What is Steven Spielberg‘s greatest movie? What’s his most important one? Okay, but what’s your personal favorite? It wouldn’t be surprising if you gave a totally different answer for each of those question. His directorial career is so impressive and so unassailable it’s almost impossible to name one film as his definitive best anything. No one else in Hollywood history can match either the breadth of his resume–which covers almost every genre–or his sheer number of amazing films. Yet one single scene from his illustrious career stands above all the rest. Not simply because its Spielberg at his absolute best, but it distills everything we love about going to the movies. He brought dinosaurs to life.
In 1993, the original Jurassic Park wasn’t the best Steven Spielberg film released that year. Schindler’s List takes that title. But for all his accomplishments no other director has ever done a better job of bringing childlike wonder to the screen. Well there’s nothing more wondrous than seeing an actual dinosaur. And the iconic, unforgettable first time we see one in Jurassic Park shows him using all of his best, signature techniques to create one of the absolute greatest moments in cinematic history.
This scene utilizes all of the best Spielberg-esque tools of the trade to maximum effect: it has a big, sweeping, epic score (from John Williams), perfect use of “Spielberg face“–those tight close reaction shots that not only let us see what the characters are feeling in a moment of complete awe, they help shape our own reactions–followed by the big reveal which gives the entire moment the right scope and emotional weight. It also moves the plot along in subtle and logical ways. Like how the lawyer says they’re “going to make a fortune.” And it introduces the terrifying T-Rex who will prove so important later. It seamlessly moves the action onto the next scene, without diminishing the magnitude.
But there is wonder in even the small moments, like how the anonymous Jeep driver who has already seen dinosaurs before can’t help but turn and look at Ian Malcolm as he is overcome by the moment. These characters are in an unreal situation, but they react like authentic people. All of the elements come together to make a scene where dinosaurs roam the earth feel down to Earth and accessible for the audience. It’s so good a character says the title of the film and it gives you chills.
And it’s everything we love about the movies. There is no other medium that could replicate this exact moment in such a powerful and memorable way. The feeling, the grand visuals, the music, the possibility of the impossible, all of it. Great movies transport us. And they make us believe there’s no limit to where we can go or what we can do. Including walking among dinosaurs.
We can debate where Jurassic Park ranks among Steven Spielberg’s best movies. But there’s no arguing he was ever better than when he made dinosaurs real again.