“Jurassic Park” has aged well as one of the notable milestones in the special effect history. The special effect technology in Hollywood has moved on a lot since its remarkable achievement in 1993, and you may glimpse its dated aspects while discerning the holes and flaws in its standard monster flick plot, but there is still awe and wonder whenever the movie looks at its small and big prehistoric creatures. It may look old, but you can still believe they’re alive again.
Its story premise is utterly implausible to you if you are majoring in biology or have some basic biological knowledge on DNA. An eccentric enterpriser John Hammond(amiable Richard Attenborough) owns a private island called Isla Nublar, which is about 120 miles/190 km off the west coast of Costa Rica, and his big scientific project at the island is almost near the finish line. Extracting the dinosaur DNAs from the mosquitoes which sucked the blood from dinosaurs and then were quickly preserved in amber by chance more than 6.5 million years ago, Hammond’s scientists succeed in cloning dinosaurs through the complete assembly of their genomic data, and they successfully bring back 15 kinds of dinosaurs to the Earth. Hammond’s theme park in the island, aptly named Jurassic Park, is now in the preparation step, and the dinosaurs such as Brachiosaurus, Triceratops, Diloposaurus, Velociraptor, and Tyrannosaurus rex are being managed in their respective habitats under the high-tech security system and several safety measures including high-voltage fences, which gave me one of the cringe-inducing moments in the film when I watched the movie as a 10-year old kid.
That looked fairly plausible to me and other kid audiences in 1993, but now my mind observes its premise more critically due to my academic knowledge on how fragile DNA is. Maybe you can luckily get a mosquito who did suck a dinosaur, but it is almost impossible to get the whole genome of a dinosaur through the ‘preserved’ blood from 6.5 million years ago, for it is quite possible that the genomic DNA was damaged from the beginning. Not long after watching the movie again on this Saturday morning, my friend Michael Mirasol introduced me a recent New York Times article on how a group of scientists got the complete genome of prehistoric horse which lived about 700,000 years ago, and it described in details how fortunate they were to get enough DNA fragments for drawing the whole genome map of that ancient species. If you read that article, you will see how utterly preposterous the premise of the movie is(I also can tell you a lot about cloning process requires far, far more than acquiring genomic DNA data, but I am writing a movie review, not a science article).
Anyway, the movie goes along with its rather fantastic premise without thinking about it too seriously, and it magnificently delivers what it promises to us. Yes, we all knew we were going to see dinosaurs before going into the theater at that time, but we could not help but admire its series of awe-inspiring sights including a gigantic Brachiosaurus on lunchtime, and we fully identified with what the characters feel in front of these amazing sights. I know that, as old cousins of birds, some dinosaurs might have been furrier than we imagined, but the movie still reminds me of how enthusiastic I was about dinosaurs like many kids eagerly memorizing those long names of various dinosaurs.
It is unfortunate that its story does not go up as high as its special effects, and I see its flaws more clearly as a seasoned adult audience. Michael Crichton’s novel the movie is based on was an enjoyable book to read, but I was far more fascinated with the part involving its technological/scientific details(remember those fancy mathematical images decorating the book?) than the part involving story and characters, and the screenplay by David Koepp and Michael Crichton retains this weakness while being faithful to the novel. I appreciated that they made John Hammond more human and more sympathetic that his greedy and egoistic counterpart in the novel, and Richard Attenborough has a small poignant scene revealing Hammond’s innocent motive behind his ambitious project, but his character is as functional as the other main characters whose main functions in the story are 1) being dumfounded and 2) being chased by whatever they encounter on the island.
They are Dr. Alan Grant(Sam Neil), a paleontologist, Dr. Ellie Sattler(Laura Dern), a paleo-botanist who is Dr. Grant’s co-worker/girlfriend, and a cocky mathematician Dr. Ian Malcolm(Jeff Goldblum), who usually talks about that famous chaos theory or gives good old-time moral/ethical lectures on Hammond’s advanced biotechnology to others. They are invited to the island for giving assuring judgments to Hammond’s concerning investors, and they soon find their initial concerns are right not long after they begin the tour ride along with Hammond’s two grandchildren and a lawyer representing the investors(his demise by one of the dinosaurs is probably a small amusing moment to some audiences).
The movie virtually telegraphs this peril to us even before they arrive at the island. Besides an approaching tropical storm, there is an obnoxious employee with a cockamamy plot to steal dinosaur embryos(it is rather unbelievable that some corporate spy paid $750,000 to this bumbling jerk in advance for that), and we are not so surprised to see that the movie switches its gear from SF fantasy mode to horror thriller mode in the middle of the story.
It becomes relatively less interesting as a result while the characters keep running for their life under urgent situations, but, fortunately for us, the director Steven Spielberg is not only a masterful craftsman but also a talented storyteller. Even with a plain shot of the ripples in the glass of water(this simple effect was created by plucking guitar strings below the glass, by the way), he gives us a clear sense of approaching dread, and then we get a frightening action scene featuring a certain fearsome dinosaur quite determined to eat more than what is served. Although they are not directly shown on the screen during most of the running time, we indirectly come to learn about Velociraptors’ sheer ruthlessness(Sam Neil has a darkly humorous scene around the beginning where his character terrorizes a chubby kid by describing how they hunt), and these savage hunters are indeed effective villains during the tense kitchen sequence where Hammond’s grandchildren must depend on their wits and guts to escape from these lethal predators.
Spielberg and his crew effectively used CGI as another new tool available to them along with the older kinds of special effects. The CGIs in the movie are deftly mixed with live-action models to create very believable illusions on the screen, and the result is more distinctive and more vivid than those bland CGIs we usually get during summer blockbuster season nowadays. While CGI allowed more kinetic freedom for the dinosaurs in the film, more traditional special effects were also crucial in making them really look and feel like living animals, and that is why that intimate encounter scene with a Brachiosaurus(or the head of a Brachiosaurus, shall we say) carries an equal weight to the majestic CGI introduction scene of Brachiosaurus in full view.
While showing many dated aspects as a product of the 1990s(Many electronic equipments in the film do look old-fashioned, and I was personally tickled by the brief appearance of CD-ROM equipment), “Jurassic Park” holds its place well as an entertaining film on the whole. It is more apparent to me now that its story and characters feel deficient in comparison to its outstanding special effects, and that is a major reason why the movie is several steps below Spielberg’s great entertainment films like “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”(1977) or “Minority Report”(2002), but I enjoyed its technical aspects and it is undeniable that the movie is a terrific technical achievement to be remembered and cited.
Stan Winston, Dennis Murren, Phil Tippett, and Michael Lantieri certainly deserved Special Effect Oscar award for their superlative job, and the movie also deservedly won two Oscars for its sound mixing and sound editing; we will probably never discover how dinosaurs actually sounded like, but the people at the sound department did a very good job of making the creature sound effects both plausible and believable. John Williams’ great score superbly enhances many amazing sights in the film, and it is a shame that it was not Oscar-nominated along with his equally great score for Spielberg’s powerful film “Schindler’s List”(1993).
For the recent re-release, “Jurassic Park” is converted to 3D, and its 3D converting is well done as far as I can see. The resulting dimness is inevitable, but it is kept on a minimal level, and I was not distracted by 3D during my viewing. That reminds me again of the irony of 3D effect: it is better when we are less conscious of it, but then what is the point of using 3D if there isn’t anything to be enhanced by 3D? The movie tremendously entertained me and other young audiences in 1993 even without 3D glasses, and I was glad that I saved my money through attending a morning screening at the local theater.
Nevertheless, I enjoyed the movie itself as I did 20 years ago, and I willingly recommended it to one of my junior lab members when he said he had never watched it on a big screen. I am less enthusiastic than before as an adult reviewer, but the movie still has its own wonder compensating for its several weak points, and my admiration toward to the movie has never been decreased. It could have been better(Dr. Sattler, aren’t you curious about how they also cloned prehistoric plants?), but it is surely nice to see that one of my sweet childhood memories has lost none of its magic even after 20 years it was made.
Sidenote: When the movie arrives at the sentimental ending, it nearly forgets that the dinosaurs will eventually die within few days due to their genetically modified metabolism deficiency – but that fault would not matter much after the arrival of its unnecessary sequel “The Lost World: Jurassic Park”(1997), which was one of few forgettable works directed by Spielberg.