Animals, not monsters: Sophie and Ben watch Jurassic Park, and explain why it’s a beautiful movie
I was lucky enough to see Jurassic Park during its opening weekend, and the movie left me in awe. The thundering sound effects, the sweeping score from John Williams, and the sense of wonder that filled every shot was almost too much for my barely-pubescent brain, and it was years before I saw it again. This weekend I took my son to watch the film during the limited re-release, in 3D and on an IMAX screen. I was curious about how the film stood up.
To my delight, it’s just as good as I remembered it, if not better. I picked up so many more little details, from the taxi driver waving his arms at Dodgson in the first few minutes of the film, to Ellie Sattler crying when she sees the triceratops. I saw an image online that suggested that Dr. Grant trying to connect the two female ends of his seat belt together before finally simply tying them into a crude knot was a visual pun for how the dinosaurs bred in the wild, “nature finding a way,” and I thought that was a clever read of that scene.
This is a movie that could have been a bore in the hands of a lesser director, but Steven Spielberg declined to make a monster movie, and instead crafted a film about human beings encountering animals that most of us have dreamed about since we were very young. It helps that the wide open vistas, shot in Hawaii, are all beautiful. Jurassic Park is a joy to watch, even today.
I was struck by how many characters are in the movie, and how they all do so much with their limited time on the screen. From the game warden to Sam Jackson’s eternally smoking and put upon Ray Arnold, there is no human on the screen that is thrown away. The dinosaurs themselves are beautiful, and it’s hard to believe that we’re looking at the dawn of computer generated creatures on the screen.
The first t-rex attack is a study on how to build tension and maintain pacing during a large action set-piece, and pay attention to the way the camera isn't afraid to spend a relatively long time on individual shots. The first time we see the t-rex walking out of its enclosure, in the rain, is stunning. We live in a world of shaky cams and jump cuts. Jurassic Park isn't afraid to show you exactly what's going on.
In many ways the flim is even better than the book, as Hammond is much more enjoyable as a grandfatherly visionary who is trying to provide something “real” to his guests than the villain he is in the original text. It’s hard to read the book after seeing the movie and not think of Sam Neill’s understated grit in his portrayal of Dr. Grant. During a rare moment of calm, and again the movie’s sense of pacing is masterful, Sattler tells Hammond of being overwhelmed “by the power of this place.” Coming back to the movie, so was I. The sequels devolved into quasi-horror films where the dinosaurs are more or less monsters, but the original film is still a classic, through and through.
Sophie, you were five when you first saw the movie, and I think a large part of my enjoyment was being able to see the movie through the eyes of my own children. What was it like for you to revisit the film?
In a word: awesome. And I don't mean that in the “dude, that was awesome” way, I mean in the literal definition of the word: awe-inspiring. There are plenty of movies that could be re-released on the big-screen, with or without new gimmick technology to draw audiences in, but movies like this are among the small handful of titles that should be.
Watching this movie as a child, I remember being terrified by the t-rex, astounded by the brachiosaurs, and excited by the raptors. When I got home, my cousins and I all played at being the ferocious velociraptors, jumping up on furniture and screeching high-pitched wails approximating ancient vocal chords. Coming back home from watching the film at age 24, I wanted to do the same.
However, it's interesting to think on not just what's the same, but what's changed. To look at a film you marveled at as a child with no concept of the magic going on behind the curtain and come back knowing not just what CG means, but things like color saturation, camera placement, and so on, brings a certain level of awareness. You already touched on some clever analysis I had never thought of before - I love that analysis about the belt buckles!
That's why I hope it doesn't sound like a cop-out when I say that, despite knowing that I could analyze the film with an adult eye and adult mind, I don't want to. Somehow, watching this film 10 years later, it still possesses a raw energy that defies explanation. Oh yeah, you could talk about why the film is effective; I could tell you that the t-rex crashing through the restroom is made more effective via the use of 3D tech, or that hearing John Williams' score over theater surround sound will expose you to higher highs and lower lows than listening at home.
I could, but that takes away some of the fun I think. Despite theme park monsters which eat people, despite hilariously outdated dialogue - yes Lex, I'm sure you're a wonderful “hacker” - despite Sam Neill not being able to ever hit a convincing American accent, this is a fun movie. That was true when I was 5, and it's true now at 24.
Ben, you said you wanted to see it through the eyes of your children. Did you take them with you? What did they think?
I took my oldest, and he enjoyed the hell out of it. It's funny how many movies that are rated PG or PG-13 still make use of graphic violence or oddly nasty characters, but there is nothing over the top about the content in Jurassic Park. People die, and it's certainly intense, but it's not gratuitous.
There is also a fair bit of wish fulfillment in the movie, and I think kids respond well to it. The t-rex and raptors provide scares and drama, but the real fun is when Dr. Grant lays on the belly on the triceratops and lets the breathing of the giant beast lift him up and down. Sam Neill has a look of pure bliss on his face when this happens, and it's such a childlike moment. We want to hand feed a branch to a brachiosaur, or hold a newborn dinosaur in our hands. This balance of being scared of the dinosaurs with being in love with them adds an extra dimension to the movie the sequels lacked.
I did pick up on some odd bits of editing though. The t-rex breaks through the fence, but there's a cliff on the other side? How does Sattler go from finding bits of the lawyer, to instantly climbing down that drop off to find the second car, and then she's instantly back up to the other vehicle just in time to narrowly escape the t-rex. Then of course there's the technology, as Lex makes a big deal out of the “interactive CD-ROM” and the infamous “This is UNIX, I know this” line when she sits down at the workstation.
I was also completely distracted by Jackson smoking through the entirety of the movie. They're in the command center of this high tech park, dealing with high-end equipment, and he's smoking the entire damn time. The movie is 20 years old, so some aspects of our culture have certainly changed, but it seems inconceivable to my modern eyes that would be tolerated.
I also found myself wondering about Nedry. He steals the embryos because he feels slighted by the amount of money he's being paid, but he also said that he put in a bid for the work, and he was selected to do it. If he thought the job was worth more money, why not put that into his bid? Do we think Hammond cut corners when it came to hiring enough people, and qualified people, to put the park together? Nedry's greed put the plot of the film in motion, but does he have a point?
Here's another fun detail that was put in for fans of the book: When they're trying to figure out why the triceratops is sick, they give you all the hints that led to Sattler figuring it out in the book. The animals move in a giant loop and, while they don't eat the poisonous plant, they do eat small stones to help their digestion, and those stones were found near the lilac. You see Sattler picking some of them up to play with them.
In the book it's explained that when they swallowed the stones, they ingest some of the plant, which makes them sick on a regular schedule. The movie doesn't give the explanation, but there was enough there that I wonder if the mystery wasn't solved in a deleted scene.
I'm trying to remember other movies that delivered this sort of fun and well-directed adventure, and most of the films that are brought to mind are rather old. The Rocketeer is one, as is the StarGate movie. Indiana Jones is also up there. I found myself wondering how great it would have been if Speilberg had directed the Transformers movie.
Sophie, do you think we're looking at the past through rose-tinted glasses and modern films are just as good, or is this really a much better movie than you normally find in theaters?
Sophie's final thoughts
Back in my day, movies were so much better! There was plot, and subtlety! Mnyeh! It's funny, because I catch myself thinking that I'm not part of my own generation, and that kids today have terrible taste. But when we back up, we can see it's really not like the early '90s were dominated by unique and memorable films. Jurassic Park's release in 1993 was accompanied by such timeless classics as Last Action Hero and Cliffhanger. So. There's that.
And while people will bitch about Hollywood being creatively bankrupt, here we are praising a film based on a book which was, at the time of the film's release, three years old. Yes, I'd say it's fair to say we're being a little nostalgic. However, I'd definitely argue against that being a bad thing.
When we go to see films like this, that we enjoyed and appreciated once upong a time, we rarely go alone. I think there's a reason for that, and to help explain where I'm coming from, I'm going to point you to an old, but thought-provoking article on i09 that posits movie remakes are a type of modern folklore. We share these films just like we share folklore, because it means something to us, and we hope it will mean something to those around us.
As much as I wanted to see Jurassic Park again, I don't know that I would have gone to see it in theaters if I hadn't had someone who'd never seen it on a big screen to show it to. Ben: Would you have gone to see it in theaters if it hadn't been A) for work, or B) to expose your oldest child to it?
So yeah, we're nostalgic; what's wrong with that? We can look at something old with new eyes, and interpret it in a new way, and our understanding grows. Sometimes that's catching plot holes, but other times it's realizing that blockbuster movies with larger-than-life special effects can still be a movie about people.
Besides, very rarely have I seen people be nostalgic for something that doesn't deserve it. You don't see a group of trendsetting fashionistas getting all bleary-eyed over the dream of Zumbas - another icon of the '90s - one day returning to store shelves. Then again…
Damn, that's a good question. I think one of the joys of having children is the opportunity to experience these things again, and introduce your children to things you love. The first time I watched The Avengers I was alone, and I was watching it for a review I was writing that afternoon. The second time I took my son with me, and it's like I was ten years old again. It's so much more fun to see these things with children, and to get high on their excitement and joy.
Another thing that struck me is that, even though much of the science is rather suspect, the film is filled with educated people. America has a problem with trusting book smarts these days, but everyone in Jurassic Park are respected professionals in their field.
It helps that the casting is so amazing. Sam Neill, Laura Dern, Richard Attenborough and Jeff Goldblum are all respected actors, but I don't think of them as movie stars. They don't distract you with star power. It was much like the casting in Ridley Scott's Alien; you believed that these people could do this job. They all looked like they belonged there. We're so used to movies that are filled with pristine looking 20-somethings that seeing older, seasoned actors in these roles gives everything added weight and legitimacy.
I kept looking for things that betrayed the film's age. Outside of the smoking, and the CRT monitors, there is very little here that makes the movie feel dated. I doubt my son was sitting there thinking about how old the movie was, even though it's so reliant on special effects. There are good movies being released today, and there were shit movies released 20 years ago, but there's something great about returning to something that meant so much to you only to find that it's just as good as you remember. When you have kids, that feeling is only enhanced.