Jurassic Park is a beloved classic of popcorn cinema, still a cultural touchstone two decades on, and as keen a demonstration of Steven Spielberg's peerless skills at directing clean, effective populist entertainment as anything you could ask for, so I imagine it will be able to survive just fine if a schmuck blogger like myself gets to piping up that maybe - maybe, I promise - it's not as good as I thought it was when I was 12, and could not have been more securely in the film's target audience if Spielberg came to my house during pre-production to ask what I thought might make for a good setpiece (though even at 12, I couldn't fucking stand the child actors here). Not because it's dated: on the contrary, it is as shiny and glorious today as it was on 11 June, 1993, when its CGI dinosaurs revolutionised the very fabric of blockbuster filmmaking, looking better not only than effects-driven movies of the same period, but better, frankly, than half of what gets released nowadays. I was just talking about that, so I won't repeat myself, but the basic point is: Jurassic Park was always a movie about two things, 1) dinosaurs walking with all the weight and plausibility of real animals, and 2) the horrible failure of technology that puts them in a position to eat several people, and the action-packed second half that gets the characters we like out of harm's way. Those two things still work, and thus we can rightfully say that Jurassic Park hasn't aged a day and is exactly the movie it needs to be still, just as it was when it was brand new and not part of the popcorn movie canon.
That being said, the movie Jurassic Park needs to be and the movie Jurassic Park could be if it wanted to be oh so much more are not identical; and in 2013 as in 1993,the biggest stumbling block the film has is, unfairly and inevitably, it's not Jaws. Generically, the two films are in pretty much the same wheelhouse: primordially frightening giant animals that are kept mostly offscreen for the first hour terrorise the heroes and the audience, eating several people along the way. Both films feature a specialist in just the kind of animal at issue, with a pet theory about their behavior; both involve capitalist pressure to do nothing about the monsters until it becomes deeply necessary to do something; both have really astonishing sound work and John Williams scores that do a lot of the heavy lifting, though the latter point is more typical of all Spielberg films than just his monster movies.
The critical difference is that Jaws has all this as the exciting, thrill-filled seasoning to an intoxicating study of characters in a moment of personal and physical crisis, and is not just a tremendously addictive adventure movie, but also a really fine and lasting piece of cinema. Jurassic Park has the addictive part down pat, but the rest, maybe not quite. With a fairly large cast of characters, only two emerge as having more than the most rudimentary character traits - the protagonist, Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill), and the warm, grandfatherly billionaire whose hubris causes the whole damn mess, John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) - and the interpersonal conflicts are of a wholly more reedy scope, though more in line with the well-noted daddy issues that became more and more a part of Spielberg's career as he went on and became more of an auteur.
It's a film heavy on bedazzlement and light on complexity, that is to say, and the good news is that the bedazzlement is of a highly refined sort, as befits a filmmaker who had by 1993 run out of things to prove as a popular entertainer, and needed only to constantly reaffirm his dominance over everybody else in the industry (in 1993, of course, Spielberg was looking to prove the exact opposite: that he could make something serious and mature, and the result was Schindler's List). There is no doubt at all that Jurassic Park so reaffirms: if not for the gorgeous way that he and cinematographer Dean Cundey (the last time Spielberg worked with any DP besides Janusz Kaminski*) frame the rolling hills of Hawai'i or the shafts of interior light that play so effectively with the dino animatronics (also something I was just talking about), then for the crackerjack pacing that he and longtime editor Michael Kahn manage to wring out of the energetic action scenes and the more subdued plot scenes, and the enormously rousing thriller setpieces that are the result of both: the scene where grant and young Tim Murphy (Joseph Mazzello) scramble out of a tree as a jeep falls down after them is as good as any such scene in the whole of the 1990s, from its inventive use of the car's headlights to the rattled Williams score. And yes, it is maybe weird that my favorite sequence from the dinosaur thriller lacks any dinosaurs, but that's just how good a filmmaker Spielberg could be.
Only a truly confident or remarkably self-unaware filmmaker (and Spielberg has been both) could skirt self-parody as nearly as Jurassic Park frequently does; I think primarily of the first time we see the film's revolutionary CGI dinos, in a sequence that could not be more clichéd in its Spielbergisms: the jaunty Williams score cuts to a halt, cuing us to pay attention; there are shots of people looking in stunned amazement to promise us to start holding our breath in preparation; there is a cut to big visual effects framed from a low angle, and Williams comes back with the second and more perfect of the movie's two primary themes (the more awestruck horn one, not the bright, trumpet-driven "fala, we're going on a journey" one). It's every bit the way you'd set up a sequence if you wanted to poke fun at Spielberg's tendency to gawk at eye candy, but it works: it is every bit as mesmerising as the director thinks it is, because his ability to manipulate and impress the viewer was at this point at its height.
It being fairly overtly the case that Spielberg wanted to get away from this kind of filmmaking precisely because it was more shallow and insubstantial than he wanted his career to be about - an impression confirmed by his palpable contempt about making this film's sequel - it's a cheap shot to therefore note that, despite the elegance and effectiveness of Jurassic Park's thriller sequences, there are story problems by the bucketload and hardly any characters worth the name; they're not what the film is for. On the other hand, they're not necessarily what a killer shark movie or a swashbuckling matinee adventure are for, and Jaws and Raiders of the Lost Ark both benefit immeasurably from the tender loving care obvious in every frame. Condensed and largely revised by David Koepp and Michael Crichton from Crichton's novel, Jurassic Park is at least a triumph in that it tones down the more obnoxious elements of the book, primarily its smugly hip insistence on chaos theory as a tool to beat up on science (I've always been kind of amazed that, for a writer whose work tends to rely on the coolness factor of science-fiction, Crichton's books that I've read are uniformly disgusted by technology), but it still suffers from a whole lot of exposition that's fascinating the first time you see the movie and distinctly draggy every time thereafter.
It doesn't help that a lot of the exposition is dedicated to narrative dead ends: between the frog DNA, Ian Malcolm's (Jeff Goldblum) lengthy diatribes about the uncontrollability of life, and Grant's discovery that the dinosaurs have been able to switch sex and therefore breed, you'd think that the fact of wild-born dinosaurs might have anything to do with the plot, but you'd be mistaken. There's no other single plot point that takes quite as much energy to establish without paying off in any way, but there are plenty of little go-nowhere details: the sick triceratops (the book explains what's going on, but the movie does not, and ends up with several lines hanging out in space as a result), the fact that Hammond's grandchildren are visiting his island to stay out of the way during their parents' divorce (a fact which does not remotely inform either of the child actors' performance, nor the way their characters are written).
It's a graceless screenplay, basically, with a lot of lectures and padding that really just gets in the way, though some of it is interesting in and of itself (it's fascinating to think that in 20 years, the dinosaurs-became-birds theory has gone from an "ooh, how weird!" novelty, as it's presented here, to such an accepted part of modern taxonomy that, in effect, birds are dinosaurs, which therefore never went extinct). No less sloppy for being fascinating, but the filmmakers (Spielberg and Williams in particular) keep the movie bounding forward enough that it's not something you'd necessarily notice.
The much bigger problem is the almost uniformly dreadful dramatis personae: Grant at least gets a character arc, even if it's a bit overfamiliar and conservative, and Hammond is treated with such dignity by a director who maybe over-identifies with him, that he comes off well even if his flea circus story is frankly silly. Malcolm is a tedious, self-righteous boor reedeemed solely by Goldblum's cheery, sardonic performance and sterling line readings, and that's enough to make him the easy third-best. Otherwise, we have not-yet-famous people in tiny nothing roles (it's disorienting to see Samuel L. Jackson play, effectively, "guy who reboots the computer"), and Laura Dern giving maybe the worst performance of her career, all gawping and staring and chomping down on technobabble (though her comfortable flirting with Neill is pretty great). Far, far worse are the Murphy siblings: Lex (Ariana Richards) and Tim, two attempts to humanise the material for a younger viewer and to provide a catalyst for the grown-ups that fail miserably. Spielberg's career is littered with extremely well-managed child performances: from Close Encounters of the Third Kind to Empire of the Sun to A.I. Artificial Intelligence. I have absolutely no clue what went wrong here, and the only thing keeping me from declaring it the worst direction of child actors in his career is the foreknowledge of this film's own sequel; but they are terribly grating little people, in the shrill, chatty performance, and in the pointless, pandering writing. They add nothing but artificially heightened stakes, and not one moment in the film is improved by their presence; several, like the brachiosaur in the treetops or the computer hacking climax (remember when hacking was a thing movies? Ah, the '90s), are actively lessened. I suppose the excellent T-Rex attack on the jeep would be impossible to incorporate without those characters, or functional analogues, but it might have been worth the effort to figure out a way to make it happen, and spared dozens of nasty little moments throughout.
Lex and Tim don't "ruin" Jurassic Park, any more than the go-nowhere subplots and archaeology lessons do; they make parts of it much less fun to watch, but like I said, Jurassic Park is the best version of itself, and it is a very lovely thing to have around. There's no denying its effectiveness as a thriller, and as a wish-fulfillment spectacle; only its psychological depth and thematic resonance, and you'd have to be pretty much an asshole to demand those things of a dinosaur adventure movie. It's just... well, the Jaws thing. We know that Spielberg can have his cake and eat it to; Jurassic Park might have the most beautiful, tasty frosting, but it's still mostly empty calories, and simply not as rich an experience as the very best giant monster movies in history. But the dinosaurs themselves are everything they need to be, even if science has caught up with the movie and then some (and the velociraptors - magnificently designed, malevolent beasties, with serpentine faces - were scientifically idiotic even in 1993; it has never been clear to me why the filmmakers didn't just go with Deinonychus, which would have perfectly filled the role needed without taxonomical illiteracy), and certainly no film before or since has given us a vision of living dinosaurs captured with such high-spirited, engaging cinema. It's a movie that effortlessly taps into the secret dreams of ever little kid ever, and cannot help but be delighting.
Reviews in this series
Jurassic Park (Spielberg, 1993)
The Lost World: Jurassic Park (Spielberg, 1997)
Jurassic Park III (Johnston, 2001)