This could have been a simple monster movie. And if you look at many of the sequels (including Spielberg's own The Lost World), you can see how quickly it can fall down that rabbit hole.
But Jurassic Park holds such a high place on this list because Spielberg didn't just terrify us. The scares were real, but they came from a place of pure awe.
The opening scene is a work of genius where so much is communicated without a word having to be said. The utter terror of the workers as they get ready to place the raptor in the cage is enough to scare you without any violence being shown. The dramatic lighting makes the experience of the dinosaurs less a scientific experiment gone wrong. Instead it feels more like a supernatural experience of contacted something from another world, as in Poltergeist.
I remember being in the theater on opening night, not knowing exactly what to expect. But it is around the 17-minute mark that the whole world opens up.
Spielberg gives you that incredible sequence of the helicopter arriving to the island. Just as those green mountains appear, John Williams' genius score swells. Much credit must be given to Williams here for creating such a majestic melody, but it is Spielberg who marries the visuals to the music. How many movies have scenes like this where the helicopter arrives and yet they are as forgettable as they are bland. Here, Spielberg in announcing himself and he is announcing Jurassic Park. This beginning sequence does not have any dinosaurs, and yet you are filled with a sense of ancient awe. He tries to capture the feeling you have of leaving the old world behind and entering Fairyland. It is the equivalent of Dorothy opening the door from her black and white world to the technicolor MunchkinLand.
But just four minutes later, Spielberg hits us with the first real look at the dinosaurs and they are awesome in the literal sense. The YouTube channel "Film&Stuff" points out Spielberg's genius in choosing the aspect ratio that he did for this film. Normally, aspect ratio would be a super-technical, superficial area to talk about for general audiences. But Spielberg knew he needed to choose an aspect ratio that was not ultra-wide, but instead one that had a greater height to width ratio. The reason for this was so that he could capture the dominating height of the dinosaurs and put the humans into diminutive scale next to them. It is a subtle choice, but one that is incredibly affective. The entire movie, Spielberg puts the humans in the position of ant beneath the boot-heel of the dinosaurs.
That isn't to say that it they are all fearsome. The moment with the sick triceratops is amazing. The best part about it is how Spielberg films the scene with such tactile intensity. You watch as the characters touch this once-extinct creature. The pure joy of watching Grant rise and fall on the breathing creature makes you feel as if you could almost reach out and touch it yourself.
A lot of credit has to go to screen-writers Michael Crichton (based on his book) and David Koepp. Unlike a lot of big budget movies today, Spielberg knows how to use the script to build up the tension. Notice we don't see any of the scary dinosaurs (not counting the baby raptor) until over an hour into the film.
Before this, we have lots of character building with fantastic dialogue and snappy jokes. Don't overlook how hard it is to film dialogue to make it visually interesting. He has a four-minute philosophical conversation about cloning that is as richly framed and lit as any scene in the film. And even after that, he still won't show you everything yet.
He teases you the way he did with the shark in Jaws. But those teases are promises. The movie builds story debt that it pays off. It explains how raptors hunt, it teases the spitting dilophosaurus, it leaves the helpless goat in front of the T-Rex paddock. In fact, I remember so clearly that awesome cut when Hammond asks "Where did the vehicles stop?" and it cuts immediately to the goat. Everyone in the theater groaned in fear. And even then, Spielberg let the fear build deliciously. The visual cue of the water vibrating is beautiful and affective. In order to get the effect, they had to tighten a single guitar string under the cup. They would pluck it because it was the only way to get that exact surface ripple that makes the perfect visual.
And once the T-Rex appears, the entire movie is pandemonium. That scene alone should have gotten him a second Oscar nomination that year. If you want to see someone who knows when to use a practical effect and CGI and how to blend them seamlessly, watch that scene. The shot where Lex turns on the flashlight and the T-Rex sees it is genius as Spielberg has a real dinosaur head in the shot and then moves the camera to seamlessly replace it with a CGI copy. The effect of this is that makes the computer animated monster more concrete.
The entire scene is contracted with such tense genius that you can hardly look away. In fact, it is so well-done that Spielberg doesn't need to use any of John Williams' score to heighten the emotion. In fact, the lack of score makes it more intense. The only "music" we hear are the screams and roars of the people involved.
And even in all of this, the sense of awe is never lost. This is what the other Jurassic Park films were never quite able to have. In Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, we are supposed to empathize with the trapped dinosaurs at the end of the movie and so understand the inexplicable choice of the little girl. But that movie reduced dinosaurs to animal monsters so the feeling never materializes. But here, even in the worst moments, there is a sense of respect for nature. In the scene where the T-Rex is hunting the gallimimus, the humans are utterly captivated by seeing this apex predator live out its nature.
The scariest sequence is by far the scene in the kitchen. Again, notice how the situation deteriorates so quickly. The two kids should be safe, they've made it back to the main building and are gorging themselves on deserts. But now, they are alone for the first time since Gennaro left them in car. Grant cannot help them. The monster comes to the window of the kitchen. I cannot tell you how many people jumped when it fogged up the glass. Then it figures out how to open the door. And then not one, but two raptors enter. This scene is also the best one that holds up the main theme: man vs. nature.
The dinosaurs ruled the world and now humans are the dominant species. As Grant says, what will happen when the two are put together. We've spent the entire film watching the dinosaurs tear apart humans. But the only things the humans have to defend themselves are their wits. The entire scene is about out-thinking the dinosaurs and will that be enough to save them.
Everything builds to a head until that final moment when T-Rex comes in to "save the day." The moment is the punctuation on the theme which says that nature always wins. But nature is not malevolent, it is merely indifferent. The T-Rex is not there to save the humans. It is only hunting. And by acting according to its nature, the T-Rex claims its dominance. I know some find that moment hokey when the banner saying "When Dinosaurs Ruled the World" falls before the T-Rex, but I always loved it as a perfect, if not unsubtle, point.
Jurassic Park is a perfect popcorn film. And I don't mean that as a detriment. Spielberg does not dumb down the material but he makes it accessible to everyone. It is filled with visceral thrills, deep questions, thrilling visuals, and real heart. After almost three decades it has not lost a single ounce of its power. When the heroes fly off into the sunset, you feel as though you have been through an epic journey and through it all you have been changed.
Dare I say... evolved.