Almost 20 years on, as it settles into its throne as a blockbuster classic, Jurassic Park is finally getting the home media release it deserves.
After a so-so DVD, the Blu-ray transfer positively glows – Dean Cundey’s alternately bright and inky photography looks good enough to gobble.
The effects hold up, too – and kudos must go to Steven Spielberg for resisting the urge for an E.T.-style digital makeover. Although, sadly for lovers of movie gaffes, the famous hand we used to glimpse steadying a raptor puppet has been digitally wiped. But as if in compensation, the puppetry of the late Stan Winston and his team has been rightly foregrounded in the near-bottomless special features.
The film’s remembered as a milestone in CGI, but you’ll be surprised how many of the dinosaurs are good old rubber models operated by a bearded guy in a Star Wars T-shirt; ironically, just as computers were poised to replace them, their art was hitting its peak. Without their sterling work – selling the dinosaurs as living creatures in close-up – the full-frame beasties wouldn’t have a 10th of their impact, which is worth remembering in today’s pixel-happy world.
Effects are one thing, but they don’t make a great popcorn movie on their own. The first Jurassic instalment has such propulsive,rib-crushing momentum that 1,000 ITV2 showings can’t dilute it. It’s Spielberg really close to the top of his crowd-pleasing game – which is to say, hectares ahead of the competition.
As with Jaws, he hired a bunch of grown-up actors (including Sam Neill, Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum) to play grown-up characters, whose smarts and genuinely funny interactions lend the open-jaw moments more credibility than a fleet of ILM supercomputers.
Food for thought
There’s also some legitimate thematic meat on the bone: “Don’t you see the danger inherent in what you’re doing here? Genetic power is the most awesome force the planet’s ever seen, but you wield it like a kid that’s found his dad’s gun.”
How many of today’s family-orientated actioners include debates as challenging and sophisticated as this, played out amid a lunch scene? Would Michael Bay stop a film just to have a bunch of smart people talking for a while?
Critics have sniffed that the second half ditches all the musing on dino-ethics for a non-stop chase, to which the answer is: it’s a movie. Spielberg’s mastery of camera placement and motion is textbook – it’s not a stretch to suggest that in another life, he could have been a celebrated choreographer.
Sadly, Spielberg’s anti-commentary policy continues with this release, but the extensive extras still reveal how difficult it is to do this kind of film – in one of the great instances of cognitive dissonance in history, he was commuting from the Schindler’s List set to Paris every weekend to work on post-production.
The insights into this process are fascinating. Until relatively late on, the plan had been to realise the full-frame dinosaurs with stop-motion animation not a million monsters from Ray Harryhausen – the tests included underlining how revolutionary ILM’s techniques were.
Sadly, revolutions fizzle fast, and by 1997’s The Lost World everybody and their maiden aunt had released their own CGI spectacular. Mindful of this, Spielberg went “dark”, making the awkward Temple Of Doom to the earlier film’s Raiders. He’s frank in the accompanying documentary: “It wasn’t as good as the first one.”
Third time’s the harm
And he’s right. The previously terrifying raptors can now be defeated by a pre-teen gymnast, Goldblum is seemingly playing a totally different character, and the underwhelming T-Rex-in-San-Diego climax feels very much like the afterthought the extras make clear it was.
After the precision-tooled ride of Jurassic Park, everything feels messy and thrown-together – again like the second Indiana Jones, there’s a feeling of scenes that were planned for the first film but cut because of budget or effects limitations being tossed in because they looked like a laugh to do.
There are flashes of Spielberg’s genius, with a terrific round-up-the-beasts sequence and surely the creepiest waterfall scene ever to make it into a summer event movie.
The director also had the nous to cast Pete Postlethwaite (whom he called “the best actor in the world”) as the series’ second badass big-game hunter (after Bob Peck’s underrated turn in the original). Even second-rank work from the bearded maestro still outclasses Roland Emmerich’s copycat Godzilla (released the next year) or, more pertinently, 2001’s Jurassic Park III.
Joe Johnston (who’d go on to make Captain America) does his best with a fairly fresh, if unlikely, set-up, which sees a couple (Tea Leoni, William H Macy) enlist Neill to help them find their dino-bait son. But where Spielberg’s entries ebb and flow from awe to threat to danger like a piece of music, Johnston’s is one-note.
It may have the series’ best effects by quite a margin, but it’s all for naught when, despite the odd arresting moment, you don’t care about the characters. And let’s not mention the newly chatty raptors.
They say you can’t prove anything with a negation, but this is the exception: by not directing Jurassic Park III, Spielberg served notice that turning state-of-the-art effects into something special is a lot harder than it looks