I am mad at how well-made this movie is. Everything Spielberg directed before was only a warm-up. Jurassic Park plays like a capstone thesis on how to direct a monster movie; Spielberg exquisitely blends the humor of Indiana Jones, the pacing, action, and horror of Jaws, and the childlike wonder of E.T..
Director: Steven Spielberg
Screenplay: Michael Crichton, David Koepp
Runtime: 127 minutes
US Theatrical Release: June 11, 1993; Universal Pictures
Michael Crichton’s novel, Jurassic Park, was published in 1990. An immediate success, it has been described as a preeminent “techno-thriller”; beyond the dinosaurs, science (albeit science fiction) is the key subject of the story. Crichton’s ability to explain heady biogenetics in layman’s terms while also delivering a riveting horror adventure is why this reviewer has read it more than once. Steven Spielberg was also taken with the book; he soon secured the film rights.
There are many strengths to Jurassic Park, notably direction, editing, and score. Underpinning these elements, however, is a rock-solid screenplay by Michael Crichton and David Koepp. Not only does the dialogue crackle with wit and wax poetic, but the classic two-act structure sublimely absorbs you into the story; you’re hooked and whisked away to a far-off adventure before you realize two hours have skipped by.
Enhancing the script is the focus on character. Unlike the sequels, Crichton and Koepp keep this cast minimal; each character is given ample screen time, allowing the audience to understand their fears, hopes, and motivations. Consequently, despite following a group of ostensibly larger-than-life-characters, every one of them is rendered relatable and worthy of our time. Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) loves kids but has commitment issues; Dr. Grant (Sam Neill) has no problem being with Dr. Sattler (Laura Dern) but hates kids. John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) is a dreamer corrupted by ambition; Hammond’s head computer programmer, Nedry (Wayne Knight), pursues his corporate espionage because he is underpaid and underappreciated.
Of course, a script truly shines when entrusted to an equally insightful cast and director. Spielberg’s measured eye is on full display with Jurassic Park. The action is thrilling but only achieves maximum impact by resting on a carefully laid foundation of suspense.
No scene better depicts this relationship between action and suspense than the introduction of the T-Rex; more specifically when Malcom is alone in the back of the jeep after having survived the initial attack. As he rests, awaiting the return of Dr. Sattler and Muldoon (Bob Peck), he notices the rain puddles reverberating. This visual is paired with the ominous footfalls of the approaching predator; no other sound is heard as the heavy thuds grow closer, mirroring Malcom’s own growing sense of panic. Finally, just as Sattler and Muldoon climb into the jeep, the T-Rex bursts through the trees in horrifying fashion.
We have all seen Jurassic Park. We know what’s going to happen. Yet despite our knowing, we still thrill at the ensuing car chase because of the enduring sophistication of the suspense that came before. That level of tension-building requires room to breathe; Spielberg trusts his ability to slow down the action and allow that room. It is a quality of filmmaking sorely missed in the faster-paced sequels.
For not only do those “quieter” moments allow a bigger payoff when action resumes, but they allow the audience to take a breath. I believe this is the key to appreciating the “wonder” of the film. The scene best exemplifying this wonder is when Dr. Grant, Tim (Joseph Mazzello), and Lex (Ariana Richards) climb a tree for the evening and encounter a friendly brachiosaurus. The action is remarkably intimate for a blockbuster dinosaur movie and Spielberg wallows in the subversion of our expectations. Further selling the magical nature of the scene are the performers; you can literally see the wonder on their faces.
A common critique of the sequels is the failure to “capture the magic” of the original. While I don’t believe it is possible to surmount the groundbreaking nature of Jurassic Park, I do believe it is possible to make an equally spellbinding dinosaur flick. Why not? Perhaps modern stewards of the franchise understandably distance themselves from Spielberg’s shadow; Spielberg, however, does not have a monopoly on dinosaur movies. Indeed, considering the state of the series, the boldest move may just very well be emulating the beats that make Jurassic Park so wonderful.
by Vincent S. Hannam