Looking Back at Jurassic Park

DEN OF GEEK – Published as Blu-Ray trilogy released by CJ Wheeler and Jennie Whitwood

Never before had a cup of water been more terrifying, nor has an actor as tall as Jeff Goldblum been made to look like so tiny. Welcome back to Jurassic Park.

You have to feel sorry for kids in the noughties, and whatever this new decade’s called. They won’t quite have known the joy of dinosaurs in their lives until today’s Blu-ray re-release of Steven Spielberg’s classic Jurassic Park Ultimate Trilogy.

The real deal’s back, and looking better than ever, now it’s freshly transferred and digitally cleaned up. So if you’ve never seen Jurassic Park, or just need a refresher before you return to Isla Nublar, read on.

Paleontologist Dr Alan Grant (Sam Neill) and his paleobotanist wife Dr Ellie Sattler are interrupted while on excavation in the Montana Badlands by John Hammond (Sir Richard Attenborough), the head of genetics corporation InGen. Hammond offers Grant and Sattler several years’ financial backing – hard to come by even for someone named Grant, boys and girls – if they accompany him over the weekend to verify his new biological reserve.

Most funding-savvy paleos would think twice before getting into a helicopter with a strange old man who wears a safari suit and carries a suspicious-looking cane, but Grant and Sattler excitedly agree, and are swept off to an island off the coast of Costa Rica.

Joining Hammond, Grant and Sattler are consultant chaos-mathematician Dr Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) and bean-counting lawyer Donald Gennaro (Martin Ferrero). Grant, Sattler, Malcolm and Ferrero are skeptical about the park until Hammond tours them through the island and past a stomping brachiosaur. Soon, Hammond’s grandchildren Lex (Ariana Richards) and Tim (Joseph Mazzello) bring their childlike sense of scientific glee to the group, and head out on one of the park rides to bother the tyrannosaurus rex.

Meanwhile, the park’s greedy, financially troubled computer engineer Dennis Nedry (Wayne Knight) conspires with an industrial spy, and arranges to smuggle dinosaur embryos off the island and into the hands of a rival company. As the electric fences’ power falters and a tropical storm makes landfall, will Malcolm’s dire warnings that such a complex natural system cannot be controlled by over-confident humans come to pass? The answer is… roar.

Prior to his work with the thunder lizards, Spielberg had spent the 70s and 80s bringing newly cinema-goers Jaws, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, and the Indiana Jones trilogy. A versatile talent, Spielberg also delivered projects as disparate as Hook and Schindler’s List in the first few years of the new decade. Any other director with such a track record would struggle to find something left to prove to themselves, the movie industry or their audience.

Like his contemporaries James Cameron and George Lucas, Spielberg decided to build on his past successes by entering the developing computer-generated effects field. Longtime collaborator Lucas helped out with Jurassic Park‘s visual effects through his company, the pioneering Industrial Light and Magic. Spielberg had so much faith in the movie that he began work on Schindler’s List while Lucas handled Jurassic Park‘s post-production. ILM’s contribution would win them their 13th Academy Award.

Cameron had led the CG effects revolution with 1989’s The Abyss and 1991’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day, both also supervised by ILM. The time was right for such a tool to be picked up by other directors with the vision and Hollywood-backed resources to use it. Initially, Spielberg had only intended for the flocking herd of gallimimus to be rendered by computers, but after seeing how good those dinosaurs looked, he decided for a more CGI-heavy experience throughout.

While the fancy new computerised animals were stomping around on effects artists’ monitors, creature-feature legend Stan Winston provided what the credits list as “live-action dinosaurs”. A puppetry genius, Winston’s creations provided the close-up parts of the prehistoric titans, which landed him, and Jurassic Park, an Oscar for Best Visual Effects. Winston died in 2008, but left behind a studio with a legacy of stellar work, including Jurassic Park, Edward Scissorhands, Batman Returns, Terminator, Aliens, Iron Man and Avatar.

Perhaps the only film in recent years to approach Jurassic Park’s influence is yet another project to involve ILM: Cameron’s Avatar. A sci-fi tale featuring a similar ecological warning of human aggression, the Aliens director’s blue movie combined technology and nature while validating the 3D format’s use, if not guaranteeing acceptance by audiences.

Jurassic Park‘s cast was an international ensemble of veteran actors and fresh blood, who functioned as the perfect demographic balance for its PG-13 audience expecting “intense science fiction terror”. A fan of adventure, comedy, sci-fi, indie or the mind-bogglingly surreal? Then you’ll love at least one of the actors that make up Spielberg’s cast.

Sir Richard Attenborough portrayed the park’s creator John Hammond, with youthful energy, possibly as he hadn’t appeared in a film in 15 years. Attenborough’s Gandhi had pipped Spielberg’s E.T. for Best Director and Best Picture Oscars in 1983. The then-70-year-old echoed his younger brother’s career as a naturalist, and embodied the wistful folly that even an older, wiser generation can entertain when faced with the power and promise of new technology.

Completing the core of the film were a trio of actors with their own varied career paths. Sam Neill – taking on the role of Alan Grant after William Hurt and Harrison Ford had turned it down – was fresh from roles in The Hunt For Red October and his other 1993 hit, The Piano. Neill was paired in matching blue and pink shirts with Laura Dern, an alumnus of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, and later Inland Empire. Jeff Goldblum, familiar with the dangers of science from his lead in The Fly, had yet to take on invading aliens in Jurassic Park‘s rival for ground-breaking CG, Independence Day.

Supporting talent was also top notch. Hammond’s young grandchildren were disarmingly precocious, and showed Spielberg’s respect for his young audience’s intelligence. British actor Bob Peck brought a more solemn tone to the movie as park keeper and former hunter Robert Muldoon.

Samuel L Jackson, due to make his Tarantino debut in that year’s True Romance, somehow managed to avoid swearing as systems engineer Ray Arnold when uttering lines like “hold onto your butts”. Maybe it was the calming effect of chain-smoking throughout the movie.

The only mammalian villain present in the park is played in an exaggerated fashion by Wayne Knight, at the time also Seinfeld’s nemesis Newman, and later Third Rock From The Sun‘s Officer Don, as well as a nefarious figure in this year’s Torchwood mini-series. A caricature-like overweight computer programmer, Knight’s Dennis Nedry guffawed and griped his way into a scheme that resulted in an ugly demise at the venomous fangs of a dilophosaurus.

The dino-revival was such a powerful concept that it reached beyond cinema to stoke public interest in science. Documentary-style shows such as Walking With Dinosaurs ran with the idea of bringing extinct creatures back to life using CG. It also sparked wide, frequently ill-informed debate about the seemingly god-like potential of molecular biology. In the film, however, science actually got off lightly for once, as Spielberg worked for up-to-date authenticity with paleontologists like the inspiration for Neill’s character, Jack Horner.

Grant, Sattler and Malcolm are awed at what Hammond has done on his island, but are left stunned by the casual attitude of the park’s organisers. Pulled aside from the endeavour, and sat around a table with Hammond – who boyishly wishes to glean their thoughts and gain their approval – Goldblum’s chaotician sums the assembled intellectuals’ concerns up in a coherent way:

I’ll tell you the problem with the scientific power you’re using here: it didn’t require any discipline to attain it. You read what others had done, and you took the next step. You didn’t earn the knowledge for yourselves, so you don’t take any responsibility for it. You stood on the shoulders of geniuses to accomplish something as fast as you could, and before you even knew what you had, you, you’ve patented it, and packaged it, you’ve slapped it on a plastic lunchbox, and now [pounds the table] you’re selling it [pounds the table again].

Nothing quite as commercial as branding crossed Mary Shelley, HG Wells’ or Jules Verne’s minds, but it’s all over Jurassic Park. You won’t find any major corporations popping up to dominate the screen, though; the only product being sold is John Hammond’s zoological theme park. The image of the island, from its skeletal logo to cartoon geneticist Mr DNA, sells itself to everyone but the movie’s scientists. It’s not the decision of men and women in white coats to thrust the Mesozoic’s greatest predators into the fast-food, telecommunications and rollercoaster era of the Cenozoic – it’s the apes in business suits.

Even beyond the fiction, part of the movie’s appeal was its merchandise. Children and adults alike could buy into the idea of the park through toys, videogames and bedspreads, and pretend their favourite dinosaurs were really hidden away on a distant island somewhere. To paraphrase Superman‘s tagline from the 70s: everyone will believe a dinosaur can be resurrected.

Regardless of his films’ subject matter, Spielberg remains a populist. He speaks to the innocence, the naivety, the fear and the hope within us all. A defining moment of mainstream 90s cinema, Jurassic Park was the best thing to happen for the T. rex since glam rock. It’s just a shame they ate all those tourists. Curse them and their inevitable betrayal.

People who would like to become an engineer like Dennis Nedry may like to look into online engineering degrees.

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