Billed as “an adventure 65 million years in the making” on its original release, 1993's Jurassic Park is a genuine pop-culture phenomenon that’s been going strong for 30 years and counting.
Aside from its groundbreaking visual effects and record-shattering box-office haul, we’re only just beginning to see the Jurassic Park generation of filmmakers come of age.
Michael Crichton’s 1990 novel Jurassic Park was the object of a Hollywood bidding war before it was even published. Directors including Tim Burton, Richard Donner, Joe Dante, and James Cameron launched bids from different studios before Universal scooped it as a project for Steven Spielberg – reportedly a “one for them” project as the director embarked upon filming Schindler’s List the same year.
Around a decade and a half after pioneering the blockbuster as we know it with 1975’s Jaws, Spielberg reinvented it — on land this time. With a brilliant script by David Koepp and revolutionary effects from Stan Winston’s animatronic team and Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), the story of a theme park populated by genetically recreated dinosaurs became one of the biggest movies of the 1990s.
Watch a trailer for Jurassic Park
Backed by a marketing campaign that cost as much as the budget of the entire film, Jurassic Park overtook Spielberg’s own E.T. to top the all-time worldwide box-office rankings with a haul of $914 million on its initial run in 1993. It eventually surpassed $1 billion with a 3D re-release for its 20th anniversary in 2013, making it either the slowest or the most enduring film to reach that milestone, depending on your point of view.
As the film returns to cinemas for its 30th anniversary, we can still see how it shaped today’s Hollywood landscape. On one level, its symbolic box-office clobbering of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Last Action Hero, released a few weeks later, can be seen as the beginning of the end for tentpoles being built on movie stars rather than franchises and intellectual property.
But more obviously, it kicked off a wave of VFX-driven blockbusters.
In the wake of the film’s box-office success, the most immediate knock-on effects could be seen in what the studios that missed out did next. Paramount swiftly greenlit the long-gestating adaptation of Congo, another of Crichton’s “lost world” adventure novels about meddling with nature.
That film opted for practical effects over CGI to create talking gorilla Amy and the other primates featured in the movie, but the shift in visual effects was well underway. Elsewhere, Sony produced the 1995 creature-feature adventure Jumanji and also pressed forward on what became the 1998 American remake of Godzilla.
Even on the smaller screen, the BBC commissioned Walking With Dinosaurs, the groundbreaking documentary series and marketing phenomenon that deployed Jurassic Park’s VFX techniques to educate and inform.
Spielberg took a break before making the inevitable sequel, 1997’s The Lost World: Jurassic Park, but in the meantime, Universal revamped one of its long-gestating projects for the CG revolution. 1996’s Dragonheart had initially been snapped up as a spec script, intended as a $20m fantasy drama starring Liam Neeson alongside Draco, the last dragon, created by Jim Henson’s Creature Workshop and voiced by Sean Connery.
Development was paused before Jurassic Park was even released, and afterwards, the studio was adamant that it needed a bigger star (Dennis Quaid eventually got the job) and a computer-generated dragon, and ILM pitched on the film using assets created from Jurassic Park.
In a 2016 interview with Cartoon Brew, Dragonheart character animator Rob Coleman remembered: “Our animation supervisor James Straus animated that himself and that was a proof of concept to prove that ILM could have a talking dragon on screen.
"They didn’t have a dragon model yet, so they took the most complicated model around – the T-Rex – and then they had animated it with Sean Connery’s voice.”
Sold by this footage, Universal ordered script rewrites to make a CG dragon character economically viable. Dragonheart’s budget ballooned to $57m, with Draco costing almost a million dollars for each of the 23 minutes he’s on screen. The film was a moderate box-office hit, grossing $115m worldwide, and stands as one of the unsung examples of the Jurassic Park effect in action.
Neither The Lost World nor Joe Johnston’s 2001 sequel Jurassic Park III had the same level of success as the original, but the series’ use of computer-generated elements and characters changed Hollywood forever by upscaling what was possible in blockbuster spectacle.
Filmmakers such as Stanley Kubrick, Peter Jackson, and George Lucas saw the original and were convinced that special effects had developed to where they could make some of the films they wanted to make, giving rise to A.I. (which Kubrick eventually chose Spielberg to direct before he passed away in 1999), 2005’s King Kong, and the Star Wars prequels.
Read more: Mistakes you never spotted in Jurassic Park
Thanks to Jurassic Park, the 1990s — which began with films like Ghost, Pretty Woman and Home Alone topping the box office — would end with VFX heavy films like Men In Black, The Matrix, and Phantom Menace dominating the charts.
And nowadays, hardly any big movies are made without some form of CGI.
The Jurassic Park generation
In 2018, NPR coined the term “the Jurassic Park generation” to describe the surge of interest in palaeontology among people who saw the 1993 movie as children and grew up to make discoveries about dinosaurs.
One such palaeontologist is Stephen L. Brusatte, who saw the film when he was nine and later became the palaeontology consultant on the sixth instalment, 2022’s Jurassic World: Dominion.
In an interview with The Herald Scotland to promote the film, Brusatte said: “I think Jurassic Park is the single most important thing which has happened to palaeontology in the last 50 years. […] It made dinosaurs big, mega, blockbuster celebrity stars.”
Jurassic Park undoubtedly inspired a generation of filmmakers too, in much the same way as the class of 1977 grew up wanting to make movies after seeing Star Wars. And the subsequent Jurassic franchise has gone after a Star Wars-level pop-culture profile, right down to the sequel trilogy that had more mixed receptions from critics and audiences.
In any case, each Jurassic World instalment handily matched the original’s billion-dollar box-office haul in a fraction of the time. Tellingly, the sequels gradually instated more callbacks to Spielberg’s film, culminating in the return of Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum, and Sam Neill in Dominion.
Touted as “the epic conclusion of the Jurassic era”, that film has parked the franchise for now, but elsewhere, Jurassic Park has proven a formative work for countless creature features since, right up to this year. Even on Cocaine Bear, director Elizabeth Banks was inspired by the film’s portrayal of dinosaurs.
Banks told Yahoo: "The first Jurassic Park is sort of a true north in the way that, when they first saw the dinosaurs in that movie, you thought, 'Oh man, that's so awe-inspiring, look at that,' and then that wonder turns to fear. […] Your instincts do kick in; you do understand that it's an apex predator.”
Whether it’s Adam Driver fighting off T-Rexes in 65 or Jason Statham reluctantly battling prehistoric marine life again in Meg 2: The Trench, today’s VFX-driven monster blockbusters are still being built in the long shadow of Spielberg’s modern masterpiece.
Jurassic Park returns to select UK cinemas on 2 September.