There are certain adaptations where the stars just seem to align – both literally and figuratively – and from the moment the lights dim in the theater, you know you’re in for something special. These are the sorts of films, and experiences, that stick with you. They’re the timeless sort of adaptations that continue to hold up and entertain even decades after their initial release. Steven Spielberg has been behind the camera for a remarkable number of such films, but arguably – outside of “Jaws,” at least – none have had the impact of “Jurassic Park.” Twenty-five years on, “Jurassic Park” still has the power to excite.
When Jurassic Park arrived on bookstore shelves in 1990, it was an immediate bestseller, and the quintessential Michael Crichton techo-thriller. Crichton’s biology and genetic engineering expertise lent his writing an air of authenticity, while his taut construction kept the pages turning. Perhaps most importantly, the suspense is never mired in Crichton’s explorations of bioethics, chaos theory, or moral implications of genetic engineering. In short, it was classic Critchton – the height of thought-provoking, page-turning thrill, steeped in just enough actual science to keep it eerily plausible. It also turned out to be excellent fodder for an adaptation.
Looking back, it can be difficult to imagine just how much of a game-changer Steven Spielberg’s “Jurassic Park” was. CGI has become so ubiquitous, and of such a high quality, that we don’t realize just how often we see it in film. While the technology was not in its infancy in 1993, it certainly wasn’t far removed. While other films had used CGI to skillful effect before (most notably the stunning work in James Cameron’s “Terminator 2”), no other film prior to “Jurassic Park” managed to incorporate it so seamlessly – and realistically – alongside practical effects. Twenty-five years after its initial release, the effects in “Jurassic Park” hold up remarkably well, in large part because Spielberg understood the limitations of the technology – he used CGI chiefly in long, wide shots or to supplement a practical effect – and he knew that if a story is engrossingly told, viewers are more than willing to suspend disbelief.
Spielberg, more so than perhaps any other working director, has shown remarkable skill in translating a story from the page to the screen. Beginning with “The Duel” and continuing with “Jaws” through “Schindler’s List” and “Lincoln,” Spielberg understands the nuance needed to translate a story from one medium to another. There are obvious restrictions in bringing a novel to the big screen – the average feature-length script clocks at 130 or so pages, the average (Crichton) novel is in the ballpark of 500; that’s not difficult math – cuts need to be made, scenes need to be reworked, and what works on the page does not necessarily work on the screen. Spielberg is a natural storyteller with a seemingly intuitive feel for what makes a story sing in the theater, and at pulling out the core spirit of book and bringing it to life on film. He does that better than arguably any director since Alfred Hitchcock. “Jurassic Park” was no different. Rather than concentrating on the admittedly fascinating technical details of Crichton’s novel, Spielberg zeroed in on two key elements: 1) the wonder of seeing these creatures for the first time, and 2) the dangers of, in effect, playing god. The result was a cinematic experience that was both awe-inspiring and thought provoking without becoming mired in detail.
I still recall the chills I had the first moment the dinosaurs appeared onscreen. I was in the back of my dad’s truck in my hometown’s lone drive-in theater, The Sunset. The drive-in theater, in and of itself, was a magical experience that still colors my love for certain movies. But for a film like “Jurassic Park”? Sitting outside in the slight chill of a summer evening turning to autumn and watching, alongside Sam Neill’s Dr. Grant, the first stunning glimpse of a brontosaurus munching on a tree – there’s honestly nothing quite like it. “Jurassic Park” landed at a time when Spielberg had started to stretch beyond the blockbuster adventures of his early career. It was a pitch perfect reminder of that Spielberg magic – the unparalleled pacing, the visual language of film, and the ability to immerse us in a story so completely with something as simple as the ripples in a glass of water. Much like “Jaws,” “Jurassic Park” reinvigorated the idea of blockbuster filmmaking, and lit up the imaginations of another generation of movie lovers. It was a brilliant reminder that Steven Spielberg still knew a thing or two about awe-inspiring cinema.