WHEN DINOSAURS RULED THE EARTH
I can’t recall exactly when I first ventured into Jurassic Park.
Spielberg’s adaptation of Michael Crichton’s novel came to cinemas in June 1993, but — being two at the time — I didn’t see it there. After its theatrical run, the film didn’t make its way to VHS until October ’94, so I was at least three by the time I first set eyes on Isla Nublar. Maybe four. It was somewhere around there, though: my first truly concrete memories of my time in this world start around age five, and it was definitely part of my life by then. It feels as though it always has been.
It’s part of me, Jurassic Park, and so setting out to try to describe what it means to me — what it is to me — is a daunting task, one I’ve thought so difficult to adequately accomplish that the section of The JHN Files dedicated to Jurassic has, so far, dealt almost exclusively with Jurassic World. Unfortunate though it is, I find it infinitely easier to critique things I don’t like than to properly express my feelings for those I do… and to say that I merely ‘like’ Jurassic Park is right up there with the most extreme understatements of all time.
I wanted to take my time with it, to do it right, to — hopefully… — give a sense of just how much I care. What better time to finally give it a shot than #JurassicJune?
I’ll start at the beginning. Where it all began. On an island, a hundred and twenty miles west of Costa Rica.
‘WELCOME TO JURASSIC PARK.’
If it wasn’t blindingly obvious already, I like Jurassic Park. Quite a bit.
It is, by a considerable stretch, my favourite film of all time. I won’t pretend it’s flawless, but my handful of issues pale in comparison to how I feel about the rest of it. By now — over twenty years from that initial viewing — I must’ve watched it over a hundred times, and can say (without the slightest exaggeration) that I could easily watch it a hundred more. I never tire of it, never get bored or lose interest, never fail to hope with each sitting that maybe things will go differently this time, that the park will succeed.
What is it, then? What is it that keeps me coming back, over, over and over again to a film I know forwards, backwards, inside-out, upside-down and sideways? The overarching question of what Jurassic Park means to be may be difficult to answer, but this one is just the opposite: it’s the park.
I love the characters, and I love the dinosaurs, but, ultimately, Jurassic Park — whether the Visitor Centre and the paddocks, or out in the close, pressing jungle or sweeping, open fields — was (and is still) at the core of it all.
I spent years of my childhood imagining that everywhere I went was part of the place, elements of the real world filling in for the fact that we don’t see all that much of the actual park in the film. Every field became somewhere where I might stumble upon some bones, or a herd of gallimimus — every wooded area somewhere where I might find a well-hidden Maintenance Shed. And the high, concrete walls of a nearby motorway were there to keep the carnivores from getting to passing travellers.
At some point between the ages of seven and ten, I arranged my various dinosaur toys and figures in my back garden, pinned a Lost World badge to the lapel of a suit, and opened my very own park to a surprised and delighted… me.
By the time that park closed its gate for the final time a few years later, it had evolved considerably. Toys were just one element, by then relegated to a ‘Danger Zone’ complete with electric fences that seemed infinitely more than just lengths of string attached to various sticks driven into the ground.
Elsewhere, there were various books about dinosaurs — magazines, too. There was even a rudimentary Jurassic Park: The Ride: a go-kart that (for the bargain price of 5P) would slide down an inclined ladder decorated with various bits of foliage and topped-off with an old pipe that, with a hose inserted at one end, provided the park with its very own waterfall. To keep things running smoothly — and to ensure none of the park’s ‘assets’ went missing… — various cousins and other kids from my street were roped in as staff.
Spared no expense.
In the film, Jurassic Park becomes somewhere to be escaped from. For me, it’s anything but. If it existed somewhere today, I’d be there in a heartbeat. No matter the expense, no matter the danger, I’d follow life’s example, and find a way.
obsession fascination with the park is the through line of my relationship with the entire franchise. It’s why my favourite parts of both The Lost World and Jurassic Park III are those in which the characters visit abandoned InGen facilities, and a major factor in why I was so disappointed with Jurassic World, which somehow managed to mishandle both the open park, and the ruins of its predecessor.
Of course, the park itself isn’t alone in casting Jurassic’s spell.
‘A WHOLE MARCH OR SOMETHING…’
While Hammond’s ‘biological preserve’ may be my first love of the franchise, I often wonder if I would’ve connected with it quite as much without John Williams’ score.
It’s that score that really sells Isla Nublar as somewhere amazing, welcoming us to the island with, as I called it when I was a kid, ‘the pointy music’, and underscoring, in the beginning, the wonder of the place and its dinosaurs; then becoming darker as chaos becomes the order of the day, before reminding us at the close, as we board that helicopter and leave it all behind, of the dream that could’ve been.
It’s no small thing that one of the first things that springs to mind when thinking of a film so visually memorable as Jurassic Park is its music, music that has been reprised in every film since, stealing the proverbial show each and every time.
Though there are still at least two Jurassic World films to come, I reckon it’s pretty much inevitable that someone will — at some point down the line — hit the reboot button on Jurassic.
As attached as I am to the original films, I find the thought compelling (a more faithful adaptation of Michael Crichton’s novel could be incredible) — but I often think that, should it happen, the main themes of the original soundtrack must carry over in some form. They’re the soul of Jurassic, those themes, and any future entries in the franchise would, I think, be poorer without them.
The iconic, instantly-recognisable themes aren’t everything, though: Jurassic Park is chock-full of memorable tracks. It was only recently though, whilst watching the film with the soundtrack performed live alongside it that I came to appreciate the economy of how it’s used in the film, scenes such as the escape of the T. rex proving all the more immersive for their complete lack of score.
For my younger self, however, there was another factor behind that sense of immersion.
‘I BRING SCIENTISTS, YOU BRING A ROCK STAR.’
Simply put, when I made that initial trip to Isla Nublar, I hadn’t the slightest idea of who any of the cast were. Untainted by memories of their previous work, said cast members were, to my mind, not actors at all, but their characters through-and-through.
I didn’t see Sam Neill traipsing across the island with Lex and Tim, but Alan Grant; didn’t see Laura Dern question whether the animals were eating West Indian lilac, but Ellie Sattler; didn’t see Jeff Goldblum sitting by himself, talking to himself, but Ian Malcolm — and didn’t see Richard Attenborough stand on the crest of that hill and welcome us all to his park, but John Hammond.
It’s not the first thing that springs to mind when I sit down and think about why I love Jurassic Park, this point, but I have no doubt of its significance. To this very day, even having seen each of them in a fair number of other projects, I still see characters first, actors second, when I sit down to watch Jurassic — still think of their Jurassic selves rather than their actual selves when I encounter them elsewhere. I saw Alan Grant before Sam Neill in the terrific Hunt for the Wilderpeople, saw Dr. Sattler before Laura Dern in The Fault in Our Stars. The list goes on…
There is, however, one character who I always think of as actor first, character second.
It’s odd, but there’s always a part of me surprised to find Samuel L. Jackson in Jurassic Park.
That I think of him, rather than his character, isn’t a commentary on his performance, though, merely a reflection of the fact that I find the thought of Samuel L. being trapped in Jurassic Park funnier than I care to admit.
As he said in a spectacular video on that there YouTube: ‘Enough is enough! I’ve had it with these mother-effin’ raptors on this mother-effin’ island!’
Hold onto your butts, indeed.
‘NOW, EVENTUALLY YOU MIGHT HAVE DINOSAURS…?’
I don’t know about you, but, to me, it speaks volumes about Jurassic Park that there’s so much to talk about before we even get to the dinosaurs. And, to be perfectly honest, I don’t have a great deal to say about them. I like them as much as I like the rest of the film, but they lead directly into those few things I don’t like about it, and to ignore those things would be utterly disingenuous of me. So, here we go…
‘WHAT SPECIES IS THIS?’
Chief amongst my criticisms is the praise Jurassic gets for portraying accurate dinosaurs. I can’t help but scratch my head at that one, because although much of the scientific community agreed that the T. rex pretty much looked and moved as they would’ve expected it to at the time, some of the other stars of the film are wholly, intentionally, inaccurate.
In reality, the dilophosaurus was a ten-foot beast, rather than the diminutive, frilled creature that Nedry encounters in the jungle. Michael Crichton himself admitted that both the aforementioned frill, and the animal’s ability to spit venom, were cases of having taken artistic license — something Spielberg took advantage of, too, greatly reducing the size of the thing to avoid confusion with the velociraptors. I don’t like this much.
It’s understandable, certainly, but I think it’s a bit of an insult to the audience’s intelligence, and robs us of the incredible spectacle a ten-foot dilophosaur would’ve been.
It’s with the velociraptors, though, that the film truly stumbles.
Jurassic Park‘s velociraptors are iconic. There’s no doubt about it. The T. rex my grace the franchise’s various logos, but the raptors are the real stars of the show. Thing is, they’re not velociraptors.
As with the dilophosaurs, this inaccuracy has its roots in the novel, and — again, as with the dilophosaurs — I understand, but don’t much like, the reasoning for it. Though they’re still a little too large to fit, Jurassic‘s raptors are, in both film and novel, modelled after the closely-related deinonychus, but are referred to as ‘velociraptors’ because Crichton thought it sounded more dramatic.
The real shame here is that, in its dinosaurs having been tampered with from the beginning, Jurassic Park has the perfect opportunity to address this, but doesn’t. I might not like the abysmal Jurassic World very much, but at least, with Dr. Wu’s comments to Masrani that much of the animals would be different were their DNA pure, it takes a step in the right direction.
By far my biggest issue with the film, though, isn’t how the dinosaurs are presented, but how they behave — well, how one in particular behaves.
Though Jurassic’s dinosaurs have, as the films have gone on, drifted more and more towards being the ‘theme park monsters’ Dr. Grant dismisses them as in Jurassic Park III, the animals were, in the beginning at least, portrayed as just that: animals. The raptors and the Rex hunt because it’s their nature, the gallimimus flock because it’s in theirs, and the brachiosaurs do indeed move in herds.
But there’s one glaring exception to all this, and it comes right at the end of the adventure, when, just as Grant and co. are about to become dinner for a certain Big One, the tyrannosaur swoops down out of nowhere and puts an end to the raptors.
Accompanied by a rousing reprise of the iconic fanfare, it’s a triumphant moment, and there is an appreciable irony to the humans being saved by an animal that just spent half the film hunting them — but it’s just too cheesy.
It presents the Rex as the hero of the film, rather than an animal just doin’ its thing.
Seeing/hearing it play out with the original soundtrack improves things a little, but there are other fundamental problems with that scene, too. Sure, the mechanics are in place — the wall of the Visitor Centre through which the Rex enters was indeed unfinished, and it did spend the film making its way across the island, too — but where are the thunderous footsteps signalling its approach? Why don’t the characters so much as glance in the direction of the massive creature before it strikes? There’s plenty of tension in that scene, but where’s the build-up to its payoff?
It’s ignorance of logic in favour of spectacle, and though I love Jurassic Park more than I can say, it’s the one thing I genuinely, 100% don’t like about it.
And then, of course, there’s the novel.
‘DINO DNA!’: MICHAEL CRICHTON’S JURASSIC PARK
The real meat of this particular point belongs in it’s own article, one that’s firmly on the list of things I’d like to get around to writing, but the gist of it is this: Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park is better than the film.
It’s a difficult point to make, given that I love the film so very much, but I can’t pretend that the book it stems from doesn’t make for a significantly better adventure. You’ll find elements of it scattered throughout each of the films that made it to the screen, but there’s little I wouldn’t give to see someone take a stab at a straight adaptation someday.
True, I’d miss Richard Attenborough’s infinitely more pleasant version of Hammond, but there’s a certain brilliance in Crichton’s portrayal of him as ‘the dark side of Walt Disney’, and I much prefer the version of Grant found within the pages of that book — a man who likes kids because it’s hard not to be fond of a group so unreservedly enthusiastic about dinosaurs.
There’s a lot more Malcolm in there, too, and more than a few potentially incredible scenes. The stampede? Rex-hunting with Muldoon and Gennaro? Sneaking past a sleeping Rex? The river scene? Ellie distracting the raptors?
As I mentioned above, I think it’s pretty much inevitable that someone will reboot Jurassic someday, and I hope that, when they do, they follow that book a lot more closely than Spielberg did.
‘SPARED NO EXPENSE…’
Still, I can’t pretend I’d rather that version had come to the screen in ’93.
I obviously couldn’t miss it if I didn’t know it ever existed, but I find it deeply unpleasant to imagine a world in which Spielberg’s Jurassic Park isn’t a thing, a world in which John Williams’s soundtrack isn’t among the most listened-to things in my iTunes library, and in which I wouldn’t, therefore, be sitting here now, trying to sum up what the film it belongs to means to me.
Trying… but not necessarily succeeding.
Though I’ll probably think of stuff to add as time goes on, I’ve written as best as I can about it at the moment, tried to cover the majority of my thoughts as succinctly as possible — but, in truth, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to adequatley sum up what Jurassic Park means to me.
That being said, however, I think I can take a shot at telling you what it is…
It’s being somewhere between the ages of four and ten, sitting cross-legged on the floor of a room turned golden by the light filtering through its curtains. It’s sliding that increasingly battered tape into the VCR, staring up at that old square TV, and heading off to Nublar for the sixty-five millionth time.
It’s always knowing how the story will end, but hoping still that this time — maybe this time — Jurassic Park will find a way.