Terror and wonder. There are no other emotions that so succinctly recall childhood, and they’re the two emotions that Steven Spielberg masterfully manipulates in Jurassic Park. Recently watching the film on a big screen for the first time in a decade, I was swept up with those childlike feelings again, and the movie reminded me what it was like to be a kid.
I don’t mean to say that it ‘appealed to my inner child’ or that I was less demanding or intelligent as a viewer (which is what people usually mean when they say something made them feel like a kid - it made them stupid), but rather that the film completely evoked in me the purity of terror and wonder in ways that made me remember when I used to experience them on the regular. And that’s a big part of Spielberg’s special genius, which single-handedly lifts a fairly flawed movie into the realm of the classics. He understands what it’s like to be a kid - not just a kid of the TV Age or the Information Age or from America - and he understands how to make you experience that purity without being condescending or stupid.
Jurassic Park isn’t the best Spielberg film but it’s probably the best testament to his almost superhuman talent. The novel by Michael Crichton is complete schlock, a dinosaur-laden retread of his own Westworld. The script - credited to Crichton and David Koepp - isn’t all that much better. In other, lesser, hands the script would be pap. But Spielberg is the perfect conduit for the material, being one of the few blockbuster directors who is able to juggle humanity, effects, beauty and exciting set pieces. In fact Spielberg is so good with Jurassic Park that the film’s many, many logical flaws, character shortcomings and story lapses melt away even as you’re watching it.
Spielberg never gets his due as a horror director, despite making Jaws, one of the all-time scariest movies. His skills in horror are on display in the opening moments of Jurassic Park, where a caged raptor - perfectly unseen - manages to attack one of its handlers. The sequence is bloodless, but it’s still brutal, with Spielberg focusing much of the horror on big game hunter Muldoon’s loosening grasp. As his man screams in agony Muldoon fights to hold him back, but the beast in the cage is too strong; the shots of intertwined fingers being pulled apart are scarier than any graphic bloodshed.
He weaves horror throughout - the initial T-Rex attack is some of the greatest tense, scary moviemaking of the 90s - but Jurassic Park is a bravura film, and horror is only one element. On the other side of the emotional spectrum, like I said up top, is the wonder. Good horror is hard to do, but compared to capturing wonder it’s beginner’s stuff. There’s a line - one that Spielberg himself sometimes crosses - between wonder and cheese, and in Jurassic Park the director is straddling it perfectly.
The best example of this is a scene that still makes me cry every time I watch it, when Grant and Ellie first see the brachiosaurs. The moment is expertly paced, starting with a patented ‘looking off screen in wonder’ shot, followed by their overwhelmingly emotional reactions and the reveal of the beast itself. You know exactly what you’re in for with a film called Jurassic Park and yet that reveal remains utterly breathtaking almost twenty years later. A huge part of the magic is John Williams’ cue, part of one of his least overbearing scores ever. But it’s really a perfect synthesis of cinematic elements - the performances of Sam Neill and Laura Dern, the gorgeous lighting of Dean Cundey, the perfectly timed cuts by longtime Spielberg collaborator Michael Kahn - that brings it home. And behind each of them is Spielberg.
The other element, of course, is the brachiasaur itself. Jurrasic Park is the last great special effects movie, the last film where the spectacle serviced the story while also being cutting edge. The FX in Jurassic Park hold up almost perfectly for a number of reasons. One is that there are plenty of practical dinosaurs in the film; as one of the major CGI trailblazers Jurassic Park showed a path that too many films have ignored, which is to have CG support practical effects. The result is something seamless, organic and yet fantastical. The marriage between the wizardry of ILM and the genius of Stan Winston resulted in something as yet untouched. Part of the magic comes from the limitations inherent with the then-current state of technology. There are no bullshit digital cameras performing impossible moves, and the dinosaurs move and act like animals because the animators couldn’t yet make them bounce around like gravity-defying Mario Bros. Many of the creatures on screen were there on set, at least partially. There are some completely CGI dinos - like the brachiosaurs - but even those FX feel current. I can’t decide if that says something terrible about the state of modern FX or something wonderful about the work done on Jurassic Park.
I don’t think ‘adventure’ is an emotion, but if it were it would rest in exactly the midpoint between terror and wonder. Spielberg and Kahn edit their set pieces expertly, endlessly ratcheting up the tension. Jurassic Park is a movie that moves, and its action scene particularly hurtle forward - although the film isn’t afraid to take its time. The first T-Rex attack is one of the classic cinema moments of my lifetime because of the way Spielberg builds it up, taking time to to escalate the fear from the first ripples of water all the way through to the scramble over the wall. Best of all, Williams’ score drops out for the attack; too many filmmakers rely on music to spackle the holes in their work, but Spielberg nails every frame of the scene, relying only on what you see and the astonishing sound design.
The intersection of terror and wonder in that scene is, for me, the moment when Lex shines the light into T-Rex’s eye; the way the beast’s pupil dilates is amazing and scary at once. This seems to be a real thing!, you think, in awe. And it’s right there, inches away!, you think, afraid for the kids. But every second of that scene is incredible and perfect; you could write an entire book about just that eight or so minute stretch of film. What’s most incredible, for me, is the way the scene works completely on its own terms despite making no real world sense. How did the trams end up back at the T-Rex paddock? How did the T-Rex eat the goat and climb up on the road when it is established after this scene that there’s a hundred foot drop on the other side of the wall? Sometimes movie making is magic, and sleight of hand is a magician’s best friend; Spielberg is such a master that even when you’re looking out for these geographical bloopers they barely register.
The biggest flaw in the film is that Spielberg is too attached to John Hammond. In the book Hammond dies, and watching the film again recently it’s clear that he must die. He has to pay for what he did… but Spielberg, who sympathizes with Hammond’s showman sensibilities and his wide-eyed wonder at the return of dinosaurs, just can’t bring himself to knock the old man off. As a result Hammond’s arc is stunted, never really going anywhere. Expressing remorse over a tub of melting ice cream isn’t enough.
Another character who makes it to the credits in the movie who didn’t finish the book is Malcolm, the choas theorist played with remarkable weirdness by Jeff Goldblum. But you can understand why killing Malcolm in the film is off limits; audiences would have stormed the projection booth if Goldblum had died. What’s special about him is that he’s almost playing in a different movie, and that’s completely on purpose. In a film populated with kids, squares and lizards, Goldblum is the lone breath of modern air. He’s needed to inject the cynical, sarcastic tone that’s been in our culture for a few decades - without him Jurassic Park is almost hopelessly retro, even with all the cutting edge dinos. But what’s great about Goldblum as Malcolm is that he’s allowed to be both right and wrong; yes, things do go badly, but it’s also incredible to touch a triceratops on the beak. There are a lot of Malcolms in movies these days, but they’re always there to undercut the seriousness and cheesiness, to let the audiences know the filmmakers aren’t taking any of this seriously. Which is why there are no other filmmakers who could do that brachiosaur reveal. Spielberg took that shit very, very seriously.
I’m going to write more another day about Jurassic Park II: The Lost World, but the fact that it centers on Malcolm is a huge indicator of why it completely fails. Sam Neill’s Grant isn’t the hippest hero on the block, and it’s warmth and humanity that makes him seem almost passe. It’s also interesting, by the way, that Grant is a hands-on scientist while the hipper, more modern Malcolm works totally in his own head. Technically Malcolm and Grant are about the same age, but Grant really represents a different America, a country where the workforce was in manufacturing. Malcolm is the coming dotcom bubble personified. Grant is a father figure… which is ironic since only Malcolm has children in the franchise.
Jurassic Park is a film that plays across gender lines, but it’s really a boy movie. Ellie makes a lot of noise about equal right, and Lex gets the traditionally masculine (and completely ridiculously staged) hacker role. But this is a film about loving dinosaurs, and while Ellie gets some dino face time it’s Grant and Tim who have all of those best moments. Even the nice dinos are that hot on Lex - she gets covered in brachiosaur snot while Tim and Grant lovingly feed the monster.
But really monster is the wrong word (as Grant himself points out), and that’s part of what makes Jurassic Park so special as well. Spielberg knows the menace in the dinosaurs, but never sees them as monsters. Other filmmakers might have approached the dinosaurs as a series of obstacles or enemies (see Peter Jackson’s King Kong for a pretty good example of a guy who sees dinos as the enemy), but not Spielberg. The cliche is that the dinosaurs are the real star of the film, but that’s true to an extent here; the whole point of making Jurassic Park was to bring these animals to life in a way they had never been on screen. It’s a love letter to the thunder lizards.
Jurassic Park came along at just the right crossroad in FX, and it also came along at just the right crossroad in paleontology. The film presents classical dinosaurs, for the most part, but takes into account modern theories about the relationship between dinosaurs and birds. We don’t end up with feathered dinos, but we do end up with a T-Rex who moves unlike any other screen T-Rex to date. Other tyrannosaurs were lumbering, Godzilla-like beasts. Jurassic Park’s T-Rex has the fluid motion of a bird of prey. It’s so much scarier, but it also feels more real this way.
The other dinosaur that Jurassic Park reinvented in the popular culture was the velociraptor. Growing up as a young dino nut the raptor wasn’t even on my radar; after Jurassic Park it’s one of the great cinematic predators. Again, the perfect marriage between ILM and Stan Winston created an indelible creature. I don’t think that hint of cunning could have been created without the physical animatronic creation; as in all art it’s the limitations of the puppet that brings about the most realism. The raptor is the only dino who comes close to being evil - so much so that when the T-Rex shows up at the very end she’s the hero of the film.
The raptors in the kitchen scene is probably the second most famous set piece in Jurassic Park, and it’s a great one because of that evil cunning. There’s something feline about the raptors, something about the cruelty with which they approach their prey. They don’t want to just kill Lex and Tim, we feel, they want to play with them first. This is one of the only times in the film when the dinosaurs don’t quite feel like animals, but like something more advanced than that.
But as much as the film launched the raptor into the imaginations of dino nuts everywhere, it ends up respecting the king of them all, the T-Rex. The final shot of the tyrannosaur in the lobby, with the ‘When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth’ banner fluttering past her face, is almost unbearably schlocky but also completely perfect. It’s the ultimate idealization of the dinosaur, triumphant and roaring, the terrible lizard that captured the minds of millions. Spielberg lets the raptor be the delicious villain, but the T-Rex reigns over all.
That isn’t quite the last shot of the movie, but it’s close. People may complain about AI not knowing when to end, but Jurassic Park sure does. Spielberg hurries everybody out and speeds along to the end credits; a satisfying but speedy ending is one of the rarest pleasures in blockbuster films.
Anybody could have made Jurassic Park, but nobody could have made it as well as Steven Spielberg. He has an understanding of the modern blockbuster that only the man who invented them could have; Spielberg knows how to bring you back to the fears and excitements of childhood without asking you to give up the adult intelligence and taste you’ve cultivated. When he’s doing his best work, and Jurassic Park is him doing some of his best work, he’s able to play you completely without making you resentful of his manipulation. I think that’s because it’s obvious that if he hadn’t made this movie he would have been first in line to see it.