Reviews: Jurassic Park

Note: This is a review I wrote a couple years back for the 3D rerelease of Jurassic Park. With Jurassic World coming out this week, I thought I’d present my reviews of the previous three films over the next few days. Enjoy!

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As a life-long dinosaur nut, I’ve of course seen Jurassic Park more times than I can count. Yet seeing it on a big screen was a new and wonderful experience. And I’m using ‘wonderful’ in it’s most literal and correct sense; an experience filled with wonder.

On an island off the coast of Costa Rica, billionaire John Hammond (Richard Attenburough) is creating new kind of ‘biological preserve,’ but when one of the workers is killed during the construction his investors – represented by the oily Donald Gennaro (Martin Ferrero) – threaten to pull funding over safety concerns. To assuage them, he offers to have a team of experts investigate and sign off on the island. To that end he entices paleontologist Alan Grant (Sam Neill) and paleobotanist Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern) to be his experts, while Gennaro brings the eccentric ‘rock star mathematician’ Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum). Shortly after they arrive on the island, Hammond shows his guests the result of his work; a living Brachiosaurus.

Welcome to Jurassic Park; where dinosaurs rule the Earth.

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The awed and somewhat unnerved experts set out on a test tour, accompanied by Hammond’s visiting grandchildren, Lex (Ariana Richards) and Tim (Joseph Mazzello), and watched carefully by the park’s head technician, Ray Arnold (Samuel L. Jackson before he was the coolest man in the world) and security chief, Robert Muldoon (Bob Peck). Unbeknownst to any of them, however, Hammond’s lead programmer, Dennis Nedry (Wayne Knight) has done a deal with Hammond’s competitors to steal the dinosaur embryos that very night. But as he puts his plan into action, a tropical storm hits the island…

Where to begin with Jurassic Park? I suppose, in inversion of my usual format, I’ll begin with the movie’s flaws, which are, unfortunately, many.

In the first place, as has been noted many times before, there is very little character development in the film. We don’t really learn anything at all about Ellie Sattler, except that she and Alan are dating and that she’s a paleobotanist (though she only talks about plants in a couple scenes, meaning some people in the audience might not even realize what a ‘paleobotanist’ is. I suppose it’s not a subject that comes up much when running from dinosaurs). Alan is only a little better; all we know about him is that he hates children, computers, and trees. Malcolm pretty much exists to utter dire warnings and snark, while the fact that Lex and Tim’s parents are getting divorced is reduced to a single line of dialogue in a scene that they aren’t even in.

Basically, there’s not really any ‘human’ story going on here; not a lot of growing or changing among the characters. In the end, Alan’s more tolerant towards children, Hammond’s decided not to make any more dinosaur parks, and…that’s about it. Oh, and the less said about Dennis Nedry or Donald Gennaro the better.

The only character with any real development is Hammond, who gets a rather touching speech reminiscing about the first attraction he ever made – a flea circus – and how what he had wanted to do with Jurassic Park was to inspire people to wonder at something that was real: “something they could see and touch…an aim not devoid of merit.”

He’s shown to be a loving family man, both towards his grandchildren and to his daughter (judging by the fleeting reference to her divorce, we can assume he decided to invite the children to take their minds off of it). He also is simultaneously open to and dismissive of dissenting opinions; he invites people to give them, but then he tends to brush them off with a laugh and a smile. Even with the park falling to pieces about him, he still talks about proceeding. It isn’t until he finds himself listening over the phone as the velociraptors attack his friends and family that he finally gives up on his dream.

He also seems to have an inflated sense of his own people skills. Upon meeting Alan and Ellie, he boasts that he “can tell instantly about people – it’s a gift!” But he also hired the world’s most patently untrustworthy programmer to run his park and brushed off his complaints of low pay and lack of appreciation.

Which brings us to the other giant flaw in Jurassic Park; the fact that the script so clearly stacks the deck to get the result it wants. There’s really no getting around the fact that the park is a disaster waiting to happen; not only is the head programmer obviously the last person you would want in a position of responsibility, but the whole park is bundled into a single huge computer program, meaning that everything from the fences to the phones to the friggin’ door locks to the control room are dependent upon this one system. A system, I might add, that doesn’t even have the processing power to run the park and fix a bug at the same time. I mean, good God! Forget corporate sabotage: didn’t anyone ask what would happen if there was a simple power-outage? Not only that, but the circuit breakers, rather than being kept somewhere easily accessible (the control room, the emergency bunker) are stored deep in a labyrinthine maintenance shed “at the other end of the compound,” with the velociraptor pen conveniently located directly between them and the control room.

Then there’s the design of the park itself, which has automated cars take people from cage to cage (the doors on the cars don’t even lock, as the characters themselves point out). Not only is this highly inconvenient (what if you want to linger at a specific paddock? What if you want to skip the protoceratops and go straight to the T-Rex?), but given that the paddocks themselves are filled with dense jungle right up to the fences, it’s a hundred-to-one chance that they’ll see anything at all (as, indeed, they don’t until they actually leave the cars and walk into one of the enclosures. See above RE: car locks). Plus there’s the total dependence upon electric fences: hadn’t anyone involved ever heard of concrete moats? How about walls or Plexiglas? Heck, how about good old-fashioned fences made of actual metal, rather than flimsy wires? Granted a simple iron fence probably wouldn’t stop the T-Rex, but it certainly would have been appreciated around the velociraptors!

Basically, the entire park is so designed that a single problem would bring the whole thing crashing down, and then it was placed entirely in the hands of the world’s least reliable employee. Of course things went to hell! It didn’t take chaos theory or “life finding a way;” all it took was a single computer virus. This isn’t the uncontainable power of nature; it’s the uncontainable power of human stupidity.

Speaking of which, characters occasionally do really stupid things – things that they would never do – just so that the filmmakers get the results they want. Probably the worst instance of this is Muldoon hunting the raptors in dense brush (which he probably should know better than to try) with his gunstock still folded up, causing him to waste precious seconds trying to quietly unfold it when he gets one of the raptors in his sights. Likewise, you’d think that Nedry would have mapped out the route to the boat previously (especially since he mentions having made a ‘dry run’ of the plan). Actually, forget mapping out; he works on the island, he presumably goes back-and-forth using the boat on a fairly regular basis. Why does he suddenly have no idea which way to go?

Nedry in general is a mess of a character; a humiliating, overdone caricature of a role. Gennaro, the other ‘asshole victim’ isn’t much better; responding to the brachiosaurus with an awed “we’re gonna make a fortune with this place!” and abandoning the children the instant the T-Rex appears. He does, however, get a couple of humanizing moments early on, especially his reaction to Hammond declaring ruefully that “the blood sucking lawyer” is the only one who supports him.

Okay, that pretty much covers the flaws, now onto the good stuff. In the first place, though the characters are all underdeveloped, the actors are so good that they almost make up for it. This is an extremely talented cast and they inject their characters with enough life that we wonder just what they could have done with more to work with. Sam Neill and Laura Dern are particularly good at this. Neill, who was mostly known for villain roles before this, actually comes across as a fairly ordinary man thrust into a heroic role against his will (yes, ‘unlikely heroes’ are a dime a dozen, but how often do we actually buy the ‘unlikely’ part?). He invests Dr. Grant with a lot of rich little details that tell us much more about him than the dialogue does. For instance, watch him while the baby raptor is hatching; as Hammond explains about how they imprint upon the first creature they see, Grant’s eagerly trying to direct the raptor’s attention onto himself. Or when he’s trying to coax Tim into climbing down the huge tree they’re currently in he likens it to a tree house: “Did your dad ever build you a tree house?” “No,” Tim answers, to which Grant mutters “me neither.”

Likewise, Laura Dern, while she’s not given much to do (her biggest contribution is turning the power back on), at least plays Ellie with enough force and heart to make us realize that she really could have been a great character if the script had given her the chance.

As for Jeff Goldblum as Ian Malcolm, well, as the saying goes, you either find him hilarious or unbearable. Fortunately, I fall into the former category. Malcolm is pretty much Goldblum’s defining role, and it’s impossible to picture anyone else in the part. Malcolm’s anti-science speeches are fortunately kept at a minimum here (there are legitimate concerns that could be made about the morality of re-creating dinosaurs via genetic tampering and then selling them as tourist attractions, but he doesn’t really make them, instead giving some guff about ‘unearned power’ and ‘life will find a way’). Instead, Malcolm serves as a one-man Mystery Science Theater for the experience: he flirts, cracks jokes, and generally acts like he thinks he’s the star of the show…until he gets proven definitively wrong halfway through and becomes notably less chatty for the rest of the film.

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Ariana Richards and Joseph Mazello as the dreaded kids may have relatively thankless roles, but personally I found them quite palatable characters (certainly more so than in the book, where Lex was about the most annoying, useless little brat imaginable). They play off each other nicely, and they both do a good job of acting terrified, especially in the famous kitchen sequence (I like the ‘oh crap!’ expression on Tim’s face as he realizes that he might not have the stamina left to outrun the velociraptor he just baited). My favorite moment with them comes as they’re watching the T-Rex chow down on one of the gallimimuses. As Lex begs for them to move on, Tim watches in entirely credible fascination: “Look at how much blood!” Really, how many ten-year-old boys would want to be torn away from watching a Tyrannosaur eating?

The great Richard Attenburough, of course, gives the best performance of any of the human stars and has the most to work with. He sells Hammond both as a canny businessman and a genuinely decent man. The rare flashes of anger he exhibits reminds us that he is the boss and knows how to lead his employees, but he also exhibits genuine tenderness and affection towards others; his employees Arnold and Muldoon (whom we understand he actually considers to be friends as well as employees), his grandchildren, and the dinosaurs themselves (he proudly notes that he’s been present for the birth of every dinosaur on the island as he coos over the baby velociraptor in his hands).

The late Bob Peck does what he can as Muldoon, but he’s as short-changed as anyone (though he does get some great little moments, and his exit line is one of the finest ever). Samuel L. Jackson is likewise pretty much just making do with his highly limited character. I’ve already mentioned Wayne Knight and Martin Ferrero as Nedry and Genarro, respectively. And…that pretty much sums up the cast of human characters.

But let’s be honest: no one really cares about the human characters. We’re here for the dinosaurs!

There are a lot of reasons why this film is so much more effective than its sequels, but one of the key factors is in how well it deploys its stars. I could do a complete point-by-point dissection of how each creature is perfectly set up and then utilized for maximum impact. And I think I will!

Okay, okay; I’ll limit myself to summaries for most creatures and only give a full dissection of one of them: the Tyrannosaur.

The T-Rex is first mentioned in passing by Grant, who compares its limited eyesight unfavorably to the keen senses of the velociraptors, playing off its high-profile to build up the new creatures. It’s next brought up when Alan and Ellie gaze in awe at the Brachiosaur. Hammond, glowing with pride, takes the first chance to drop the fact that the park indeed includes a Tyrannosaurus, news which the two dino experts react to with predictable delight.

Then comes the first indication that a live Tyrannosaur might not be an entirely good thing; as the characters enter the visitor’s center, the camera briefly pauses on a close-up of the fossilized T-Rex decorating the lobby, allowing us to take note of the sheer size of its head and jaws while the music, formerly quick-paced and exciting, suddenly becomes low and ominous.

Then comes the tour. An argument in the control room is interrupted by Muldoon calling for silence as the visitors approach the Tyrannosaur paddock. They switch off the automated tour guide and the visitors go silent as they pull up in front of the massive fence, which rises higher than the treetops. All is quiet as they scan the trees, which are ominously still. Hoping to show off their star attraction, the controllers summon a tethered goat to tempt the dinosaur. When even this proves unsuccessful, Grant notes disparagingly “T-Rex doesn’t want to be fed; he wants to hunt.” The tour then moves on, the visitors disappointed, but also perhaps relieved (there’s no exclamations of annoyance as there were at the dilophosaur exhibit).

All the above, the call for silence and the nervous scanning of the tree-tops, serves to remind us that this is something uniquely dangerous, in contrast to the more prosaic dilophosaurs they just left behind; dangerous, yet awe-inspiring.

After this we have the intervening scenes with the triceratops, Nedry putting his plan into operation, and the power failing. As Mr. Arnold frantically tries to undo Nedry’s program, Hammond nervously asks where, exactly, the vehicles stopped. Cut to the same tethered goat.

What follows is a fairly lengthy interlude where Grant and Malcolm talk about what’s going on, Tim plays around with the night-vision goggles, and everyone seems to be resigning themselves to waiting out the storm.

Suddenly, Tim stops fiddling with the goggles as he feels a tremor in the earth. The soundtrack begins playing increasingly loud booms. As the car’s occupants watch nervously, the glasses of water set on the dashboard vibrate ominously (incidentally, nice acting by Mazello here; you can see that he, as the dinosaur-nut, realizes what this means before anyone else does). Tim then checks on the goat…but now there is no goat.

As bits of goat drop onto the car, the terrified visitors watch as a big, two-fingered claw slides harmlessly off of the no-longer electric fence (just above the “Danger: 10,000 Volts” sign). Then the massive T-Rex looms up, her head in the tree-tops, and swallows the goat whole…before turning her attention to the cars.

Gennaro panics and flees, taking refuge in a bathroom. The T-Rex, meanwhile, makes short work of the fence, tearing the wires off with such force that she bends the metal posts outward. Then having finished off the fence, she strides forward between the cars – which she towers over – and roars into the night.

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What follows is one of the film’s most justly celebrated sequences as the T-Rex mauls the jeep with the screaming children inside. This provides a great demonstration for the beast’s raw power as she turns the car over with her head and begins ripping out its underbelly and tires, crushing it into the mud, and finishes up by throwing it off a cliff into a tree. The set up is similar to a bear or a lion mauling a car, only elevated to the tenth power. We are well aware throughout that no contemporary creature could do what the Tyrannosaur does here.

From the start, the T-Rex is established as something especially powerful and dangerous, and then when she finally appears she surpasses our expectations. The Tyrannosaur of Jurassic Park is truly a force of nature; before her, the only sane response is to run. It gets to the point that the mere sound of her roaring in the distance is enough to send Grant and the children into a near-panicked flight over the perimeter fence.

Something similar is done with the velociraptors, except for the fact that they – as the film’s ‘new’ dinosaurs – get much more build-up. It’s a velociraptor that kills the worker in the opening scene. Shortly thereafter, Grant gives a long speech about how deadly they are, even compared to the T-Rex. Then, on the island, we find that they are kept in their own prison-like enclosure (again, why not just use an iron fence that’s higher than they could jump?), where the visitors watch in horrified fascination as they tear apart a cow, leaving only the bent and bloodied harness. The first thing Muldoon asks when they learn that the fences are failing is whether the raptor fences are still on…which Arnold confirms that they are. Even Nedry, who was so careless, wasn’t going to mess with the raptors.

The movie is nicely divided into acts: the first deals with the visitors arriving at the island and discovering the dinosaurs, the second with the dinosaur’s escape, the third with the attempts to regroup and escape the island. The Tyrannosaur dominates the second act, while the raptors move to center stage for the third.

The velociraptors of Jurassic Park are truly works of art. Their intelligence and human-like size makes them a more immediate and personal threat; more a genuine villain than the massive T-Rex. Their viciousness is established early on with the brutal (offscreen) slayings of the worker (who is dragged into the cage in a manner reminiscent of Chrissie Watkins in Jaws) and the cow. Later we see one of them – the Matriarch, whom Muldoon described early in the film as being the worst of the bunch – killing a major character, and while the scene is obscured by plants, his lingering screams, combined with what little we can see (she clearly has her jaws around his face) is more than enough, especially compared to the one Tyrannosaur victim we’ve seen, who was pretty much killed instantly. In addition to their visual strength, the raptors are the recipients of some truly inspired sound design, alternating between hisses, a kind of guttural honk or bark, and a piercing scream (shades of the Nazgul from The Lord of the Rings). This, coupled with their obvious intelligence and toothy grins, makes them almost come across as demons rather than animals.

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Though, of course, I risk losing my dino-nut credentials if I don’t point out that real velociraptors were pretty much nothing like this; they were turkey-sized, only relatively intelligent, and certainly couldn’t hit ‘cheetah speeds.’ The creatures in Jurassic Park are actually deinonychuses (deinonychi?); a much larger cousin of the velociraptor (velociraptors also were native to Mongolia, meaning that Grant couldn’t have been digging one up in Montana). And even for deinonychus, the things we have here are pretty exaggerated. But, really, who cares? They make great villains.

A similar dynamic is in place with the dilophosaurus. She’s way too small, for one thing (real dilophosaurs were one of the earliest big carnivores and stood about six-feet high and twenty-feet long), though that could be excused by her being a juvenile. The venom and the frill, on the other hand, have their origins entirely in Michael Crichton and Steven Spielberg. Still, to my mind, the visual effect of the small, rather cute chirping critter suddenly opening her frill and becoming a shrieking nightmare is enough to excuse any tampering (more problematic is the question “how did she get in the car?”).

She’s also is involved in one of my favorite bits of dino-acting. As Nedry impatiently tells her “I don’t have any food!” the dilophosaur is clearly looking him up and down and – metaphorically at least – licking her chops.

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The brachiosaurus, of course, is the focus of the awe-inspiring first glimpse where Grant pronounces in amazement “It’s a dinosaur!” The power of that one scene, the wonder and yearning it produces in the audience, is simply incredible. It encapsulates everything that makes this movie great and is itself a genuine work of art; the closest any of us will ever come to seeing a real dinosaur.

Occasionally a movie scene will come along that seems to encapsulate the full artistic potential of the medium. The brachiosaur scene in Jurassic Park is one of them.

There’s not a whole lot to say about the other species present; triceratops only gets to lie around being sick, but she does feature in a great audience surrogate moment as the characters feel her all over, rejoicing in the reality, the aliveness of the animal. “She was always my favorite when I was a kid,” Alan gushes. “And now that I see her, she’s the most beautiful thing I ever saw!”

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The parasaurolophus only appears once, at a distance, at the end of the brachiosaur scene (to the point that you’d be forgiven for forgetting they were even in this movie), though they do prompt a moving comment from Grant that quietly reminds us of the enormous gap between our theories of how dinosaurs acted and the fact that we will never really know the truth about them.

Finally, the gallimimus likewise appear in a single scene, but one that is justifiably famous for its incredible technical artistry as Grant and the kids end up in the middle of a stampede and the camera seems to be running right alongside them as the dinosaurs thunder past.

Of course, everyone talks about the amazing visual effects, courtesy of ILM and the late Stan Winston. Honestly, the effects here are better than most of the effects today; they have more solidity, more texture, more…life to them. Most CGI effects feel like the artists are trying too hard, wasting time on little details so that the final effect feels overly-rehearsed and unconvincing. Here, by contrast, you can feel the enthusiasm of the filmmakers as they perfect each scene and move on to the next. You sense that they were just as eager to see the completed film as we were, and that eagerness comes off on screen. Look at the patience that went into the scene where the T-Rex first investigates the car containing the kids before trying to break in, or the curled lip on the velociraptor as she watches the children flee the kitchen. These creatures are more than convincingly real; they’re convincingly alive.

A word on the 3D conversion. For the most part, it works very well; lending texture and depth to the already-spectacular visuals. The only scene that it became a problem for me was, alas, the one scene everyone couldn’t wait to see in 3D: the gallimimus stampede. The 3D conversion left the creatures blurred and impossible to focus on, lessening the impact of that spectacular sequence. It was an isolated moment, but a highly disappointing one.

Thematically, the major lesson here is that man should not toy around with nature. The lesson backfires about as spectacularly as any I can think of, since the actual effect is “dinosaurs are awesome! We should absolutely bring them back! We just won’t trust Fats von Greedytreason.” The movie’s deck-stacking means that neither science in general nor genetic tampering in particular comes off as the villain here; Nedry and the horrible design of the park itself do (well, and the velociraptor Matriarch, of course). In other words, the take away is less “they tampered in God’s domain” and more “who the heck hired that guy?”

Other than that, it’s mostly just a paean to man’s love for these long-dead beasts, and as moving a tribute to that love as you’ll ever see, despite all the running, screaming, and dying. The characters never lose their awe of the creatures, even after running for their lives from them. In the end we’re even left with the strangely comforting idea that the dinosaurs are indeed still with us through their children: the birds.

I’ll conclude with a word on the famous ending. In the context of this strange love that we have for these long-gone creatures, it’s significant that the last act of a dinosaur in the film is a heroic act. What happens I’ll leave unsaid (just in case there’s someone somewhere who doesn’t know), except that, for all its implausibility, no ending of any film has ever made me happier. I remember hearing Peter Benchley, the author of Jaws, recount the story of that film’s ending, and how he had thought it was too implausible, to which Spielberg countered that plausibility is less important than what the audience wants. He was right then, and he was right when he designed the ending here. What happens is worth any suspension of disbelief.

Jurassic Park is a film with very real flaws. Those flaws keep it from being all that it might have been. Nevertheless, none of those flaws ultimately matter to the final product. The talented cast, the superb directing, and the awe-inspiring visuals carry it far beyond any problems in writing or characterization. What we have here is a genuine classic; a movie worth watching over and over again.

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Final Rating: 4.5/5. The stuff that dreams are made of.

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