With Jurassic World soon to show up in theatres, I thought I would review the first two films in the franchise here. This is the first, of course, and it's in fact a fresh review (looking at the tags, I've reviewed this movie before!)
“John, the kind of control you’re attempting simply is... it’s not possible. If there’s anything the history of evolution has taught us it’s that life will not be contained. Life breaks free. It expands to new horizons and crashes through barriers, painfully, maybe even dangerously, but, uh...well, there it is.” ~ Ian Malcolm
“God creates dinosaurs. God destroys dinosaurs. God creates man. Man destroys God. Man creates dinosaurs.” ~ Ian Malcolm
“Dinosaurs eat man, woman inherits the earth.” ~ Ellie Sattler
“All major theme parks have delays. When they opened Disneyland in 1956, nothing worked.” ~ John Hammond
“Yeah, but John, if the Pirates of the Caribbean break down, the pirates don’t eat the tourists.” ~ Ian Malcolm
“Well, the question is, how can you know anything about an extinct ecosystem? And therefore, how could you ever assume you can control it? You have plants in this building that are poisonous. You picked them because they look good. But they are aggressive living things that have no idea what century they’re living in, and they’ll defend themselves, violently if necessary.” ~ Ellie Sattler
“The world has just changed so radically, and we’re all running to catch up. I don’t want to jump to any conclusions, but look... dinosaurs and man, two species separated by 65 million years of evolution have just suddenly been thrown back into the mix together. How can we possibly have the slightest idea what to expect?” ~ Alan Grant
In 1993, director Steven Spielberg brought a big screen adaptation of Michael Crichton’s novel Jurassic Park to theatres, a film that got wide critical acclaim and huge box office appeal. The film brings visitors to a theme park island in the making, where cloned dinosaurs are the feature attraction, and of course things go badly wrong. With a wealth of special effects that looked convincingly real- the dinosaurs do in fact look like they’re occupying the same space as the human actors- the film was a landmark adventure tale that still managed to give us strongly written and acted characters, and a story that grounded itself firmly in questions of ethics and science.
The film opens with a grisly death of a worker, though what it is that kills him is barely glimpsed. The park’s owner must bring in experts to sign off on the facility, and so John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) seeks out a paleontologist, Alan Grant (Sam Neill), and a paleobotonist, Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern). They’re on a dig when we first meet them, and they’re a couple. Hammond persuades them to come to his island for a weekend, holding back what the island contains, but eager to have them see what he has in store. Hammond has to deal with a company attorney, Gennaro (Martin Ferrero), who’s brought in a chaos-theorist mathematician, Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) as an opposing voice.
The group reach the island, where they see what lives there- and we see as well for the first time. Dinosaurs, alive and thriving, 65 million years after their extinction, live on the island. Hammond reveals his method for their resurrection at the visitor’s centre, which troubles all three academics, each of them bringing up grave concerns about the ethics of cloning dinosaurs. Hammond’s grandchildren Lexie (Ariana Richards) and Tim (Joseph Mazzello) are also present, and the experts and the children end up going out on a tour of the park in full. It doesn’t take long before things start to go wrong.
Crichton and David Koepp adapted the screenplay, which differs significantly from the novel in places, particularly in terms of character personalities and fates, also cutting down on the exposition Crichton was notorious for. The method of explaining the process, for instance, is presented in an animated film, which flows much better than having a scientist lecture at length about genetic cloning. And while the story is very much an adventure with thrills and laughs... it’s also grounded in the question of scientific debate over ethics. Mary Shelley wrote about the ethics of creating life in the wrong way two centuries ago, and the questions she brought up apply today in real life and in science fiction. It’s an examination that looms over this film, and the experts brought in to sign off on the park are the ones raising those concerns most strongly. Malcolm points out that Hammond’s team didn’t do all the work- they co-opted the work of others, stood on the shoulders of others, and ended up going through with this venture more because they were consumed with whether or not they could do it that they never stopped to ask if they should. Asking that kind of hard question ends up making for a compelling story, and the film never backs away from it.
Spielberg has a gift as a director for spectacle (something that’s not that uncommon with the Hammond character, who at heart is something of a showman). His crew in this film worked wonders, and it’s the special effects from that side of things that really stand out. When he made Jaws, he was beset with technical problems with the mechanical shark used for the film, and shot a good part of the film with mere glimpses or from the shark’s point of view to compensate- and thus drove up the tension until at last we saw the shark. Some of the same elements come into play here. We don’t see the raptors at first- they’re mentioned in passing by Grant to scare an obnoxious child at his dig site, and we hear them in a pen when they’re fed, but not seen until it’s the right moment to show them. The same applies to the tyrannosaurus rex, which we don’t see when first expected, and then finally seen in a big way in a rainstorm. It’s one hell of an entrance.
Back in the day, Ray Harryhausen spent most of his time doing stop-motion creature effects in many films, particularly dealing with mythology. He was good at what he did, but when you look at those films, you don’t really believe the hero is in the same space as that gigantic thing. Computerized special effects had advanced in the late 80s to the point where that was about to change. Take a look at James Cameron’s film The Abyss, for instance, and the otherworldly alien beings in that film look completely unlike anything you’d find on Earth- and yet appear to occupy the same space with the actors. The same applied with Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day, which featured a terminator who could change appearance and whose shape could form liquids and solid weapons- the CGI was so good that the threshold had been crossed; there was no sense of disconnect between actor and special effect. The same qualities came across in Jurassic Park- the dinosaurs look so real, seem to occupy the same space as the actors, and behave and move like living organisms.
Spielberg’s touches as a director are clear throughout the film. He’s gifted in adventure films in particular, and that comes across here, both in how he shoots the film (location shooting was done in Hawaii) and how the story progresses. He’s given to the occasional use of humour- casting Goldblum gives a lot of that, while the fate of the lawyer, while grisly, is rather amusing (particularly if you, like most people, hate lawyers). Another director might well have dropped the kids out of the story, though Spielberg keeps them (and they’re not annoying kids, like you might get if, oh, Haley Joel Osment or Macauley Culkin had been cast) in the story, something we’ve seen in a number of his films. He’s also given to scaring the audience on frequent occasions, the right thing in a movie with out of control dinosaurs. His frequent collaborator John Williams came back to compose the score, a mix of excitement, awe, and terror through the music.
The cast were all well chosen. Martin Ferrero might be a nice guy in person, but here he plays the attorney Gennaro as something of a spineless weasel, a lawyer who gives lawyers a bad name. The character’s not likable at all, only seeing in shades of dollar signs and liabilities. Samuel L. Jackson wasn’t quite yet known at the time, but on the edge of stardom. He was cast as Ray Arnold, the chief engineer of the park, and he plays the role with cynicism and yet also a professional sensibility. Bob Peck plays the chief warden, Robert Muldoon, something of a precursor to Pete Postlethwaite’s character in the follow up film. Muldoon is a serious hunter with an instinct for the behaviour of the animals in the park, a no-nonsense tough character, and Peck certainly plays him that way. Wayne Knight, who’s known primarily for this role and as Newman on the Seinfeld series, plays computer expert Dennis Nedry as a pure weasel, a sarcastic opportunist out for himself. Nedry is an unpleasant person, and he gets what he deserves- he’s not unlike Knight’s other famous role. It’s a sharp contrast, for instance, to a character he played in Kenneth Branagh’s film noir Dead Again, in which he played a genuinely likable character.
The kids, as mentioned before, are not at all irritating. The script changed things between the two from the novel. Ariana Richards plays Lex as serious minded and interested in computers, the big sister who’s wise beyond her years. Joseph Mazzello gets to be the over talkative Tim, fascinated by dinosaurs (all kids generally are, but this boy seems to know everything about them. He’s curious to the point of obliviousness to risk. The two characters are good foils to Alan, who doesn’t particularly care for children (I can relate to that), and yet finds himself protecting them when things go terribly wrong in the park.
Richard Attenborough hadn’t acted in a film in years before this film came along, having had moved into directing instead. John Hammond is significantly different from the novel, in which he’s a callous businessman, and the film presents him as an amiable billionaire showman of sorts, big on dreams and oblivious to the ethical concerns about his project. He sees himself as a modern day Walt Disney, with ambitions for a theme park that’ll outdo anything before it. He’s so obsessed with the notion of the grand show that he doesn’t heed the warnings coming from others... but at least by film’s end, he’s learned a hard lesson. It’s a compelling character, this kindly old grandfather, and you can’t help but like him, even while shaking your head at his methods.
Jeff Goldblum gets some of the best lines of the film as Ian Malcolm. Hammond refers to him as a rock star instead of a scientist, and there’s something to that. The character’s cocky and has attitude. Ian is eccentric to say the least, a show off and a flirt. And yet beneath all that are solid principles and an ethical core. He voices his objections most strongly of the three experts brought in, and seems resolute in the face of danger. After a narrow escape from a rampaging tyrannosaurus rex, he asks if they might have that on the usual park tour. He delivers the line in a way that gets just the right reaction, something that occurs time and time again with his dialogue.
Laura Dern brings an innate curiousity to her role as Ellie. She’s a bright scientist with strong principles and a sense of humour, and even in the face of a situation going terribly wrong, she doesn’t panic. Ellie is a character who can take care of herself, and Dern plays to that. And her relationship with Alan seems grounded and real. These two love and respect each other (I have no idea why someone decided they should have broken up before the third film), and that shows itself in how they relate. They’re comfortable enough with each other to tease each other- Ellie saddling him with having the kids around when she knows he doesn’t care for kids is a good example.
Sam Neill gets the lead, and Alan’s a compelling character. He’s a bit gruff, doesn’t have much patience where kids are concerned, but also smart and is calm in the face of danger. Grant’s sense of ethics are strong too- like Ian and Ellie, he expresses grave concerns about the island and the notion of tampering with life itself. Put into life threatening peril, he comes into his own, showing how resourceful he is. And while he might have serious ethical concerns about the notion of cloning these animals, there’s also the enthusiastic side of him to actually be around these animals- his astonishment at seeing them for the first time and his reaction to being able to touch a triceratops convey that.
Jurassic Park set a new bar for adventure films when it came out. It’s a rousing adventure that still manages to bring forward questions of ethics when tampering with the building blocks of life. The film remains a pleasure to watch, giving the audience a hint of what it might be like to walk the same ground as a dinosaur.
Plus we get the distinct pleasure of seeing a dirtbag or two meet very bad ends.