Jurassic Park: Steven Spielberg's B-Movie Bravado

Steven Spielberg's seminal early 90s blockbuster is released on Blu-ray this week. Here's why it's so enduring.
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Admitting that you enjoy blockbusters is a little bit like telling people you watch X-Factor for the music. It's the kind of declaration that tends to be met with dramatic eye-rolls. Usually from people who'd have you believe that they enjoy nothing more than a wet Sunday afternoon curled up in front of Krzysztof Kieślowski's Trois Couleurs trilogy. Even though it's usually bullshit - they might tell you that they queued up for tickets to a Truffaut retrospective on the South Bank, but in reality they were probably watching Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed.

It doesn't help matters that Hollywood has gone out of its way to dumb down its tentpole summer pictures to the point that they're so shoddily written and directed, they take on an impenetrable surrealism of their own. I'm willing to hold the likes of Michael Bay, Stephen Sommers and Brett Ratner personally responsible, for unleashing wave after wave of stultifying, wasteful crap, and making a trip to the pictures about as appealing as cleaning Gillian McKeith's toilet with a KFC wet-wipe. But there's no need to give up hope just yet - the Blu-ray release of the Jurassic Park trilogy this week serves as a timely reminder of what can be accomplished when Hollywood's stars are correctly aligned.

When Spielberg's first (and best) instalment originally opened, expectations were mixed. Although the film had a killer concept and promised some innovative GCI work from ILM, it was decidedly lacking in A-list acting talent. No-one's ever camped out overnight for a Laura Dern movie. Adding to Jurassic Park's troubles, was the fact that it was opening within a couple of weeks of Arnold Schwarzenegger's Last Action Hero, which was expected to leave the rest of the summer's offerings in its bombastic wake. However, the reality was somewhat different. Whereas Arnie's opus was a misguided, erratic and tonally inconsistent shambles, Spielberg proved that he'd lost none of his mastery in the 18 years since Jaws first transformed the concept of the big summer movie.
Lean, logical and meticulously paced, Jurassic Park worked like a greatest hits compilation of the bearded genius' best bits. Appealing kids, ordinary-Joe heroes, stunning effects work, John William's Oscar-robbed score and enough tension to turn a prosthetic knuckle white, all combined to make Isla Nublar the number one summer destination for 1993.

I can count on one hand the films I've seen more than once during their cinema run. That summer, I saw Jurassic Park five times, eventually running out of friends to coerce into a daytime trip to my local multiplex. Because, although the dinosaurs were undoubtedly the stars of the show, they were never treated as a crowd-pleasing gimmick. Unlike the old Ray Harryhausen monsters of yesteryear, which tended to pop up every twenty minutes to keep the kids engaged, Spielberg's film kept the beasts off-screen for the best part of the first hour. Aside from two short cameos by a tree-munching brachiosaurus and a sickly triceratops, the first half of the movie is almost entirely dinosaur free.

Call it a fortuitous accident, but Spielberg had learned early on that nothing could beat the power of suggestion, when it came to depicting a monstrous threat. Plagued with technical issues on the set of Jaws, he'd been forced to use music and whip-smart editing to hint at the terrors beneath the surface of the water. This time around he had no such issues with the creatures, but applied the same techniques to heighten suspense and make his audience hungry for the big reveal.

Watching the film now, this seems almost Altman-esque, devoid of glib one-liners and trailer-friendly quotes.

The T-rex attack, when it finally comes, is a masterpiece in sustained tension, beginning with a fantastic 'Where's the goat?' gag, and culminating in a pissed-off carnivore tipping an SUV off a cliff. When the kids scream for their lives, you're in no doubt that they're in mortal peril, and the T-rex's deafening roar still has the power to chill the blood. Especially in 7.1 DTS stereo.

But it's not just the epic moments that continue to impress, almost twenty years later. Tiny, almost inconsequential details add to the verisimilitude of the film. The torch light that dilates the T-rex's pupils; the snort of steam on the porthole window; or the velociraptor's impatiently tapping toenail. Now compare these sublime touches with Transformers, which gave us a giant pair of clanging robot bollocks.

The film's human cast also manage to appear three-dimensional, thanks to Spielberg's subtle handling of the dialogue scenes. With most of the expositional heavy-lifting handled by an animated DNA strand, the main characters are free to converse like real people, often mumbling or talking over one another. Watching the film now, this seems almost Altman-esque, devoid of glib one-liners and trailer-friendly quotes. There's even a fairly weighty ethical debate at the half-hour mark, as our main cast discuss the implications of cloning technology. Try finding that in The Mummy Returns.

As much as I might love this film, I'm not blind to its flaws. For instance, there's some appalling stunt double work, which at one point makes it look like Ellie Sattler is being played by Danny DeVito in a cheap wig. Dickie Attenborough's accent is patchier than a tramp's jeans, and there's a textbook example of deus ex machina as 12-year-old Lexi announces "It's a Unix system, I know this!" and promptly reinstalls the park's security systems. Perhaps most glaringly of all, no-one ever asks whose clever idea it was to clone a fucking velociraptor. Why not just create a baker's dozen of Jeffrey Dahmers while they're at it? Since they're kept in a frond-filled subterranean cage, it's not like any of the tourists were ever going to see them anyway.

In fairness, these are minor quibbles. This is still a film which shows a true master at the top of his game. You only need to compare it with Spielberg's latest offering, the sorry Avatar/Jurassic Park mash-up Terra Nova. Eighteen years later and the original's menagerie is still the one to beat, making Terra Nova's pixelated beasties about as convincing as the pimped-up iguana in One Million Years BC.

Unfortunately, there are currently no plans to release the films individually, so if you want to revisit the park in all its high-def glory, you'll have to spring for the whole box set. But it's worth it, if only to remind yourself of the days when great movies ruled the Earth.

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