I confess that we probably don’t need the 3-D treatment of Jurassic Park. Like so many of these re-issues, the new bells and whistles fail to improve upon the original, which didn’t need any extra help getting people into the theaters. On the other hand, it may convince a few folks to check out Steven Spielberg’s dinosaur adventure on the big screen again, and the big screen is where it really belongs. I haven’t seen there since its initial release in 1993. As the re-issue reminds us, even the high definition television can’t compete with seeing it all forty feet high.
And while it’s not the most profound of Spielberg’s works or the most entertaining from a popcorn perspective, it’s one of the most technically flawless movies he’s ever produced. All of the tips and tricks he learned through twenty years of filmmaking come to a terrific head in the tale of an island full of genetically engineered dinosaurs running amuck. Spielberg files off the harshest edges of Michael Crichton’s source novels, replacing dark characters with slightly more cuddly models and keeping the moralistic musings to the straightforward variety. Despite that, it still moves at a breathtaking pace, a work of pure stimulus response that keeps grabbing us long after a lesser filmmaker would have failed.
The characters are ciphers, of course, with only a few hastily sketched traits to give them a personality. Sam Neill’s grumpy paleontologist, Jeff Goldblum’s smug mathematician, Laura Dern’s perpetually amused botanist… they all show up on the most basic pretense just in time for the raptors to chase them all over the landscape. Luckily, Spielberg’s name attracted top talent, and he was canny enough to cast actors who can hold our attention solely by their presence. You can see it in the big leads, but also in the likes of Wayne Knight playing the disgruntled employee who inadvertently sets the dinos loose, or a then-little-known actor named Samuel L. Jackson who commands the screen with only some regurgitated plot exposition to help.
The real stars were the dinosaurs, of course, and twenty years later, it’s amazing how well they hold up. A few flashes of aging CGI rear their heads here and there – one of the few times the movie theater experience doesn’t benefit the film – but the majority of it might have been made yesterday. More importantly, Spielberg knows exactly how to deliver it in ways that continue to thrill and amaze us to this day. He teases us with the dinos before unleashing them, pacing his money shots perfectly and giving us exactly, precisely what we paid to see. The first reveal comes early, at the 20-minute mark, with Neill and Dern providing wide-eyed goggles to sell us on the majesty of the moment. Then they disappear for another forty minutes, until the T-Rex reveals itself in a showstopping sequence that ranks among the best entrances in movie history.
From there on out, it’s a steady diet of set pieces, as Neill and a pair of young children make their way through the park while the rest of the cast tries to get the power back online. The pattern grows very repetitive very quickly, but thanks to Spielberg’s uncanny cinematic sensibilities, they never get old. The climactic raptor attack still gets the blood racing, while less spectacular dangers lose none of their appeal despite a much lower profile. Most importantly, the film keeps working through multiple viewings. No matter how many times you watch it, it never gets old and seeing the dinosaurs in their full height on the cinema screen reveals an epic grandeur that we’d all but forgotten.
Jurassic Park arrived at a turning point both for its creator and the special effects industry as a whole. CGI became the watchword in the years that followed, with practical effects playing a smaller and smaller role. The film thus resembled a last hurrah for more practical effects, which never again as the same prominence as they did here. Spielberg too, reached a crossroads of his own. Six months after Jurassic Park, he released Schindler’s List and forever shed the image of a lightweight filmmaker. The film thus stands as a postcard of its era, even as it transcends those limitations to become one of the best pieces of pure stimulus response ever created. The 3-D? That’s supercargo: reasonably good looking but utterly unnecessary for a film this polished. The movie’s considerable assets do just fine on their own.