Retrospective: Jurassic Park

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With the release of the highly anticipated Jurassic World on the horizon, now is an ideal time to return to the original film to celebrate its lasting value as a great work of cinema. I should say in full disclosure that Jurassic Park is one of the cornerstone films of my childhood and remains one of my very favorites to this day. The film has been a major influence in each of my three interests as a child when deciding what I wanted to be when I grew up. I initially wanted to be a paleontologist, then pursued acting, and finally settled on filmmaking. Jurassic Park is an integral inspiration for all of those interests. Therefore, there is some bias inherent in my assessment, but that adoration is not merely the product of childhood nostalgia. Indeed, the film has only grown in stature for me, not only in its intelligence as a piece of storytelling, but also as a visually dynamic work of cinema.

The core conceit of Jurassic Park was the perhaps going to be the hardest sell with incorporating science. Bringing dinosaurs back from extinction certainly sounds like an outlandish venture in reality, but Jurassic Park does a superb job of making it appear plausible. Yes, in truth, extracting dinosaur DNA from a mosquito encased in amber is not a viable method, but the cartoon employed early on in the film with Mr. DNA is powerfully persuasive. It even continues further with the idea by explaining that frog DNA fills gene sequence gaps missing in the dinosaur DNA. This serves as both a narrative failsafe as well as a setup for the revelation of dinosaurs breeding in the film’s later stages. All of this could have been heavy, tedious exposition to explain, but by placing it within the park’s own tour as a visual aid, it’s a delight without ever being confusing.

Jurassic Park boasts one of Steven Spielberg’s best casts. It may not be the most star studded, but every key character is believably and ideally cast. Sam Neill and Laura Dern come off as legitimate experts of paleontology, Richard Attenborough as Hammond brings trademark Spielbergian warmth and pathos, and even kids Ariana Richards and Joseph Mazzelo fit into the wonder of film. Even the smaller roles are highly memorable from the likes of Wayne Knight, Bob Peck and Samuel L. Jackson. Best of all is Jeff Goldblum, in a career defining role as the mildly eccentric Ian Malcolm, who is seemingly improvising every line. He’s not simply there for laughs, of course. Malcolm’s cynical critiques are a moral thorn driving into the side of the film’s majestic imagery. David Koepp’s script is leagues ahead of most adventure films: witty without being self conscious, thematically on point, but rarely heavy handed. The lunch prior to the tour is quietly one of the film’s best scenes, where the characters are written as professionals having a mature, informed discussion, a genuine rarity in today’s increasingly infantile and cliched blockbuster environment.

Naturally, all of the human characters in Jurassic Park are simply there to support the dinosaurs, and Spielberg certainly gives them an abundance of space to shine. More than twenty years on, the animals here remain the most realistic depictions in all of film. CGI was just on the cusp of breaking into lifelike barriers in 1993, and the key to Jurassic Park is how sparingly it is used. The vast majority of the shots of dinosaurs here are achieved by Stan Winston’s practical effects, perhaps none more convincing than the ailing triceratops. When we do see CGI work, such as in the gallimimus stampede, it’s still a marvel that nothing in two decades has quite topped it. Much of this is due to the lighting in the physical locations, where the animators had to match those conditions to reflect onto the dinosaurs. Today, so many CGI creatures are also inhabiting CGI environments, so when it comes time to place actual humans in those locales, there tends to be a visual disconnect no matter how vibrant the image.

Jurassic Park came at a time where Steven Spielberg was at the peak of his directorial powers. He already had several classics with his name attached by 1993, but this film in particular sees him take his talents to their maximum potential. Adventure films like Jurassic Park are heavily dependent on both surprise and suspense, and Spielberg milks the most out of every last moment. In more relaxed scenes, he tends to be less editorially active, covering the action in camera with a just a few shots, such as Genarro meeting the miner after the intense prologue. As the tension builds in a given scene, Spielberg becomes more creative with his shot choices. For instance, there’s a remarkable moment when Grant, Lex and Tim are climbing the fence before the power is activated. Just as they’ve reached the top and swing their legs over to cross to the opposite side, Spielberg chooses a low angle shot that dips underneath the fence and spins 180 degrees. It’s an astonishing and brief moment, but never draws attention to itself, simply communicating the characters’ race against time. Dozens of these little flourishes are sprinkled throughout Jurassic Park, and they all add up in certifying Spielberg as a master visual storyteller.

Of course, the man didn’t make the film all by himself. Collaborators like cinematographer Dean Cundey and longtime editor Michael Kahn are invaluable assets in visualizing and shaping Jurassic Park. The artists who brought the dinosaurs to visual life have already been mentioned, but equally deserving of praise are the individuals who created the film’s aural landscape. From the thunderous footfalls of a T-Rex and her awe inspiring roar, to the terror laced screams of velociraptors and all the other prehistoric animals, the sound design of Jurassic Park is iconic, full stop. The same goes for John Williams score, evoking wonder and terror in equal measure, and even occasionally simultaneously, especially in the triumphant climactic return of the T-Rex, saving our heroes in peril. The instantly hummable themes take their place alongside Williams’ best work with Spielberg, such as Jaws and E.T.

All told, Jurassic Park deserves to be recognized as a classic of not just science fiction and adventure, but all of cinema, whose thematic maturity goes hand in hand with wonder and thrills. If you absolutely must know my opinion of the two subsequent sequels, The Lost World: Jurassic Park is a somewhat unnecessary excursion that still manages to be thoroughly entertaining, and Jurassic Park III is completely unnecessary and mostly mediocre, a demotion to B-movie territory. Whatever their flaws, the sequels simply cannot detract from the legacy of the original, an indispensable staple in my understanding of the world of cinema.

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~ by romancinema on June 11, 2015.

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