Dir. Steven Spielberg. Starring Sam Neill, Richard Attenborough, Laura Dern
As a general rule, I don’t make a habit of seeing blockbusters in theaters. Most of them don’t really interest me, and I am in deep superhero-movie fatigue; the concept of the Marvel Universe painstakingly coming to film after film after film, an idea that would have interested me ten years ago, just makes me tired now: am I really supposed to keep up with all of it? And care every time about the same people doing the same things? It’s totally exhausting, and the more tired one is, the easier it is to become numb to what happens on the big screen.
Here’s a thing that I wrote about The Force Awakens, a movie which I like a little less than Jurassic Park:
Aside: I’m bothered as heck by the destruction of the Hosnian system, which I think is the low point in the film; I’m not bothered by the destruction of the Hosnian system as a historical event, and that’s a huge problem, a huge failure on the part of the filmmakers. Not only do we have to go through the motions of “Golly, a Death Star!” again, we also watch five planets and a fleet get incinerated and feel absolutely nothing. Like, wow, it’s a Death Star that can hit five targets at once, and that’s big, but, uh, thanks for the shot of like, twenty innocent people screaming when they died, because I’ve never seen The Avengers or Transformers or Gettysburg for that matter, and innumerable nameless deaths in film still affect me.
Jurassic Park, unlike The Force Awakens or The Avengers or Transformers (or even Gettysburg), kills people with names. No one dies without us knowing who they were; no one dies in their first scene in the movie, or even their fourth. And even if Nedry or Gennaro don’t matter to us very much – even if you weren’t very invested in Arnold or Muldoon – their deaths matter. Nedry dies and suddenly there are hours before the power can be restored; Arnold and Muldoon die, and it’s a sign of the Velociraptors’ cleverness and of the thinning margin for error; and, of course, there’s the undeniable humor of watching a “bloodsucking lawyer” eaten by a T-rex from his hiding place atop a toilet. In other words, Jurassic Park, a film as distant from Jaws in years as it is Transformers: The Dark of the Moon, is one of the last blockbusters capable of making us feel anything. (Those three movies, incidentally, are each points on a blockbuster arc that begins with The Godfather and ends with The Avengers: each one feels grabby and sensationalist in its own time, and each one signifies a different trend or motive in summertime film.) While technologically brilliant for 1993 – like Star Wars, the fact that people had to build without relying solely on computers makes the whole thing feel more real and gripping – Jurassic Park could never have succeeded while up against, say, Jurassic World. It simply doesn’t awe you. It invests you, but it doesn’t knock you over; put more cynically, the first purpose of the movie wasn’t to make you say “Whoa!” but “Ooh!” As we trend more towards a cinema of feelies, helmed, weirdly enough, by Avatar, Jurassic Park is incapable of making you feel every blade of grass. What makes Jurassic Park work is a self-contained story that flits back and forth between monster movie and disaster movie, like The Poseidon Adventure if Bruce from Jaws had been tailing the boat for ninety minutes. It seems like at the end of the movie that there isn’t much room for sequels. Everyone understands that the idea of Jurassic Park is terrible, could have been worse despite numerous deaths, and Isla Nubar needs to be isolated for good. Obviously, sequels happened anyway, but Jurassic Park was a movie unto itself, not a purposefully distended, open-ended franchise kick-off. They hadn’t all started making Jurassic Park 2 in their heads yet.
Another thing that I appreciate about Jurassic Park is that while spectacle is certainly part of the equation, the spectacle is not just destruction. Avatar, which is not the King of the Feelies for nothing, also manages to balance death and destruction with fairly peaceful spectacle; there are long stretches of the movie where nothing gets blown up, and nothing is in danger of being blown up, and while there is some peril (think about Jake’s attempt to become Ikran Makto), the peril has small stakes. Watching the scene with the banshees in the Hallelujah Mountains on the big screen is enough to take one’s breath away not from concern, but from wonder. The 1993 equivalent is seeing great Brachiosaurs striding along the plains, looking fairly good even in the present day; for viewing audiences who might have thought the “Money for Nothing” music video was hot stuff in the mid-80s, that must have been simply incredible. In Jurassic World, the Mosasaurus eating a shark does something similar, and yet despite how real it looks, it fails to amaze in the same way that the Brachiosaurs in Jurassic Park do. Perhaps it’s Sam Neill who conditions us to be stupefied by the dinosaurs in the way that seeing a crowd of people who would watch Shamu otherwise just doesn’t. (I’m reminded of how Life magazine tried to get pictures of the Vehicle Assembly Building at Cape Canaveral which would help readers at home understand its incredible size. Unfortunately, there’s nothing around the VAB that helps people comprehend just how titanic it is, and for that reason the VAB is hard to put into perspective. Jurassic Park gives you the perspective. Avatar does too, to its credit, even though it has to build the viewer’s perspective from scratch. Jurassic World doesn’t.) Jurassic Park recognizes, too, that there’s nothing wrong with extending the spectacle of dinosaurs as something mostly benign even further. Ellie Sattler tries to help a sick Triceratops, which gives us a chance to see the dinosaurs up close and realize that they, like another animal, can get sick. Or consider the scene where Lex gets sneezed on by a friendly dinosaur; this happens after we’ve seen some nasty stuff happen to people who run into the dinosaurs, and we are fully aware of their destructive power. Yet that scene with dinosaur snot is as lighthearted as any other moment in the film, while simultaneously every bit as calculated as Hulk throwing Loki around in The Avengers or “I’ll never let go, Jack” in Titanic. Feeling in film, especially in blockbusters, is hard to have any other way, but there’s something about the dinosaur moments in Jurassic Park that makes the calculation feel like it happened in some other room rather than right in front of you; it feels authentic in the same way that the deaths of Muldoon or Gennaro are authentically moving. Around many of the herbivorous dinosaurs, Jurassic Park feels like a fabulous idea; you can fool yourself into thinking that if they didn’t have the Tyrannosaurus or the Velociraptors there, this might still be a good idea.
Twenty-plus years later, the Velociraptors have become the most memorable part of the movie, which I find fascinating. Speaking as someone who started gaining sentience after Jurassic Park came out – and while I can’t prove this, I have no doubt that it was easier for people to find dinosaur books for a five-year-old after that movie was released – the Tyrannosaurus was still cool back then. It resonates with people. It’s so big! And the head is huge! And the teeth! And the tiny little arms that give him a weird personality! The movie, like the book, recognizes that the T-rex is the most stunning dinosaur, but both also recognize that the raptors, faster and smarter and stronger than wolves, are the most dangerous. (What dinophiles will be more than happy to tell you is that for this movie, the Velociraptors are made about human-size, when in fact they were far, far smaller.) Of course, now everyone understands that the raptors, who get a little less than half an hour of plot time in a two hour movie, are the true monsters in this monster movie, not the Tyrannosaur who towers over them and saves the day at the end. Maybe now, audiences and movie executives alike, recognize that there is strength in numbers.