'Jurassic Park' actress Laura Dern goes back in time

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 13 2015 1:17 p.m. MDT

Dr. Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern) and Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill) in Steven Spielberg's "Jurassic Park in 3D." (Universal Studios) Dr. Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern) and Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill) in Steven Spielberg's "Jurassic Park in 3D." (Universal Studios)

Before sitting down at the back of a theater recently with her 11-year-old son and his friends, Laura Dern hadn't seen "Jurassic Park" since its premiere in 1993.

The actress was there for a screening of the soon-to-be-released 3-D version of the film, in which she plays Dr. Ellie Sattler. During one of the film's most riveting scenes, her co-star, Sam Neill, playing Dr. Alan Grant, reaches his hand down and fumbles around her head as he stares in stunned silence at something in the distance. Alan eventually manages to turn Ellie's head, her mouth drops in awe and the audience gets a widescreen view of director Steven Spielberg's dinosaur world.

Sam Neill as Dr. Alan Grant leans on a sick triceratops in "Jurassic Park in 3D." (Universal Studios) Sam Neill as Dr. Alan Grant leans on a sick triceratops in "Jurassic Park in 3D." (Universal Studios)

The scene is 20 years old, but Dern still heard a collective "ahhh" swell up from the audience.

"That is cinema," she said. "… Steven knows how to do that, and nothing can change that."

Computer-generated imagery is anything but novel these days. In the two decades since the premiere of "Jurassic Park," moviegoers have been witness to all kinds of technological advancements and digital effects displayed on screen.

But this film still holds up remarkably well, and according to the actress, it goes beyond the cutting-edge effects employed at the time.

"I thought it was amazing," Dern said in a telephone interview with the Deseret News about seeing the film again after all these years. "I think Steve Spielberg taps into a level of magic that speaks to something in ourselves because movies can become dated where there can be new effects or different kinds of imagery, and yet his movies remain timeless."

Having been years removed from the movie and getting a chance to see it "without the attachment," Dern emphasized the magical element of discovery that Spielberg conveys in films such as "Jurassic Park" and "E.T." It's something moviegoers can "tap into at any age," she said.

"There will never not be a generation that doesn't get to discover those films and fall in love," Dern said.

Still, the visuals remain impressive. "Jurassic Park" won critical praise and earned $357 million at the domestic box office with its thrilling portrayal of dinosaurs coming face-to-face with, running alongside and, yes, eating their human counterparts. The film won an Academy Award for best visual effects through its blend of computer-generated images and animatronic dinosaurs.

Since that time, Dern has seen such effects become "rudimentary." She has shot movies and seen the effects added later, and they're "really neat," she said. But that wasn't the case with "Jurassic Park."

"This was the first time," she said. "And so the level of passion and commitment and discipline with the highest minds in the field were our teammates."

The actress says she's not skilled enough to answer technical questions about the film's ability to endure visually, but she knows it has a lot to do with the commitment she witnessed on the set.

"I don't know how it holds up," she said. "It's seamless. In fact, to me it's better than what we see now. There's a care to the work that you can't get in any other way but the level of commitment that every single person gave that film."

Dern remembers sharing the same amount of time with Stan Winston, creator of the animatronic dinosaurs, and Dennis Muren, visual effects supervisor, as she did with Spielberg.

"(They) were there, the whole time," Dern said. "It was an amazing experience. ... We became a family working together and making a movie."

The collaboration required meticulous work by the puppeteers, and precise timing and body movements from the actors, Dern remembers. When a dinosaur put its leg down, "we needed to tremble and shake," she said.

"Seeing the movie again, I remembered everything," she said.

Two sequences, in particular, are close to her heart. She appreciated the scene with the sick triceratops, which felt like being with an actual dinosaur.

"He was so real and lifelike," Dern said. "There was something very beautiful about having that experience."

One of the film's most intense sequences features Dern prominently. Ellie is dispatched to a maintenance facility to manually turn the power back on, but ends up being hunted by a pair of velociraptors. The scenes are frightening and jarring, but Dern remembers having a blast working closely with Spielberg and the animatronic raptor.

"I've never had so much fun and never laughed so hard," she said.

Email: ashill@deseretnews.com Twitter: aaronshill

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