It may be hard to fully grasp, but the art of visual effects is almost as old as cinema itself. For more than a century, mankind has been pushing the boundaries of technology further than anyone ever thought possible, and that evolution has led to some of the most astounding and unbelievable images the world has ever seen. With Willis O’Brien’s revolutionary stop-motion work on films like “King Kong”, “The Lost World” and “Mighty Joe Young”, the stage was set for a new kind of art form. A way of giving life to the impossible, without dressing actors up in cheap rubber suits, or applying thick layers of make-up to their skin. Rubber and wire were combined to create magic known as wire-frame animation – a technique that would dominate the special effects industry through the first half of the 20th century, up until the worldwide introduction of computer-generated imagery (CGI) with “Star Wars: A New Hope” in the summer of 1977. Shots that had previously been impracticable to execute could now be done on computers, allowing for the imagination to go beyond the metaphysical limits and explore the infinite possibilities of digital manipulation. However, the process was long, and the equipment too expensive for most filmmakers. It wasn’t until 16 years later, in 1993, that Steven Spielberg’s dinosaur epic sparked the digital revolution that would almost extinguish the traditional form of effects, and launch the modern era as we know it today.
“Jurassic Park” follows Dr. Alan Grant and his partner Ellie Sattler, who both get invited to a mysterious Costa Rica island by businessman John Hammond. He wants them to inspect and approve his new theme park, so that it can open the following year. When they arrive, they find out that the park is far from your ordinary Zoo. This one has dinosaurs, and while the fascination seems overwhelming at first, the excitement soon turns into fear as the park begins to malfunction, letting loose the dangerous animals.
It really is impossible to talk about this film without mentioning its groundbreaking technical achievements, which won the special effects team many accolades, including the academy awards for ‘Best Sound Editing’, ‘Best Sound Mixing’, and “Best Visual Effects”. The dinosaurs of Jurassic Park were originally thought to be build by the go-motion legend Phil Tippett, using his motion-blur method to smoothen the movement of the creatures, in hopes of making them as seamless and life-like as possible. But when visual effects supervisor Dennis Muren showed Spielberg CGI-test footage of computer-generated dinosaurs in motion, the director had no doubt that he wanted the tech-wizards of ILM (industrial light and magic) to do the job. Visual effects artist Stan Winston was then brought onboard to craft life-size animatronics, which would be used for the steady, contained shots, while the CGI took over in the more technically complicated situations. Just like with Spielberg’s 1975 horror classic “Jaws”, a lot of heavy machinery had to work impeccably under extreme weather conditions. But unlike the great white shark, the T-Rex functions flawlessly without exhibiting any artificiality. Every moment it has on screen is 100 % believable, and never for a second do you question that it is physically present with the actors on-set. In fact, it holds up so well, that even more than two decades after its release, it still makes people ask “How the hell did they do that?”.
But it’s not only the nearly tangible visuals that make this movie stand the test of time. It’s also the intricate science and speculative philosophy of Michael Crichton’s 1990 novel that propels the concept into a timeless and perpetually exciting thrill ride. Because like the book upon which it is based, the movie is essentially a modern cautionary tale about the unconsidered dangers of technological advancement, and the risk we take when using newfound knowledge to manipulate or control the order of the natural cosmos. There is so much more to it than just dinosaurs chasing humans through a theme park. It’s a study of our past, trying to understand the very nature of life 65 million years ago. What we may perceive as larger-than-life monsters in the theatre, the film sees as beautiful creations that simply abide by a different set of natural laws. They have had no chance to adapt to our world, and that misconception becomes the foundation for one of the smartest, most intelligent science-fiction thrillers in the history of cinema.
There are so many things to appreciate about “Jurassic Park”, and the characters are certainly one of them. The screenplay by David Koepp is so tightly written and full of endlessly quotable dialogue, and thanks to him, we have been given some of the most iconic moments ever to be shown on screen. Not to discredit Steven Spielberg’s vision or direction, but I think even he will admit that Koepp was an absolutely indispensable part of the clockwork. He didn’t just take Chrichton’s science-heavy novel and made chaos theory cool, he also provided the blueprint for all future depictions of palaeontologists in movies. Dr. Alan Grant may appear grumpy and old-fashion, but when you really think about it, he is the perfect example of a man who has lost touch with time. Like the dinosaurs themselves, he is unable to adapt to the era in which he lives, and is likewise just as unpredictable as his gigantic counterparts. In fact, all characters in the movie are like hidden allegories. John Hammond represents the human ignorance that refuses to learn from past mistakes, Ian Malcolm is the voice of reason that seeks to teach us a lesson, and computer-genius Dennis Nedry is the physical manifestation of the technological catalyst that sets off the chain of events. These strong undercurrents of sad truth and inevitability are that make “Jurassic Park” such a well-crafted, classic masterpiece. You see, it’s only a monster movie on the very surface. What lies beneath all the screaming and awe-inspiring imagery is what really makes it one of the most important landmarks of modern cinema.