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How ‘Jurassic Park’ Got CGI Right — and Marked the End of an Era for Spielberg

We film writers will take any opportunity to revisit our favorite movies, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that this week’s release of Jurassic World has prompted a flurry of enthusiastic appreciations from critics of a certain age — those (like World director Colin Trevorrow, it seems) who were young and impressionable when JP hit screens in the summer of 1993. This writer was a little bit older and a good deal more jaded then, 17 years old and obnoxious in my endorsement of the burgeoning indie scene, and thus cynical about the value of a big summer studio blockbuster. Now that I’m older and more open, it’s easier to appreciate Jurassic Park for what it is — a first-rate piece of action/horror craftsmanship, an exquisitely composed and assembled popcorn picture, and in many ways (hi there, shared JP theme park/movie logo) a sly commentary on the business of the blockbuster. But more than anything, a recent viewing served as a reminder that it was one of the first major movies to use CGI — and still one of the few to use it properly.

Exhibit A: the big reveal of the park’s dinosaurs. It comes 20 minutes in, which is in itself an indication of how much shorter our attention spans are now (or how much shorter movies assume they are; the tail-wagging-the-dog nature of this argument is for another day). The picture’s set-up sequences, while certainly cutting to the quick in exposition and characterization, are downright leisurely compared to the norm these days: we have the prologue, of a dino transfer going horribly awry, but the animal there is a rumbling, growling force, in a crate and behind the trees; after that it’s all character introductions, creation of stakes and conflict, and John Williams’ plinky, old-fashioned score.

But then our heroes land on the titular island, and the gaze-ups begin. Sam Neill’s Dr. Grant sees it first, as Spielberg’s camera pushes in dramatically; he first looks confused, then removes his hat (rather hilariously, as if it’s causing him to see things), stands in the back of his Jeep, and removes his sunglasses to reveal his bugging eyes. Laura Dern’s Dr. Sattler, in the seat next to him, is flipping out about a leaf; he reaches down and turns her head. She removes her sunglasses and stands, her mouth agog, her eyes wide; in the pantheon of awestruck people gazing at things in Spielberg movies, this is the gold standard.

To this point, we still haven’t seen what they’re looking at. This is how you build a sequence, but it’s also setting up for a difficult payoff — if you’re going to show two people going this bananas, then the shot of what they’re looking at had better deliver.

Spielberg delivers.

A wide shot from behind their Jeep finally shows us what they’re seeing: a full-bodied dinosaur, clomping among the trees and chewing on their leaves. Williams’ corny music is suddenly perfect, those strings capturing the majesty of the creature. “It’s… it’s a dinosaur,” Grant sputters. “Uh huh,” she replies. Jeff Goldblum’s Dr. Malcolm, still in his Jeep, is similarly agog: “He did it,” he mutters, “the crazy sonofabitch did it.”

As the sequence continues, we see the dinosaur from all angles — those of its observers and those that include them, in order to take in the creature’s full size and scope. Even the wormy layer gets a stunned cutaway, before Spielberg cuts back to Jeff Goldblum, who merely grins in joy. There is more dialogue, and then that trailer-friendly “Welcome to Jurassic Park” proclamation from Richard Attenborough’s Hammond, and then Neill gets another slow push-in as he observes what’s beyond them: more dinosaurs, many more, populating the island for as far as the eye can see.

The sequence runs nearly three minutes, and is about one thing and one thing only: awe. It is about the awe of its characters, but those characters are also our stand-ins; their stunned reaction at seeing dinosaurs in front of them mirrors the way it felt for audiences to see realistic-looking dinosaurs interacting with characters onscreen. Sure, we’d seen stop-action creatures and puppets and models, but none were as eerily convincing as these — though it’s worth noting that Spielberg used all of the tools at his disposal, not just the new advances in computer-generated imagining, to create the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park. But we’re pretty clearly seeing a CGI dino in that big reveal, and we’re seeing Spielberg use CG to do something that, to that point, simply couldn’t be done convincingly.

In a recent piece on Jurassic for Little White Lies, David Jenkins notes that Spielberg pal George Lucas recalled, after seeing the first test shots of those dinosaurs, “it was like one of those moments in history, like the invention of the light bulb or the first telephone call… A major gap had been crossed and things were never going to be the same.” Jenkins posits that JP is “a self-aware blockbuster… which tells the story of its own production. And not only its own production, but the ensuing history of mammoth effects movies.” There’s something to his theory, though I think Spielberg’s intellectual approach to the picture may be a bit simpler than Jenkins’ interpretation.

A mere six months after Jurassic’s monster commercial success came Spielberg’s greatest critical reception to date, with the Oscar-winning Schindler’s List. He’d tried, with 1985’s The Color Purple and 1987’s Empire of the Sun, to prove himself as more than a blockbuster-maker, but those films met with varying levels of resistance; Schindler marked, at long last, his ascension into the ranks of Serious Filmmaking, which makes it easy to look back on Jurassic Park as the end of an era. If he saw, as his friend Lucas did, that “things were never going to be the same” — that the advances in moviemaking technology had leapt to a point where even the wildest visions could be rendered realistically — then he chose a fascinating moment to stop, for the most part, making those kinds of movies.

So you can take Jurassic Park as the bookend of an era that began with Jaws — his first major success, and the entry in his filmography that Jurassic has the most in common with. But in stark contrast to Jaws, whose monster was seen only in the fleeting glimpses allowed by the limited technology of the moment, Jurassic Park gave us lots of opportunities to gawk and marvel at the dinosaurs at its center. In the years that followed, Spielberg would rarely make a movie that was as purely popcorn as this one; even War of the Worlds and Minority Report had social subtext beyond the sci-fi set pieces. He made another Jurassic Park and another Indiana Jones, neither as well-received as the predecessors, because they felt like what they were: an artist doing an encore, rushing through the greatest hits they’d long since outgrown.

And in the years that followed, computer-generated effects weren’t used as Spielberg used them here. Slowly but surely, they just became a way to cut costs and cut corners, to eliminate the work of models and crowds and mattes, even when the weightlessness of the images could be seen and felt. They became, in other words, just another hammer in the toolbox. But in Jurassic Park, CGI allowed a master filmmaker to give us the same reminder that so many of the best popcorn movies provide: that anything is possible.