Reviewed by author, Mark West
Sam Neill, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum, Richard Attenborough, Bob Peck, Joseph Mazello, Ariana Richards
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Written by David Koepp & Michael Crichton (based on his novel)
121 minutes, PG, 1993
aspect ratio – 1.85 : 1
I first picked up Michael Crichton’s novel “Jurassic Park” in 1991, based on the fact that I’d enjoyed his memoir ‘Travels’, I liked dinosaurs and the cover proclaimed that it was soon to be “a major film from Steven Spielberg”. I really enjoyed the book – though some of the science got speed-read – but couldn’t figure out how Spielberg was going to realise any of what I’d just read. Two years later I found out, as my wife & I went to the old cinema in Wellingborough (it’s not there now – as Malcolm says at one point, it’s become extinct) to see it.
The film opens in the dark, as a container holding an unseen Velociraptor (effectively the film’s bad guys and called Raptor by everyone), is lowered to the ground. After a mistake, a worker is attacked and killed and the scene grabs the attention immediately. Advised by his lawyer, it’s agreed that John Hammond (Richard Attenborough), a billionaire, needs to have his new venture – Jurassic Park – signed off by some experts. Hammond invites palaeontologist Dr Alan Grant (Sam Neill) and paleobotanist Dr Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern) – dangling the carrot of funding their Montana dig for the next three years – along with Dr Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum), a mathematician who specialises in chaos theory. The group are flown to Isla Nublar, near Costa Rica, where Hammond’s futuristic theme park is set up, populated with dinosaurs cloned from DNA found in fossilised mosquitoes that have been preserved in amber.
At the visitor centre, after a quick tour (and an animated film that gets out a lot of exposition which slowed the book down – a clever cinematic device there, on the part of Spielberg and Koepp), the group meets up with Hammond’s grandchildren – Tim (Joseph Mazello), a dinosaur nut and Lexi (Ariana Richards), a would-be hacker – and sets off on a tour. Meanwhile, greedy computer expert Nedry (Wayne Knight) has set up the parks systems to fail, to enable him to steal some DNA to sell to a rival company.
After separating when the group comes across an ill Triceratops, Grant, Malcolm, Gennero and the children are at the T-Rex paddock when the power fails completely. The T-Rex attacks the tour cars, killing the lawyer and injuring Malcolm but Grant and the children manage to escape. Ellie and the game warden Robert Muldoon (Bob Peck) manage to find Ian and then try to reset the power, discovering on the way that the Raptors are now free. The power is re-set, but Muldoon is killed and Sattler injured. Grant and the children head for the visitor’s centre and whilst he goes to find the others, they end up trapped in the kitchen with two Raptors. They manage to escape, find Grant and Sattler but are cornered in the entrance hall by the Raptors. Somehow, the T-Rex is also there and the group escape, as the dinosaurs fight it out.
As they drive away from the centre, with Hammond and Malcolm, Grant says he won’t be able to endorse the park. Hammond agrees.
This is a superbly well-made film, as you’d expect from Spielberg (still in his bright lights and smoke phase, the bleached-out look he now uses with Janusz Kaminski nowhere in sight) and pretty much everyone – in front of and behind the camera – acquits themselves well.
The actors do solid work in roles where, by necessity, they often take second place to the spectacle. Sam Neill is rugged and capable (have you ever seen him put in a bad performance?) and Laura Dern gives Sattler more depth than the script seems willing to (when Malcolm demonstrates chaos theory by putting water on her hand, she says “Alan, look at this” excitedly, as if they’d just discovered alien life). The children are fantastic and always believable, with Ariana Richards going from scaredy-cat big sister (at the T-Rex paddock) to no-nonsense brother protector (in the kitchen with the Raptors) and Joseph Mazzello is a real treat as the smart-alec kid, who’s read Grant’s book and has views of his own. He also gets some great lines and delivers the funniest ones (“well, we’re back in the car!”) with great timing. Jeff Goldblum clearly has the most fun, with his rock star mathematician and cool dialogue, but his usual quirky actor-ly tricks seem a bit out of place. Richard Attenborough ranges from cuddly to cold, his accent sliding occasionally and Samuel L Jackson does very little, apart from smoke cigarettes down to the filter. Bob Peck is terrific, a gruff man who knows what he’s doing and his was the only death where I thought it would’ve been nice for him to have made it to the end. Wayne Knight has one major set-piece (in the rain and mud) so didn’t particularly register and Martin Ferrero makes the most of his lawyer’s sliminess (especially his reaction to the T-Rex).
The writing is very good, combining enough science jargon dialogue to make you think it could be real (leaving the really complicated stuff to the introductory cartoon) with some great interplay between characters (particularly Malcolm and Grant, when they’re in the tour car alone) and some nice, funny lines.
The direction, as one would expect, is virtually faultless and it’s perhaps nice that Spielberg made this before everything became handheld. He makes full use of the locations – be they Hawaii (standing in for the island) or the sets – and its always clear what’s going on. He does indulge in a few of his trademarks – bright lights behind people, dollies into people’s faces, kids in peril – but they all serve the story. As for the action sequences – well, he delivers each and every major set piece and all of them are gripping. The T-Rex paddock is perhaps the most famous of these, rain-slicked and terrifying, but the Nedry death-scene is well handled, as is the brilliant kitchen sequence.
As I said in my “Creature From The Black Lagoon” review, a ‘monster movie’ lives or dies by the quality of its stars and this delivers completely. Stan Winston built the full-size animatronic creatures and Phil Tippett (stop motion genius) was going to do the full-body dinosaurs, using his go-motion technique. Dennis Muren was also on hand, representing ILM, who were due to do all the compositing. But Muren had other ideas and, using the technology they’d developed for Terminator 2, showed Spielberg a test film of a gallimimus herd running across a field followed by a T-Rex. Spielberg was so impressed, he scrapped the go-motion idea (though Tippett and his crew animated the CGI dinosaurs using models) and so set in motion a tremendous leap forward in film-making (or, depending on your view of the increasingly poor CGI in many films these days, a sideways-at-best step), opening up a whole new palette of possibilities. The thing I found, bearing in mind this film is eighteen years old, is how good the dinosaurs looked. Critics often sneer that they’re in soft focus or the dark and rain and therefore can’t be seen clearly, but I’d disagree – the shot where Grant and Sattler see the Brachiosaurous eating leaves from a tree is superbly realised.
Further proving the quality of the workmanship on display, the blend between Winston’s live-action dinosaurs and ILM’s is incredible and it’s sometimes difficult to tell which one you’re looking at. Having seen the film at the cinema when it first came out, I think that’s a major part of the success – and this was a tremendously successful film – and a major reason why this should be seen as a landmark film. The latex and pixels blending works, these people cared about what they were doing, they wanted it to be right.
Having said all that, the film does have its flaws. The characters, as I mentioned, do tend to play second fiddle to the creatures (who are probably only on-screen for about 20 minutes or so) and sometimes logic appears to take a back seat. As an example of the latter, the T-Rex paddock attack is foreshadowed by the vibrations every character feels, as the dinosaurs lumbers over to them. Yet at the climax, the T-Rex manages not only to get into the building (how did it fit through those doors?), but also creep along on wooden floors and not be noticed until it’s literally right on top of the Raptors. But these are niggles – as you watch the film, you’re rattled along at such a pace, gazing at the spectacle, that these moans seem almost obnoxious.
Jurassic Park won Oscars for Visual Effects, Best Sound Mixing and Best Sound Editing. It also picked up a BAFTA for Best Special Visual Effects.
The film was followed by two sequels – The Lost World in 1997 (and if you’re looking for logic plot holes, how about a T-Rex sailing a ship?) and the Joe Johnston directed Jurassic Park 3* in 2001.
This is a great film, pacy and scary and wonderous and I highly recommend it.
*[Editor’s note] There is to be a Jurassic Park IV, also directed by Joe Johnston. Rumours abound that the dinosaurs in this version will be taught to wield guns, although Johnston has denied this.