Friday, January 15, 2021

Jurassic Park (1993)

USA, 127 minutes
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writers: Michael Crichton, David Koepp
Photography: Dean Cundey
Music: John Williams
Editor: Michael Kahn
Cast: Sam Neill, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum, Richard Attenborough, Bob Peck, Martin Ferraro, BD Wong, Joseph Mazzello, Ariana Richards, Samuel L. Jackson, Wayne Knight, Phil Proctor

Say what you may about director Steven Spielberg, he does seem to have a sense for how to construct movie magic (for lack of a better term). Case in point. I always seem to forget how good the original Jurassic Park is, which should not surprise me because it is basically a monster movie about dinosaurs directed by Steven Spielberg and that's close to exactly the kind of thing I can't resist. But Spielberg is particularly good at stripping away clutter and focusing on elements that surprisingly matter a lot: here, notably, a sense of wonder, which he hits on a pure note almost effortlessly in the first hour, spent mostly explaining and detailing the picture's premise. Setting aside a silly plot about corporate malfeasance that is there merely to put the chaos in motion, the fundamental concept is some science mumbo-jumbo laid out in an industrial training film style with a seductive credibility. Why couldn't scientists extract the blood of dinosaurs from mosquitos preserved in amber and then clone them up with the DNA sequencing? Well, why not?

Thus, after a series of helicopter shots and introduction to the exotic jungle setting of an island off the west coast of South America (shades of Darwin! but a lot of this no doubt is also the work of cowriter Michael Crichton, a giant of pop culture in his own right, though I don't know the source novel), and with the John Williams orchestra sawing away sweet, we come to see dinosaurs roaming a pastoral landscape and it is thrilling. Spielberg plainly knows the importance of special effects (as much as copious reaction shots) because these images of dinosaurs are absorbingly believable and likely took up much of the budget (happily, he routinely commands big ones). Spielberg, and/or Crichton, is also not above larding it up with Dickensian touches that work even when you know you know better: the semi-huckster semi-visionary impresario who loves his grandchildren, the young couple sorting out their feelings about children, all those questions about whether humans even have a right, let alone the wisdom, to tamper with nature. Jurassic Park basically gets you coming and going.

Which isn't to say the picture doesn't have its strange failings. The motley we are given as the human element to identify with are a strange bunch, some thoroughly cliched, others more on the bizarre side. This kooky and irreverent Scooby Doo group includes a scientist couple, movie star main players square-faced handsome Sam Neill as Grant and Laura Dern in the paycheck phase of her unusual career as Ellie. Jeff Goldblum is a nutty beatnik scientist, Ian, who waxes poetically incoherent about chaos theory. Does anyone really believe this guy is a scientist or even mathematician? Still, it's Goldblum and, like Bill Murray, he is somehow entertaining no matter what you do with him. Richard Attenborough brings a certain British Disney tone. And lurking in the background are folks like Samuel L. Jackson, who has a weird way of chain-smoking, and the cackling obese Wayne Knight (perhaps better known as Newman on Seinfeld).

The real star of the show for my money is the T. rex dinosaur, which is held back until the second half, and then introduced in an amazing chase sequence. The movie is rated PG-13 for "intense science fiction terror," which is where Spielberg takes the vulnerable sense of wonder he has so painstakingly opened in us. In many ways Jurassic Park is an homage to the original King Kong, which is a polite way of saying it steals some of that movie's best ideas and tricks. It takes its time setting up an elaborate "lost world" and patiently explaining the things we will need to know. It holds back the monster until we are impatient for it, then fully unleashes it until we think maybe we've maybe had enough after all. Where King Kong puts a small beautiful woman literally into the hands of the beast, Jurassic Park makes it a couple of functionally orphaned kids and a scientist who longs to be a dad without being aware of it himself yet.

One aspect of the picture that doesn't work so well for me—seen even more in the sequels, which are not nearly as good even though Spielberg also directed the second—is an attempt to insert a new dinosaur into the classic kids favorites pantheon of brontosaurus, pterodactyl, and, of course, T. rex. And come to think of it, pterodactyls get short shrift here, maybe to avoid explaining how you would keep them on the island. The picture is actually full of a good variety of interesting dinosaurs, along with an appealing pseudo-scientific thread on the evolutionary contributions of dinosaurs to birds (though unfortunately too early for a more recent theory that some dinosaurs were actually feathered).

But the one dinosaur that Jurassic Park appears to favor most, as I'm sure you've all heard by now, is the velociraptor. I don't remember velociraptors very well from my own infatuation period with dinosaurs, when I was about 6 or 7, but that was a long time ago. They are set up here as so cunning as to be nearly super-heroic, which does feel tiresome in our post-MCU era. My feeling is that Jurassic Park is about 30 minutes too long anyway, and all the running around screaming in the second half does veer toward monotonous, so why not just cut that part out? Well, full disclosure, I don't know the Crichton novel at all and he's involved in the second picture too, so maybe the velociraptor campaign is his idea as much or more than Spielberg's. I will also say that the tension never really flags in the second half. It's full of cunning suspense techniques and lots of intense science fiction terror so I'm not complaining that much. Conceptually it might have been tighter without the velociraptor thread, but Jurassic Park is always a good ride—figuratively, I mean. I've never tried any of the amusement park versions.

1 comment:

  1. Pterodactyls get their moment in The Lost World ('97) and later editions of the franchise. As I recall, a clever ending to that one includes one flying by their plane as they're finally being rescued from the island. But, still, all these years later, what remains missing in the series (I think, haven't seen the last one yet) is when we get to see the beserk dinosaurs attacking Los Angeles.