JURASSIC PARK’s Appeal Is Far From Extinct

BC waxes nostalgic on his favorite Spielberg movie

In the summer of 1993, I hadn't yet secured the ability to see just about any movie I wanted. As I was 3 years away from driving, and 2 away from having a part-time job, I was kind of at the mercy of my mom (earlier that year, my dad inexplicably opted to stop going to the movies for some reason - he only went one more time* before he died 11 years later). And she's not exactly a movie buff; she watches whatever she hears about and usually says it was "OK" (her DVD collection is a hilarious monument to the Walmart dump bin and the closed video store near her house; she somehow owns two copies of Michael Clayton, for example). But for the life of me, I can't recall begging her to see Jurassic Park the way I did with a few other films during that period, nor can I recall why we saw it during the week when school was still in session.

But as I'm thinking back, maybe she was a closeted Spielberg die-hard fan?  I'm pretty sure E.T. was the first movie I saw in theaters and that Poltergeist (close enough) was the first horror movie I ever saw, plus she bought me the Last Crusade novelization in the summer of 1989 even though I hadn't seen it or the previous two Indiana Jones films (I've since fixed that. Good stuff!). So it's possible she just couldn't wait until the weekend to see what seemed to be his biggest movie ever and I just got dragged along. I don't know why my memory is clouded on this issue; I can still recall entire conversations about seeing other movies (like when I offered to use my Christmas money from Grammy to pay for the family to see Christmas Vacation - I was vetoed), but as to why I got to stay up late on a Tuesday to see it at the now defunct Showcase Cinemas Lawrence 1-4 (5-10 is across the street and still open. Weird place), I got nothing. But, I like to think that the movie was just so damn good that I forgot about everything that happened before the first reel began.  My mind was literally blown by those 126 minutes of pure movie magic.


I know Jaws is a better film in the technical sense, but Jurassic Park is and probably always will be my favorite Spielberg movie. I didn't NEED to revisit it for this article as I have it memorized, but I threw in my DVD (I'm not an upgrader, but I should make an exception for this one) anyway, and later marveled at how my eyes were glued to it even as other distractions occurred around me. I've probably seen it 50 times at this point, and while the IMDb's list of continuity errors is lengthy (as it is for just about every Spielberg movie), I must admit I don't think I've ever noticed a single one of them (OK, the jeep where an injured Malcolm is waiting being in a completely different spot all of a sudden always bugged me). The movie just WORKS the way few blockbuster-y types do, something that's even more impressive when you consider that its biggest selling point - the dinosaurs - are only on-screen for about 20 minutes. That's much less than a quarter of its runtime, and yet I never even really noticed until it was pointed out.

Of course, part of the reason that they're not on-screen that much is because Spielberg learned all too well that "less is more" when it comes to his creatures, but also I'm sure that the resources to put them before the camera for much longer than that would be out of the realm of possibility given the time and budget they had to work with. This was back when rendering a few frames of a shot of one dinosaur would take hours or even days, and there was only so much that the giant animatronic dinos could do without spoiling the illusion. No, Spielberg wisely kept their appearances to a minimum, making each one count and remain memorable, unlike the sequels where I'd be hard-pressed to recall a single great moment involving their usage. With all the advancement in FX, and bigger budgets at their disposal, neither Lost World or Jurassic Park III offer anything as mesmerizing as that first shot at the lagoon, or T-Rex's claw raking across the de-electrified fence.


This also resulted in something that was not likely on anyone's mind - the FX hold up under scrutiny, 20+ years later. The film was (decently/uselessly) retrofitted for 3D to celebrate its 20th anniversary, and I can't recall any of the dinos looking fake or anything like that under the microscope of a high def presentation. Time and time again I see older films on Blu-ray (even ones newer than JP) where once-terrific FX are undone by the higher resolution, but this is not one of them. With a mere 75 VFX shots in the film (as Drew McWeeny pointed out the other day, this is less than some commercials nowadays), they were able to make them perfect and make sure they held up to scrutiny, a lesson no one - even Spielberg himself for the first sequel - has seemingly been able to learn with any consistency.

Another key element is that it has more than just a couple of great characters - pretty much everyone in the movie is worth following. This was before he was even a big star, but I recall thinking that there should have been more with Sam Jackson's character, the chain-smoking technician who is tasked with getting everything back online after Nedry's sabotage. Apparently he had a death scene that was scrapped due to the set being destroyed by a hurricane, but the surprise reveal of his disembodied arm works too great to wish that they had included it - I just wanted more of him before he runs off to die. Ditto for Muldoon, the game hunter who gets to say one of the film's most memorable lines ("Clever girl...") and who not only survived in the book, but also survived the screenplay for several drafts - why they chose to off him at the last minute is beyond me, but his equivalent in Lost World was played by Pete Postelthwaite, so that's a pretty good trade. Dr. Wu doesn't get much screentime to make an impression, but his larger importance in the book probably played a part in the decision to make him the only returning character in Jurassic World. And with his return there, every surviving character** has appeared (and with the same actor playing them) in one of the followups, highly unusual for any franchise that changed creative teams and spanned three decades.


Speaking of World, I had one other reason to want to rewatch the movie again: make sure that the complaints people are making about why anyone would go to "that deathtrap" in the new film are completely unfounded. I thought maybe I was just forgetting something? But no, I really do not get why there would be any more hesitation to visit Jurassic Park than a zoo or thrill-ride park. With the exception of the guy who gets killed in the opening scene when the raptor cage is mishandled, everyone who dies (a total of four, the opening guy makes five) does so due to the park being shut down by Nedry, who is one of the casualties. More people survived the incident than died, in fact, and as Lost World tells us, the company buried the story anyway. So why, 20+ years later, would someone be afraid of what is essentially a zoo? Even if the story got out, it would be "20 years ago a few people died after someone sabotaged the security system; he was killed along with a few others who were making rescue attempts". There have been as many or more casualties at Disneyland, Action Park, and California's Great Adventure - and those are real places, unlike Jurassic World which is fictional and thus should get the same grain of salt that we extend to just about any movie. Security measures are in place, the ability to shut the place down so easily like Nedry did has likely been replaced with something far more effective, and unless the movie takes place on opening day, we can assume that by this point no incidents have been documented while the park was open. And the park was far from finished when the people died, to boot - Hammond explains more than once that this or that thing is still under construction or in the planning stages (in fact, the reason he brings Grant and the others there is to ease the worried minds of the investors - why would he need investors if the park was finished?); I would think ANY place that's under construction would be more dangerous than one that was fully functional and complete. So while a T-Rex is certainly scarier than a tiger***, I think the risk is the same to the average park-goer who wants to fork over 100 bucks to see some contained wildlife - don't jump over the fences and you'll be OK.

Jurassic Park was more than the biggest movie of 1993 - for a long time it was the 2nd highest grosser ever in North America (behind Spielberg's own ET), and the highest overall worldwide until Titanic dethroned it in 1997. It currently ranks 16th all time with inflation factored in, nestled between two Star Wars sequels (Jedi and Phantom Menace), fun when you consider George Lucas oversaw some of Park's post-production while Spielberg went off to work on Schindler's List. It crushed everything in its path that summer, most embarrassingly Last Action Hero; I remember reading in EW or Premiere about one of the producers going to a theater on opening night and seeing long lines and "sold out" signs, thinking they were for his movie, only to discover they were for Jurassic Park, which opened the week before (and while its marketing was extensive, they didn't spend money advertising it in space). It stayed in theaters so long that the VHS took well over a year to come out, practically unheard of in that era (even Titanic only took 9 months), and video games, comics, toys, etc all kept the license alive and well(ish) for the four years it took for the obligatory sequel, allowing it to break all kinds of records of its own when released. It's no surprise that Jurassic World is largely ignoring the sequels and coasting heavily on our love of the first film in its marketing, right down to using the late Richard Attenborough's lines over new footage. 22 years later, it remains a seminal and much loved film for a variety of reasons, and it's probably 99% of the reason anyone is excited about the new one. Will it be as good? No. But then again, how many movies are?

* For Meet the Parents. What the hell?

** Except Dodgson. Nedry was right, nobody cares.

*** A tiger escaped confinement at the San Francisco zoo and killed one person and injured others before being taken down. I bring it up because someone will probably mention the T-Rex escaping and wreaking havoc in San Diego. Again, not at a functional, secure park - in fact it didn't even escape from one, like the real life tiger did from a place that is still open and popular.