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SpielBLOG: Jurassic Park – A Steven Spielberg Retrospective

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Another film, another dream project. Dinosaurs had always been something that fascinated Steven Spielberg and he counted Ray Harryhausen as one of his earliest influences. But with Jurassic Park there was also a sense that Spielberg was going back to his first proven success. He wanted a monster movie Summer blockbuster like Jaws had been. And that’s what he got.

Michael Crichton’s novel was written in full knowledge that a film was on the way. Spielberg acquired the rights before the book was even on the shelves in 1990. The doctor turned film director basically retooled an earlier story of an amusement park gone wrong – Westworld – replacing the cowboys with dinosaurs and voilà!

Billionaire John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) hires a team of scientists to give a clean bill of health to his secret new amusement park on Isla Nublar. Two palaeontologists Dr.s Ellie Stattler (Laura Dern) and Alan Grant (Sam Neill) join ‘chaotician’ Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum at his bubbling best) to gaze at first in awe at the genetically resurrected dinos, before succumbing to some fairly obvious reservations. ‘You were so busy wondering if you could, you didn’t ask if you should,’ quoth the ever meme-able Malcolm.

Here, the plot is flimsy. The dangers of such a park are obvious to even the untrained eye. These are savagely dangerous animals; the safeguards are fairly flimsy; hurricanes are not unknown in the tropics and the staff all bugger off for the weekend for no discernible reason. But it’s all a forgivable conceit. We want the dinosaurs to break free. We want the kids – oh yeah, Hammond’s grandchildren show up – to be put in danger. We want the rain to fall. We want to see an impact tremor in a glass of water.

And here – as with the truck in Duel or the shark in Jaws – Spielberg in his perfect (dis) comfort zone. The sequence with the T.Rex breaking through the fence is an absolute masterpiece in tension. Witty, sadistic, and genuinely frightening. Far from being coddled by the film, the children are targeted and the first-time viewer might easily believe the kids are going to share the fate of that poor Kintner boy, as they jaws of the dino snap at the windscreen or they find themselves almost drowning in mud.

The jeopardy of the children makes me forgive the rather slapdash motivation for their inclusion. With Spielberg in the midst of a reconciliation with his own father, his films shift from the absent father to the redemptive father-figure. Peter Banning in Hook played a nascent version of the role; Tom Cruise will play a couple of versions of it later on.

The problem is that although Sam Neill grows into the role, there is zero chemistry between him and Laura Dern, who also works much better once separated from her onscreen husband. There’s much more evident chemistry with the seductive Malcolm with whom Dern began to have an onset affair. She’d divorce Renny Harlin and he’d divorce Geena Davis over the affair. Goldblum and Dern would marry; as would Harlin and Davis. So everyone was happy. They were all so busy wondering if they could, they didn’t think etc…

Jurassic Park is a much broader adventure than the two-act Jaws. Subplots abound in David Koepp’s screenplay and most of the story elements are carried through with elan. The exposition is particularly adept – enough to make an apprentice scriptwriter like myself clap my hands and shout ‘Go Exposition!’ in irrelevant delight. The small but crucial parts are filled by colourfully played performances from Seinfeld’s nemesis Wayne Knight to the big game hunter Bob ‘clever girl’ Peck and the chain-smoking Samuel L. Jackson: ‘hold onto your butts!’

Some of the CGI might look a bit basic by today’s standards but its limited use is perfect, supplemented by animatronics and puppet work. And when the money shots come, they stand up. The secret however of the film’s abiding success is that as wonderful as the dinosaurs are and as breathtaking as the special effects are, the film’s tension and excitement, really works because we care about the protagonists – yes, even the children in the kitchen from The Shining. The many sequels might boast more CGI and the usual inflation of grandeur but it is to diminishing returns dramatically, although unfortunately not in terms of box office.

With the necessary delays in post-production, Spielberg would already have another feature completed by the time Jurassic Park hit the big screens and re-established him as the king of the Summer blockbuster. That film, however, would see him enter the darkest territory of his career thus far. ​

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