Jurassic Park: still scaring kids 30 years on By Denver Grenell

Oct 10, 2023
Jurassic Park: still scaring kids 30 years on By Denver Grenell

Watching Jurassic Park then and now, you can sense Spielberg’s absolute glee behind the camera. He knows he’s got the hottest ticket in town and aims to live up to it, grasping the audience in the palm of his hand early on and then going to town by wowing and terrifying them in equal measure.

Jurassic Park: still scaring kids 30 years on

By Denver Grenell

The name Steven Spielberg is synonymous with blockbuster filmmaking, with the Bearded One having directed some of the biggest films ever to fill the theatres. Indeed in the pre-multiplex days, his films often sent lines of people snaking out of the theatre and around the block. Spielberg’s Jaws, along with his pal George Lucas’ film Star Wars, are credited with inventing the summer blockbuster as it’s known today. Following his first run of blockbusters from Jaws through to Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Spielberg tried flexing his directorial muscles across a variety of genres, including prestige period dramas like The Colour Purple and Schindlers List. But every few years, he would dutifully return to the big rollercoaster rides that made his name, to remind us (and fellow filmmakers) how it’s done.

Having made movies over five decades, he has also found himself at the forefront of the latest technologies and embraced them, from the admittedly semi-functioning animatronic shark known as Bruce in Jaws to his box-office stomping Dino-fest, Jurassic Park, which took ILM’s computer graphics department and pushed them beyond what was previously possible.

In 1992, the teaser trailer for his forthcoming adaptation of Michael Crichton’s sci-fi novel arrived, showing precisely zero dinosaurs, but it didn’t need to. The promise of the pre-eminent King of the Blockbuster doing a dinosaur adventure movie was enough to build excitement levels even without a peek at the film’s star attractions. And the next trailer, while still playing coy in regards to its rejuvenated beasts, ended with that iconic shot of the T-Rex’s foot stomping into the mud in front of a cowering Sam Neill and young Ariana Richards. That was all the world needed to see, and true to Spielbergian form, when Jurassic Park opened in June 1993, it broke box office records and released a world-sweeping wave of Dino-mania, with merchandise (cannily displayed in the Park’s gift shop in the film) being snapped up by Dino-hungry fans.

Thirty years and five sequels of mixed quality later, it’s still easy to see why it became the highest-grossing film of the time, beating the previous record holder, Spielberg’s own E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. He created a sci-fi adventure the whole family could, and did, enjoy multiple times. But while the film has plenty of family-friendly moments and sentimentality,  mostly centred around Lex and Tim (Park owner John Hammond’s Grandchildren) bonding with an otherwise child-averse Grant, the film also has some of the Director’s finest horror filmmaking, harking back to Jaws for scenes of pure terror. That these scenes often involve his young cast members, is Spielberg saying, ‘You think this is just a family film – watch this.’

While Jaws is considered his only true horror movie, Spielberg has an outright knack for gleefully mixing tension with horrific imagery, a proclivity seemingly at odds with his nature as the friendly blockbuster king. Think of the melting / exploding Nazis at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark and the live heart removal from Temple of Doom, the film that helped usher in the PG-13 rating (with Spielberg’s own insistence). But after the more family-friendly Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, where the blood-letting was kept to a minimum, and his Peter Pan film Hook, the Beard was clearly keen to give audiences a good jolt once more.

Jurassic Park begins with a Park crew attempting to move a velociraptor into the compound and a worker being savaged by the highly smart and aggressive Dino. Despite there being a large number of people in the scene, it harkens back to the opening of Jaws with an unseen beast picking off a hapless person, here being the unlucky worker in charge of releasing the raptor into its new home. And just like in Jaws, Spielberg knows too well not to show us his creatures in the first scene, instead relying on clever cutting and highly effective sound design to do the work. By the time the worker dies in the arms of Park Warden Muldoon (Bob Peck), the audience doesn’t feel short-changed by the lack of dino visuals. Spielberg uses this scene to make his intentions clear: while we will meet some majestic and otherwise safe herbivores, some of the Dinos will live up to the moniker of ‘terrible beasts’, not unlike the predatory Great White from his earlier classic.

Shortly after, we meet the film’s protagonists, Alan Grant (Sam Neill) and Ellie Satler (Laura Dern), on an archaeological dig in Montana. Spielberg also uses this introduction to further set up the raptors. You get the sense that Spielberg is more fascinated by them, even more than the more rockstar Tyrannosaurs Rex. When a boy visiting the dig sight says the Raptors don’t look scary, Grant uses a velociraptor claw to graphically describe how they like to disembowel their victims and eat them alive. Spielberg sets up his final boss dino (although technically the T-Rex does step in at the last minute), laying out how clever they are, hunting in packs as well as showing us Grant’s impatience for children, a running theme and sticking point between Grant and Satler, who, unlike Grant, does want kids.

In Jaws, the malfunctioning shark decreed the lack of screen time, becoming a blessing in disguise as it forced the young director to be particularly cunning with his filmmaking. But this time around, Spielberg knows that he can’t keep the Dinos offscreen for too long. So soon after, we get our first glimpse, when Hammond escorts Grant, Satler and Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum at his most delightfully Goldblumish) into the park to see the Brachiosaurs. Here, Spielberg smartly opts for a moment of awe and grandeur before the carnage begins later.

Spielberg masterfully builds towards the first T-Rex attack, even having the main characters go on (and comment on) the disappointingly Dino-free tour of the Park. If you’ve ever been to the zoo only to find the tigers asleep and out of sight, then you know the feeling. But then the comically villainous Dennis Nedry (Wayne Kramer) enacts his plan to smuggle dino embryos out of the Park, by disabling the Park’s operating systems just as a tropical cyclone hits the island. The stranding of the electric cars and disabling of the electric fences sets the stage for Spielberg to unleash one of his (and cinema’s) finest set pieces. After teasing us with the iconic shot of the vibrating water cup (achieved with vibrating guitar strings beneath the cup) and the increasing booming footsteps, the director releases the beast, so to speak, as the T-Rex emerges from its destroyed pen and wreaks havoc on the vehicle containing Lex and Tim (after the cowardly lawyer Gennaro hightails it for the ‘safety’ of a nearby toilet block.) The intensity of the scene arguably surpasses anything from your favourite horror movies, as the hungry T-Rex tears the roof of the car and tries to devour the screaming children. Failing that, it flips the car over and starts stomping it into the mud. Spielberg knows that he can’t kill the kids in this film (he already did that with Alex Kintner in Jaws), but he will damn sure make you think that it’s on the cards.

One of Spielberg’s skills is a sense of what his audiences want and satisfying that. He is not the sort of filmmaker to leave the audience short-changed in that regard. Of course the audience wants to see someone get chomped by a T-Rex (the synopsis of Dinos run amok in a theme park all but guarantees it), so who better than the ‘blood-sucking lawyer’ Gennaro, whose outhouse hiding place proves woefully ineffective. There is no shying away from the chomping here, as we get a full view of the mighty Rex plucking the cowering lawyer off the toilet and gulping him down in one go. The squeals of delight and disgust that filled theatres in 1993, can still be heard today at repertory and anniversary screenings.

This entire set-piece, which ends with Grant and the kids fleeing down first a wall and then a tree to escape the falling vehicle, is a peak that the movie cannot conceivably reach again. Spielberg knows this, of course, so he doesn’t try to, instead switching to smaller but just as deadly Dinos and ratcheting up the tension. The Dilophasaurus attack on Nedry is an example of this. What initially seem like pretty, chirping Dinos, the Dilophasaurus quickly reveal their true nature, by fanning their frill-like necks and spitting venom into Nedry’s face before brutally devouring him in his vehicle, a nasty end to the film’s comic relief.

Next to go is everyone’s favourite weary computer engineer Ray Arnold (Samuel L Jackson, just prior to his breakout role in Pulp Fiction), when he volunteers to go and turn the power back on after rebooting the Park’s system and fixing Nedry’s hack. His death takes place offscreen, but he handily leaves his severed arm for Ellie to discover when she ventures into the raptor-infested bunker. As he has shown throughout his career, Spielberg is not afraid to use a little gore to add some shock value to the proceedings.

Shortly after this, Park Warden Muldoon is dispatched by a gang of ‘clever’ Raptors. Given his experience with that particular breed of Dino, you have to wonder why he thought he could take them down when he should’ve heeded his own advice to Ellie and ran. Spielberg opts for subtlety here in a scene reminiscent of Nedry’s death. You can have a T-Rex swallowing a tiny figure onscreen in a PG film, but a gory disembowelling at the hands of a Raptor would be too much for the rating and the audience (despite Grant setting it up at the beginning of the film). Again, he relies on vivid sound effects and the power of suggestion to get his point across.

The last stretch of the film is a drawn-out stalk-and-attack sequence with the principals all being pursued by the hungry Raptors. Spielberg once again puts his young actors through hell, as they are pursued through the main park complex, ending up in the kitchen as the raptors figure out how to open doors. This is probably the closest Spielberg ever got to slasher movie territory, with the killers creeping through the kitchen while the children just barely evade them by hiding in cupboards and escaping into overhead ducting. The intensity of these scenes works in tandem with the sentimentality – we care about these characters, and thus, the hell Spielberg puts them through is even more effective. And despite focusing on the raptors in the latter half of the film, Spielberg can’t resist bringing back the T-Rex for the finale, as it lunges into the Park Centre and attacks the raptors in the nick of time, saving our main characters.

Having seen Jurassic Park in the theatre in 1993 and then a 30th-anniversary screening just the other week, it was cool to see it work its magic again on a packed cinema crowd. People who were probably youngsters when it first came out brought their kids along, although it was clearly too intense for a couple of young viewers who were whisked away. Even today, the CGI holds up much better than the more recent Jurassic World films. There is a weight and awe to Spielberg’s dinos that owe just as much to Dino Supervisor Phil Tippet (who was originally tasked with creating them with stop motion) as it does to the work of confident computer artists Steve “Spaz” Williams and Mark Dippé. Stan Winston’s giant animatronic creatures work pretty seamlessly with their digital counterparts as well, adding the tactility that is essential to believing in these extinct creatures.

Watching Jurassic Park then and now, you can sense Spielberg’s absolute glee behind the camera. He knows he’s got the hottest ticket in town and aims to live up to it, grasping the audience in the palm of his hand early on and then going to town by wowing and terrifying them in equal measure.

Denver Grenell


Denver Grenell is a writer of horror & dark fiction who lives with his family in a small rural town in New Zealand. A life-long horror hound who got back into writing after a long break, he is now making up for lost time, furiously expelling every idea that has collected inside his skull over the years.

His stories have been featured in various anthologies from Crystal Lake Publishing, Black Hare Press, Bloodrites Horror, Hawke Haus Books, as well as on Hawk & Cleaver’s The Other Stories podcast. His debut collection of short stories ‘The Burning Boy & Other stories’ is out now through Beware The Moon Publishing.

The survival horror novel ‘Red Ruin’ was co-written with Ian J Middleton and is a finalist for BEST NOVEL at the Australian Shadows Awards 2022.

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