The Jurassic Park Period: How CGI Dinosaurs Transformed Film Forever

The 1993 thriller, returning to theaters this weekend in 3D, marked the second time Steven Spielberg started a new era in cinema—for better and for worse.
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Steven Spielberg, for all his achievements, will always be first remembered for how his little (big) shark movie set the mold for a new kind of film: the summer blockbuster. Thanks to Jaws's eager-to-thrill filmmaking and box-office success in 1975 (coupled with Star Wars's impact two years later), the entire cinematic landscape shifted as producers and executives translated "We're going to need a bigger boat" to "We're going to need bigger movies." For better or worse, concept-driven, big-budget, escapist entertainment became the dominant component of the movie calendar and Hollywood business model.

But a little more than 20 years later, Spielberg would bring about another, nearly as epochal change. Jurassic Park, which sees a nationwide rerelease in 3D this weekend, ushered in our current era of films dominated by computer-generated images (CGI)—and stands, like Jaws, as an example of how great movies can beget great change, in part by inspiring a generation of not-so-great movies.

When Jurassic Park was released in 1993, CGI was still largely unproven both in the industry and at the box office. Hollywood was hesitant to gamble on high-tech special effects in the wake of the financial costs and middling returns for of Tron. Film critic J. Hoberman, in his book Film After Film, gives that one movie the dubious distinction of being "credited with (or blamed for) delaying CGI-based cinema for a decade." The result being, as industry expert Ron Miller tells us in Special Effects: An Introduction to Movie Magic, that even into the early '90s "directors were still wary of computer-generated special effects," in spite of better and better technology.

Part of this was because moviegoers had yet to accept CGI as anything more than a novelty. As journalist David Morgan observed in 1993, "audiences were always aware that what they were watching was carefully crafted special effects." Which is why for all of Terminator 2: Judgment Day's success and technological innovation, its effects didn't so much sweep audiences away as it did elicit "How did they do that?" reactions. For effects to truly break, their creators had to advance the technology to the point where the seam between illusion and reality completely disappeared.

Jurassic Park did that. Spielberg told Tom Shone (for Blockbuster: How Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Summer) that when he saw Industrial Light and Magic's first test shots of the dinosaurs, he felt as though he was "watching our future unfolding on the TV screen." George Lucas, who was also there, recalled "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." He was right. In the words of Shone: "Jurassic Park heralded a revolution in movies as profound as the coming of sound in 1927."

Jurassic Park's revolution was technological, but more importantly, it was popular. If Spielberg and Lucas saw the future of cinema in those shots, it was the public who made that future a reality. Sam Neill and Laura Dern's stunned awe upon seeing a real-looking brachiosaur on its hind legs eating from a tree was a perfect mirror of our own. Audiences believed. When that dinosaur's feet came down with a thud, the reverberations rippled past dumbstruck viewers and into moviemaking itself.

Two years later, the world witnessed the first CG character in a main role (Casper), more realistic CG-rendered animals (Jumanji), and the first feature-length computer-animated movie (Toy Story). Between 1996 and 1998 special effects films started to create entire cities, armies of creatures and destructive disasters in films like Dragonheart, Independence Day, Twister, Mars Attacks, The Fifth Element, Starship Troopers, Titanic, and Godzilla. It was an exciting time to witness how far CGI's capabilities could be pushed. By 1999—when The Mummy, Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace, and The Matrix contributed their own technological forward leaps—computer-generated effects weren't assistive moviemaking tools anymore. They were the driving force of entire films.

Now, almost no major-studio movie is made without CGI—even Oscar-baiting dramas like Social Network, or comedies like The Campaign and the coming The Hangover Part III. Trailers now have more CG shots than all of Terminator 2. Budgets have swelled into the hundreds of millions. Of course, this has led to a lot of bad films getting made. And special effects have become so pervasive, they've lost much of their capacity to cause wonder. Today, it's nearly as common for audience to pan a film's effects (like those in I Am Legend, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Green Lantern and even King Kong's dinosaurs) as it is for them to praise it: We've gotten so used to CGI that the illusion, the sense of realness that pervaded Jurassic Park, is dead.

'Jurassic Park' and 'Jaws' saw their innovations go on to become abused to excess. Considering that "special-effects movie" is now synonymous with summer blockbuster, Spielberg's two films are effectively the parents of modern popular cinema.

Which gives Jurassic Park and Jaws another shared legacy. The two films didn't just change the cinematic landscape; they saw their innovations go on to become abused to excess. Considering that "special-effects movie" is now forever synonymous with summer blockbuster, Spielberg's two films are effectively the parents of modern popular cinema. That's why there are many who hold the director accountable for spawning the worst of what movies are now. Blockbusters are a cinematic form that too frequently represents movies at their most bombastic and vacuous; they are often moviemaking's least inspired, brain-dead output.

Is it fair to blame Spielberg? That depends on how much intent and foresight you're willing to ascribe to him, and how little greed you ascribe to the studios. As happened with Jaws, Hollywood seized on a lucrative idea and turned it into a formula to be used again and again, thereby sapping it of its power. It's a bit ironic, considering that Jurassic Park is actually about the misuse of innovation and the dangers of trying to mass produce awe. For all of Neill and Dern's characters' wonder over the brachiosaurus, it turns out the blood-sucking lawyer's response was the most prescient: "We're going to make a fortune."

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Alexander Huls is a writer based in Toronto. He has contributed to The New York TimesEsquire, Hazlitt, and others. 

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