After the creative and financial success of The Color Purple in 1985, Steven Spielberg’s work slipped into a pattern of mediocrity for the rest of the decade. His films weren’t terrible, but one had to admit that when compared with what came before, Empire of The Sun, Always and Hook didn’t exactly match up to the enormous originality of Raiders or Jaws or Close Encounters. Then in 1993, he roared back with a vengeance with two films that would change his career and his life. In one year he made the most popular film of the year, Jurassic Park and followed it with the best film of the decade (we’ll get to that tomorrow).
The proof of Spielberg’s creative heft when it came to Jurassic Park was his ability to clear out the clutter of convoluted techno-babble from Michael Critchton’s over-stuff book and streamline it down to an adventure fit for the ages. Much as he had done with Peter Benchley’s Jaws, he removed gaggles of extraneous characters and subplots and refit the main characters to make them far more relatable (John Hammond in the book, you should know, was unbearable).
The result, at heart, is simply a monster movie, but a monster movie put together with loving care. What was special about Jurassic Park was that it felt new. This is the movie that announced with thunder that the age of computer-generated visual effects had arrived. Not only that but the new age of digital sound had arrived as well. I remember going to the theater and receiving, along with my ticket, a little yellow card embossed with the JP logo that told me “You are about to experience ‘Jurassic Park’ in digital sound.” It was no gimmick. The sound was immersive. Seated in the theater, you heard grass moving in the forward speakers; insects in the left speakers; footsteps in the right speakers; and rain all around. When a character spoke and walked, it sounded like they were moving around behind you from left to right. I had never experienced a movie like this before.
Then came the dinosaurs.
What an awesome spectacle Steven Spielberg and his creative team had put on the screen. What a bold announcement of the new age of digital effects. Ever the showman, Spielberg decided not to let us see the dinosaurs until we got to see the movie, much as he had with E.T. and Gremlins a decade earlier. That greatness came from the fact that the dinosaurs seemed so real that you couldn’t see the line between the real and the imaginary. 30 years after its release, I’m still astonished by it.
Not only that, but the adventure itself is paced beautifully. The movie has action set pieces that are allowed to go on and on and on, building on thing on top of another. Spielberg’s team were not interested in one thrill, they wanted to give you ten or fifteen. There are half a dozen scenes in this movie that have gone down in movie history.
I could carp about the characters. They’re not as sharply drawn as they were in Jaws or Raiders, but I’m so impressed by everything else that it hardly matters. This is a roller coaster ride, a great one.
And yet, watching it again the other night I approached it with a touch of sadness. This was Spielberg’s last great entertainment film. For the next 20 years his greater focus would be on his historical films, serious works about serious issues. For that, his action pictures would suffer. They never had the same jolt or sense of greatness as they did before 1994. It can be hoped that he gets it back.