Tuesday, June 12, 2018

"Jurassic Park" at 25

Shortly after I graduated from high school, the first Jurassic Park movie hit theaters.  As a bonafide blockbuster hit, it made everyone a pseudo-dino expert (there are worse things), packed folks into theaters, made Sam Neill a bankable actor who sort of shrugged that off and went off to be Sam Neill, taught us that young girls imprinted on Jeff Goldbum as a sex symbol, made us all wonder where cliffs begin and end in dinosaur paddocks, and convinced me khaki shorts were an excellent look on paleontologists.

It's now 25 years on.  Yesterday, June 11, marked the release of Jurassic Park in the U.S.

In the late 1980's and early 90's, I turned my nose up at books they sold at the grocery store, so you couldn't get me to read the Michael Crichton novel for love nor money (and everyone who read it loved it, so I'm an idiot).  While I knew who Crichton was and I'd seen Westworld, I don't remember exactly when I'd made the "amusement park goes haywire" connection.  I expect my dad just pointed it out.  That was kind of his bag.

Despite my misgivings about the novel, when the the first trailer arrived and a dinosaur snout exhaled onto glass, I was ready to give Mr. Spielberg my dough.

Jurassic Park was the first midnight release screening I ever attended - I couldn't tell you if they were common back then or not.  I know my brother was there, and Marshall says he was there, too, which sounds correct.  We got our tickets early, went to Two Pesos for some food before the film, then headed back to Willowbrook Mall for the showing.

My memory is this:  totally freaking out about every five seconds about something.  Scary dino in a box.  A look at a paleontological dig.  The first sight of the dinosaurs across an open plain.  The perfection of the amusement park vibe.  Then everything goes wrong, of course.  And I chewed through my cup's straw, then the lid, and was working my way down the cup when the movie ended.  Tiny pieces of plastic and waxed cardboard were everywhere.

Had it not been pushing 2:30 or 3:00 AM and had there been another screening, I'd have gone right back in.

I won't try to oversell my interest in dinosaurs prior to seeing the movie.  Mainly I liked going to the Museum of Natural Science in downtown Houston and looking at the full skeletons they had on display, and a few other dinosaur artifacts.  When asked to do a book report on a science-based non-fiction book in 11th grade, I picked up a book that was making the rounds at the time (but it wasn't The Dinosaur Heresies.  I can't remember what it was.).  But it's not like I had rubber dinosaurs in my room or anything.

What I was interested in at the time was how movies were put together.  And it was a pretty good time to have that interest, because magazines like Premiere were still in print and readily available.  They gave you the outside scoop on business and actors, while you could go pick up multiple magazines on monster movie FX and whatnot at any bookstore - and network TV tended to have breathless fluff pieces on the latest movie innovations as well (between the internet covering this, movies needing to keep NDAs, and everything becoming an uninteresting mass of computer programming - all of this seems to have dried up).

Part of Jurassic Park's publicity was the info they weren't shy about sharing regarding the technical achievements of the film, which appeared in various packages on TV at the time, just as T2 had pushed Robert Patrick's silvery form and the effort it took to get there.   It's not something movies push these days - I think they don't want to reveal the trick - and I don't really care to see how Iron Man isn't really Iron Man,, anyway.

But, honestly, I don't think the kids quite get what it was like to see the trailers for Jurassic Park in 1992.  And certainly not what it was like to see the movie.

We had CGI going back to the 80's, and Terminator 2 had really pushed the limits with our liquid metal Terminator pal.  Still, that was rotoscoping covered up by science-fictiony, physics-warping stuff.  Before Jurassic Park you didn't ever really see realistic-looking creatures.  Animals with heft and skin and particular movements were simply unheard of.  Literally, up to that point, we were still all very used to Go-Motion, thanks to Phil Tippett as master of stop-motion photography.  And had the movie featured that sort of work and not opted for CGI, no one would have blinked.  Paired with animatronic puppets for close-ups and whatnot, and likely shot in shadow, the movie would have still been state of the art - just a different art.

But, yeah, all of a sudden there's a gigantic brachiosaur with wobbling skin, a particular gate and smooth walk-cycles wandering across a field.  There's a T-Rex chasing your car.  There's something called a velociraptor tearing things up.  Dennis Muren, one of the three giant names of FX working on the movie, worked closely with Tippett and - hey, magic was made!

There's less CGI in Jurassic Park than you probably recall.  Stan Winston's team built the to-scale animatronic puppets, including the life-sized T-Rex and Velociratoprs.  I have to assume he made a brachiosaur head or two as well.  And if you don't know Stan Winston, get yourself educated.

Really, it's only because there wasn't a Dinosaur-Man that Rick Baker wasn't also wandering the set.

What's amazing is how well those puppets and the CGI hold up today - and, in fact, because the movie is so CGI light in terms of number of shots, a lot of that "they look so real!" is because there was a rubber puppet with intricate servos making the eyes change, etc... that was shot as a practical effect.  It's not just the dawn of a new technology, it's the apex of a traditional one.

Muren, Tippett and Winston, man.

The legacy of CGI is a rocky road.  It has not done more harm than good, but it's only the past four or five years that I think movies are getting over the fact that they *can* put almost anything on screen, as long as it takes place in partial light and a sandstorm.  And we all know movies that have forgotten how to better tell a story or build to a point because they want to rush to show where they spent the money.

I should write more about how this movie includes yet another iconic score by John Williams.  and it does.  But you know that.  That it's 2018 and we have no obvious replacement (a couple of gold star contenders, but no obvious heir to the throne) is a sad state of affairs.  But, hey, we've got it and as long as Universal keeps Jurassic Park in front of people, we'll have the music.

Jurassic Park had a fascinatingly mixed bag of a cast - what with Jeff Goldblum probably the closest thing to a household name in the movie, and including indie-film folks Sam Neill (whom I'd just seen in Until the End of the World - recommended) and, of course, Laura Dern (who had just ensured I'd completed puberty by starring in David Lynch's 1990 film Wild at Heart).  Here they're cast as PhD paleontologists recruited by Richard Attenborough's eccentric billionaire, John Hammond.   Throw in a just-on-the-brink-of-stardom Samuel L. Jackson and Sienfeld's Wayne Knight, two amazingly un-obnoxious kids, and not an Arnie or Sly Stallone in the bunch, and you got great performances and no one re-writing the movie to turn it into a star vehicle.

And if you don't think movies were star-driven in the 80's and 90's... hoo boy.   Luckily, this was Spielberg, and he knew the stars were the dinosaurs - so you get real actors to sell them.

Honestly, the lack of a big, brawny action hero to carry the movie was kind of fascinating to me at this point in my young, movie going life as I was trying to take apart movies to get how they worked.  We could have a pure scientist as our POV character, he could be a bit skeptical even as he was wowed by the wonders of science outside his realm.  Our heroes had intellectual curiosity and pugnacity (if Laura Dern's Laura Dern-ness hadn't already won me over, Dr. Sattler digging in dino-poo like it's no big thing was weirdly grounding for the character).  Add in Goldblum's rockstar physicist, smart-alecking his way through the chaos, and it was a curious ensemble.  Not exactly Predator's squad of muscle-bound he-men.  And all the more buyable and fun because of it.

Sure, this is the period past Jaws and ET when Spielberg's characters had felt just oddly real (go back and watch Roy Schieder's domestic scenes in Jaws... just amazing).  But by now Spielberg had ET under his belt and a family of his own.  He wasn't afraid to find the ways to make the precociousness of the kids a tad offputting but nonetheless charming in the longrun once Dr. Grant (Neill) warms up to them.  And just prior to the T-Rex attack, everything about the sibling squabbling feels like any other siblings bickering in a car.

It's more than the well-crafted dialog (hiding exposition in almost every line) - it's also the realization of "Jurassic Park" as a soon-to-open amusement park.  From the lodge/ hotel/ science lab with a ride and a hokey Mr. DNA host to guide you along, to the massive King Kong-like gates and "Jurassic Park" in a studiously designed adventure-land font - it all feels like what *would* happen if someone did want to open such a place, right down to the dining room and gift shop.

Short Carpenter's The Thing and possibly Mad Max: Fury Road, it's impossible for me to think of a movie that delivered on tension in a film that I also thoroughly enjoyed and wanted to watch again immediately than Jurassic Park.

I wound up seeing it at least three times in the theater, including with some friends and their mom, who about tore my arm off during one of the Velociraptor sequences.  When I arrived at UT Austin, it was with Jurassic Park pillow cases, because no one was going to tell me I couldn't have a kid's pillowcase, plus Brachiosaurs.  There were toys, but I had neither budget nor inclination to pay for dinosaur toys that weren't any better than the rubber dinosaurs you could get elsewhere (each was branded with a JP logo, I remember, as they tried to separate themselves from what anyone with a toy mold could put out there).

My roommate during one year of college had a laser-disc player and I recall watching a "making of" disc, which was really a technical marvel.  Not only did it go into great detail regarding the technology behind the movie, it introduced you to real paleontologists, not the least of which was Jack Horner, who talked about dinosaurs as animals, not monsters roaminga  firey landscape like in the books we'd grown up with.  I'm sure Horner probably felt it was cheesy - but we all learned about dinosaur hip structure and evolution.  It wasn't a total waste.

By 1994, I, and everyone else at UT who could get the class, would pack into a 450 seat auditorium to take Age of the Dinosaurs, a suddenly very popular course that spent a 1/4 of its time unpacking bad science reporting and what Jurassic Park got wrong or made up. 

The surge in dino-mania led to those Dinosaurs Alive! touring shows with animatronic dinosaurs and tinny soundtracks of roaring, which I remember going to see at a museum with Jamie when we started dating.

Of course the Dern-less sequel came along, and while the basic set-up was more or less fine, you could tell Spielberg was over it and just wanted to make a rampaging dinosaur movie, harkening back to The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and it's ilk (like the borrowed-named "The Lost World").  Spielberg had a weird insertion of gymnastics in the film that I still ponder over no matter how long it's been since I watched the movie.  I saw the sequel in a rambunctious theater where people would occasionally shout advice to characters on screen, and Jurassic Park 2 was a sorta perfect movie for this robust audience participation.  It also had the hilarious bit with the Phillips 66 ball rolling by that I still find very funny.

By the third, workman-like movie - this time directed by Joe "some of my stuff is great, some is just okay" Johnston - I was kinda done with Jurassic Park.  While I recall enjoying Neill (and a cameo-ish performance by Dern) the movie just felt like it was going through the motions and with only Neill to care about, Tea Leoni and William H. Macy managing to play two terribly aggravating characters who set up a pointless lie to start a recovery mission for their missing son, who, magically is not eaten in the weeks it would take to get their mission together.  What had made the first one work was fading away - we were getting characters who did dumb things so the movie could happen, not people making mistakes or caught up in circumstance.

I flat out skipped Jurassic World in theaters, eventually catching it on streaming.  The first trailers looked promising, but the last trailers felt like a warning.  When I did get around to seeing the film it was - I'm sorry, planet earth - pretty awful.

Unlike Spielberg's set-up of a park that felt oddly buyable, Jurassic World was populated by cartoon characters making stupid decisions in a park set-up that seemed designed specifically for ensuring catastrophe.  Further, the insistence that park attendance was down - so we need to make a magical cross-bred monstrosity with human intelligence or something - then every shot of Jurassic World is a park that's packed wall-to-wall with victims/ people.

And, of course, now we did have a muscle-bound he-man of a hero to crack wise as he saved the day and made his sexy but uptight boss swoon with his heroism and devil-may-care attitude.  Even the CGI was that weird gray-blue stuff that never has any weight to it - and why a movie made 20 years after the original should look worse?  I have no idea.  But there you are.

So, no, I won't go see the sequel to Jurassic World, either.

If I stumble across Jurassic Park on cable, sure, I'll usually give it at least a couple of minutes, and I've been known to just watch it straight through to the end.  Sure, it has the goofy "This is a Linux system!" bit, and a few other things that didn't age very well (including a lack of redundancy and terrible, terrible ignorance of Best Practices when it comes to system administration).

It's still one of the best no-harm-no-foul thrill ride movies I've seen, something I would watch with my mom.  And it has some of the best designed and executed sequences for building tension.

Okay.  If you read this far, you've earned this. NSFW:


Stuart said...

LOL on the khaki shorts thing.

mcsteans said...

1) Due to a medically-rough summer I didn't originally see Jurassic Park until August '93. I'm eternally grateful to my mother, who had obviously already seen it, for warning me about the power-box jump scare. I still jumped, but probably would have pissed myself had I not known. My friend next to me uncharacteristically full on screamed. Thanks, mom.

2) We still have the Jurassic Park pillowcase.

3) Upon arriving at Iao Valley state park in Hawaii three years ago, Ryan and I slowly emerged from the rental car and both started singing "Holy F***ing S***, it's a dinosaur".

Simon MacDonald said...

This is the one “Dad” movie that Anna will sit down and watch with me anytime I want. It’s held up so well even today’s jaded teens like it.