Jurassic Park remains a movie that has endlessly fascinated me for years. As a child I was obsessed with dinosaurs, so naturally I wanted to see “that dinosaur movie” as soon as I found out about it, and couldn’t understand why I wasn’t allowed to see it at first. Then, several years after it was released, I finally saw Jurassic Park for the first time (I think I was around 8) and immediately had my mind blown because the movie was nothing like I thought it would be. Yes there were dinosaurs, but it was the human part of the story that confused me. It wasn’t until many years later that I finally understood the brilliant story that Spielberg had put together.
Based on Michael Crichton’s 1990 novel of the same name, Jurassic Park tells the story of a would-be theme park that features an unbelievable attraction: living dinosaurs resurrected from ancient DNA samples. Before the park can open however, the investors want experts to sign off on the viability of the project, which leads to two paleontologists, Dr. Alan Grant and Dr. Ellie Sattler, and mathematician Dr. Ian Malcolm, being invited to the island of Isla Nublar where the park is based to see the dinosaurs for themselves and, it is hoped, ultimately endorse the project. Naturally, things go wrong soon after the guests arrive, as an attempted act of corporate espionage combined with an oncoming hurricane will soon throw the fledgling park into chaos, unleashing the dinosaurs upon the remaining human occupants of the island.
The story of Jurassic Park is an effective demonstration of the domino effect at work. Because of Dennis Nedry’s act of sabotage to allow him to attempt to escape the park, the power is shut off; because the power is shut off, the dinosaurs can escape their enclosures; and because the dinosaurs can escape their enclosures, the velociraptors and T-Rex are set loose. It’s a cascading series of events that creates a captivating and terrifying story and what really makes it fascinating is that this was all told in the early 1990s with a combination of practical effects and CGI that holds up surprisingly well given the state of the technology at that time.
I think what most people remember about the production of Jurassic Park are the practical effects used to create the dinosaurs in the first place. Animatronics of a number of dinosaurs were built for the film, most famously the T-Rex and Triceratops, but the CGI element almost didn’t happen.
Originally, director Steven Spielberg had it in mind to bring the dinosaurs to life via traditional stop-motion animation, and indeed if you watch the special features of the film you can see some test footage using this method. However, during production, it was discovered that the computer technology existed to digitally render dinosaurs on the big screen and make it believable and Spielberg decided to go that route instead as it would be far easier than the stop-motion method. And while the design of the dinosaurs is no longer compatible with what is now known about them (i.e. we now know they had feathers), there’s no denying that the CGI holds up very well after all these years and the velociraptors in particular remain quite terrifying.
Aside from the dinosaurs (who remain my favorite part of this film’s production), there’s an impressive cast of humans lined up also. First we have the trio of Sam Neill, Laura Dern, and Jeff Goldblum as Drs. Grant, Sattler and Malcolm respectively. These three represent three different points of view on the park: Dr. Grant is skeptical, especially once he finds out that raptors are being bred in the park. Dr. Sattler appears to be the most supportive (before things go wrong of course), even diving in to help treat a sick triceratops. And then there’s Dr. Malcolm, who is openly against the very idea of the park and isn’t at all surprised when things go wrong. Of all three, Dr. Malcolm is probably the most realistic of the bunch, because he’s the one who points out that just because you CAN do something, doesn’t mean you SHOULD. And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Richard Attenborough’s performance as the creator of Jurassic Park, John Hammond. Here is a man who clearly believes he’s in the right at the start of the film, only to slowly but surely realize the horror of what he’s done as the story unfolds.
While the production of the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park is an undeniably great accomplishment, what attracts me most to the film now is John Williams‘ iconic score. Even as a kid watching the story play out with wide eyes, I was attracted to the movie’s score. The film’s main theme is so well-known that most can identify it after hearing just a few bars. Williams weaves this theme in and out of the film, and it is now so iconic that it was cited almost note for note in the first Jurassic World film in 2015.
I personally love the main theme to Jurassic Park, most famously heard during the reveal shot of the dinosaurs on the island (the “welcome to Jurassic Park” scene) because for me it completely encapsulates the wonder that anyone would feel upon seeing living, breathing dinosaurs in front of them. This is doubly true when you remember that Dr. Grant and Dr. Sattler are paleontologists and that seeing living dinosaurs is literally every dream come true for them.
In the end, I continue to love Jurassic Park because it’s one of the best Spielberg movies I’ve ever seen. The story is timeless and continues to tell an important message even after all these years: just because we can do a thing, doesn’t mean we should.
What Jurassic Park Means to Us
In June 1993 I was standing in line to watch Jurassic Park and I was maybe the most excited to see a movie I had ever been. The movie theater in my hometown closed when I was a kid, and I never really got to experience the “wait in line for a new movie” thing. I was also one of those kids that loved dinosaurs and could tell you each and every one by name – though that skill is lost to me now. I loved any dinosaur related media I could find – from Land of the Lost to The Valley of Gwangi – even if none of them was quite as good or realistic as I wanted them to be. (The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms came damn close, though.) To say that I was excited about a dinosaur movie made be Steven Spielberg? Yeah, bit of an understatement.
Did I have a pang of concern that I might be disappointed? That all the hype and buildup and anticipation couldn’t possibly be satisfied? Maybe, but if so, I don’t remember it. What I remember is that first sight of the Brachiosaurus, and how much better it looked than I could possibly have imagined. I remember Grant exclaiming how the Triceratops was always his favorite, and me thinking “yeah!” even though for me it was always the Tyrannosaurus. I remember how scary the Velociraptors were – those clever girls. And yeah, the Tyrannosaur was my favorite, and I was unreasonably happy to see her return in the Jurassic World films.
When they re-released Jurassic Park in 3-D I went to see it again in the theater, and while I didn’t wait in line that time I was still transported, if only momentarily, to a world where dinosaurs were real, and I still had that joy seeing them on the big screen that I did that first time.
There is an ongoing debate over whether practical effects are better than CGI or vice versa. CGI can transport us to places we could only have imagined in our heads like Marvel’s Asgard and Knowehere or make mythical creatures like Pirates of the Caribbean‘s Kraken and Davy Jones feel extremely lifelike and real. The abundance of CGI in mainstream movies have really made audiences miss the more personal connection one could have with a practical effect or character. There is a huge difference in performance when an actor is actually acting opposite Yoda instead of a pair of floating tennis balls. The puppet or the animatronic becomes a part of the process. It is essentially another actor instead of a computer effect.
That’s why I wish more modern movies would look at Jurassic Park as the perfect union between CGI and practical effects. Having an actual animatronic T-rex that you can see and touch makes the experience feel more threatening and real. There is no wavering sense of doubt that what you see on screen isn’t real. It’s real. It may just be a bunch of wires and latex, but that’s a T-rex built to scale. And it looks terrifying. The emotions Spielberg is able to get out of the cast—especially the child actors—is only achievable because of the practical effects employed in the film. CGI should only ever be used to clean up the edges and make the practical effects really pop. Because let’s be honest, no one has ever gotten scared over a couple of floating tennis balls or a motion-capture suit, but an animatronic T-rex or a velociraptor (whether or not there is someone inside the suit) will always be able to get a good jump scare out of its unsuspecting victims.
What are your fond memories of Jurassic Park franchise? Do you have a fun fact or piece of trivia on the film? Share it in the comments below!