Like a lot of folks, I have had a lifelong interest in dinosaurs. Seeing their skeletons in a museum or an artist’s interpretation of them in a book never quite scratched the itch, however. How did they move? What did they sound like? How did they behave? Those kinds of questions always commanded my attention most, and in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when paleontology began to revise long-held notions of what dinosaurs really were, these ancient animals once again rose to popular-science attention. And whenever that happened, Michael Crichton, king of the junk science potboiler, was there with a novel about an amusement park with real, live dinosaurs, except everything goes horribly wrong. And when a story like that gets popular enough, eventually, Steven Spielberg thinks about doing a movie version. At the advent of seriously good CGI, it was time to make a mind-blowing dinosaur movie, and so he did: Jurassic Park. The rest is history.
For the three people worldwide who haven’t seen this movie, the story involves a tropical island theme resort—Jurassic Park—designed by industrialist John Hammond, who uses genetic engineering to hatch living, breathing dinosaurs for the world to see. But after a fatal accident involving the parks velociraptors spooks investors, a risk assessment team is dispatched to the park to see if this place can actually run without endangering every guest who visits, or if it’s just a big disaster waiting to happen. The team consists of paleontologist Dr. Alan Grant, his long-time girlfriend, paleobotanist Ellie Satler, chaos mathematician Ian Malcolm, and corporate counsel/slimy opportunist Donald Gennaro. Hammond’s juvenile niece and nephew are sent along too, as a kind of two-kid focus group, and off they all go on a private tour of the park. What could possibly go wrong? In true Crichtonian fashion, everything. A tropical storm makes landfall as an industrial saboteur shuts down park security measures so he can steal dinosaur embryos. Soon dinosaurs are running rampant, and our heroes unexpectedly find themselves at the bottom of a strange new ecosystem’s food chain.
This movie was a global phenomenon when it was released, and it’s not hard to see why. Steven Spielberg really knows how to manipulate an audience and build a sustained ebb and flow of tension, surprise and payoff. The special effects throughout were revolutionary for their time, and delivered a convincing presentation of their subjects: lumbering brachiosaurs, wheezing triceratops and leaping velociraptors all came to life in a manner that really shattered audiences’ disbelief. Unfortunately, this is a movie that loses some of its shine on repeated viewings. In a scene when two characters are supposed to be video conferencing, it’s clear one actor is just talking to a running Quicktime movie. A thrilling chase scene in a large kitchen is marred when a falling spoon is shown to be held up by a piece of rotating wire. And an iconic scene featuring the dramatic appearance of the movie’s Tyrannosaurus Rex is marred by some pretty big continuity errors: how deep is that T-Rex paddock, anyway?
Such nitpicking normally isn’t worth mentioning, but it gets a nod here because otherwise, the movie succeeds so well in fooling us that dinosaurs exist that it’s really disappointing to see evidence that no, really, it’s all just an illusion. And some of that disappointment is inward: we should have seen the rotating wire or the Quicktime progress bar, but we were so swept up in the movie’s spell, Spielberg could leave in some pretty blatant rough spots with confidence that they wouldn’t be seen (which he has done in other movies, too). And he was right, damn his eyes. He was right.
That said, this movie was a nearly magical experience for many. The opening T-Rex attack scene, while criticized, remains a master class in monster movie-making. From the build-up in which we see ripples in a glass of water signaling the Tyrant Lizard’s approach to the flashlight in the eyes, the introductory roar, the assault upon the SUV and Grant’s distraction of the dinosaur with a road flare…there is more excitement and tension in these few minutes than in the entirety of other movies. Nobody wants to see kids eaten alive on screen, so when Ian Malcolm makes a harebrained effort to save Hammond’s niece and nephew, we can forgive him for being brave, but stupid. That he accidentally kites the T-Rex to a bathroom where the craven Gennaro is hiding (after running out on the kids, no less) provides one of the more satisfying moments of payback in cinematic history.
As impressive as the T-Rex sequence is, Jurassic Park really scares the hell out of us with the introduction of its velociraptors, human-sized predators that easily outpace any human, and display enough intelligence to make us doubt that our own human brains are really enough to ensure our survival. As the final act involves our heroes’ struggle against the raptors, the animals graduate from merely dangerous animals on the loose to some kind of prehistoric villain, so defined by their savage removal of several characters from the story, their clear intellect, and the quasi-grin they sport. But it’s not their fault they’re hunting humans. We’re the ones who brought them back without thinking things through. And this feeds a moment of truth, late in the show when, as we see the raptors closing in, we start to take their hostility personally. These creatures really do seem better suited for survival than us, despite our bigger brains and boundless technology. And though the raptors are ultimately foiled by a crowd-servicing deux ex machina, for a little while we are reminded that sometimes survival of the fittest has more to do with good timing—on which side of the asteroid strike did you evolve?—than anything else. That it isn’t a particularly flattering or comfortable truth to accept. But it’s the truth, all the same.