Jurassic Park (1993)
(for intense science fiction terror, and brief language)
Released: June 11, 1993
Runtime: 127 minutes
Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Sam Neill, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum, Sir Richard Attenborough, Samuel L. Jackson, Ariana Richards, Joseph Mazzello, Wayne Knight, Bob Peck, Martin Ferrero, BD Wong
Nearly twenty years after the Great White frights of Jaws, Steven Spielberg bookended the Golden Age of Blockbusters by marshaling nascent visual effect technologies to resurrect extinct monsters in a way that would forever change the industry – and what audiences would come to expect and demand.
It’s also the last Spielberg summer blockbuster to completely capture the cultural zeitgeist and endure as a classic. He’s certainly had some hits since, but nothing on the scale of Jaws, Raiders, E.T. – or this. It was a new beginning for Hollywood, but the end of an era for Spielberg.
Produced in part as a trade-off with Universal when that studio agreed to back Spielberg’s 3+ hour black-and-white Holocaust epic with no movie stars (a.k.a. Schindler’s List), Jurassic Park became one of the biggest hits of the Hollywood legend’s already-storied career. In the process, Spielberg once again redefined how movies were made.
Jurassic Park is yet another quintessential summer movie. Action, adventure, scares, laughs, awe & wonder – with stuff you’ve never seen before. It’s endlessly re-watchable, and the early “Journey To The Island” sequence – which starts with a fun helicopter flight to the Island (thank you, Jeff Goldblum)…
…and peaks with the scientists’ (and our) first sight of actual dinosaurs…
– is a perfect little capsule of what I want from a popcorn movie: humor, mystery, anticipation, all with an epic payoff. That scene alone (or even just hearing that track from John Williams’ score – another classic) instantly transports me to my Summer Movie Happy Place.
A few years ago, I had the opportunity to write about Jurassic Park on its 20th Anniversary (when its 3D re-release hit theaters) for Crosswalk.com. What I felt about the movie then remains true now, so you can read those thoughts by clicking here.
But to those thoughts I feel it’s important to emphasize just how big of a risk Spielberg was taking with this endeavor, from pushing the untested limits of visual effects technology to tackling the prospect of dinosaurs themselves. This may come as a shock to Millennials born in or after 1993, but there was a time when dinosaurs were not scary. (I remember one friend asking me before Jurassic Park opened, with skepticism, “Is this going to be like a Barney thing?”)
Reduced to pre-school TV caricatures, or adorably depicted in animated features, dinosaurs weren’t taken seriously. And how could they be? It simply wasn’t possible to make them realistic.
Until Steven Spielberg did.
Directing the team of effects wizards at ILM, Spielberg took the risk – really, one of the bigger gambles in movie history – to see if they could actually make it work. And after they did, an infinite new world of possibilities opened to filmmakers and audiences.
To best understand what kind of percpetion Jurassic Park had to overcome, there’s a scene early on in which a kid snidely dismisses Dr. Alan Grant’s fascination with these creatures, saying “That doesn’t look scary.” Grant then proceeds to put the fear of the Raptor into the boy, and by scene’s end that kid – who was a surrogate for dubious viewers – understood that we weren’t going to be singing, “I love you / You love me / We’re a happy family!”
Also, by discussing genetic ties to birds and making that a key part of the film’s fabric, Jurassic Park helped counter the common misnomer that dinosaurs are merely overgrown lizards; it was popcorn entertainment that served as a culture-wide educational tool (something I’m sure Spielberg’s particularly proud of). That element was also a shrewd narrative layer, taking our fascination with these extinct creatures and cranking it up even further.
As Dr. Grant tells Lex and Tim at one point: “I’ll bet you’ll never look at birds the same way again.”
To Spielberg’s credit, and depth, Jurassic Park was as much about the awe these creatures inspired as it was the terror…
…and capturing the wonder they provoked.
When Grant and Sattler become overwhelmed, mouths agape, and even emotional, it’s a literal breathtaking moment that’s felt and earned. These weren’t just monsters. They were magnificent creations.
The rest is history, including two successful sequels and a 14-years-after-the-fact reboot that shattered expectations with a then-record opening weekend that nearly doubled its debut projections. In short, the legacy of Jurassic Park is as strong as ever over two decades on (with visual effects that still hold up with anything seen today), because the right filmmaker at the right time took the big risk.
To paraphrase Dr. Ian Malcolm (a.k.a. Jeff Goldblum, the actor who should be in everything) – “Spielberg finds a way.”
To watch a fascinating 30-minute detailed presentation about the archetypes and metaphors in Jurassic Park, click here.
Available to rent through Amazon Video.
- A couple of Spielberg Oners to look for: when Grant and the kids are “negotiating” which Jeeps each will be traveling in (multiple framings and shifts within a 53 second move), and then later when Grant and the kids are first in the treetop, the whole scene – from a medium to a wide – plays out over 1:16.
- As a result of how great the dino effects were, several key industry collaborations and decisions were made:
- Stan Winston and James Cameron partnered to form Digital Domain, which quickly became one of the world’s premiere VFX houses.
- Stanley Kubrick broached Spielberg about collaborating with him on his pet project A.I.: Artificial Intelligence.
- George Lucas determined that he could finally make the Star Wars prequels on the level he’d been envisioning.
- Peter Jackson began to pursue making The Lord of the Rings.
- Pre-production began with the assumption that the dinosaurs would be created entirely by animatronic models, made by industry legends Stan Winston and Phil Tippett. It wasn’t until pre-production was underway that the possibility of 3D computer animation was first considered, and Spielberg asked VFX artist Dennis Muren to see if he could expand the possibilities of the molten-metal morphing effects he’d produced for Terminator 2: Judgment Day. (Many live action models and puppets were still used in the shoot.)
- When Tippett saw Muren’s first submission, he told Spielberg, “I think we’re extinct.” Steven then added that response as a line in the film, in an exchange between Ian Malcom and Alan Grant.
- Spielberg had already been developing a medical drama screenplay with Michael Crichton, author of the novel Jurassic Park. The hospital-based screenplay was inspired by Crichton’s experiences as a young doctor. That film would eventually become the TV series ER.
- At different times, Spielberg tried to get his two Last Crusade leads – Harrison Ford and Sean Connery – to star here as Dr. Alan Grant and John Hammond, respectively.
- Other directors that bid for the right to make Jurassic Park: James Cameron, Tim Burton, Richard Donner, and Joe Dante.
- Despite even having to contend with a hurricane, Jurassic Park’s Hawaiian shoot wrapped 12 days ahead of schedule and on budget. It ended up costing more to market ($65 million) than to make ($63 million).