children do once they’re discovered them) and it just didn’t grab me the same way when I was a young adult. As I recall, my jaw was more likely to drop at the time over something like MILLER’S CROSSING or THE UNFORGIVEN, of the contemporary releases, but then we’re talking about edgier, adult orientated fare. When I was the ideal age for it, the films of Ray Harryhausen did the job when they turned up on television, and still love them to this day.

      1. Agree with all that, Mike. I’m not particularly criticizing the film, it’s more an acknowledgment that timing is big factor in the way we react to certain movies, and more especially those within certain genres.

      2. Agreed about the timing. I mentioned in my reply to Holliebelle about the impact Raiders of the Lost Ark made, in terms of wonder and excitement. Raiders is a better film, from my point of view, but also it just caught me at the right time to soak up the adrenalin rush of it all and ignore the silly fantasy elements.

  2. Hello and great review of a very special film.
    I disagree a little bit with what you say about it meaning more to a younger audience. I remember my father watching it in his forties on it’s release and him being completely captivated, watching it with awe and amazement.
    You either like this type of film or you don’t, be that you are younger viewer or one slightly more mature, each generation can take a bit of pleasure from it for their own individual enjoyment.
    Spielberg did a great job!

    1. Thanks Hollie. I guess it all comes down to personal responses, just one I wish I’d seen when I was younger to have my uncompromised sense of awe tingled, and whilst it didn’t quite do that it’s one I really admire, which is something I think I make clear. Certainly, it’s welcome each time it turns up on the telly at FOTB Towers! For the record, Spielberg always had that power to captivate; the one that really got to me in that sense was RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, which will always hold some special power for being two hours of unrelenting fun and adventure.

  3. I do remember the great excitement when it came out at the time – I was in the US on holiday when it was released remember that the people in the cinema queue were just buzzing with excitement. I do remember thinking that it was too intense for the rating they managed to badger out of the BBFC when i came back to the UK and saw it again. At the time it felt like a big deal and along with T2 signalled the beginning of a new CGI cinematic era but I’ve not gone back to it since. I’ve seen the sequels and thought the second very poor actually, with just a couple of set-pieces worth noting, and preferred the third one. Looks like the new one will do extremely well …

    1. Thanks Sergio. Just got back from Jurassic World and found it to be effortlessly the best episode since the first one (I’ll cover all that in a separate comment). The other sequels are quite lousy really, aren’t they? Of the two I prefer The Lost World because it at least has some good scary moments; it’s far more of a horror film than Jurassic Park. The third part, which we watched again on Friday as build-up to the cinema visit, was laughably bad in places and had lost any sense of wonder or respect for the creatures it was depicting, which by now were just standard monster movie fare.

      The first was a PG, wasn’t it? There are some movies that really push the boundaries of their rating and this was definitely one of them. the second, with its 12, was really a lot more adult orientated than that. Our screening of Jurassic World had a lot of little kids in it and I thought more than once that it was perhaps a bit too terrifying in places, though of course it’s a while now since I was a kid and I bet I would have lapped that stuff up.

      1. I think I preferred the third one for bringing back Neill, the mystery about the parents and the standout Pterodactyl sequence. Glad to hear the new one is good. Did you ever hear about the sequel which never got made but had a draft by the great John Sayles in with the dinosaurs are trained to become soldiers? it sounds so insane, but …

      2. I did hear about that sequel and, if you do get to see the new one, you’ll be delighted to find that it gets referenced.

  4. Just to follow up with a note on our visit to see Jurassic World, which we did this morning at the IMAX in Ashton-under-Lyne, after the debacle of trying to get tickets yesterday (nothing doing, and it’s been a while in this multiplex era since I’ve been unable to get in).

    We all absolutely loved it. It’s without a doubt the best instalment since the first, not quite as good because it’s lost the initial ‘wow’ factor – also, I liked the Jurassic jungle noises and they were largely gone, though there are good reasons for their absence – but definitely a worthy sequel. I liked the effort to show what it would be like as a working theme park, basically a Disneyfied, anodyne experience that offers family fun but leaves the backers wanting newer, bigger and scarier attractions, with the obvious dire consequences. I was just waiting for something to go wrong, which of course it did and from that point Jurassic World became itself a fantastic thrill ride. It’s not very often I am left sweating from a film that offers so many thrills, but this one managed it and everything made sense within the story’s internal logic, until perhaps the end when there was a definite sense of it taking a turn for the silly, but that might just be me.

    I’m very impressed with Chris Pratt, who seems to be channelling the young Harrison Ford to great effect, and the two child actors were excellent also (I can’t say that too often). The CGI by now is naturally from the top drawer, and carries a real sense of weight most of the time.

    As I think about it more, no doubt some of the film’s goofs and illogicalities will come to light, but overall I was really excited by it and pleased to see it in IMAX format – as always, I’m never that bowled over by 3D, which for me gives the foreground characters a kind of cardboard cut out quality rather than depth perspective.

    1. You have just shown there that you don’t have to be a youngster to experience awe, wonder and excitenent in a film viewing, glad you enjoyed this latest installment.
      Remember that when JP first appeared on the screen its CGI would have been considered top drawer at the time.

      p.s. Raiders holds memories for me too, a particular favourite of mine.

  5. “people who would have first seen it when they were children, where the critical faculties have given way to gushing and memories of younger years, the sheer joy of the first time they caught it” — this is me! Well, to an extent. Well, maybe it wholly is — it’s a film I’ve revisited surprisingly rarely, almost because it’s too significant, so most of my memories/thoughts on it stem right back to 1993.

    I get what you’re saying about seeing things at exactly the right age. I think Holliebelle is right about it not being wholly age-limited, but even with that said, there’s a certain something about it being exactly the right time… It’s almost an indefinable point, too, because I saw Star Wars and Empire Strikes Back at an even younger age, and I certainly don’t have the same emotional connection there that people who saw them in the cinema on their first release clearly do.

    1. Thanks Bob. Tough to say really, because the point taps into very personal reactions of going to the cinema linked with memories of younger times, and it’s different for everybody. I have a soft spot for Disney’s The Black Hole because that was my cinematic awakening (went to see Star Wars earlier, but I was far too young to properly enjoy it), yet it’s far from a great film and not a patch on this. I imagine anyone going to see Jurassic Park at that ‘right moment’ would have been completely bowled over by the magic of the movies, and rightly so.

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