What does the perfect movie look like? Here’s your answer.
It’s Debate Week. This article is one of sixteen arguments competing for the prize of being named ‘Best Summer Movie Ever.’ Read the rest throughout the week here.
These days when you think about big summer movies — the kind that plays to air-conditioned theaters packed to the gills with popcorn-snarfing masses trying to escape the heat and the pressures of everyday life — you probably have some superhero in mind. You might even think of that moment when the tension has reached its crescendo, the energy in the crowded theater is magnificent, and the hero lands on one knee, ready to face off with the big bad for all the marbles. It’s the superhero landing, we’ve seen it a million times by now. And I’m not here to tell you that what David Koepp wrote in the Jurassic Park screenplay and what Steven Spielberg directed Laura Dern to do on-set somehow invented the superhero landing. But it is the best one. At that moment, the woman affectionately known as Dino Dern is the fearless, impossibly cool embodiment of what summer movies mean for the masses.
You are undoubtedly aware of what happens next. As two velociraptors close in on the characters we’ve spent an entire movie getting to know and love — through whose eyes we’ve seen the most wondrous spectacle — the co-hero of Jurassic Park, the terrifying, larger than life T-Rex shows up and saves the day all on the account of needing a snack. It is a most-perfect ending to a thrilling ride that, even though it released in 1993, holds up to this day.
The feeling of elation the audience experiences as our dirty, terrified, evolved faves are set free from the nightmare of their visit to Jurassic Park is overwhelming, but also deeply satisfying. But it would be meaningless if it hadn’t been for director Steven Spielberg’s masterful work at the beginning of the film. Before the horror show starts and butts must be held tight, Spielberg spends the first act of the film setting up the mystery of what he’s about to show us. They’ve re-created something on an island off the coast of Costa Rica that is very dangerous. In the carefully executed opening scene, we watch as something in the shadows — something that sounds unlike any kind of animal we’ve ever witnessed — is out moving giant steel cages and eating helpless workers. By the time we meet Alan Grant and Ellie Sattler, a pair of smart, earnest pair of scientists whose only real quirk is that he’s socially awkward around non-adults, we know so much more than they do. Yet it’s through their eyes that we eventually experience the rest of the park. It’s the perfect sort of introduction to something so grand, to do so through the eyes of two characters who are instantly likable and as much along for the ride as the audience. One rocky helicopter ride later and we’re in a Jeep, speeding toward the heart of Isla Nublar. They stop, and we get this perfect cinematic moment:
As a 10-year-old sitting in the theater, clutching his worn-out copy of Michael Crichton’s book upon which the film was based, this is the moment when I fell head-over-heels for the magic of the blockbuster. With Jurassic Park, Steven Spielberg made dinosaurs walk the Earth again. And to his credit, he had the patience to let us savor it, then the wherewithal to deliver a rollercoaster ride for the rest of the film.
It’s an underrated thing, the way Jurassic Park eases us into what becomes one of the most thrilling pieces of cinema of all-time. It’s never too fast, never too slow. Always just right in its quest to balance character moments with its action beats. And even when it’s on one of those action beats, Spielberg never settles for an empty moment. He’s always working the motivation of his characters, even in the most chaotic of sequences. Take the rainy encounter on the T-Rex paddock. There’s an uneasy stoicism about Sam Neill’s performance as the T-Rex begins to knock around the Jeep in which the kids are hiding. He remains calm and doesn’t really act until the moment is right. By contrast, the rockstar Chaotician Ian Malcolm (in perhaps the greatest of all Jeff Goldblum performances) almost completely blows everything up. Like the second drop of water streaming down Dr. Satler’s hand in an earlier scene, he zigs where Dr. Grant zags and he almost gets everyone killed. Well, maybe only the bloodsucking lawyer. It’s important in any movie, but especially one with so much action, that characters are true to themselves. This is one example among many. It’s why these characters are so memorable.
All of this says next to nothing about the technical marvel that is Jurassic Park. The creation of the larger-than-life monsters — in this case, dinosaurs — by Dennis Muren, Stan Winston, Phil Tippett, and the fledgling digital team at ILM is nothing short of a miracle. When’s the last time you watched one of Jurassic Park‘s iconic sequences? The brachiosaurus march? The T-Rex chase? The raptors hunting in the kitchen? The visual effects, a mix of digital, practical, and compositing, is magnificent even by today’s standards. I was reminded recently of how bad movies still were years later when I re-watched 1998’s Lost in Space, a film made for $20 million more 5-years later. That movie looks like garbage compared to Jurassic Park. So do a lot of movies made a lot later.
Jurassic Park‘s success was as much about innovation as it was story. Don’t believe me? Watch this breakdown of the sequence that is very nerdy:
When we look back at the landscape of summer movies (or, in my opinion, movies in general), there is a no more perfect representation of everything that is great about summer movies. Jurassic Park has the larger-than-life monsters, thrilling action, iconic and memorable performances and characters, dazzling visuals, and a crowd-electrifying ending. It even drops in some thoughtful catharsis for good measure. It will always be Spielberg’s masterwork and by my estimation, perfect — a blend of craftsmanship, storytelling, and spectacle that will never be surpassed. To say that it is only ‘The Best Summer Movie Ever’ actually sells Jurassic Park short. For me, it will always be the perfect movie.
If you’re still not sold, watch the clip below. If you don’t feel the hairs standing up on the back of your neck and feel the triumphant elation welling up in your chest, see a doctor.
This scene was made 25 years ago. This movie is old enough to rent a car, which it would inevitable send flying over a much higher-than-expected wall and into a giant prehistoric tree.