I actually saw this movie when it came out, way back in 1993. I was 8, and Mum took me and my big sister to see it, as my Dad had already seen it and said it was okay for us, but my younger sisters were too small. This was a big error in judgement from my Dad and I spent most of the film utterly terrified, watching through my fingers and even ending up sitting on my Mum’s lap.
I saw it again when it came on TV a couple of years later and being older (and less of a wimp) I really enjoyed it on second viewing. In fact, it quickly became one of my favourite movies.
Billionaire John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) plans to open a theme park on a small tropical island where people can come and see real-live dinosaurs, brought back by cloning the beasts from recovered DNA. However, his backers are getting nervous and the park needs endorsements from prominent scientists. Hammond convinces paleontologists Alan Grant and Ellie Sattler (Sam Neill and Laura Dern) to come along to see the island, along with chaos theorist mathematician Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum), who has been chosen by the board as another endorser.
They arrive at the park where they’re all amazed by the creatures and marvel at the scientific achievements, although, concerns about safety and the effect of bringing back extinct species are voiced, Malcolm in particular is critical. They are given a tour of the park with Hammond’s grandchildren, teenage hacker Lex (Ariana Richards) and young dinosaur enthusiast and fan of Grant’s, Tim (Joseph Mazzello).
However, as a tropical storm nears the island and as the result of computer tampering by industrial spy Dennis Nedry (Wayne Knight), the park’s power fails and the dinosaurs get loose. Grant and the kids are forced to go on the run through the park, while Hammond’s team attempt to restore the park’s power.
The film is fantastic, Steven Spielberg is at the top of his game and its one of his best movies. I can’t think of any director as skilled as Spielberg in getting the mix between spectacle and character so bang on. While the dinosaurs are the main draw, and the special effects (a mix of animatronics and CGI) still hold up, I think what makes the movie such a big hit and a success for me are the characters and the issues addressed throughout. One can imagine that under a more visually focused director like Michael Bay or James Cameron the film would have been much more of a pure thrill ride and effects heavy spectacle movie.
In fact, the big reveal of the dinosaurs, where Grant and co. see the brachiosaurus for the first time. Visually stunning it may be, but the real impact of the scene is the emotional resonance from Grant’s awestruck response as he sees creatures that have fascinated him since childhood. The audience’s own wonder is heightened by the character’s reaction.
But here, the whole thing is anchored by great, likable characters and a light comedic touch, similar to Spielberg’s other great popcorn movies, Jaws and Raiders of the Lost Ark. I know he’s gone on to make more grown up, powerful fare, but I personally think that Spielberg’s real gift was in making fantastically involving, near-perfect family blockbusters.
The film’s hero is unarguably Sam Neill’s Alan Grant, a gruff, kid-phobic scientist who begins to develop a relationship with the two children who fall under his protection. Despite his aversion to kids, Grant’s a proper hero, and when they’re under threat he risks his own life to rescue them. For the rest of the film he feels responsible for them, and as his affection for them grows he risks his own well being time and time again to shepherd them to safety.
Grant’s shown to be intelligent and resourceful, and reminds me slightly of Spielberg’s other great academic hero, Indiana Jones. Grant may not have Indy’s reckless thrillseeking side, or old fashioned, two-fisted heroism but they have the same kind of gruff, world weary attitude and boyish glee in discovery.
The film is helped greatly by the fact that Grant’s young charges, Lex and Tim, are really good characters and avoid the trap of being utterly infuriating that many screen kids fall in to. They bicker in a believable manner and are both shown to be quite ingenious, while remaining, above all, two terrified children in a nightmarish scenario. Tim jabbers away enthusiastically to Grant on their first meeting, reeling off dinosaur trivia and theories he’s picked up from various books and Lex seems infatuated with Grant, who’s irritation is partly understandable.
Their relationship with Grant and each other is rather sweet, and despite their bickering they watch out for each other in a way that I’d like to think most of us would for our siblings. I’m particularly fond of Lex, the vegetarian hacker, who’s skills on the computer come in handy but despite this remains an utterly believable teen character, by turns terrified and awe-struck by the dinosaurs. Also, there’s the heartbreaking fear of abandonment she has following the way the scumbag lawyer, Gennaro (Martin Ferrero) bails, and a reference to their parents divorce means that they may be another version of Spielberg’s running theme of absentee/distant fathers (The Last Crusade, War of the Worlds, E.T.).
The rest of the cast of characters are all on good form, there’s Attenborough’s delusional Hammond, so captivated and entranced by the possibilities and money that he’s blinded to the dangers, yet given a soft, gentle side shown in his care for his grandparents.
Laura Dern is wonderful as Grant’s partner, Ellie, she’s an attractive, strong woman who shows great resilience and holds her own in the verbal sparring stakes.
In fact the cast are so good, that Samuel L Jackson almost gets lost in the background, its one of his less showy roles as he plays the park’s cynical, sarcastic chief engineer.
There are two characters who really made an impression on me as a kid, there’s the badass game warden Muldoon (Bob Peck), a tough, grizzled game hunter who serves a kind of Trautman role in bigging up the film’s big villains, the raptors.
But the film is almost stolen by Jeff Goldblum’s super cool Malcolm, a cocky, swaggering mathematician. Hammond dismisses him saying “I bring the scientists, you bring a rock star” and its an apt description, with Malcolm being a world away from Grant’s serious manner.
Yet, for all his posturing its Malcolm who’s first to realize the inherent dangers in the park and the possibilities for disaster, and his speech over lunch is one of the film’s best scenes as he attempts to explain what Hammond has done wrong and its one of the best scenes to address the dangers of unregulated, reckless science.
To go back though, to the raptors. Before the film came out everyone wanted to see the T-Rex come to life, and the most famous dinosaur doesn’t disappoint, but its overshadowed by the utterly terrifying velociraptors.
The introduction of these pack hunters is a real triumph from Spielberg, from the tense opening scene where we get brief glimpses of the beast and suggestions of the creature’s ruthless, calculating side. Its a while before we see them in all their glory, but they get a hell of a build up- Grant terrifies a young boy with a badass explanation of how they’d hunt, and his reaction to finding out they’ve been cloned is one of utter fear, suggesting that these are not to be trifled with. Its an effect heightened by Muldoon’s simple statement “They should all be destroyed”, and Peck makes his character so badass and tough seeming that his concerns over the raptors increases the feeling of dread.
And when they get out they don’t disappoint, frighteningly quick and cunning as hunters they became the film’s major bad guys. They’re one of the major things that people remember and I guarantee that they’ve haunted several kids’ dreams since.
Jurassic Park is a film that completely works, its a high bar for blockbusters, marrying visual spectacle and thrills with strong characters and emotional resonance in a perfect blend. Its a movie that includes more great, classic scenes than some entire franchises manage.
Big issues are addressed along the way, but at its heart its a wonderful family adventure flick, and Spielberg, the king of quality blockbusters, succeeds in making a truly majestic, timeless film.
Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.