Welcome to Jurassic Park

This essay first appeared on Fourth & Sycamore.


jpJurassic Park came out the summer after I turned eleven, a time in my life otherwise known as “Peak Dinosaur.” My family and I were on vacation when it hit theaters, and our hotel had an indoor pool surrounded by fake plants. When my dad and I got back from the theater after watching the movie, I imagined the pool was a hidden lagoon in a jungle of ferns. I pictured velociraptors (though any dinosaur nut knew those were deinonychus in the movie, not raptors) chasing me down the hallway to our room.

I saw Jurassic Park in the theater as often that year as my parents were willing to take me. Wayne Theater, our town’s dusty two-screen, was a second run theater at the time, and it was winter before Jurassic Parkfinally arrived in Greenville. The first screening was packed even six months after the movie’s national release. We were all very patient when the film skipped the projector halfway through and it took fifteen minutes to fix. I was 15 by the time the sequel The Lost World came out, and 19 when the third entry in the series hit theaters. My excitement for each was hardly less than for the original, though the quality of each reboot was significantly lower than the last.

jpI read Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park when I was 12. It was spring of the year following the movie’s release, and I read it sitting in tree branches above my house, or on the roof of our shed which I imagined was a jungle outpost. I stared out across the bean fields and imagined I saw a T.rex across the green. He spotted me. I had to descend the tree or jump off the roof and get to the door before he closed the distance. Over and over again. Somehow, I always made it.

It’s a wonder of imagination when a child can turn an Ohio backyard into a Costa Rican island populated by dinosaurs, and it was an equal wonder of imagination when Steven Spielberg and his team made that Costa Rican island and its reptilian inhabitants so very real on theater screens across the world in the summer of 1993. Jurassic Park was nothing short of the greatest special effects accomplishment since King Kong (1933), and it hasn’t been equaled since. The CGI used in the film was more or less created specifically for this movie by Industrial Light & Magic, and the team somehow managed, at the birth of a technology that has been around now for over two decades, to create the best looking digital effects I’ve ever seen. There is not a frame of Jurassic Park in which the action on screen looks fake. The CGI and animatronic effects (created by Stan Winston and his team) are seamlessly woven into the live action on screen, allowing a total suspension of disbelief. I am more impressed with this accomplishment every year as multiplex audiences get buried under more and more awful looking CGI explosions. Nothing explodes in Jurassic Park; there are no action sequences that do not directly move the story forward.

Even beyond the effects wizardry on screen Jurassic Park was a fantastic film. The filmmakers were not content with merely creating a visually eye-popping movie; Jurassic Park is legitimately a great adventure film. Crichton himself adapted his book for the screenplay (for a cool half million dollars), and the result is streamlined and perfectly paced, providing just the right amount of character development and story exposition to make it more than just an excuse for watching dinosaurs chase people while never losing sight of the fact that the movie is primarily about watching dinosaurs chase people.

JurassicPark Ellie

Laura Dern as Ellie Sattler, the paleobotanist feminist hero the world needs.

The fourth film in the series, Jurassic World, will be hitting theaters June 12. I will go see it on its opening weekend, and I fully expect it to be a very bad movie. The trailers look dumb. Whatever. It’s dinosaur porn. I’ll keep watching dinosaurs eat people on screen till we can clone the real thing. Jurassic World probably has the most brilliantly conceived and executed buzz website I’ve ever seen for a movie. It’s better assembled than I expect the film to be. I hope I’m wrong.

I haven’t reread Jurassic Park for many years. I think I’ll pick it up again sometime soon. I’ve never really lost the wonder I felt as a child when I stared out my window and imagined giant, lumbering brachiosaurus ripping leaves from the top branches of my family’s maple trees and nimble procompsognasthus darting through the day lilies by the garage. These beasts really lived on this earth, long before we were even a twinkle in evolution’s eye.  To misquote the great sage Ian Malcolm, life found a way.

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