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Friday, 3 May 2013

REWIND REVIEW: Jurassic Park

(PG) ★★★★★

Director: Steven Spielberg.

Cast: Sam Neill, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum, Richard Attenborough, Bob Peck, Martin Ferrero, B. D. Wong, Samuel L. Jackson, Wayne Knight, Joseph Mazzello, Ariana Richards.

Parking inspectors are pretty ballsy in Jurassic Park.
We take computer-generated imagery (CGI) for granted these days, but there was a moment in 1993 when it dawned as the future of film-making, laid out on the big screen for all to see in a single moment of wonder.

That moment was when the power of pixels brought the long-extinct brachiosaurus back to life, walking casually across a green pasture and eating from the tallest trees in Spielberg's box office-busting and ground-breaking Jurassic Park.

Like Dr Alan Grant (Neill) and Dr Ellie Sattler (Dern) in that particular scene, audiences were stunned - the awe portrayed by those two characters mirrored the reaction of those looking up at the big screen in darkened theatres around the world.

It was a jaw-dropping, magical moment. Sure, CGI had been used before, as far back as Tron and The Last Starfighter, and more recently in The Abyss and Terminator 2: Judgment Day.

But here was a photo-realistic dinosaur. In broad daylight. No jerky stop-motion, "go motion", or in-camera trickery. It was as if they'd found a brachiosaurus and put it on the screen.

Here was a long-dead creature brought back to life through the powers of science in a film about long-dead creatures being brought back to life through the powers of science. It was a perfect storm of the technology not only catching up with the ideas, but featuring in the right idea. No wonder the film broke all box office records, and was the biggest grossing film in the world (until Titanic came along four years later and sank it).

Twenty years on, without that context of the thrill of the new, Jurassic Park exists now as one of the pinnacles of popcorn cinema - a terrific thrill ride that is more than just the sum of its special effects.

Re-released in 3D for its anniversary (an effect which proves unnecessary but not distractingly so), it's a delight to see this back on the big screen, if only to remind us all of how good the film is.

Its high concept kick-off remains tantalising; what if we could bring back dinosaurs? And from that springboard, Michael Crichton's novel (developed as a script by Crichton and David Koepp) spins a man-versus-nature story laced with the dangers of science, human humility, and dashes of Crichton's directorial debut Westworld and its out-of-control theme park plot.

The screenplay is perfectly balanced, in spite of its much picked-at plot-holes, such as the sudden appearance of a steep drop into the T-Rex paddock, or how the T-Rex manages to sneak up on the heroes in the film's climax. Spielberg, who would follow this with its polar opposite Schindler's List, takes the script's ups and downs in his stride, his pacing and tone not that dissimilar to his work on Raiders Of The Lost Ark.

The technique he accidentally perfected in Jaws thanks to a malfunctioning shark is played out repeatedly and effectively throughout, and it's amazing how satisfying the reveal of each new and potentially dangerous creature is, which is testament to Spielberg and his editor Michael Kahn.

The script introduces its characters swiftly and cleverly - the practical, child-phobic paleontogist Dr Alan Grant (Neil), his enthusiastic and tenacious partner Dr Ellie Sattler (Dern), the charismatically odd mathematician Dr Ian Malcolm (Goldblum), and the Icarus-like visionary John Hammond (Attenborough) are all shown to us through economical but natural dialogue, intelligent performances and smart direction. Malcolm's not-so-subtle wooing of Sattler, Hammond's sudden appearance in Grant's trailer, and Grant's solution to his seatbelt problems are telling examples of the old screenwriters' axiom "show, don't tell".

Maybe some of the effects aren't quite as perfect now, but it's barely noticeable and just nit-picking. When that T-Rex appears out of the stormy darkness, it's still one of the most awe-inspiring sights cinema provided in the '90s, if not ever. And maybe Dern's acting is a tad over-the-top, and the film plays a little loose with the science, but Jurassic Park is a how-to guide for structuring a multi-character disaster film.

That fact often gets ignored in the face of the mind-blowing special effects, but if this was merely a movie with pixel-perfect dinosaurs, I doubt we'd care about it as much 20 years on.