If there’s one thing Steven Spielberg has proven over his multi-decade career in filmmaking, it’s his amazing ability to switch between action and drama. It’s hard to believe the same guy who made Schindler’s List and Bridge Of Spies also made Raiders Of The Lost Ark. While he has made excellent films in both genres, I have to say that Spielberg’s action output comes out on top for me as I’ve been watching those films since my early childhood.
Jurassic Park, one of Spielberg’s most famous action spectacles, is a perfect example of that kind of nostalgia. I’ve seen the film dozens of times on practically every media format imaginable. I still remember the first time I saw it; it was on a Laserdisc, a long-obsolete format that basically resembled an LP-sized optical disc, and required the viewer to flip the disc (like a record) halfway through the movie. So, whenever I watch it now, I expect the screen to suddenly turn blue with the word “PAUSE” in the upper-left corner after the infamous T-Rex attack sequence. I did of course eventually upgrade to VHS, then DVD, and finally the HD restoration released on Blu-Ray several years ago. I’ll probably buy a 4K version if it ever comes out.
So, enough about my history with the film. Let’s actually break the film down. The plot of Jurassic Park is pretty much common knowledge at this point. Based on Michael Crichton’s best selling novel of the same name, the film follows eccentric billionaire John Hammond (Richard Attenborough), who has created a theme park on a Costa-Rican island populated with cloned dinosaurs. Prior to the park’s opening, Hammond’s investors require a small team of experts to visit the park and determine that it is safe for tourists. The assembled team includes paleontologists Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill), his partner, Dr. Ellie Satler (Laura Dern), mathematician Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum), and lawyer Donald Gennaro (Martin Ferrero). Also along for the ride are computer programmers for the park, John Arnold (Samuel L. Jackson) and Dennis Nedry (Wayne Knight), game warden Robert Muldoon (Bob Peck), and finally, Hammond’s rather-annoying grandchildren, Tim (Joseph Mazello) and Lex (Ariana Richards). Even though the film has been out for almost 25 years now, I’ll avoid spoilers. Needless to say, however, things don’t go as planned.
The funny thing about revisiting Jurassic Park for the first time in several years is seeing how little depth there is in the main cast. This is, of course, an action and adventure film, so I wouldn’t expect Oscar-worthy performances, but most of the character arcs feel predictable and rather basic. Here’s an example; early on, we learn Dr. Grant doesn’t like children. So, he obviously gets stranded in the park with Hammond’s grandchildren and comes to enjoy their company by the end.
Jeff Goldblum is fine in his familiar quirky scientist role, which he’ll go on to perfect several years later in Independence Day. He certainly gets some memorable lines though (“life finds a way” and “must go faster” come to mind, but there are more). Though each character does get a standout moment or two, they are given little to do other than run away from dinosaurs in one set-piece after the next.
The real standout among the cast is Richard Attenborough as Hammond. It’s hard not to share his enthusiasm in the film’s early scenes as he leads the tour of the park. But, as things start to get out of control, his happy exterior fades and he eventually comes to the conclusion that his attempt to play god has failed.
In a key scene midway through the film, he tells Laura Dern’s character that he likens the park to a cheap flea circus he started in his home town, just on a larger scale. Despite numerous casualties and her disgust for his misuse of power, he simply won’t let go. Finally, as they board a helicopter to get off the island in the last scene, he powerfully declares that he too has decided “not to endorse the park”. It’s a great performance that really helps drive the film’s side-commentary on genetic engineering.
Wayne Knight is also quite good as the lazy computer programmer who brings the park crashing down. One of my favorite scenes in the film involves him attempting to escape the island and coming face-to-face with a small, but lethal dinosaur. The dino doesn’t appear to be much of a threat at face value, so he looks it in the eye and nonchalantly says “no wonder you’re extinct.” Needless to say it doesn’t take the comment well.
The film’s special effects still hold up quite nicely, as that first moment when a dinosaur appears is just as magical as it was the first time I saw it. Though, personally I’d credit the majesty of that scene to John Williams’ brilliant score, which is easily one of the best parts of this film. I can only imagine how amazing that scene was for audiences back in 1993. The thrills are still there too. The T-Rex sequence is pretty tense, but it’s the later confrontations with the all-too-smart Velociraptors that’ll stick with you after the credits roll.
Jurassic Park is essentially an interactive rollercoaster ride disguised as a film. The early scenes resemble going up the track, with the tension building, and about halfway through is the drop. Maybe a better metaphor for it is “the calm before the storm”, as a tropical storm hitting the island is a major plot device in the film.
Overall this is a tough one for me to rate. I loved it as a child and I still like going along for the ride every once in a while, but looking deeper today I find it’s a bit lacking in substance and character development. Or, maybe it’s just that I’ve seen it too many times.