EMPIRE ESSAY: Jurassic Park Review

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Scientists clone dinosaurs to populate a theme park which suffers a major security breakdown and releases the dinosaurs.


SPRING, 1993. Steven Spielberg has hired a hotel in Krakow, Poland so that he can keep his family around him throughout the emotionally draining Schindler's List shoot. Every day the director returns exhausted, troubled, empty. And yet, for two hours, three nights a week, Spielberg retires to his private room, where a satellite dish is receiving a scrambled signal from ILM in San Francisco.

It is here, within spitting distance of the concentration camp, that Spielberg completes post-production on a colourful adventure he wrapped less than four months ago among the very different flora and fauna of Kahuii, Hawaii. It is here that Steven Spielberg finishes Jurassic Park. No wonder 1993 has been called Spielberg's miracle year.

Obsessed with dinosaurs since childhood, Spielberg had been nursing Jurassic Park for some time (Spielberg found himself embroiled in a bidding war for Michael Crichton's novel despite the fact he had privately been promised the film rights before publication). However, in 1992, Spielberg had been intending to make Schindler's Ark his next project but having convinced MCA president Sid Sheinberg to gamble on a three hour, black and white holocaust movie, Spielberg was happy to abide by Sheinberg's solitary condition: he had to make Jurassic Park first.

To catch the end of the Polish winter, Spielberg was then forced to rush through the shooting schedule for Jurassic Park. Coming off the back of Hook — a movie that ran 40 days over its 76 day schedule — this may not have been a bad thing. Certainly Spielberg admitted to, "walking away from a lot of takes", but despite tropical storm Iniki's cameo, the movie came in on budget and ahead of schedule. And if some of the human performances bear the imprint of a hurried hand — the film is riddled with mumbled line readings — Spielberg's apparently greater sympathy with the dinosaurs inspired technical achievement on a scale that represented an entire visual revolution. In their early script meetings author Crichton was unsurprisingly anxious to know how Spielberg was planning to tackle the technical challenge of the dinosaurs. Spielberg however, wanted to talk about dinosaur character. Taking Alan Grant's line that dinosaurs' closest living relatives were birds, Spielberg based a lot of velociraptor movement on his study of the chicken and geese who occupied the back yard of his beach house. He also brought to bear lessons learned on his previous creature feature: not Jaws, but E.T.. Behavioural movement, breathing, pupil dilation: Spielberg wanted to capture the detail which suggests a living, thinking organism rather than a mere monster.

Eventually, all of this detail would end up on screen: the T-Rex eyes blinking in the flashlight, the velociraptor breath snorting against the kitchen door port-hole, the odd, nodding head movement of the poisonous dilophosaurus. However, during those early meetings whenever Crichton asked Spielberg how he was going to achieve this detail, the director simply shrugged.

"Prove it." Those were the two words Spielberg said to ILM's Dennis Muren, when Muren suggested that CGI could capture,

"full motion" dinosaurs in daylight. The story then goes that the first time stop-motion expert Phil Tippet was shown the test footage he mumbled, "I am extinct." (A line Spielberg eventually gave to Ian Malcolm in the movie.) The first shot of the grazing bracheosaur; the sweeping herd of gallimimuses; the reappearance of the heroic T-Rex for a climax that Spielberg reworked after ILM's success; these are shots that would not, could not have appeared without CGI. Spielberg would have thought of something sure enough, but the full-scale, straight ahead wonder that wowed the world would have been severely truncated.

And the world was wowed.

Reunited with Universal — the studio behind Jaws and E.T. — who were themselves coming off a poor run, John Hammond's struggle to build Jurassic Park had some pertinent echoes. "In a way," Spielberg said at the time, "Jurassic Park tells the story of any studio head having a bad year who needs a hit." Sheinberg need not have worried. Somewhere north of $120 million would have been respectable, but in a summer where JP's main competition was Arnie's mega-flop The Last Action Hero the movie took less than four months to beat the previous all-time record of $701 million setbyE.T.Soon enough the critics were not reviewing the film but the box office. No wonder Spielberg was heard to moan: "Part of me is afraid I will be remembered for the money my films have made, rather than the films themselves."

Of course, on the one hand, Spielberg could not complain. Jurassic Park was always a purpose built thrill ride, "a roller coaster" to quote the director. Lacking the heart to rank with his greatest achievements Jurassic Park instead represents the apotheosis of his crowd-pleasing craft. "I just opened the tool box," Spielberg said, "and took every tool I've ever used in my entire career."

Besides, Spielberg need not have worried. He was about to reveal Schindler's List

One giant leap for cinematic effects. An awesome film.