Pop culture wouldn’t be the same if Michael Crichton had never gone to Disneyland.
It was while watching the animatronic Abraham Lincoln at the park’s Hall of Presidents that he began dreaming up Westworld, his 1973 movie and the inspiration for the hit HBO series about murderous robot cowboys. For Crichton, there was seemingly no technological advance he couldn’t use to fearful effect – and he was never one not to use every part of a good idea. He’d revisit the idea of a theme park gone awry with his 1990 novel Jurassic Park, the story of an in-progress dinosaur park that becomes a bloody testing ground for advances in DNA technology, the latest in paleontological thinking and chaos theory – the latter being a branch of mathematics then enjoying a popular heyday thanks to the 1987 bestseller Chaos: Making a New Science.
Another director might have thrown out all that messy science business and stuck to the dinosaurs. But putting scientific theory on film seems to have been part of what attracted Steven Spielberg to make his 1993 blockbuster Jurassic Park. When not staring at awe at brachiosauruses, running in terror from T. Rexes or admiring “one big pile of shit,” the film’s characters discuss the basics of dinosaur evolution, the behavior of various prehistoric predators and the fundamental tenets of chaos theory. In one early scene, paleontologist Alan Grant (Sam Neill) – as his professional and romantic partner, paleobotanist Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern), looks on in embarrassment – terrifies a bratty kid who dares to suggest a velociraptor doesn’t seem that scary. So he walks him through every terrifying stage of a velociraptor attack, from a victim’s first sighting of a prehistoric “six-foot turkey” to being wiped out by vicious, well-coordinated peripheral pack attack. The screenplay, by Crichton and David Koepp, seems driven by the logic that a scare’s even better if you understand what‘s scaring you and why. When we encounter velociraptors in the film’s climax, we are all that pants-wetting kid.
Released 25 years ago today, Jurassic Park was the first of two films that established 1993 as a high-water mark for Spielberg after what had been, by the director’s standards, a few off years. Since moving away from blockbusters with his 1985 adaptation of The Color Purple, the filmmaker had released one great movie that didn’t really connect with audiences (Empire of the Sun), one sure-bet sequel (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade) and two movies that rightly end up at or near the bottom of any ranking of Spielberg’s directorial efforts (Always and Hook). He had, for the first time in a while, something to prove. By the end of ’93, he’d firmly established himself as a director of masterful dramas with the Oscar-winning Schindler’s List. But it was Jurassic Park that allowed him to reclaim his blockbuster crown.
As with his 1970s breakthroughs Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, technology played a major role. Jurassic Park began as a film that would feature, alongside practical effects created by Stan Winston, the wonderful stop-motion work of effects wizard Phil Tippett (whose creations include Robocop‘s fearful ED-209 and the moving chess pieces in Star Wars). As production progressed, computer imagery became increasingly central to the film and Tippett’s role slowly changed. He left his models in the closet and ended up advising a crew of computer effects artists on how to get the dinosaurs just right.
Computer generated imagery had been used in films before Jurassic Park, but never so convincingly and to such great extent. The morphing effects in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, for instance, work in part because they look so otherworldly. This time, the trick was to make dinosaurs look real. Alan, Ellie and self-described “chaotician” Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) have to look gobsmacked at their first sight of brachiosauruses gazing peacefully in a field. If what we see looks convincing, the movie has its hooks in us. If it doesn’t, it falls apart.
Spielberg bet he could make it work – and the gamble paid off, in large part because it’s easy to forget we’re watching special effects at all. A quarter century and many several generations of FX advances later, Jurassic Park‘s creatures don’t look like CGI creations at all. They look like dinosaurs.
But if Jurassic Park only had the breakthrough special effects going for it, we probably wouldn’t still be talking about it today. It’s what Spielberg does with them that sets it apart. There are few directors as effortlessly skilled with an action sequence, or who use a cause-and-effect logic to move from one end of a scene to the other. (If there’s a quintessential Spielberg action set piece, it’s the opening of Raiders of the Lost Ark in which Indy misjudges the weight of a bag of sand leading to a collapsing cave, then flying arrows, then a lowering door, then a giant rolling boulder and so on, all of it beautifully constructed so that one shot flows into the next.)
Here, the dinosaurs are just one element in those scenes, and not always the focus. We see the fearsome, much-talked-about T. Rex … but only eventually. First we get hints. Then some far-off sounds. Then ripples in a glass of water. When the T. Rex finally arrives, it’s the payoff to a lot of build-up, one element in the scene among many (albeit the biggest element, of course). Spielberg had to limit his plans to show the shark in Jaws due to technical difficulties. He learned from that experience. The dinosaurs got people into the theaters, but he knew they couldn’t be the only element moviegoers remembered on their way home.
Also worth pondering on the ride back: Spielberg’s film invites us to share a sense of humility in the face of nature. The whole movie plays out in miniature in the opening scene. A crew of experts using the latest technology and extensive safety protocols attempts to transfer a velociraptor from a steel cage to a pen that will be her new home. But something goes wrong and soon the chomping and screaming begins. We never see exactly what malfunctions, but we don’t really have to. Ian’s explanation of chaos theory insists we always allow for the unpredictable in complex systems, even those thought through and designed to the nth degree. There’s always something – a failed circuit, a disgruntled employee, rogue frog DNA – there to put the screws to the best-laid plans. We build, but nature waits for our creations to crumble and to reclaim the spaces we only think we’ve tamed.