Faith Can Move Mountains... But Dynamite Works Better

Monday, April 8, 2013

Jurassic Park: Or, How Newman Ruined Everything

"See, the movie is about this genius computer programmer. Guy by the name of Dennis. Works for this eccentric businessman who's opening up a theme park on an island. Not a Disney sort of theme park. Well, for one thing, this businessman isn't evil like Walt was. Just misguided. He doesn't really appreciate everything Dennis does for him, and he's a bit sanctimonious about it. For another, the theme park involves cloning dinosaurs. Hey, trust me, we'll make a fortune marketing this one to the kids, right? Kids love dinosaurs. Well, Dennis is our hero, but he's a guy with money problems. So he gets this idea about how to score a big payday, but it's going to take some huge risks. That's just the kind of guy Dennis is. Real stand-up fellow, sort of guy who won't let you down. So what do you think?" ~ early pitch to the studios by Steven Spielberg for Jurassic Park, 1991.

Dennis Nedry, the real hero of Jurassic Park

When I was a child, on occasion I'd go to the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. There they had (and still have) a collection of dinosaur fossils and reproductions on display. The sense of awe and wonder I got from seeing that stayed with me, because these days I can still walk into the Museum of Nature in my home town, check out the fossil gallery, and be humbled by the notion of reaching back through time and seeing these creatures that once walked the earth.

Twenty years ago, director Steven Spielberg, who had already long since established a record with action, epic spectacle films, changed the face of moviemaking with Jurassic Park. Based on the novel by Michael Crichton, the film tells the story of a planned theme park on a tropical island where instead of rides... the attractions are dinosaurs. Businessman John Hammond (Sir Richard Attenborough) and his team of scientists have found a way to clone dinosaurs, and he believes the concept will draw visitors from around the world. His investors are nervous, and so he brings in professionals to help him get the project finally approved. Two of them work in the field of paleontology, Doctors Alan Grant and Ellie Sattler (Sam Neill and Laura Dern). Another is a mathematician, a chaos theorist with a flirtatious streak and a tendency to talk a lot, Doctor Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum).

The group arrive on the island, in the company of an overly anxious attorney (Martin Ferrero, soon to meet an untimely demise) and are quickly whisked off into the interior. There the visitors see what Hammond has done for the first time, and we as an audience see it too for the first time: brachiosaur dinosaurs eating. The sheer awe of both Alan and Ellie is something we share: unlike the traditional stop motion tactic of Ray Harryhausen, most of these dinosaurs through the film (with largely the exception of an animatronic or two) are CGI creations, and yet they look so real. We're convinced the actors and the dinosaurs are sharing the same space, though our brains know that's not possible.

CGI had been used in earlier films, like The Abyss and Terminator 2, both films by James Cameron, though in those cases, the effects leaned towards the alien and the robot, concepts that were very much sci-fi in their setting. This time CGI was being used to depict something that had walked the earth once, and the effect of that first moment where we see the dinosaurs is stunning and utterly majestic, even after years of seeing the film, as fresh as the first time.

Hammond explains the technique to Alan, Ellie, and Malcolm, each of them deeply disturbed by the ethical violations and consequences of the science; Malcolm reminds Hammond that nature selected dinosaurs for extinction. They are sent out with Hammond's two grandchildren, Lex and Tim (Arianna Richards and Joseph Mazzello) into the park for a proper tour. Of course this being a movie, things start going very, very wrong. It never seemed to occur to Hammond and his team of scientists that just because they could do something automatically meant they should do that. The film unfolds as disaster strikes, both in the form of nature breaking through the fences of the island and in the form of human sabotage, caused by one Dennis Nedry (Wayne Knight, before he'd go on to annoy Jerry Seinfeld; side note: annoying Jerry Seinfeld is a noble cause).

The visual effects of the film remain as potent today as they were in 1993. The actors definitely seem to share the same space as these ancient creatures. The danger feels much more true than if animatronics or stop motion had been the relied upon special effect. When things go wrong on the island, the production values continue to pay off; an encounter with an angry tyrannosaurus rex and two cars remains a chilling sequence in the film. The raptors, smaller and yet ruthless hunters, are rendered well, stalking in places through the story where they were never meant to walk, and unnerving the audience. The film has been re-released as a 3D film to studios; avoid that if possible; unfortunately all of the theatres in my area were showing it in 3D. It's just a gratuitious thing that isn't needed, and if you're like me, you hate 3D. Hopefully someday the studios get the message and stop releasing in that infernal technology.

Spielberg shoots the film with his usual good standards in cinematography. Out in open plains on the island or in a jungle, we have commanding views and a sense of where we are. Inside dimly lit corridors or rooms as the film moves towards its conclusion and raptors hunt, we're still given enough light to see details, to feel the looming menace. Spielberg tends to be known for spectacle, and that's certainly the case with this film, but there's more. The story itself works better than the novel (it's been a long time since I've read it), and at the heart of it is an underlying debate about ethics, about how terribly a seemingly good idea can go wrong. The story never drags, allowing us to feel a sense of awe one moment, a sense of terror seemingly the next, and leaves us breathlessly entertained. And Spielberg's longtime collaborator John Williams offers up one of his best scores, a mixture of majesty and sweeping epic music that perfectly fits the subject matter.

Regardless of just how well the production values, special effects, and story are, it's really the cast that is the bedrock of the film. It starts with the smaller character roles. Wayne Knight is a weasel as Dennis, and deserves what he gets. Bob Peck plays a game warden in the park who's wary of the animals, knows just how dangerous they can be, how clever they are. Samuel L. Jackson (before he really hit it big) is a systems operator, typically cynical and jaded in his role. The kids, who have since grown up, keep the annoying kid syndrome (yes, it's a term) to a minimum. Arianna Richards, who in recent years has become an artist, is the wiser sister, finding herself in a trauma. Joseph Mazzello, all grown up now and recently co-starring in the miniseries The Pacific, starts off overly chatty, though he seems to quiet down after a couple of near death experiences.

Richard Attenborough has a long record as an actor and director on both sides of the Atlantic, and he inhabits the role of Hammond well. His take on the businessman is that of a showman, a tycoon utterly confident of his own abilities, and who sees all too late the error he's made. Jeff Goldblum as Malcolm steals the entire movie with some of the best lines, a talent he really has as an actor. As insufferably flirtatious and snarky as he can be, we can't help but like the character. And Sam Neill and Laura Dern make such appealing leads. They're grounded and so believeable as a couple, both strongly principled and yet so human at the same time. They're not perfect... but that makes them such good characters. Both of them are characters of personal strength and fortitude, and easy to like.  

Go and have a look at Jurassic Park in the theatres again. You'll enjoy it. Just try to avoid 3D. It's for your own good. Maybe we can train a raptor to attack anyone in the industry who advocates for 3D....

Early studio still for Jurassic Park IV


  1. Oh gosh, I loved this movie, the CGI for its time was amazing and I enjoyed being so skillfully scared out of my skin! Great review of an action classic, and a nice trip down memory lane! (Your title made me think immediately of how Newman got what he deserved:)

  2. The first time I ever saw Wayne Knight in anything was Dead Again, and that role is such a contrast to what he's best known for, because the character was an inherently decent guy.

  3. Ugh! This movie scared me to death when it came out and still does!

    BTW, love the early movie still that looks like Barney!

  4. I just had to show Collin the Barney pic--we have a long running joke about Barney.

    I love Jurassic Park--if I remember correctly, there were no kids in the novel--but I haven't seen the re-release because I just cannot stand 3D.

    Great review, as always!

  5. Okay, like everyone else, I've seen the movie. It was an excellent film, but I really don't need to see it again. I think the 3-D thing is overrated and overpriced. Acting is what makes a movie! The special effects add to it, but without the actors it isn't a movie.

  6. This was one of the first films I saw in theatres when I was a kid and the huge dinosaur heads were terrifying. I do hate 3D, but I'm not gonna lie, the thought of those huge dinosaur heads in 3D kind of intrigues me...

  7. The last scene where they are flying away from the island and the "birds" are flying with them always gets to me.
    I am a fan of Jeff Goldblum, he was great in the movie. On TV today they had the second movie and Jeff has the best line when he says very deadpan "yeah first there is wonder then comes the running and the yelling", best line and delivery ever.

    Terrific review and no 3D even !

    cheers, parsnip

  8. I feel strange saying that this is a classic in our house. My younger brothers watched it over and over. And now my daughter does. And even though my brothers are now teenagers they were inspired to be dinosaur experts when they were watching this, just like my daughter today.

    PS. I hate 3-D movies also! I thought I was the only one.

  9. it took me a lot of years to watch that movie. I didn't think I would like it.... But when I finally did watch, I loved it.

  10. I remember looking into purchasing a surround sound system years ago. They used Jurassic Park to demo the systems. :D

    The sound was awesome as well.

  11. I'm not a big fan of 3D either Robert, I like to enjoy a bit of peace at the movies, not duck and dive things that look like they're coming right at me haha! Aimee (my daughter) went to see it at the weekend and looooooved it!

  12. Newman is sooo funny, and Jurassic Park is always cool but 3D gives me a headache! I love the Natural History museum in B.C. They have a few dinosaurs if I remember correctly but the star there is the mammoth.

  13. I didn't realize it was in the theaters again. 3-D? Really?

    I will have to think twice about that.

    It's been a long time since I've seen it. Maybe it is time to see it again. Thanks for the review.

  14. When I read your title I thought, "Oh great now Paul Newman's company has come out with a Jurassic Park Salad Dressing!" Love the movie and Jeff Goldblum's Malcom is my favorite character in the film. Great review and I also hate 3D.

  15. @LondonLulu: thank you!

    @Cheryl: I couldn't resist!

    @Norma: if memory serves, there were kids, but the age was different. It's been years.

    @Mari: I don't like 3D at all, though in this case, not much of a choice. At least the theatre I went to doesn't jack up the price because of it. Other theatres do.

    @Carla: they're big!

    @Parsnip: I'm actually a bit more fond of The Lost World, between the two films, and Goldblum taking the lead is one reason.

    @M.R.: there are many of us who dislike it!

    @Hilary: good!

    @Diane: this film would work just right for that!

    @Grace: some of those movies are worse than others for that effect of "throwing" things at the audience...

    @Eve: we've got a family of mammooths out on the lawn as a sculpture at our museum of nature.

    @Christine: you're welcome, and if you can... find a regular showing.

    @Deb: I can just see Paul Newman's ghost staring at the people running his salad company, and yelling, "you made what??"

  16. I love love love it. I'll never forget seeing it in the theatre for the first time. It literally had me trembling and I never tremble in movies. It felt so so real.
    I do like 3D in some cases but there really has to be a lot of visually stunning scenery like Avatar (and I know you hate that one.) But on the big screen in 3D it rocked.

    Anyway, Michael Chricton was a genius!

  17. I was a freshman in high school when this movie came out. I read the book before I saw it and I loved both.

  18. @PK: yes, he was. Even if he liked stopping his narrative to give a science lesson.

    @Kelly: they were both good ones!


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