Jurassic Park is a movie that is so much better than it had to be. It would have been so easy to make it just an empty spectacle of a film, drawing audiences in with CGI dinosaurs and nothing else.
Make no mistake, the CGI dinosaurs are amazing. Even all these decades later, they still hold up pretty well, I think. Part of what makes it work so well is the way they’re cleverly teased out. We see what they are capable of at the beginning, but without actually seeing the dinosaurs. This creates a wonderful sense of tension and suspense.
Then we get more foreshadowing, very skillfully done, when we meet Dr. Alan Grant at a dig in Montana, where he explains to a dismissive kid just how velociraptors hunt their prey. This scene is such an economical bit of screenwriting. It communicates both something about the raptors, the primary antagonists of the film, and tells us something about Dr. Grant; namely, his disdain for children, which is a key point of disagreement in his relationship with Dr. Ellie Sattler.
And already, we see what distinguishes this film: the characters feel real. There is real love between Dr. Grant and Dr. Sattler, real affection from Hammond for his grandchildren, and real respect from Muldoon for the lethal animals he is in charge of managing.
I love Muldoon’s character. The way he murmurs “they remember,” with a mixture of fear and awe when describing the raptors’ systematic escape attempts, or his calmly delivered last words, “Clever girl.” The way he conveys that, even though he’s about to be brutally killed, he admires the sheer intelligence of the beasts.
What does it tell you that I’ve been talking about how great the characters and performances in this movie are, and I haven’t even mentioned Jeff Goldblum’s or Samuel L. Jackson’s characters yet? Like I said, everyone is great. Goldblum’s cynical mathematician has plenty of good lines, the best of which is probably “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”
Which brings me to the thematic meat of Jurassic Park. It’s your basic Frankenstein story: humanity’s attempts to play God backfire, unleashing monsters we cannot control. Actually, in a way, it’s the same theme as the previous movie I discussed in this series. But while I like the first two Terminator films, I definitely prefer Jurassic Park to both. And I think it’s largely due to the relationships between the characters. They are just so well fleshed-out, and the actors can communicate so much without even saying a word. Look at the final scene, when the survivors are flying away from the island. You know what every character is thinking just from their expressions.
This is the essential thing about Jurassic Park: it’s a monster movie with a fundamentally sweet core. The ending feels hopeful, even despite all the horror. And I don’t just mean for the human characters, either. There’s a real note of triumph in the T-Rex’s last scene in the film, as it bellows exultantly amid the wreckage of the visitors’ center. The greatest of the old beasts, literally “the king tyrant lizard,” has returned to rule, and I think every audience member cheers right along with it.
Such an upbeat time were the ’90s that even the monsters got approval from the audience! Jurassic Park is more than just a monster movie, it’s also wish-fulfillment for every kid who ever wanted to see a dinosaur for real. Yes, they are terrifying, but they are also, in the very truest sense of the word, awesome. In that moment, we are all Muldoon, feeling simultaneously the fear and the respect that these mighty creatures deserved to command.
And that is Jurassic Park‘s subtle genius: it treats dinosaurs not as mere villains for the sake of jump scares, but as if they truly were real, living, breathing creatures; great and terrible apex predators that once held dominion over the earth as surely as humans do today.