When novelist and occasional director Michael Crichton released his latest science-tinged thriller in 1990, critics noted that their advance copies came blaring the phrase, “Soon to be a major motion picture” on the cover.
The only question was, by who? Big names were thrown around at first, like Richard Donner and Terminator’s James Cameron. But in the end, Universal won the bidding war and put Steven Spielberg in the driver’s seat.
While a book review in the Los Angeles Times predicted that the eventual adaptation would be “undoubtedly trashy,” Spielberg’s 1993 movie re-established the director as a master of horror and special effects. Spielberg had made the unknown seem friendly and misunderstood in E.T., but with Jurassic Park, he explored how misunderstanding life could be positively deadly.
Jurassic Park is one of the most iconic sci-fi movies... ever. Here’s why you should watch (and re-watch) the dinosaur adventure, now streaming on HBO Max.
The novel Jurassic Park is 448 pages stuffed with long scientific discussions. Speaking with Entertainment Weekly in 2013, Spielberg said screenwriter David Koepp turned a “banquet” of a book into “fast food,” which was a compliment considering how Spielberg wanted the movie to feel “like a drive-thru.”
The movie begins after a semi-mysterious accident happens at Jurassic Park, which causes the park’s investor, Donald Gennaro (Martin Ferrero), and founder, the eccentric John Hammond (Richard Attenborough), to invite scientists to inspect the park.
In early scenes, Spielberg frames a gold piece of amber similarly to how he would frame a sack of treasure in Indiana Jones. When Hammond says he wants famed paleontologist Alan Grant (Sam Neill) to come to the park, a miner says, “Grant's like me. He's a digger." It’s not the most memorable scene in the movie, but it speaks to how Spielberg and Koepp kept things moving. With one line, he’s able to invoke both a sense of wonder and work. He’s like Indiana Jones if Indiana Jones actually did his job.
Small moments set Jurassic Park apart. It’s filled with clever lines and scenes away from the main dinosaur attractions, like Wayne Knight’s playing with a Barbasol can or Jeff Goldblum’s bold shirtlessness. There’s a reason the movie is a mainstay of reaction GIFs on Twitter. Almost every shot in Jurassic Park is visually interesting, from Laura’s Dern's iconic outfits to the claustrophobic rain-soaked disaster shots later on in the movie.
These little moments even extend to the special effects, an incredibly effective mix of practical effects and CGI. The Industrial Light & Magic team, which won an Oscar for their work here, spent weeks on small-in-stature effects, like the vibrating cup of water that announces the T-rex. The cup’s vibrations, inspired by Spielberg rattling his car windows by playing Earth, Wind and Fire came from a guitar string being plucked underneath.
Jurassic Park renders all of its details with precision, down to the casting of B.D Wong and Samuel L. Jackson in supporting roles. But Spielberg knew what people wanted: They wanted dinosaurs, specifically a Tyrannosaurus rex.
John Rosengrant, a Stan Winston Studio puppeteer, told EW, “[the T. rex] was 36 feet long and 18 feet tall. We’re talking about a hydraulically powered creature that felt like a bus going by you when it would move.”
When the T. rex bursts past the gates and is hunting down its first victim (the dastardly lawyer), sound designer Gary Rydstorm noticed it starts to act like an angry dog. Trying to stay “organic,” using only sounds of real animals, he distorted the bark of Jack Russell Terrier to make a horrifying scream.
The movie’s characters are happy to play second-fiddle to the dinosaurs. Neill’s Grant is a stoic Everyman who learns to like kids. Dern’s Ellie Sattler is a paleo-botanist eager to stick her hand into triceratops dung; Goldblum’s Ian Malcolm is the rockstar chaos theorist with sex appeal.
These characters are not typical heroes, but circumstances have chosen them anyway. And rounding them all out is Attenborough’s Hammond, the eccentric convinced his park would unite humanity.
There isn’t much backstory in Jurassic Park. There is one moment, during a black-out when Hammond is eating ice cream with Sattler. Hammond launches into a short monologue about operating a mechanical flea circus. He wanted to make dinosaurs real because he wanted to give people something real, he says. Spielberg never lets this would-be showman fully become a villain, seeing as Hammond quickly renounces the park once his grandchildren are in danger.
That decision would start to feel watered down thirty years later when the sequels and reboots try and fail to capture this movie’s energy. It isn’t easy to emulate what makes Jurassic Park special.
After talking to Nicolas Cage, Laura Dern only accepted her role, who told her that “no one can ever say no to a dinosaur movie,” she recalled in EW’s oral history. “It’s a dream of my life to do a movie with dinosaurs!”
Like Speilberg’s other classics, from Indiana Jones to A.I. Artificial Intelligence, Jurassic Park wants to explore what childhood dreams can look like in all their wonder and terror.
Jurassic Park is now streaming on HBO Max.