65 Million Years in the making…JURASSIC PARK (1993)

I’ve mentioned in a few other posts that Citizen Screenings, a blog I created a while back to share thoughts on recent or post-classic-era films will be transitioning.  My friend Rob Medaska will be taking over the reigns there sharing his thoughts on film and television.  Leading up to the day when Rob takes over that site I’ve been moving a few entries to this blog.  Although Once Upon a Screen will remain a place dedicated to classics, which are the films that are nearest and dearest, I will occasionally post an entry on a more recent film that I deem a classic for one reason or another.  Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, which is now twenty-two years old if you can believe it, is one of those.  With the upcoming release of Jurassic World (on June 12), the (what is it?) fourth entry in the series – I thought it’d be a good time to share my thoughts on the original film published as part of The Steven Spielberg Blogathon, which I co-hosted with Outspoken & Freckled and It Rains…You Get Wet.

65 Million Years in the making…JURASSIC PARK

“I’ve wanted to make a dinosaur picture all of my life and have always been a huge fan of Ray Harryhausen, but I could never find a realistic way to do dinosaurs – until Michael Crichton figured out a genius way to combine science and imagination.”  – Steven Spielberg

I read ‘Jurassic Park’ the novel by Michael Crichton as soon as it was published in 1990.   The story, as we all know by now, is an enjoyable cautionary tale about the dangers of pushing the science and imagination combination to its limit, a “what if” about creatures that never cease to fuel our imaginations.  If Crichton hit the nail on the head as pertains that combination then having Steven Spielberg helm such a story for the big screen is Kismet.  Science and imagination are Mr. Spielberg’s strong suits.  And mine are spoilers – so beware!!

Recognizing the potential of the dinosaur story Crichton had written, almost all of the major studios wanted a stab at it with Universal winning out in the end intent on Spielberg to direct.  He’d been Crichton’s first choice in any case.  And Steven Spielberg was so excited about working on this dinosaur movie that he began to storyboard the film almost immediately, before he had a screenplay.  In fact, pre-production on JURASSIC PARK began in 1989 and Michael Crichton’s novel was published in 1990.  Spielberg worked off a1 manuscript for the only time in his career until the screenplay co-written by Crichton and David Koepp was completed.

No doubt due to Michael Crichton’s involvement in the screenplay, JURASSIC PARK stays as true to the novel as possible given the time limitations inherent in film.  The major differences between the versions of the story are in characterization and these do suffer in the translation to the story for the screen.  For instance, the character of John Hammond the millionaire developer played by Richard Attenborough (in his first acting role in 15 years) is quite trite and of little substance, but that’s the price that’s paid and it turns out to be worth it to watch the dinosaurs given their proper due.  The fundamental story between book and film, however, is the same.

Homage to the film's inspiration, KING KONG
Homage to the film’s inspiration, KING KONG

With exteriors shot on the island of Kauai and interiors at the Universal lot, the JURASSIC PARK adventure takes place on the fictitious island of Isla Nublar off the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica.  The story goes that Hammond has created a theme park called, Jurassic Park that features as its main attractions dinosaurs of all sizes and types, including the big and ferocious types that like to hunt and eat flesh for survival.  In any case, before Hammond’s park can open he needs the approval of experts to satisfy his investors so he gathers a few key people to spend a weekend on Isla Nublar.

“Welcome to Jurassic Park”

These include paleontologist, Alan Grant (Sam Neill), Paleobotanist, Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern), mathematician/chaostician, Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum), the investor’s lawyer, Donald Gennaro (Martin Ferrero) and Hammond’s grandchildren, Lex (Ariana Richards) and Tim (Joseph Mazzello) who represent the park’s target audience.  (Check out the complete cast and crew list here).

John Hammond’s planned exhibition of the various attractions in Jurassic Park begins without a hitch.  In fact, his promised, exciting adventure is in danger of being labeled outright boring during the first couple of hours of the tour when none of the creatures make an appearance as the tour cars follow the route.  But then

Um...OK, this tour is no longer boring
Um…OK, this tour is no longer boring

a sinister plot for money by park programmer, Dennis Nedry (Wayne Knight) sets all hell lose – and terrific, exciting entertainment ensues.

Dennis Nedry, who is incidentally one of the more annoying, slimy characters ever (played superbly by Knight) plots to steal some of the dinosaur embryos and sell them to a rival company who wants the genetic engineering secrets used at Jurassic Park.  Well, because of Nedry’s plans – and I won’t get into all the details – the electricity within the theme park is turned off.  Without electricity to keep the 10,000 volt fences powered the dinosaurs escape, which means several of the characters in the movie meet less than serene endings, although the worst of the violence is left to our imaginations.  Luckily, Nedry himself meets a death-by-dinosaur.  And a pretty gratifying one at that.  Or at least I enjoy it since I dislike this character so much and he’s killed by one of the more interesting dinosaurs on the island – the venom-spitting, frilled-neck Dilophosaurus.  Nedry meets his end off camera, but it is in a nasty, satisfying way he leaves Isla Nublar to steal no more.  And the entire sequence is pretty suspenseful with the small, initially benign-looking creature making a severe transformation before our eyes.

A fairly angry Dilophosaurus
JURASSIC PARK opened on June 11, 1993 and broke box office records its first weekend, with $47 million in receipts.  I remember the hoopla well just as I remember being blown away by the fun of it all.  JURASSIC would become the highest grossing film that year and subsequently the most successful film in history, a record it held until James Cameron’s TITANIC drowned out the competition in 1997 (I couldn’t help that).
Terrific scene - Velociraptors and Tim in an industrial kitchen
Terrific scene – velociraptor and Tim in an industrial kitchen
So, needless to say I am, as is the case with millions of others, a big fan of Steven Spielberg’s work and I’m not sure I could possibly choose one film of his to mention as an absolute favorite.  However, the two films I have watched repeatedly and never tire of are JAWS (1975) and JURASSIC PARK.  By now JAWS is legendary and rightfully so, but to me JURASSIC also encompasses many of the familiar Spielberg elements that make it too a film for the ages.  Aside from the thrills the movie also has a lot of heart and wonder, the last manifested through the character of Alan Grant and his awe in meeting the creatures he’s spent his entire life fascinated by, a fascination most of us share.
When a childhood dream comes true
When a childhood dream comes true
Knowing our appreciation for creatures that have become in some way mythological in our collective imaginations, Spielberg insisted (and got) all the top special effects people in the business to work on JURASSIC PARK – Stan Winston, Dennis Muren, Phil Tippett and Michael Lantieri.  And the results are wonderful.
When Dinosaurs ruled the Earth
I am not a fan of CGI, or rather the overuse of it as seems to be the practice these days.  But when JURASSIC PARK was made CGI was in its infancy and I wish, as a filmgoer whose tendency is toward classic cinema, that the technology hadn’t progressed as it has in some ways because as used in this film – a combination of Winston’s animatronics and computer animation – created as real a world as I ever need or want, a world created/directed by a man inspired by KING KONG (1933).  And that’s all I need to know.  Except there’s more.
T-Rex and his creator, Stan Winston
T-Rex and his creator, Stan Winston
JURASSIC PARK is a groundbreaking film on many fronts, the realism with which the dinosaurs are depicted being just one thing.  Another milestone is in the sound department, which is absolutely outstanding.  Noted in all the notes and commentaries associated with the DVD and bluray discs is the fact that this was the first film to use DTS digital surround sound.  I have to admit I don’t know exactly what that means, but can – as a fan – certainly recognize it’s something special.  JURASSIC PARK has been and remains my favorite film to watch in surround.  And loud!  It’s thrilling, even after watching the film so many times, to hear the carefully crafted vocalizations of the dinosaurs, and to actually feel the guttural base sound as the water ripples in the glass and puddle as the T-Rex approaches.  It’s not surprising that JURASSIC PARK won the Best Sound Academy Award, along with Best Sound Effects and Visual Effects.  The movie impresses on both fronts – still.  The only thing more astounding than what was achieved on JURASSIC PARK, given its subject matter and the fact that it could have easily been a cheesefest, is the man who achieved it…
…for while Mr. Spielberg worked on the ambitious JURASSIC PARK he also worked on another little film titled SCHINDLER’S LIST, releasing both within months of each other in 1993.  If you’re not impressed let me put it in perspective – that would be the highest grosser to date that was 65 million years in the making and the Best Film of the year.  Kudos, sir.
Spielberg and Sam Neill on Jurassic Park
Spielberg and Sam Neill on Jurassic Park

For those of you who are not familiar with The Lost World the silent, 1925 movie that (impressively) holds a candle to this Spielberg movie I must recommend you take a look at it stat.  I recently posted a write-up on that groundbreaking film and its story of survival.  Take a look at it here.

4 thoughts

  1. Great write up! This is one of the first films I remember seeing in the theater. I like your comparisons of book and film…I think this is one that deserves my attention to read!

  2. I’m ready, ready, ready to rock n’ roll with the “dinos” again. 79 yrs of movie watching and still a kid at heart because of the cinema. Thanks for the injection of adrenalin.

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