20 years on 'Jurassic Park' is still quintessential Spielberg spectacle
To tell you the truth, I wasn't all that interested in seeing "Jurassic Park" in the summer of 1993. The movie that had me riled? "Last Action Hero." No, seriously. (And I'm a pretty big apologist for that Arnold Schwarzenegger actioner to this very day.) So I didn't even see Steven Spielberg's dinosaur spectacle in the theater when it was released.
Of course awareness was high. You couldn't escape it. TV commercials, toy stores, fast food tie-ins, it was everywhere. And in short order, it became the second-highest grossing film of all time, behind "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial," giving Spielberg the one-two punch atop the domestic chart. This was before "Star Wars" saw a re-release four years later, which would take George Lucas' space epic past both Spielberg films, before "Titanic" would come along later and blow everything out of the water.
But back to "Jurassic Park," I caught up with it on VHS. And of course, I fell in love with it. For those in my generation, it was a pretty undeniable element. For my part, I gave that tape a workout, watching it countless times over the years. And when a chance came to see it projected on 35mm in film school, I leapt at the opportunity.
As the years went by it seemed the film was held in an a curiously dimmer light. Classic action adventures from the director such as "Raiders of the Lost Ark" lived on, while "Jurassic Park" was simply considered lesser-than. And here I was thinking it deserved a place right along side them. Watching the film again (post-converted for 3D) last week, I was struck by how quintessentially SPIELBERG that opening scene loading the raptor really is. It had that awe-like construction you find all over "Raiders," for example.
Maybe it was the clearly inferior sequels that added to the diminishing of the film (though "The Lost World" has its moments), I don't know. But when bringing it up as one of the director's best, there always seemed to be a scoff of dismissal. Well, come what may, it IS one of the director's best.
The new 3D release, marking the film's 20th anniversary, is pretty stellar. The conversion was a successful one, really making a lot of the natural depth pop. Shots like the downward angle of the Jurassic Park gate as the jeeps approach, or the upward dolly under the electric fence as Alan, Tim and Lex scale it near film's end, are great examples. Like James Cameron, Spielberg is a filmmaker who already composes with a lot of depth anyway, which makes a transition like this much easier.
The big moments are still every bit as big as they ever were, maybe more so. I was caught by surprise as a tear of wonder welled up during the Brachiosaurus reveal. Yes, it's an incredibly manipulative scene, John Williams' score breathlessly building to a crescendo, Richard Attenborough's overtly weighty "Welcome to Jurassic Park" monologue, etc. But that manipulation has always been Spielberg's genius, and it has always been why "Jurassic Park" is a textbook example of it. You don't feel dirty from being manipulated, you feel -- forgive the cliche -- like a kid again.
And truly, the film has more going for it than mere diversion from real life for two hours. It elegantly handles a message about meddling in the affairs of genetics, serviced perfectly by actor Jeff Goldblum. It says something that that message stands out for a kid who saw it 20 years ago and wasn't just some crutch to get from point A to point B in the narrative.
With that in mind, I suppose it would be negligent to not utter the name "Michael Crichton" here. Crichton, who authored the novel on which the film was based, was a divisive writer in life and death. One is somewhat reminded of reaction to Dan Brown's work. But if you grew up reading "Sphere" and "Congo" and the like, you find that you're a defender. It's interesting, though, that many who read "Jurassic Park" took umbrage with the film's adaptation (which was written by David Koepp, who certainly has his share of detractors). I never read it, so I have no take on it. But my ultimate point here is that the marriage of Crichton and Spielberg couldn't have seemed more fitting, particularly on this project. Filmmakers like Frank Marshall and Barry Levinson would try to capture similar magic in the immediate wake of "Jurassic Park," but they found diminishing returns.
On the Oscar front, "Jurassic Park" won every Academy Award for which it was nominated, and none of them are disputable. The sound effects, sound mixing and visual effects were all gold standard. The blend of CGI and practical effects wizardry is still considered by many to be the best example of visual effects in a motion picture (though the new 3D conversion doesn't do the CG work a lot favors, I must say). I remain particularly impressed with the way the film tells its story with sound. Hearing it in a movie theater is probably the best reason to go out and give "Jurassic Park 3D" a look this weekend. (The film screened at the Academy Tuesday night with production designer Rick Carter and effects artists Dennis Muren and Phil Tippet among the attendees.)
The question, though, is did it deserve other nominations? Again, I still maintain that it is one of Spielberg's very best movies, and while it's understandable that major nominations would not have been in store, elements like the film editing and production design were deserving. Given his massive tally of career nominations, it's perhaps a little surprising composer Williams wasn't nominated for Best Original Score, but 20 years on, his work on the film seems more iconic than ever. He did win an Oscar that year, though, for "Schindler's List."
And on that last note, perhaps Spielberg's transcendence beyond popcorn entertainer with the Holocaust drama is what really kept "Jurassic Park" down on the awards scene. While one may have been the epitome of what he could do as a spectacle storyteller, the other provided an all-encompassing narrative that Academy voters love: a genre filmmaker's dominance in more serious territory. Of course, Spielberg had navigated such dramatic waters with ease in the past with films like "The Color Purple" and "Empire of the Sun," but this is the one that sparked brightest, making it easy to relegate "Jurassic Park" to the blockbuster ghetto categories.
But I submit that that's a shame. "Jurassic Park" was -- and still is -- so much more than that.
"Jurassic Park 3D" opens everywhere Friday.