“They do move in herds,” Sam Neill marvels, purportedly gazing at his director’s miracle dinosaurs but in reality directing his wonderment right into the camera—and right out at us, the viewers whose herdability made such smash successes of Jurassic Parks one and two. (Our failure to turn out for director Joe Johnston’s part three suggests that we at least prefer to be corralled by a master.) All money-making films are exercises in mass manipulation, of course, but only the most alarmist of critics still have it in them to be shaken by that. If you want to feel better about how Steven Spielberg can cue stirrings of fear or awe in your brain, it helps to think of him not as an artist but as an m.c.: Dude moves the crowd.
Now converted to more-impressive-than-usual-3D, the original Jurassic Park is again set to herd in an audience, this time of parents already appreciative of its uneasy mix of Spielbergian wonder and Spielbergian terror, and of kids ready to discover the perverse pleasure of watching actors in their own demo scream and weep at the gnashing of T. rexes. Schindler’s List, the other Spielberg hit of ’93, acknowledged that children in terror are actually no fun at all; perhaps that’s why that one’s shown as homework and this one’s given a multiplex re-issue.
Jurassic Park has aged surprisingly well, save the risible computer-hacking at the climax, or the little girl (Ariana Richards) gushing over the film’s least miraculous of miracles, an “interactive CD-ROM!” [Exclamation point hers.] Despite this being the movie blamed for inaugurating the age of CGI, its dino park feels like a physical place crafted in that old-fashioned movie way of location shoots and studio sets. The actors are even allowed to make an impression before becoming dino chum, although none quite gets to play a credible person. If we’re meant to take Sam Neill seriously as a paleontologist, why, upon unearthing an ancient velociraptor, does he blow so many minutes of daylight with a lengthy speech designed only to terrify one of the random children he allows to wander onto his dig? And why does he never ask John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) just what’s in this amusement park of his?
The long, expositional opening act plays better than you might recall, especially if you savor its almost critical self-awareness: the gift shop, the wall-to-wall logos, the Universal Studio Tour actually worked into the narrative, the lawyer whose response to the first CGI sequence is “we’re gonna make a fortune.” At a San Juan café, Wayne Knight’s Nedry jokes that nobody cares who the minor character Dodson is, and he’s totally right. There’s even a hint of the audience revolt encouraged by home-video fast-forwarding and, later, fan edits: The lead scientists (us) bust out of their movie-chair restraints (the director’s vision) to skip over Hammond’s carefully prepared tour (boring scenes) and hustle instead into the dino-lab (the good stuff.)
Spielberg’s good stuff remains the best of its type. That first T. rex attack stilled the crowd at the packed preview screening I caught; one bit of business involving bloody goat parts inspired a woman to shout “Oh, shit!” at a movie that’s been playing in living rooms for 20 years. For all the still-dazzling CGI and creature puppetry, what sells that storm’s-coming wonder Spielberg hadn’t summoned so smartly since Close Encounters, this time spliced with the candied dread of Jaws.
That T. rex is worth the wait, but the wait itself is even more memorable. Its water-shaking rumble made that scene the go-to demo reel for peddlers of surround-sound home theater systems for most of the ’90s. The purchasers of such systems would in years to come enjoy the kabooming of many a blockbuster, but how often would they get a showcase like this, where the suspense is as sharp as the tech?
Also still killer: the late sequence in which a pair of velociraptors stalk the kids in the kitchen. Like a satanic parody of Lady and the Tramp‘s Siamese cats, the dinosaurs chitter at each other, rub their necks, and relish their own awesomeness. Here Spielberg’s trickiest—and most satisfying—gag involves the reflection of a young girl in tearful panic, an illusion that a charging raptor mistakes for flesh. That shot might explain why the kids sitting near me seemed rhapsodic rather than horrified: Even the screaming little girl in the movie knows that when Spielberg the humanist is in charge, images of kids in terror are just part of a delicious fake-out.
For all these high-end junk thrills, the movie still has its longueurs, usually during those passage when Spielberg the showman frets that maybe he should turn things over to Spielberg the middlebrow moralist. So we get Attenborough eating ice cream and gassing on about a flea circus and Neill chuckling—seriously, chuckling—at fifth-grade dino riddles as his hard-boiled paleontologist, who not long before was almost eaten by T. rex, discovers that maybe he wants kids after all. The novelty of this re-issue isn’t the 3D; it’s that, in a theater, you no longer have the option to skim past this stuff.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 2, 2013