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From the DVD Shelf: Jurassic Park (1993)

1993 was a banner year for Steven Spielberg.  That year saw the release of two films that he directed: Schindler’s List and Jurassic Park.  Both were phenomenally good, though two more different films I can scarcely imagine.  To my younger self, those dual accomplishments in 1993 embedded Steven Spielberg in my mind as a director at the top of his game who could pretty much do no wrong.  If he could succeed at making both a potent, emotional historical drama, as well as a nail-biting sci-fi action spectacle, then the man could do anything.

I remember very clearly when I first saw Jurassic Park on the big screen.  It scared the hell out of me!  That seems sort of silly now, but I wasn’t prepared at the time for how intense a film it was.  Seeing it projected on the big screen, I was totally blown away by the visual effects, and also by the incredible sound.  Jurassic Park is one of the first films that really made me think about the sound design.  I think it was the incredible sound-scape that contributed to the intensity of the film as much as the amazing imagery.

Watching Jurassic Park, today, on DVD, the film doesn’t have anywhere near that intensity.  It does, however, hold up rather well.  The CGI effects that were so ground-breaking at the time still look great.  That’s a pretty amazing achievement — I’m sure you don’t have to think too hard to come up with a lengthy list of films whose visual effects were groundbreaking at the time but are pretty laughable today — and it’s a testament to the quality work done by all the artists involved with the film.  It’s pretty amazing to me how well-made the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park are.  There wasn’t a single shot that jumped out at me as being silly or fake-looking.  This is important in allowing the film to retain its effectiveness, even almost twenty years later.  It’s critical that the dinosaurs work as believable creatures — otherwise I think you’d be plucked right out of the story.

But the reason why Jurassic Park still works today isn’t just about the dinosaurs — it’s also about how carefully and successfully Mr. Spielberg (and screenwriters David Koepp and Michael Crichton, adapting Mr. Crichton’s novel) establish a believable, interesting ensemble of characters to hang the story around.  It takes almost a full hour of the film before the dino-mayhem really begins.  That time is well-used, as we get to know and care about the folks who are about to be terrorized.

Sam Neillhas never been better than as Dr. Alan Grant, the paleontologist hero of the film.  He’s ornery but not in an over-the-top way, and a likable enough fellow that he’s easy to root for.  Laura Dern brings a lot of warmth to the role of his partner, Dr. Ellie Sattler.  I love their relationship in the film.  It’s an unusual screen romance as we never see them acting all that overtly affectionate with one another (impressively, there’s no big kiss after the film’s climax), and yet they clearly care very deeply for one another in a very real way.  Jeff Goldblum has possibly his best role as the intelligent, sarcastic chaos mathematician Dr. Ian Malcolm.  He gets all the best lines in the film. 

Those are the three leads, but the rest of the ensemble is equally strong.  Richard Attenborough is lovable and horrifying, all at the same time, as John Hammond, the billionaire creator of the park.  Bob Peck is tough-as-nails as the head warden of the park, Robert Muldoon, and Samuel L. Jackson is great as the cigarrete-chomping Ray Arnold.  (His delivery of “hang on to your butts” is one for the ages.)  Wayne Knight is well-used as the slimy, greedy computer programmer Dennis Nedry, whose failed attempt at corporate espionage sets all of the chaos in motion.  And even the two kids — Joseph Mazzello as Tim and Ariana Richards as Lex — are pretty solid and never fall into annoying-kid mannerisms.  (Credit Mr.Spielberg’s renowned skill at directing child actors for keeping their performances believable.)

All of these characters are interesting enough that, as a viewer, we enjoy getting to know them during the first half of the film (rather than being bored and desperate for the dinosaurs to show up) — and that time spent helps make the second half of the film much more compelling, as we’re actually rooting for these characters that we like to survive.

All of Mr. Spielberg’s best qualities as a director are on display here — he’s able to create compelling characters, he’s able incorporate humor in a way that provides a release for the audience’s tension without undermining the dramatic stakes, and man oh man can he stage an action sequence.  The T-Rex attack which comes right in the middle of the film still stands today as a masterfully executed piece of business.  The combination of acting, directing, visual effects, score, and sound effects work perfectly together to create a wonderfully nail-biting sequence.  I’ll repeat myself by saying again how impressed I was by how well the T-Rex effects, in particular, hold up today. 

When seen today, Jurassic Park might not have the intensity it did on the big screen, and certainly the never-been-seen-before quality of its visual effects has been long-ago surpassed.  But it’s still a fun, entertaining flick, well-made from top to bottom.

Here in 2010, I still consider Steven Spielberg to be one of my favorite directors, and one of the most talented directors working today.  But, it’s funny, the other day I was thinking about this and I started to wonder if my high respect for Spielberg wasn’t based more on the films he made in the ’70s and ’80s than it was on anything he had done for the past decade or so (much the way that I freely admit that my love for Woody Allen is based on all the amazing films he directed and starred in during the ’60s and ’70s, since it’s been many, many years since I unabashedly loved one of his new films).  Other than Saving Private Ryan, from 1998, which is a film I adore (despite William Goldman’s searing evisceration of the film which is a hilarious MUST-READ and pretty much right on all counts, but somehow doesn’t hurt my enjoyment of the film, which might make me a knucklehead but I’m OK with that), there really isn’t any other film directed by Steven Spielberg since 1993 that I feel like I really loved.  And when I really got to thinking about it, I realized that there wasn’t a single post-’93 Spielberg film (except for the afore-mentioned Saving Private Ryan), that I had even seen a second time.

So I’ve decided to undertake a Spielbergian re-watching project.  I’m calling it Spielberg in the Aughts, even though I’m going to begin with his two films from 1997, The Lost World and Amistad.  I’ll be giving a second look to all of Mr. Spielberg’s films, starting with those two, up through 2005’s Munich.  (Mr. Spielberg has released only one film since Munich, 2008’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, which was so excerable a film that I can’t bring myself to watch it a second time.)  I’m really interested to see what I make of this run of movies when watching them all for a second time — will I discover any gems that perhaps I overlooked originally?  Let’s find out!  I’ll be back soon with my thoughts on The Lost World, and then on Amistad, and we’ll go from there…

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