Still more lazy thoughts from this one…

Jurassic Park Film Review

For the longest time it seems, Memorial Day weekend has been the unofficial start of summer (solstice be damned)… barbecue season, too. Once, the summer movie season began on this holiday weekend, but no more. Nowadays, it’s the first of May for the blockbuster movie constant pitched for our diversion — just watch, the marketers will begin pushing it back toward April next. Action, thrills and special effects are the order of things during this time of year. But I don’t mind, to a point. I love escapist fair as much as the next guy or gal. As long as it treats me like I have a brain in my head, however. Michael Bay rarely need apply.

So once again, it’s time for the blogger otherwise known as the Scientist Gone Wordy and I to add another of our duo posts in the series we started last year. For this one, we took on a novel/film pairing that many fans, young and old, hold in mutual affection and memorable admiration. As usual, the wordy one will look at the text of a famed novel later adapted to film, which I will review. In this case, she’ll be looking at the 1990 source science-fiction novel from the famed (and late) author Michael Crichton for the 1993 film adaptation, Jurassic Park. Rachel’s book review can be found here:

Jurassic Park Part I

A brief synopsis of the film: A billionaire has a problem, and one that could only happen to the very rich and eccentric variety. By way of scientific breakthroughs, John Hammond and his team of scientists have genetically engineered a way of cloning actual dinosaurs to populate an island off the coast of Costa Rica as a future, modern theme park. His issue is with his investors and a launch date. One of his park employees was attacked and killed by one of those ‘star’ attractions, and his financial backers have grown skittish to the idea. Said shareholders, naturally led by a lawyer, demand assurances that Jurassic Park will be safe for the paying public and therefore bring in their expert, a mathematician, to decide if it is. Hammond counters by bringing in his own set of experts (a paleontologist and paleobotanist) to balance out the upcoming evaluation. Their exploration of the island park, to decide what’s really going on, is the gist of the science and technology gone terribly wrong story.

[spoiler warning: some key elements of the film could be revealed in this review]

“Dr. Grant, my dear Dr. Sattler. Welcome to Jurassic Park.”

What’s remarkable about this 90s film was that director Steven Spielberg caught lightning in bottle once more in another decade and place. The first time being with the summer blockbuster champ that set the template for it all, Jaws, 18 years earlier. The combination of a surprising story (itself adapted from another bestselling novel) told through clever dialogue and humor… with touches of startling violence, thrilling special effects, vast amounts of suspense, and an accompanying and iconic John Williams score, was a unique alignment few films ever meet. It is a rarity, but one that pays off in big box office and heart’s acclaim. This would be too much to ask of any filmmaker to attain on one occasion (though studios never stop trying). Doing it more than once is simply unheard of.

jurassic park title

Where Jaws had some shark science to tell its tale, it’s more about the human fear than of the nature. That film uses what we cannot see and control below its (watery) surface to thrilling and horrific effect. Jaws took an ancient apprehension and put a pair of scary doll’s eyes on it, along with rows of razor-sharp teeth to rend flesh and keep us riveted. On the other hand, Jurassic Park‘s initial premise is wonderment and our belief in the promise science provides. But, the picture’s drive is essentially the same as its film forefather. As well, it couples our long-time fascination with the dinosaurs of yesterday we learned about and played with (through books, toys and models) from our youth. Crichton’s original story used it as a lure to pull us into the vision that technology has all the answers… before pulling the rug out. But adults can see through that, yes? Wrong. We were all children once, and with interests that never truly go away. We rarely abandon our imagined dinosaurian dreams. Plus, it’s the adults nowadays who wholeheartedly believe in technology because they’ve grown up with it. And it keeps delivering… something. It is today’s tooth-fairy.

Jurassic Park was a success because it coalesced all of that into one spectacular package. It’s memorable because it was an experience to watch. And for that, ironically, we should not forget to thank the tech-side of things. How much lower does this the film rank with viewers without Industrial Light & Magic core of technicians and computers, along with the artistry of Stan Winston and his crew, to bring said dinosaurs to life? A lot, I think. The soft side of the director, furthermore, delivered notable emotional moments in his 1993 film with the extraordinary skill he’s known for. For example, when the experts first land on the island and meet up with the herbivores of gargantuan size. Their awed faces of wonderment may be captured magnificently through cinematographer Dean Cundey’s lenses, but if the audience doesn’t buy the effects they’re looking at, the captivation barometer barely registers, I think. Yet, it does, and is probably one of the most remembered scenes from the film because of those factors.

While Spielberg has that gentle facet in his repertoire, he really cleans up when he goes the other way. Going for the throat (like he did in Jaws). Both films share similarly in this regard. They remain alike as they both work off of the fear of dying. Specifically, our innate dread of being eaten alive by some thing bigger, faster, and more menacing than us. Both pictures do this with exuberance. The audience bites into the concept whole hog (with apologies to my vegan friends for all the eating and animal references so far), again helped enormously by tech wizardry. It made the T-Rex the most generationally remembered and heart-thumping character in the piece, IMO. Think it’s been forgotten years later amid all the latter-day CGI creatures? Hardly. Refer to its edification in film: the Tyrannosaurus’ chase of the jeep towing Malcolm, Sattler, and Robert Muldoon (Edge of Darkness’ Bob Peck in a noteworthy part) to temporary safety. The almost shot-for-shot mirror reference with Rex’s pursuit of the car in Pixar’s Toy Story 2 (1999) was one of the most instantly and universally recognized homages by any movie audience. In other words, Jurassic Park had by that time become part of our own culture.

As well, author Michael Crichton made a living off of celebrating the advancement of science and technology, and then pointing out our own human folly at trusting that it gave us control (over it and ourselves). He always put his voice and point of view into his novels and, consequently via their adaptations, in films, too. And if you want to see the author’s thoughts and doubt about it all, center on the chaositician, the Ian Malcolm character (done to perfection by Jeff Goldblum). While the audience relates more directly with Drs. Alan Grant (Sam Neill) and Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern), Ian throughout hammers home the foolhardiness of human kind’s and John Hammond’s (Richard Attenborough) endeavor.

John Hammond: “All major theme parks have had delays. When they opened Disneyland in 1956, nothing worked!”
Dr. Ian Malcolm: “But, John. If the Pirates of the Caribbean breaks down, the pirates don’t eat the tourists.”

As much as Crichton enjoys pointing out the technological foolishness in his stories, his protagonist usually come from the scientific discipline and are as sharp as the proverbial tack. They ain’t Arnold (thankfully) and aren’t blessed with Python-like guns for arms nor have washboard-like abs (well… maybe Laura Dern… or my collaborator Rachel). It’s always been a welcomed character trademark for the techno-thriller — a genre this writer almost single-handedly invented with his first book, The Andromeda Strain, way back in 1969.

Still, what stands out, even now, are the relatively ancient CGI sequences deployed in the film (one of the first to really create the illusion of something special happening before our very eyes through computer effects). As oppose to today, they are wonderfully blended with the live action performances — 18 years in the other direction, Jurassic Park‘s SFX still look better comparatively to many of the effects-laden films of today. The credit surely goes to the filmmakers knowing you couldn’t depend upon the technology to carry an entire movie — that you had to have a story and performances to hold it all up. The relative immaturity of Jaws‘ effects also kept them in check, to the ultimate benefit of that film. Having the great Stan Winston onboard JP, mixing his grand talent for analog (non-CGI) creature effects that remain unsurpassed (even decades later), cannot be minimized. And that’s what you have here. A lesson many current film producers today still don’t get (cough Michael Bay).

What's that?

Jurassic Park successfully married Michael Crichton’s knack with story for placing human beings in visionary tech traps of their own hubris and Steven Spielberg’s talent for combining emotion, humor and horror in contemporary adventures into a near perfect modern cinematic thriller. I have to say ‘near perfect’ because my computer friends, still to this day, ramble on about Hammond’s ‘hacker’ granddaughter (Ariana Richards) UNIX skills — that and wanting Samuel L. Jackson’s character to curse a hell of a lot more (for various reasons). It remains a memorable film that crosses generations. I recall taking my late mother-in-law with us to this film experience when it was first released. The same wonderment and fear the filmmakers convened on-screen with the movie characters played concurrently across her face, and on those sitting around her in a crowded movie theatre. Just like years before with Jaws, this set of filmmakers knew how to tell a story, and tell it well (whether they were entirely faithful to the source novel or not). Basically, the lawyer in the picture forecast it best:

“We’re gonna make a fortune with this place.”

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21 Responses to “Jurassic Park Film Review”

  1. Ronan

    Geat review le0pard, really enjoyed it. Jurassic Park has so much more depth and imagination than most of its contemporary peers. What the sci-fi guys of today seem to miss (*cough* Avatar) is that it’s not the effects which make these films special, it’s the characters and the dialogue they are given which determine how much they truly affect us. What I love most about JP is its authenticity, a large part of which is due to Crichton’s novel. I used to listen to the audiobook at night before I fell asleep (as a result I never really slept) and the script which then became the screenplay was fascinating. Although I think the film would have been even better had they stuck more rigidly to the book, some of its one-liners stay with me. ‘Yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should. ‘ ‘The lack of humility before nature that’s being displayed here, uh… staggers me.’ ‘I’ll tell you the problem with the scientific power that you’re using here: it didn’t require any discipline to attain it. You read what others had done and you took the next step. You didn’t earn the knowledge for yourselves, so you don’t take any responsibility… for it. You stood on the shoulders of geniuses to accomplish something as fast as you could and before you even knew what you had you patented it and packaged it and slapped it on a plastic lunchbox…’ What Jurassic Park demonstartes is man’s capacity to advance, often in spite of himself. As soon as he realises something is within his grasp, he attains it, with little consideration for the consequences of his actions. Thanks for the review le0pard.

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    • le0pard13

      No argument there concerning Jurassic Park, Ronan. My recent revisit with the film showed it’s lost none of its wonder and potency (and it enthralled my children on their first viewing). It would have been interesting if the filmmakers had remained closer to the novel, but this set stayed more true to the source than those with the sequel and Crichton’s The Lost World. I read JP after seeing the film, but tore through the author’s follow-up before viewing the film sequel.

      You listened to the audiobook? I’m jealous. The U.S. only has the abridged version available — I hope to listen to the U.K. unabridged (read by William Roberts, a fave reader of mine) sometime in the future. Thanks very much for your thoughts and memories concerning this stellar sci-fi adventure, my friend.

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  2. J.D.

    I daresay this may be your best review to date. Certainly one of my faves of anything you’ve written. You really nailed the sheer joy and pleasure that used to come with big budget summer movies. For me, these pleasures have diminished over the years and I find it harder to get excited about the current crop of summer films – that being said, I am looking forward to COWBOYS & ALIENS, but I have fond memories of queuing up to see JURASSIC PARK and, like pretty much everyone else, being completely dazzled by that first shot of the dinosaurs. What a glorious sight and most definitely a game changer in terms of special effects.

    I’m glad you pointed out the cast. It is a large part of why this film still holds up. I like the opposites attract of Sam Neill’s jaded scientist and Laura Dern’s more eager optimist. And then you get Jeff Goldblum’s sarcastic mathematician who just about steals every scene he’s in. I think my fave scene might still be that bit where he chastises Hammond for messing with evolution: “our scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.” Sobering thoughts indeed and nice break between chase sequences.

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    • le0pard13

      Very kind of you to say, J.D. I understand what you mean, as well. Few of the current filmmakers capture what made big budget summer movies like Jurassic Park so special. Unfortunately, studios drew the wrong conclusions from past blockbusters and became so formulaic. Luckily, with talent like Christopher Nolan, there’s hope out there for us who remember how great this fare could be.

      Love the cast with this film, too. It was great how Sam Neill played off of Laura Dern and her character (it was also fantastic to have him back for Joe Jackson’s JP III sequel). And yeah, this was one of Jeff Goldblum’s best roles, ever. Glad you hear you enjoyed this film like the rest of us. Thanks.

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  3. Rachel

    You nailed it! You f*#cking nailed it! (curse word as little help for those who wanted Jackson to have more – ha!)

    This is gorgeous, perfect! You have written a wonderful review showing just what it is that captured us when we first saw it and keeps us coming back for more. Beautiful, Michael! Just beautiful.

    I especially agree with the comments about the effects serving the story. When it is the other way around you forget the film in a couple months – when effects are pushed to the limit to tell a story then you get a film you won’t soon forget (I would add The Matrix to this category). I, too, wish that film makers would pay more attention to why these films are such hits.

    I also agree that films lay on the effects so hard core that they become unrealistic. A line oft used in my household is “Jurassic Park came out in 1993 and THIS is the best you can do?” when watching a film that is crazy over the top.

    Speaking of effects – did you ever hear the story of the glass of water scene? Apparently it was one of the challenges the crew faced in FX. It took weeks to figure out how to do it and what finally worked was twanging a guitar string under the plastic cup. I always thought that was a funny and ironic story.

    Again, an absolutely delightful review! Oh, and I WISH re those washboard abs. ;-)

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    • le0pard13

      I’m glad you enjoyed the review, Rachel. I worried about this one because it is such an iconic film. Another film blogger I follow regularly complains about the overuse of CGI in many current films. Overuse and cheaply rendered effects just looks like animation too often. Kinda stands out in a live action movie, and not in a good way.

      Good call on how well The Matrix continues to be similarly distinctive and memorable. Both Jurassic Park and it were groundbreaking. Additionally, that is a fantastic tidbit about that glass of water scene. It goes to the craft deployed here. Today, you know they’d make it a computer effect. Sort of like CGI blood splatter — it just shouldn’t be done.

      I can surely see why this one is favorite of yours. Thanks for suggesting this one for a duo post, Rachel.

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  4. Rachel

    I forgot to add that I love this movie so much that I still get tingles when the fancy gates open, when the T-rex gets the raptors in the end and that banner flutters down, and Jeff and I used the Jurassic Park theme as our processional at our wedding. Big fan am I! :)

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    • le0pard13

      Awesome music for your processional! The music soundtrack and cues (in those scenes) were so damn good in the film. Thanks.

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  5. Novroz

    Great review!! I love it.
    This is one of few movies that I admit can be as great as the book.The second one is horrible,Spielberg changed the story too much.
    The first one, tho has several changes but still enjoyable.

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      • Kame

        Are you talking about the book or the movie?

        The book is as good as the Jurassic Park IMO but the movie is terrible

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        • le0pard13

          Sorry for the confusion. I was speaking about The Lost World film adaptation. So different from Crichton’s book sequel. It’s one of the few Spielberg films I go out of my way not to re-watch. Thanks for your comment, Kame.

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      • rtm

        Yeah, the sequel didn’t live up to the first one at all. Can’t even remember anything about it now.

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  6. Will

    What a frickin’ year for Spielberg. A summer blockbuster that raked in the technical Oscars and then a drama-blockbuster that swept the ‘serious’ Oscars with Schindler’s List.

    I do feel that this is Spielberg’s greatest year next to 2002 (Minority Report and Catch Me If You Can).

    I recommend checking out the GeeksOn podcast and the interview they did with David Brin. He said he respected Chricton but that Chricton was the worst advocate for scientific technology as science mixed with technology always goes wrong and destroys humanity. Jurassic Park is a large example of that theory.

    Great, great review and still a great film. . .especially the visuals.

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    • le0pard13

      That is very true, Will. Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List made for one extraordinary year for Spielberg. Who would have thought another could ever come along. Minority Report and Catch Me If You Can in ’02 made for a very different but wonderful two-hit.

      Michael Crichton did seem to pigeon-hole himself with science & technology somewhat over his novel career. I need to check out that podcast. Probably, that’s why I did enjoy when he went outside the tech-thriller genre with The Great Train Robbery, The Eaters of the Dead, and TV’s ER. Thanks very much for your thoughts and kind words, Will.

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  7. rtm

    You’re right Michael, Memorial weekend spells Summer to me, too, even though the weather here in MN didn’t automatically know it’s Summer :(

    I love your review! It really took me back in time how in awe I was of this film. I’m not even a fan of dinosaurs in general but the trailers were so exciting we saw this in the theater and my jaw dropped seeing the gorgeous scenery of the jungle, similar to when I saw Avatar for the first time. I really need to see this again, my hubby and I have been meaning to buy the Blu-ray for this. This is perhaps one of my top 5 favorite Spielberg movies, and that John Williams theme is one of my favorites as well. Thank you for this great read.

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    • le0pard13

      It’s great to hear you’re another fan of the film, Ruth. Yeah, seeing this for the first time was a jaw-dropping experience. It is one of my favorite Spielberg films and John Williams scores. Unfortunately, Universal is taking their sweet time in getting out the Blu-ray Disc version. I’m hoping it’s because they want to get it perfect, and with new and deserving extras (of course, I’ve been badly fooled before by those guys). Thank you very much for your kind words and comment.

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