Taken For Granted: Jurassic Park
Good movies don’t just happen. Even when they do, there’s no guarantee that the movie will be successful. It’s rare that a movie comes along that manages to connect with audiences in a way that it becomes assimilated into the broader culture. But some movies do. Many connect in the moment, and some manage to endure long after the moment. A select few become touchstones that always garner the same response:
“What do you mean you haven’t seen X?”
However, there’s a funny thing about movies that are that popular. When everybody has seen something, the reasons for its success often get lost in the conversation. When everyone agrees that something is good, it doesn’t tend to breed meaningful conversation. After all, most people who see movies can see that a movie is good, but can’t always explain why.
These movies are Taken For Granted. This column is dedication to analyzing beloved classic movies; assessing what works, acknowledging what doesn’t, and ultimately affirming that most of them really are as good as we think they are.
Wide Release Date: June 11, 1993
Directed By: Steven Spielberg
Written By: Michael Crichton and David Koepp
Produced By: Kathleen Kennedy, Gerald R. Molen
Cinematography By: Dean Cundey
Edited By: Michael Kahn
Music By: John Williams
Production Company: Amblin Entertainment
Distributed By: Universal Studios
Sam Neill as Dr. Alan Grant
Laura Dern as Dr. Ellie Sattler
Jeff Goldblum as Dr. Ian Malcolm
Richard Attenborough as John Hammond
Wayne Knight as Dennis Nedry
What Do We All Know?
No movie exemplifies the 1990’s blockbuster more than Steven Spielberg’s 1993 smash hit Jurassic Park. The only films more successful that decade were Titanic in 1997 and The Phantom Menace in 1999. With its brilliantly marketable premise and its cutting edge special effects that made it possible, the movie was bound to be successful. It was must-see, appealing to adults but especially to children. You’d be hard pressed to find a kid born in the late eighties or early nineties who hasn’t seen Jurassic Park. And most of them probably love it.
But almost a quarter of a century later, does it deserve the love? Is it really a modern masterpiece, the pinnacle of blockbuster filmmaking? Or is our nostalgia blinding us to the fact that it’s very flawed and not as good as we want it to be?
What Went Right?
Well, the answers to those questions are “not quite” and “yeah, probably”. But the good news is that while Jurassic Park isn’t a masterpiece and is almost overrated in the grand scheme of things, it’s still very, very good. The film is an heir to monster movies like King Kong, Godzilla and Steven Spielberg’s own Jaws. That last one may be the Rosetta Stone for understanding what this movie does right, and why it isn’t quite as good as it could be. It’s impossible not to see how filming Jaws informed how Spielberg made this movie. Despite largely being known for the monster effects, the shark and the dinosaurs (especially the carnivores) appear very little in the film. Most of the film is dedicated to the human characters, their background, and their personal journey. This has the effect of making the special effects feel truly special instead of getting lost in translation like lesser blockbusters are wont to do.
And what impressive special effects they were. The 1990’s were kind of a cool period where CGI was just good enough to be used for some shots, but not good enough to be used all of the time. The very real animatronics of the T-Rex and the velociraptors were genuinely terrifying, but credit also goes to the groundbreaking digital sound design for making these dinosaurs feel alive. Combined with Spielberg’s understanding of how to film horror and when and when not to use a particular effect, and one of John Williams’ more underrated scores, they achieved their goal. A sharp eye will see when a shot uses a prop or CGI, but it’s edited very carefully so that we never get too used to a particular effect. As a technical showcase, the film really is a masterpiece.
But what about the human drama?
What Went Wrong?
Clearly, Spielberg and company definitely emulated Jaws when it came to restraint on showcasing the big attractions. But one thing that film does significantly better than Jurassic Park is having a great script with excellent characters. Jurassic Park has functional characters, but not any truly great ones, and perhaps that just comes down to the source material. Alan Grant, Ellie Sattler and John Hammond are all fine, and the actors playing them are doing a fine job with the script. But there is a lack of depth, nuance or really anything memorable about them. Even Ian Malcolm, the best of the bunch, feels like he came to life more through Jeff Goldblum’s inherent qualities as an actor and not because of the script. Perhaps this is why the sequels failed to connect; does anybody care enough about Alan Grant or Ian Malcolm to follow them on another story?
Perhaps the weakest aspect of the script is that it constantly feels the need to tell instead of show. There were many lines that were genuinely unnecessary, often undercutting the impact of a shot or even a previous line. Perhaps there’s no better example of this than when Malcolm says “What have they got in there, King Kong?” when they pass through the iconic gate. People, even children, would recognize the imagery without it being spelled out for them. The film is at its best when the script is quiet and allows the story to progress. It doesn’t ruin the movie by any stretch, but it’s hard not to see how another go around with the script wouldn’t have helped Jurassic Park be even better.
We must also acknowledge that the film is extremely dated in certain ways. The most notable is that our understanding of dinosaurs and how they probably looked is constantly evolving. While I don’t hold it against the movie by any stretch, I can’t help thinking that in 2043 this film will seem even more dated in that respect. And don’t even get me started on the computer “hacking” in the movie. This is unfortunately just how things go sometimes.
What Went Really Right?
While the script could definitely be better, there are two areas where it excels; raising ethical questions and delivering on the horror and tension. This is, after all, not just a monster movie, but also science fiction. Questions are supposed to be asked. The film’s discussion about using technological power responsibly and thinking about the potential consequences is very well done. Ian Malcolm’s line “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should,” and the speech building up to it is fantastic. Additionally, it all builds to the tension of something going very wrong.
But the really good stuff? Those dinosaurs deliver when they arrive. When we first see the brachiosaurus or the triceratops, the film captures the awe and magic of the moment. The raptors are terrifying, and their scenes play more like a slasher film than a blockbuster. The T-Rex? Breathtaking in every sense. And yes; in these scenes, the humans are suitably vulnerable and easy to root for, particularly the two children.
How effective are these scenes? Well, how many times did you see the tyrannosaur’s big entrance before noticing that there is a huge continuity issue with the paddock? At the start, it’s level with the road so the T-Rex can break through the fence and terrorize our heroes, and by the end it’s so tall the T-Rex couldn’t have gone over, just so we can have a truck fall out of a tree. When a film has flaws that glaring and we don’t notice, it’s doing something right.
And really, that’s the whole film in a nutshell. It’s not perfect and it doesn’t hold up under any serious scrutiny, but it doesn’t have to. Jurassic Park thrills, it excites, it terrifies, it makes you think, and it entertains. It isn’t the best blockbuster or even the best monster movie in Spielberg’s filmography, but there is no denying that it was huge in its time and has just enough going for it to have a permanent spot on many people’s shelves.
In many ways, Jurassic Park is perfect for this column. While flawed, it succeeds so well where it needs to that it ends up being great anyway.