Last night I went and saw Jurassic Park on the big screen for the first time in 20 years. My first thought was, “Holy smokes, am I that old now?” Yes, sadly I am. Then I was able to enjoy the film.
I’ve seen Jurassic Park more recently than 20 years ago. I have, (without bragging) what most people would describe as a fairly epic home theater complete with projector, 8×5 ft. screen and 7.1 surround sound. But I hadn’t seen it on the real big screen since its first run in 1993. And I had never ever seen it on the really really big screen. So last night I treated myself to the full 3D experience on digitally projected IMAX and oh man, was it completely worth it.
The unforgettable T-rex attack is what I used to use to demo my home theater system. It was a great scene that everyone was familiar with and had over the top visuals and sound. The T-Rex roar shakes the house. So I was somewhat used to it. But I was completely unprepared for the IMAX 50,000 watts (or whatever it is) of T-Rex stomping around and howling in 3D. Holy smokes! That was the way we need to experience Jurassic Park, short of being on the theme park tour itself.
I loved the experience on another level as well. See, although there had been some fairly extensive use of CGI in films prior to Jurassic Park, JP was the film that really convinced the filmmakers at large that CGI could really render anything you could dream up. In many ways, Jurassic Park is the seminal effects film of the modern age. At the same time, Jurassic Park showcased masterpieces of practical effects ranging from animatronics, miniature and model work, stop motion (go-motion) photography,all the way to the old man-in-suit trick. By now, CineFex, behind-the scenes books, and featurettes have made the making of Jurassic Park the stuff of movie magic legend. So it was absolutely fantastic for me to sit there and watch these gags on a digitally projected IMAX screen and watch them still hold up 20 years later. The raptor attack was particularly fun. I sat there going, “Oh, that’s a guy in a suit…oh now it’s a go-motion miniature, now it’s CGI, now a combination of the three!” Great fun. Not that I could tell, I just knew the behind-the-scenes stuff from the books and features.
As a writer, I enjoyed watching the ways the screenwriters seeded little nuggets of character development throughout the film in order to show characters’ changing arcs. Grant’s dislike of children. Hammond’s hubris. It was fantastic to be able to pick out the beats of the story and recognize how masterfully that story is woven together.
On another level, that of a story-teller, Jurassic Park still works in a way that is internally consistent. Something that is lacking in many modern stories (Prometheus, JJTrek, The Dark Knight Rises, the list goes on and on). Yes there are huge swallows one must take suspending disbelief. But surprisingly, very few of those come from the dinosaur moments, arguably you’d think that would be the hardest bit of the film to swallow. For me, the parts that required the most suspension dealt with the computer system. The way things weren’t really backed up or how Lex could shout, “This is a UNIX system!” and suddenly be able to work on a GUI, I doubt any UNIX operator has ever seen. But the logic behind these scenes was internally consistent to the film. The story never once broke the rules of its own universe as an excuse not to tackle a difficult bit of storytelling. Sadly, the same can’t be said for its successors. There is a respect the filmmakers had while making this film that shows through every aspect, from the storytelling, to the performances, to the visual and special effects. Yes the audience is along for the ride, but the filmmakers are enjoying that ride as well. They are proud of it and want us to share in the experience. Jurassic Park never treats the audience stupidly. The filmmakers do not have a disdain for the audience they intend to share their story with. The film never caters to the lowest-common-denominator. Sure when Ian Malcolm is covering chaos theory he explains it several times and using different examples, but he never dumbs it down to the point that the audience starts rolling their eyes. Here was a film where many in the target audience would undoubtedly be children, and yet the filmmakers never treated the audience as children. No characters running around frenetically stubbing toes or with swollen hands and tongues just to get some cheap laughs, thank you very much. Yes Nedry makes fun of the dinosaur and the lawyer leaves Lex and Tim in the car to save his own skin. Writer’s do this so we don’t feel too much sympathy when they meet their demise. But they are never stupid or acting out of character. Many modern storytellers should take notes.
Recently, film icon Bruce Campbell was asked about his opinion on horror films in general and what he’d like to see. He said, “I think horror movies are better if people give a shit, and make a decent movie. I feel like there’s lazy film-makers in general out there. I [would like] a little more industrious film-making, please. I just think they need to work a little harder, pay attention, and don’t treat audiences like they’re stupid.” Amen, brother. I’d like to add that honestly, it could stand for a lot more than horror movies, and all stories in general. Audiences shouldn’t let storytellers get away with being sloppy. Playing fast and loose with a story can be fun, but generally things work out better for everyone when lifelong friends don’t turn out to be cylons for no reason, biologists don’t go around petting alien cobras, and magical star children don’t undo every major plotpoint of your award-winning trilogy (to name but a few).
But back on point, how does Jurassic Park hold up after 20 years? Wonderfully! Even though newer flashier films may have outshined some of the original sparkle, JP has aged magnificently and is every bit as smart and fun as it was the first time around.