Jurassic Park is arguably Steven Spielberg’s last great blockbuster movie from start to finish. His talent as a filmmaker hasn’t declined, but there are no weak bookends — the movie plays as a perfect adventure story. It has the Amblin magic of exhilarating discovery mixed with child endangerment. The set pieces are expertly paced and constructed. It’s a movie that scares, excites, and every other thing we want from a summer blockbuster. It’s also an odd movie that constantly tries to reconcile its recalcitrance about scientific discovery with the wonders that science can create. The film couldn’t be fully realized without advancements in visual effects technology, but the story turns around and cautions how science must be cautious when used for entertainment purposes. But this ambivalent subtext lies beneath a film that’s just as thrilling as it was when it was released over twenty years ago.
Spielberg is constantly urging the audience to discover, even though what we discover will be both majestic and terrifying. He wants to put us into the shoes of people like John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) and to a lesser extent doctors Alan Grant (Sam Neill) and Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern), who want to marvel at something new from something old. Spielberg operates the same way by teasing us from the very first shot. We think that Muldoon (Bob Peck) and his men are waiting for some massive creature to come bursting out of the trees, but instead it’s a cage and we can’t see what’s inside.
The opening is reminiscent of other Spielberg movies where he loves to obfuscate and string the audience along before hitting them with some massive action. It’s creeping through the jungle in Raiders of the Lost Ark before running from a boulder. It’s the swimming in the ocean before getting dragged down by the shark in Jaws. And it’s these men believing they can control a force of nature because they have a metal box. (Also, Hammond can say, “spared no expense” as many times as he wants. He cheaped out on a mechanical gate and decided to have a person manually lift it up.) (I think you could make this a parenthetical aside – helps bring out the snark)
But after this intense opening scene, Spielberg completely pulls back and it’s all narrative. So much information is quickly and organically presented, both with major points like Grant’s aversion to children to the throwaway line of Hammond putting his attention on his daughter’s divorce (because Spielberg can’t resist putting in broken families and attempts to restore the family unit). But within less than five minutes we already know these characters, and that’s a great credit not only to Spielberg, but also to screenwriters Michael Crichton (whose novel is much darker than the movie) and David Koepp.
This isn’t an A-list cast, but it’s absolutely the right cast, and they all have perfect approaches to their characters. Hammond is a genius portrayal because you have Attenborough, who would next year play freaking Santa Claus in the remake of Miracle of 34th Street, as both cuddly and callous. Before Hammond even comes on screen, we know that he has absolutely no respect for science as his chopper just decides to drop in on an archeology site and mess up everyone’s hard work. But when we meet him, we can’t help but be charmed. He’s not a jerk but he’s still kind of a bad person. He’s misguided at best and reckless at worst, and his rampant disregard for nature is evident throughout the film. He’s more concerned with presentation than actually studying one of the greatest scientific breakthroughs in human history. Nevertheless, when he says, “Welcome to Jurassic Park”, I still get chills.
Unlike Hammond, Spielberg continues to admire scientists and has once again made science experts the heroes of his action films. Grant and Sattler may not be as suave as Indiana Jones, but they have the same blend of intelligence and bravery albeit under very different circumstances. The paleontologist and paleobotanist, respectively, are also two characters who can hold conflicting ideas in their heads, and they represent the conflicting ideals of the movie. They’re awestruck seeing dinosaurs up close, but they also realize the inherent danger and disregard Hammond has for his creations. The story also cleverly switches the gender roles by making Grant’s arc about being more paternal while Sattler gets to be the straight-up action movie badass (“We can discuss sexism in survival situations when I get back.”)
Then on the flipside you have chaotician Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum), who is such a weird character. Exhibit A:
More than these odd moments, Malcolm is the comic relief, the voice of reason, and anti-scientific discovery. He’s a bizarre amalgam and perhaps his best description is that he’s a “rock star”. Malcolm is the guy who gets on the cover of Wired and if the character were written today, he’d carry the “disrupt” buzzword as the mathematician who’s trying to bring down science through chaos theory. Rather than try to avoid or ground Malcolm, Goldblum leans into the character and makes it work.
It also helps that the character has the most eloquent argument not just against Jurassic Park, but also against scientific hubris in general: