WFTB Score: 18/20
The plot: Two prehistoric experts are lured to a Central American island to give their opinions on the new theme park of wealthy Scotsman John Hammond, the unique selling point of which is that the exhibits are living, breathing dinosaurs. But as they take the tour with other interested parties and Hammond’s grandchildren, the greed of one of the employees ensures that all hell – not least in the form of Jurassic Park’s prize Tyrannosaurus Rex – breaks loose.
It’s probably overstating the case a little, but for me watching Jurassic Park, twice in the same week, on its release was akin to the first sound picture or the invention of Technicolor. Having missed out on the hype of the Star Wars films, I grew up believing most movies to be over-rated and over-long as pieces of entertainment; but Spielberg’s masterly adaptation of Michael Crichton’s novel fostered a new appreciation of the form that has very infrequently left me since.
The story is typical Crichton fare as Man – in this case avuncular Scot John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) – interferes with the natural order to create a dino-filled reserve on Isla Nublar, west of Costa Rica. He’s all ready to go but his nervous lawyer requires a professional opinion on ‘Jurassic Park’ before the public are let loose. To carry out this assessment Hammond calls on child-wary palaeontologist Alan (Sam Neill), his partner Ellie (Laura Dern), luckily a paleobotanist, and Dr Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum), a smarmy mathematician and an expert in chaos theory (I report the word ‘chaotician’ only to remark on what a stupid word it is). The park has some teething troubles, including the apparent shyness of some of the creatures, but worse is to come: not only is a tropical storm on its way, but the park’s chief computer guy Dennis Nedry (Wayne Knight) is indulging in a spot of industrial espionage, stealing precious dinosaur embryos for a princely price. His plans involve turning off much of the electricity supply, including the power to the fences that keep the vicious T-Rex and velociraptor dinosaurs in check; and also, vitally, the power to the vehicles that Alan, Ellie and Ian find themselves in with Hammond’s lucky (!) grandchildren Lex and dinosaur-mad Tim (Ariana Richards and Joseph Mazzello). When Lex inadvertently brings herself to the attention of a freed T-Rex, a breathless race for safety begins for Alan and the children whilst Hammond, gamekeeper Muldoon (Bob Peck) and security man Ray (Samuel L. Jackson) attempt to restore power and control over the park.
It would be foolish to overlook Jurassic Park’s faults: Goldblum’s deliberately smarmy mathematician has some pretty naff lines about nature’s relentless will to survive, and Attenborough gives up on his accent after five minutes; depending on your constitution, you may also feel a bit queasy about Alan’s sudden concern for Hammond’s grandchildren (Spielberg’s trademark fatherhood motif rearing its head again). But none of this is really of any consequence given the director’s achievement in bringing to the screen a near-faultless vision of Jurassic Park itself: the island is completely believable, the security measures absolutely realistic; and the moment that Sam Neill turns Laura Dern’s head to look at a lake crowded with dinosaurs must count as one of the great cinematic reveals of recent times. Yes, 1991’s Terminator 2 had excellent effects, and a thousand films since have taken CGI to a new level; but Jurassic Park (for me, at any rate) marked the moment when a new era of film-making was born. It’s not only the realistic look of the dinosaurs that impresses, but the way that they interact with the plants and other bits of scenery (for example, the rocking of the tree stump as the Gallimimus charge over it). Excellent editing ensures that animatronic and puppetry work is married seamlessly to digital images, and whilst there are one or two moments where the creatures look like rubber, they constitute a second’s worth of frames in the whole film.
These good looks would mean nothing if the film lacked in action, but once various contrivances have brought the parties together and things start going wrong, Jurassic Park consistently ratchets up the tension, only rarely pausing for breath. The film can’t quite call on the fear of the deep like Jaws does, but Spielberg manages to wring drama out of details such as vibrations in a glass of water before unleashing bursts of explosive action onto the screen, such as the scramble down the tree to escape from a falling car, or Ellie and Ian’s close shave with the T-Rex. Even Nedry, the boo-hiss villain, meets a shocking, if deserved, fate. The drama comes from all sides, the simple action of climbing a fence literally becoming a heart-stopping moment, whilst we are concerned at the same time for Ellie’s safety. The action builds to the incredibly exciting escape from the velociraptors, a sequence which reminds the home viewer (this one, anyway) that films are meant to be watched on a big screen with immersive sound, and thankfully takes me back to watching the film for the first time and jumping out of my seat as the ‘raptors attacked the ceiling panels.
Whilst the creatures are the stars of the show, it is worth noting that all the leads (accents excepted) do a good job in their roles, the children in particular only as annoying as they should be. Peck and Jackson are also very good in their support roles. John Williams’ score, as ever, wrings every ounce of grandeur and drama out of the goings-on. Credit too to Crichton and David Koepp for creating a screenplay that combines action with issues of scientific morality and even educational bits, without ever appearing dry – the Disney-esque explanation of the science behind re-creating the dinosaurs is inspired.
As is nearly everything about Jurassic Park. It’s been easily overtaken as the highest-grossing film of all time, and superseded technically by dozens of others, but the use of computer-generated wizardry and live action in this film is probably as close to perfect as movies will get, as far as creating emotions in its audience goes. Not everything on the screen is real, but the thumping of the heart within the viewer certainly is.