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Jurassic Park (1993)

by on 2011/01/23

“Remind me to thank John for a lovely weekend.”

* * * * *

At university, I was privileged to be a student of a radio professional named Jerry Good.  I’ve always remembered at least two of his lessons, one interesting, and one essential.  The former was that “luck” could be defined as the meeting of preparation and opportunity.  The latter was that we spend too much time asking “how” and not “why”.

I was reminded of the second point repeatedly over the course of seeing Jurassic Park again.  I began watching it more interested in discovering how the visual effects would hold up nearly two decades later.  Instead I found unexpected depth in its story of an entrepreneur with more Barnum in him than brains.

Though I have never seen Michael Crichton’s earlier Westworld, I was struck by the similarity of Jurassic Park to its premise.  John Hammond (The Great Escape’s Richard Attenborough) is a brilliant, wealthy impresario of sorts.  He creates an elaborate theme park, in this case based on dinosaurs.  Despite his planning for every apparent contingency, nature rears its disruptive head, and entropy ensues.

Set on Isla Nublar, near Costa Rica, the park is being evaluated by a small group including a lawyer, Gennaro (Martin Ferrero), scientists Alan Grant (Sam Neill of Event Horizon and Daybreakers), Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern), Ian Malcolm (Death Wish’s Jeff Goldblum), and Hammond’s grandchildren Lex (Ariana Richards) and Tim (Joseph Mazzello).  Other prominent roles are played by Samuel Jackson, Wayne Knight, Bob Peck, and B.D. Wong.

If the characters are less than three-dimensional, the actors are hardly to blame.  Everyone acquits themselves well, especially Attenborough, without whom the piece would have no heart, and Goldblum, who brings the reason.

Hammond’s evolution between infectious enthusiasm and deluded dejection forms the story’s core, even with his frequent absences.  Meanwhile, chaotician Malcolm is dismissed as a “rock star” who “suffers a deplorable excess of personality”, however his criticisms are more than mere devil’s advocacy.  His belief that “life finds a way” bears out in the end.

We shouldn’t be surprised at Malcolm’s prediction.  The inevitable tragedy is foreshadowed by details throughout.  Mismatched seat belts in the helicopter suggest Hammond’s inattention to important details (as well as Grant’s resourcefulness in dealing with them).  Vast amounts of control are funneled through demonstrably unstable individuals.  When a storm approaches — surely a common occurrence in the area — protective measures amount to hoping it will miss the island.  As Sattler reflects near the end, “We never had control.  That’s the illusion.”

Fortunately, Jurassic Park proves more successful in its visual illusions.  From the start it was revolutionary, particularly in a genre where dinosaurs were historically exemplified by Godzilla suits, Valley of Gwangi figurines, and Flintstones animation.  Its use of CGI was less a revolution than an evolution, but what it did, it did well, a near-perfect conjunction of crafts.

Today, the effects remain, well, effective.  While some appear washed out, almost flat, and are unevenly successful in their interactions with “real” footage, they hold up well overall.  A multitude of sins can be covered by darkness and rain, both of which benefit several scenes, including ones featuring Tyrannosaurs and Dilophosaurs.

Other scenes feature what I suspect to be more practical effects, puppets which have aged the most convincingly of all.  One scene involving an ailing Triceratops is good enough for full daylight exposure.  Even a less-than-perfect egg hatching scene will be forgiven by fans for featuring both a dinosaur and cute newborn all in one.

In fact that particular scene prompts my greatest reservation.  While rarely explicit in its violence, this movie doesn’t strike me as appropriate for the very audience most likely to see it, or want to.  On one hand, it seems intended for children, and yet is intense enough to give a parent pause.

Otherwise, the whole is a resounding success.  Often playing safe, Jurassic Park nonetheless delivers all we expect and more:  the trappings of science, and matters of “could” versus “should”, beautifully wrapped in a compelling blockbuster experience.  The most telling observation of all came when I reprimanded myself for not reviewing it sooner.

* * * * *

Rated PG13 for frightening scenes, language, and violence

127 minutes

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