Hold onto your butts. This month, Steven Spielberg’s prehistoric blockbuster Jurassic Park celebrates its 25th anniversary, just in time for Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. Released on June 11, 1993, the dino-sized spectacle contained breathtaking thrills, groundbreaking visual effects that revolutionized the way we tell stories, and a sense of childlike magic and wonder that brought out the kid in all of us. For many people, myself included, this was the film that sparked an entire generation’s love affair with cinema. With Fallen Kingdom around the corner, join us as we take a look back at some of the masterful touches that helped make Jurassic Park such an enduring classic of modern cinema. We spared no expense!
For a movie about rampaging dinosaurs running amok in a theme park, one of Jurassic Park’s greatest strengths is, surprisingly, its characters. This a testament to the writing of Michael Creighton and screenwriter David Koepp, as well as strong and nuanced performances by the likes of Sam Neill, Jeff Goldblum, and Richard Attenborough. This is never more evident than the scene where every main character sits down to discuss their thoughts on the park over lunch. (A lunch which they never eat, for the record!) Every character is starkly different in their views: Hammond is the dreamer, eager to share his vision with the world. Malcolm is the cynical pragmatist. The lawyer, Gennaro, sees only an opportunity for a cash-grab. And paleontologists Grant and Ellie are caught in a whirlwind, their worlds turned upside down.
Not only are the characters rendered distinctly in their worldviews, but visually as well. Costume designer Sue Moore gave each character a distinct color palate, usually composed of a single, unmistakable solid color. White for Hammond, black for Malcolm, blue for Grant, pink for Ellie, and tan for Gennaro. This simple system of color coordination actually goes a long way toward characterization. We come to associate each character with their respective color, easily differentiating them both on screen and in our minds. It also serves as a constant visual reminder of just how unique and different these people are in their points of view. Bet you didn’t know simple costumes could do all that?
As the colorful cast of characters arrive on Isla Nublar via helicopter (to the accompaniment of John Williams’s majestic score), there’s a brief gag in which Dr. Grant struggles to buckle his seatbelt. (PSA: Always buckle up, especially when on an island filled with dinosaurs!) The buckle pieces are of the same type and don’t fit together, which Grant remedies by tying them in a knot—safety first! Though played for a laugh, this seemingly small moment is actually rife with underlying meaning. Later on, we learn that the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park cannot breed in the wild because they were genetically engineered to be female. “Population control,” explains scientist Dr. Wu. To this, Dr. Malcolm expresses his doubts, positing that life cannot be contained and stating, famously, “Life… ah, finds a way.”
Fast forward again to a later scene, in which Grant and the kids discover dinosaur eggs with itty-bitty dino footprints leading away, proving the eccentric chaotician right. Long story short, the frog DNA the scientists used to complete the genetic code enabled some animals to change sex from female to male. Life found a way. Where am I going with all of this? If you remember back to the seatbelt gag, Grant’s buckles were both “female” pieces—and seemingly incompatible. However, by tying them together, Grant found a way to make it work. By masterfully infusing an otherwise throwaway joke with symbolism, Spielberg ensures that no moment in the film is wasted, while adding an extra layer of depth. Brilliant.
Here’s another instance where Spielberg used a moment of humor to creatively foreshadow events to come. This one is decidedly darker. In the beginning, when Dodgson (we’ve got Dodgson here!) is showing Dennis Nedry the shaving cream can he will use to smuggle dinosaur embryos off of the island, Nedry really gets a kick out of it. He snickers and giggles uncontrollably, culminating in a preposterously high-pitched squeal as Dodgson demonstrates how the can works. What’s interesting is that this squeal sounds suspiciously similar to the sound made by the dilophosaurus later in the movie—the dinosaur that ultimately kills Nedry.
While not exactly identical, they are pretty darn close. This is called Foley—creating and reproducing sounds that will be added into the film in post-production. Here, sound designer Gary Rydstrom and Foley artist Dennie Thorpe subtly used audio cues to foreshadow the character’s eventual death. The sound design sealed his fate from the beginning. I bet Nedry wouldn’t be laughing so hard if he knew what was in store.
“You did it,” remarks Dr. Ian Malcolm as he beholds the magnificent brachiosaurs for the first time. “You crazy son of a bitch, you did it.” While he is referring to Hammond’s team of scientists, who resurrected the extinct creatures using fossilized DNA, he may as well have been talking to the folks at Stan Winston Studio and Industrial Light and Magic, whose artistry brought dinosaurs back to life for the big screen. While the visual effects wizards at ILM revolutionized computer animation with their incredible digital dinos, it was Winston’s practical creatures that truly gave the film its lifelike feel. In fact, only about 60 of the film’s countless dinosaur shots utilized CGI, while the rest relied on models and animatronics. It was this tendency to use practical creatures that gave the film its verisimilitude—the sense of realism and being true to life.
“I wanted to give them something that wasn’t an illusion,” Hammond explains his dream for Jurassic Park. “Something that was real. Something that they could see and touch.” It would seem Spielberg shared that dream. When Grant rests his head against the breathing triceratops, you feel his amazement because the animal is really there. When Rexy crashes through the glass roof of the Explorer, you share the children’s terror because what they’re seeing is real. Practical effects not only elevate the actors’ performances, giving them something physical to interact with, but pull the audience more deeply into the film’s world. Sadly, this practice is becoming rarer and rarer in modern moviemaking. An overreliance on CGI beleaguers many of today’s blockbusters, with Jurassic World looking largely like an Xbox videogame. Here’s hoping that Fallen Kingdom will be a return to form, reintroducing more practical and believable creatures back into the series.
While Malcolm and Grant’s reaction to Hammond’s achievement was one of awe and wonder, Hollywood’s response to Jurassic Park’s success is more like the greedy lawyer, Gennaro: “We’re gonna make a fortune with this place.” Jurassic Park is one of many to fall victim to Hollywood’s habit of rebooting beloved franchises into moneymaking machines. I admittedly wasn’t a fan of Jurassic World, and while I hope Fallen Kingdom will fare better, I’m not holding my breath. Still, a guy can dream. Hopefully these small touches help you appreciate the 1993 film even more—and the masterful hand that crafted it. Whether you’re flocking to theaters to see Fallen Kingdom this weekend or watching Jurassic Park for the umpteenth time, I hope you enjoy celebrating the series’ 25th birthday. Grab a plate of green Jell-O and watch out for velociraptors as you revisit a time when dinosaurs ruled the Earth!