For Steven Spielberg, 1993 was his real coming out. Before-hand, he was one of the most important filmmakers in American cinema, one of the few bright spots of the turgid ’80s. But after 1993, he was a god among filmmakers, and a clear genius of intent, if not necessarily execution, for striving to cover all bases in the world of populist directing. He took advantage of the year to stake out a personal trend for himself, releasing one would-be pop cultural touchstone and, perhaps prefacing any concerns that he was too focused on special effects and teenagers and not making “serious” films, a hearty, honest-to-god crippling drama to go with. In fact, he’s taken up this path time and time again (monstrous success also breeds complacency and getting stuck in a rut of one’s own release strategy and production style). Most recently, 2011 brought us the schmaltzy Oscar-bait of War Horse and the animated The Adventures of TinTin. 2005 saw the criminally underrated expressionist nightmare of a disaster movie War of the Worlds and the politically ambiguous morality tale Munich, and in 1997 came stuffy historical drama Amistad and a serious case of sequelitis in Jurassic Park 2: The Lost World. Still, expectations beget expectations, and gifts give way to curses; what he accomplished in 1993, at least in terms of pure commercial and critical success, he never equaled again.
But, as of the end of 1993, Spielberg had absolutely torn down the roof. His Schindler’s List has in recent years seen plenty of deserved push-back, but at the time, it was championed as one of the all-time screen dramas (which honestly says as much about the lack of imagination among the viewing public as it does about Schindler’s List’s honest strengths, of which there are many). But I’m not here to thrust myself into that debate, for that takes us in an entirely new direction. I am here to unearth one of the grandest of all movie blockbusters, a movie which saw the vestiges of the 1980’s blockbuster craze crammed headfirst into the arrival of the 1990s and a new age of even-more corporatized filmmaking, and technological achievements at every turn. But that too is a discussion for another time. It says merely that Jurassic Park is an important film. It does not follow that it is a good one, which is the subject of this piece.
Which brings us to the question: is it any good? The answer: “hmmm, yeah, mostly, kind of, but just so. That one sequence is pretty amazing. So is that other one”. Admittedly, it lacks the pinpoint craftsmanship, unflagging weightlessness, and subversive metatextual edge of something like Raiders of the Lost Ark, to name what will probably always be the man’s best purely unadorned entertainment. But, nonetheless, it’s well-constructed, well-paced, tense and suspenseful, has a nice humanist undercurrent, and good god does the CG look good for something twenty years old. At the end of the day, that’s all you can really ask for, isn’t it?
Well no, but more on that later. In the meanwhile, first things first: Dinosaurs! Which means there must be a justification for Dinosaurs! It goes something like “they look cool and technology and Michael Crichton wrote something I guess”. But that doesn’t much get us anywhere for the uninitiated, nor would Spielberg want me to be so pithy about his film. The story is pretty inconsequential to be honest, but for the sake of formality, it basically goes something like: rich old man builds dinosaur park, dinosaur eats worker, worker’s family sues, rich old man has to get safety approval from dinosaur experts … and chaos theoretician (whose presence makes little sense but allows Jeff Goldblum to be Jeff Goldblum so who cares), corruption allows dinosaurs to break free and do what nature intended them to do, and it’s all the fault of that ever-curious and destructive beast called mankind. I can see an ethics-based court-room drama in all of this on the dangers of capitalism … but the pro-business crowd would probably blame those silly worker’s rights clauses anyway. I mean, a worker messing around with dinosaurs should know better, and it’s only a matter of time before they get unionized too! After all … if they are so concerned about worker safety then they should have built their own dinosaur-based theme park where they care about pesky things like human rights. Ladies and gentlemen, the joys of capitalism.
But I digress. The movie’s biggest success is found at the edge-of-your-seat. While mostly trumpeted for its CG (thankfully the most dated aspect is the 90’s Jeans Laura Dern dons throughout), the film’s most important feature is that the CG is complement to and not a replacement for sharp directing and fierce editing. In the movie’s standout sequence, the introduction of the T-Rex, Spielberg builds suspense almost to the breaking point through highlighting the sound of its footsteps and the shaking of a cup of water on the dashboard of a jeep for several minutes before we first see the beast. When it does show in the flesh, Spielberg focuses on its weight and physicality rather than its awe, which is absolutely the right decision in terms of pure, direct impact. And while the more explicit and frequent presence of the dinosaurs on screen robs the film of some of the existential immediacy and grimy creepiness of something like Jaws, the film wisely keeps the focus on the characters’ point of view rather than continuously self- indulging in shots of the dinosaurs in all their primal glory. Later on a fantastic shot follows a raptor from slightly behind as it charges what we think is a person, and Spielberg’s use of noise, and especially shadow, hits hard on the near-horror front here too. It’s no masterpiece, but when Jurassic Park is on, it’s way on.
If anything keeps the movie from truly ascending to the upper-echelons of stone-cold suspense-driven thrill-ride classics, it’s that the characters aren’t worth getting invested in, and that they leave the whole affair a little flabby. They’re a few dimensions shy of living, breathing human beings, and this inherently limits the movie’s verisimilitude and the sense of danger to match its shock. The acting is suitable, although none of these roles really require stretching out. The absolute nadir are the two children, the granddaughter and grandson of the theme park mastermind (who incidentally is a bit flat on paper, despite being bequeathed with a lovely avuncular wistfulness from Richard Attenborough). While the movie works well in the moment, it’s hard to develop any lasting connection to any of the characters or feel a sense of empathy for them when they’re, you know, being chased by a T-Rex or something a little more realistic like … climbing down the side of a tree with a jeep chasing them only to fall onto the ground and into the jeep when it lands on top of them. To quote the dearly departed Roger Ebert, “I hate it when that happens”.
The other big problem, and this is a “big” problem, is how much time the film spends in the early going letting us know that “you know, this is realistic and based in reality and did I mention this could really happen”. There’s a whole lot, I mean a whole lot, of pseudo-science that all amounts to a whole bunch of pat-on-the-back self-legitimacy. Yet, elsewhere the film’s tone is clearly and wholeheartedly that of fluff, and the two absolutely do not mix. The early portions seldom have the courage, science-wise at least, to confidently and proudly simply go on about their business and just plain-ol-not-waste-thirty-minutes on proving itself to us. The film does not for a second work as a prescient cautionary tale about the dangers of science, with the soupy and retro “gee whiz” tone aiming for high adventure completely undoing its elsewhere serious bid for “mattering”. The painstaking time it spends on science is by definition a waste.
But this gee whiz tone comes around to essentially save the day almost single-handedly. The biggest save-face Spielberg accumulates is the sheer adventuresome spirit of the whole affair and the fact that the latter portions of the film never seem to be taking themselves too seriously. Some bits even approximate droll self-parody. Most notable is a late-film scene that gawks at the T-Rex, having saved the day and chosen to celebrate by roaring as if posing for the camera. Meanwhile, a bright “Dinosaurs!” banner falls down in front of it just-so for us to clearly read and gasp at the irony. Openly making the T-Rex a model has fun with the idea of the film’s dinosaur-porn sheer base pleasures, and it sees Spielberg in an uncharacteristically zippy self-critical mood. And while the phrase all sound and fury signifying nothing may apply, when you’re watching Jeff Goldblum stare down a T-Rex as it runs at him and he watches helplessly in the back of a jeep, the audience knowing full well that he’s probably trying as hard as humanly possible not to destroy the Rex from the inside out and implode the world with it as he engages in a mental chess match with the monster, I can almost believe the Chaos Theory his Dr. Malcolm spouts off throughout the film. I also almost touch the void for a few fleeting seconds. Maybe that’s just me, but Jurassic Park is still generally far enough on the endearingly high-camp side of silly, without ever losing its horrific base level when it matters most, to be worth seeing.