It’s 1993, and Spielberg has been lost in the woods. The first six films of his career contained some of the most beloved films of all time, and had grossed over a billion dollars (even counting the modest grosses of Sugarland Express and 1941). The next six made about half that, and included a film he himself felt he had to apologize for (Temple of Doom), a reach for critical acceptance that led to the ultimate Oscar snub (The Color Purple), and a box office disappointment that had been a dream project (Hook), with a couple of outright bombs, by his standards, thrown in for good measure (Empire of the Sun and Always). If not for the crutch of Indiana Jones, it would have been a truly bleak time indeed. There were questions as to whether the former king of the box office still had it, if he could recapture that magic of Jaws and E.T. and pull one more rabbit out of his hat.
Those questions were answered with two words: “Spielberg” and “dinosaurs.”
If you aren’t old enough to remember the build up to the release of Jurassic Park in the summer of 1993, and the storm that followed it, it’s really hard to describe. Michael Crichton’s novel was pretty much a movie from the moment it was published in 1990. And as far as Spielberg was concerned, even with the disappointment of Hook still fresh in our minds, this was a batting practice fast ball. If he couldn’t knock this out of the park, he might as well fold up his director’s chair and call it a day. Then the trailers started showing us glimpses of the dinosaurs, and word started creeping out about the revolutionary CGI in the film, and the wait for June 11 became unbearable. I remember people crowding two or three deep around a TV in the middle of Universal Studios Florida just to watch the trailer for the film playing on a continuous loop. We loved dinosaurs. We loved Spielberg. We wanted this to be great. We needed this to be great. We were primed and ready.
I still remember seeing this at an employee preview at Universal and hearing two hundred people gasp at the same time when the brachiosaur first appears. The rest of the film could have been Spielberg sitting in a chair reading My Little Book of Dinosaurs; at that moment, he had us, in a way we hadn’t been had since he let a shark eat all those swimmers off of Amity. Right there was magic and wonder and amazement and the pure ecstatic rush of seeing something on a movie screen you’d never see in real life. Oh yeah, the circus was back in town, and the ringmaster was back in control.
It’s such a bravura display that I don’t even care about things like how the hell did that giant drop-off appear right where the T-Rex was standing five minutes ago, or how the film doesn’t end so much as it just stops; hell, even the wildest roller coaster ends with you riding meekly back into the station. If your blood’s not pumping when John Williams’ adventure theme kicks in over that helicopter flight, you are sadly immune to the spell being woven here (I also think this is one of Williams’ last great epic scores, as he really seemed to shy away from his more bombastic style after this film).
The only thing I can think of to compare to that summer is the juggernaut that was Titanic four years later. Even then, Titanic was a long slow, burn, a glacier that slowly and inexorably ground down all in its path. Jurassic Park, perhaps appropriately given its subject matter, was more of a meteor, streaking across the summer and destroying everything in its path, including Arnold Schwarzenegger. It was also the end of an era, although we didn’t realize it at the time. In a lot of ways, Jurassic Park was the last true summer blockbuster. Other films have gone on to make more money since then, but this was the last one to really feel like an event, where people talked about it excitedly past the first weekend or two. It made the summer of ’93 feel like the summer of ’77, except maybe without as many toys and a disco version of the theme song.
But if it signaled an ending, it was also a beginning, or maybe more a revitalization. After this, Spielberg entered into probably the most interesting period of his career, with a string of films that while not as successful as his early string of hits, certainly didn’t lack for ambition or quality. Only two (The Lost World and the fourth Indiana Jones movie) are what I would call bad, and even they managed to make almost $1.5 billion worldwide between them. And three of those films rank even higher up on this list. It was as if Spielberg had made peace with himself, realizing that magical time from 1976 to 1982 was a once-in-a-lifetime run, one he didn’t have to kill himself trying to repeat. Jurassic Park is the old lion reminding everyone — including himself — that he still knows how to roar.
Tomorrow: No peace at the end of this.