Revisiting a Landmark: JURASSIC PARK

With Jurassic World stomping through theaters at a record-setting pace, Sean Knight looks back at the film that started it all.

Nostalgia is a powerful force. The emotional pull of memory or the attachment to certain objects or images can be blinding. So often things that shaped us as children can seem quaint when revisited; sometimes that leads to disappointment and at other times we choose to overlook blatant faults because our cherished memories are more potent than what is in front of us. In an age where Hollywood is constantly looking backwards for franchise ideas instead of blazing new trails, it’s easy to be pessimistic about the state of blockbuster filmmaking and even easier to question the qualities of the original properties we used to hold dear.

Jurassic World has arrived 22 years after the premiere of Steven Spielberg’s groundbreaking summer blockbuster Jurassic Park. After two lackluster sequels taking place on an entirely different island, the park has been reopened with the hopes of making tons of money for studio heads who know dino carnage will always have an audience. That this 4th entry into a tired franchise is actually made with some skill and a humorous, self-deprecating anti-corporate message is almost entirely irrelevant. It’s near impossible to capture lightening in a bottle twice and just because something gets bigger or more advanced doesn’t mean it necessarily gets better.

This fact was made painfully clear after a double feature screening of the original classic and the new monstrosity (read David’s very positive review here) at my local theater The New 400, which is one of the few old-school movie theaters remaining in Chicago. Steeped in nostalgia, it has become my go-to theater for the summer movie season (it helps that they occasionally offer me press passes for some of their bigger early screenings). It’s not that the original film no longer holds up and has destroyed my precious childhood memories – quite the opposite. Jurassic Park is just as good today as it was back in the summer of 1993. That isn’t nostalgia talking, but genuine admiration of impeccable craft and true cinematic wizardry. There’s a reason those dinosaurs back then felt so real and each sequel’s have felt more and more phony. There is a sense of awe and wonder present in Jurassic Park that can’t be replicated. It was the first time modern audiences had witnessed special effects (especially CGI) on that level. The impossible suddenly became possible, but today almost anything can be created in a computer. We have become numb to the extraordinary (an issue that Jurassic World does directly address, to its credit). But there is something else missing in these modern behemoths – genuine heart and passion.

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I was seven years old when I first saw Jurassic Park on the big screen in the summer of 1993. My family and I were living in Athens, Greece at the time and going to the theater was quite an event. After standing in atrociously long lines outside in the smoldering city summer heat and fighting mobs of people to get through to the concession stand, I sat down in the slightly dilapidated theater armed with a giant soda, Junior Mints, and a tub of popcorn ready to get my dinosaur on. That was about the only thing I knew about the film at the time and for a seven-year-old the promise of dinosaurs was more than enough. Spielberg’s name above the title was just icing on the cake (I was raised in a Spielberg family, like most kids from my generation). But nothing could have prepared me for the truly overwhelming experience I was about to have. It was so overwhelming in fact that my poor father spent most of the film running me back and forth to the bathroom. By the time the film got to the raptor kitchen chase (a masterclass sequence of controlled suspense and sheer terror) my bladder was set to release for what had to be the 10th time. Exasperated my father exclaimed, “REALLY? AGAIN? NOW!?” What can I say? I was terrified and absolutely enthralled. Those raptors remain the stuff of childhood nightmares.

The most vivid memory I have from that initial viewing was when the projector was suddenly cut-off mid movie shortly after the now infamous T-Rex introduction set piece with no explanation. Everyone started quietly getting up and making their way out of the theater and I sat completely bewildered. My father turned to me and said “Well, that’s it!” My eyes welled up with tears. There was no way that could be the end. It had to be a cruel joke. Spielberg would never end a movie that way! My dad laughed, realized I was about to lose it and told me it was only intermission. The Greeks still believed in the old fashioned way of watching films with an intermission built in-between reels so everyone could get up, stretch, use the restroom, or get more concessions. Unfortunately, no one bothered to inform little seven-year-old me and it was like I was being punished by having my favorite toy taken away. If there was ever a film whose momentum did not need to be interrupted, it is surely Jurassic Park, which builds to a heart-racing and cheer-inducing climax. The memory of it still pisses me off 22 years later.

For quite a while afterwards it was all Jurassic Park, all the time. My parents bought me the action figures, I had the tee shirts and assorted other paraphernalia. And when that VHS came out I played it over and over again, even forcing my grandparents to endure my dino fever. They humored me as any good grandparents would, but after it was over my grandfather rather grumpily ordered everyone to bed. Dinosaurs aren’t for everyone, it seems. Jurassic Park became a defining moment in my adolescence and changed the way I looked at movies. In a way, the film spoiled me and most other kids of my generation. It would be a long time until another film could match its majesty. We just expected more than any filmmaker could possibly hope to deliver. Spielberg had taught us to believe in the impossible and to embrace the spectacular. He had invaded our dreams and made them come alive.

Looking at Jurassic Park now, it’s amazing to see how much mileage Spielberg got out of so little. Every shot and sequence is carefully orchestrated to deliver maximum thrilling impact. So many images are instantly iconic – the shot of a T-Rex’s foot slamming down into the mud, the raptors breath steaming onto glass, nails clicking on an industrial kitchen floor, stagnant water rippling from the impact of a dinosaur’s steps… this list goes on and on. And then there are the money shots peppered sparingly throughout that sell the idea of dinosaurs being brought back to life so completely they bring tears to your eyes. That sense of wide-eyed Spielberg wonder when Sam Neill and Laura Dern stare in awe at a heard of brachiosaurs grazing by a lake is shared not just by the characters, but with the audience as well. It’s a magic trick tied to semi-plausible science and the boundless limits of human imagination. And then John Williams’s heroic score kicks in, and the waterworks start flowing. It’s a moment in cinema as powerful as anything Spielberg has ever created.

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Like any classic relying heavily on technology of the era to tell its story, there are some things that haven’t aged so well with Jurassic Park. The computer systems and the narrative’s reliance on a teenage girl being a hacker to get the park back online are so adorably 90’s it hurts. Steamy, injured, and shirtless Jeff Goldblum huffing and puffing on a gurney as some sort of nerd sex symbol is frankly just bizarre (as is Spielberg’s insistence on holding that shot for what feels like an eternity). And Spielberg’s constantly present theme of daddy issues feels shoehorned in for fake sentiment. But even these shortcomings provide a certain charm as evidenced by the applause, giggles, and sighs in the audience at the double feature screening. The flaws are part of the film’s make-up and if taken away Jurassic Park wouldn’t be Jurassic Park. Like I said, nostalgia is a powerful force.

Watching Jurassic World right after the original felt like a downer. The same ideas are recycled, the same themes are played, and many moments serve as homage while retaining none of the weight. Much of it feels like fan service. In many ways it’s the film most would have wanted to see directly following the original as it is more of the same, only this time the camera flies around wildly, the body count is higher, the motivations dumber, and the CGI more expensive and pronounced while looking faker than ever (the first film’s use of animatronics and computer graphics made those dinosaurs real tangible things). Perhaps this lament has more to do with my own tastes and nostalgia for a time when movies felt like magic. And perhaps children who went to go see Jurassic World this weekend did feel that movie magic (I know those producers did after the film scored the largest worldwide opening ever, north of half a billion dollars). If that’s the case, then the filmmakers did their job and perhaps people like me are becoming the real dinosaurs.

We live in a strange time for blockbuster filmmaking. Eventually this reign of reboots and superheroes will end, and a film will come along that will wow us again. We are standing on the precipice and something’s got to give. Jurassic Park was a landmark in filmmaking that has yet to find its equal. But while we eagerly await the next landmark, we can allow ourselves to dip into that well of nostalgia time and again. For us, the park will always be open.

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