Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Review: Jurassic Park (1993)

Jurassic Park (1993)

Rated PG-13 for intense science fiction terror

In the last several months, something troubling occurred to me as a child of the late '90s and the early-mid '00s: I had never seen Jurassic Park. Wait, before you throw tomatoes in my face, allow me to rephrase that: I had never really seen Jurassic Park, as an adult or even a teenager who could enjoy the film on its genuine merits. I caught Jurassic Park on TV when I was a kid, but that's just it: I was a kid whose imagination ran wild at the mere mention of dinosaurs, which clouded my judgment far too much. It had been well over a decade since I last saw it, to the point where I was only really able to recall the events of the film in broad strokes, most of them painted by the legacy it left on pop culture. I missed both of the recent rereleases (in 2011 and 2013, the latter in 3D for the film's 20th anniversary), and I've seen the film's sequel, The Lost World: Jurassic Park, more times than the original, a fact that is simply disgraceful. So when a fourth film, Jurassic World, was announced, I vowed that I was not going to see that film (which comes out this weekend) without having first seen Steven Spielberg's original masterpiece, which still enjoys a reputation as one of the best films of his career and one of the greatest summer blockbusters of all time.

Two hours and seven minutes after I pressed play on the Blu-Ray, I felt like I had been blown out of my chair. Jurassic Park really is a masterpiece, an amazing film that seamlessly combines science fiction, action, a dash of '50s B-movie horror, and breathtaking special effects that are only slightly dated even after twenty-two years. It undoubtedly has flaws, but they are so few and so comparatively minor that they become mere blips. It is an ample demonstration of why Spielberg, in his prime, was one of the most acclaimed filmmakers in the world. I notice that, despite this film coming out at the height of early '90s pop-cynicism and America now living in an age where ironic hipster contrarianism is in vogue, the only real shade that I've ever seen thrown at Jurassic Park is over its depiction of dinosaurs, with what was once scientifically accurate becoming decidedly less so as new discoveries were made in the two decades since. This is not just a feast for the eyes, but also an excellent sci-fi thriller independent of its eye-popping visuals.

The plot is a very traditional one of mad science, but one with a bit more nuance than usual. John Hammond (Richard Attenborough), the CEO of the biotech company InGen, has created a revolutionary theme park/zoo on an island off Costa Rica: a place where dinosaurs have been cloned using DNA recovered from mosquitoes preserved in amber. Before the official opening of the park, an incident with a velociraptor sees a worker killed, leading the investors to demand that experts visit the park and check it out for safety. Hammond invites a group of scientists -- paleontologist Alan Grant (Sam Neill), paleobotanist Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern), and mathematician Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) -- to do a test run of Jurassic Park and clear things with the investors, while also bringing his two grandchildren, Lex and Tim, as both a treat for them and to gauge how non-scientist tourists would react to the park. Unfortunately, it soon becomes clear that the park isn't ready for prime time, and that's before Dennis Nedry, the security system architect who'd been paid off by a corporate rival to steal some of the dinosaur embryos, sabotages the park's security to carry out his plan. Now, packs of prehistoric carnivores are running loose, a tropical storm is about to make landfall, and everybody is in peril.

What I found refreshing about this film's story, after several years of convoluted blockbusters trying to imitate the form of a Christopher Nolan film or the Marvel Cinematic Universe but not their function, is how straightforward it felt. InGen is a morally dubious company, to be sure, but their machinations all concern the plot at hand: creating Jurassic Park, assuaging the concerns of investors and lawyers, and racing to do damage control once things go horribly wrong. The mythos serves the story, not the other way around, and the focus is on the characters and their immediate surroundings. And that brings me to one of this film's most underappreciated elements: its cast of great characters. The standout was undoubtedly Richard Attenborough as John Hammond, the creator of the park and a man who, despite running a biotech company, has much more in common with P. T. Barnum than Dr. Victor Frankenstein. As his big speech to Ellie reveals, he's essentially a carny huckster on a grand scale, merely seeing science as a route to greatness and (to paraphrase one of this film's more famous lines) caring more about whether he can do something than whether he should. In time, of course, he sees first-hand the damage his short-sightedness has wrought. A more recent character he reminded me of was Nathan Bateman from Ex Machina, albeit with the macho, alpha-male pretensions replaced with a benevolent, grandfatherly image, especially around the kids. The scientist characters, meanwhile, are merely two-dimensional as opposed to the more well-rounded Hammond, but all of them are smartly-written and capable, feeling like real human beings. Grant probably gets the most development through his interactions with the kids, but all of them pull their weight thanks to a talented cast and a huge array of great lines. It was through them that it became clear that the real enemy of the film wasn't science itself, but the misuse and corruption of it by greed and ego, with all three of them pointing out the problems in both the park and in Hammond's philosophy. It's Michael Crichton (who adapted the screenplay from his book) at his best, before he went off the deep end and turned into a crank late in his life. (I read Next, the last book of his published during his lifetime, for a school assignment. Between its hysterically Luddite attitude towards genetic engineering and the hypocrisy of this tone given some of Crichton's other views, I was not impressed in the slightest.) And yeah, the fact that the tween girl Lex turned out to be a gifted programmer/hacker was absolutely a contrivance that this film pulled out of its ass with only a single line establishing it beforehand... but you know what, it still handled it well enough that I was able to buy it.

The same thing applies to this film's other minor flaws, like the "clever girl" scene in which badass hunter/tracker Robert Muldoon gets outsmarted by velociraptors, or Lex shining a spotlight into the eyes of a Tyrannosaurus rex (something that even the other characters comment on). In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, they would've been monumentally stupid moments that would've taken me right out of the film. But that's the genius of Spielberg: he can take some profoundly stupid scenes and still make them awesome. In this case, these scenes became nail-biters as we wondered just when, where, and how the big carnivores were going to strike, and when they did strike, it pushed the boundaries of the PG-13 rating as the most graphic stuff was hidden just out of sight. Furthermore, Spielberg knows that the dinosaurs are marvels, both in-universe and for the viewers, and he treats them as such. Our proper introduction to the dinos has the main characters gazing upon a towering Brachiosaurus, and this scene, more than any other, represents just why this film is such a classic. To break it down: we begin with the main characters in jeeps crossing a field on their way to the labs and visitor center. Grant is talking, but stops as he sees something to the side of the jeep. The look on his face shows that he is utterly amazed, but we don't see what has caused this reaction. Sattler is still engrossed in the conversation, not noticing Grant saying "hey, look at this!" until he grabs her head and turns it in the direction; her reaction is identical to Grant's. Then, the camera finally turns, and with John Williams' amazing, epic score reaching its crescendo, we see a sight that, until now, had not existed in 65 million years, and which these scientists who'd been studying the creatures' bones have long dreamed of: a towering, long-necked dinosaur, munching on leaves plucked from the tops of nearby trees. The scene is perfectly designed to leave us awestruck, and our introductions to the raptors and the T. rex are designed the same way, only with the awe combined with a horror movie-like tension as we dread just what will come out at us. There's a reason why one of the first teasers for Jurassic World was just a glass of water sitting on a table, ripples forming on the water's surface as something makes footsteps that shake the earth -- if you've seen the original, it needs no explanation.

Finally, we come to the last, and most famous, piece of the puzzle of what makes Jurassic Park such a great movie: the special effects. While the tone of this film often cribs from and homages classic monster movies, the special effects are worlds beyond what filmmakers in the '50s and '60s had at their disposal. The film may be renowned for its revolutionary CG effects, but most of this film is practical work done by the great Stan Winston, making prehistoric creatures look lifelike. The CGI is there to augment the practical effects, erasing the strings holding the puppets and doing the things that absolutely can't be done the "old-fashioned" way (like seeing the biggest dinosaurs in full view). And even though, in hindsight, it's not difficult to tell where they used CGI (the skin on the dinosaurs is usually a dead giveaway), the animation still looks remarkably fluid even after all these years, a testament to how well it was used. There have been films made in the last five years, with budgets that (even after inflation is accounted for) dwarf the $63 million that Spielberg and co. had at their disposal, that have special effects that look noticeably worse than a film made back when Kurt Cobain was still alive. It helps that, once again, Spielberg saved the effects for the moments when they would have the greatest impact, rather than throwing them in our face for two hours. It's been noted that the dinosaurs only have about fourteen minutes of total screen time here. Roger Ebert's complaint in his (otherwise positive) review that the film was overloaded with special effects seems almost quaint in hindsight, given the enormous amount of empty-calorie CGI spectacle that's flooded the multiplex for the last twenty years. Here, when the dinosaurs arrive, you feel their presence.

(And of course, a historical irony that I realized just as I was writing this review. In this film, science and technology aren't evil -- without it, the wonders that the park has to offer could never exist. However, they can be misused, especially by people who don't understand their risks and limitations, and when they are misused, it has tragic results. In real life, CGI was the hot new filmmaking technology of 1993, and it, in and of itself, is not the evil that a lot of old-school movie buffs like to make it out as. Without it, many of this film's greatest moments could never have been brought to life. However, you can't use it to completely replace everything, something that many filmmakers have failed to understand as well as Spielberg did, producing grotesque monstrosities with empty plots, piss-poor direction, one-note characters, and visuals that inevitably grow incredibly dated once the novelty wears off. Spielberg must have understood this, given that he threw in an exchange between Grant and Malcolm about how the cloning of dinosaurs has just made Grant's job obsolete, or rather, extinct -- a line he took from a comment that special effects artist Phil Tippett made when he saw a complete CGI test for the film.)

Score: 5 out of 5

Watching this film with fresh eyes, I was as amazed and stunned by it as audiences back in 1993 were. Some of my reasons were different -- namely, I was impressed just how near-perfectly it held up, even in the special effects department -- but that doesn't change the film's most fundamental qualities that make it into an excellent sci-fi adventure. The only real fault I have right now is that I think I've just ruined Jurassic World for myself, because there's next to no way that film is topping this.

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