The realization that Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park turns twenty years old this year left me feeling pretty prehistoric myself. I was in my early thirties when the film of Michael Crichton’s bestseller came stomping into theaters, but I had been a dinosaur geek since childhood, to which the movie sent me back.
Now Jurassic Park has returned to the multiplexes, in a re-mastered 3-D version. I still love dinosaurs, but two decades have made it easier, now that astonishment at the truly convincing special effects has faded, to pick the movie apart logically, and to acknowledge the middle-class banality of its dramatics. Granting all this, however, I still say that Jurassic Park is one of the most thrilling special effects spectacles of all time, and that it remains the best showcase of computer-generated effects to date.
I say this in full awareness of James Cameron’s Avatar, which astounded so many people a couple of years ago. Avatar was an absorbing sci-fi romance, preoccupied with the human ability to disrupt nature—a theme it shared with Jurassic Park. But Cameron used the story to wow us with CGI effects which, though impressive and sometimes even lovely, were always obviously virtual phantoms. Spielberg used his rock-solid virtual effects—seamlessly blended with animatronic puppetry—to draw us into the story.
In case you’ve forgotten or somehow missed it the first time, the film concerns a theme park on an island off Costa Rica featuring real live dinosaurs, cloned from blood extracted from ancient mosquitoes trapped in amber. Prior to opening this ill-advised attraction, the founder (Richard Attenborough at his jolliest), invites several scientists (Sam Neill, Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum) as well as his own grandkids (Ariana Richards and Joseph Mazzello) to endorse it. A bit of industrial espionage and a power outage lead to dinosaurs on the loose.
Because of Spielberg’s brilliant timing and theatrical flair, I didn’t notice until I’d seen the film several times how vague and malleable the geography of the park is: steep retaining walls suddenly appear when they are needed dramatically, characters strike out across open country when it would make more sense to wait where they are for help to arrive. But when you’re watching the movie, Spielberg’s confident touch, and the effects, hustle you past these inconsistencies.
There are eccentric moments that still play beautifully, as when one velociraptor quixotically lunges to the defense of another against a much larger tyrannosaurus. The gag involving the rear-view mirror, which even people who disliked Jurassic Park had to admit was pretty good, is now being used in the poster, presumably to tout the movie’s new 3-D status.
But here, alas, I have to note that the re-release gains nothing in particular from the addition of 3-D. I can’t think of one scene that was enhanced by the effect in any way I noticed. Again, not that it matters—my ten-year-old, no particular dinosaur fan, joined me for the screening and was properly spellbound. With or without 3-D, Jurassic Park still has teeth.