“An exploitation film is a motion picture in which the elements of plot and acting become subordinate to elements that can be promoted. In that respect, I would regard JURASSIC PARK as the ultimate exploitation film.”
–Herschell Gordon Lewis
What is the key movie, horror or otherwise, to emerge from the 1990s? My pick is Steven Spielberg’s JURASSIC PARK, which is currently winding up its 20th anniversary theatrical release. It’s a fact that back in 1993 JURASSIC PARK was THE movie, and indeed it quickly became the top grossing movie of all time, a title it held for the next four years. It also had an incalculable effect on Hollywood moviemaking that continues to resonate.
Experiencing JURASSIC PARK once again on the big screen amply demonstrates the film’s qualities as an expensive exercise in B-movie goofiness, as well as its shortcomings. To my surprise I found I harbored a great deal of affection for it, although that’s due more to nineties nostalgia than anything in the movie, which to be honest never impressed me all that much.
To whit: it lacks anything resembling memorable human characters (there’s a reason its stars Sam Neill, Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum haven’t been heard from much since 1993) and labors under a punishingly boring first half. Once the T-Rex makes its first appearance around the one hour mark the film becomes the joyride that was promised, but that doesn’t quite make up for all the dull exposition that came before. The proceedings are also shamelessly cutesy, manipulative and commercial, it being the only movie I know of that contains (in a lingering pan across a rack of JURASSIC PARK lunch boxes and T-shirts) product placement for itself. There’s also the fact that there’s no ending to speak of; that cumulative swelling of music as the protagonists fly off into the sunset doesn’t make for a proper conclusion, especially when absolutely nothing has been resolved.
Above and beyond all those things, however, looms what I believe is JURASSIC PARK’S overriding flaw: it’s the very definition of a “feathered fish.” This is a Hollywood term used to deride LAST ACTION HERO, the would-be blockbuster that went head-to-head with JURASSIC PARK back in June of ‘93. I don’t think I need to tell you which film won out, with LAST ACTION HERO’S failure blamed on the fact that it attempted to mix R-rated intensity with kid movie fluff, resulting in a hybrid that satisfied no-one–or a feathered fish (a fish that can neither swim nor fly).
Yet JURASSIC PARK, I feel, is just as much a feathered fish, with dark and scary R-rated material rendered in watered-down PG-rated fashion. The dark edges of Michael Crichton’s source novel, which opened with an infant devoured by a raptor, are evident in the film, but just barely. Personally I think the material would have been better served by James Cameron or Paul Verhoeven (whose respective films ALIENS and STARSHIP TROOPERS were closer in feel to Crichton’s novel) than Steven Spielberg, whose interest level was evident in the fact that he left his pal George Lucas to supervise postproduction while Spielberg went off to Europe to make his passion project SCHINDLER’S LIST.
Spielberg took an even more distracted approach to the helming of JURASSIC PARK’S 1997 sequel THE LOST WORLD, which like its predecessor was dwarfed by a more “important” movie, in this case the (crummy) slave drama AMISTAD. Even though THE LOST WORLD is much slicker than JURASSIC PARK (and has an actual ending) it feels disjointed and unsatisfying.
As for Hollywood overall, its reaction to the success of JURASSIC PARK was predictable enough: it inundated us with a flood of expensive monster movies like THE RELIC and INDEPENDENCE DAY, and just as many high concept productions that relied upon a single element to lure audiences a la JURASSIC PARK’S dinosaurs. See TWISTER, which was essentially JURASSIC PARK with tornadoes in place of dinos, and SPEED 2, in which the sight of a ship crashing through a dock was supposed to impress us so much we’d forget the movie was woefully deficient in literally every other aspect.
It was widely rumored that the late Stanley Kubrick held off making his long-in-the-works sci fi epic A.I. because he didn’t believe special effects technology was advanced enough to do his ambitions justice–until he saw JURASSIC PARK, at which point Kubrick decided the time was right to finally give A.I. the green light (ironically enough, the film ended up being directed by Steven Spielberg). The rest of Hollywood, it seems, reacted in a similar manner.
The digital effects so integral to JURASSIC PARK weren’t exactly uncommon prior to its release (see THE ABYSS and TERMINATOR 2), but their use all-but exploded afterward, cluttering up movies ranging from FORREST GUMP to THE FRIGHTENERS. Most of those movies now stand as perfect examples of how quickly CGI effects date, although in all fairness the patently shitty CGI on display in the likes of CONGO and ARMAGEDDON looked sloppy and unconvincing even at the time of those movies’ initial releases. Nor did such effects do anything to improve poor writing or filmmaking; I recall rushing out to see the George Lucas produced 1994 comedy RADIOLAND MURDERS based on a claim I’d heard that entire sets were digitally created (an unheard-of innovation at the time), but found the movie such a wretched mess I quickly lost interest in its innovations.
Let’s not forget about all the wimpy PG-rated horror movies that followed in JURASSIC PARK’S wake, including WOLF, MARY SHELLEY’S FRANKENSTEIN and the Roland Emmerich GODZILLA, which opened to widespread hostility in 1998. The irony here is that sanitized and overblown though it certainly is, Emmerich’s GODZILLA really isn’t all that terrible. In fact I’d say it’s easily as strong as, if not better than, Emmerich’s previous effort INDEPENDENCE DAY, and for that matter the subject of this essay, leading me to conclude that GODZILLA’S biggest problem was that it arrived five years too late.
But once again, I can’t say I didn’t enjoy experiencing JURASSIC PARK again. For all its problems, and the many bad movies it spawned, the film will always be redolent of a more innocent time when its brand of wide-eyed, sensationalistic spectacle was the exception rather than the norm.