Before our recent IMAX 3D viewing of Oz the Great and Powerful we were treated to a preview for the 3D re-release of Jurassic Park on April 5th (coincidentally, exactly 50 years before First Contact between humans and Vulcans, according to Star Trek). This preview was in the form of a 3 or 4 minute clip, slightly edited to make it “suitable for all audiences”, from the T. rex attack on the tour vehicles. Despite the volume being at levels that could do permanent hearing damage, my biggest recurring complaint about our local IMAX screen, and my general negative feelings about 2D-3D converted films, as opposed to movies filmed with 3D cameras, the scene was still absolutely captivating. And while I wish they would just re-release Jurassic Park in 2D IMAX like they did with Raiders of the Lost Ark, and even considering that I saw Jurassic Park on the big screen at our local 1920s Fox Theatre, I’m still now officially excited for April 5th.
I still have vivid memories of first seeing Jurassic Park, almost 20 years ago. I was 9, and at that stage my father would go preview PG-13 movies before I was allowed to go see them. He came back and told me (and my mother) that although it might normally be too scary or violent for me, that I had to see it because there had never been anything like it. He described the brachiosaurus reveal to me while stating all the time that I just had to wait and see. After seeing his excitement, it almost killed me to wait for it, and I finally convinced them to stop by the theater on a Sunday on the way home from a weekend out of town. I’m sure I watched the entire movie with my fingers in my ears (something I did a lot of in those days), but that didn’t lessen its impact.
A friend of mine recently replied to a facebook post stating that I was watching Jurassic Park, saying that he felt that it was “our Star Wars.” I feel like there’s a good amount of truth in that. Jurassic Park was the film that everyone absolutely had to see, that we talked about long after it had left the theaters, and that changed the way we thought about movies. Much like those first moments of Star Wars when the Tantive IV soars over our heads onto the screen, pursued by the Devastator, and everything we thought we knew about the possibilities of cinema was shattered. The equivalent moment in Jurassic Park comes somewhat later in the film, after establishing character and situation. I remember as those two jeeps pulled out onto the plains of Isla Nublar, the music moved from fanfare to anticipatory mystery, and Dr. Grant first caught sight of the brachiosaur.
As the camera panned from the jeep up the body of the enormous animal, far too large to fit entirely in frame, and the music swelled, it took my breath away. I got tears in my eyes (not, in itself, unusual, since I cry in movies at the drop of a hat) from the power of the moment. When the dinosaur rose to its hind legs to get at the highest leaves of the tree, and came crashing back down, that was the moment when I realized that anything was now possible on film. It was the point in history when there were no longer any technical limitations on artistic vision (assuming you have enough money). The importance of Jurassic Park’s impact on film can’t be overstated. It inspired George Lucas to revisit Star Wars (something I, for one, am glad of), rekindled Peter Jackson’s interest in Middle Earth, and has been compared to the advent of sound in The Jazz Singer.
Jurassic Park and Star Wars actually have many things in common beyond just revolutionizing visual effects. Both treated their subject matter seriously, without parody or irony. Star Wars, of course, made the “space western” genre into a worthwhile storytelling medium, capable of saying interesting things about human relationships while still entertaining. It’s Best Picture nomination is not a coincidence, and everything from the Star Trek film series to Firefly owes a debt to Star Wars for making space more than just a gimmick. Jurassic Park didn’t exactly reinvigorate the movie monster genre, but it did bring a sense of “science” to the forefront of science fiction movies. It wasn’t content merely to have explorers stumble across some sort of “lost world” but offered up a scientific reason for the existence of dinosaurs, allowing it to appeal to a modern, more educated generation of moviegoers. And much like Star Wars used its setting to to offer us more than simply adventure, Jurassic Park used its effects to deliver thoughts on humanity’s interaction with nature, the responsibilities of science, and corporate ethics (particularly in The Lost World).
Much like Star Wars, Jurassic Park used its effects not simply to dazzle but to tell the story and make us feel. Its brilliant script by David Koepp made us feel not only for the characters but also for the dinosaurs, who are as much victims in this situation as the humans they’re attacking. When the T. rex bursts through that fence, it’s not some creature to be defeated, as in Jaws, but simply a situation to be escaped. This theme is further explored in The Lost World (which I love dearly, much as I love Temple of Doom), where the humans are not victims at all but are instead the villains. Spielberg actually changed the ending of Jurassic Park when he realized that the T. rex was actually the hero of the film.
Jurassic Park’s true genius lies in its ability to produce a raw, unfiltered emotional impact. There is no more pulse-pounding film sequence than the first T. rex attack. It’s entirely devoid of musical cues telling us how to feel (though John Williams’s score is perfect), filled instead entirely with ambient sound. The scene is both terrifying and exhilarating, even after 20 years and countless viewings (this was my school’s go-to film for bus trips, post-exam days, etc, in addition to all the times I watched at home). The T. rex itself is 100% convincing, and the combination of groundbreaking computer effects and the greatest animatronics ever seen on film creates a character that is wholly real.
I’d be insane not to mention Spielberg, who is the the individual most responsible for the vision of the film. (It’s all the more impressive that he released Schindler’s List the same year.) He took what many considered to be a pseudo-sequel to Jaws and crafted something completely different, defying expectations. While Jaws is a masterpiece of direction, in the end it is simply a man vs. nature horror tale. Jurassic Park’s ambition is off the scale when the two are compared. Making a “monster movie” full of scientific techno-babble and morality speeches is something no one else would have dared to do. The film’s second best scene is simply five people sitting around a table discussing the situation. It’s gorgeously lit, cleverly written, and intricately performed, and would have been out of place in any movie not directed by Spielberg. The talky action film is a genre that owes everything to him, and perhaps that is its greatest legacy.
For those of us who are the right age, however, Jurassic Park feels uniquely ours. It caught our imagination in a way nothing had before, and felt tailored to our sensibilities. It showed us there are no limits, but there are responsibilities. It taught us respect and awe of nature. It frightened us, made us laugh and cry. It was the turning point in our abilities to appreciate film and art. More than anything else, though, it told a great story, one that truly captivates us, that still has weight 20 years later. We are the Jurassic Park generation.