Updated: Oct 14, 2020
In a nutshell: Billionaire John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) has found a way to clone dinosaurs and wants to showcase them in his theme park – Jurassic Park. Due to an employee fatality, he brings in some experts, Dr Grant (Sam Neill), Ellie Statler (Laura Dern) and Mathematician Dr Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) to help get approval to officially open it. Following some industrial espionage, the park loses all power and security measures, unleashing the dinosaurs.
“Bingo! Dino DNA”
There was a time in the late nineties/early noughties when I convinced myself Jurassic Park was overrated. Perhaps it was a backlash against my own boyish enthusiasm for the film on its original release. Back in 1993, I was the target market, I had the posters, stationery, toys etc. Maybe it was teenage cynicism against the underperforming sequels The Lost World (1997) and Jurassic Park 3 (2001).
In recent years, I’ve re-evaluated it once more and have rediscovered that enthusiasm – Jurassic Park truly is a landmark film and deservedly so. Not just because the film showcased a breakthrough in CGI effects (that have barely aged) or like Batman (1989) the merchandising behemoth it became. Look closer and it’s a classic Spielberg film, full of wonder, nail-biting suspense and thrilling action sequences, all underpinned with human drama.
Based on Michael Crichton’s best selling novel, the rights were fought over by Hollywood studios before it was even released. As well as a successful author, Crichton was known in throughout the industry as he was also a screenwriter and director. His novel, The Andromeda Strain (1971) had successfully been adapted for the screen by Robert Wise and Westworld (1973), which Crichton wrote and directed was also a big influence of the sci-fi genre.
Indeed the latter shares a lot of DNA (pun intended) with Jurassic Park. Both stories feature a theme park where things go very wrong with the attractions turning on the guests. Even if you remove the dinosaurs, Jurassic Park’s story relies on the timeless sci-fi tropes of an over-reliance on technology and man-playing god, essentially a twist on the Frankenstein tale.
Let’s face it, dinosaurs have always been popular, especially with kids – there’s something fascinating about giant monsters that once walked the Earth. Cinema has been fascinated with them too – King Kong (1933), One Million Years BC (1966), Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1959) to name a few. Usually, there was some crazy reason for the dinosaurs' existence – a hidden island, time travel etc however, Jurassic Park was the first time it seemed plausible. It’s also what appealed to Steven Spielberg – that fascination of dinosaurs mixed with real-life science – using preserved DNA.
“You crazy son of a bitch, you did it!”
Spielberg wanted the film to maintain that believability portrayed in the novel – and that meant the best special effects for the dinosaurs. Originally it was planned to have a mix of animatronics and stop motion for the dinosaurs. However Industrial Light and Magic (ILM), fresh off delivering groundbreaking effects for Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991) convinced Spielberg that CGI could help bring his dinosaurs to life.
Throughout the film, there’s a continuous drive for authenticity. Crichton adapts his own novel with David Keopp and they do a great job of adapting the dense science featured in the novel. Instead of some clunky exposition or some prologue text, we get the snappy and simple Mr DNA video – which acts as a great overview for both Grant and co, as well as the audience.
On balance, the novel is so trimmed down, it opens up a few plot holes – where are all the staff when things start going wrong? Are we supposed to believe they all left due to the storm?! Excluding a thrilling prologue featuring an employee fatality, there’s very little action in the first hour, which Spielberg is more than aware:
“I already know it’s too long for the first 45 minutes…I feel it’s important to give some of the background in terms of chaos theory and DNA cloning – to set the stage for the audience so they won’t have to think about it during the second half of the film, but they’ll believe it even more…” Empire Magazine
Like Jaws, it’s all in the setup and what you don’t see that rackets up the tension. The difference with Jurassic Park is when the monsters actually appear, they look very convincing! Spielberg is a master in such tricks, we get to spend time with all the Park guests before all hell breaks loose, so we’re more invested in the drama.
As well as the science getting simplified, some of the novel’s characters get the Spielberg treatment. Koepp’s script makes Alan Grant a reluctant father figure as well as adding a love triangle between him, Statler, and Malcolm. Elsewhere, Hammond is a flawed idealist, opposed to the fairly ruthless CEO in Crichton’s original vision. Classic Spielberg tropes also reappear; children of divorce (E.T., Jaws, The Goonies), absent grown-ups (E.T, Close Encounters) and extraordinary things happening to ordinary people (basically most Spielberg films until Schindler’s List).
Despite the dinosaurs being the main attraction, the film is amazingly well cast, with each of the actors making the most of their screen time. Richard Attenborough brings sympathy and warmth to Hammond, Sam Neill convinces on both delivering dino knowledge as well as the action stakes. Yet, it’s Jeff Goldblum who is in danger of stealing the show from the dinosaurs, with his rockstar chaos theorist getting all of the best lines.
Overall, this is a defining blockbuster from Hollywood’s best director in his prime. A smart and thrilling monster movie, that 25 years and four sequels later, has yet to be bettered.
Alternate Title: Dino-Jaws
Coulda Woulda Shoulda: Harrison Ford was offered the role of Alan Grant and turned it down. Fellow Last Crusader, Sir Sean Connery was offered the role of John Hammond.