Jurassic Park is my favorite film of all time. Which is funny, because I don’t really have the same sort of nostalgia for it that most other diehard fans do. As a kid, I was obsessed with dinosaurs, so naturally, Jurassic Park always had a peripheral presence in my childhood. I got scared to death by the Universal Studios ride. I had a bunch of toys for the follow-up, The Lost World: Jurassic Park. I would even sneak into my older cousins’ room to marvel at the brachiosauruses on the back of the VHS case they had. But I didn’t watch Jurassic Park until around when I was thirteen after a friend of mine introduced me to the novels of Michael Crichton.
As soon as I finished the book, I knew that I had to finally get around to seeing the movie. After all, I was entering my “cinephile stage”. I was about to discover Christopher Nolan. There was no way that I could continue saying that I hadn’t seen the biggest Steven Speilberg blockbuster of all time. So, I rented the DVD from Netflix and proceeded to be blown away. The groundbreaking blend of practical and digital effects, the regal John Williams score, the memorable characters, and the edge-of-your-seat suspense all grabbed me, and to this day they still haven’t let go. But there’s another factor at play that makes this movie special. It possesses a secret ingredient that other creature features lack: wonder.
See, there’s nothing really like Jurassic Park. Though there have been attempts from both Universal and competing studios to recapture that lightning in a bottle, no one has succeeded. I think that’s because all of the other movies about dinosaurs and monsters running around and eating people don’t have that perfect blend of terror and awe. Speilberg himself reluctantly gave it a try with The Lost World, and even though it’s not a terrible film, it didn’t succeed at making you feel a sense of wonder. Moments in the sequel like the team watching a herd of Stegosauruses cross a riverbed or the ending with the reunited T-rex family feel like hollow afterthoughts. As much as the Jurassic Park/Jurassic World franchise wanted to have another moment like those in the original film where the group sees the dinosaurs at the watering hole for the first time, none of the sequels seemed to have the sincerity or heart to pull it off.
One of the reasons that Jurassic Park works as well as it does is because it successfully sells you on the idea that dinosaurs can be both majestic creatures and terrifying threats. It has Alan, Lex, and Tim barely survive an encounter with a T-rex (in a suspenseful scene that has me anxious for them every time), but it also has the trio sharing a face-to-face moment of levity in the treetops with a Brachiosaurus. Jurassic Park is a sci-fi monster movie that straight-up tells you that the dinosaurs aren’t monsters- they’re just animals, and they’re worthy of our empathy.
But the way Jurassic Park has dinosaurs install both wonder and fear isn’t the only way that the movie uses powerful contradictions. It’s about cutting-edge technology being used to recreate the ancient world, and, interestingly, the same can be said about Industrial Light and Magic’s revolutionary work with the film’s computer animation. Jurassic Park marked a massive shift in the way movies were made, and the funny thing was that it wasn’t supposed to happen. Speilberg always wanted Stan Winston to do the animatronics for the close-up shots of the dinosaurs, but he originally sought out Phil Tippett (of the original Star Wars trilogy and Robocop) to bring the dinosaurs to life in wide shots using stop motion. At first, ILM was brought on to do groups of dinosaurs in the distance and digitally add motion blur to Tippett’s work to make it look more fluid and alive. However, animators Steve Williams and Mark Dippé decided the full shots of dinosaurs (what Tippett was going to be doing) might be more convincing if they were created digitally.
This is a hell of a conclusion to come to considering computer animation was only a decade out from TRON, and there hadn’t yet been a realistic, organic creature rendered digitally. James Cameron had pushed ILM to create a living water creature for 1989’s The Abyss and the T-1000 for 1991’s Terminator 2: Judgement Day (both had been worked on by Williams). But those were both shifting, abstract human representations rather than flesh-and-blood creatures. Nevertheless, Williams created a clip of a running T-rex skeleton just to show that he could convincingly simulate a dinosaur’s movements. Being a bit of a rebellious punk, Williams “accidentally” left his little side project playing on a monitor when producers Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy visited ILM to check the status of the background dinosaurs and motion blurring, and the rest is history. Universal decided to “spare no expense” on using the groundbreaking technology.
Tippett was initially very depressed by the development, but his stop-motion work proved to be an important reference for the computer animators, who used it to better map out the dinosaurs’ movements.
The CGI in Jurassic Park honestly holds up surprisingly well (only the brachiosaurus walking in the daylight feels dated), especially considering no one had done anything on this scale before. Of course, “this scale” isn’t necessarily as big as you might think it is. Jurassic Park is 127 minutes long, and dinosaurs only actually appear on-screen for around 14 minutes. On top of that, only around 4 of those minutes involve computer-animated dinosaurs. These 4 minutes took months to make and changed filmmaking forever, but… they’re still only 4 minutes.
Those glimpses of dinosaurs stomping, running, and roaring feel longer than they are thanks to the way that Speilberg uses suspense to play with your imagination. In Jurassic Park, he polished and perfected some of the techniques made necessary by Jaws’ frequently non-operational shark animatronic. This time, though, Speilberg could more freely show the dinosaurs between the actors’ reactions, rather than saving them for the end of the film.
There’s a lot of blending of techniques going on to make you believe the dinosaurs are real, and the use of the animatronics and puppets alongside the computer animation helps them feel tangible in ways that modern CGI often doesn’t succeed. I think the limitations of computer animation at the time ultimately helped Jurassic Park in ways no one could have predicted. Because the new animation technique had to be used sparingly and needed to match up with the practical effects, the visual effects in the 1993 film are talked about more favorably than the Star Wars Special Editions (which came out four years later) or Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (which came out six years later). There’s just the right level of risk and just the right level of restraint to make this game-changing movie magic feel timeless.
Because the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park feel like physical, living animals rather than soulless obstacles that only exist to bounce around the screen and mindlessly kill the protagonists, they have an immense amount of personality that makes them impossible to forget and remarkably cool. They’re the reason that deep down, despite all of the danger and the carnage, you wish that you could visit Jurassic Park. That’s something that can’t be said about the setting of any other creature feature. Going to the undersea lab in Deep Blue Sea where they genetically engineer sharks to be bigger and smarter? Easy hard pass. Going to Jurassic Park? You can’t tell me that you wouldn’t at least hesitate if you were going to say “no”.
I could go on forever about my love for Jurassic Park. I could rave about its performances, praise its iconic music, and devote hours to its themes (Alan ties together a seatbelt that accidentally has two of the same parts to demonstrate that “life finds a way”). I could refuse to shut up about how this post-Post-Modern Prometheus brings Mary Shelly’s anxieties about science without ethics to a new century. However, I imagine that countless other articles are coming out today that have that covered.
Happy 30th anniversary to “an adventure 65 million years in the making”. Here’s to the next 65,000,030 years!