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“I hate computers.” Those first words spoken by Sam Neill’s rigorously old-school archeological dinosaur expert in Jurassic Park doubled as a sly nod from Steven Spielberg to his audience as he played in the sandbox of the latest digital technology. That new bag of filmmaking tricks was light years ahead of anything available when the director had first reinvigorated the monster movie 18 years earlier with Jaws. The winking acknowledgement seems even more pronounced now on the 1993 blockbuster’s 20th anniversary, with a deluxe 3D conversion providing an enhanced visual and audio experience.
While 3D makeovers have a mixed track record at the box office, Universal’s strategy on this one makes sense, priming a new generation of moviegoers for the arrival of the fourth installment in the series, due in summer 2014 after a break of more than a decade.
No film conceived and produced in 2D can measure up to the wizardry of latest-generation creations built from scratch using 3D technology, like Hugo or Life of Pi. But Spielberg’s exciting screen version of the Michael Crichton novel about a biological theme park populated with genetically recreated dinosaurs makes a persuasive case for the makeover – and not just when an enraged velociraptor is lunging at Laura Dern. If nothing else, it provides the opportunity for parents who loved the film first time around at the multiplex to relive that experience by scaring the hell out of their kids.
At his best, Spielberg has always been a filmmaker who brought a sense of awe and the spirit of an artisan even to the most effects-laden projects. That dichotomy continues to set Jurassic Park apart from a large swathe of purely synthetic popcorn movies. There’s patience, humor and humanity in the storytelling of David Koepp’s screenplay that is a tonic compared to much of today’s short-attention-span action fare with its overworked video-game aesthetics.
Taking a leaf out of his own book with the delayed reveal of the shark in Jaws, Spielberg teases us with a full hour of expertly modulated suspense before unleashing the first really big scare, when a marauding tyrannosaurus rex rattles two children (Joseph Mazzello, Ariana Richards) in a jeep before snacking on a lawyer (Martin Ferrero) taking the ill-fated tour with them. The director then allows for another 40 minutes of relative reprieve before the raptors appear to usher in the final half-hour of sustained nail-biting mayhem.
Even the casting is refreshing, with actors like Neill, Dern, Jeff Goldblum and Samuel L. Jackson (not yet sanctified by the badge of Tarantino coolness) creating characters unencumbered by the baggage of offscreen celebrity. With his lustrous mullet, all-black hipster threads and silver bling, Goldblum is especially choice as the smug rock-star mathematician and chaos-theory adherent. Casting Wayne Knight, whose popularity was then cresting as the odious Newman on Seinfeld, might be considered a pandering stroke, but he nonetheless makes an amusingly slimy villain.
The closest thing to a Spielberg alter ego in the film is Richard Attenborough as the visionary mastermind behind the park, John Hammond. A jolly Scotsman who has graduated from running a bogus flea circus to playing God with extinct species, he is a benign rather than evil genius, too caught up in his quest for a flawless world of wonderment to heed the potential fallout. The arc of Neill’s character, who overcomes his aversion to children when forced to protect Hammond’s grandkids, is pure Spielberg.
Vast advances in CGI technology notwithstanding, the dinosaur creations of Dennis Muren, Phil Tippett, Stan Winston, Michael Lantieri and the ace visual effects crew stand up remarkably well to 3D scrutiny. Likewise, Dean Cundey’s cinematography, which has a crisp depth of field that lends itself to the enhanced format. The places where the seams show are in the long shots with human figures gazing on prehistoric creatures in the background. But the classy restraint and meticulous attention to detail shown in the Stereo D conversion, which was overseen by Spielberg, ensure that such distractions are minimal.
Elevated to majestic heights and propelled along tense avenues of terror by John Williams’ score, the movie 20 years ago was a tremendously enjoyable return to the rollercoaster-like thrills of the classic Saturday-afternoon B-picture. Seen through 3D glasses today, it’s still a blast.
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