It goes without saying that when I was a child, like most boys, I loved dinosaurs. Some may say that I was obsessed, but that depends on who you ask. I read every book I could about dinosaurs, and study everything I could about these mysterious creatures. My parents encouraged my love for dinosaurs, by buying me every dinosaur toy, book , shirt, and magazine they could find. In one instance my dad brought home an issue of Time Magazine that talked about the discovery of a new dinosaur.
It was while reading this article that something caught my eye. That summer there would be a movie in theaters called Jurassic Park, and it was about a theme park where dinosaurs were brought back to life. Unlike many of my peers I was not at all frightened by this concept and begged to see it. Then the day came. My family and I had gone out to Mall Of America to spend the day, and my dad took me to see the movie. Filmmakers, and even many modern writers will always cite one film that radically changed their movie going experience. There is usually something about this movie, something that redefines the movie going experience through its direction, its scope, its special effects and a number of other factors. Namely, it some how pulls you into this strange new world and for a short time makes you believe the impossible. It then in turn, makes you want to do the same.
For my dad and his generation those films would be the original Planet of the Apes, Jaws, Close Encounters, Star Wars and E.T. For my grandparents generation it was The Wizard of Oz and King Kong. For me, that movie was Jurassic Park. In fact I would venture to rank it right up there with The Wizard of Oz, King Kong, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Planet of the Apes, Jaws, Close Encounters, Star Wars, and E.T. in terms of being a ground breaking film as all these movies pushed the boundaries of conventional film making and changed the way that movies are made.
Gollum and the armies of Mordor in Lord of the Rings would probably not have been as realized on film. Iron Man would probably have had to don a fake plastic suit and be suspended on wires. The Transformers would probably look like they came from the Power Rangers TV show. All of these films, and every summer blockbuster since, owes a huge debt to the pioneering work in CGI and animatronics done in Jurassic Park to bring dinosaurs back to life.
Appropriately JP was directed by Steven Spielberg the man who created such big movie going experiences as E.T., Raiders of the Lost Ark and Jaws. It goes with out saying that the films of Steven Spielberg played a huge roll on my child hood, and Jurassic Park was among the biggest. From the moment that opening title flashed on the scene I was engrossed in this story.
Part of this is because you do not actually see a dinosaur until roughly half an hour into the film. During those first 30 minutes you are enticed by the mystery of just what might be on the island. In fact the parks builder, John Hammond, only tells the characters Dr. Grant and Dr. Sattler in regards to the attraction that, “It’ll make the one I got in Kenya look like a Petting Zoo”, “I spared no expense,” and that what he has is “right up their alley.”
The only other thing we see in the first minutes of the film is some unknown creature pulling one of its handlers into the cage and devouring him as the supervisor orders that the creature be killed. Just what the creature is we aren’t told. We are left to guess and wonder. The talk between another paleontologist and a lawyer following the incident only tells us that there is something wild and dangerous on the island.
This fills us with a sense of mystery, wonder, and just a bit fear. What could possibly be on the island? We have to know! When we arrive with our heroes on the island we at last see what waits for them. Dinosaurs! Every movie, especially in the science fiction and fantasy genre, has a scene that “makes” the picture, something that some how makes the audience believe in that other place. In Star Wars, for me, it was seeing the binary sunset of Tatooine. In Jurassic Park it was that arrival on the island, and seeing the Brachiosaurus roaming wild and free. This is followed by a panoramic shot of a pod of Brachiosaurs roaming down in a valley, like something out of every boy hood dream. Dinosaurs are alive again, and they are living alongside humans.
As beautiful as this scene is, it would be nothing without the performances of the actors that help send it home. Those dinosaurs might by CGI, but the human actors aren’t acting like that. Dr. Alan Grant, ( Sam Neill), Dr. Ellie Settler ( Laura Dern), and Dr. Ian Maclom ( Jeff Goldblum) are all professionals in the academic world and yet they look like a bunch of kids in a candy store. Dr. Grant especially is overcome with joy in seeing this place, so much so that he’s on the verge of hyperventilating, and so too are we.
Now we know what is on this island and we are amazed. How did they bring the dinosaurs back? What’s going to happen when humans and dinosaurs are thrown back into the mix? We have to know, and we learn the answers to these questions through the course of the movie.
Also key to the film is the voice of reason, embodied by Dr. Ian Malcolm. From his unique style of speaking, to his theories on chaos, he reminds the audiences that something could go wrong. He is the first to express concern after the initial awe wears off. He takes Hammond to task and informs him that “your scientists are so busy figuring out if they can that they don’t bother to ask if they should.” All of a sudden the breaks are put on and we start to wonder about the consequences of these prehistoric creatures being thrown back into the mix with humanity. It is through him that Jurassic Park is not only an engaging blockbuster, but a cautionary tale against tampering with nature.
Jurassic Park was based on a book by Michael Crichton, and as is true with many movies based on the book, it difers from the source material. Large portions of Crichton’s book feature endless scientific and mathematical discussions given by Dr. Malcolm. That kind of thing is fine for a book, or a class, but not a movie. Spielberg wisely chose to adapt the most memorable scenes from the book and make it into the movie.
Another change that Spielberg mad was to switch the ages of the two kids Alexis “Lex” Murphy (Arianna Richards) and Tim Murphy (Joseph Mazzello). In the book Tim was the oldest and a computer nerd, whereas Lex, kind of did nothing. In the film Lex was older and a computer nerd, while Tim was a dinosaur buff. Not only does it give the girl something to do, it makes Tim the audience surrogate for the other nine year old boys watching the movie.
What can be said about the special effects that hasn’t been said? The effects to bring the dinosaurs to life were state of the art back in 1993 and they still hold up to this day. Part of this comes from Spielberg employing a similar tactic to Jaws wherein he doesn’t show you the dinosaurs all the time. In fact they are on screen for roughly 15 percent of the film. However it is simply the idea that there are dinosaurs on this island, combined with the acting abilities of the cast that make you believe that dinosaurs are on this island. You don’t need to see them for the full two hours of the feature, you just know they are there and you can’t wait for them to show up.
This is one of the many reasons the first film has been better loved and received than its sequels. You may see the dinosaurs more in The Lost World and Jurassic Park III, but you don’t have the same sense of mystery. The first movie captured the right mix of awe, mystery, and a fear. It is a formula that is difficult to replicate, and the first one got it right. When you go into the first Jurassic Park films, you don’t know what to expect. But when you go into the sequels, well Ian Malcolm says it best in The Lost World, “Yes, that’s how it all starts, ooh, ahh, and then there’s running and screaming.”
Finally there is the musical contribution to Jurassic Park, given by Spielberg’s frequent collaborator, John Williams. No other composer can bring to life a Spielberg film like John Williams. His scores are like another character in the film. In the case of Jurassic Park it’s exciting and chilling, and yet at the same time he also gave one of his most beautiful and majestic themes to date in the theme from Jurassic Park. Allegedly the score lost out on the Oscars to another Williams/Spielberg collaboration that is equally haunting but for different reasons: the score from Schindler’s List.
Twenty years. It is hard to believe that when the gates to Jurassic Park first opened I was almost nine years old. I’ll admit it makes me feel old to think about it, and yet no time has seemed to pass for this film that has aged so well. To this day it remains one of my favorites. Thank you, Steven Spielberg, and thank you, Jurassic Park for all the thrill and adventure you’ve given me and a generation of movie goers.
Thankfully I got my hand stamped so I can go back for another visit.
1993 Universal Studios.