Jurassic Park (1993)

This film deserves the highest of all praise: it actually lived up to its hype when it was released in the summer of 1993. This is the event for which dino-fans had been waiting; it is the 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY of its genre – the best dinosaur movie ever – one whose special effects render previous efforts obsolete. (Admittedly, it’s not as good as the original KING KONG. But KING KONG is not a dinosaur movie; it’s an ape movie, with the dinosaurs as costars.)

A reasonably faithful approximation of its source material, the film streamlines the structure of Michael Crichton’s novel and even retains some of his ideas, while adding wickedly clever touches of black humor, courtesy of co-screenwriter David Koepp.

As with JAWS, director Spielberg juggles the fates of his characters (compared to what happened in the book) and opts for a more spectacular ending, a sort of dino ex machina; the latter change may violate conventional dramatic structure, but one can hardly fault its effectiveness.

Technical credits are excellent, although John Williams, as usual, emphasizes the obvious (lush music for lush settings, etc.). Industrial Light & Magic’s computer wizardry imbues the creatures with amazing life: full-motion shots feature some incredible interaction with actors, and intercutting with Stan Winston’s full-scale, live-action versions is virtually seamless.

As with the novel, the human cannot quite compete with their saurian co-stars, but that doesn’t stop the cast from giving good performances, especially Jeff Goldblum in a role obviously tailor-made for him. Amazing enough for Spielberg, the children are not overly sentimentalized; if anything, they are exploited for all the fear they can elicit thr4ough their terrorized reactions to the rampaging reptiles. The PG-13 excises most of Crichton’s gore, but Spielberg ratchets up the suspense to compensate.

This was the best science-fiction/horror film of 1993 and easily the best film of Spielberg’s often overrated career up to that point. (SCHINDLER’S LIST came out later that year). Genre films don’t get much better, at least on a visceral-visual level. Inevitably, such a popular attraction draws its share of nay-sayers, but we should not allow these cynics to prevent the rest of us from opening our eyes in childlike wonder, exhilarated and stunned by the technique and artistry that brought dinosaurs to life as never before. The final glimpse of the triumphant T-Rex, roaring while a “When Dinosaurs Ruled the earth” banner floats to the floor, is sheer visual poetry; in comparison, Bruce the Shark from JAWS resembles a toothless minnow.

THE NOVEL

In print, author Michael Crichton’s JURASSIC PARK often read like a dissertation on Chaos Theory, with the action serving as a dramatic illustration of the lesson being taught. There was plenty of suspense and gore, but in between the dramatic dinosaur attacks, Crichton offered up pages and pages of intellectual discourse, most of it through the mouth of Dr. Ian Malcolm, who acted as a sort of modern-day Cassandra, warning of the dangers to come.

Amazingly, the exercise was almost entirely successful, creating a book that was simultaneously a rousing adventure story and a fascinating piece of intelligent science-fiction. The film version, of course, could barely begin to scratch the surface of the novel’s text; instead, the screenplay gives a cliff notes condensed version of Chaos Theory. As a result, the movie tends to come across as a fairly simple, almost classic piece of alarmist sci-fi – a sort of high-tech version of Murphy’s Law: “If something can go wrong, it will go wrong.”

The book, although also open to this interpretation, was far more detailed and nuanced. The point was not simply that genetic engineering is potentially dangerous and science invites disaster by tampering with Nature’s domain. It was that, in a complex world with innumerable variables, it is often impossible to predict consequences with any reasonable degree of accuracy. Science, as a doctrine, is concerned with how to do accomplish something, not with whether that accomplishment is the right thing to do.

In the case of the story’s artificially recreated reptiles, the dinosaurs are not a new Frankenstein monster terrorizing their creator; they are simply wild animals – but animals whose behavior patterns are unknown. It is therefore impossible to predict their actions and/or completely control them, but the people involved in the project are too arrogant to admit that they do not have a 100% grasp of the situation. Inevitably, this leads to disaster.

The film version offers a thumbnail version of these events, presented with greater visceral impact because of the excellent computer-generated effects; however, the novel still stands on its own as an excellent piece of literary science-fiction, thanks to the far more detailed examination of the ramifications of the situation. Crichton clearly wanted to entertain his readers; fortunately, he did not shy away from trying to illuminate them as well.

TRIVIA

When the film was released in 1993, the video and DVD market were in the process of cutting into the theatrical life of motion pictures, which were spending less time in theatres before heading to home video shelves. JURASSIC PARK (along with PULP FICTION one year later) bucked this trend: JURASSIC PARK played continuously in theatres for over one year after is initial release.

In the same issue of Cinefantastique (October 1993) that contained my original capsule review of JURASSIC PARK, a letter appeared from a disgruntled reader who asked, “Was I the only one who wondered what happened to all the park rangers and geneticists in JURASSIC PARK?” Whether Mr. Ron Murillo was the only one who pondered this question is unknown, but dialogue in the film makes it clear that the staff leaves by boat before disaster strikes (although this is not shown). This may be a cheap dramatic device to clear the decks and streamline the movie, but technically, it is not a continuity error.

Jurassic Park (1993). Directed by Steven Spielberg. Screenplay by Michael Cricthon and David Koepp, based on the novel by Crichton. Cast: Sam Neill, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum, Richard Attenborough, Bob Peck, Martin Ferrero, Joseph Mazzello, Ariana Richards, Samuel L. Jackson, B.D. Wong, Wayne Knight.

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About the Author

Steve Biodrowski

Cinefantastique's Los Angeles Correspondent from 1987 to 1993 and West Coast Editor from 1993 to 1999. Currently the webmaster of Cinefantastique Online, I also run a website called Hollywood Gothique that covers Halloween Horror and Sci-Fi Cinema Events in the Los Angeles area.

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