Jurassic Park Was Almost Ruined By The Technology That Made It Possible

jurassic


Jurassic Park (1993)
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Written by David Koepp and Michael Crichton
126 min.

Warning: Spoilers ahead.

After Jaws, Jurassic Park is my favorite Spielberg. By and large, it’s a great big piece of blockbusting cinematic magic. So what if its plot does little beyond getting characters where they need to be in order to get attacked by dinosaurs in the most spectacular of fashions—and often ungracefully? (Where exactly did that goat come from?) It ain’t Tarkovsky, guys—it’s purely entertainment for its own sake. It’s a creature feature about a dinosaur zoo going haywire. If this prospect alone isn’t enough to excite you, go back to your art films you pretentious tosser, because if you’re not too full of yourself to buy into it, this movie is a serious treat. Even almost 20 years after its theatrical release, Jurassic Park remains one of the greatest cinematic thrill rides ever released.

But even for what it is, Jurassic Park is far from perfect. In fact, I think it’s instructively flawed. As the first blockbuster to rely so heavily on CG, it was the canary in the coal mine of visual effects dependence (A mine that has since collapsed in on itself, trapping Hollywood and global audiences alike.) Legendary effects guru Ray Harryhausen, after being shown the prototype digital models for the dinosaurs—which would eventually replace the stop-motion effects they’d already been working on—famously told Spielberg that CG was the future of visual effects. Little did he know the technology would someday swallow the business whole, giving rise to shitty blockbusters like Avatar and Transformers and The Hobbit that serve as nothing more than tech demos.

Don’t get me wrong, Jurassic Park is much more than a mere tech demo. But here’s the thing: CG, by its nature, dates the visual presentation of any movie that uses it. (As does any effects that don’t blend seamlessly into the picture.) The character of John Hammond, the brains behind the eponymous park (and perhaps my favorite Spielberg character ever) says over and over in the film that he’s “spared no expense” in the park’s execution—this is an obvious nod from Spielberg to the audience. He’s letting the moviegoers of 1993 know that they are truly in for a ride unlike anything they’ve seen before. But I kinda wish he had spared some expense, because almost everything I dislike about Jurassic Park is something they put in the movie just because they could and not because they needed to. After a certain point in Jurassic Park, the dinosaur antics get just shy of tedious, and by the end, I’m left more exhausted than satisfied. Jurassic Park is really a 90-minute movie swelled by technology-driven excess to over two hours. (At least it’s not The Hobbit though, which is a one-hour movie swelled to over three for no other reason than to show off just how many work hours can be spent at a computer desk making a live action movie. But I digress.)

I believe that boundaries are to artists what governors in automobile engines are to drivers. We need boundaries because we lack the restraint not to fuck things up at the slightest incentive. Just knowing the limitations are there makes us more creative and careful. The development of CG created a slippery slope (as we now know) because it gave movie artists an infinite toolset. You know why the shark was so effective in Jaws? Because you barely ever saw it. There are many extraneous shots and scenes in Jurassic Park that illustrate how having too much of a good thing can ruin the overall effect.

There’s one scene near the beginning, right after the characters first arrive on the island, where though it contains the great goosebump-inducing “Welcome to Jurassic Park” line, it not only feels tacked-on, it actually hinders the story. Mystery goes hand-in-hand with wonderment; they are two sides of the same coin. Spielberg knows this full well, if Close Encounters Of The Third Kind is any indication. But instead of teasing the characters (and, more importantly, the audience) by hinting at the existence of dinosaurs on the island, and paying this off when the raptor hatches in the lab, Spielberg chose to just splurt digitally animated dinosaurs all over the screen as soon as the characters arrive. By doing this, he kills the suspense that could have made the raptor hatching all the more awesome a reveal for the audience (even if the characters’ reactions were left exactly as they are). And I think this scene only exists because Spielberg wanted to show off his new toys as quickly as possible.

There are other examples, too: Go ahead and skip ahead in the movie to the first T. Rex scene and contrast the obviously animatronic T. Rex shots with the obviously CG ones. The animatronic T. Rex represents the peak of ‘movie magic’, where all the power of practical effects (which are invisible when done well) came to bear and helped create one of the greatest monster attack scenes of all time, if not the greatest. The close-up shots of the T. rex are astounding to this day (look at the screen cap at the beginning of this essay for proof) precisely because you almost can’t tell it’s not a real dinosaur. But then there are full body CG shots of the T. rex that break the illusion, and suddenly Spielberg’s spellbinding cinematography is all for naught. For instance, when the T. Rex flips the car over and bites off the tire, you can absolutely tell she’s fake. She’s obviously fake. For a movie that hedges so much on gripping you in this precise moment, this is a problem.

We can always tell in a movie when an object is CG, and it will be a very long time until that’s no longer true. (The Hobbit proves as much.) Spielberg ought to have understood this. It doesn’t matter that something is impressive, it matters that it’s believable—at least, if you’re trying to get a gut reaction out of the audience, and trying to truly capture our imagination. Now, of course I’m not suggesting he should have reconsidered and cut out every bit of CG during post. There are obviously some scenes that could not have worked without it, such as when the T. Rex is chasing the Jeep. And, there are even CG-heavy scenes that work exceptionally well, such as the phenomenally fun climactic battle between the T. rex and the raptors. But even that scene has its flaws.

During the ‘Raptors In The Kitchen’ scene, the many angles that obscure most of the raptors’ bodies are completely brilliant—but there are longer shots that show the raptors in full that aren’t. The raptors bite at each other, or lick at the ladle on the floor, or dally about. ‘These shots give them more personality’ you may say, ‘and what’s wrong with that?’ Because the longer something obviously fake is onscreen, the more I am distracted by its obvious fakeness and consequently taken out of the moment. That rule goes for any movie ever. No excuse can be made because of the limits of technology. If you are trying to grip me by the throat, make your visuals completely convincing, or choose another route.

By far the worst-offending scene though is the gallimimus stampede, during which every bit of every dinosaur is done with CG. It’s like something out of The Phantom Menace. There’s no reason for it to exist in the movie except that as an opportunity to shove as much shit as possible on the screen to wow us. Maybe it did then, but it looks terrible now. And by this point in the film, the audience has already been pummeled by a half hour’s worth of dinosaur-related violence, so even if it had looked good it would have failed to excite.

Honestly though, I don’t wanna give the impression that I think that apart its visual hiccups Jurassic Park is a flawless movie. Even without the superfluous shots and scenes I mentioned, there’s a good deal wrong with the pacing and structure of the final act. I have a feeling that had Spielberg not been so distracted by his shiny new toy dinosaurs, he might have paid a little more attention to tighten things up. Still, honestly, really, I love the movie to death for its great actor chemistry, its unique personalities, its many wowing moments, and its unmatched sense of fun. It’s perhaps the only great movie we’ll ever have about dinosaurs breaking loose on an island and eating people, and we must be thankful, at least, for that.

4 out of 5 deinonychus feathers.

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One Response to Jurassic Park Was Almost Ruined By The Technology That Made It Possible

  1. Mary Pickering says:

    Really cool summation in the paragraph about “…boundaries, governors, restraint, limitations, creativity, and carefulness.” Lovely review, Alex – I re-caught the excitement of Jurassic Park!

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