When director Steven Spielberg’s dinos-on-the-rampage blockbuster Jurassic Park first hit the screen in summer of 1993, twenty-two years ago now (I’ll let you process that number for a second, and let the reality of how much older you are sink in) it was a legitimate phenomenon. Promising an adventure “65 million years in the making,” the project carried the pedigree of a hugely successful 1990 novel by the legendary Michael Crichton, not to mention Spielberg at the helm, and photorealistic dinosaurs that promised to up the ante for special effects forever. It was a true game changer. For everyone but me, that is.
One of my clearest memories of sitting in the theater as a know-nothing thirteen year-old is of watching Jurassic Park for the first time and being…unimpressed. No, seriously. Now, part of that is because I waited until the movie was playing in second-run theaters before I finally saw it, so the hype machine had long since built it up into something it could never hope to measure up to, but part of that was just from being an adolescent know-it-all trying to be cooler than the cool kids.
And so I sat in the theater as the closing credits rolled on the Universal Studios release, nonplussed. “It was alrriiiiiight,” I said, with a level of assuredness wholly and embarrassingly disproportionate to my level of actual, accrued knowledge and/or experience. “But pretty soon every movie will have effects like this, so will it even matter in five years?” Seriously, if I could go back in time, I’d either smack myself on the head, or make like Bruce Willis with his Joseph Gordon-Levitt-looking younger self in Looper. It was such a goofy reaction to have, and I have no explanation for it.
The story is a familiar one by now: Eccentric billionaire John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) finds a way to extract dinosaur DNA from petrified, prehistoric mosquitoes, bringing the extinct creatures roaring back to life. Then, as eccentric billionaires are wont to do, he decides to build an elaborate theme park showcasing said dinos and fly some experts out to give it a look-see. Things go exactly as badly as you’d expect. (What I’ve always wondered is why they didn’t just clone one dinosaur. One non-human-killing dinosaur. I don’t ‘know about you, but I’d find a single brontosaurus just as amazing as a herd of velociraptors.)
I’ve seen the movie countless times since that first viewing, of course, and while I’d long since recused myself of my initial apathy, the ultimate refutation to teenage Zaki can be found in the fact that it’s now twenty-plus years later, and yes, Jurassic Park still matters. Yes, for its effects. Of course for its effects. But for more than just that. In today’s age of omnipresent CGI, what sets it apart is everything else. Its sustained ability to enrapture, to enliven, to enervate. To take the spirit and premise of the late Crichton’s best-seller and weave it into something uniquely cinematic, exemplified by our very first sight of the dinos.
Also, with two decades and change of added context, one can’t help but find a lot of entirely unintentional meta-commentary as well. As Jeff Goldblum’s deliciously off-kilter Ian Malcolm (who was at the time and remains today one of my favorite parts of the flick) intones at one point, “You didn’t earn the knowledge for yourselves, so you don’t take any responsibility for it. You stood on the shoulders of geniuses to accomplish something as fast as you could and before you even knew what you had, you patented it, and packaged it, and slapped it on a plastic lunchbox.”
Although that statement refers to hubristic scientists reviving dinosaurs with cloned DNA, it could just as easily refer to hubristic filmmakers abusing the advances pioneered here to create 1998′s Godzilla. But removed from the ooh-ing and aah-ing over the digital dinos (and tell me that T-Rex isn’t as impressive today as ever), we can focus on the show itself. Everything, from the characters (the aforementioned Golblum, Sam Neill as child-hating paleontologist Alan Grant, Laura Dern as his paleobotanist girlfriend Ellie Sattler) to the majestic John Williams score, reveals a master class in movie magic.
And it was the kind of magic that 1993 audiences were more than receptive to. After an onslaught of hype, anticipation, and lots of merchandise, Jurassic Park quickly claimed the crown for the biggest opening weekend in history (for a little while, at least) upon its mid-June premiere. It would also become the top global release of all-time by the time all was said (again, for a little while). Two decades on, it continues to entrance and engage new audiences, typifying everything the cinematic experience can and should be.
But back to summer of ‘93. Jurassic Park had been embraced by critics and regular audiences alike, and it had fully ushered in the age of digital effects that movies had been nipping around the heels of until then with stuff like The Abyss and Terminator 2. More than that, the movie’s box office and merchandising bonanza made a sequel a foregone conclusion, with home studio Universal understandably antsy to get back to the park as soon as possible. The only thing standing in the way was Steven Spielberg.