7 Reasons Why Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park Might Be My Favorite Movie of All Time
While on a recent roadtrip with my wife, it occurred to me that Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park might be my favorite film of all time. I have very personal reasons for unabashadly loving the film, which is releasing on blu ray today. I was 10 years old when the Michael Crichton adaptation hit the big screen, and I knew nothing about it going in, except that it had something to do with dinosaurs… unfortunately, I was pretty sure these dinosaurs didn’t talk, unlike those in Super Mario Bros., which I would have rather seen. Yes, my best friend had to convince me to go see Jurassic Park over Super Mario Bros. I relented, and we caught the first showing on opening day.
So, what’s so great about an effects-laden, seemingly brainless early summer creature feature? Well, let’s start at the beginning:
1.) THE SOUND – You can choose John Williams’ amazing score – the main march of which accompanied my wife and I back up the aisle on our wedding day – or the ominous off-screen sound which everything on Isla Nublar seems to exude, or the ear-piercing shriek of the film’s star animals. Whenever your ear tunes into a sound in this movie, there’s going to be something to pay attention to. Gary Rydstrom and his crew deserved that Oscar, and John Williams added another classic to his ever-growing list, 18 years after he did Spielberg a huge favor by giving Jaws its tune.
2.) CHARACTERS – The characters are organic and unimpeded by star wattage. Just look at Alan Grant’s transformation from an obsessed, mission-centered scientist to a protective father figure. Sam Neill, who gained fame as a villain in Phillip Noyce’s Dead Calm*, starts the film typically cold, and ends up a hero. Had Spielberg gotten his first casting picks, rumored to have been Kevin Costner or Harrison Ford, we would have been begging for high adventure from the first time we met Dr. Grant. Add to Neill other fantastic character actors like Laura Dern, Bob Peck, Wayne Knight, Samuel L. Jackson, and the 90’s most unlikely action hero, Jeff Goldblum, and you have a cast that gets out of the way and lets story be the star.
3.) THE THEMES – The subtext of Jurassic Park is clear, unprojected, and perfectly communicated through sharp, to-the-point dialogue. The inevitabily of chaos, he thunderous power of nature versus the invasiveness of discovery, the danger of rampant consumerism, nihilistic commercialism… All at once, the film praises science, then assaults its worship. Jurassic Park is a Frankenstein story, as all great science fiction stories are. Even the script’s more implausible threads – such as the moment where a middle school student “hacks” an entire digital infrastructure – at the very least reflects one of the film’s major themes: the fallibility of technology.
4.) SHOTS – Oh, the shots. Spielberg is at his suspense-building best here, crafting two of cinema’s greatest scenes of tension. He uses off-screen space magnificently in both the first T. Rex attack and the harrowing Velociraptor kitchen hunt. Blink, however, and you’ll miss one of the great uses of “the fifth dimension of off-screen space”. Spielberg buries the subject of the film’s opening shot in the frame itself. Rarely has there been as a great use of misdirection as in the film’s first seconds: Spielberg opens the film looking high at a tree top, as we watch it rustle, expecting a monster to pop out at any moment… and yet, what do we get? Machinery. Technology. A crate, a forklift, and a look at the film’s true threat: the doomed attempt to cage nature.
5.) EDITING – Again, look at the end of the opening sequence: Juxtaposing the harrowing death of a dock worker in a prestine industrial environment against a smary, white-suited lawyer struggling to walk through a muddy jungle. Jump to the end of that scene, as Spielberg and editor Khan cut from one relic of the Cretaceous – the amber-encrusted mosquito – to another – an uncovered Velociraptor skeleton. How about cutting from the ominous shut down of park electricity to a photo of J. Robert Oppenheimer on Nedry’s desk? Again, look at the T. Rex attack. The pacing of that scene is maniacal. The most terrifying moment in that whole sequence is the pause that we have to endure right before the Rex plunges his snout through the sunroof of the kids’ Jeep.
6.) THE DESIGN – My definition of “design” includes everything in the frame of the film – the mis-en-scene, if you will. I’ve glazed over Jurassic Park’s game-changing visual effects because, in the end, they perfectly mesh with the rest of the movie. Production Designer Rick Carter nailed the look of a sanitized, concrete amusement park, as well as realistic jungle sets. Although current Spielberg cinematographer Janusz Kaminski gets plenty of credit these days, one should not overlook the work here from The Thing and Back to the Future veteran Dean Kundey, responsible for some of the most sure-handed and confident camera movement in action cinema. Again, the shots here are solid, on-point, and the typical Spielberg “atmosphere” is perfectly placed, for example, by lights streaming through jungle mist.
7.) IT’S PERSONAL – Look, I like dinosaurs. I always have. I also like jungle movies. Oh, and I like heroes that wear hats. Plus, John Williams music… aaand corporate espionage. Hm, and the Frankenstein archetype… In fact, man’s struggle to control the uncontrollable might be my favorite narrative theme in general… as if to suggest that’s something you can pick.
Although I’m not quite ready to oust Raiders of the Lost Ark, O Brother Where Art Thou, Seven Samurai, or any of the other movies that have held my “favorite of all time” spot, Jurassic Park has certainly climbed to the top of the mountain and wrangled itself into my top five. One of its greatest feats is its unending rewatchability and likability.
Not only is Jurassic Park a formalist example of the kind of directing I strive for as a filmmaker, it also showcases the kind of fun I like to have in a movie, despite it never losing a sense of sharp commentary and intellectual trajectory. Take another look at Jurassic Park. You won’t be disappointed.
*According to poster Christian, “Sam Neill was hardly a villan in Dead Calm, he was the hapless husband. Billy Zane was the villan.” He is, of course, right. My point about Neill being more of a sinister character actor stands, I think. (I hope.)