Logan’s Moving Pictures ventures back 65 Million Years (not really, just back to 1993- which may seem that long ago to some of our readers) to take on the adventure that is … Steven Spielberg’s JURASSIC PARK.
In the summer of 1993, I was fourteen years old. My parents had been divorced for a few years by then, so summers didn’t just mean a break from school, they also meant splitting weeks between the two halves of my family. When we were with my dad it usually meant helping him with his business (stories and explanations for another day, alas) and watching plenty of movies at home. With my mom, it usually meant beach trips. As a fair-skinned kid with red hair, the beach was not usually where I wanted to be. But, at some point that summer Panama City Beach was where I was.
We were there with my Aunt Joy (Mom’s sister) and Uncle Benny, the parents of my cousin B.J., whom I’ve mentioned here before. His brothers Daniel and Michael were, of course, along for the trip, as well as my brother and sisters. On this particular day, we happened to be getting rained out of our beach-going, so it was decided by those with the money that we’d all be taking a trip to the movies.
I know it was early July because, once we got to the theatre, we wound up splitting into groups, all going to different movies. Most of the group, Ryan included, elected to go see the comedy masterpiece that was Rookie of the Year. All but three of us that is. Myself, B.J., and my sister Blake, we three…we elected to take the ultimate ride. We boarded our seats and prepared for the journey through Jurassic Park. And it changed my life.
I was born less than two years after Star Wars premiered on screens across the country, and while my very first movie-going memory is of seeing Return of the Jedi, those movies were such an indelible part of my childhood that I honestly took their magic for granted. They were just these movies that had always existed. My Dad loved them, hell most of my family loved them, we had all the toys, we pretended to be the heroes and villains when we ran amok outside, and they were just always on. Star Wars wasn’t magic when I was growing up, it was just part of my life.
Outside of our yearly Christmas outings, as mentioned in other volumes, I don’t vividly recall too many movie goings with my dad. Possibly because there wasn’t a ton, especially by the time there were four of us…then six when my dad remarried! It’s expensive to take 4-6 kids to go see a movie, even in the ‘80s and ‘90s. So, we rented a lot of stuff. A LOT of stuff. My dad also loved to record anything he could when the free HBO weekends happened once a quarter. He’d have two or three VCRs going at once.
Kids ask your parents to explain that entire paragraph. Actually, maybe your grandparents by now…My point, as a kid most of my experiences with the movies that changed the world came on the small screen. So it wasn’t until the summer of 1993, in Panama City, Florida, that I truly understood the power of the cinematic experience.
Jurassic Park was already a phenomenon by the time Blake, BJ and I sat down to watch it. We were so excited the three of us demolished a large bag of popcorn and finished off our Cokes before the trailers had even finished playing. The tension certainly built as the opening began to unfold, and by the time we were seeing our first khaki-clad dino-victim the three of us were on the edge of our seats. And I don’t think we ever left that position.
We got to meet Doctor’s Ellie Sattler and Alan Grant, the latter trolling a young enthusiast with his raptor tales, interrupted by John Hammond in his poor Colonel Sanders cosplay. Then we met the charmingly creepy (or is it creepily charming?) Ian Malcolm, as well as the doomed-from-the-start lawyer, Gennaro, and finally the children, Tim and Lex. Both are adorably annoying, featuring that ever-popular trope of being wise beyond their years.
I’m being flip, but I’ll spoil the surprise and tell you that Jurassic Park was my favorite film of all time, right up until I saw Shawshank Redemption a few years later. It’s still second on my list. I love every single frame of it, even the ones that don’t make sense. Especially the ones that don’t make sense! And I know I’m not alone in my feelings for this film, for a lot of kids in that era it was their Star Wars. Spurred on by the love of Michael Crichton’s book, Spielberg somehow combining his penchants for both blockbuster and family-centered cinema, or just our inherent fascination with dinosaurs, it ignited something in so many people and became a phenomenon. I can’t speak to where everyone else fell in love with the cinematic world of Jurassic Park though, I can only tell you the moment it grabbed my heart, and it’s a scene that still gives me chills to this day.
Before our adult protagonists meet up with Tim and Lex, they find themselves riding through a field, Ellie plucking a leaf and marveling at the fact that it’s a plant that should not…could not exist. The jeep comes to a stop as she rambles on, and Alan Grant reaches down and gently directs her attention to the reasons they’ve now stopped. John Williams’ score begins to rise as the world of Jurassic Park opens up around them, and we see living, breathing dinosaurs.
As I’ve mentioned, I didn’t get to first experience Star Wars and Luke watching the twin suns setting on Tatooine on the big screen. I know that is a scene many folks who did often describe as one of the most powerful images of their movie-going lives, but I first saw it on a television. Our first look at the behemoths of Jurassic Park as they traipse the landscape makes me fully understand what that must have been like for them. What it must have been like in 1939 when Dorothy opened the door to her drab Kansas farmhouse and stepped out into the brilliant land of Oz. It was magic.
I’ve loved movies my entire life, but that moment was where I fell in love with the theatrical experience. It’s where I understood that, as great as it is to sit on your couch and eat snacks, to pause, rewind, rewatch, to just be comfortable…there is magic inside the walls of a theatre, as AMC’s current promo with Nicole Kidman poorly reminds us. There’s something you can’t get anywhere else, in any other environment, and I would spend the next twenty-five years of my life chasing that experience. I’m honestly not sure I ever found another moment that was quite that powerful. There have been some that come close, but those are stories for another time.
I saw Jurassic Park seven times that year. Until Con Air, it was the film I’d seen in theatres more than any other and remains tied with The Brothers Bloom for the film I’ve paid to see the most. Every chance I could I went back, though there’s only one other viewing that I remember with the clarity of that first.
We were at The Phenix Twin, a two-screen theatre in the small Alabama town my Dad lived in, just over the bridge from my hometown of Columbus, Ga. I’m not sure of everyone that was there, only that my other sister, Kelly, and at least one of her friends were. I’d seen the movie three or four times by then, well enough to know all the big moments. I’d sat several rows back from them, probably at her insistence; no one wants to sit with their big brother at the movies. That was fine.
Everything unfolded, the park went to hell, the T-Rex wreaked havoc and I was loving every second of whatever viewing this was. By this point nothing in the film was a surprise, so seeing Kelly and her friend react to every tense moment, every scare, every heroic beat from only a few rows behind her, was just as enjoyable. None more so than when our band of heroes finally get the park’s power back online. As Dr. Sadler primed the grid, I got out of my seat and very quietly moved up towards their row. Just as she finished, saying into her headset “I think we’re back in business,” well, a raptor bursts through some wires. Since I knew it was coming, now half crouched in the row behind Kelly, I grabbed the back of their seats and just started screaming.
I think they jumped a full-on into the next row I scared them so badly.
I love Jurassic Park. I know I’m not alone in that, and as evidenced by all of the talk around the franchise as it comes to its close (at least for the foreseeable future) I know I’m not alone in appreciating that first look we had of the dinosaurs. It’s actually a relief to know how near and dear that moment is to so many people. Most especially to the actor that gave it to us, Sam Neil, who improvised Dr. Grant’s near-fainting stutter step. He knew what that moment would mean to that character and to all of us watching. He knew that magic isn’t just about selling it to your audience, but also believing in it yourself.
The history of cinema is littered with stories about people who went to see a movie and walked away believing in the impossible. There’s an urban legend that says the Lumiere Brothers, pioneers of the silent era, once caused a panic when showcasing some footage of a train leaving its station. The story goes, viewers were so concerned that the locomotive was going to plow through the screen and kill them that they left their seats and stampeded towards the exits.
Disney’s Snow White was such an astounding achievement at the time that they created a special Oscar specifically to honor it. Two years later, in 1939, The Wizard of Oz would create that same type of wonder, only in live action. 2001: A Space Odyssey was so well crafted some people are convinced we faked the moon landing and hired Stanley Kubrick to help us believe it. Jaws still has such a hold on us that we think shark attacks are a common thing. Superman, Star Wars, Terminator 2, The Matrix, Avatar, and yes, Jurassic Park…every era…every generation…every cinephile has a film that helped them understand that movies are magic. Sometimes that magic is terrifying, sometimes it’s awe-inspiring, occasionally even life-changing…and if you’re really lucky it’s all three.