Growing up in the fifties as I did, it was hard not to come across "King Kong" or "Mighty Joe Young" on TV or the creations of Ray Harryhausen on movie screens. But as much as I loved those old monsters, even as a kid there was always that nagging suspicion in the back of my mind that they didn't look quite true-to-life. No such suspicions with "Jurassic Park." The film made cinematic history with its digital creations. The dinosaurs are real. They are awesome in their believability. It doesn't matter that the story line is slight or the characters underdeveloped. The dinos are what we come to see, and the dinos are what we get. But understand, it's a one-of-a-kind experience. Once you've seen them and admired them, simply repeating them isn't enough, as the makers of "Godzilla" and "The Lost World" and a dozen more-recent monster-movie extravaganzas have found out.
It is no surprise that "Jurassic Park" was directed by Steven Spielberg. He's used to mega-projects. This one is an updated "Jaws" with even more stupendous beasts, if not with the same quality ensemble cast or the same degree of tension or suspense. But, as I said, it doesn't matter. The sense of fantasy, of vision, of wonder is greater than ever. In fact, it's maybe that sense of wonder that's the key element in "Jurassic Park." Except for old fidgets who probably never liked Harryhausen's work, either, the movie makes children of us all, as we sit amazed at what is undeniably reach-out-and-touch-it authentic. Not that the film isn't filled with its requisite share of thrills, too. It's about as close to an old-fashioned, Saturday-afternoon creature feature as you can find and not feel like you're wasting your time wallowing in nostalgia. Do I like it? You bet, and it's a natural for the DVD medium in widescreen and DD 5.1 sound.
Based on the best-selling novel by Michael Crichton, the idea behind "Jurassic Park" is the entirely plausible theory that dinosaur DNA, if found, could be cloned to produce modern animals. In the movie that's just what a multizillionaire, played by Richard Attenborough, does. He finances the building of an immense amusement park on a private, tropical island devoted to the breeding of just such prehistoric critters. But before the park opens, he wants to have his inventions validated by the leading authorities in their field and invites a pair of paleontologists, played by Sam Neill and Laura Dern, and a mathematician, played by Jeff Goldblum, to the park.
When they arrive, the scientists are impressed (so much so that Neill loses his breath, as we do, too, at our first sight of the beasts), but they are not entirely persuaded that rebuilding nature is in nature's best interests. Only Attenborough's attorney ("the bloodsucking lawyer") sees the value of the place, in dollar signs! Then, the inevitable occurs. An unscrupulous employee attempts to steal and sell some of the DNA, turning off protective fences all over the park in order to effect his getaway and setting loose all hell. At this point, the story turns into a hair raiser with the excitement of a roller-coaster ride.
Now, I mentioned that the plot is slight and the characters largely undeveloped, which is true, but this should not dampen one's enthusiasm for the picture. This is a rousing adventure story, not "Citizen Kane." So what if the story is simple. It's supposed to be simple; all old-time adventure movies were simple. And if the characters are underdeveloped, it does not mean they're without memorable personalities.
Sam Neill's Alan Grant is at first apprehensive of children ("They smell," he says) and a reluctant hero as well, but a strong and resourceful hero he turns out to be. Laura Dern's Ellie Sattler is sweet, cheerful, forever optimistic, yet plucky and courageous, too. Jeff Goldblum practically steals the show with his wisecracking performance as the chaos-theory mathematician. Richard Attenborough as John Hammond, the slightly daft old moneybags behind the project, is appropriately consumed by his ambition, heedless in the beginning of the scientists' warnings that he is moving too close to playing God. But he also grows on one, as a lovable codger. Bob Peck comes closest to stereotype as the "great white hunter" Robert Muldoon, an animal expert who is about the only one in the park who seems to know what he's doing. Samuel L. Jackson, performing a relatively small part before he became more famous, is notable for his no-nonsense approach to running the show. And Wayne Knight as the fat, foolish, blundering villain, Dennis Nedry, will probably be forever typecast in the role.
Even the two kids, Joseph Mazzello and Ariana Richards playing Attenborough's grandchildren, are engaging in spite of their sometimes irritating screaming and screeching. About the only time we get really annoyed is when the little girl shines a large flashlight at the T. rex for no apparent reason, giving away her location. Otherwise, they are both precocious and intelligent young people. Perhaps all the characters are caricatures, but as I say, it doesn't do anything to spoil the fun because they are all appealing caricatures.
Next, let's talk about the technical qualities of the disc. The 1.74:1 ratio anamorphic widescreen picture is, for all intents and purposes, practically flawless. Universal usually do good transfers, but this one is about as good as it gets. I recall executive-producer Spielberg being less than enthusiastic about the picture quality of "Twister" on DVD, but he could surely have no objections here. Every leaf on every tree in the jungle is clearly visible.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is at least equally remarkable, not only for its ability to render the big, deep roars and stomps of the animals, but to reproduce the delicate sounds of rain drops and forest murmurs. It even does a good job replicating dialogue, which can sometimes be overwhelmed by the ambient noise. In a movie theater in 1993, this film was the first one I remember truly impressing me with its surround sound. I felt I really was deep in a rain forest environment, and that impression continues with the DVD.
The "Fight Club" and "Terminator 2" discs set the standard for bonus materials, and this Universal "Collector's Edition" doesn't quite measure up. Disappointingly, there are no commentary tracks at all. I was hoping for Spielberg, or one of the actors at least, to talk us through the picture. There is, however, a fifty-minute documentary hosted by James Earl Jones, made in 1995 and titled "The Making of Jurassic Park," that covers a lot of the CGI and special-effects work on the film. It's in full frame and was evidently made for television as a promotion of some sort. Unfortunately, it does not include much new material or many cast-member interviews. Nevertheless, pre-production meetings are included on the disc, along with production photographs, production notes, storyboards, design sketches, and conceptual paintings, a short, dinosaur encyclopedia, some location scouting, cast and filmmaker bios, and dinosaur-supervisor Phil Tippett's "Dinosaurs in the Kitchen." For those viewers who also have a DVD-ROM player in their computers, there are DVD-ROM links, including a hotlink to the set of "Jurassic Park III." Oddly, Universal provide only a miserly twenty scene selections, but there are widescreen theatrical trailers for both "Jurassic Park" and "The Lost World," plus a teaser snippet for "Jurassic Park III." English and French are the spoken languages, English and Spanish the subtitles.
"Jurassic Park" is an adventure film par excellence, at times short on logic and certainly short on plot, but long on thrills and amazement. Once you see (and hear) the dinosaurs, they're tough to forget. In addition, it's hard to resist Sam Neill's transformation from a hater of children to a protector of them. It adds a touch of poignancy to what is otherwise just an opulent thrill ride. In the final analysis, "Jurassic Park" is a film worth watching again and again, which is what a home-theater library of DVDs is all about. For the ultimate experience, Universal also offer a deluxe, boxed edition of "Jurassic Park" and its sequel "The Lost World." The drawback, though, is that you might have to watch "The Lost World."