Talking Movies [Dinosaur Day]: Jurassic Park


Sixty-five million years ago, dinosaurs ruled the Earth. These massive beasts existed for about 180 million years and came in all shapes and sizes, before finally going extinct following a cataclysmic event that forever changed our world and rendered these creatures mere fossils to be discovered and studied. Fittingly, “Dinosaur Day” is actually celebrated twice a year, giving dino fans the world over ample opportunities to pay homage to this near-mythical titans.


Talking Movies

Released: 11 June 1993
Director: Steven Spielberg
Distributor:
Universal Pictures
Budget: $63 million
Stars:
Sam Neill, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum, Joseph Mazzello, Ariana Richards, and Richard Attenborough

The Plot:
Wealthy eccentric John Hammond (Attenborough) invites a group of scientists and experts to his private island, where his team of scientists have created a wildlife park populated by genetically engineered dinosaurs! However, when industrial sabotage leads to a catastrophic shutdown of the park’s power facilities, a desperate bid for survival and escape ensues when the dinosaurs run amok across the island.

The Background:
In many ways, it’s fitting that director Steven Spielberg turned Jurassic Park into one of the most influential movies ever made as it originally began life as a screenplay by noted writer Michael Crichton; given how expensive genetic research is, his original idea to tell a story of a graduate student genetically recreating a dinosaur soon evolved into a cautionary tale about science, DNA tampering, and a theme park thrown into chaos when its star attractions get loose. Although I personally didn’t care for it, Crichton’s 1990 novel became a bestseller and easily his most celebrated work, and soon caught Spielberg’s eye as a thinking-man’s monster movie. Inspired by classic movie monsters like King Kong and Godzilla, Spielberg sought out special effects wizards like Stan Winston, Phil Tippett, and Dennis Muren to craft the complex animatronics, miniatures, and stop-motion effects needed to bring these long-dead titans to life. Although the special effects team produced high-quality results using “go-motion”, Spielberg made the bold decision to switch to computer-generated visual effects for many of his dinosaur shots, effectively creating many of the CGI techniques we still see in Hollywood today.

Inspired by Crichton’s book, Spielberg’s team used cutting-edge special effects to bring the dinosaurs to life.

Of course, the CGI is only half of the story; the effects still hold up so well today because they were worked alongside a series of practical puppets and animatronics, with the most impressive and complex being the mammoth hydraulic Tyrannosaurus rex created for the film; though this animatronic frequently caused trouble on-set, Spielberg recognised the T. rex as the true star of the film and changed the ending accordingly. Numerous changes were made from the source material, including excising other dinosaurs and changing the nature of some of the characters, and filming was also interrupted by the untimely arrival of a hurricane, footage of which can be seen in the film. Universal Pictures took advantage of the film’s lengthy pre-production period to accompany Jurassic Park with a merchandising campaign ironically not too dissimilar to the one seen in the film for the titular, fictional park, and the film went on to become the highest-grossing film released worldwide at the time. It grossed over $1.030 billion at the box office and was swamped with overwhelmingly positive reviews; critics praised it as a milestone picture and it was widely regarded as one of the greatest blockbusters of all time. Of course, Jurassic Park’s legacy speaks for itself: it was followed by two less-than-popular sequels before taking audiences by storm once more in 2015, and forever changed cinema with its innovative special effects and advances in CGI that became the foundation for many other films going forward.

The Review:
So, it’s only fair to preface this review with a couple of points. The first is that Jurassic Park was one of the first films I remember going to see at the cinema; I believe my parents took me and my sister for my eighth birthday, and I remember it not just because Jurassic Park and dinosaurs became the big thing in school and the media following the film’s blockbuster release, but also because we arrived about ten minutes late to the screening (not that it meant I really missed anything massively significant). The second point I need to make is that I’m really not a fan of the book upon which the film is based; I found it a slow, laborious text that was more concerned with the science behind the dinosaurs and the park than it was with the spectacle of dinosaurs being recreated. Many of the characters were very different in the book as well, and I found it a very impenetrable text in a lot of ways, so I was left disappointed that it wasn’t as thrilling as the big-screen adaptation.

Grant and Ellie are brought in to sign off on the park and end up in a fight for survival when things go awry!

Although Jurassic Park is very much an ensemble piece, palaeontologist Doctor Alan Grant (Neill) is the clear focus of much of the character development. Grant is a passionate excavator of dinosaur bones and remains who specialises in the ferocious Velociraptor; believing that dinosaurs eventually evolved into what we commonly know as birds and extremely respectful of the nature and instincts of the extinct titans, Grant is far more concerned with the traditional hands-on approach to his craft and emphasising how intelligent creatures like the ‘raptors were, but his efforts are stunted by a lack of funding and ignorant children. Hammond provides the key to both of these problems; not only is he willing to fund Grant’s research for another three years in return for his expert opinion and sign-off on Jurassic Park, but Grant’s trip causes him to meet Hammond’s grandkids, Lex (Richards) and Tim Murphy (Mazzello), forcing him to overcome his wariness of children by becoming a protector and surrogate father to them both when they’re left stranded in the middle of the dangerous park. As far as I remember, Grant is quite different from how he was portrayed in the book, where I believe he was a lot older and possibly a bit more cynical; one difference I definitely recall is that there was no romantic subplot between Grant and palaeobotanist Doctor Ellie Sattler (Dern) in the book but, in the film they’re very much an item. However, the two are portrayed far more as partners and scientific equals rather than being in a massively loving relationship; it’s clear that they are together, but they’re never shown kissing or really being that affectionate with each other. Grant’s difficulty with children is a point of contention between the two since Ellie is eager to have a child of her own, and she’s pleased to see that, by the end of the film, Grant has become much more comfortable with children. While Grant clearly gets more to do of the two, Ellie pulls her weight in other ways by deducing what’s made a Triceratops sick and quickly sets aside her amazement to admonish Hammond on the moral implications of his work, which has been fraught with assumptions and underestimation regarding nature.

Malcolm openly questions Hammond’s morality, and the misguided entrepreneur is forced to acknowledge his mistakes.

Contrasting the more subdued and logical Grant and Ellie is mathematician chaotician Doctor Ian Malcolm (Goldblum), an outspoken and excitable advocate of the morality surrounding Hammond’s park who effortlessly steals every scene he’s in with his whimsical delivery and endlessly quotable lines. Unlike the others, Malcolm specialises in chaos-theory, the idea that small events can have massive consequences, and his theories regarding the return of dinosaurs potentially upsetting the natural balance of the world are routinely waved off by Hammond due to Malcolm’s aggravating personality and irreverent sense of humour. While the others are concerned with the financial implications of the park or the question of whether it was right to bring dinosaurs back, Malcolm is aghast at how recklessly Hammond upset the balance of nature and his inability to recognise that nature is known to adapt (as he puts it, “Life, uh…finds a way”) and is thus the only one to truly get that the park (and the ability to genetically engineer any creature) is potentially dangerous. In contrast to Grant, Malcolm is a confident (crucially, overconfident) womaniser with many ex-wives and children; he’s also much more impulsive, which leads to him putting himself in danger and ending up critically injured for most of the film (in contrast to his book counterpart, who clearly dies despite the awkward retcon in the second book). Industrialist John Hammond is the driving force behind Jurassic Park; contrary to his book counterpart, Hammond is far from a grouchy, gruff, self-serving old man and is much more of a benevolent, if misguided, grandfatherly figure. A wealthy entrepreneur who has long wished to captivate audiences with attractions that will instil a sense of wonder, Hammond is like an excitable child who is far more concerned with putting on a good show regardless of the cost. However, while he’s clearly a visionary, his park and the research conducted to make it a reality are not based in science that he has any real understanding of or claim to; as Malcom so eloquently puts it, Hammond has “stood on the shoulders of geniuses to accomplish something as fast as he could” in order to, essentially, sell a product without any appreciation for the implications of his actions. Consequently, Hammond is absolutely blinkered to the potential danger of his park and the moral question of bringing dinosaurs back to life; he is absolutely convinced that the park’s teething problems are a mere hiccup and is so sure of his state-of-the-art park and fool proof systems that he even has his grandchildren visit alongside his experts. However, when the park’s safety measures are disrupted by sabotage, Hammond is eventually, begrudgingly, forced to admit that his reach has exceeded his grasp and refocus on atoning for his actions by leading the survivors, and his beloved grandchildren, to safety and left morosely contemplating the consequences of his recklessness.

Grant is forced to become a protector to Lex and Tim when they’re stranded on an island full of dinosaurs.

Hammond’s grandkids, Lex and Tim, are unexpected additions to the weekend tour for Hammond’s guests. Young, enthusiastic children who are clearly besotted with their grandfather, they’re only too happy to visit the island and witness the technological and biological wonders their grandfather has built there over the last five years. For Grant, this poses a bit of a problem as he doesn’t really know how to talk to children, but things are made even more uncomfortable for him when Tim exhibits a hero’s worship of him and his writing (he even models his look on Grant’s) and Lex immediately develops a schoolgirl crush on him, much to Ellie’s amusement. Representing Hammond’s “target demographic”, Lex and Tim are absolutely blown away when they get up close and personal to a sick Triceratops but they (and the others) are left disappointed when the park’s main attractions fail to adhere to Hammond’s expectations and schedule. The two bickering siblings quickly get more than they bargained for when the T. rex bursts free from its paddock and attacks their van, an experience that leaves Lex severely traumatised and in a state of shock after lawyer Donald Gennaro (Martin Ferrero) chooses to abandon them to their fate. Thanks to Grant’s knowledge of the T. rex, the kids are momentarily saved from danger, but he ends up stranded in the park with two shellshocked kids to look out for. This proves to be a surprising bonding experience for Grant, who comes to appreciate Tim’s dinosaur knowledge, and he repeatedly goes out of his way to keep the kids safe, teach them about dinosaur behaviours, and to encourage them to keep moving in order to get them to safety. The kids are also a little different from the book, as I recall, as Lex is now a gifted “hacker” and is instrumental in restoring Jurassic Park’s systems and safety protocols in the film’s final act and Tim proves almost as knowledgeable as Grant when it comes to dinosaur identification. While the two tend to descend into aggravating screaming and are often bratty and a hinderance to Grant, they’re surprisingly well-rounded child characters with a lot of personality and likeable qualities; Lex is a bit of a quiet introvert, whereas Tim is much more outspoken and cheeky, but both are left dazed and terrified by their experiences with the T. rex and ‘raptors, as one might expect. Still, while they squabble and bicker like all children and siblings, they work well as a team and look out for each other, which is most evident when they’re pinned down by two ‘raptors in the kitchen and must work together to outsmart and escape from the vicious carnivores.

Thanks to Nedry, many of the other supporting characters become prey to the voracious dinosaurs.

Other notable names include Ray Arnold (Samuel L. Jackson), Jurassic Park’s chief engineer whose frustrations with the bugs and teething problems caused by the park are only exacerbated when industrial sabotage shuts off all the safety measures. Though cynical and crotchety, he works tirelessly to restore power to the park, which ultimately leads to his horrific offscreen death at the claws of the ‘raptors. Robert Muldoon (Bob Peck) knows the dangers of the park’s attractions only too well; the resident game warden, he, like Grant, has an incredible respect for the intelligence and ferocity of the dinosaurs, especially the ‘raptors, and takes handling and caring for the creatures very seriously. However, despite all of this (and presumably being an experienced hunter), he also falls prey to the ‘raptors when he underestimates their intelligence. Following the death of a park worker, Donald Gennaro is incredibly concerned about the potential danger that the park poses and, at the behest of Hammond’s investors, he is charged with launching a safety evaluation of Jurassic Park and thus invites industry experts to evaluate the facility to appease both himself and the underwriters. Although initially seen as little more than a cliché, pen-pushing bureaucrat, Gennaro is awestruck by the financial potential of Jurassic Park and keen to reap the rewards of its unique attractions, which quickly override his initial concerns about safety and lawsuits. Pragmatic and officious, he shows his true colours during the T. rex’s escape from her paddock and receives easily the most shocking and brutal death in the entire film simply because he let his fear and panic overwhelm him. Easily the most significant of the film’s side characters is programmer Dennis Nedry (Wayne Knight), a disgruntled and underappreciated member of Hammond’s staff who feels so underpaid and undervalued that he’s only too happy to sabotage the park and steal samples of the dinosaur DNA for Hammond’s rival, Doctor Lewis Dodgson (Cameron Thor). This, of course, is the catalyst for all of the troubles that befall the park as Nedry shuts down the security protocols and then stumps Arnold and the others with his “hacker crap”. Unfortunately for the selfish and egotistical Nedry, his escape from the park is hindered by a devastating storm and he ends up falling victim to a savage Dilophosaurus, thus meaning his betrayal of his employer was all for naught.

As spectacular as the dinosaurs are, the T. rex and ‘raptors are the stars of the show.

Naturally, the dinosaurs are the star of the show and, truthfully, what we all came to see. The sense of scale and wonder evoked by the creatures is perfectly captured right from the off as Grant, Ellie, Malcolm, and Gennaro are absolutely captivated at the sight of a massive Brachiosaurus and Parasaurolophus herds grazing on the open plains. Of course, we all came to see the true show-stealer, the T. rex; the undisputed king of dinosaurs is an elusive fascination for the first hour or so of the film but makes a dramatic and instantly memorable first appearance when she bursts out of her paddock to attack Hammond’s guests. A titanic, monstrous creature that exudes viciousness, her coming is heralded by the impact of her feet, the iconic rippling of water, and her screeching roar; the way she rips at the tour vehicles and charges relentlessly after her prey makes her a real and terrifying threat, made all the more tangible by the ridiculously impressive animatronic used during her first appearance. The T. rex remains a constant threat for Grant, Lex, and Tim as they make their way back to the visitor’s centre, slaughtering Gallimimus as they flee for their lives, but is rendered in a far more heroic light by the finale thanks to how fierce and calculating the ‘raptors have been in her absence. As massive and undeniably intimidating as the T. rex is, however, the Velociraptors are unquestionably the primary antagonists of the film and their threat is established right from the first scene. Grant also gives an intimidating lecture about how intelligent and dangerous the creatures were back in the day, a sentiment echoed by Muldoon, and it’s through both of them that the film very quickly and clearly establishes that the ‘raptors are highly intelligent and vicious creatures who used co-ordinated attack patterns to hunt down their prey. While the Dilophosaurus easily takes second place as a dangerous creature in the park and makes a lasting impression with its snake-like hiss, neck frills, and blinding venom, the ‘raptors are portrayed as surprisingly smart, incredibly fast and agile, and relentless pack hunters who quickly work out how to open doors by twisting handles, lure in prey using decoys, and claim the highest body count of all of the park’s attractions.

The Nitty-Gritty:
If you can’t suspend your disbelief to accept the science of the film then you’re probably better off reading the book, which devoted entire chapters to detailing the scientific process behind the dinosaur’s resurrection. The film makes things much more audience friendly thanks to an animated sequence in which the park’s mascot, Mr. DNA (Greg Burson), very simply explains how InGen’s scientists extracted dinosaur DNA from fossilised mosquitos, mapped the genetic code, and filled in any gaps in the DNA sequencing with frog DNA to create the park’s dinosaurs. The man behind all this is Doctor Henry Wu (B. D. Wong), who explains that Jurassic Park’s dinosaurs are carefully monitored and engineered to prevent unauthorised breeding by making them all female. Malcolm’s scepticism regarding this later turns out to be true as Grant discovers life has indeed found a way and some of the dinosaurs have spontaneously changed sex in order to breed like “some West African frogs”, but it’s also stated that Hammond’s scientists implemented a “Lysine Contingency” to ensure the dinosaurs can’t survive without regular doses of Lysine. I think it’s only fair to point out that the film never claims that their dinosaurs are 100% scientifically accurate; it’s openly stated that they’ve have been genetically altered, thereby explaining any physical or behavioural differences. What isn’t quite as easily explained is how Grant, the unquestionable expert on Velociraptors, isn’t able to recognise a baby ‘raptor when one is in his hands, but it’s a small issue compared to how entertaining the rest of the film is. So revolutionary is Hammond’s research that it attracts the attention of rival company Biosyn, whose head of research, Dr. Dodgson, pays Nedry an extortionate amount of money to steal viable dinosaur embryos from Hammond’s laboratory. If I remember right, Dodgson had a much larger role in the book (or maybe it was in the follow-up; it’s hard to remember as the books were so dull) but, in the film, Dodgson is simply a mysterious figure who wants to catch up to (and, presumably, overtake) InGen’s genetic engineering research. Although it’s only a small role, Dr. Dodgson can thus be seen as a dark opposite of Hammond since both took shortcuts to get ahead, but neither of them really got what they wanted in the end as Hammond loses faith in his vision for Jurassic Park and Dodgson is denied the embryos after Nedry is killed.

The CGI stands the test of time thanks to the incredible animatronics used to bring the dinosaurs to life.

I think it’s only fair to offer some praise to John Williams’ orchestral score, which is almost as iconic as the film’s much-lauded special effects and perfectly captures the sense of awe, amazement, and spectacle offered by the film. Indeed, “spectacle” is the most appropriate one-word summation of Jurassic Park; even comparatively trivial things like the arrival on Isla Nubar and the massive, King Kong-like gates are treated as a marvel, to say nothing of the sense of grandeur offered to the dinosaurs. It should be no surprise considering Spielberg’s body of work, but Jurassic Park does a wonderful job of building tension and anticipation to the reveal of its dinosaurs; the opening sequence is a pretty horrific snapshot of just how ferocious the ‘raptors are but it takes some time before we properly see the dinosaurs in full. Even after we’ve had a taste of the park’s residents thanks to the dramatic reveal of the Brachiosaurus, the guests (and Hammond) are left disappointed when the dinosaurs fail to appear during their tour, which only increases the anticipation of the dinosaur’s appearances. Of course, as fantastic as the CGI is, it holds up so well even today thanks to the incredible animatronics used to bring the dinosaurs to life; when Grant and the others tend to the sick Triceratops, it’s a fully practical effect that really helps to sell the weight and believability of the creatures. The special effects on show were not only pioneering and game-changing for cinema, but also forever set the standard for how dinosaurs are portrayed in media going forward; even now, the look, sound, and depiction of dinosaurs still takes a lot of its influence from Jurassic Park, despite how scientifically inaccurate a lot of the creatures are. Sure, we know now that Velociraptors were much smaller and had feathers and even the book debunked the belief that the T. rex was a purely visual hunter, but this was unquestionably the closest depiction of dinosaurs ever put to screen and it remains a genre and industry standard thanks to the ground-breaking special effects.

With the power restored, all that’s left is for the T. rex to make a last-minute save so the survivors can escape.

Jurassic Park is very much a mixture of genres; it’s primarily a sci-fi cautionary tale, but Spielberg does a fantastic job of weaving interpersonal dramas and morality tales into the narrative, as well as framing dinosaurs like the T. rex and ‘raptors as creatures ruled by their instincts but filmed in a way that evokes horror and monster movies. This is obviously most explicitly seen in the T. rex’s paddock escape, a harrowing sequence where the human characters are rendered defenceless, powerless bugs compared to the size and might of the T rex. Their only means of survival is standing completely still and quiet, something the kids obviously find near impossible to achieve given how terrifying the situation is, and Grant is constantly having to find ways to distract and get around the T. rex as there’s no question of being able to fight back against the mighty titan. Although the ‘raptors are smaller and the protagonists have weapons that could conceivably be used to kill them, they never get the chance to really fight back; Muldoon, the most experienced person on the island, is killed off before he can fire a single shot and the others are more concerned with survival than trying to fight off their attackers. This goes some way to explaining why Ellie didn’t use the shotgun to shoot the ‘raptors; she’s a palaeobotanist after all, not a game hunter. Ultimately, despite restoring power to the park, the survivors end up pinned down by the voracious ‘raptors but find an unlikely saviour in the T. rex, which shows up for a dramatic last-minute “rescue” of sorts that allows the survivors to slip away to safety and fly away from Isla Nubar forever changed by their harrowing experiences with the reborn dinosaurs.

The Summary:
There’s a reason that Jurassic Park has stood the test of time. It’s actually kind of crazy how well the CGI holds up even to this day and the reason for that is not just the meticulous attention to detail and tireless efforts of the team at Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) but also the incredibly realistic and complex animatronics used to bring the dinosaurs to life. The blend between the two is largely seamless and I’ve seen modern-day movies that can only dream of this kind of flawless digital composition. The spectacle on offer here is, quite literally, timeless and Spielberg crafted an instant classic based on the thrilling concept alone. However, it’s not simply a mindless monster movie and there’s more on offer than just the dinosaurs; the characters are all very well realised, with nuances and unique aspects to their personalities that make them all very believable and relatable. Even experts like Grant and Ellie are terrified when the dinosaurs are set loose, and I think it was a smart decision to frame the narrative around survival and the insignificance of man compared to these long-dead and dangerous, near-mythical beasts. There’s a fantastic blend of wonder and horror here, with the dinosaurs being awesome, remarkable creatures but also ferocious and surprisingly intelligent hunters. They’re portrayed as being both extremely gentle and terrifyingly vicious, acting purely on instinct and able to adapt to the then-modern world in ways that make them incredibly dangerous. Alongside this is, of course, the introspective commentary on our place as the dominant species of the planet, the morality of using science to play God and restore long-extinct creatures to life, and the ferocity of nature, with the overriding message being that man should never exceed his grasp lest he underestimate the consequences of his actions. Compared to the book, which was a tedious read from start to finish, Jurassic Park is an absolute thrill all the way through; the spectacle alone explains why it performed so well and remains a modern classic, and even the far less memorable sequels can’t dilute the allure of this original masterpiece of digital and practical effects wizardry.

My Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Fantastic

What are your thoughts and memories of Jurassic Park? If you saw it in the cinema when it first released, what was your reaction at the time and how do you think it holds up today? Are you a fan of the book and, if so, did you still enjoy the film or was there too much changed in the adaptation process? Which of the human characters was your favourite and were you shocked by the amount of blood and death seen in the film? What’s your favourite dinosaur, either in this film or in general? Are you a fan of Jurassic Park’s sequels or do you consider the first one to be the best? How are you celebrating Dinosaur Day this year? Whatever your thoughts on Jurassic Park, and dinosaurs in general, sign up to leave them below or drop a comment on my social media.

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