In an era where glossy special effects have become ever more routine and robotic, Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park remains a monumental achievement in the realm of the much-derided popcorn blockbuster. The key difference of course is that Spielberg is a storyteller first; a technician, second. His 1993 adaptation of Michael Crichton's acclaimed novel may in essence be nothing more than a mega-budget creature feature; but Spielberg's knack for slow burning suspense and atmopshere amid a tropical theme park where genetically engineered dinosaurs have escaped is exquisitely wrangled.
The special effects are astonishing, even to this day (reportedly, the CGI takes up less than 15 minutes of screen time) but where the magic lies is behind the scenes, the director marshalling computer effects, models and miniatures in a seamless whole, lending a breathtakingly organic feel to proceedings. Ever since Jaws, Spielberg has always been expert at scaring the pants off a family audience; the potent sense of danger in Jurassic Park, aided by the effects, performances (Sam Neill; Laura Dern; Jeff Goldblum; Richard Attenborough) photography and sound design, is startling and exciting.
And then of course, there's the almighty score from John Williams. It was the composer's twelfth score for the director, and another masterpiece. It may also be the finest he has ever done. Better than Jaws? Close Encounters? The Indy Trilogy? E.T.? Star Wars? It's certainly a bold statement but consider how the placement of Jurassic Park in both Spielberg and Williams' careers (between the playfulness of Hook and the searing drama of Schindler's List) results in an unqualified success of a soundtrack that's both melodic and terrifying, not to mention successful both in the film and on album.
Yet, even more remarkable is the coherency of the score, balancing the beauty and savagery of the recreated dinos brilliantly. Never once does it feel schizophrenic or disjointed, even when the tracks are arranged out of film order. Instead it remains riveting throughout, the listener waiting for the musical rug to be pulled out from under them as the T-Rex and velociraptors go on the rampage. Williams' loyalty to (unusually) two themes, plus his uncompromisingly thrilling action and horror material, couldn't be more appropriate for Spielberg and Critchton's core notion of life finding a way.
Obviously, the most celebrated components of the score are the aforementioned main themes, ones that have become pop culture and concert staples in the years since. The principal idea, the "Theme from Jurassic Park" is a deeply beautiful and moving celebration of the dinosaurs in all their glory, the full orchestral ensemble being joined by a subtle choir. It's yet another Williams theme for the ages. The second theme then whisks us off on an adventure, a terrific, brassy fanfare that encapsulates Spielberg's sense of popcorn fun, heard fully in the marvellous "Journey to the Island" prior to the other theme making an appearance.
But while the themes make for the backbone of the score, they're not the whole story. The album actually begins with the chilling 30 second "Opening Titles", choir and synths ushering in a shakuhachi wood flute, neatly summarising the film's core themes of synthetic manufacture versus organic nature. Listen carefully and one can spot the four note danger theme that is to become increasingly prevalent as the score wears on. Likewise, the enormously exciting "Incident At Isla Nublar" starts with a throbbing electronic pulse and ominous strings and choir; before launching into a full throttle attack from the orchestra that is blisteringly aggressive even by Williams standards, shattering the pastoral idyll and reverberating with a primal savagery.
From here on, Williams walks a marvellous tightrope act between some of the loveliest material of his career – and some of the scariest. The horrifying "Raptor Attack" is pure bone-chilling terror, the danger theme being contorted through all sorts of growling brass, discordant strings and, again, low choir. Listening to the music is (appropriately) akin to being consumed by a monstrous creature. By contrast, "Hatching Baby Raptor" glows with gentle, ethereal tones, the innocent-sounding flipside to the raptor theme that hints at the naive optimism of the park's genetic scientists.
"My Friend the Brachiosaurus" is one of the loveliest tracks, the gentle see-sawing strings positively brimming with charm; in the film, it was in fact split between the Brachiosaurus and sick Triceratops sequences. Likewise, the beautiful "A Tree For My Bed" (casting the main theme in a tinkling lullaby arrangement) and the pleasant, if somewhat more melancholy, "Remembering Petticoat Lane" are ideal moments for humanising the film's non-dinosaur inhabitants in between the carnage. And for yet another contrast, sandwiched in-between are the heavily electronic rhythms of "Dennis Steals The Embryo", a brooding, ominous track that anticipates the downfall of the park's security system; more natural shakuhachi sounds seem to almost cry out in protest at man's disregard for nature.
As the tension ramps up near the film (and album's) climax, so too does the music take on an increasingly fraught, riveting air. "High Wire Stunts" begins as a classic, playful Williams action scherzo but when the dreaded danger theme again roars out of the speakers, it becomes a nail-biting musical race-against-the-clock, clustered brass and strings piling on top of one another in ruthless fashion. "Jurassic Park Gate" is one of the few concessions to the island's tropical location, with bongo drums leading into a triumphant rendition of the adventure theme (such stylistics would be far more prevalent in 1997's The Lost World sequel score). "Eye to Eye" meanwhile builds the terror to unbearable proportions through a minutiae of musical details, from ominous strings and martial drum rolls indicating a fight back against the animals; to the increasingly prevalent danger theme that, frighteningly, acts as a moment of realisation for the characters once they realise the terrifying velociraptors have been freed from their pens.
It's finally all unleashed in the extraordinary "T-Rex Rescue and Finale", one of the most magnificent sustained pieces in Williams' entire career. Never letting go from first to last, it's a tremendous example of a more uncompromising variant on his normal action material, adding an astonishing element of danger, viciousness and excitement to the surviving characters' showdown with the monstrous raptors. It's a fabulous achievement, not only in terms of adding to the film but also for sustaining a degree of momentum on its own without the aid of a visual stimulus. As the relentless danger theme builds to a thunderous climax, it's hard to imagine film music more exciting or dynamic.
Bizarrely, we then end with a curtailed "End Credits" suite, the full version (entitled "Welcome to Jurassic Park") having been placed in the middle of the album. Sequencing is required to sort the order and gain the score's full emotional impact – and once you do, what an impact it has. Williams has had the most successful career of any Hollywood composer in the history of the medium and his achievements are a thousand-fold. However, even when that is taken into consideration, Jurassic Park is something truly special, an unparalleled work of art that is positioned between family friendly frivolity and the increasing maturity that was to mark Spielberg and Williams' collaborations from there on out. It's therefore not only a fantastic score; in a way, it's the end of an era too, not to mention the start of a new one. Williams' best? Oh yes.