Based on the best-selling novel by Michael Crichton, Jurassic Park developed into a critical and commercial smash when released in the summer of 1993, and for good reason. A groundbreaking blockbuster, it’s a masterpiece of suspense and action, overseen by filmmaking wunderkind Steven Spielberg. Written for the screen by David Koepp and Crichton himself, Jurassic Park remains every bit as potent and enjoyable as it was back in the ’90s; an enormously accomplished action-adventure supported by astute direction, glorious photography, pitch-perfect performances, and an overwhelming sense of cinematic escapism.
On a fictional island 100 miles off the coast of Costa Rica, billionaire entrepreneur John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) has created the ultimate theme park, a zoo populated with real dinosaurs genetically engineered by a team of scientists. But Hammond’s investors grow anxious about the park after an employee is killed, compelling him to bring in a team of experts to test the experience and deem it safe for the public. Enter palaeontologist Alan Grant (Sam Neill), palaeobotanist Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern) and mathematician Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum), as well as lawyer Donald (Martin Ferrero) and Hammond’s grandchildren Lex (Ariana Richards) and Tim (Joseph Mazzello). The group take off on a self-guided tour of the park, astonished by the prospect of coming face-to-face with animals that have been extinct for millions of years. However, when a hurricane strikes and one of the computer technicians messes with the system, the park is shut down, leaving the guests in the middle of a dinosaur playground with no protection.
Similar to Spielberg’s Jaws, the focus of Jurassic Park is not purely on dino carnage, but more on the narrative and characters. We don’t glimpse our first dinosaur until half an hour has elapsed, and it takes a good sixty minutes for the actual rampaging to begin. Combined, the dinosaurs only get around fifteen minutes of screen-time in this two-hour picture, as Spielberg predominantly observes the characters dealing with the omnipresent danger of the animals. Furthermore, the script explores the ethics behind the park; Dr. Malcolm quickly recognises the scientific hubris of resurrecting species which nature had selected for extinction. It’s this thought towards intelligent characters, subtext and science lessons which amplifies the value of the film. And yet, while there is plenty of chatter, Jurassic Park is a brisk, agile picture in the hands of Spielberg, who has a perfect grasp on narrative rhythm and cinematic thrills. What’s also surprising is just how comedic the material is, with sharp dialogue (Dr. Malcolm is a wise-cracker) and a smattering of gallows humour (Dr. Grant gives a young boy a lesson on how the Velociraptor can rip you apart).
Looking at Jurassic Park two decades later, it’s astonishing how little the movie has dated beyond the computer technology (ah, floppy disks) and a reference to a CD-ROM tour program. Although we’ve come a long way since 1993 in terms of digital effects, the dinos remain just as convincing now as they were two decades ago. One cannot overstate the realism of the creatures on display here. While blockbusters these days primarily rely on CGI, Jurassic Park melds practical animatronics and puppetry with computer animation, and the result is seamless. The dinos look truly alive, with realistic movement and textures, and they carry no trace of artificiality. Indeed, not many movies since have equalled or topped the sheer photorealism of the special effects – the sense of wonderment and discovery here is truly sensational. Furthermore, the visuals are helped in no small degree by the sound design, which gives these extinct creatures a lifelike voice. The dinosaurs look and sound like living, breathing creations, and the grand illusion still stands in 2013.
Although Jurassic Park is family-friendly entertainment with shrewd laughs and a heroic score by John Williams, it is surprisingly dark and violent at times. It carries its PG-13 rating for a reason; Spielberg generates an aura of genuine threat whenever the carnivorous dinosaurs are on-screen, and young kids may find the movie too terrifying. Indeed, Jurassic Park is extraordinarily intense, and it has lost none of its ferocity over the past twenty years. The first appearance of the T-Rex still induces goosebumps, and the animal’s roar is enough to strike terror into the hearts of anyone. Likewise, late set-pieces involving the Raptors are mercilessly intense and edge-of-your-seat. When it comes to white-knuckle intensity, Spielberg is the king. Furthermore, the film is carried by a selection of outstanding performances from an able cast, including Goldblum who earns big laughs as the proverbial wise-cracking cynic. Also worth mentioning is Attenborough, who humanises the role of John Hammond in an effective fashion.
To bring the picture back to theatres on its twentieth anniversary, Jurassic Park was converted to 3D. The 3D makeover is better than expected, exhibiting a fine sense of depth and dimensionality. At times the picture does actually look as if it was natively shot in the format. However, the photography is not as vibrant or sharp as a more recent movie, making some shots look a tad soft and hazy. Added to this, the photography involves a lot of rack focus, and backgrounds are frequently blurry. This type of stuff is fine in 2D, but it doesn’t entirely work in 3D. Nevertheless, it’s a valiant conversion effort rather than a lazy cash-grab, and it’s well worth checking out, if only to see the sensational extravaganza back on the big screen where it belongs.
Jurassic Park is one of the masterpieces that Steven Spielberg will forever be remembered for. It’s a borderline perfect adventure picture, a skilfully-assembled blockbuster which has lost none of its ability to amaze and shock. The special effects have not even slightly dated, and it’s easy to appreciate the picture’s sheer intensity, the nuances of Spielberg’s storytelling, and the thematic undercurrents which provides more brain fodder than the average action movie. It’s still one of the very best blockbusters in history.