Classic tv & film retrospectives

by Alastair McFly

 

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Jurassic Park

Jurassic Park

An adventure 65 million years in the making.

As I write this, I'm sat with my housemate who is watching Jurassic Park for the first time. There's a bit of an age gap between us; I was ten years old when Jurassic Park was released at cinemas in 1993, whilst she was only one. 

For this reason, it feels like a good place to start off my Retrospectives. Movies like Jurassic Park are so engrained in pop culture that most people know of them, even if they haven’t seen them before. But with respect for people like my housemate, my aim is to try and keep these articles spoiler free of any major plot twists or epic conclusions that could otherwise ruin the movie for a first-timer. But for the rest of us, there'll be plenty for us to reminisce about.

Jurassic Park was easily one of the defining moments of my childhood, and that wasn't just because I loved dinosaurs—as most kids tend to do. When I look back at how cinemas have changed over the years, Jurassic Park is always the first one to jump to mind. And that's likely because it was always one of the best movie experiences of that era. It existed in a time before the Internet, where all we had were TV commercials and magazines to feed us tidbits of information about the imaginative marvel that we were about to see. TVs were pretty small compared to today's standards. The picture quality of movies on VHS tapes wasn't great, and the sound was only available in stereo at best. But at the cinema your jaw would drop at the size of the gigantic screen that towered over you. The visual and audio quality was unlike anything you could experience at home, with Dolby surround sound that would blow you away.

My anticipation for the movie was at its peak, and as the cage containing one of the velociraptors appeared on screen, my body physically shook with excitement.

Going to the cinema back then was always the greatest of adventures. At the time I lived in Cheshire in the north of England. We lived near a town called Warrington which was filled with all the best things; Pizza Hut, McDonalds, Toys ‘R’ Us, Quasar, a bowling alley, a swimming pool, and a massive indoor play-place for kids; Warrington had everything! But nothing was ever more exciting to me than when my parents would drive me to our local UCI Cinema [which sadly now only exists as an Odeon after they were bought out].

I will always remember the excitement of walking through the big glass doors and seeing the ticket booth right in front of me. I recall there being arcade area to the right, and to the left was a rather good pizza restaurant. If my sister and I were lucky enough, out parents would sometimes take us in to eat there afterwards. Either side of the ticket booth were two sets of doors which opened you up into the main lobby area.

Walking into the lobby was like the scene in Toy Story when Andy first arrives at Pizza Planet - I'd stop and gaze at all the people excitedly walking around. I couldn’t help but take it all in and be in awe at the majesty of it all. I’d pick up the free UCI movie magazine which back then was an indispensable pre-internet guide of movie information rather than the star-studded gossip features that cinemas tend to provide today. The lobby was dimly lit, mostly illuminated by the food counter that was directly opposite, where I would wait whilst jumping up and down with anticipation for my large Coke and bag of chocolate M&Ms. The walls were lined with movie posters and hanging from the ceiling were a multitude of TV screens all showcasing the latest trailers. To the left and right were two corridors, both guarded by people in waistcoats whom at the time I was convinced were the most important people in the entire cinema. They were the gatekeepers, the ones who would grant me access and provide directions to the screens that contained the magical worlds that I was about to bare witness to.

For a movie made in 1993, the effects still hold up incredibly well.

These days, walking in and out of a cinema feels like a very simple affair. I can book my tickets online, quickly walk in and pick them up form a kiosk, briefly say hello to the person tearing my ticket to allow me through and a few moments later I’m sat down and watching the movie, likely in 3D, as that’s one of the things that now separates cinemas from the 1080p HD or 4K experiences—with digital surround sound—that we can have at home. But back then, every set of doors I stepped through built up the anticipation and excitement of what was to come. There’d be several members of staff to speak to as you continued your journey, passing through various doors that took you from one stage to the next. Each stage was an experience that brought you that much closer to seeing the movie you’d travelled all that way to see.

When I walked through that first set of doors at the age of ten, I had no idea how amazing the experience that laid before me was about to become. It was unlike anything I’d ever experienced before, and not just because Jurassic Park was an excellent movie, but because Jurassic Park was huge.

The iconic logo was everywhere. When you stepped into the lobby you could hear the theme by John Williams. Promotional material for the movie played on the screens above, the free UCI magazine was filled with content about the movie, and you didn't have to pay extra for a Jurassic Park themed cup, because every size of cup had the Jurassic Park logo on them. When we went to the the pizza restaurant next door, they had Jurassic Park themed everything. 

As I sat down to watch the movie, the lights dropped and the familiar UCI logo popped up on the screen. People will have different memories of their local cinema’s ident, and to me, UCI’s old ident will always represent the moment something amazing was about to happen.

My anticipation for the movie was at its peak, and as the cage containing one of the velociraptors appeared on screen, my body physically shook with excitement. Everything leading up to that moment was perfect and it was a magical spectacle in every way that mattered. 

The cinema experience today is still the best way to watch a movie, but it is definitely a very different kind of experience than it once was, even such a short time ago.

Jurassic Park is based on the Michael Crichton book of the same name. Thanks to advances in modern science, John Hammond (played by the late Richard Attenborough and whom Crichton initially envisioned as “a dark Walt Disney”) has managed to find a way to clone dinosaur DNA and bring dinosaurs back to life. Sparing no expense, he plans to open a theme park so that people of all ages will be able to see real, live, breathing dinosaurs. But before that can happen, he needs approval for his lawyers from a couple of outside experts, whom he invites to test out the park prior to opening. Of course, opening a theme park full of dinosaurs is generally a bad idea and, as you might expect, the dinosaurs eventually escape and begin eating the visitors.  

It’s a formula that Crichton had previously explored with the movie Westworld 20 years earlier, which he both wrote and directed. Westworld also featured an amusement park which, in this case, was filled with robot “hosts” that eventually go out of control and begin killing all the guests.

Spielberg was blown away, and when a fleshy T-Rex appeared, he and 'Dinosaur Supervisor' Phil Tippett looked at each other and Tippett said “I think we’re extinct”.

John William's soundtrack to Jurassic Park is perfect. The music really adds to the suspense and excitement all throughout the movie in ways I can't even begin to explain. But when the Journey to the Island theme hits during their arrival at the island, you know you're about to experience something special. 

The dinosaur sound effects were also incredible, from the squarks of the velociraptors to the terrifying and instantly recognizable T-Rex roar that we've heard used time and time again in countless other mediums since it's introduction in the film.

For a movie made in 1993, the effects still hold up incredibly well. Stan Winston and Steven Spielberg always made a point to use real models as much as possible, and they were right to do so. They used CGI sparingly, accounting for only 6 minutes of the film. And even more surprisingly, there’s only an additional 9 minutes of Stan Winston’s animatronics, resulting in only 15 minutes of actual dinosaur footage. But even with fewer effects shots than the movies we’re accustomed to these days, the animatronic and digital effects were far ahead of their time. There have been countless movies made since which look far, far worse. 

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ILM Visual Effects Supervisor Dennis Mauren was the man who convinced Stephen Spielberg that a realistic-looking dinosaur could be produced digitally from head-to-toe. He demonstrated a skeletal Gallimimus herd running through a field, reminiscent of the scene that eventually made its way into the finished film. Spielberg was blown away, and when a fleshy T-Rex appeared, he and 'Dinosaur Supervisor' Phil Tippett (yes, that Phil Tippett) looked at each other and Tippett said “I think we’re extinct”. Spielberg liked the line and gave it to Jeff Goldblum’s Ian Malcolm to say to Alan Grant (played by Sam Neill).

Stan Winston and his studio’s work on the animatronics was second-to-none. There was however one creature that they had built for the film that was legitimately dangerous to be around. The crew had to have safety meetings regarding the giant, life-sized T-Rex because it weighed 12,000 pounds and the machinery inside it was extremely powerful. They used flashing lights to announce when it was about to come on because if you stood next to it whilst the head went by at speed, it reportedly felt like a bus going by and had the power injure someone who wasn’t taking the proper precautions. To make matters worse, the rain would also occasionally get through to the electronics, causing it to malfunction and move uncontrollably on its own.

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“The T. rex went into the heebie-jeebies sometimes. Scared the crap out of us. We’d be, like, eating lunch, and all of a sudden a T-rex would come alive. At first we didn’t know what was happening, and then we realized it was the rain. You’d hear people start screaming.”
— Kathleen Kennedy, Producer

Jurassic Park was also very telling of the time. When Tim is playing with the night vision goggles, the 'blood-sucking lawyer' asks "Are they heavy? Then they're expensive, put 'em back." These days, technology has become very much the opposite. 

The iconic automated park vehicles have screens built in with interactive CD-ROM menus. It looked state-of-the-art having a screen in a car, and of course CD-ROMs were the medium of choice for digital encyclopedias and the like before the internet caught on. The movie was also the first time I'd ever heard reference to a Unix system. During one scene, Lex recognises that the computers are running Unix and tries her hand at navigating files using a fictional 3D interface. I remembered how cool that looked and I desperately wanted to have a go on one (even though in reality that particular interface would have been an utterly terrible user experience and would have been "one big pile of shit"). However, these days most operating systems from companies like Apple, Google, and Canonical, are all based on some form of Unix. It would therefore be lovely to go back in time and tell my ten-year-old-self that one day he will end up writing a retrospective about Jurassic Park via a Unix-based system—albeit one that works properly and without having to be repeatedly told that I "didn't say the magic word" when trying to do stuff. 

The film is perfectly cast. Everyone in their role is spectacular, and I remember growing up hoping one day that I'd see Sam Neill—with a velociraptor claw in hand—hosting a documentary about dinosaurs. Although not entirely how I had envisioned, my wish partly came true when he hosted Space, an excellent documentary for the BBC which I was absolutely thrilled about. Jeff Goldblum's portrayal of Ian Malcolm—the man who taught us that life, uh, finds a way—was also top notch. He is easily the most quotable character in the entire film and superb comic relief. Laura Dern's Ellie Satler is easily one of the smartest characters in the entire film in addition to being incredibly resourceful and delightfully witty throughout. One of my favourite interactions between her and Malcolm is when he makes light of the irony of everything Hammond has created, and Ellie completes it with an excellently witty addendum;

Ian Malcolm: God creates dinosaurs. God destroys dinosaurs. God creates man. Man destroys God. Man creates dinosaurs.

Ellie Sattler: Dinosaurs eat man…woman inherits the earth.

Laura Dern's delivery, like the rest of her performance, was spot on, and the reaction on Jeff Goldblum and Sam Neill's faces is hilarious. But this line in particular is beautifully nuanced, because it turns out that at no point during any film in the original trilogy does a woman ever get eaten by a dinosaur.

"Uh, well there it is."

Being there when my housemate watched the movie for the first time was wonderful. Seeing her eyes widen at the moment the dinosaurs first walk across the screen, her heartwarming responses to the 'veggiesauruses', and her concern over the electric fences being turned back on was fantastic. It all goes to show how well the movie holds up to this day and how spectacular it truly is. The film spawned several toys, video games, books, two additional Jurassic Park movie sequels—the first of which was based on Michael Crichton’s own sequel, The Lost World—and a second trilogy under the title Jurassic World. Both the original film and book generated so much interest in dinosaurs that the study of palaeontology ended up with a record increase in students, and I have no doubt that it continues to do so even now.

Jurassic Park will forever be one of the most memorable movie experiences of my life, and every time I revisit the island I am reminded of how excited my ten year old self was throughout the film all those years ago.

As for the ending, this was my housemate's response;

Lydia: Why is is there nice gentle music playing when a lot of people just died?

Me: Because they’ve finally managed to get off the island.

Lydia: [Quietly] ...But a lot of people died. 

Yes they did. Yes they did. 

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