I was among those kids who had a profound fascination with dinosaurs.
When you think about it, what’s cooler than the prospect of ACTUAL monsters having roamed the earth?! I had plenty of those little plastic toys that, when played with, were known for gobbling up just about anything I threw at them. Whether they were an herbivore or not, they often facilitated the untimely demise of some random unfortunate action figure, however, quite a few of them met the business end of Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber!
These plastic molded creatures were often left outside in the yard, subjected to the elements, and ready to be played with the next day or perhaps days thereafter. Considering my natural affinity towards ferocious extinct lifeforms, it’s no surprise that I was drawn to movies featuring these fearsome beasts. Nightmare fuel or not, I was often delighted by shows like Land of the Lost and offbeat movies like Caveman (starring Ringo Star!) or the classic King Kong featuring the marvelous stop-motion animation of special effects maven Ray Harryhausen!
The year is 1993 and on June 11th Jurassic Park is unleashed on the world. The cinematic adaptation of Michael Crichton’s thrilling novel, a cautionary tale about genetic engineering of dinosaurs was helmed by beloved director Steven Spielberg. He was known for his ability to create blockbusters that were embraced by audiences and critics alike, including films like Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and ET. What an accomplishment that this cinematic genius was simultaneously working on Schindler’s List AND Jurassic Park!
Spielberg monitored his ILM crew’s progress from Poland during the filming of Schindler’s List, staffing teleconferences four times a week with them to consult on the effects work. He described working in this fashion on two vastly different productions as “a bipolar experience”, in which he used “every ounce of intuition on Schindler’s List and every ounce of craft in Jurassic Park“. According to the iconic visionary, he was “…just trying to make a good sequel to Jaws, on land.” Well, he undoubtedly pulled that off! I firmly believe that the first Jurassic Park film, which has since become a quidrilogy (soon to be pentalogy), delivered in ways that the sequels have yet to emulate.
FUN FACT: Despite the title of the film referencing the Jurassic period, Brachiosaurus and Dilophosaurus are the only dinosaurs in the film that actually lived during that time; the other species did not exist until the Cretaceous period. Imagine that for a moment – “Welcome to Cretaceous Park!” Eh, just doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.
Part of the staying power of Spielberg’s original masterpiece may have had something to do with the freshness of the concept. The idea of a park stocked with genetically engineered dinos put there simply for the amusement of island visitors, only to have it predictably ripped apart by mathematical probability (as warned via Jeff Goldblum’s mathematician Dr Ian Malcolm and his Chaos Theory) had never been done. The sequels have struggled to add to this concept in ways that honestly don’t feel quite as compelling. Whether you take the dinos outside of the park, introduce a new species, make a new park, or re-introduce original characters, it’s really just slightly different permutations of the same fundamental concept:
Beasts are contained. Beasts are not contained. People get chased, stomped, and/or eaten. Heros save the day and/or escape with their lives. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.
FUN FACT: The animatronic Dilophosaurus model, nicknamed “Spitter” by Stan Winston’s team, was brought to life by puppeteers sitting on a trench in the set floor, and using a paintball-type mechanism to spit the mixture of methacyl and K-Y Jelly that served as venom. Talk about intimate!
Originality aside, there are other factors at play here that determined Jurassic Park’s much deserved staying power. Another critical element was the truly inspired score crafted by John Williams. In much the same way that Williams’s score dynamically set the stage for Star Wars, his orchestral arrangements in Jurassic Park strongly complement the film. The main theme is stirring and hopeful and still gives me goosebumps to this day. It assuredly evokes the sense of awe and wonder that I imagine would be inherent when experiencing magnificent creatures of a bygone era for the first time. In fact, Mr. Williams reportedly had this sentiment in mind when crafting the orchestral arrangements.
Of course, the score is also appropriately thrilling when it needs to be, like when velociraptors are in hot pursuit or when a T-Rex starts lunging in your general direction.
FUN FACT: A dog attacking a rope toy was used for the sounds of the T. Rex eviscerating a dino and sequoias crashing into the ground were used to create the thunderous sound of dinosaur footsteps.
Another aspect that makes Jurassic Park work so well is the ingenious special effects work. Computer Generated Imagery or CGI tends to be used quite liberally in modern blockbuster films, often with mixed results. This digital wizardry can sometimes veer too close to the “Uncanny Valley,” that theorized area between what’s real and what’s synthetic that may lead to uncomfortable feelings because the artificial creation doesn’t look quite right or move naturally enough.
In the original Jurassic Park there are certainly various CGI scenes that still look great to this day, perhaps due to the fact that they were painstakingly created with input from real paleontologists. The effects team also wisely opted to use real robotic limbs and torsos (animatronics) to add a more tangible feel.
This is particularly notable when we see the foot of the T-Rex leave an imprint in the mud or when the head of the T-Rex nudges the side of the vehicle and later smashes through the top.
I distinctly recall that I had been holding my breath in utter amazement during most of these scenes when I first watched the film in theaters back in ‘93. Generally speaking, copious amounts of CGI don’t quite leave me gasping for air in the same way.
FUN FACT: The idea for the rippling cup of water on the dashboard and the vibrating mirror caused by the thunderous approach of the T-rex was inspired by Spielberg listening to Earth, Wind & Fire with the bass turned up at full volume in his car. To create the effect for the film, on set a special effects guru (Michael Lantieri) plucked a guitar string underneath the cups to create the iconic ripple effect and used a vibrating motor above the windshield to make the mirror shake.
Another element that makes Jurassic Park such an effective film is that it has heart. Don’t get me wrong, it’s quite thrilling to take in all of the dazzling eye candy and well-choreographed action scenes, but at the core of all of this is a story about family and the need for mutual support in the face of various horrors, challenges, and traumas. Paleontologist Dr. Alan Grant and Paleobotanist Dr. Ellie Sattler are not a father and mother, yet in the end they might as well be.
Like any concerned parents, they work together to ensure the safety of the kids, Lex and Tim, who get swept up in the chaos by their well-meaning and good-natured, but dangerously stubborn optimist of a grandfather John Hammond (played charmingly by Sir Richard Attenborough). This dynamic of two adults working together to protect children and basically keep them alive is most assuredly a relatable concept to any parent. It’s heartening to see Dr. Grant soften his initially negative position on kids as he gets to know them better and when, like any good father, he ultimately feels a sense of affection and responsibility towards them.
FUN FACT: The internet was in an “uproar” when a humorist posted a picture of Steven Spielberg posing with a dead triceratops. Though much of it may have been a form of trolling/faux outrage, the possibility that there were authentic concerns that were shared is just mind-boggling.
The original Jurassic Park may be a bonafide masterpiece that’s unmatched by any subsequent entry in the series, but that doesn’t mean that I’m immune to the seductive pull of sequelitis. Recently I shared my enthusiasm for the Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom trailer with a friend of mine. He just shrugged it off and said that he’d already been burned before by the last Jurassic World.
I agreed that the movie had not delivered as promised, but I remain hopeful that this new entry in the series will come through. Maybe I’m a bit like fictional Jurassic Park owner John Hammond in that regard – somewhat naïve in the face of overwhelmingly concerning developments (do we really need ANOTHER genetically engineered super threat?!?). Well, I suppose I’ll find out soon enough whether we have another classic in the making or a fairly derivative facsimile. Then again Jeff Goldblum’s in it and he’s a national treasure! Even if it’s terrible I’ll always have the original park to re-visit. Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom opens June 22nd here in the States. See you at the movies!