The Popcorn Champs
The Popcorn Champs looks back at the highest grossing movie in America from every year since 1960. In tracing the evolution of blockbuster cinema, maybe we can answer a question Hollywood has been asking itself for more than a century: What do people want to see?
About 20 minutes into Jurassic Park, Steven Spielberg captures perhaps the greatest Spielberg Face ever put on film. You know the Spielberg Face. As outlined in Kevin B. Lee’s 2011 video essay, it’s the sudden look of awestruck rapture on characters’ faces—always in close-up, often framed in dolly shots—when their worlds are flipped upside down, when they see things they never could’ve dreamed possible. In that Jurassic Park moment, we actually get two Spielberg Faces: one from Sam Neill, one from Laura Dern, both reduced to wordless open-mouthed wonder at the sight of living, breathing dinosaurs.
It really is a spectacular moment. Neill’s Dr. Alan Grant and Dern’s Dr. Ellie Sattler, two scientists who have studied dinosaurs for their entire adult lives, are briefly struck dumb by the real-life manifestations of these creatures. Richard Attenborough’s John Hammond, the genial grandfatherly showman who came up with the whole place, takes visible delight in showing them the unimaginable. John Williams’ main theme, appearing in the film for the first time, rises and rises and then booms out, as we see a whole green vista full of extinct reptiles. And all of it works because Spielberg delivers on the spectacle of the dinosaurs themselves—special-effects creations that would’ve been unthinkable only a few years before. Watching in the theater, some of us probably had Spielberg Faces in that moment, too.
In a lot of ways, Jurassic Park marks a truly magical moment in the history of cinematic illusion. Computer-generated images had only just started to appear in big, mainstream films, and often clumsily, as in the psychedelic virtual-reality gimmickry of The Lawnmower Man, or even to enhance the hand-drawn animation in Aladdin. Terminator 2: Judgment Day had made computer imagery seem spectacular, in part by limiting it to brief flashes of screen time and by using it to render something truly alien. But in Jurassic Park, Spielberg uses those computers to illustrate things that every kid in the audience had imagined a million times, transforming them into something tangible.
Not all the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park are computer-animated. Spielberg uses animatronics and puppetry whenever possible, and he captures that technology at its absolute apex. Spielberg also hired Phil Tippett, the stop-motion artist who’d animated the ED-209 for RoboCop; when Tippett’s dinosaurs weren’t convincing enough, Spielberg had Tippett choreograph the CGI dinosaurs. (Tippett made the CGI artists take mime classes.) Ultimately, in two hours of Jurassic Park, dinosaurs are only on screen for 14 minutes, and only six of those minutes have CGI dinosaurs. But Spielberg makes those minutes count.
Before Michael Crichton even published the novel Jurassic Park in 1990, he’d sold the film rights. The novel was a phenomenon. Spielberg, already the most successful filmmaker of all time, was coming off of Hook, a big movie that was also a disappointment. Spielberg had been hoping to make his big Oscar movie for his entire career, and Universal made a deal with him: He could direct Schindler’s List, his black-and-white Holocaust epic, if he’d also make Jurassic Park for the same studio. Spielberg agreed, and he rushed to finish both, working on Jurassic Park post-production while he was filming Schindler’s List.
Famously, Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List opened less than six months apart in 1993. Jurassic Park earned a record-breaking $50 million in its first weekend, and it went on to take in $357 domestic and more than half a billion worldwide. For a few years, it was the highest-grossing film of all time—the third time Spielberg had earned that distinction, after Jaws and E.T. Schindler’s List, meanwhile, won Spielberg the Best Picture and Best Director Oscars that he’d been coveting. The film enshrined him as part of the Hollywood pantheon. Just as impressively, Schindler’s List also turned out to be a box office success, pulling in nearly $100 million and ending up as one of 1993’s 10 highest grossers. Spielberg’s 1993 might be the best year that any mainstream filmmaker has ever had.
Seen from a certain angle, Spielberg’s monster year represents the duality of an artist—the spectacle-first showman on one side, the soulful empath on the other. In some ways, though, I think that sells Jurassic Park short. It isn’t just a good popcorn movie. It’s one of the best popcorn movies ever made. Spielberg streamlines the whole thing almost effortlessly, transforming all the Crichton scientific stuff that I remember being terribly boring in the novel into a few onscreen minutes with a cartoon DNA strand. Spielberg also cranks up the set pieces, finding endlessly clever ways to swing from one to the next, just as he’d done in the Indiana Jones movies. (It doesn’t seem like a coincidence that Alan Grant, a character that Harrison Ford turned down, dresses a whole lot like Indiana Jones.)
In making Jurassic Park, Spielberg had to deal with some of the same weather and technology issues that had come close to wrecking the Jaws shoot. (My favorite piece of Jurassic Park lore: When Hurricane Iniki hit Hawaii, where the film was shooting, the pilot who flew in to get Spielberg and the cast and crew out happened to be Fred Sorenson. Years earlier, Sorenson had played Jock, the pilot from the beginning of Raiders Of The Lost Ark.) Once again, though, Spielberg made any limitations work for him. Two of the tensest set pieces from Jurassic Park don’t even involve dinosaurs. Instead, the action revolves around a Ford Explorer stuck in a tree and an electric fence that’s about to come back online.
None of the actors in Jurassic Park were especially famous. Unlikely sex symbol Jeff Goldblum carries himself as a star, even though he’s a weirdo character actor by nature, and even though he was probably most famous for turning into a disgusting mutation in The Fly. Laura Dern had mostly done critical-favorite auteur stuff like Wild At Heart and Rambling Rose. Sam Neill, 20 years older than Dern, was a screen veteran, but he’d only just had his first real box office moment as a Russian officer in The Hunt For Red October. Spielberg knew that the stars were the dinosaurs, and he got some real performances out of them.
Before Jurassic Park, I don’t know how many people had even heard of velociraptors. I had loved dinosaurs as a kid, and I still remember wondering how to pronounce the word “velociraptor” when I was reading the Crichton book. Spielberg portrays the raptors as chilling, calculating hunters, and he turns them into stars. Two years after Jurassic Park, the velociraptor had an NBA franchise named after it.
But the Tyrannosaurus rex is the movie’s great legacy. Early on, the T. rex is a dark shadow, a tremor in the ground, a looming presence that can’t even be seen. Then, she’s an unstoppable force, a titan ripped out of her temporal space, one who pauses for just a second to consider the cowering lawyer that she’s about to eat. Finally, she’s a last-second savior like Han Solo in Star Wars. When the T. rex returns to make her big babyface turn at the end of Jurassic Park, killing the two final-boss raptors, my theater audience flipped the fuck out. It was beautiful.
The common knock on Jurassic Park is that its human characters are underdeveloped, that they’re only there to be eaten or to escape. This is true, but it’s not a flaw. It’s just what happens in a monster movie. Nobody goes to see a dinosaur flick to enjoy a subtle and layered Sam Neill performance. Decades into the blockbuster era that Spielberg helped birth, barely any directors understand the way films should move the way Spielberg does in Jurassic Park. Dr. Alan Grant has an arc—he hates kids, and then he likes them—but it barely matters. Laura Dern seems friendly. Jeff Goldblum finds charming and interesting ways to spout exposition about chaos theory. The kids do the things that kids do in Spielberg things. Almost everyone else gets eaten, sometimes after delivering catchphrases. Just a few seconds after all the surviving characters are safely off the island, the credits roll.
Watching today, Jurassic Park remains a nearly perfect machine. Only a few things have aged badly. Some of the characters are a bit broad; if anyone other than Spielberg had directed the film, the greedy lawyer might’ve been derided as an anti-Semitic stereotype. Nobody needs the little girl to be a “hacker.” Some of the CGI seems just a tad primitive today, though honestly not much. (Effects-heavy movies from a decade later have aged far worse in that respect.) The only thing that really bothers me about Jurassic Park is the character of John Hammond.
The big films of 1993 are full of evil rich people who try to play God. In the John Grisham adaptations The Firm and The Pelican Brief, the villains are shadowy conspiracies of financial interests—murderous money-laundering lawyers in the former, murderous oil tycoons in the latter. In The Fugitive, Harrison Ford is framed for murder because he stands in the way of an unscrupulous pharmaceutical company. In Indecent Proposal, horny billionaire Robert Redford throws a happy couple into turmoil by offering Woody Harrelson a million dollars to rent Demi Moore for a night.
Theoretically, John Hammond should be the evilest, richest asshole of them all. In Crichton’s novel, Hammond is unequivocally the villain, the rich businessman who refuses to let a few dead bodies stop him from his plans to open up his theme park. (Crichton rewards Hammond by having a herd of tiny, cute compsognathus eat him alive.) Spielberg knew how to make a guy like that the villain; he’d done it with the mayor in Jaws. But the middle-aged Spielberg identifies with Hammond too much, and he instead renders him as a kindly, doddering old man who only wants to bring magic into the world. Spielberg even gets his fellow filmmaker Richard Attenborough—the man who’d defeated Spielberg for the Best Director Oscar in 1983, the year Spielberg was nominated for E.T.—to play Hammond.
In Jurassic Park, Hammond shows a bit of the arrogance we expect from a villain. The movie’s carnage only happens because Hammond won’t give a raise to his IT guy (Wayne Knight, madly cackling). Hammond clearly hates the IT guy and considers himself to be the man’s better, which leads to his own downfall. Later on, after the dinosaurs have started eating people, Hammond still thinks he can make the theme park happen. But after a stern talking-to, he abandons the idea and gets to survive. For a movie where so many people get bitten to death, it’s a toothless portrayal. Spielberg identified with an evil rich guy so much that he couldn’t bring himself to depict the character as an evil rich guy.
Of course, we now have a better idea of how Hammond’s character would work. Hammond wouldn’t be one man; he’d be a board of directors. And Jurassic Park would open, no matter how many people it would put in peril. We see that now, in real life. Today, during a pandemic, Disney World is open. Maybe the animatronic pirates won’t eat the tourists, but if they did, would it look any different?
After Schindler’s List, Spielberg co-founded DreamWorks, his own film studio, and he didn’t direct another movie for four years. When Spielberg returned, he attempted a similar one-two punch, coming out with The Lost World: Jurassic Park and Amistad in the same year. It didn’t work out as well that time. But Spielberg came back, as he always does. He’ll be in this column again. And Jurassic Park eventually returned to box office titan status. When the pandemic hit, the original cast had reunited to shoot another new sequel called Jurassic World: Dominion. As of right now, it’s still supposed to come out next June.
Earlier this summer, a funny thing happened. Once again, Jurassic Park was the No. 1 movie at the North American box office. The film only played on 230 screens, mostly drive-ins, and it added less than a million dollars to its 10-figure total. But it remains an almost ageless spectacle. I would like to think that some kids, sitting in the backseats of some cars, got to see those dinosaurs for the first time. And I would like to think that those kids made the Spielberg Face.
The runner-up: I’ve already written at length about The Fugitive, and that film remains perfect dad-movie fare—a muscular action ride that barely lets up and never insults your intelligence. (In The Line Of Fire and Cliffhanger, two of 1993’s other successes, do many of the same things, though not quite as well.) But my favorite of 1993’s hits is a very different movie: Nora Ephron’s smartly sweet Sleepless In Seattle.
In some ways, Sleepless In Seattle, the year’s No. 4 earner, is a masterfully executed writing exercise: a romantic comedy where the two leads show serious chemistry even though they only actually interact with each other in the final minutes. But it works thanks to its light touch and its lead performances; Tom Hanks, in particular, shows off a rare kind of movie-star charm. Also, as a Baltimore native who was 13 when Sleepless opened, I am utterly helpless before the scenes of the city in the early ’90s. The Baltimore Sun probably would’ve never flown a writer across the country to work on a vague human-interest story about a talk-radio caller, but I doubt the paper even gives its reporters bus fare today. So Sleepless is a heartbreaking time capsule in a lot of ways.
Next time: Steven Spielberg’s protégé Robert Zemeckis gets his own Oscar moment by turning baby boomer history into mythology with Forrest Gump.