Jurassic Park: 3D | Director Steven Spielberg | Score: 4.9
As odious as the concept might be to film purists, it’s very difficult not to compare Steven Spielberg’s 1993 film to his previous monster masterwork, Jaws, from 1975. Difficult because Spielberg himself keeps relentlessly self-referencing his early masterpiece of tension and horror in an attempt to give this particular bubble-gum version a bit more bite. From key conception (withholding the big monster reveal until about a third of the way in the film) to scene-by-scene stealing, Spielberg wants us to recognize that he is very aware of the similar ground he’s covering with this picture.
The main difference is Jaws was a film for adults, made with little idea of the kind of impact it might have culturally and financially upon its release. Jurassic Park, meanwhile, is a far more conniving enterprise, a film for teens and pre-teens with more than half an eye on its enormous marketing potential (not for nothing is the logo for the island displayed throughout the film).
At the time of Jaws, Spielberg was a callow 28-year-old shooting his first major feature under incredibly trying circumstances (the various mechanical sharks they rigged for the film simply would not function properly which caused innumerable delays and ramping up the already considerable pressure on the young filmmaker by the minute). The fact that the film was made at all was something of a miracle, and the resultant megawatt impact of the movie — the original summer blockbuster — took nearly everyone by surprise.
By the time he made Jurassic Park 18 years later however, Spielberg had long since established his filmmaking brand and proven his phenomenal commercial bankability time and again. By 1993, there simply wasn’t a question of this dinosaur film’s popularity and merchandising possibility, it was a fait accompli, understood by all to be an utterly risk-free excuse to print money throughout its release. Made for $63 million, it grossed over $350 million domestically alone, to say nothing of the substantial merchandising income.
As a result, whereas Jaws felt surprising and risk-taking, Jurassic Park, for all its supposed attention to nature’s laws and lip service to chaos theory, feels anything but. In keeping with its track record, Universal’s decision to greenlight several horrific sequels, and now re-releasing the film with retrofitted 3D, is entirely in keeping with the cash cow legacy of the enterprise.
Viewing it again, 20 years after its first release, several points come to light.
1. The technology the film uses — primitive CGI — is still effective, even though the specific imagery is not much up to a modern standard. Spielberg, for all his bluster and schlock, is still, at heart, a hell of a filmmaker, and understood precisely how much computer imagery he could get away with and how much they still needed to use animatronic models to make the film feel ‘real.’ True, the mainframes Samuel L. Jackson and Wayne Knight use in the film could probably be outclassed by a single iPhone (and the 3D-style graphics the mainframe emulates are painfully slow) but there isn’t a single Loaf-of-Bread-Sized Cellphone Moment to make you outright chortle.
2. Despite Spielberg and screenwriters David Koepp and Michael Chrichton (working from the latter’s novel) giving Jeff Goldblum’s chaos-theory-mouthpiece Dr. Malcolm a speech about how John Hammond (played with gusto by Sir Richard Attenborough) and his park have overplayed their hand and merchandised something that should have been afforded respect (“You stood on the shoulders of geniuses to accomplish something as fast as you could, and before you even knew what you had, you patented it, and packaged it, and slapped it on a plastic lunchbox, and now … you wanna sell it”), Spielberg and his team attempt to have it both ways — decrying the process that Hammond has attempted while still marketing the living hell out of the film they’ve made about that process. They even slip in a scene late in the film where a couple of the human characters attempt to elude a pack of Velociraptors by sneaking through the museum gift shop and scuttling right past those very same lunchboxes and t-shirts that Dr. Malcolm was complaining about that were, in fact, actually available on store shelves in time for the film’s release.
3. Once the ride begins, and quickly falls into bloody chaos, the film more or less just keeps pounding at you. No rain storm is too small, no piece of seemingly extraneous information about dinosaurs goes unused, and no wrecked car hanging down from a tree will stay in place terribly long before it comes crashing down, branch-by-branch towards our protagonists. In this way, Spielberg employs the tried-and-true methodology he perfected in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, throwing as many things at the audience as he can in order for them not to notice terribly much the shabbiness of the script and the almost complete lack of characterization. Instead, we get storms, and mud and dinosaurs and electric fences and a velociraptor jumping up at us through a drop-down ceiling (still one of the more effective scares in the film). There’s a reason Jeff Goldblum was cast, I suspect, because he can smirk and snigger and chew up scenery with almost nothing to work with, which is largely what they’ve given him. The film is really just a series of set pieces hung together with a forgettable John Williams soundtrack.
For all its considerable faults and jaded cynicism, Spielberg has still given us a couple of truly memorable scenes. The initial onset of the T-rex remains a textbook example of building visual tension in a comic book vacuum, most notably, even if the overall effect of the movie makes you feel as used and cheapened as a bland amusement park ride. It’s depressing that the same director who gave us the brilliant and indelible SS Indianapolis scene less than 20 years before came back to hock this collection of tacky wares, but I suppose a guy’s gotta eat.
Piers Marchant is a Philly-based writer and editor, and the EIC (and film critic) for two.one.five magazine (215mag.com). His reviews can be found on 215mag.com and his tumblr blog, Sweet Smell of Success. You can also follow him on twitter @kafkaesque83.
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