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Entries in Jurassic Park [1993] (1)

Tuesday
Apr092013

Jurassic Park (1993)

They Spared No Expense

With 3D carnival rides clogging up the multiplex for the last several years, it's fitting that Steven Spielberg's dinosaur-amusement-park epic Jurassic Park get an "enhanced" 20th anniversary re-release. You're right to be skeptical. Most up-charge "event" movies are gaudy, ADD crap. But if adding bells and whistles to a bona fide blockbuster classic is what it takes to get Jeff Goldblum and a T-Rex back on the big screen, I say, "Bring on the glasses!"

Before last week, I hadn't seen Jurassic Park all the way through since it first hit theatres, and had forgotten how great it is. I appreciate the movie now more than I did as a teenager, probably because I've endured a lot of empty, mega-budget popcorn commercials in the years since. Just as Spielberg's Jaws gave birth to the summer blockbuster in 1975, so did Jurassic Park open up the floodgates of bombastic CGI extravaganzas in 1993. He couldn't have known at the time that his five-minute dinner debate about the ethics of genetic manipulation would devolve into twenty-minute action figure brawls, so I won't begrudge him the sour fruits of his genius.

For the uninitiated, Jurassic Park concerns an island amusement park of the same name. Created by eccentric millionaire John Hammond (Richard Attenborough), and plagued by nervous investors ahead of its grand opening, the massive game reserve/tourist attraction houses dinosaurs who've been resurrected via the magic of fossilized mosquito blood and frog DNA (as well as movie magic, considering the lack of velociraptors tearing up my lawn). A lawyer (Martin Ferrero) representing Hammond's backers insists that the park be endorsed by industry-renowned scientists. A few well-placed bribes later, Hammond hosts archaeologists Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern) and Alan Grant (Sam Neill)--as well as brilliant, wise-cracking mathematician Ian Malcom (Goldblum)--for a weekend of exploration in his sprawling, nu-prehistoric wonderland.

Because this is a movie, the trip becomes a disaster. Hammond's unscrupulous tech guru, Dennis Nedry (Wayne Knight) shuts down the compound's security systems in order to steal some dino DNA for a competitor; this coincides with a severe storm (of course) that traps the scientists and Hammond's visiting niece and nephew (Ariana Richards and Joseph Mazzello) in the jungle with giant, hungry, pissed-off lizards.

Jurassic Park's calling card has always been Spielberg and ILM's revolutionary blending of practical effects and cutting-edge digital technology. Indeed, in the six years between this film and George Lucas's Star Wars: Episode I, tons of sci-fi movies tried to gloss over their weak stories and performances with CGI, but only the guys at the top of the pyramid had the funding and passion to really make their experiments work. Even The Phantom Menace looks dodgy by today's standards, but I challenge anyone to watch the scene where the T-Rex attacks the tourist' jeep caravan and not marvel at its authenticity.

While the effects wowed me even as an adult, I was equally impressed by the film's smarts and heart. Instead of sitting through two hours of semi-connected action set pieces, screenwriters Michael Crichton (co-adapting his own novel) and David Koepp take great pains to create a single, thrilling story. There are no great plot twists, no eleventh-hour transformation by Hammond into a maniacal super-villain who gets devoured by his own creations. The filmmakers allow the horror and adventure to explode naturally from their fantastic premise, and follow their well-drawn characters' fight for survival. All the while, a chilling philosophical undercurrent charges the story, summed up best in Malcom's line, "Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn't stop to think if they should."

The cast is wonderful, too. As a bickering-scientist couple who find themselves in the middle of an Earth-shattering discovery and a domestic debate over whether or not to have kids, Neill and Dern convey heartache, humor, and tenderness in ways that the screenplay only suggests. It's a cute conceit that Grant, who doesn't want children, winds up protecting Hammond's niece and nephew. A lesser film would have ended with him as a melted-heart wuss who suddenly wants a giant family. But Jurassic Park leaves the Alan and Ellie story open-ended--hopeful but uncertain.

Writing that just now, I realized a couple more layers to Jurassic Park's overall message about "life finding a way". I won't bore you with them, as many of you are likely far more familiar with this movie than I am. Suffice it to say, I'm still mulling over Spielberg, Crichton, and Koepp's themes a week after seeing their movie--which is more than I can say about most big-ticket pictures I've seen in the ensuing decades.

After wading through all this, you may wonder, "Yeah, but should I bother seeing it in 3D?"

Yes. Yes, you should.

I can't vouch for IMAX 3D--that may be a bit too much visual information to handle. But if you have the chance to experience Jurassic Park in a movie theatre again, go before it's too late. This isn't a lame, Clash of the Titans-style, cheap-o conversion. The extra-dimensional effects are often quite lovely and only occasionally distracting: the separations make an early scene involving the lawyer's visit to an archaeological dig look like a weird motion-pop-up book, while the awesome warped-perspective shots in the famous raptors-in-the-kitchen scene benefit greatly from Stereo D's tinkering.

If for no other reason, you should catch Jurassic Park on the big screen as a reminder that "event" movies used to feel like events. Once upon a time, eye candy was considered dessert and not passed off as a meal devoid of mental and spiritual nutrients. From all appearances, we're in for another long summer of bombastic boredom, so why not remind ourselves of a time when we allowed our cinematic hearts to wonder and not just wander?