This should probably be a short article. I say that because I’m going to make an argument that has been a stone-cold fact for almost 30 years. Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park is an excellent movie. Heck, it might even be a perfect movie. Every time you watch it, some new sliver of brilliance is revealed.
With the sixth and “final” film in the Jurassic Saga, Jurassic World Dominion, hitting theaters in a few weeks, I decided to revisit each film in the franchise. Not only as a refresher but to give each film a fresh look. That begins with the first Jurassic Park, a film I saw on its opening night, June 11, 1993, and was instantly enamored with. In the decades since I’ve seen it dozens and dozens of times, mostly in bits and pieces on cable. Watching it start to finish with no commercials, however, is a completely different experience. You truly see the nuts of bolts of why Jurassic Park has endured in popular culture to this day.
The first thing that jumped out at me on the rewatch is the near-perfection of the script. Of course, Michael Crichton’s original idea of cloning dinosaurs in the modern day and putting them in a theme park is brilliant on its own, but the adapted screenplay from Crichton and David Koepp is so well structured and propulsive, you could use it to teach a screenwriting class. From the very first scene, the audience is given multiple key pieces of information without them even knowing, followed by a seamless transition into what’s next. We begin with a worker killed by a mysterious creature. In the next scene, there’s a lawsuit about his death and we first see a mosquito in amber. A character mentions Alan Grant (Sam Neill) and we cut to Alan Grant, who lays out the entire third act of the film. Enter John Hammond (Richard Attenborough), the owner of the park, with a proposal and within moments Jurassic Park is off to the races.
This economy of storytelling continues throughout the entire film. There’s arguably not a single scene that doesn’t move the story forward or provide crucial character development. And that story, for the most part, is incredibly simple. Once Alan Grant, Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern), and Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) end up on the island, they learn how the dinosaurs were created, raise questions about it, and then set out into the park. That’s basically it. You add in the kids, Tim and Lex (Joseph Mazzello, Ariana Richards) to raise the emotional stakes, and the Nedry (Wayne Knight) storyline to complicate everything, but rather quickly you have human beings roaming around a theme park crawling with dinosaurs.
Adding to that simplicity is the fact Jurassic Park is also almost completely devoid of mythology. In later films, we’d learn about John Hammond’s company, InGen, his personal life, friends, rivals, and other companies who want his discoveries. The world gets expanded significantly. But that’s never part of this movie at all. We don’t know who Dodgson, the man paying Nedry to steal the embryos, is. We don’t care. It’s not about the outside world. It’s about this story, these characters, and their survival.
Another thing I keyed into on this rewatch was the absolute brilliance of the action scenes. These days we’ve become accustomed to chaotic action. Quick cuts, explosions, cameras flying around, basically non-stop mayhem. Jurassic Park isn’t that. At every moment, in every scene, you know exactly where each character is. Spielberg’s blocking and editing is so clean that if you paused, say, the first T-Rex attack at any point, any person watching could tell you precisely where the characters are in relation to the others and it only adds to the tension. It’s a practice the director uses for every single scene, with one cheeky, likely intentional, exception: by the time the Velociraptors have cornered Tim and Lex in the kitchen, we are so accustomed to knowing where everyone is at every moment that when we see Lex trying to close the door to her compartment, and the raptor bears down on her, we are truly terrified. That’s when Spielberg pulls the rug out from under us. We realize the raptor saw a reflection, and you get that nice rush of adrenaline as it crashes and Lex escapes. The moment works so well because every scene leading up to it is perfectly designed to make the audience trust and understand what they’re seeing.
Spielberg also makes sure that throughout the entire film, the characters feel the wonder that we, the audience, should be feeling. In multiple scenes, Grant and Sattler have physical and emotional reactions to the revelations on screen, be it that Jurassic Park has a T-Rex or the beauty in a sick Triceratops. Even as Grant peers out the window of the helicopter at the very end, he’s relieved for sure, but also mesmerized. Seeing characters on screen filled with wonder gives the audience permission to feel that wonder too. No one is jaded. No one is corrupted (OK, Nedry is corrupted and we see where that leads him). Everyone is simply in awe, or fearful, of the magic and menace of the park. It establishes a tone that, if memory serves, only returns in the rarest of occasions throughout the rest of the franchise. A tone that makes this film truly special.
That’s also because of the mastery of everyone who worked on the film. We’ve already mentioned the screenplay and direction but ILM’s digital effects, especially that of the T-Rex remain, 30 years later, almost impeccable. John Williams’ score literally—and I mean do mean literally—brings me to tears anytime I hear it in context. The costumes, the sets, the designs, Jurassic Park is the result of hundreds of people working at the top of their game on an excellent idea and making something that will last longer than any of us can possibly imagine.
Today, people throw around the term “Perfect movie” fairly hyperbolically. And while Jurassic Park isn’t 100% perfect, it’s about as close as movies get.
“Wait, did you just say Jurassic Park wasn’t perfect?”
OK, I figured that might be controversial. Here’s why I say that and let me preface this by clarifying that these are the smallest, tiniest nitpicks. Things I don’t even care about per se but perfect is perfect.
For example, how did John Hammond sneak into Grant and Sattler’s trailer in Montana? We see the helicopter come to pick him up, but how did he get there unnoticed by everyone else? Did he walk? Did he drive? Also, I can never get my head around the improbable, illogical luck of a) finding a mosquito preserved in amber, at all, but then b) that mosquito actually being 65-100 million years old and not say, 20 million or 2 million or any other number; c) that mosquito having sucked the blood of a dinosaur immediately before being stuck in the sap; and then d) finding enough mosquitoes to get enough DNA to recreate all of these different species of dinosaurs. Finding just one mosquito that had usable dinosaur blood must have been like winning the lottery every day for a year. But to find more than one? Just the most astronomical odds. And yes, it’s a sci-fi movie, you have to suspend disbelief, it doesn’t really matter, and at least the idea itself makes basic scientific sense, which is saying something. But, if we’re talking perfection, this drops it like 0.1%.
Jurassic Park is currently streaming on HBO Max.
Coming up next week: the only other Steven Spielberg-directed Jurassic film, 1997's The Lost World: Jurassic Park.
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