Friday, June 9, 2017

Jurassic Park (1993)

Originally posted June 9th, 2015

Hold onto your butts...

You can't talk about the history of visual effects without talking about Jurassic Park.  You can't talk about dinosaur movies without talking about Jurassic Park.  You can't talk about Stephen Spielberg without talking about Jurassic Park.  As it stands, it's one of the most influential movies in all of blockbuster cinema, right up there with Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings.  While certainly not the first movie to use computer generated imagery, it was the first to use it extensively to create living creatures, and what better way to introduce CGI creatures to the world than with dinosaurs?  But I don't want this review to focus solely on the visuals, so I'll gush now and get it out of the way: Jurassic Park features extremely well-animated CGI, that when integrated with Stan Winston's remarkable animatronic dinosaurs, looks as mind-blowingly good today as it did in 1993.

What do they got in there, King Kong?

Based on the book by Michael Crichton (with a screenplay by David Koepp), Jurassic Park follows Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill) and Dr. Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern) as they are led to a mysterious island theme park by John Hammond (Richard Attenborough), a billionaire who has made a remarkable breakthrough.  The couple are paleontologists, and Hammond needs endorsements to make sure the park is safe after an incident involving the death of one of its workers.  When they arrive on the island, they are stunned to discover that the park is populated by living, breathing, cloned dinosaurs.  Along with Dr. Ian Malcom (Jeff Goldblum), a chaos theorist, and a slimy can't-wait-till-he-gets-eaten lawyer (Martin Ferrero), the group discusses the ethics involved in the park's creation and how it could change the world, for better or worse.  At the same time, Hammond's grandchildren, Lex (Ariana Richards) and Tim (Joseph Mazzello), visit the park to get a sneak peak at the attractions while the park's computer engineer Dennis Nedry (Wayne Knight) puts plans in motion to steal dinosaur embryos for a rival company.  While the group is on the dino-safari, Nedry deactivates the security systems and inadvertently cuts the power, leaving everyone on the island susceptible to all manor of T-Rexes, stampeding Gallimimus, and deadliest of all, Velociraptors.

The point is, you're still alive when they start to eat you...

Spielberg's direction of tension-building and action set pieces has never been better, teasing out the reveal of the dinosaurs themselves and slowly introducing us to the world before all hell breaks loose.  Seeing the more dangerous dinosaurs safely behind electric fences might would have spoiled their reveal;  it's much scarier to see them for the first time with nothing holding them back after hearing about them so much.  Let's not forget that none of this would mean anything if the actors didn't sell it well, and they do so with flying colors.   The whole cast's naturalistic line deliveries, wide-eyed wonderment at the sight of the dinos, and genuine terror in the face of their certain death lend the movie tons of credibility.  I've seen the screenplay criticized for its lack of character development, but I'm sorry, I just don't see it.  Hammond goes through a fantastic character arc; he's a naive old man with well-intentioned delusions of grandeur at the start, but comes to understand that the world isn't his toy box.  Grant starts out as jaded and against the idea of having a family, but rediscovers his child-like sense of wonder after spending time with Tim, Lex, and some of the friendlier dinosaurs.  And it's a joy to watch Goldblum's performance as Malcolm, a man who looks like he was pulled from the beat generation and serves as an ironic commentator to the story.

You said you've got a T-Rex?

I'm not reinventing the wheel by saying that John Williams is the greatest film composer of all time, but that's my honest opinion.  If you don't have Williams' music playing in your head after you watch Jurassic Park, I hope you communicate through sign language.  The orchestral score is so memorable and grandiose that you get lost in the movie.  I can't describe it, but it just sounds like dinosaurs; it's pretty much become their theme song no matter what media they appear in.  I think it might rank as one of his top five best scores of all time.  And the sound design?  Unbelievable.  Throughout my childhood, I had only seen Jurassic Park on a tiny TV that didn't have a very high volume.  When I heard the visceral sound mix on a five-channel surround system for the first time, I couldn't stop smiling.  The ambiance, the giant footsteps, and... my god... the roars!  Creatively mixing sounds from elephants, whales, dogs, and probably half a dozen other animals, the sound mixers created an iconic T-rex roar as well as countless other hugely influential sound effects.

We're gonna make a fortune off this place.

So we've pretty much established that Jurassic Park is a technical masterpiece, but a few plot holes hold it back from being a flawless movie altogether.  For starters, there's a plot development late in the film that reveals that the dinosaurs have been breeding, despite the fact that they were bred to be female.  Grant and the kids discover this as they are wandering throughout the park, which means that none of the scientists knew this was going on.  He concludes that since some frogs can spontaneously change their sex if they are in a same-sex environment, and since frog DNA was used to help clone the dinosaurs, they must be adapting as well.  It's unrealistic that none of the scientists noticed this was going on, and even more ridiculous that they couldn't have predicted it could happen.  The themes also get a bit buried by the action in the third act the film becomes exclusively a survival story, but that's more of a nitpick than a major problem.

That's chaos theory.

Scientists going too far and creating something they can't control is a tried-and-true formula of the science-fiction genre.  That aspect of Jurassic Park isn't its most groundbreaking, but it has a hell of a lot of fun exploiting it.  Its themes are fascinating when they are juxtaposed to Jurassic Park's real-world impact on the film industry; in the film, the characters react in awe to the new dinosaurs, but then discuss the potential negative side effects.  Once the movie hit theaters, the CG effects wowed audiences, then the industry quickly overused it and does so to this day.  That, of course, doesn't hurt the film itself; the great acting, stellar music, and most importantly, the sense of fun, are the things that keeps bringing people back for more.  The action is full of tension, outclassing its imitators and enduring as one of the best suspense movies of all time.  There's something for everyone in Jurassic Park.  Kids can enjoy the dinosaurs and adults can think about the themes and appreciate the action.    Spielberg is truly a master director, and beyond its fancy looks, there really is something special about Jurassic Park.  I don't think we'd be getting a third sequel this week, twenty-two years later, if there wasn't.