Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Summer School: 'Jurassic Park' (1993)

With so many summer franchises returning this year, I'm catching up on previous installments.

I'm pretty sure the last time I saw Jurassic Park was when it was in theaters in 1993, but so many of the iconic images and lines were still fresh in my mind when I sat down to watch it again all these years later. It's become such a huge corporate product that it's easy to forget how effective and entertaining the original is, still one of Steven Spielberg's most purely enjoyable movies. Spielberg beautifully captures the wonder and menace of dinosaurs, and the groundbreaking special effects are still awe-inspiring more than 20 years later (really, they look better than a lot of CGI in current blockbusters).

It's been even longer since I read Michael Crichton's source novel, but I remember it being a lot more focused on chaos theory (which gets some rushed, condensed explanations from Jeff Goldblum's Dr. Iam Malcolm) and genetic engineering than the movie, which uses the scientific framework to tell a crackling suspense story. Thanks to the expense and novelty of the special effects, the dinosaurs don't get a ton of screen time, but Spielberg makes every second of it count, and whenever the dinosaurs are offscreen, the threat and anticipation of their presence is always palpable. Spielberg builds tension so effectively that by the time the T. rex shows up and starts wreaking havoc, it's almost a relief.

He's aided by some strong performances, including one of Goldblum's most endearingly creepy characters and Richard Attenborough bringing the proper amount of grandeur and hubris to park visionary John Hammond. Sam Neill and Laura Dern are less remarkable, but they do solid work as the level-headed protagonists who are called upon to save the day. I could have done without the cheesy subplot about Neill's Dr. Alan Grant learning to love children (note: I hate children, so I always hate storylines like this), but I have to admit that child actress Ariana Richards does a pretty amazing "scared shitless" face.

Although there are parts of the movie that are genuinely scary and a few nasty horror-movie moments (Dern's Dr. Ellie Sattler being grabbed by a severed arm is particularly old-school), Jurassic Park is more of a roller coaster than a horror show. Spielberg is interested in creating suspense, not horrifying the audience, and he keeps the body count low. Even though one of the most suspenseful sequences involves young Tim climbing a soon-to-be-electrified fence, there's no real sense that the boy might die. Spielberg is an expert at taking his audiences on a ride, and Jurassic Park is one of the most satisfying rides he's created.

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