"All major theme parks have delays. When they opened Disneyland in 1956, nothing worked."
"Yeah, but John, if The Pirates of the Caribbean breaks down, the pirates don't eat the tourists."
I was in high school when Jurassic Park came out to tremendous hype. I had polished off the novel in no time during my free time that summer at band camp. And for that reason, I felt like the only person in the world who left the theater disappointed. I think anyone who's read Crichton's novel will know what I'm talking about - the story, characters, subplot and science are a different experience. But Chrichton and Koepp necessarily stripped the plot down to its core for the film adaptation, thus the typical book-to-movie disappointment.
Now that I've forgotten both the movie and the book, would a fresh screening in glorious 3-D revise my original judgement?
Visually, twenty years' time has been extremely kind to Spielberg's blockbuster hit. Aside from a few corny moments, it doesn't feel at all out of place amongst his year's crop of summer spectacles. The blend of live action and computer generated effects remains remarkably seamless even today.
Spielberg wisely chose creature effects guru Stan Winston to create elaborate puppets, dinosaur suits and rigs to supplement the CGI where it counts, and you'd still be hard-pressed to tell which is which. When most of today's action movies force their actors to run around on green screen sound stages, gawking at imagined threats, you can't help thinking that having a life-sized T-Rex staring Jeff Goldblum in the face helped him with those crap-your-pants reactions that make this film so believable.
The acting is pretty good. Richard Attenborough is still adorable, Sam Niell and Laura Dern are young and fresh, the kids are kids, and I've always enjoyed Jeff Goldblum's witty cynicism and unique line delivery. Sneaking in under the radar is a pre-megastar Samuel Jackson in a rare minor role. And then there's Newman.
However, the sheer perfection of the action sequences struck me most. The hyper-overdrive nature of action films today gets boring. When computers allow you to stage any shot you want at a fraction of the real cost, we numb to relentless and unrealistic bashing and destruction (see: Transformers). Suddenly, ordinary people become incredibly athletic.
But Spielberg, as always, layers his set pieces with tension and deliberate pacing.
Take the first Tyrannosaurus attack on the hapless tourists: This is not an evil T-Rex lashing out of his cage in a sudden burst of freedom, relentlessly pursuing revenge on his captors like a scorned prisoner. He's a big, confused animal fighting his way out of confinement - an animal who happens to be a hunter by instinct, planning pick up some snacks along the way. If this were made today, this would no doubt have been staged an unbelievable chase through the jungle, with characters improbably swinging from vines and narrowly dodging between his legs (see: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull).
Instead, the tension ricochets from slow-burn to frenetic chase - people trapped under cars slowly grinding into the mud, tripping over themselves in the jungle, alternately running and remaining completely still to evade detection. From the car in the trees to the raptors in the kitchen, Spielberg constructs these sequences so realistically that it's hard to believe you would be capable of acting any differently if you were up there.
Each type of dino is clearly defined as a character - the harmless long-necks, the all powerful King T-Rex, the vicious pack-hunting raptors, and the venom-spitting Dilophosaurus. Moreso than the visual effects, these choices make the dinosaurs more interesting and memorable than simply a set of obstacles to overcome (see: Peter Jackson's King Kong).
Though it's necessarily stripped down for the screen, the story is still no slouch. As proof, here's your exercise: Please identify the villain. After all, standard Hollywood formula requires a clearly defined and ruthless enemy for that third-act final battle sequence.
The dinosaurs? Hardly. They're confined victims, brought into a world they can no longer live in. And when they escape, nobody blames the dinosaurs for doing what dinosaurs do.
Dennis Nedry and corporate espionage? It has no bearing on the real story. First off, who really cares if he steals a few embryos? Hammond could hardly expect to keep all this to himself for much longer. This subplot only exists to shut down the computer systems and ignite the real problems.
How about the hubris of John Hammond, daring to play God, thinking he can reverse millions of years of evolution with no consequences?
Sure - except we're all on John's side, aren't we? The prospect of making money clearly plays second fiddle to his childlike desire to just bring some dinosaurs back to life and share them with the world. He's doing exactly what we would do with his resources, and we desperately long to see him succeed. Who wouldn't kill for the opportunity to see a dinosaur rise from the fossils of history, living and breathing before us today? Even in his continued optimism as the park starts falling apart, we're behind his idea the whole time.
Nope - in Jurassic Park, the third act battle is simply escaping this man-made tragedy with all limbs intact. Complex, overlapping dynamics are at play here, and I think this is a big reason why the film continues to stand out and capture our imagination.
What makes the movie so emotionally complex and satisfying is that we desperately want to have our cake and eat it too. Yes yes, messing with nature, playing God, chaos theory and all that…but c'mon, it's DINOSAURS. Despite what we now know about the lifespan of DNA, there's GOTTA be a way to make it work.
C'mon back, John, with some stronger fences, some non-amphibian ovum, a little more money and a more dedicated group of employees and give it another go, would you? Please? Just figure it out for us and we'll all queue up to line your pockets. That's all we're really asking for, 20 years later.