30 years later, Jurassic Park is still a marvel in both its real and fictional approach to science and technology.
For millions of people there are few films as culturally ubiquitous as Jurassic Park. The iconic blockbuster was a perfect storm of dinosaur mania that captured the world’s youth, with its visual effects breaching new societal thresholds. In 1993, Steven Spielberg once again reinvented the blockbuster like he did with Jaws in 1975, achieving new creative (and financial) heights. Spielberg dug his stake deeper in the ground, reclaiming his spot as one of the most prolific auteurs in populist cinema, an artist who many would-be filmmakers would aspire to be and still do to this day.
A lot has changed since 1993, both in the movie-making industry and what audiences even want from a blockbuster in 2023. You can see this stark difference in the marketing of Jurassic Park alone, seen below:
They spared no expense.
Jurassic Park is famous for following the likes of Star Wars and 1989’s Batman with its historic marketing blitz; with previews of an ominous tropical atmosphere, the iconic T-Rex skeleton, and aisles upon aisles of merch lining local malls. The hype was overwhelming. So much so that even children who were far too small to be seeing something so scary were anticipating the release. But if the director of E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind knew anything about kids of the 80s and 90s, it was that the scariest, most otherworldly things could also be the most jaw dropping and awe inspiring.
Inspire he did, as Jurassic Park premiered worldwide 30 years ago on June 11, 1993 and destroyed records as people came out in droves to see the movie over and over again. The film would go on to break the all-time box office record and, adjusted for inflation, earned $1.04 billion in the box office. Even the VHS tape was the fifth highest-grossing home release ever.
A place where audiences had never been.
Today, the film remains one of the most beloved science-fiction blockbusters in history. Plenty has been mined from Michael Crichton’s best-selling book, which translated popular vacation destinations like Disneyland and Universal Parks into an exploitative horror spectacular. Jurassic Park draws a fine line between allowing audiences to appreciate the presence of these prehistoric beasts, while also making fundamental points as to why bringing them back to life for profit is an astounding misstep in science and the laws of nature.
The film plays a delicate balance between being a character-based dark family comedy and a musing, scientific “what-if” drama, while still giving those scenes room to breathe in between brisk, intense action set pieces with hordes of Velociraptors and towering monoliths like the Tyrannosaurus Rex. This tonal and narrative harmony creates a perfect pace that carries viewers through to the end and allows the film to stand the test of time when paired with revolutionary effects. The sequels, by comparison, suffer from a lack of that balance and don’t come close to achieving the same impact.
If Pirates of the Caribbean breaks down, the pirates don’t eat the tourists.
The film also comments heavily on the paranoia of computer science entering every corner of society in the early 90s. In the same year that every business machine with Windows was also being installed with Doom and connecting to the internet for the first time, the development of computer technology was integral to the beautiful disaster that is Jurassic Park. Not just in InGen and John Hammond’s development of restoring dinosaur DNA sequences and trying to tamper some form of control over it, but also in the infrastructure and security of the island as well. The park is a tropical “paradise” with corporate resorts staking claim to the jungle forests throughout with concrete buildings, jeep wranglers locked on rails, electric fences, and fortresses meant to contain the potentially dangerous beasts. There’s a reason the movie begins with one of those fortresses, a cage, utterly failing.
The film barrels through its runtime at a raucous pace, all the while sticking to its main themes succinctly summed up by Jeff Goldblum’s Ian Malcom as he famously utters, “Life finds a way.” That’s the core thesis of Jurassic Park, and it’s repeated many times nonverbally. You can’t contain the perils or beauty of life, not just with the animalistic nature of dinosaurs, but people as well. Whether you’re a greedy sellout or a family man who doesn’t yet know he’s a family man.
Don’t get cheap on me, Dodgeson.
Malcolm’s very own “Chaos Theory” is shown in full effect throughout the film, as characters and dinosaurs alike find creative solutions to various survival situations. This happens mere moments after Malcom’s flirtatious demonstration as Alan Grant (Sam Neill) and Ellie Satler (Laura Dern) leap from a moving vehicle to help a sickly triceratops. Even the creature’s diet intertwines with this study, as the factor causing it to fall ill was by eating berries from a poisonous plant, because who could know what affects the digestive system of an herbivore from 65 million years ago?
John Hammond and InGen may have “spared no expense,” but for their folly, it falls on the working-class individuals with years of knowledge, research, and willingness to get their hands dirty like Dern’s Ellie to understand what is actually required to give these animals a decent life. Even if she has to dig through a pile of shit to do it.
Few examples of Hammond’s philosophical faults are more obvious than in Dennis Nedry: the IT professional who was there one crack in the plans for Jurassic Park. After not getting a pay raise for an admittedly high level of work and skill, Hammond’s lack of understanding not just in biological sciences but also computer science left him blind to the dangerous and perhaps inevitable possibilities. Nedry, seeking more money, begins the film partnering with a competitor to leak DNA samples from Jurassic Park’s cold storage. In order to do so, he takes his exclusive knowledge of the Park’s security system to turn it offline and get out of dodge. Even though he doesn’t make it off the island, he too was working through his survival instincts the same as the monsters that he helped to cage.
I hate computers.
The film’s protagonist, Alan Grant, famously hates two things: children and computers. His fascinations lie with the old and buried things of the world and is reluctant to embrace the new. His contempt for computers and their rapid development hits pretty close to home in a post-AI and algorithm-dominated world, as his niche work in paleontology increasingly becomes obsolete while the computers scan bones from the ground. It should come as no surprise, however, that Hammond’s granddaughter Lex (Ariana Richards from Tremors), is able to restore the internet-connected door security and phone system through an incredibly obtuse Unix system.
Jurassic Park also created a beast of its own behind the scenes. The film was initially in a massive phase of pre-production with Stan Winston Studios and Industrial Light & Magic, the effects team behind the innovations of the Star Wars trilogy, E.T., Raiders of the Lost Ark, Back to the Future, and very early stages of CG sequences like those found in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn and Terminator 2: Judgement Day. Early on, the film’s dinosaur aesthetic was established by talented designers through multiple phases of practical effects ranging from small clay casts to puppeteered heads and limbs, with the ultimate life-size Tyrannosaurus Rex containing steel-frame animatronic bones with a specially sculpted frame painted by hand from head to toe. Stop-motion designer Phil Tippet (director of 2021’s Mad God), famously created sculptures of the dinosaurs to later be composited into the film, cut between practical dinosaurs on set for the more difficult shots.
Looks like we’re out of a job (don’t you mean extinct?)
The propulsion of technology in entertainment, however, was rapidly outpacing the material of the film itself, as CG effects designer Steve “Spaz” Williams pushed to make the leap to fully-realized digital effects, rendering every bone and muscle ILM could render on a PC. Williams famously planted a monitor displaying a walk cycle of the T-Rex in his office during a visit from producers including Kathleen Kennedy and Spielberg himself. Once they saw the finished product, they knew they had to make this jump CG. Stop motion prodigy Tippet stayed on the film as a “Dinosaur Supervisor,” retrofitting his models to do skeletal scans frame by frame for animation rigging, but he knew his field in visual effects had just changed forever.
Much of what made Jurassic Park work in 1993 was its full synchronization between various leaps in technology. PCs and the internet had rapidly changed the advent of paleontological sciences to aid the spread of dinosaur media and research. But the developments in visual effects technology mirror the uncontrollable forces that created the monsters lurking in the park. The book and the film by extension are fascinating in how they also frame themselves as commentaries on the corporate greed causing reckless changes to the environment in order to resurrect the impossible.
Did we learn nothing from Jurassic Park?
At present, Jurassic Park stands as a warning sign by way of cultural reference for the masses as much as Terminator’s Skynet. Even now, as modern science continues meddling with recreating lost creatures like the Wooly Mammoth, the people wryly comment, “Did we learn nothing from Jurassic Park?” In a hyper-meta world where the public is more aware of marketing and nefarious uses of computer-science than ever, the film’s themes make it even more potent in how wrong it feels to play god with creatures that left the planet for a reason tens of millions of years ago. Even the director of the Jurassic World series, Colin Trevorrow, admitted to the absurdity of making sequels at all. It’s utter nonsense that anyone would ever try to make another dinosaur theme park after the first failed so spectacularly, but that’s the sort of society we do live in, isn’t it?
We have a T-Rex.
And sure, Jurassic World dabbled in that commentary in 2015 and went on to score over a billion dollars at the box office. But like all the other follow-ups to Jurassic Park, it lacks meat when it comes to the underlying story and character, and how they mesh with the lightning-in-a-bottle themes of technology and capitalism. Jurassic Park stands the test of time because all its components — the cast, the character writing, the plot, the explosive changes in effects at the time, and the circumstances of its release — are in perfect, impossible sync. Like the very same aspects of how life itself is only possible because of a collision of seemingly impossible cosmic accidents. While the film wasn’t really “65 million years in the making,” its effects hold up so well now because of how much careful and passionate pre-production work went into the film even before the consideration of CG effects.
If Hollywood wants to have a film like this happen again, the correct lessons from 1993’s Jurassic Park ought to be learned and better understood. The bones of the film need to be enriched by scripts and crafts artists who have the audacity to change the industry’s approach to digital and practical effects all over again. In a way that only a movie of our current time can produce. For now, that prospect might only be a pipe dream. This type of blockbuster in 2023 may well and truly be extinct, but we can always go back to the original park for more.
For more on behind the scenes features of Jurassic Park, watch Light & Magic on Disney+.
Features Image Credit – Universal Pictures / Amblin Entertainment. Read more articles by Evan Griffin here.