When “Jurassic Park” — director Steven Spielberg’s big-budget, special effects-driven feature about a dinosaur-filled theme park gone disastrously awry — first hit theaters in June 1993, the studio advertised it as “an adventure 65 million years in the making.”
Twenty years later, watching it on the big screen still offers a certain historical perspective — not on dinosaurs, but on the evolution of the cinematic creature we know as the summer blockbuster. If you want to know how today’s blockbusters came to be the way they are, few films will give you a better idea than “Jurassic Park.”
The movie was a Tyrannosaurus-sized success when it first came out, earning $357 million at the U.S. box office, instantly making it one of the most commercially successful movies ever. In the two decades since its first release, the movie has become a popular classic — beloved by former kid dinosaur nuts and remembered fondly by a generation awed by its trailblazing use of computer-generated dinosaur effects.
Starting Friday, the movie takes an anniversary tour through theaters, complete with a 3-D upgrade. Sadly, it’s more of a downgrade; the 3-D conversion is unnecessary and distracting, serving mostly to muddy cinematographer Dean Cundey’s crisp photography and darken the visibility of Mr. Spielberg’s carefully crafted frames.
Even still, the movie is an absolute blast, a classic big-budget thrill ride that deserves its reputation and more. The movie retains an ecstatic, primal intensity, and the relentlessly eventful final hour remains an almost flawless exercise in cinematic high terror. The big set pieces, especially a midfilm encounter with an angry T. rex, are paced with heart-stopping precision; Mr. Spielberg and screenwriters Michael Crichton (who also wrote the novel on which the film is based) and David Koepp dole out information just fast enough that the audience is always a half step behind — still processing the last scare when the next one hits.
It is also arguably the last film by Mr. Spielberg — the blockbuster auteur behind trendsetters like “Jaws,” “E.T.” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark” — to provoke genuine awe and wonderment. For that, you can credit his innovative but surprisingly restrained use of computer-generated special effects.
“Jurassic Park” represents a turning point in the history of big-screen effects tech. It was among the first megabudget productions to rely extensively on computer-generated animation, with many of its dinosaurs created by microprocessors and digitally inserted into the shots after the fact.
While many of its digital dino effects are stunning — and hold up almost shockingly well, despite their age — the movie’s biggest thrills are made possible by its physical creations: the animatronic dinosaurs created for the film by practical-effects wizard Stan Winston.
More than half of the movie’s dinosaur shots were created using those physical stand-ins, and they ground the film’s ancient biological wonders in a sense of tactile reality that few of its contemporary, CG-driven peers can match.
Mr. Spielberg’s expert balance of practical and digital effects arose as much as anything from the simple fact that CG was a new and undeveloped technology that simply couldn’t be used for everything. What’s left, then, is a happy medium: computer-generated effects where they’re truly needed — and practical effects where they work best.
The new opportunities made possible by those effects allowed Mr. Spielberg to show what might, in earlier films, have only been hinted at. That was something new, and not everyone liked it. Critic Roger Ebert, who died Thursday at age 70, in his review criticized it for leaving too little to the imagination. The film delivers “all too well on its promise to show us dinosaurs. We see them early and often,” he wrote.
Yet in retrospect, “Jurassic” seems almost quaintly restrained. The movie makes viewers wait a full, tension-filled hour before revealing the T. rex and letting theme park hell break loose. Velociraptors, who become the chief villains in the film’s third act, are not actually shown until quite late in the film; an early raptor feeding sequence pairs rustling branches with the sickened look of human faces as they watch. We don’t see the gory stuff that’s happening, but we don’t need to because we can see the reactions of the people who do. In general, the movie’s use of gore is quite careful; it gets the blood pumping, but not spilling.
It’s a terrifying movie, but not a particularly vulgar one. It’s also a juvenile movie that doesn’t feel entirely like an adolescent pander; indeed, there’s an ironic self-commentary throughout, as several characters warn against selling the park’s dangerous wonders to children.
“Jurassic Park’s” massive success set the tone for the blockbusters of the past 20 years: Each summer we see a host of visually ambitious, high-concept, rapid-fire adventures. But few show the same restraint: weightless digital effects, juvenile concepts and incoherent editing now dominate the multiplex. There are good summer movies still, and honest thrills to be found, but few as pure and lasting as “Jurassic Park,” a movie that, after 20 years, turns out to still be worth the wait.