"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