Movie Review: Jurassic Park (1993)

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The biggest box office smash of 1993 was Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, which became the highest-grossing film to that date. This sci-fi adventure was inescapable onscreen and in plentiful advertising and merchandising. Dinosaurs are often synonymous with children, and Jurassic Park backpacks and toys with the logo flooded the market. Only these weren’t your cute cuddly dinos (well, OK, a few of them were cute). Jurassic Park gave us our most realistic glimpse of what dinosaurs probably looked like (and possibly sounded like), terrifying and thrilling audiences while taking an unprecedented leap forward with advanced morphing technology that gave these prehistoric creatures lifelike scaly skin and motion that had never been previously possible.

 

The film begins with the sounds of untamed wilderness. Then, an ominous drumbeat, infused with sounds of nature, acts as an unsettling precursor of things to come. We can thank composer (and frequent Spielberg collaborator) John Williams for the genius score of this film. Williams employs familiar tricks from his Jaws score to create a Pavlovian audience response. This is a movie where you hear and feel danger before you actually see it. Bushes swaying in the jungle. Numerous shots in the film foreshadow the presence of the creatures, from the infamous watercup scene (which I parodied in my childhood bedroom), to water puddles thumping within a T-Rex footprint. This film features both Spielberg and John Williams at their very best, a Hollywood dream team that always seemed to hit the right beat every time.

The movie wastes no time with its first kill, which occurs five minutes in. While this movie was heavily marketed towards children, it is by no means without moments of sheer terror and gruesome carnage.

Dinosaurs remain a curiosity; often duplicated as toys. This film reminds us that they were terrific predators, the likes of which we can be thankful we don’t have to share a planet with. That is, until greedy scientists and businessmen found a way to bring them back.

We’re introduced to Dr. Grant, the paleontologist who hates computers and doesn’t like children. He understands how these animals think. His sidekick and girlfriend, a paleobotanist named Dr. Sattler, are in the midst of excavating dinosaur bones when they receive a proposition from innovative business tycoon and entertainment guru extraordinaire John Hammond, clearly patterned after Walt Disney. Hammond flatters the pair, noting that they are the top minds in their field, and requests their presence at his new adventure park, seeking their endorsement for his latest business venture – a park he sees as for everyone, “not only those who can afford it” (insert Disney jab here).

Enter sweeping Jurassic Park score as helicopter flies over ocean and above majestic green forested mountains dotted with waterfalls in Costa Rica. John Williams knows how to make an entrance. His score is adventurous, triumphant, menacing, tender, and epic.


Grant and Sattler arrive at Jurassic Park, along with a party of field experts, and learn that DNA has been extracted from prehistoric insects that contain dinosaur blood, well preserved in amber, to recreate gene sequences and clone dinosaurs.  The film does a skilled job explaining the complex pseudo-science involved thanks to a clever cartoon, thwarting skeptical minds and allowing audiences to accept the gorgeous and plentiful dinosaur sightings that pepper the film.

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Among the party of potential endorsees is one of my favorite film characters, Dr. Ian Malcolm, perhaps the only movie mathematician who can be defined as “cool”. Described as a ‘rock star’, Malcolm provides the film with its best one-liners and comic relief, but also much-needed logic and skepticism about Hammond’s idea – well intentioned, but grossly misguided. When a scientist describes that all animals at Jurassic Park have been genetically engineered to be female as a means of controlling the population, Malcolm ominously notes “Life finds a way.” He is quick to point out that recreating animals doesn’t factor in discipline or responsibility. “Your scientists were so pre-occupied with if they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.” It doesn’t take a rocket scientist, or a genius mathematician, to realize that this is a bad idea.

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If Jurassic Park has a message, it seems to be “Don’t mess with Mother Nature, she has a plan and we should trust it.” Playing god simply isn’t going to work out, as the audience soon discovers.

 

Much to the frustration of child-weary paleontologist Grant, Hammond’s party also includes his grandchildren, who add the childhood warmth and splendor common in early Spielberg works. Grant’s girlfriend Dr. Sattler is at that point in the relationship where children seem like the logical next step, and she’s hoping Alan will warm up to the youngsters. Curiously, it’s surprising he doesn’t sooner as Alan Grant has the heart and mind of a child, never more present than when dinosaurs are in sight. His eyes seem to twinkle at the sight of our first brachiosaurus, accompanied by majestic noble music. Several characters in this film are childlike – Ian Malcolm reminds me of the boy in the 5th grade who snaps your bra strap to get your attention, as he teases and flirts with Dr. Sattler. Even John Hammond has a childlike curiosity, which leads him to think his park is exactly what the world needs. Spoiler alert – it seems those with the childlike heart are the ones who fare the best chance at surviving the world they find themselves in, perhaps the hidden message of the film. The same can’t be said for the lawyer, who literally meets his doom on the toilet. (Lawyer jokes abound in this film, a Spielberg hallmark – note that the animatronic shark used in Jaws was called “Bruce” by Spielberg, so named after his lawyer).

 

This movie has a way of bringing out the child in the audience, as well. These epic and imaginative dinosaur shots remind me of everything great about being a kid. Audiences gasped and marveled as they saw their favorite dinosaurs come to life – a menagerie of prehistoric wonder. You can imagine audiences playing a game of Who’s Who?, calling them out in their mind as they see them, amused that they still remember their names. When we meet beloved triceratops, she lays in a field, recovering from illness. The dinosaur looked so real that a photo of Steven Spielberg sitting next to it went viral last year because several internet posters failed to identify the animal and were outraged at what they perceived as Spielberg sitting with a hunting trophy. (While dinosaurs may have evolved, sometimes I wonder about hope for our species.) We also see my personal favorite dinosaur, who certainly lives up to its reputation – the ferocious T-Rex, who along with velociraptors serves as the film’s most noted villain. (On a personal note, the film spawned several sequels, and was recently re-imagined into a film called Jurassic World. I vividly recall the audience’s first sighting of T-Rex, were the audience audibly gasped and erupted in a thunderous and spontaneous applause mid-film. It’s proof that dinosaurs never get old, even if they have been extinct for 65 million years.)

 

I suspect this film turned T-Rex from an interesting creature of imagination into a childhood boogeyman for 90s kids and generations beyond. T-Rex and those clever raptors contribute to the most awe-inspiring and chilling sequences filmed in the 1990s. More disturbing still because of the young children trapped in their midst in confining environments. The claustrophobia, mixed with impeccable computer-generated (CG) effects, artful direction, and great acting make for incredibly memorable sequences that aren’t soon forgotten. The shot of the raptor’s breath against the kitchen door’s porthole or T-Rex’s eye, the size of a dinner plate, staring at the children through a car window are the stuff of legend, and take this film deep into thriller territory. As Ian Malcolm notes, “You can’t just suppress 80 million years of gut instinct.”

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It’s astonishing how stunning the special effects in this film are, from the ground-breaking computer work to the animatronic creations. (The baby velociraptor is incredible.) Audiences had literally never seen anything like this before, and the film single-handedly ushered in a new era of achievements in special effects technology and sound editing. Count this along with the explosion of the Death Star in Star Wars in movie firsts that changed the game and dumbfounded audiences.

We learn instantly that dinosaurs aren’t even quite as the top experts in the world imagine them to be. For our endless fascination with them, there are still big unanswered questions, which this movie had to answer for. The way dinosaurs really looked, hunted, strategized, and reproduced are all decisions the film’s creators breathed unique life into. The skin mapping layered over the dinosaurs was a complete wonder of its time, taken for granted in the modern movie landscape. This movie gave us a whole new lens to explore the exciting world of dinosaurs, and to actually get a sense of their sheer strength and scale. Even by today’s standard, the effects absolutely hold up. The same can’t be said for all the technology the characters use, the CD-ROM in the park vehicles is a glorious reminder that technology has come a long way since the 1990s. The film does accurately predict the age of self-driving vehicles. (Note to future self – don’t be in a self-driving vehicle during a storm.)

 

A bad storm is a great metaphor for describing everything about Jurassic Park as a concept. The inclement weather, along with the music and Malcolm’s dark quotes, set us up for impending disaster. Computer glitches showcase that the park is not error-proof. A perfect storm is literally brewing. Aside from predators with scales and sharp claws, the film’s human villain is Dennis Nedry, a disgruntled computer securities expert who works in tandem with the storm to sabotage park security so he can smuggle frozen embryos to a waiting dock. His plans are foiled in possibly the best way ever. Nature finds a way, after all.

 

A few observations upon revisiting this classic:

 

Spielberg has a knack at creating films marketed towards children that are surprisingly scary (think Gremlins, Poltergeist, etc). Elements of this film blur a boundary between adventure and horror. The kitchen scene is particularly intense. Spielberg seemed to have sway with the ratings board in the 80s, who surprisingly gave his features unwarranted PG ratings. The MPAA gave this film a PG-13, which is about right.

 

I really enjoy the “meeting of the minds” present in this film. John Hammond is frustrated and in disbelief that his party doesn’t see the genius of his creation. There is such a sharp philosophical contrast between his ideas and those pointed out by Malcolm and crew. “Creation is an act of sheer will,” notes defiant Hammond, while observant Malcolm challenges back, “The lack of humility before nature astonishes me”. These are the debates that take place every day behind closed doors, as the scientific community clashes between advancement and ethics. Cloning and embryonic research continues to ignite a fiery public debate. Will technological advancements destroy us all? Countless 90s movies, including the amazing Terminator 2, seem to beg this question. In the case of Jurassic Park, the research isn’t taking place to save lives. It turns out dinosaurs as living attractions isn’t without risk – they aren’t animatronics and they don’t run on a set schedule, nor can scientists control for all possibilities and outcomes. Greed is a central theme of this film. Surely, atomic energy once seemed like a great idea worth exploring. Who ultimately holds responsibility? Most “great ideas” sound good in theory…

 

The film gives us strong heroines, in the form of an adult (Dr. Sattler) and child (Lex). Dr. Sattler is intelligent, finding solutions that even the medical professionals at Jurassic Park don’t seem capable of, and her physical strength and sharp mind aid characters during crucial moments. She endures sexism and flirtations, yet she survives, and thrives. Lex’s hacker skills help put Jurassic Park back online and under control. It’s a rare early portrayal of a technology savvy female. Lex may be a child, but she can think for herself and is a hacker, which she notes as distinctly different from a computer nerd. (The word “hacker” was new in 1993). Girls quite literally save the day in this movie. That children are key players (and problem solvers) in the storyline made this film all the more appealing to kids. The children (played by Ariana Richards and Joseph Mazzello), were wonderful actors whose reactions to all those blue screens and animatronics were fantastic.

 

This movie still made me jump and squeal. The film is riveting and filled with great tension. The raptors in particular remain positively terrifying and realistic on a level their creators certainly hoped for. This film ties the past and present beautifully. It is also an excellent combination of tender and fierce. The tender scenes between Alan and the kids he eventually grows to not only tolerate but care for, are surprisingly tender and heartwarming, tugging at the heartstrings in that way only Spielberg knows how to create. This film reminded me of the wonderment that dinosaurs bring out in all of us and forever changed how we imagine them.

Note: Spielberg is set to direct a sequel to Jurassic Park in 2018.

Rating: An absolute classic. And… OMG T-Rex!!

5 raptor claws

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