The Bucket LIst

4. Jurassic Park

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We’re going to be shifting gears a bit this week on the Bucket List, because it’s time to talk about a low-budget little film from indie filmmaker Steven Spielberg known as Jurassic Park. Maybe you’ve heard of it? Perhaps because it’s one of the highest-grossing and most beloved films of all time. This is one of those films where I feel a little weird even talking about it, because what else can be said about Jurassic Park? It’s a perfect film, and as someone who was a child when it was first released, it is probably one of my most-viewed movies of all time. I mean, I’m fairly certain that it was one of the first films I ever saw in a theater, it was one of the first films that I ever bought for myself when DVD’s became a thing, and it’s one of the first films that got me interested in the actual movie-making process. Hitting me at a time where I was perhaps most possibly interested in dinosaurs, this movie became an absolute obsession for me. A movie that I obsessed over, getting all sorts of merchandise and toys, and even becoming one of the first “adult” novels that I read as a kid after picking up the novel it was based on. I have incredibly fond memories of watching this movie over and over again as a child, reaching the point where I began scouring the special features that were on the old DVD, watching making-of documentaries that showed me for one of the first times how a movie is actually made, and how special effects managed to pull off one of the biggest and most incredible films ever made. And, wonderfully, that knowledge didn’t do anything to diminish the power of the film, if anything it made it even more powerful. This is a film that I’ve revisited countless times over the course of my life, seeing on all manner of big screens, and my opinions have never really changed. It’s an amazing accomplishment, and one of my favorite films ever made. And, it’s one of the real joys of this project, getting to go from a ponderous seventies sci-fi movie that barely got a real release in the United States to one of the biggest blockbusters ever made. And, after checking back in with it again for this project, it’s still remarkable how magical it really is.

As you probably know, the film got its starts from the titular novel by Michael Crichton. However, the film actually started rattling around in Spielberg’s mind before the novel was even completed, because he and Crichton were already working together on a screenplay, and Crichton mentioned an idea he was playing around with about dinosaurs being cloned using genetic technology. Spielberg loved the idea, and ended up convincing Universal to buy the film-rights for the novel, beating out several other studios. But, it was not going to be an easy feat, primarily because of the task of bringing these dinosaurs to life. And, to accomplish this task he ended up assembling some of the best special effects wizards working, from several different fields. He initially sought out animatronic experts such as Stan Winston, stop-motion artists like Phil Tippett, and burgeoning CGI artists like Dennis Muren. Together they all began working with paleontologists like Jack Horner to use the most current understandings of dinosaurs to help create as realistic dinosaurs as possible. Through a combination of animatronic dinosaurs for close-ups and CGI to clean things up and provide more full-scale shots of the dinosaurs, they were shockingly able to create some of the most convincing dinosaurs ever put to celluloid. It was the culmination of years of both pre and post-production, all to bring the world that Michael Crichton created to life, and to show people the most cutting edge understanding of dinosaurs. New technology was created, special effects were forever changed, and Jurassic Park became an instant sensation. Partly due to a massive marketing blitz pulled off by Universal, and partly because it’s just an incredibly magnetic film, Jurassic Park became the highest grossing film of all time when it was released. It was an instant cultural hit, becoming a massively important film in American cinema, and helped change the landscape of Hollywood blockbusters forever. And, let me tell you, it’s still just as effective as it was in 1993.

 

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Jurassic Park is largely the story of a wealthy eccentric named John Hammond who has done the impossible. He has gathered a group of the top minds in their fields to help him clone long-extinct dinosaurs in order to place them in a theme park for the world to enjoy. He and his scientists have accomplished this by stockpiling fossilized amber that contains the trapped bodies of ancient mosquitoes, which still have dinosaur blood inside of them. They have created an entire park on a remote island off the coast of Costa Rica, and are getting ready to open to the public. But, Hammond’s investors grow wary of the safety of the park after a worker is mauled to death by a Velociraptor, so they convince Hammond that he needs to get a series of impartial experts to sign off on the park. Hammond picks to famous paleontologists, Alan Grant and Ellie Sattler, and Hammond’s lawyers pick a trendy chaotician named Ian Malcolm. They all get invited for a dry run of Jurassic Park, and are flown out to the island for a weekend to explore and see if it meets their standards. They’re all pretty hesitant about the whole thing, and assume that Hammond has just cooked up some sort of trick, but to their absolute surprise they find themselves face to face with actual dinosaurs. They’re taught about the methods they used to create the dinosaurs, and are shown some of the facilities that are housing them, and creating them. And, after a glimpse at how everything works, they all can’t help but admit that they think this is a terrible idea. Grant, Sattler, and Malcolm are sure that this whole park is a disaster waiting to happen.

Hammond ignores these concerns though, and promises them they’ll change their mind after a tour of the park, complete with his two precocious grandchildren, Tim and Lex. They all load up into a self-driving Jeep and start a rather lackluster tour of the Park, continuously encountering seemingly empty paddocks. But, they finally do encounter a living dinosaur when they find a sick Triceratops which Dr. Sattler ends up helping deal with, send the rest of the party out to finish the tour. Unfortunately, while all of this is going on there’s also a smidge of industrial espionage happening. Dennis Nedry, the man who is seemingly responsible for the entire island’s computer systems, has been working with a rival of John Hammond’s, and he’s created a scheme that will shut down all the major systems in the Park for a few minutes so that he can steal a series of embryos from the lab and then flee the island. But, when he shuts everything down, disaster strikes. It’s much more wide-spread than intended. The electric fences all over the park start to go down, including the paddock where the tour happens to be trapped. Which, just so happens to contain their Tyrannosaurus Rex. The Rex frees itself from the paddock, and begins attacking the cars, largely due to Tim and Lex panicking. The Rex destroys the Jeeps, causes Grant, Lex, and Tim to fall over a ledge and deep into the Park, Malcolm is grievously wounded, and Hammond’s lawyer is eaten. Sattler and the game warden of the Park, Muldoon, manage to find Malcolm and bring him back to the visitor center where Hammond and his chief of technology Mr. Arnold are trying their best to get everything up and running, but Grant and the kids are lost in the Park.

They gradually begin making their way through the Park, trying to find some sanctuary, and in the process come across all manner of dinosaurs. They meet a herd of Brontosauruses, almost get trampled in a Gallimimus stampede, and end up finding proof that the dinosaurs are indeed breeding in the Park, which was supposed to be impossible.  And, while they’re venturing through the Park, the folks at the command center think that they’ve figured out how to regain power, but it requires visiting a power station near where the Velociraptors are kept. Mr. Arnold attempts to do it himself, but never comes back, so Sattler and Muldoon are forced to go, where Muldoon is killed in the process. Sattler does manage to get power back on in the Park though, at the risk of leading the Velociraptors back to the Visitor Center. Grand and the kids finally make their way back to the Visitor Center as well, after Tim get mildly elecrocuted when the power returns to one of the electric fences, and they all get inside just as a pack of raptors begin attacking the Center. The raptors hunt the kids for a while, until Lex is able to help reestablish the computer systems in the Park. They manage to send out a distress signal, and all regroup to flee the island. The raptors continue trying to kill them, until they’re abruptly killed by the raging T-Rex who returns to eat them, giving the humans the chance to flee. They escape the island, and are all in agreement that this whole island was an abject failure, and can never be replicated.

 

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It’s hard to overstate the importance of Jurassic Park, both on a personal level and larger perspective on movies as a whole. It’s one of the biggest films of all time, it helped usher in the age of CGI, for better or for worse, and it helped re-affirm the summer blockbuster as the dominant form of American cinema. And, it rules. I’ve loved this film for a majority of my life, and it means quite a bit to me. Like I said earlier, I poured over this film when I was a kid. I had all sorts of merchandise for it, but I distinctly remember some sort of behind-the-scenes book I had that explained how some of the effects were accomplished, and that paired with a fun documentary that was paired with the original DVD, which I actually dusted off and revisited before writing this, all helped me understand the process of making movies in a way that I hadn’t really delved into before. This was a film that utterly captivated me as a child, to the point where I needed to not just love it, but understand how it happened. At this point no one had ever seen such effective digital effects, so to a child who has been told that dinosaurs no longer exist, it was mind-boggling to understand how this film was accomplished. It’s pure, distilled Spielberg, all of his various strengths put together to create a weaponized good time, something that has an almost insurmountable amount of hype and nostalgia mixed into it, and yet still delivers every time you see it. It’s a miracle of a movie, no matter what it may have spawned.

I’ve seen it said before that Jurassic Park represents one of the high points of Hollywood special effects. It was a transitional time, where many different schools of thought were being combined. As mentioned previously, the film largely utilized a combination of animatronics, puppetry, and CGI, in a way that really hadn’t been done to this degree up until this point. It even briefly contained stop-motion, before Phil Tippett transitioned into using his experience to help make CGI move more naturally. True, the CGI dinosaurs were used quite a bit, but it was combination, a way to enhance the practical effects. A melding of different methods to create the best outcome. Which, is largely why the film still looks as good as it does. Some of the purely CGI shots certainly show their age, but by and large the film still looks amazing, because it was using everyone’s strengths to create something new. But, it helped create the idea in Hollywood’s mind that CGI was here to save the day. Now, I’m generally not someone who just mindlessly puts down CGI. It can be used quite well. And, while I certainly prefer a more practical effect, which just has a more concrete realness to it than even the most advanced CGI, there are certainly good uses of computer special effects. And yet, in the ensuing years since Jurassic Park gave people an idea of what was possible using computers, the wrong lessons seem to have been taken. Which, just can’t help but feel a tad ironic, since this is an entire movie about a technological innovation being turned into a destructive force. As much as I love something like the Marvel Cinematic Universe, seeing a movie that’s ostensibly in live-action, but is no longer restrained by any physical means, not even a physical camera, it just loses something. There’s just something much more tactile and effective about a robotic T-Rex smashing into a car, than whatever purely digital effect that would accomplished with one of Jurassic Park’s numerous laughable sequels. But, we’ll always have this wonderful, beautiful film.

And, in case it’s not incredibly obvious, yes, I highly recommend people watch this film. I can’t imagine there are many people who haven’t seen it, since it’s cultural footprint is one of the most massive in Hollywood history, but in case you’re out there, wondering if Jurassic Park is actually worth your time, it is. And, if it’s a movie that you’ve seen a million times, check it out again. Let me tell you, it’s some weaponized nostalgia that may just help you deal with the chaos of the world right now.

 

Jurassic Park was written by Michael Crichton and David Koepp, directed by Steven Spielberg, and released by Universal Pictures, 1993.

 

 

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