Part-Time Review: Jurassic Park (1993)

Overall Grade: A+
*Jurassic Park is a prestigious member of my Film Bible
*For a rating/ranking of all major Jurrasic Park franchise action sequences click HERE

Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park is an absolute masterpiece of blockbuster filmmaking. The film deserves a spot alongside his 1975 masterpiece Jaws as one of the most re-watchable monster movie / action / horror mashups of all-time. There are so many scenes, characters, moments, visuals, music cues, and lines of dialogue ("Dino DNA!") that I can't help but anticipate and enjoy every time I watch the film. It wasn't always that way though, I didn't get all the Jurassic Park hype when I was just a ten year old at the film's release in 1993. I was still in my Ninja Turtles phase of life so I was more interested in Surf Ninjas and re-watching Three Ninjas ("Rocky loves Emily!") than this popular dinosaur movie. It wasn't until I went to see a showing of the original Jurassic Park at a cinema in college and had one of the best cinema experiences of all-time that I began to understand what all the fuss was about. 

Although it took me about a decade to come round (which is about the time it takes me to catch on to good music too), I now see why Jurassic Park became so popular and beloved; spawning a franchise of films, theme park lands/rides, toy lines, video games, and cartoons. The film is based on a Michael Crichton novel and adapted into a screenplay by Crichton and David Koepp (Spider-Man, Mission: Impossible). Under Spielberg's direction, his crew would turn the script into a masterpiece of cinematic storytelling despite at least two major obstacles against them. Frist, this is not a simple story to tell within a two hour run-time. The idea of an enterprising showman billionaire ("spared no expense) who needs scientists to sign off on his dinosaur theme park (with real dinosaurs he's created by harvesting their DNA from ancient mosquitoes) sees a run of failures leading to them fighting for their lives against a loosed T-Rex and velociraptors requires a little bit of exposition! Second, the visual effects revolution just wasn't good enough yet to produce photorealistic dinosaurs on command. Despite these obstacles, the film is so successful I could create an entire Joe Rogan length podcast or film commentary track just rattling off all of my favorite moments and lines "I'm gonna run you over on the way down..." In lieu of that let me share with you three major sequences from the film that I think represent why this is the pinnacle of cinematic storytelling for this kind of genre - that unique mixture of blockbuster action, science fiction, and monster horror that Jurassic Park is.

The first sequence I'd like to discuss is the arrival sequence to Isla Nubar and the Jurassic Park Visitor Center. This extended series of moments are a great example of just how efficient, streamlined, and visual Spielberg's storytelling is. The sequence begins with our already known group (Hammond, Grant, Sadler, and the "blood sucking" lawyer) is introduced for the first time to the eccentric mathematician Dr. Ian Malcolm played by Jeff Goldblum; who looks like he is having the time of his life with this character. The interactions of the group introduce Malcolm's quirky views on chaos theory, expose the strained love relationship between Ellie and Alan, and demonstrate Grant's quirk for messing up mechanical things (the seatbelt) as well as his practical know how to overcome it. On top of that, the sequence gives us those iconic arrival images of the island as the helicopter navigates between steep green covered mountains and eventually descends to a helipad situated in front of a beautiful waterfall as those iconic branded gas Jurassic Park jeeps await them. 

Oh, did I mention that John Williams' "Journey to the Island" is playing this entire time? The bombastic horns playing that sweeping and iconic melody almost never gets old to me with the one exception of hearing the music on continuous repeat at a Universal theme park. I think there's a very real argument o be made that William's score is a top ten all time film score, and I'd even argue it is possibly top five. The sequence that follows covers the jeep's drive to the visitor's center with a brief stop to reveal the dinosaurs in their glory. This is where we get, again another iconic and shot turned famous internet meme of Alan Grant slowly rising up in the jeep, removing his hat and glasses, as he takes in a brachiosaurus walking by. It has probably become the best example of "Spielberg wonder" he has produced. Grant and Ellie are already re-writing their science books out loud as Hammond looks on with sheer delight and says, "Welcome to Jurassic Park." I love how Hammond also casually drops the fact that they have a T-Rex and Alan Grant's knees completely give out. In just a few minutes time, we've met all of our major characters, gotten a sense of what makes them tick, and introduced the exotic and wondrous character of Jurassic Park as well. 

The next sequence I'd like to point out is a dinner sequence between the main characters that follows some ten or so minutes after their arrival at the parks visitor center (an iconic building that has beomce the center of an entire theme park land). The sequence takes place thirty-four minutes into a dinosaur action film that has yet to really show any dinosaur action and has only provided mere glimpses of dinosaurs at all. Most films would cram an unnecessary action beat or two in here to keep their audience attention, but Spielberg is so confident that his buildup has hooked his viewers that he allows time for a dialogue sequence that will really set the thematic hook for the film. The opening visual of the dinner is a fancy plate of food being placed onto a Jurassic Park branded base plate in front of Ellie Sadler. We see a wide shot of the dining room has projection screens showing future attraction renderings and revenue expectations. Hammond and the lawyer Gennaro discuss how they plan to market the park ("we'll have a coupon day or something") and essentially come off as gloating victors who believe they have conquered the world and are simply waiting for others to acknowledge it. Goldblum's Malcolm is the first to burst the bubble as he gives clear air to the hinted at theme of the film, "Gee, the lack of humility before nature that's being displayed here, uh... staggers me...If I may... Um, I'll tell you the problem with the scientific power that you're using here, it didn't require any discipline to attain it. You read what others had done and you took the next step. You didn't earn the knowledge for yourselves, so you don't take any responsibility for it. You stood on the shoulders of geniuses to accomplish something as fast as you could, and before you even knew what you had, you patented it, and packaged it, and slapped it on a plastic lunchbox, and now [bangs on the table] you're selling it, you wanna sell it. Well...Yeah, yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn't stop to think if they should."

John Hammond interjects and the two fight back and forth, but eventually Alan and Ellie side with Malcolm, "Well, the question is, how can you know anything about an extinct ecosystem? And therefore, how could you ever assume that you can control it?" Ellie has named the key theme of the film - man's hubris in believing we can control nature. Some might protest here that films should show not tell and that this scene is therefore unnecessary. While I think they are generally right for most films, I think that sequence is an exception. The second hour of the film is so filled with great action set pieces that this discussion (filled with quotable dialogue that reveals the thoughts of our main characters and sets up a companion scene near the end) becomes a perfect setup sequence for what's to come. After the tour has gone wrong and its clear the park will be a failure, there is a wonderful little companion sequence to this dinner scene between Ellie and Hammond. It begins with the camera lingering on all the Jurassic Park branded merchandise and shows Hammond eating ice cream alone in the main visitor center restaurant. While the monologue is not quite at the level of the shark story from Quint in Jaws, the flea circus story Hammond gives here is a wonderful humanizing moment for him, "This place...I wanted to show them something that wasn't an illusion. Something that was real...An aim not devoid of merit." Hammond mentions that next time he'll be able to control it better, but Ellie responds that he never had control, it was always an illusion. Look, it's a true universal theme for mankind, but as a Christian who loves the book of Ecclesiastes, it's even more fun to see it played out in such science fiction fun. 

Wanna know how good Jurassic Park is? It’s first major action sequence, the T-Rex paddock, doesn’t even happen until an hour into the film. That’s how enjoyable and excellent the buildup from Spielberg has been. The setup for this T-Rex sequence is masterful. Like the shark in Jaws, the appearance of the T-Rex in the film is carefully managed - only hearing about the T-Rex from previous conversations so far. When the jeeps come around to the T-Rex paddock during the daytime tour the anticipation is high. When T-Rex doesn’t show up they tempt him by bringing a literal sacrificial goat out – but a no show still happens. This prompts Ian Malcolm to taunt John Hammond, "…eventually you do plan to have dinosaurs on your dinosaur tour right?" After a couple plot beats later, a major storm shows on the horizon, and that rotund saboteur Dennis Nedry shuts off the major park systems to cover his tracks in the control room. Unfortunately for the passengers, the cars and electric fences shut off exactly when they are back in front of the T-Rex paddock, at night now, and with a storm beginning to bear down on them. The atmosphere here is perfect for something bad to happen, we just don’t know what it will be yet. As the vehicles sit in the storm, the sacrificial goat bleats away, Alan Grant fills his canteen from the rain, little Timmy plays with night vision goggles, and we start to get the iconic T-Rex stomp embodied in the cup of water rippling to the sounds. As the rain keeps going Tim looks in the night vision goggles and notices the goat is now gone quickly followed by its severed leg falling onto the sunroof of the kids jeep. The camera pans up to our first full look at the still impressive T-Rex animatronic finishing off the goat. The lawyer runs off to the restroom out of fear leaving the kids alone and T-Rex busts through the fence between the two jeeps giving us the iconic entrance and scream. Perfect. The next part of this sequence plays like a "hiding from the monster" horror sequence. The young girl panics and turns on a light as Tim closes the door drawing the Rex to their jeep. He checks it out and we get a beautiful visual moment where T-Rex moves his head down to the window and the lantern light causes his giant eye to dilate.

It’s all not too bad, we are safe inside the jeep right? NOPE. Spielberg kicks our butt when the T-Rex suddenly and powerfully bursts the sunroof down onto the kids, then flips the jeep over, crushing it into the mud and threatening their lives. Alan and Ian light flares to distract the Rex to save the kids and unfortunately, Ian is hurt and the lawyer, hiding in the bathroom, is violently eaten. Grant goes back to rescue the kids but Tim is stuck under the jeep in the mud. This next phase plays out more like an action sequence as T-Rex, Alan, and the two kids play a bit of cat and mouse staying away from Rex, the jeep, and not falling down the opposite side of the wall (which now has a gigantic drop on it for some reason. If it was that far down, the Rex never could have made it over the fence right? Anyways) as the jeep gets pushed over. Alan helps Lex down to the bottom of the wall and Tim is stuck in a jeep high up in a tree. Safe from Rex, but Allan has to make a dramatic rescue of Tim before the jeep crashes down to the ground. The last sting of this amazing sequence is Ellie Sadler arriving on the scene with Muldoon, the game warden, in a gas powered jeep to find an injured Malcolm and a T-Rex hot on their trail for which they must drive away fast “faster…must go faster”. The entire sequence hits hard, from setup to payoff, engaging the viewer with a thrilling mini-story within the sequence. This FEELS, on a gut level, exactly what it might be like to encounter a beast like that in an atmosphere like that. One of the reasons this is so successful is they nailed the sound design: the steps of a large monster approaching, the roar of the T-Rex, the rain on the sunroof, the chain of the sacrificial goat, the communication sounds of the raptors, the tap of their large talons on the ground. This sequence nails the tension, anticipation, reveal, horror, and “what would I do” moments so perfectly that I don’t think the franchise has ever been able to best this moment – though it has certainly tried and failed multiple times. It also finds ways to highlight the nature of our characters with Malcolm providing his quippy insights while Grant's practical goodness overcomes his dislike of children to become their protector. From here on out, the movie essentially turns into a thrill ride that doesn't let up until the very end.

These three sequences, along with so many other parts of the film, are so beloved, so perfectly tuned, and so often imitated that they have become cinematic archetypes. The arrival sequence and the sequence following it are an archetype for "arriving at something wondrous for the first time". The first major T-Rex sequence has become an archetype for the perfect way to setup and reveal your movie monsters. The water rippling in a cup visual is the kind of visual shorthand that Spielberg has so seemingly effortlessly filled this sequence with that we only really notice its genius after seeing imitators fail time and time to match it. Richard Attenborough's Hammond has become the archetype for the well-intentioned but his "reach exceeds his grasp" billionaire. This film is just so stinking good that nearly every character, although perhaps not an archetype, has become an icon in their own rights - Grant, Ellie, Ian Malcolm, Dennis Nedry and even DODGSON have become recognizable names.  

I still wonder why I didn't get excited for the franchise in 1993 like most people, but I did enjoy playing with some neighborhood kids who had toys from the film that worked perfectly in the mulch of the roundabout in our cul-de-sac. It wasn't until 1997's The Lost World that I experienced a Jurassic Park film in the theater and other than one or two moments in that one, it didn't impress me much. When Jurassic Park III came along, I thought the series was actively bad (repeated viewings would show there was some gems in all that garbage though). Thank goodness I joined my friend Chris Bailey to see that re-release of the original in theatres. Jurassic Park has become one of my personal favorite films to watch: whether its for the wonder and awe of a dinosaur theme park, the horror and thrill of being chased by a T-Rex or velociraptors, the memorable characters (I haven't even mentioned Samuel L. Jackson), the quotable lines ("When you gotta go, you gotta go"), the beautiful music, or the thoughtful insights about man's inability to control nature (whether it be the weather, the dinosaurs, or Nedry's desire for more money). No matter how bad the sequels are or how inaccurate we find out the science may have been, this film is so well made that it will never effect the truth of the viewing experience or the themes it covers. This will be a movie I re-watch many, many, more times throughout my life. 

Overall Grade: A+