With computer generated special effects in movies about as common as dirt these days, it’s hard to imagine that it’s only been a little over a decade since CGI was the latest novelty. After early pioneering work in James Cameron‘s The Abyss and Terminator 2, CGI was ready for the big time. Jurassic Park was the first film to use computers as a major component of its special effects and to realistically simulate living creatures.
What’s sad to report is that after more than a decade, even with the massive improvements in computer power since 1993, there have been only a handful of movies to use CGI as effectively as Jurassic Park did. Almost anyone with a modicum of talent, a computer and a few thousand dollars in software to produce film quality CGI effects. However, the ability to create life-like critters like Jurassic Park‘s dinosaurs requires an eye for movement, form and mass that takes more than the latest software to develop. I think because the effects technicians behind Jurassic Park knew they were breaking new ground in technology, they were rigorously careful that their creations did not look fake.
Now, had the screenwriter only been as diligent and Jurassic Park would have gone down in history as the greatest summer movie since May of 1977. Sadly, the human characters that populate the island of Isla Nublar are not even as deep as the puddles that fill the T-Rex‘s footprints.
We have Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill), a famous paleontologist with no patience for children. Naturally he winds up taking responsibility for two of them as the park’s dinos start lining up for a little homo sapiens stroganoff. His relationship with his girlfriend, Dr. Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern) seems to revolve around her needling him about his twin phobias of children and technology. Mathematician Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) exists for two reasons: 1) to pontificate about the irresponsibility of cloning dinosaurs and 2) provide a rival for Ellie’s affections. Since the relationship between Sam Neill and Laura Dern has about as much chemistry as the class schedule of a liberal arts major, #2 doesn’t amount to much. Malcolm’s pop-science Reader’s Digest version of chaos theory and his lectures to Jurassic Park’s creator, John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) fail to drive home his objections to the park in any coherent fashion. Hammond himself comes across as a dotty old man who couldn’t successfully assemble a Habitrail let alone a theme park of such staggering complexity.
Also along for the ride is the island’s Australian game warden, Muldoon (Bob Peck), stepping into the Robert Shaw role from Jaws. We also have Hammond’s lawyer, Gennero (Martin Ferrero), whose job it is to be a weasel. Fortunately, T-Rexes seem to have a taste for weasel meat, making him an effective diversion. Samuel L. Jackson plays the island’s system’s administrator, Raptor Bait, er, I mean, Ray Arnold. At least this is one movie where the black guy doesn’t die first. Lastly, there is Nedry (Wayne Knight), a stereotypically rotund and socially inept computer programmer who might as well have the words “Disgruntled Employee” and “Security Threat” tattooed on his forehead.
Surprisingly, the two characters who do connect with the audience are Hammond’s grandchildren, Lex (Ariana Richards) and Tim (Joseph Mazzello). Normally, cute and precocious kids in Steven Spielberg movies are reason to fear a diabetic coma, but their brother-sister relationship seems genuine and when they’re threatened, the film is able to create some genuine tension. Fortunately for us, the script keeps the two kids in almost constant danger of being a lizard’s lunch, which helps make Jurassic Park an effective roller-coaster ride of a movie. On the down side, Lex’s mastery of the park’s complex computer systems ranks only slightly below Independence Day‘s alien-whupping computer virus on the implausible hilarity scale.
Spielberg himself has referred to Jurassic Park as an unofficial remake of Jaws, but that only highlights this film’s shortcomings compared to that 1975 blockbuster. Because Jaws couldn’t show the shark for most of the first half of the movie, the film is forced to focus on building its three main characters, Brody, Hooper and Quint. Also because the earlier film focuses so clearly on only three vivid characters, they are much better defined than anyone on the much larger cast of Jurassic Park.
Now, as much as I recognize this film’s faults, that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy it. For what it tries to be, a special effects thrill ride, Jurassic Park is perhaps not a home run, but it’s easily an extra-base hit.