Steven Spielberg’s classic, JURASSIC PARK has been influential within paleontology and film classes alike since its initial release in 1993. It opened to enthusiastic critical and financial success, spurning a durable franchise that has experienced a thriving revival with the JURASSIC WORLD (2015, 2018, 2021) film series. Not only did the initial film permeate pop culture and the paleontology community, but also helped develop and popularize the use of CGI within the film industry.
Based on the best-seller by Michael Crichton, the film centers around naïve, yet eccentric tycoon, John Hammond’s (Richard Attenborough) dinosaur-themed amusement park, showcasing genetically engineered replicas of the animals. He invites mathematician Ian Malcom (Jeff Goldblum); paleontologist Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill); paleobotanist Dr. Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern); lawyer Donald Gennaro (Martin Ferrero); and grandchildren, Tim (Joseph Mazzello) and Lex (Ariana Richards) to experience and review the park firsthand before opening its gates to the public. As greedy employee, Dennis Nedry (Wayne Knight), disrupts the security systems, the dinosaurs are set free on their island habitat, forcing the guests to fight for their survival.
With the production of JURASSIC PARK, Spielberg faced the obstacle of creating dinosaurs that were as lifelike as possible, not just oversized monsters. With that, he contacted the real-life paleontologist that Grant is based on, and consultant for the franchise to this day, Dr. Jack Horner. Horner’s main duty was to supply any information about dinosaurs that Spielberg and his crew needed in order to properly engineer both robotic and virtual replicas of the animals. Horner’s main contributions dealt directly with his research at the time, which were mainly nesting and herding behavior, and even “really pushed for the neoteny—that the young animals needed to look the part…to be kind of cute-looking, with shorter snouts,” as he stated for an article for History.com in June 2018.
While there were most definitely moments when Spielberg acquiesced to Horner’s expert opinion (such as ditching the concept of fork-tongued raptors), there were also some inaccuracies knowingly left in the film for the sake of aesthetic. In the same interview, Horner admitted, “we knew at that time that dinosaurs were colorful, and at least some of them, including the raptors, were feathered,” but Spielberg felt that wouldn’t be seriously effective, especially when computer graphics would be involved as well as life-sized robotics, so a reptilian look was chosen. Horner would continue to defend the film years later, in 2014 during an interview with Smithsonianmag.com, stating “there were a lot of things wrong, but it was a fictional movie… Basically, if I could demonstrate that something was true or not true, then [Spielberg] would go with that, but if…we didn’t really have much evidence about it, he would go with whatever he thought would make the best movie.”
Despite any inaccuracies knowingly portrayed or proven wrong afterwards, many paleontologists openly admit to JURASSIC PARK’s influence in the actual field. Notable paleontologist, Dr. Steve Brusatte noted in an interview for Theverge.com in June 2018,
“the first JURASSIC PARK was the best thing that’s ever happened to dinosaur paleontology. That led to an explosion of public interest in dinosaurs… I think dinosaur paleontology right now would still be a really niche discipline, with only a handful of people around the world studying it, and probably not a very diverse group of people. The film changed the whole potential of the field…”
Not only did the film influence the future of the paleontology community, but also influenced how Hollywood would utilize visual effects. CGI was a relatively new practice within filmmaking, only being used in tandem with live-action once before, with James Cameron’s TERMINATOR 2: JUDGEMENT DAY (1991). Spielberg had originally wanted to shoot the film solely with life-sized animatronic dinosaurs, puppets, and suits created by Stan Winston, but soon realized that some scenes would be near impossible to shoot without the use of visual effects, especially those including herds. He then decided to employ George Lucas’ special effects company, Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), after viewing “[their] computer program featuring a skeletal T-rex … [Dennis] Muren’s [ILM’s head of visual effects] crew used the data from one of Winston’s T-rex models – gained by scanning the model with a 3-D scanner which then copied the image into the computer – and introduced it over the existing computerized skeleton,” as reported by Empireonline.com in June 2018. This would be the model they would adopt for all scenes requiring visual effects and is a practice still used today. There are only about four minutes of computer-generated effects in the film’s entirety- astonishing to believe, given the film’s awe-inducing visuals.
JURASSIC PARK brought in over $1 billion at the box office against a hefty $63 million budget, and won three Academy Awards, including Best Visual Effects. That Oscar season would present Spielberg with ten awards in total, as he simultaneously filmed this with SCHINDLER’S LIST (1993), an experience he’s openly recalled with dread, but had proven him not only an impressive cinematic filmmaker, but a deeply sensitive and profound one, as well. Spielberg’s prolific influence has been unrivalled for decades, and JURASSIC PARK has long been a forerunner within his canon. Because of his meticulousness in efforts to achieve a balanced cross-section of accurate information and awe-inducing visuals, the film has inspired generations of both budding filmmakers and paleontologists. While the film may not be perfectly accurate, it is a brilliant example of practicality forming with style to create a long-lasting and beloved piece. But if there can only be one significant takeaway from the film’s entirety, then let be this: “Nature, uh… finds a way.”