That Steven Spielberg has made better movies, more mature movies, even more exhilarating movies than Jurassic Park (1993) is clear enough. But if I were asked to pick one of his films to show to students who had designs on making action pictures, it would be this one because it is flawless from every technical standpoint. It’s a textbook for making cinematic excitement (and money) and its devices are so easily on display that its clear and intelligible storytelling should have been the mold for the sci-fi and action thrillers that followed it (sadly, it was not).
Just because it’s simple (it tells the story of a man who learns to love children by being chased around an island by dinosaurs) doesn’t mean it’s unworthy of serious admiration. The cinema responds to simplicity, perhaps more than other arts, because it is capable of the strongest emotions. It’s no small feat to transfer the ragged excitement of what’s on the screen into the audience, but Jurassic Park operates on the level of a creative theme park ride (and it should, being set at one); once the story is established, we crane our necks and hold our breath to see what will happen next.
It’s appropriate that Universal is the studio that brought us this movie. This is the house that made its name with monsters and werewolves, so its iconic logo puts us in the right frame of mind at the open. Then we’re on a tropical island not unlike where Dr. Moreau practiced or King Kong ruled to catch a glimpse of a new monster, some caged beast that makes mincemeat of a handler. We will find out that it is a velociraptor, one of a number of deadly prehistoric creatures that have been brought back into existence by science to be put on display like penguins in a zoo. The zoo is Jurassic Park, the most state-of-the-art wildlife preserve in the world, and it will soon be open for business, lucrative business, if its owner John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) can quell the anxieties of his financiers by having a number of leading scientists come to the park and approve it.
For the task he finds the best minds in paleontology, paleobotany and chaos theory: respectively, Alan Grant (Sam Neill), Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern) and Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum). It’s good to have a chaos theorician on board to tell the audience what’s going to go wrong and soon enough it does and the park gets overrun by its inmates. The group gets separated and Grant, who has made his aversion to children quite clear before this, is saddled with the task of leading Hammond’s grandchildren (Ariana Richards and Joseph Mazzello) back to safety. There’s your set-up. From there the roller coaster goes at full speed, giving us more velociraptors, large brontosauruses, ostrich-like speedsters, and the star of the show—the Tyrannosarus Rex, introduced in a ten-minute section of film that is as good as anything Spielberg’s ever made.
My admiration for the T-Rex set-piece is so complete that just thinking about it gives me goosebumps. It is a perfect ballet of shot selection, editing and pace. In an age in which chaotic is supposed to equal excitement, here is a sequence in which even the dimmest of viewers could accurately recall the layout of the set if the movie was stopped and a quiz administered. We have two jeeps; one with the kids and the other with Grant and Malcolm behind them, there’s an outhouse and a fence, and there’s a giant dinosaur, and we are always aware of where she is.
Establishing the details of the space may seem insignificant (and Lord knows, enough directors ignore it), but it allows you to subconsciously position yourself in the movie. Jurassic Park, like many of Spielberg’s great thrills like Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and Jaws (1975), depends on your feeling of participation, a feeling that Spielberg engenders better than anyone. Not only are the dimensions of the area painstakingly set-up directly before the T-Rex arrives, but it’s an area we’ve already visited in what seemed at the time as a throwaway sequence but slyly acts as a reinforcement in your mind’s eye.
There are times when Jurassic Park is all over the place: Immediately proceeding the T-Rex, the movie bounces between the group in the park and the control room in the command center as authority is lost, but for the T-Rex sequence, it is focused like a laser and we don’t get our breath again for nearly ten minutes, and then it’s accompanied with a wrung-out laugh and an incredulous look at the person you’re watching it with. I can’t count how many times I’ve seen that sequence and I’ve never failed to be wowed. It’s elemental, by definition a creature-feature, but it’s powerful and a lot of fun.
The second great sequence comes later and cruelly gives us the two different groups striving to achieve opposite aims. Grant and the kids, having survived the night (and a vertiginous drop from a tree that would be the showstopper in most other movies), are close to making it back to base; they have only to climb over a forty-foot fence that normally would be electric had the park not been shut down. Simultaneously, Sattler is being guided by walkie-talkie through the power station that will get the security systems back online; including restoring the voltage to the very fence the other group is climbing. This is another example of flawless execution; the script deftly leads us through the power station as Sattler follows her instructions, but Spielberg visually guides us to the heart-pounding realization that if one of the dual plans succeeds, the other will be in jeopardy.
This sequence is a prime example of the movie’s mission of providing you sophisticated storytelling techniques at the service of a dime-store monster scarefest. Severed arms and creatures that pop out of the shadows are fine (and this set-piece has them both), but if they aren’t competently delivered, they’re just props. Stan Winston, who supervised the dinosaurs for Jurassic Park—a mixture of robotics, men in suits and the new technology of computer-generated effects (most of which still holds up)—is a master craftsman (he also created the creatures for the Alien franchise among others) and is a huge part of this movie’s success, but Spielberg is an artist and even if he’s working on a low-rent canvas, he paints a masterpiece.
His legacy is his ability to lift his stories above the level at which they are pitched without changing their essential nature. This is a story about monsters on an island, nothing less but, in Spielberg’s hands, a lot more. The screenplay, by Michael Crichton (based on his book) and David Koepp, is thematically perfect, driving the story forward on an emotionally level if not an intellectual one (all the science aside, it’s hard to swallow that a park that already has a population of cloned and living dinosaurs would be near completion before the leaders in the field of dinosaurs even heard about it). It furthers the story’s basic premise.
Every aspect is designed to be as loud or as dramatic as possible. We don’t get foreshadowing; we get over-the-top harbingers (except in a good, relatively subtle set-up about the way the velociraptors hunt). The characters dress in bright, primary colors: Grant in blue, Sattler in red, Hammond in white, Malcolm in black. It’s basic, but its simplicity is its means to deepening our access to it. The only area that is understated are the performances that, with the exception of Goldblum’s goofy quack, take this stuff very seriously, further establishing the stakes and the possibility of real consequences. If there’s a deeper message it’s about greed and the dangers of discovery, but they exist broadly as well, no deeper than they did when James Whale made Frankenstein for Universal back in 1931.
The complaint about Jurassic Park compared to Spielberg’s other blockbusters, particularly Jaws, is that the man had gotten lazy, that the ability to render whatever he could imagine onto the screen allowed him to get complacent. There are too many dinosaurs, too soon and too often. “… [T]hey are indeed a triumph of special effects artistry,” Roger Ebert writes, “but the movie is lacking other qualities that it needs even more, such as a sense of awe and wonderment, and strong human story values.” I disagree about the awe and wonderment (the first look at a dinosaur, a majestic brontosaurus is fairly awesome) but he’s right about the characters, whose hollow natures rob Jurassic Park of being much more than a technical exercise, albeit a peerless one.
When I watch Jurassic Park, I think of another review of Ebert’s, written about Pinocchio (1940) in which he argues that the lessons learned on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Disney’s first feature, allowed the animators to let their creative juices flow on their next few movies. Instead of the new techniques dulling Spielberg’s creativity, I find that the sequences in Jurassic Park are more meticulously set up, better to showcase his new aids. If he learned filmmaking on Jaws because of technical necessity, here he is with the same skills but equipped with the keys to the store. If making a movie is like having the biggest train set a boy could ever want, as Orson Welles suggested, a quip I often think of when watching Spielberg, then here is that boy with all the trains.