RECAP: Jurassic Park
Jurassic Park (1993): Steven Spielberg
Once in a blue moon, actually much rarer than that, a movie comes along and rampages through the American landscape, a film engineered to terrorize and delight, which evolves moviemaking forever. Jurassic Park was one such movie.
Michael Crichton’s most famous novel was his most popular, and if such things were possible I’d tell you it sold best, too. But publishers withhold such information like they’re nuclear launch codes, so unless radioactive warheads start falling around us, I’ll just say it and we’ll assume it’s true.
ONE-SENTENCE PLOT SUMMARY: Dinosaurs rule the Earth again, and chomp on humans.
Jurassic Park is a movie of big dreams and big egos, a film big enough for two villains and the soaring confidence of Jeff Goldblum. It’s big enough for two heroes.
Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill) and Dr. Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern) are two paleos unearthing dinosaur bones in the dusty foothills of Montana. They show their bona fides early, when Sattler, a paleobotanist, observes a monitor showing the readout of ground penetrating radar. She describes the skeletal features of a dinosaur fossil, diagnosing its death.
Grant, hater of computers and lover of digging, hears the skeptical cry of a boy who calls the fossil an oversized turkey. Grant, who maybe isn’t having the best day. chooses that moment to put the fear of nature into the child.
Grant approaches the boy, studies him, encircles him, explaining how raptors hunted in packs, how they never fear their prey, looking straight into their eyes before killing them, and not from the front, but from the sides, by the two raptors “you didn’t even know were there.”
Grant draws out a raptor claw, five inches long, and mimes a few slashes across the boy’s torso, letting his imaginary guts fall out. “Point is,” he says, “you are alive when they start to eat you.”
Neill has a tough job in this scene. It’s his first appearance, and he has to make this scene, which would make anyone appear insane or sadistic, a fun one for the audience, where we are on his side, and not the boy’s. Neill achieves this through a sidelong smirk and a speaking pattern imbued with, not anger, but dad-like explanation. It’s a balancing act he achieves. Credit to Spielberg for using a snot-nosed brat-looking actor and not a Cindy Loo Who type.
Sattler is the softer side of the scientist couple. She rarely lacks a smile. Teasing Grant comes easily for her, as easily as plunging her arms into a pile of triceratops dung.
Sattler seems to enjoy any challenge, any new thing in life. Dr. Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum), rock star mathematician, flirts with her many times, and Sattler shrugs it off as what can I say, I’m amazing, even calling Grant in to observe the flirtation.
And Sattler is amazing. Any problem and she’s ready to fix it. She leaves the tour behind to help the sick triceratops. She, along with Muldoon, runs to the control center to get the park’s power back on. She gets Hammond’s grandkids to ride with Grant because it “would be good” for him.
Laura Dern is a terrific actor, but she never earns enough credit for her world-class screaming. She gets to use it in Jurassic Park, though, and we are all better for it.
Sattler and Grant are level-headed scientists, but even they are overwhelmed by the power of Jurassic Park. Satire tells Hammond exactly that. The scientists are overawed when they first sight the dinosaurs. Grant is the first of the pair to see one, and all he can do is turn Sattler’s head, speech having fled him.
Everything is working in this scene. The camera pans slowly toward and up at Grant as he stands and observes the giant brachiosaurs. Same for Sattler. Glasses and hats are removed.
The pair exits the vehicle and walks toward the towering giant as it feeds, on its hind legs, on a tree. Grant, who can probably name 100 dinosaurs by popular and scientific name, can only say what we’re all thinking. “It’s a dinosaur.”
You never want animals as villains in movies. They have a tough enough time of it, in the real world, dealing with us. But when those animals are dinosaurs back from the dead? Different story.
Jurassic Park settles on two carnivorous dinosaurs to chase and kill humans: velociraptor, a pack hunter that lures prey into traps, and the most famous dinosaur, Tyrannosaurus Rex.
The raptors are the first dinosaurs to appear, though barely on screen. Spielberg introduces the audience to the raptors in the same way he introduced us to Jaws in 1975–by killing someone.
On Isla Nublar, of the coast of Costa Rica, a box large enough for a car holds a raptor. Robert Muldoon and dozens of Jurassic Park workers are going to move the raptor from the crate into it’s feeding pen.
Flashing lights indicate that the move is dangerous, and it takes little time for someone to die. One of the workers is pulled into the cage when its door is opened. We don’t see the raptor, only her prey, as she drags the screaming body up the side.
Several animal herders jab electrified prongs into the cage to zap the raptor, but the man dies anyway. We don’t hear from the raptor for some time.
T-Rex takes up much of the film’s spotlight, and not because she’s big and packs a huge roar. Not only because. T-Rex is the largest land predator to ever live, of course Jurassic Park would engineer one and of course we would see one in the movie.
The planned tour stops outside the Rex pen. Inside, a live goat rises on a plinth like a pitiful sacrifice to a malevolent god. Dr. Grant scoffs that a Rex doesn’t want to feed, she wants to hunt. Rex doesn’t appear, and the tour continues.
That night, during the tropical storm, the power fails. The two electric cars stop outside the Rex pen for a second time. Tim, using night vision, spots the dangling chain that once held the goat.
What happens is detailed in the next section, suffice to say it isn’t good–for the humans on screen. The humans watching loved it! Tyrannosaurus Rex occupies the screen’s full width, standing between two SUVs for helpful size comparison. Moonlight shows the reptile’s dark scales and the rain shimmering off it.
Raptors and Rexes hunt the humans with different techniques. Muldoon, esteemed British hunter and wearer of short shorts, believes the raptors should be put down, that they are too smart for their own good, and for humanity’s.
The park started with eight raptors, until the alpha female entered and killed off all but two. She’s extremely intelligent. “When she looks at you, you can tell she’s working things out,” Muldoon says.
Exactly this kind of intelligence kills Muldoon in the end. He tracks the alpha female through jungle, only to get sideswiped by a second raptor he didn’t even know was there. If only he had consulted Dr. Grant on raptor hunting techniques, he might have survived.
In the end, the T-Rex saves the humans by eating the raptors. Ol’ Rexy didn’t do it for the humans–what are humans to a dinosaur–she did it to eat familiar food. Perhaps goat and human weren’t tasty for her. Rex proved Dr. Grant correct, she likes to hunt. Rex attacks a flock of dinosaurs after eating the Pleistocene food. She uses brute force where raptors use cunning.
Few human villainous traits can frighten like those of a animal’s hunting instinct. Few animals astound and terrify like dinosaurs. Jurassic Park offers humans the chance to flee from dinosaurs that want to eat them. Trapped on an island, under a tropical deluge, with murderous reptile the size of a tractor trailer chasing you–that’s a recipe for total fear.
Nonhuman villains often make the scariest villains because we don’t understand their motivations. We can’t reason with them, bribe them, nor threaten them, and they won’t go away until sated, often with blood. The dinosaurs of Jurassic Park fit the bill, making them some of Hollywood’s best villains.
Jurassic Park chock full of iconic moments. Great characters and settings, funny lines and terrific effects.
After Nedry shuts down the electric fences the animals are free to roam as they please. This includes the most feared of all dinosaurs: Tyrannosaurus Rex.
The two tour vehicles stop outside the Rex pen. The goat remains chained to ground where the Rex left it. Inside the vehicles, the children are antsy. Tim digs up cartoonish night vision goggles and plays with them. The lawyer urges him to put them away because they are heavy, and that means they are expensive.
Grant and Malcolm wait in the other car, Sattler having stayed behind with the triceratops doctor. Malcolm asks if Grant asked if the kids were scared. He didn’t of course, because why would they be scared. “Kids get scared,” Malcolm says educationally, perhaps condescendingly.
They aren’t scared, yet. Tim plays with the goggles until he feels a rumble. He’s the first, and he slides back to the front seat to study two water cups on the dash. With each thud they quake, in one of the film’s iconic images.
The lawyer awakens from his nap, which describes perhaps his entire life. Frightened, he says, “Maybe it’s the power trying to come back on.” He knows it’s not.
The goat is gone. T. Rex got it. We can be sure when a bloodied goat leg lands on the car’s glass roof. In another great image, the T. Rex’s clawed hand drags along the deactivated electric wire, flapping the “10,000 volts” sign that now has no meaning. The camera pans pack to reveal the Rex swallowing the goat’s remainder.
The lawyer doesn’t like this one bit, and he bails into the bathroom. “When you got to go you got to go,” Malcolm says, not yet noticing the Rex.
Now the children are scared. “He left us,” Lex repeats. Grant and Malcolm see the wires break away and a beam bend down.
Tyrannosaurs Rex roams the Earth again.
“Boy do I hate being right all the time,” Malcolm says. Grant informs Malcolm, and the audience, that the Rex’s vision is based completely on movement. They should be still and not flash lights like the children are doing in the other car.
The Rex studies the car. It doesn’t like the metal and glass and plastic. It eyeballs Lex in a horrifying image and smashes the plastic roof onto the kids before flipping the vehicle. Grant and Malcolm are frozen to the danger until Grant finds flares.
Grant exits the car, lights the flare, and flings it into the pen. Enraged, the Rex follows. Malcolm doesn’t see this, because he lights a flare and leaves the car. He runs from the Rex as Grant implores him to get rid of it, leading the dinosaur, and Malcolm, to crash through the reed walls of the bathroom.
Who’s left after the walls fall down? The lawyer. The Rex appears inquisitive, studying the lawyer, before she eats him.
Grant tries to drag the children from the muck beneath the flattened roof of the jeep. Lex gets out, but Tim’s stuck. T. Rex wants her food! She nudges the car to and fro, nearly crunching Grant and Lex between the car and concrete wall.
The pair rappel down the concrete wall’s other side as the car menacingly slides, bit by bit, over the edge, barely missing them as it lands in a tree.
The T. Rex lets out a cretaceous roar.
It’s all happening in this scene. Children are in mortal danger. The lawyer is eaten in a moment of righteous satisfaction for the audience, and the villain, the largest land predator to ever live, lets out scream after scream that chill the soul.
The sequence abates for a moment as Grant helps Tim out of the tree before the car crashes down on them. They slowly, then quickly, climb down the tree, in that way that, as children, you slide-fall from a tree full of thick branches.
The car crashes on the ground just after Grant and Tim, and they leap onto the spot where it will fall on them and not crush them. “We’re back in the car again,” says a breathless Tim. At least he didn’t lose his sense of humor when he puked.
Sattler and Muldoon, dispatched to find the survivors, arrive at the Rex pen and find that Malcolm is not only shirtless, but alive. And he’s cinched his belt around his leg to stop the bleeding. “Remind me to thank John for a lovely weekend,” Malcolm says.
They put Malcolm in the jeep and search more for the missing people. Malcolm sees the impact tremor in the Rex print and says, to himself, “I’m fairly alarmed here.”
The Rex bursts through the trees and chases the jeep. One shot shows the view in the mirror, and although the Rex is a teeth gnash behind, objects in mirror are closer than they appear. Laura Dern unleashes her world-class terror scream.
After driving through a fallen tree, the jeep escapes when the Rex gives up. Usually that means a cliff is about to pop out of nowhere, but not this time. The adults escape.
Decades on, the machines that were the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park still amaze. You can’t beat real-world items for filming, exactly the reason J.J. Abrams used real droids in the newest Star Wars, making a point to eschew the digitized creatures of the prequel trilogy.
Jeff Goldblum dons his finest character, chaos enthusiast Dr. Ian Malcolm. Hammond dubs him a rock star, and he certainly dresses the part: all black leather and gold pendant.
Malcolm, like most park guests, is staggered by its grandeur. Or, rather, not by its grandeur but the “lack of humility being displayed before nature,” which is its own kind of grandeur.
Malcolm knows that Jurassic Park is troubled. No force on Earth has proven more powerful than the genetic force. “Life will not be contained,” he says, metaphorically. That metaphor will soon become actual, when the dinos break free.
Malcolm doesn’t let his fears of the park intrude on flirting with Dr. Sattler. He rides in her car on the two-vehicle tour of the paddocks (as Muldoon would say). He takes time, soooo much time, to explain chaos theory to Sattler by dropping water on her imperfectly-skinned hand.
Check the way he saunters toward the triceratops dung pile. That’s a swag walk. Malcolm knows he’s sexy enough, brims with enough confidence, that he can seduce a pile of shit.
Always on the lookout “for a future ex-Mrs. Malcolm,” Malcolm brazenly hits on Sattler. He’s a handsy guy. On the helicopter to Jurassic Park he tickles Hammond’s knee while flirting with Sattler. Later, he trickles water down her hand while Grant sits two feet away.
Malcolm talks to himself often. He recognizes this while waiting in the jeep to be carted away after his T-Rex attack. Everyone, including himself, is pleased by Malcolm’s company.
The two dinosaurs antagonists don’t directly work with any humans, but some certainly help them achieve their ends.
Chief among the human villains is Nedry, genius hacker and troubled financial manager played by Wayne Knight. Nedry agrees to steal embryos and sell them to a rival company for $1,500,000.
That’s a tidy sum for 18 minutes of work, and Nedry’s quite excited about it before he’s done the job. He meets a middleman at a dinky cafe in San Jose, where he gets the Barbasol can that will house the embryos and actually dispenses shaving cream. Nerd’s never had a better day, it seems.
Later, he shuts down the security systems as planned and easily steals all the name-brand dinosaurs in the shaving cream can. (How much did Barbasol pay for this placement?)
Nedry steals a jeep and drives toward the dock. All of this is going on during a tropical storm. Nerd’s glasses fog. He can barely see and crashes twice, first into a sign and then through a barrier.
Nedry remains in good cheer, though he’s running out the clock, while attaching a cable to a tree to winch free his jeep. He shows terrible skill at attending to his surroundings, sliding up and down inclines. He doesn’t even realize that he’s wrong to address the dilophosaurus as a “nice boy,” because everyone knows all the dinosaurs are female.
This lady didn’t like being called a boy. She’s the first feminist dinosaur. She unfurls the thin skin surrounding her head and spits sticky poison into Nedry’s eyes. He gets in the jeep, only to find her there beside him. It’s the end of Nedry.
The hacker extraordinaire isn’t the only person aiding the escape of the animals. Chief among equals is rich man John Hammond (Richard Attenborough).
Hammond possesses a boyish joy at Jurassic Park. He first opened a flea circus in Scotland, all illusion, but he wanted the dinosaur park to show people something real, something they could touch. He never understood, until Dr. Sattler pointed it out to him, that the dinosaurs were also an illusion.
Hammond showed neither fear nor respect for the dinosaurs, and that’s why they broke out. He believed he could control them. No one can. Nature finds a way.
In the end Hammond exhibits culpability and great sadness. He decides that even he can’t endorse Jurassic Park. Too late, though, the damage was done.
With so many terrifically terrifying effects to show off, Jurassic Park needed few stunning stunts. Spielberg and company still found a few places to stuff them in. The most hair-raising certainly occurred high in a tree, when Grant helped Tim escape from the clutches of a mangled truck that later tried to crush them.
Grant convinces Tim to leave the vehicle, as it weighs tons and is pointing directly down. Tim has just vomited, which normally improves, if temporarily, one’s disposition. Tim is reluctant, but trusts Grant and leaves the truck. They have to climb down pretty fast and fall the last few feet.
The truck crashes behind them, but then it keels over, and Grant tackles Tim into the only safe spot–back inside the truck. Climbing down a tree is more like controlled falling, and when a truck is chasing you, that’s scary. Add to that the small nature of Tim, and you get a harrowing stunt sequence.
Other stunts are visually pleasing if not technically dangerous. As this recap is as long a brachiosaur, I’ll assign an average score and move on.
Boy, Nedry really screwed everyone, right? (Did you know “Nedry” and “nerdy” are practically the SAME WORD?) The gang has to reboot all the ‘lectrics and phones and stuff. So they send Sattler and Muldoon to prime the generators.
One problem, though. OK, a million problems, but one new problem. There’re raptors out there.
The kids sprint into the kitchen. Man, this scene. Cut to Sattler saying that her raptor is contained, “Unless they learn how to open doors.” Cut to a raptor opening the kitchen door.
The kids are down the corridor from the door. They see it open. Lex beckons Tim to follow her, and they crawl around the floor as the raptor heads sweep over the shiny chrome counters.
The kitchen is an enormous space. The siblings could have run to the opposite end, searched for another exit, and ran out that way as the raptors crashed over and through the space.
Instead they crawled into tight space and around sharp corners. Lex tricks one raptor through reflection. Tim sits inches from a raptor and her razor claws. A raptor smacks dozens of clanging pans on the floor. The camera shoots beneath a shelf to show the raptor feet and claws clacking on the hard tile.
Spileberg turns the large space, normally open and bright, into a dark cave of narrow spaces and nowhere to hide. The camera looks up from the floor–the perfect child’s point of view–so viewers can fear the raptors as the children fear them. And yeah, it’s pretty funny that it’s the animals threatening to eat the humans in the kitchen.
Lex’s mirror trick offers Tim the chance to sprint away, and he doesn’t waste it. He becomes bait for the the other raptor, allowing Lex her chance to escape. They both lock one of the beasts in a freezer, but the other eludes them.
Grant, Sattler, Lex, and Tim convene in the control room, now ready for system reboot. Also interested in computer hacking is the other raptor, who pops up at the electrically locked door to say, “Hello, chums.” She puffs vapor onto the glass, further adding to the creatures’ verisimilitude.
The humans don’t want that dino in the room, but they have to wait for Lex to navigate Nedry’s achingly slow program, combing through the entire park to find the visitor’s center and turn on the power.
Meanwhile, the raptor has its claws through the door, and both adults can barely stave her off. Tim could get the gun. He doesn’t get the gun. Lex does turn on the power and phones. The locks flick on and keep the raptor at bay.
Grant calls Hammond to tell him his grandkids are alive, but are seconds away from being eaten because that raptor has just crashed through the window. Well, he didn’t say that so much as he shot at her before dropping the gun and phone.
The quartet climb a ladder into the ceiling. Let’s see a raptor try that. As the humans crawl away, the raptor, standing on the table, pops her head through a tile that Lex was using. She says, “Oh, hi friends,” but Grant kicks her and they get away, stumbling into the skeleton room.
The four leap onto the hanging T-Rex skeleton, and so does the raptor, and it breaks in three sections simultaneously that spin on their wires. Spielberg could have chosen several ways to use the skeleton, but his was the most aesthetically pleasing choice. Each T-Rex third occupies a third of the shot, and they spin in synchronization. Then they break, the spine and rib cage nearly impaling Tim.
All parties are back on the floor. The raptor uses her head to lift up a plastic sheet. She says, “Nice day, isn’t it?” The humans can’t understand Raptor and now the last two have them cornered. Yes, one raptor was shut in the systems control center, but she learned how to open doors, too, so here she is. The humans await their deaths until–CRUNCH–ol’ Rexy pops in for a dino-snack. The other raptor leaps onto T-Rex to defend her buddy, buying the humans escape time.
As the humans board the jeep with Hammond and Malcolm, on their way to the helicopter, Dr. Grant says, “Mr. Hammond, after careful consideration, I’ve decided not to endorse your park.” It was nice for him to keep an open mind about it until they left. That was all Hammond really asked for.
T-Rex chomps the second raptor and throws her into the T-Rex skeleton, dusting it. Dinosaurs are back, baby! Its enemies vanquished, prey eaten, T-Rex unleashes a terrible, Earth-shaking roar as the banner saying “When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth” flutters to floor. In a film full of iconic images, there’re none better. It makes you want to get out of your seat and shout YES!
The chopper flies away. The humans have survived. They watch pelicans, the docile descendants of dinosaurs, which allowed for the rise of humans and other mammals, and relish their escape from dinosaur island.
“Find Nedry. Check the vending machines.”-Hammond
“Objects may appear” mirror
“Hold on to your butts.”
These are some of the few jokes peppered in the best spots throughout Jurassic Park. The production team knew where they should go and in what amounts. The screenwriters were working like the best nurses, topically applying the soothing balm right after, or during the horrors of gnashing teeth and crunching bones.
Isla Nublar, off of Costa Rica’s beautiful coast, houses the terrible dinosaurs returned to life. What better place to have a theme park than a saturated mosquito breeding ground full of ravenous reptiles? It worked for Disney World.
I know they shot the movie in Hawaii, but wow does Jurassic Park look great. It wasn’t all thick jungle, either. At least two scenes take place on an expansive grassland, where Grant, Sattler, and Malcolm first glimpse the veggiesauruses. Making skeptical adults want to run and play in a field is a tall task. Brontosauruses are that tall.
Let’s not forget the park amenities. The Visitor’s Center boasts white-cloth dining and dinosaur skeletons suspended from the roof. The kitchen is spotless, shiny, and chrome.
Even the fenced areas appear, if not natural, essential to a jungle. Humans accustomed to life outside the jungle find fear in every creature living there. “Jungle” is an exotic location, one for recreation and vacation, and so we mentally fence it in. Actual electrified fences don’t feel out of place.
Characters spend much time inside the jeeps Hammond supplies for human transportation/dinosaur dinner tray.
Malcolm is most angry about Jurassic Park. “Genetic power is the most awesome force the planet’s ever seen.” But the scientists and Hammond show no humility. They didn’t earn the knowledge. It required no discipline.
Confucius-like platitudes aside, Malcolm questions whether or not Man should play God. He loves chaos, but even for him, Jurassic Park is too much.
The dinosaurs break loose. But wasn’t that Nedry’s fault? Yes. But Nedry acted selfishly. Driven by a genetic imperative to gather resources, Nedry undermined others in his species group for his gain. “Nature finds a way,” they say. Nature did.
Grant discovers the dinosaur eggs in the park. He figures out that the amphibian DNA sequence switched genders to allow breeding. Oops. Not meant to happen.
Spielberg finds a way to jab at chauvinism in Jurassic Park. Sattler and Muldoon are gearing up to track down Mr. Arnold, fearing for his safety. Raptors are loose in the park.
Hammond prepares to read the schematics for turning on Jurassic Park’s power and control systems draped across Malcolm’s bleeding leg. Weakly, Hammond suggests that it really should be he, a sexagenarian overweight man, to wander the raptor-filled jungle and not Sattler, an enterprising woman in peak physical condition, “because I’m a…, and you’re a….”
Satire gives him one of the decade’s better eye rolls and says, “We can discuss sexism in survival situations when I get back.” Credit to filmmakers for throwing in a moment of contrived masculinity so asinine that it can only be mocked. Even Hammond isn’t convinced he should go, but he is convinced he should make a show of it.
- The GATTACA code lines projected onto the raptor’s face.
- The Deep Blue lighting on Arnold in the control room. He appears as if he’s on a black box stage.
Summary (56/68): 82%
Jurassic Park was Steven Spielberg’s third movie to earn the most in world history. Perhaps only 10 movies have achieved that, and Spielberg directed three of them.
That fact alone should be enough to make it an instant classic. And it is, but consider this. The movie might be the only ever made to induce two different sequels: The Lost World and Jurassic World. The former was Crichton’s novel sequel, published in 1995, and the latter a wholesale Hollywood joint from 2015.
The two movies are completely unrelated, but both follow the events of their progenitors. The Lost World finished third in 1997, while Jurassic World finished second in 2015. Of course, in each of those years came the all-time highest-grossing film, so consider that in nearly every other year they’d had risen to the top.
Why was Jurassic Park such a smash hit? Laura Dern’s curdling screams, “Hold on to your butts,” Jeff Goldblum’s cavalier attitude and unbuttoned shirt, enormous dinosaur robots, John Williams’s brachiosaur-high score, the park’s unique graphic image, the primal terror of a loose Tyrannosaurus, and her final dominant scream.
Few movies in history combine awe and terror like Jurassic Park. Few directors could tease out both like Steven Spielberg. That’s why the project was perfect for him, and he delivered. They all delivered, especially the dinosaurs.