Another Walk in the Park

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Jurassic Park is one of those moviegoing experiences that holds a special place in my heart. Now, that’s not necessarily saying much. I’m a nostalgic fellow by nature, so there are a lot of films that spark strong memories for me, and I can relate most films back, fondly, to certain points in my life. But, even so, this one stands out.

You see, when Jurassic Park first hit theaters in the summer of 1993, I was a 12-year-old. That meant I was the exact right age for a Spielberg-directed action/adventure movie about (incredibly lifelike) dinosaurs to qualify as the greatest thing ever. I spent that summer completely obsessed, and ended up seeing it four times, including three viewings at my town’s beloved (and now dearly departed) single-screen theater, the Berkeley Cinema. It wasn’t the first movie to grab me like that – I was a Star Wars kid, after all – and there were plenty of other obsessions before it. But it’s still one of the earliest memories I have of being part of a full-on, zeitgeist-shattering movie event, and of giving myself completely over to that feeling.

When I went to see the film again last week for its 3D re-release, I wondered if it would have the same effect, or even an inkling of it. I’m 32 now, and movies have a tendency, sometimes fortunate, sometimes not-so-much, to change as with us. It’s unreasonable to expect them to hold the same power that they used to, but we can ask that they remind us, even just a little bit, of who we used to be. The best ones even get better and more resonant with age, but those are rare, and Jurassic Park isn’t that kind of movie.

Still, I recall my last viewing (on DVD) being a pretty hollow experience. It just didn’t have the magic it once seemed to. How could it? A 20-someting-year-old man (and I use that term loosely) doesn’t seem capable of responding to a film like this like a 12-year-old boy, to say nothing of the fact that I spent the years in between watching, studying and reading about as many films as I could.

It wasn’t just me, though. The movie itself felt emptier. Elements still worked, and I was surprised at how realistic the dinosaur effects still looked, but it felt mechanical. Even the big action sequences, which seemed incredible when was 12, didn’t have the same impact as before. I didn’t feel disillusioned exactly, but just slightly disappointed that another childhood favorite just wasn’t as good as I’d remembered it.

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There’s probably a bigger metaphor about life somewhere in there, but I’m going to leave it, because It turns out that Jurassic Park really has to be seen in a theater to be appreciated. Viewing the film on the big screen again at 32, this time in 3D, I had a blast. Perhaps more than any other movie in Spielberg’s career, this one feels designed to resemble a theme park ride. I mean, it’s about freaking dinosaurs, right? That means it demands to be seen BIG.

And it’s not just the scale of the thing that hits you. The parts of the film that work really, really work. The first 30-45 minutes is a film-school-ready lesson in economical storytelling and suspense-building, and it never feels like Spielberg and screenwriters David Koepp and Michael Crichton are simply treading water until they can get to the good stuff. In fact, I’d argue that once the dinosaurs show up and start chasing the (admittedly paper-thin) characters around, it becomes a much less interesting movie.

Which isn’t to say that Jurassic Park takes a complete nosedive in its latter two-thirds. Far from it. There’s still a palpable sense of awe in the first dinosaur reveal (the brachiosaur), made all the more powerful by John Williams’ swelling score. And the raptor sequences toward the finale are great fun, with the raptors’ viciousness nicely foreshadowed earlier in the script. But it’s that central T-Rex attack that still stands out. Watching it this time I was in awe the sheer economy of the storytelling, and how much mileage Spielberg wrings from simple shot-reaction-shot editing. It’s clear that almost 20 years on from Jaws, he was still a believer in the Hitchcockian idea that suspense is about what you don’t see vs. what you do. It’s a remarkable sequence, one worthy of Hitchcock himself, and it still plays like gangbusters.

Despite all this, however, I still can’t bring myself to admit that Jurassic Park is a great movie, and it’s not even really on par with Spielberg’s better commercial work, for a number of reasons. One is that I do think it becomes a lesser film after the T-Rex attack, as it becomes clear that at this point that the film is going to be perfectly content to simply present a series of chase sequences. The scenes comprising the first 45 minutes raise interesting questions about the ethical clash between human science and natural forces, none of which are ever really explored once the chases start. I know this violates the cardinal rule of film criticism (review the movie on the screen, not the one in your head), but this time, more than any other, I felt myself wanting to see the movie that does explore what might happen if, as Sam Neill’s Dr. Grant puts it in the film, “Dinosaurs and man, two species separated by 65 million years of evolution” are “suddenly thrown back together.” Alas, that’s not this movie.

And this would have been perfectly fine if the characters were worth caring about, but their thinness is more apparent now than it ever was. Neil’s Dr. Grant is the only one who gets any discernible arc, as he goes from child-fearing curmudgeon to surrogate father for grandchildren of Richard Attenborough’s Hammond, but it’s one that makes only a passing attempt at depth (it’s also not helped by the irritating performances of the kids, for whom the dialogue does no favors). I know the Jaws comparison is one that’s frequently made, and even though it feels lazy, it’s also impossible to ignore. Jurassic Park’s characters feel like pale stand-in for those rich, iconic ones (Muldoon for Quint, Malcolm for Hooper), making some of the later dialogue scenes tough to endure (the ice scream scene, for one, is an especially difficult sit). Spielberg (and, really, Koepp and Crichton) seem to forget that the characters are what make the monsters more interesting, not the other way around.

But none of these issues are new. They’ve always been problems with the film, and relatively minor ones when you consider that, in the end, Jurassic Park is more of an experience than anything else. If it’s not a great film, it’s a terrific roller coaster, and one that demands to be ridden on the biggest screen possible. The best thing I can say about it, 20 years on, is that seeing it this way again, I felt like in some small way, I was that 12-year-old kid again, the one who believed that if movies could put dinosaurs and humans together on the screen and make it look as real as this, then they could probably do just about anything.

One final point: the retrofitted 3D, which when done poorly can be a disaster, doesn’t really hurt the film at all. It doesn’t help much either, but because Jurassic Park feels like it fits right in with those 1950s monster movies to which it’s so clearly indebted, in this case it’s a perfectly acceptable addition.

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