When it’s on: Sunday, 14 June (1.35 pm)
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: *****