Classic Review: Jurassic Park

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Summary: A film with effects I can only describe as magical and which also changed the way movies are made.

Review: Well, since James quite literally stole my thunder by getting to ‘Thor’ before me, this week I’ll instead be reviewing the cinematic milestone of 1993, ‘Jurassic Park’.

Along with various Disney films, ‘Jurassic Park’ was my earliest movie experience, and it was by far cooler than anything Mickey Mouse could show me.  My parents had somehow glanced over the fact that it was, in fact, a PG-13 film, and so, at between the ages of, say, four and seven, I darn near wore out our VHS tape of it, engrossed in all its dinosaur-awesomeness.  Perhaps I’m getting a little ahead of myself, though…

‘Jurassic Park’ was based on the best-selling book of the same name by science fiction writer, Michael Crichton; it told the tale of a science project gone wrong as genetically engineered dinosaurs, bred for a theme park on a remote island, escaped and terrorized the visitors.  The book caught the interest of legendary filmmaker Steven Spielberg, who spent the early 1990’s developing it for the silver screen.  In the process, he, along with Stan Winston and ILM, pioneered some of the most advanced special effects (most notably CGI) for their time to bring the film’s dinosaurs to life, forever changing the way Hollywood made films.

And what magic they brought to the screen.  As a kid, I was convinced that the creatures I was viewing on my television screen were real, living dinosaurs.  Everything from the first shot of the Brachiosaurus to the final shot of the T-rex looked alive, and to this day, even as computers have vastly increased in power, they still hold up.  It’s a testament to the craftsmanship of Spielberg himself, who worked painstakingly to ensure that these animals were as life-like as possible.  Everything from their movement, to the way they interacted with the physical world, to the way they sounded was undeniably polished, and the result was one of the most powerful experiences a child like myself could hope for.  And that’s really what makes this movie work so well: it’s the sense of child-like awe and wonder at these creatures.  There is a true sense of majesty, for instance, when the audience sees the Brachiosaurus for the first time, complete with one of John Williams’ most beautiful scores, as it grazes on a hill.  It’s a beautiful sequence that has the main characters, and the audience as well, frozen in amazement at the animal before us.  It’s a powerful sequence and one of my favorite film moments of all time.  It is moments like this that make the film work.

Now, I would be lying if I said that the film was flawless.  Unfortunately, by paying so much attention to the film’s dinosaurs, Spielberg and Co. didn’t focus enough on the human characters or the actual story.  The original book had a strong plot that was centered on the inner workings of Chaos Theory and the moral dilemma of pushing scientific boundaries: whether something as earth shattering as genetically engineering dinosaurs could ever be controlled or should ever even be done.  The characters as well, notably Alan Grant, Ian Malcolm, and even the two children, were all nicely fleshed out.  In the film…eh…. not so much.  There is great potential for the characters, and if the script had been brushed up a bit, they’d have really nice arcs; but as is they seem a tad underdeveloped and over-simplified.  In particular, Ian Malcolm, a witty mathematician who delivers the story’s central theme during a climactic speech half-way through the book, is reduced to a sarcastic jerk who gives a watered-down version of the same speech early in the movie.  After words the very theme of scientific morality itself gets buried under a wave of dinosaurs and chase scenes, and the characters boil down to the victims in a horror movie.  Don’t get me wrong, they’re cool dinosaurs and great chase scenes, directed under the skilled hand of Spielberg; but it does turn the plot into more of an amusement park thrill ride than an actual story.  There’s nothing wrong with that, in a sense, not every movie has to be ‘Citizen Kane’; some movies can just be fun (and this movie certainly is) and look cool (and this movie certainly does) but it does set a bad example for other filmmakers who don’t share Spielberg’s sense of wonder and awe.

You see, we live in something of a post-‘Jurassic Park’ movie world.  The blockbuster success of the movie changed the way Hollywood looked at special effects and stories, much the way ‘Star Wars’ had done 16 years earlier.  ‘Jurassic Park’ unlocked the true potential of the computer and ushered in a new era where CGI has made anything possible, but it also ushered in an era when some filmmakers believe special effects can tell their stories for them.  Think about it: how many movies since ‘Jurassic Park’ have come out that employ its same level of CGI?  A great many.  And how many of those movies have, unfortunately, relied on those effects to bolster an otherwise lousy or unfinished script?  Too many.  As it turns out, this sort of dilemma is not too dissimilar to the scientific dilemma depicted (unsuccessfully) in ‘Jurassic Park’.  How should this new technology be used? CGI is a powerful tool for filmmaking and has made some extraordinary films, but without a respect for it and knowledge of its limits, it’s too easily abused, and some very awful films have been the result.

That all said though, perhaps I am, again, getting a little ahead of myself here.  Who am I to judge something as vast and varied as the way special effects are used in film or what films ought to focus on?  Especially since it has allowed for the creation of so many that I love, including ‘Jurassic Park’.  And that brings me back to my main point, which is that ‘Jurassic Park’ is ultimately a great film.  It’s great because Steven Spielberg maintains at its core, the marvel and imagination for dinosaurs that only children can experience.  These were truly the most amazing creatures to ever walk the earth, and Spielberg captures their mystery beautifully.  As a kid I loved this film, and today I still do.  Whatever the long-lasting impact of this film is or will be, better or worse, the film itself is a winner.

So, if by chance you, the movie-goer, haven’t seen this modern-day classic, rent it, Netflix it, borrow it, buy it, whatever.  Give it a watch, and you too will see a truly awesome piece of cinematic history, 65 million years in the making (drum and crash cymbal!)

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Thor

A Note from James: I will no longer be rating by stars, or any other quantitative system.  It’s an awfully rigid way to measure a fluid, dreamlike medium.

Summary: A solid, fun fantasy film with impressive performances, Marvel’s best cinematic villain to date, and the promise of a lot more to come.

Review:  Through its recently formed Studios branch, comic book giant Marvel is putting together the most ambitious sci-fi/fantasy effort since Peter Jackson’s ‘The Lord of the Rings’ trilogy.  Four superheroes — Iron Man, The Hulk, Captain America, and Thor — are getting solo cinematic treatments, then being tied together in next year’s ‘The Avengers’, which is shooting under Joss Whedon’s direction now.  While Captain America has yet to debut, Iron Man and The Hulk performed well, and now the burden falls to Thor.

With a rich fantasy backstory drawn from Norse mythology comes an inherit risk of camp.  Director Kenneth Branagh and Marvel’s team of writers crafted an effective, if not terribly fresh, story, but what sells the film is its leads.  Newcomer Chris Hemsworth — who previously provided a tear-jerkingly heroic performance as George Kirk in J.J. Abram’s ‘Star Trek’ — simply kicks ass as Thor.  He’s a miraculously good actor, someone who can sell subtle emotional changes and go toe-to-toe with great hams like Sir Anthony Hopkins.

Natalie Portman is his earthbound love interest,  physicist Jane Foster, and she refuses to play her as a typical determined scientist, instead letting her dissolve into a giggling schoolgirl around Thor, an amusing and sympathetic reaction.  Given her brief screentime, she deserves a good deal of praise.

Of course, no comic book film excels without a good villain, and the true distinctive of ‘Thor’ is Tom Hiddleston’s Loki.  He’s a truly Shakespearean baddie, a guy who thinks of himself as the hero of his story, a good guy gone bad by going mad.  While another villain might cackle and spit out threats with an uncompromised glee, Loki actually weeps when he confronts his heroic brother in the final battle, even as he laughs and snarls and throws down with the best of them.  He’s a manipulative liar, but he believes he’s doing the right thing, and we feel his pain.

Most of the film takes place on a cosmic stage, as war brews between noble Asgard and bitter Jotunheim, the home of the Frost Giants.  With fantastic CGI and refreshingly tangible sets, I found myself believing in it.  The action has a real weight to it, and while Branagh isn’t the best action director around, he and his team still know that matters is clarity and impact.  When it desperately needs to work, it does.  This isn’t the best superhero action, but it is on a larger canvas than most, and deserves recognition.

As excited as I am for ‘The Avengers’, even if that wasn’t on the horizon, I’d be game for a ‘Thor’ sequel, a chance to cut loose from the trappings of an origin story and really let the “God of Thunder” loose in an even bigger conflict.  I really hope they do.