Jurassic Park & Me: 20 Years Later

jurassic-park-3d-poster

Chills.

My first viewing of Steven Spielberg‘s Jurassic Park, on June 11, 1993, at the age of 13, at a sold out show in the biggest and best movie theater in my hometown, was one of the 5 most significant events of my life. At least half of the people I know today would not have met me were it not for that night.

Why do I make these claims, which at first glance probably sound ludicrous? It’s actually pretty simple. Causality. Jurassic Park is the one movie above all others that sealed the deal on my decision to make film director the “thing I wanna be when I grow up”. That epiphany has directly influenced nearly every major life decision I’ve made in the past 20 years. It was exactly the right movie made exactly the right way by exactly the right people at exactly the right time in my life. Where I am and who I am now is the direct result of one thing above all others: my desire to make filmmaking my career. It is the core around which all of my significant choices are built. Without this passion, I would not have gone to the college I went to. I would not have worked at a movie theater for 6½ years. I would not have moved to Los Angeles in 2006 to pursue my dream. I would not have left L.A. in 2007 because I ran out of money and subsequently moved to Myrtle Beach, where I am now. Damn. When I lay it all out on the table like that, really it’s probably more like 75% of my current friends would never have met me.

When I think about how different my life might be right now had I not seen this movie when I did, it defies belief. Were it not for this film, I might be a police officer or a lawyer today (the other two professions that interested me as a kid), making a good wage and living a normal life, instead of being the struggling artist I am instead. I might be married with kids; someone who sees maybe 5 or 6 movies a year in theaters (which is about the average for most ‘normal’ American moviegoers), instead of the 50-60 I see now. If not for Steven Spielberg & Jurassic Park, movies might just be a hobby, not my life’s passion. As much as I respect people who can settle down and live a normal life, it isn’t for me (for better or worse).

At that time, what I loved most about movies were special effects. I loved learning about special effects, and I thought that I might one day work on special effects in the movies. I thought it would be cool to help create that “movie magic”. I also happened to be a huge dinosaur geek growing up, and when I found out that the magic of movies was going to bring dinosaurs to life, my pubescent brain could barely handle it. I’m not even sure I knew who Steven Spielberg was prior to seeing Jurassic Park. I probably recognized the name, but I don’t remember. I would certainly know afterwards, but prior to this movie, I didn’t understand what a director was or that there was one person primarily responsible for the creative vision of a film. Of course, I’d seen Spielberg movies before. I’d seen E.T., Jaws, and Raiders of the Lost Ark on tape, and I know I saw Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Hook in theaters as a wee lad. I was lucky that my mom was willing to take me to the movies fairly frequently, or at the very least drive me to the theater so I could see a flick with my friends.

I’d always loved going to the movies and always thought it would be cool to “make movies” one day, but it wasn’t until after Jurassic Park that I discovered what that actually meant. The biggest movies in my life prior to JP were the original Star Wars trilogy, and I never even saw those in theaters (I was just 3 when Return of the Jedi came out). But we sure as hell burned through some Star Wars VHS tapes in my house. Those are the movies that originally got me interested in movies. As I like to say, they were the bait before Jurassic Park eventually sunk the hook into me. Off the top of my head, the biggest in-theater experiences for me prior to JP were movies like Terminator 2 (the first R-rated movie I saw in theaters, age at 11), Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, The Hunt for Red October, Dick Tracy, Home Alone, Kindergarten Cop, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, Tim Burton‘s original Batman, Batman Returns, the Back to the Future movies, and Fire in the Sky, which came out just 3 months prior to JP and scared the shit out of me. I’d always loved aliens and dinosaurs, and in 1993 I got a major cinematic dose of both.

I only vaguely remember going to see Jurassic Park on opening night, but there are some details I can’t forget. It was summer vacation after I’d finished 7th grade. I think it was a 7:00 show. Sold out. Me and a bunch of friends went to the General Cinema Framingham 6-plex (which – TRIVIA! – was the first theater in America to be attached to a shopping center). I remember the lobby being a friggin madhouse. You couldn’t take two steps without bumping into somebody. I remember the show selling out as we were in line, and some other friends of mine couldn’t get into the same show because they’d gotten there too late. I felt bad for them, but it changed nothing for me. On this night, friendship took a backseat to seeing the most anticipated movie of my life. Regardless, my closest friends had gotten in with me, so it was all good. I’m pretty sure at least half of my classmates at the time were there that night. I recall the previous show letting out while we were in line, and being envious that other people had seen it before me. I watched their reactions and their excitement, which only increased mine. Eventually, the theater was cleaned and we rushed in to our seats.

Now, remember that going to the movies in 1993 was very different than it is today. You’d go in, and the screen was just blank. There were no commercials, no stupid trivia questions, no advertising at all. I don’t even think there was any preshow music. The screen was blank until the trailers started. We sat there, talked amongst ourselves, ate our candy, drank our soda, and waited. It was fun, yet simultaneously excruciating. At showtime, we saw a few trailers (I have no idea what they were), the General Cinema “Feature Presentation” clip ran, and it was on…

As I said, I’d been a huge fan of dinosaurs my whole life growing up, and for me to see them come alive on the big screen, my reaction was exactly the same as Sam Neill and Laura Dern‘s characters in the film. In fact, I’ve probably never related to movie characters more than in that moment when Dr. Grant and Dr. Sattler react to seeing the Brachiosaurs for the first time. Richard Attenborough may as well have looked directly into the camera when he said, “Welcome…to Jurassic Park”, because he was speaking to me as much as he was to them.

Mind you, I didn’t know who any of the actors were in the film, and I didn’t care. I was there for the dinosaurs. They were the stars. As a kid, I was just absorbing it all. I didn’t really understand much about the process of filmmaking. I didn’t understand what cinematography was or what editing was. That would immediately change as soon as I left that theater that fateful night. Jurassic Park was the first movie where I sought out every piece of information I could find on “how it was made”. I had making-of books, I had magazines, I watched specials on TV. There was only so much information you could gather in a pre-internet world if you lived 3,000 miles away from Hollywood, but what there was to find, I found (with a big assist from my mom, of course).

My primary focus in learning about the movie was of course finding out how they created the dinosaurs. Special effects were my original endgame in movies, so because of JP, Stan Winston, Dennis Muren, Phil Tippett and Michael Lantieri were some of the first behind-the-scenes crew names I ever committed to memory. I have no doubt that JP is one of the primary reasons I prefer practical effects over CGI to this day.

It was during the process of pouring through all this behind-the-scenes information where I discovered how important Spielberg was to this movie, and how much influence this “director” had over the entire project. I was being told that all the major decisions about the making of a movie from start to finish flowed through one person?! I soon realized that THIS was the job in movies I wanted.

I would eventually see Jurassic Park 6 times in theaters, and then once more at our local drive-in. THAT was an awesome experience.

The movie changed my habits in other ways, too. JP was the first film score that I bought. Imagine my reaction when I discovered that you could own the orchestral music from your favorite movies on cassette or CD. John Williams is the primary reason movie scores are my favorite genre of music, and obviously Jurassic Park contains some of his most memorable themes. I think I first owned the soundtrack on cassette, and when I finally got a Walkman, it was among the first CDs I ever owned. Over the years, I’ve owned at least 3 copies of it on CD. I even read Michael Crichton‘s novel, another first for me. I’d never read a book that became a movie, or been inspired enough by a movie that I felt I absolutely had to read the book. It was fun to discover the differences between movie and novel.

In the broader picture (which I clearly didn’t understand at the time), it’s worth noting that what Steven Spielberg accomplished in 1993, when he made Jurassic Park AND Schindler’s List, is probably the greatest single feat by a director in the history of cinema. Any director would consider themselves blessed to make one film in his or her career as successful and influential as Jurassic Park, or one film as acclaimed and important as Schindler’s List. But for one man to do BOTH? IN THE SAME FUCKING YEAR? It boggles my mind just thinking about it. That’s not something a mere mortal could achieve, which is probably why I referred to Spielberg simply as God when I was growing up.

And that’s how Jurassic Park changed my life. It made me realize what kind of impact I want to leave on the world. I want to make movies that people remember, that entertain, that can inspire, that people are excited to see, that leave a mark on the culture. For 20 long years now, it’s been my second favorite movie of all-time, behind only the original Star Wars movies. I don’t see that changing anytime soon.

raptor head turn

How then, did the film hold up seeing it on the big screen 20 years later?

I honestly can’t remember the last time I watched the film from start to finish, but it’s been at least 5 years for sure, probably longer. It’s one of those movies that although I love watching it, I don’t really need to watch it very often because I know it so well.

I’m pleased to report that the movie holds up damn well, and I wasn’t absolutely positive it would. It holds up both culturally and on its filmmaking merits. Aside from the computer technology on the island being severely outdated, you could pretty much make this movie the exact same way now with very few changes to the script. That’s pretty awesome if you ask me.

the magic word

an interactive CD-ROM!“It’s an interactive CD-ROM!!!” This moment got one of the biggest laughs of the movie.

The digital transfer is fantastic. The image is clean and sharp, although it was about 20% too dim in the theater I saw it in. You could barely decipher what was happening at the very edge of the frame. I’m blaming that on this theater and not the movie, which I’m sure was projected perfectly almost everywhere else. I haven’t yet seen the film on 1080p Blu-ray, but I imagine it’s spectacular. Being an older, wiser, smarter adult now, I was able to notice the technical aspects of the filmmaking, whereas the kid version of me was in complete awe and couldn’t pick my jaw up off the floor long enough to comprehend that I was only watching a movie. In particular, I noticed Dean Cundey‘s gorgeous cinematography and the great Michael Kahn‘s editing. If I had the Blu-ray, I’d take some screen shots to show you some of my favorite individual shots from the film, but alas…

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screenshot-jpgate

raptor dnaEven as a kid, I understood how awesome this shot was.

Of course, the biggest thing I wanted to see was how well the early CG effects and animatronic dinosaurs held up given where technology is trending today, when practical effects innovators like George Lucas and James Cameron rely almost entirely on computers to create the magic in their films (this is a bad thing, in case I haven’t been clear in the past). I’m pleased to report that the visual effects hold up remarkably well, and with the exception of a few specific shots, I’d put Jurassic Park‘s 1993 CGI against the vast majority of effects work being done today. I think the shots of the T-Rex at night still look absolutely perfect, but a few of the daytime shots are where the CGI dinosaurs show their age. There would just be a lot more detail nowadays, but that doesn’t take anything away from how amazing they still look. The practical, full-size animatronic dinos remain works of unrivaled technical genius. Jurassic Park is the perfect illustration of the proper blending of practical and CGI effects.

screenshot-trexdaytimeexampleThis T-Rex would look much better now, but the impact of the shot remains powerful.

JP is also a Hall of Fame example of quality over quantity when it comes to CGI. If the IMDb trivia section is to be believed, there are only 15 minutes of actual dinosaur footage in the movie, and 9 of those 15 minutes are practical, animatronic dinosaurs. That’s just 6 minutes of CGI in a 127-minute movie. In today’s summer movies, if a film is 127 minutes long, there’ll often be at least one piece of CGI in almost every frame of the movie. Jurassic Park cost $65 million to make in 1993; today it would probably cost 150. For perspective, there are fewer than 100 visual effects shots in Jurassic Park, and it’s a landmark film in the history of visual effects. All of those shots were created by Industrial Light & Magic. In a modern movie like The Avengers, there were 2,200 effects shots, created by 14 different effects companies, because that’s what it takes for these bloated, $200 million blockbusters to arrive in theaters on time. Today, filmmakers are encouraged to simply overwhelm the audience with cool things to look at (because the studios stupidly assume that’s what people want), whereas some filmmakers (like Steven Spielberg then and guys like Christopher Nolan now) understand that the anticipation of your money shots is just as valuable as actually delivering the money shots. The point I’m trying to make is that pioneering effects movies like Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park are model examples of why great storytelling supported by quality effects work is much more effective than a geyser of CGI trying to cover up shitty storytelling. That’s a lesson not lost on students of cinema like me.

Something that amused me greatly watching the movie now was my reaction to the women in the film. When I was 13, I had the biggest crush imaginable on Ariana Richards. Like, I was obsessed with her. She’s basically the same age as me, and I would daydream about it being me holding her hand through the danger instead of Dr. Grant. I have to LOL now as I think about it. Watching the movie as an adult, I immediately noticed how hot Laura Dern was 20 years ago. Those legs! Those blue eyes! How did I not see it before?! I would never have guessed that she was only 25 when Jurassic Park was filmed, which makes her “relationship” with the 45-at-the-time Sam Neill seem a little awkward upon further reflection. If you were wondering, Jeff Goldblum was 40 when the film shot in 1992.

life finds a way

Personally, I would’ve been fine with having the film re-released as is in 2D, but of course the main draw for studios to re-release older films nowadays is the ability to earn additional revenue through 3D surcharges. As such, this was billed more as Jurassic Park 3D than as the 20th anniversary of the film’s release (which, again, if we’re being technical, would be June 11th, not early April). That said, I have to admit the 3D here (post-converted, obviously) was actually pretty solid. It’s never cartoony, over-the-top and in-your-face, but there are some iconic moments that definitely benefit from it (which I won’t spoil). Honestly though, at a certain point I was so wrapped up in the story again that I forgot it was even being shown in 3D.

There were a lot of kids at the 7:00 screening I went to, and I kept wondering how they were reacting, internally and externally, assuming this was the first time they’d seen it. I definitely heard some gasps at the scarier T-Rex and raptor scenes, which was cool. How many more aspiring filmmakers were created this weekend? Or have today’s kids seen so many comic book movies that these effects are too primitive to their well-trained eyes? Are dinosaurs even cool anymore? At the very least, I hope the movie gets some kids interested in paleontology. For whatever reason, I get the feeling dinosaurs aren’t as awe-inspiring to kids now as they were for my generation. But obviously I don’t know that for a fact. I don’t have kids, nor do I spend enough time around them to know what tickles their imaginations these days. It’s just a hunch.

I will say one thing for certain: if you’re seeing this movie for the first time and you’re above the age of 15, I pity you. I pity anyone who didn’t get to experience this film in 1993, long before every summer movie relied on CGI for the majority of its entertainment value. We’re at the point now where spectacle has replaced story, and I don’t know if we can ever turn back this tide. Is it even possible to amaze movie audiences like this anymore? To truly WOW people? I honestly don’t know, and that saddens me. It was different when I was a kid, that’s for sure. I hate getting older, but I remain thankful I was born when I was, when movies like the ones I listed above could still stir our creative souls; a time when watching a movie on a 4-inch cellphone screen wasn’t even a fucking option.

I’ve been very pleased to see the reaction around the internet being as positive as it has been. I’ve seen very little snark. It seems most everyone in my age range was genuinely happy to see the film return to theaters, and a lot of people are sharing their experiences of what it what like watching the movie back in 1993. A lot of young people are excited about being able to see it on the big screen for the first time. That’s really cool.

I really got a kick out of Lindy West‘s hilarious “summary” of the movie on Jezebel [check it out], where she says, “It was a feat not to write this review entirely in all-caps. I have basically no lowercase feelings about Jurassic Park“.

Neither do I.

Jurassic Park: the most entertaining movie I saw in 1993, and likely the most entertaining movie I’ll see in theaters in 2013 as well.

T-Rex eye

Post-converted 3D quality: 8/10

My IMDb rating of the film: 10/10 (duh)

GIVE IT TO ME, JOHNNY!

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