Spielberg’s Jurassic Park is the event movie to end all event movies. Anyone who was alive and of the right age to see the classic on the big screen remembers where and when this happened and has their own story about how both they, and the crowd they saw it with, reacted to and ultimately enjoyed the movie.
Second declarative statement:
If you don’t like Jurassic Park, you have no soul. That’s science.
I was 13 years old during the summer of its release. I had been a life-long dinosaur nerd (and still am), voraciously consuming books and movies that even mentioned the cold-blooded, one-time rulers of this rock we call home. Growing up I had a kick-ass set of dinosaur toys that featured the hall of fame members of their species such as the Tyrannosaurus Rex and Triceratops as well as some of the lesser-known species, like the Pachycephalosaurus for example. My G.I. Joes were not fans (at least as much as plastic toys can be of other plastic toys) of these creatures; they didn’t stand a chance and got massacred countless times in the room over our garage or outside in the flower beds. Much later in life, I picked up Michael Crichton’s novel at a book fair (do they even still have these? Do kids read nowadays?) in middle school, probably around a year before the movie came out. I read it several times and it quickly became my favorite book at the time. The novel drove anticipation for the movie to legendary levels, I’m positive that if you had a pulse, you knew it was coming out in the summer of 1993, a rather substantial feat when you consider that most households had yet to get a computer and that the Internet, as we know it now, was still in its infancy.
My summer had already begun and I spent most of the day over at Ryan Bush’s house, a neighborhood friend. We split our time equally between contests of driveway basketball and the commencement of a rousing game of Axis and Allies that would ultimately end up taking the entire summer to complete. We both had to wait for our parents to get off work that night so we could see the movie, this was before we obtained our learners permits and the Lexington, South Carolina, movie theatre was out of range as far as riding our bikes was concerned. Normally, the summer days rip off the calendar at an alarming rate, but I can tell you that this was not the case on that particular Friday. Time drug on, not helping matters was the fact that conversation consistently turned back to how excited we were about the film and which scenes in the book we were anticipating seeing on the big screen the most.
A brand new Carmike theater had just opened across town and this was back when the chain was considered to be top of the line—they had THX!—before they turned into the sticky-floored, dimly projected, last option movie houses they are known as today. Naturally, we chose the new theater and so did everyone else in the area; we waited in line for what seemed like an eternity; the whole time my sister and I were without a doubt driving our parents nuts, bouncing off the walls, our excitement reaching a fever pitch. Of course, it was sold out, which was the only way to take in an event movie at the time, before cell phones and ignorance on how to properly watch a movie in public was a widespread problem which later developed into a common deterrent in me venturing out to the local movie house. Jurassic Park did not disappoint. In fact, it not only met my (and everyone else’s) expectations but shattered them. It was the first time that I walked out of a movie with my entire body buzzing, my mind not fully able to comprehend the grandeur my eyes just took in. Oh, and when that Raptor busts through the wiring/wall trying to get Dr. Sattler (Laura Dern), presumably looking for dessert after eating the main course that was Ray Arnold (Samuel L. Jackson)? That still stands as the pinnacle for a jump scare in film. It also serves as a benchmark in Raptor greed, if she had eaten both of Arnold’s arms, she might not have been hungry and wouldn’t need to try and eat Dr. Sattler. But then again, the movie would have lost one of its coolest, breathtaking moments. I guess that means I’m in favor of Raptor greed. Raptor greed is good.
I’m not going to waste time in this post explaining the plot of Jurassic Park as I don’t know anyone who hasn’t seen it multiple times. What I will do is explain why I love this film and, to some extent, why it was important. When Spielberg released Jaws in 1975, it served as the director’s first game-changing effort. Up until that point, director-driven “personal” filmmaking reigned, despite the fact that a lot of money wasn’t being made—at least according to the money-making standards post-Jaws. After the adaptation of Peter Benchley’s best seller, the studios switched gears, looking to make more films in the mold of Jaws, giant thrill-ride summer blockbusters, each one promising bigger and better explosions, louder sound, and technological advancements that would make the prior summer’s offerings pale in comparison. Spielberg’s second game-changer would come close to 20 years later when Jurassic Park introduced fleshed out, photo-real computer-generated effects combined with Stan Winston’s epic amazingly life-like animatronic dinosaurs, making creatures that surpassed anything done prior by either master in the medium of film. The dinos have personality and move with grace, sneezing, breathing, and stretching out toward our heroes in a way that no stop-motion effort could, also serving to free up the camera, allowing it to rotate and zoom around like it would with any live-action subject. Ray Harryhausen should have been pleased to see his influence in the film and how an art he helped to pioneer had advanced in the wake of his legendary work on numerous classics.
Outside of The Matrix, Jurassic Park was perhaps the last film that had special effects that surprised the American public. After its release, every big summer movie has now dated special effects generated almost entirely with computers, forgetting that it was the blend of practical and special effects that helped give Spielberg’s film its heart. Very few of them would offer up the feeling imbued in his film, that magical sense of wonder that everybody can tap into while watching dinosaurs move with stunning precision. Who hasn’t wanted to see a dinosaur in real life, fantasized about being able to interact with creatures long gone from this earth? Spielberg films the park without the dark filters that he would use in The Lost World and the color scheme and logo of the park are bright and inviting, helping to further the audience’s wish fulfillment. When Doctors Grant, Saddler, and Malcolm see the wonders that John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) has created with the help of his crack team of scientists, their reactions mirror that of the audience. It’s a breathtaking moment in film history with Spielberg throwing every trick he has onto the screen, and comes as no surprise that the actors’ and audiences’ faces beam with admiration when they first see the (well hidden up until release) dinosaurs.
The classic also works as Spielberg’s tongue and cheek response to his critic’s claims that his films are all flash and no substance, roller coaster rides constructed only to function within the money-making machine that is Hollywood. The park itself operates as a thrill ride within a thrill ride and it’s clear early on in the runtime that Spielberg is going to milk it for all that its worth. There are restaurants and gift shops full of merchandise stamped with the park logo, ready to drain mom and dad’s wallet much like a trip to a Disney World resort would. The main attraction, a ride through the park itself, is set up much like It’s a Small World, except this time, its giant reptiles instead of dolls representing the cheese eating, clog wearing, windmill building citizens of Holland. It’s Mr. Toad’s “JESUS CHRIST PLEASE STOP THIS RIDE ‘CAUSE THAT LAWYER JUST GOT RIPPED OFF THE TOILET AND EATEN ALIVE BY A T-REX” Wild Ride. All of this came out of an idea that Crichton had used years before in his novel (later turned into a film as well) called Westworld. In that earlier effort, the theme park goes haywire as well (don’t they always), killing off its clientele, only this time it occurs in a western setting and, lets face it, robot cowboys don’t jangle ones nerves quite like dinosaurs do. The major difference between the two novels/films is that Crichton has an eerie, somewhat plausible backstory on how the scientists are able to bring these beasts back to life and when combined with a budget and director who knows how to wring all the tension and awe out of the promising popcorn idea, cheesiness isn’t even an afterthought.
The only place where Jurassic Park fails is in its subplot that constantly pushes family values, a typical and sometimes unfortunate Spielberg theme. The kids seem to be present only to remind the audience of “what is important” and in certain scenes the device becomes overbearing and unwarranted. This is a minor compliant, however, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind acts as a good antidote to this maudlin aspect of the film. In all other areas, the film holds up surprisingly well. The acting is top notch, Newman receives his comeuppance, the effects are still special, and it features a score that tends to cause its listeners to wave their arms around in a fashion not unlike that of a conductor in front of the New York Philharmonic. It drove a previously lesser known dinosaur, the Velociraptor, to such staggering heights of popularity that a NBA expansion franchise named their club after them. An entire generation of video game players was simultaneously enraged and confused in their futile efforts of controlling a Raptor in the Jurassic Park videogame for the Sega Genesis. Or maybe that last one was just me. If for some reason you have yet to see Spielberg’s classic, try and track me down, I have the BluRay right here in my Raptor bag,* that’s a wrong that needs to be righted quickly. With a healthy dose of repeat viewings, naturally.
*This is an in joke that only 4 or 5 people may get. In Jackie Brown, Samuel L. Jackson’s character is paying off a bail-bondsman and his cash is stored in his Toronto Raptors embossed duffle bag. Jackson delivers this line with an uncharacteristic amount of glee, even for him. Maybe he thought it was funny that in his only other dealings with Raptors they got the best of him. Even if that’s not the case, I love how random that line is.