An adventure 65 million years in the making.
The long-awaited 1993 blockbuster is finally here! Jurassic Park is still the pre-eminent dinosaur movie and Spielberg fans will soon get another taste of his A-list titles on DVD. An edge-of-your-seat spectacle, the film is a masterpiece of special effects and works on a visceral level for suspense, thrills, and excitement. What the film lacks in fine character development it gives back in spades in the eye candy department; making for a fine romp and a decent morality play along the lines of the classic monster movies of old. Universal is now releasing this film and the blockbuster sequel The Lost World with wondrous special edition discs that should (and probably will) be on most collector's shelves.
Facts of the Case
Paleontologists Alan Grant (Sam Neill) and Ellie Satler (Laura Dern) have their dinosaur dig interrupted by one of their financial backers, the eccentric John Hammond (Sir Richard Attenborough) who needs their help. It seems Hammond's new island theme park is making his investors nervous, and they need an expert opinion on its safety and viability. Why would a dinosaur expert be needed to consult on a theme park? Glad you asked. Using long-dormant DNA he has created specimens of several varieties of dinosaurs, and intends to have a combination zoo and theme park to show them off. Along with mathematician Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) and his two grandchildren, they are getting the first tour. Grant is of course thrilled in this case to have his career become extinct as he first lays eyes on the first huge specimens, but is more troubled to find out some of the most fierce predators the world has ever known are also brought back to life.
Unfortunately we don't get to tarry overlong on the happy aspects of this revival of a bygone age, since computer programmer Dennis Nedry (Wayne Knight, of "Seinfeld" fame) has a bit of industrial sabotage on his mind. To enable his escape with frozen dinosaur embryos, he has shut down the security systems that also keep the dinosaurs behind electrified fences. Of course the dinosaurs break out, and everyone on the island is now at risk of becoming an appetizer.
Steven Spielberg, who is responsible for 8 of the 20 highest grossing films of all time, thought Jurassic Park would be a natural for him when he heard about the story from novelist Michael Crichton who was still writing the book. Spielberg was always a fan of the classic King Kong and thought it a nice analogy to this story, and there are definitely corollaries to be drawn between the two. Likewise you can see a bit of Jaws here as well; using suspense to build up to finally seeing the creatures, though unfortunately not nearly so well as with the shark. However, once you saw these creatures it was apparent you were seeing something completely new and improved. The absolutely best aspect of the film has to be the special effects from Industrial Light and Magic, which bring these dinosaurs to life in a way never seen before on film. Even seven years later it hasn't really been surpassed, except perhaps by the sequel. The special effects are convincingly real; the dinosaurs appear to be alive and breathing creatures, and are the actual stars of the film. From the majestic brachiosaurs who eat from the tops of the tallest trees to the phenomenal T-Rex, they can't help but steal the scenes where they appear. Other varieties of dinosaurs appear as well; and this film made the species name "velociraptor" a household word.
Beyond the spectacular dinosaurs; Spielberg uses his expertise in creating suspense and thrills with many action scenes that keep you on the edge of your seat and the hairs on your arms standing up. Scenes like the T-Rex playing with the car and the raptors in the kitchen are superbly done. As a pure action thriller the film is nearly unsurpassed. Adrenaline junkies need apply, as they are guaranteed their fix here.
Beyond thrills, the film does make a decent attempt at an intelligent story that touches on themes from the classic monster movies of the '30s. The big question is the ethics of man playing God; of using science to supersede what He has ordained in making dinosaurs extinct. That science cannot control what it has wrought is fundamental and goes back to the 1931 version of Frankenstein and before. Most of this morality play is told from the standpoint of the chaos theoretician Ian Malcolm, who believes the randomness of possibilities cannot be controlled, and "life will find a way" even when the scientists think they have everything under control.
Some of the performances are well played when given the chance. Sam Neill is especially strong, and his character has the biggest opportunity for growth in the film, as he is forced to overcome his dislike and disdain for children while leading them out of dinosaur territory. Child actors Joseph Mozello and Ariana Richards hold up their end as well with a professional turn. Laura Dern puts in a flawless performance in a role that unfortunately doesn't give her much to work with; as does acclaimed actor and director Richard Attenborough in a role that doesn't really work in the film. Of course the film wasn't trying to be a character driven drama, and is quick to bring you back to the chase and thrills rather than dwell on the human members of the cast.
It is hard to criticize the film for what it is not, considering it is still one of the top grossing films of all time; having generated over $900 million to date. That's a lot of money even for Steven Spielberg. I have my complaints about the film but I'm still thrilled to have it on DVD and I think everyone will be pleased by how well Universal has treated it. The film itself has a gorgeous look, especially the lush locations shot in Kauai, and every bit of it is rendered beautifully by this 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer. I am extremely impressed with the picture quality. This is a down-conversion from a hi-def master, just like we like them. It isn't flawless, but nearly so. A bit of softness in a couple scenes and a hint of grain come from the source elements, but no other film defects. Colors are well rendered; especially black levels, which are perfect. There are virtually no artifacts to mar a very smooth film like look and an image with plenty of depth. No edge enhancement noticeable, no shimmer or ringing; Universal has done themselves and their customers proud.
There is a multiplicity of versions of the film being offered on DVD; I'm reviewing the Dolby Digital widescreen version that is most likely going to be the biggest seller. I'm not saying the DTS track wouldn't be better but it has a very high bar to get past to beat this one. If you don't own a subwoofer you'll surely want to buy one after listening to this disc; the bass response is phenomenal. The floor shakes from the mighty footsteps of the Tyrannosaur; the roars also pack quite a punch. From the first scenes the surrounds are aggressively engaged to provide all the ambient sounds and squawks, squeals, and other sounds from the wildlife. Fortunately the aggressive use of the rear channels was mixed well with the spacious front end; making for a true surround experience. Dynamic range is terrific and there is an impressive level of clarity overall. Dialogue is well integrated across the front and isn't overwhelmed by the other channels. I did detect a few lines of dialogue that seemed to be less clear, especially from Jeff Goldblum who used a rambling and mumbling style of speaking. So it could easily be argued that is from the source elements rather than the transfer. This is one of those soundtracks you can use to alternately show off or annoy the neighbors.
I'm pretty happy about the supplemental material as well. Leading the extras is the 50-minute documentary "The Making of Jurassic Park," narrated by James Earl Jones and originally appearing on its own laserdisc. The three-part feature covers all aspects from pre-to-post-production and contains interviews with Steven Spielberg, Michael Crichton, paleontology consultant Jack Horner, and others. The special effects are given particularly in-depth coverage as you might expect, but there is also quite a bit of other information. One of my favorite extras comes next; the Dinosaur Encyclopedia. Each dinosaur which appears in the film gets several pages describing what is known about the species, including when and where their fossils have been found and which age they came from. I was surprised to find out what ecology the characters were trying to make considering they were combining species which were separated by perhaps hundreds of millions of years and differing continents. Next are two short behind the scenes featurettes called "Early Pre-Production Meetings" and "Location Scouting" lasting 6 minutes and 2 minutes respectively. Shot with a home camcorder, the picture and sound quality is lacking but it has a nice feel for the process and reasoning used for decisions about the film.
Moving on, there is a 3 minute long animatic sequence showing the "raptors in the kitchen" scene using crude computer graphics instead of the polished finished product. This gives a better 3d look at how the scene is to be shot than regular storyboards, especially for expensive graphic intensive scenes like this one. For other scenes plain old storyboards were used, and over 180 of them are presented depicting 6 scenes shot by shot, including the original scripted ending. Personally I would have liked to see a bit more of that original ending included in the finished film, though I appreciate the changes they made as well. A short featurette shows how the Foley artists inserted sounds into the dinosaur-hatching scene, making use of ice cream cones, a cantaloupe, and a pineapple among other objects. This is a short feature but not one you see a lot and I'm glad to have here. A production archive has numerous photographs and conceptual drawings, followed by 20 screen pages of production notes and thorough cast and crew bios and filmographies. Trailers for Jurassic Park (too spoiler ridden for my taste), The Lost World, and a extremely poor teaser trailer for Jurassic Park III complete the extra content, except for the DVD-ROM weblinks and a screensaver.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
For some reason Steven Spielberg doesn't like commentary tracks, and elects to do documentaries instead. I think that is a shame, since so many people would like to get inside knowledge about how Spielberg, arguably the most successful director of all time, makes his films. No matter how many extras he packs on these discs they will always seem to be lacking something without a commentary track. I'm not complaining about any of the extras that are here, but I don't think I'm alone in wanting more.
I also have a complaint about the packaging. Whoever decided against using the theatrical poster art made a huge mistake, because the cover art that has been used in its place is much worse. I also hate the six-tooth Keep Case of Deathgrip that is used here. You have no recourse but to bend the disc getting it out of the case.
As for the film, let me use my great leverage in saying what is wrong with a film that made $900 million. What suffers the most in the film is the characterization. Richard Attenborough is largely wasted by making him a rather bumbling and too eccentric individual. He has the fanatical belief he is right in what he has been doing, but it doesn't really come through. His character (which spared no expense) and others are spent largely on comic relief rather than truly adding to the story. Jeff Goldblum fits squarely into this category, as he plays his "quirky genius" character he has done too often. Mumbling, with about two dozen too many "uhs" and "ahs" for the lines he is given, he gets a bit of screen time moralizing and half the film sitting still. But the worst aspect of the film is the mishandling of the whole industrial sabotage subplot. Considering this is a pivotal part of the film that generates most of the other scenes, putting a comic character played by Newman from "Seinfeld" in the part was just sad. This could have been played seriously as in a caper film and worked much better than the roly-poly actor stumbling around trying to pull off the job for comic effect. Other characters are given nothing to work with as well, especially Samuel L. Jackson who basically has a few lines and gets in line for lunch. What I'm trying to say here is too much is given up for comic relief between action sequences and too much in place to please the kiddies to be as great as it could have been. Of course if he had followed my suggestions the film might not have made as much money, so what do I know?
Some have criticized the film for the divergence it takes from the novel. While I agree that the Hammond character in the book had more meat (no pun intended) and would have been better, in principle I don't agree with this argument. A film has to stand on its own, and the movie is close enough to the book to please most fans of the novel. Michael Crichton co-wrote the screenplay as well as the novel, so it wasn't going to become something wholly different. So the girl is now the older sibling, so what?
Just about everyone has been waiting for this film to come out on DVD, and it is finally coming. My review is almost incidental since most will buy it regardless of what I had to say, but let me put any hesitations to rest now. The disc is fantastic and belongs on nearly every collector's shelf.
Steven Spielberg gets an acquittal from this court (I know he's breathing a huge sigh of relief now) and hopefully is giving Jurassic Park III a darker, more adult tone. Other than that, I'm done here.
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