Hollywood makes two products: films, and movies. In 1993, the greatest scion of modern Hollywood made one of each.
“Schindler’s List” went on to win seven Academy Awards and earn Steven Spielberg his first Best Director, an award everyone said he would never win because he made movies, not films.
“Jurassic Park” eventually went on to be the 17th most successful film in U.S. history (adjusted for inflation) and gross more than $1 billion worldwide.
A film is a work of art. It speaks to our souls. A movie is a work of entertainment. It speaks to our wallets. What has always set Spielberg apart is that his movies are better than other directors’ films.
“Jurassic Park” is one of the great cinematic entertainments. It is funny and thrilling. It is scary and breathtaking. It was technologically groundbreaking, and even two decades later still looks fantastic. But most importantly it was heartwarming. Spielberg’s genius has always been his ability to make us walk out of a theater with our hearts full.
How Spielberg Did This in ‘Jurassic Park’
With “Jurassic Park,” he did this in remarkable and surprising ways. The fact that audiences felt like they had seen dinosaurs really for the first time would have been enough. But we got a lot more than that. Each character from the complex world Michael Crichton invented was tweaked in some way that made them Spielbergian.
John Hammond went from a cold, selfish venture capitalist to a tragic version of Walt Disney. In the film, he says, “This park was not built to cater only for the super-rich. Everyone in the world has the right to enjoy these animals.” But in the book, he says, “‘This is my island. I own it. And nothing is going to stop me from opening Jurassic Park to all the children of the world.’ He chuckled. ‘Or, at least, to the rich ones.’”
Crichton’s Hammond comes to a grisly end when he is eaten by his own monsters. Spielberg’s is humbled. The moment right before they leave the island is truly heartbreaking. Spielberg’s Hammond looks at the amazing world he created, knowing it will never be seen and enjoyed. Richard Attenborough brings a lifetime of living into those brief moments of acting. The viewer can see decades of success and failure inform the sadness in his eyes. He’s lost in the possibility of what could have been, and has to be pulled to the chopper.
Even the character Alan Grant gets this treatment, but in the opposite direction. He’s so nice in the book that he doesn’t really have a character arc. But in the film, the guy who spends his life studying what all children love (dinosaurs) doesn’t like children. So what happens? He gets stuck saving the kids and winds up loving them.
What’s more, as he sits in the helicopter with the children sleeping on his chest, he realizes he doesn’t like dinosaurs as much as he thought he did. He gazes tiredly at the pelicans flying outside. No words are spoken, but his thoughts are obvious: “I’m really glad the dinosaurs evolved into birds.” Accompanied by John Williams’ magnificent score, this is one of the most beautiful movie endings ever.
These are the things that really make “Jurassic Park” come alive. These details breathe life into the characters and form the story. This is what Spielberg has always done. It’s never been about the special effects. It’s always been about telling human stories. He’s one of the few directors (along with Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, and probably Christopher Nolan) to whom the film versus movie paradigm doesn’t really apply. His movies speak to our souls and empty our wallets.
Hampered CGI Unleashed the Story’s Power
Both “Jaws” and “Jurassic Park” benefit greatly from the special effects limitations of their day. Every time I watch “Jaws” I thank the maker that the shark didn’t work. It’s a terrible-looking robot. Because it rarely worked, Spielberg was forced to become more creative with how he told the story. This makes “Jaws” far more scary and atmospheric than it would have been otherwise, because it’s not what we see that scares us but rather what we don’t see.
Ninety percent of the time, the implication is scarier than the reveal. This is why none of the “Jurassic Park” sequels has had the same level of tension and mystery as the original. If that film had been made today, it would’ve been overloaded with computer-generated dinosaurs. But due to the expense and limits of early ‘90s CGI, there aren’t a lot of dinosaurs in the original “Jurassic Park,” which heightens the experience when they do show up.
2015’s “Jurassic World” was a wonderful entry into this nearly 30-year-old, multi-billion-dollar media juggernaut, because on some level it combined all these elements. Now, just to be clear, the original is by far the best film in this franchise. Anyone who doubts this is a bit off his rocker. None of the sequels so far have been able to recapture any of the old magic, except for “Jurassic World.”
“Jurassic World” did this by embracing not just the sentimental aspects of Spielberg’s brand, but also the grand adventure elements of Indiana Jones. Owen Grady is something this franchise has never really had before: a true-blue hero. Grant is a scientist, Ian Malcolm a mathematician, Robert Muldoon got eaten. The protagonists in this franchise have generally been running for their lives. But Grady is proactive and fun. He’s got that good balance between humor, courage, and capability that make so many classic heroes highly relatable. In other words, he’s durable: the kind of character that can sustain a popular film franchise.
The Adventures of Owen and Claire
This is a big part of why the first two sequels were a mixed bag. There wasn’t anything for the audience to latch onto. The franchise had no face, except for T-Rex, I guess. But now it has two faces. One of those beautiful faces is proof that miracles are possible, because it’s pretty hard to believe that a beauty like Bryce Dallas Howard shares the same bloodline as the homely Howard brothers (Ron and Clint, I’m sorry, but you know it’s true).
Chris Pratt’s Owen and Bryce’s Claire fit together well. They have just enough chemistry to make us care about them and their relationship, but not enough to weigh the movie down with an actual romantic subplot. The only reason that “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” works is because of this duo, because it’s not a great movie on paper. There are some cringeworthy moments and lots of belief suspension. But if you’re willing to go in looking for another installment of The Adventures of Owen and Claire, you should have a good time. The movie is both ridiculous and ridiculously fun.
They are starting to break into self-conscious parody. For instance, the end of the original “Jurassic Park” has this ridiculous moment when the T-Rex materializes out of nowhere to grab the raptor about to pounce on our heroes. This goes beyond artistic license into a fundamental part of filmmaking: Only what exists in the camera frame exists in a movie.
So when Spielberg was asked how the T-Rex would get into the visitor center in the first place his response was basically that he’ll come into the frame from being out of the frame! It doesn’t make much sense. Neither the humans nor raptors seem aware that a massive predator has entered the room until it attacks? Is it a T-Rex ninja?
But that’s the magic of movies. We do get a clear glimpse of the construction hole in the wall the big guy is supposed to have come through, but that doesn’t explain how neither raptor nor any of the humans had noticed this hulking mass.
In any case, the T-Rex is barely featured in Jurassic World 2, but when he is it’s always in the manner described above. No one has any idea there’s a T-Rex around, and next thing you know the head comes in from off frame to eat something. If they had done this once, I might not have noticed, but it happened several times, as a clear nod and joke to the original film. It’s okay for the series to poke fun at itself now. It’s fun to see stuff go a bit off the rails. It’s fun to see hundreds of dinos running from an exploding volcano.
Sequels usually fall the flattest when they try to recapture the original quality. That will never happen here, because the original is so special. By letting go of that and maintaining the essential elements of adventure and heartwarming fun, “Fallen Kingdom” may not be the best or even second-best film in the series, but it is a worthy entry. For my money, if I leave a Jurassic movie unashamedly whistling “Welcome to Jurassic Park,” it was good enough.