The great news about Steven Spielberg’s 1993 action movie “Jurassic Park” is that it’s still the nerve-wracking thrill ride it was 20 years ago — and the new 3-D conversion hitting theaters this weekend doesn’t screw up the exciting parts, and in some instances actually enhances them.
The bad news is that it’s also a look back into recent history that we may rather forget. For example, did you know there was a time when Americans wanted to see Jeff Goldblum with his shirt off?
The story, adapted from Michael Crichton’s novel (in a sharp script by Crichton and David Koepp), is a winking variation on the classic scientists-playing-God scenario. Mega-entrepreneur John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) creates a tropical resort populated with living dinosaurs cloned from fossilized DNA. Hammond invites dinosaur experts Alan Grant (Sam Neill) and Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern), along with famous “chaos theory” expert Ian Malcolm (Goldblum) and Hammond’s grandkids Timmy (Joseph Mazzello) and Lexie (Ariana Richards), to tour the place before its grand opening.
This set-up takes nearly an hour, as Spielberg patiently sets up his audience for the scares to come. And come they do, after Hammond’s slovenly computer expert Nedry (Wayne Knight) sabotages the security system and the more carniverous dinos escape the electrified barriers. From that point, the movie becomes a breakneck chase, punctuated with some nail-biting set pieces.
Seeing “Jurassic Park” again, years after my first encounter, what struck me wasn’t the gee-whiz dinosaur effects, though the combination of animatronics, stop-motion and computer animation holds up amazing well. What’s fascinating is how Spielberg never loses the human story amid the hardware.
The most fascinating performance in “Jurassic Park” is Attenborough’s. He’s delightfully playful as Hammond, introduced as a spritely showman happy to show off his newest shiny attraction, and remaining optimistic nearly to the end as he explains how even Disneyland had opening-day glitches. (This prompts one of Goldblum’s best deadpan rejoinders: “Yes, but when the Pirates of the Caribbean breaks down, the pirates don’t eat the tourists.”)
“Jurassic Park” marks a turning point in Spielberg’s career evolution — the end of his eye-candy epoch that gave us “Jaws,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” While the dinosaur post-production work on “Jurassic Park” was being completed, Spielberg went to Poland to film his masterpiece: The Holocaust tale “Schindler’s List.”
After that, Spielberg could never really go back to straight popcorn films. He tried with a sequel, “The Lost World: Jurassic Park” and a fourth “Indiana Jones” flick — but his science-fiction movies (“A.I. Artificial Intelligence,” “Minority Report,” “War of the Worlds”) turned darker and more allegorical. He also made such serious films as “Saving Private Ryan,” “Amistad,” “Munich,” “War Horse” and “Lincoln.”
“Jurassic Park” was the last time Spielberg wanted nothing more than to make an audience hold onto their butts (to borrow a phrase from Samuel L. Jackson’s chain-smoking technician). And it’s an exciting reminder that no director has ever done it better.
Steven Spielberg’s 1993 dinosaur chase remains the pinnacle of armrest-gripping movie entertainment.
Where • Theaters everywhere
When • Opens today.
Rating • PG-13 for intense science fiction terror.
Running time • 127 mins.