25 years of Jurassic Park: Giant reptiles that walk on the screen

Hindustan Times | BySanjukta Sharma
Jun 24, 2018 07:15 PM IST

In 1993, Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster film Jurassic Park showed dinosaurs as terrifying predators. The sequels became more about saving the wild, but the franchise continues to rake it in

The fifth instalment of the Jurassic Park franchise, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, released here on Thursday, June 7 – ahead of its US release date of June 22. Attribute that to the joyful fact that a Hollywood tentpole is as attractive to the Indian multiplex-goer as a homegrown superstar’s antics. Rajinikanth’s Kaala released on the same day as Fallen Kingdom, and both movies were direct competitors. More joy that Jeffrey Goldblum returned in a role that looked similar to the one he played in the first film in 1993, but he didn’t have much to do in this technically ambitious, but muddled film.

Laura Dern and Sam Neill come to the aid of a Triceratops in a scene from the first Jurassic Park film.(Getty Images)
Laura Dern and Sam Neill come to the aid of a Triceratops in a scene from the first Jurassic Park film.(Getty Images)

The American hero again saves prehistoric life in magical Costa Rica. In the last film, he cried when one of the prehistoric monsters died. The first teaser of the new film showed lead actor Chris Pratt chin-rub a purring baby dinosaur. Cuteness far surpassed menace at this point, much to my horror. How far can Hollywood go to tell us we need to embrace the wild, and in how much more expensive detail?

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In the garb of making a shallow case for saving the wild against American capitalist greed, Fallen Kingdom is simply empathy overkill. It was a mammoth release in India – distributed in 2300-plus screens, in English, Hindi, Tamil and Telugu, and it made 53 crore in its first
three days.

Fallen Kingdom is the sequel to Jurassic World (2015) in which the hero played by Pratt gets involved with the fate of a group of velociraptors from the Spinosauris aegyptiacus family. The T-Rex, which Steven Spielberg immortalised with the first film 25 years ago, adapted from Michael Crichton’s book, has been dethroned since Jurassic Park III (2001), which is the leanest and most delightfully malevolent of the franchise.

The new film, directed by JA Bayona, goes further down the road that Jurassic World left. Four years after the theme park and luxury resort Jurassic World was destroyed by dinosaurs, Isla Nublar is now abandoned by humans while the surviving dinosaurs live in the jungles. When the island’s dormant volcano threatens to end life here, Owen (Chris Pratt) and Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) start a campaign to rescue the remaining dinosaurs. Owen has to find Blue, his special one, who’s missing in the wild.

Now that dinosaurs deserve our love and empathy, let’s please go back to the 1990s, to the beginning – to unadulterated terror, palaeontologist’s contempt and cinema’s new frontier.

It was one of the best decades for American experiments in film-making – fertile for both the Indie and Spielberg. Quentin Tarantino shattered tastes and created an anti-Hollywood pantheon, Spielberg and James Cameron redefined scale and made Hollywood more global than ever before. Both kinds and many other kinds between the two extremes thrived.

Hollywood arrived late to our screens then, and one or two theatres in the metros screened big Hollywood releases such as Jurassic Park, Basic Instinct or Titanic. We watched Spielberg’s Jurassic Park in April 1994, 10 months after it broke box office records in the US and opened the Pandora’s box of CGI in film. There was not much available to know about it before we watched it except that it was a spectacular new film in which dinosaurs clashed with humans in thrilling scenes.

Scientists spoke to newspapers, a rare thing, to clarify how in unleashing his imagination and managing his production logistics, Spielberg had interpreted prehistory wrong – he made stars of lesser-known species of dinosaurs, mostly the T-Rex, and mixed them all up. By then, Spielberg was the most successful film director in the world, commercially, and he had the power to dream big. He hooked the science-averse human, which happens to be most of humanity, to the wrath of dinosaurs. After nine days at the theatres, Jurassic Park sailed past the $100 million mark in box-office returns.

I have watched Jurassic Park thrice on the big screen – twice in that April of 1994 and then in April 2013, when it was released in 3D simultaneously across the world. The first time was at Calcutta’s New Empire cinema. We were a group of cocky teenagers in a row of balcony seats. We came to the theatre without expecting much and wondering what the big deal was about.

The larger-than-life reptilian menace and splendour on display, and what a perfect marriage between sound and image could achieve, blew our minds. I remember jumping from the creaking seat a few times and coming out of the theatre feeling distinctly high.

It was an entirely different experience watching Spielberg’s film in 2013 – as if it was not the same film. I was probably tired of the ever-changing digital ingenuity in movies. Or so much in thrall of what CGI had achieved with the Godzilla movies, the Matrix movies and Avatar, that I couldn’t appreciate its very competent beginnings.

The exposition, the entire first hour, was unbelievably tedious. A palaeontologist couple, whose only point of rift is that the man (Dr Alan Grant, played by Sam Neill) does not want children and the tenaciously adventurous woman (Dr Ellie Sattler, played by Laura Dern) hopes he will, is the guest of a nutcase showman, the owner of Jurassic Park, an amusement park in an expanse of gorgeous forests in Costa Rica (John Hammond, played by Richard Attenborough). John’s grandchildren are there too, and so is a chaos theory scientist, the only frivolous and entertaining member of this gung-ho group played by Jeffrey Goldblum.

Spielberg introduces the audience to the dino-genetical facts with graphics that looked archaic in 2013 – a crash course on how genetic cloning develops a variety of female dinosaurs in this futuristic entertainment park. The female dinosaurs are let loose in the forests guarded by electrically barbed fences.

While on a tour, the group is stuck in a storm and a battle ensues between humans and dinosaurs whom nature chose to eliminate millions of years ago. It’s a primitive battle between the old and the new, the jumbo and the diminutive, nature and science. Philosophising about the inevitability of a living being’s ability and urge to create new life, the dangers of using science to alter the course of nature – these were still in the realm of pop-philosophy in 1993, and their appeal was instant. Not today.

Even so, Spielberg’s movie is testimony to the fact that storytelling triumphs over special effects, that special effects are meant to pump you up, not beat you down or blind you like so many of big Hollywood franchises now do. He tried not to understand the dinosaur, a terrifyingly
mysterious beast.

Read: Prehistoric egg or pretty tool: Protecting dinosaur fossils in India

Read: Science or sci-fi? The ignorance about dinosaurs in India

Spielberg’s mastery over creating and visualising suspense in Jurassic Park is still gulp-inducing. You’d find the chucking of poisonous green vile from a dinosaur’s throat lame now, but the moments of suspense still make for great cinema. The editing is razor sharp, pointed pauses and highs punctuate sequences until the climactic escapes.

All of it is enhanced by the drama of children in the throes of horror and fright, a theme Spielberg has used in many of his movies. One scene towards the end of the film is a breathless sequence in which all of this ingenuity converges. Two dinosaurs are chasing two children in the maze of a huge kitchen. At one point, one of the raptors mistakes the reflection of a child hiding on a steel surface for real prey. Each movement of this chase is brilliantly executed.

There wasn’t a moment in Jurassic Park when the dinosaur wasn’t a glorious predator. The clash was primitive, the storytelling was classical. It was melodramatic, yet dark. Today’s Hollywood embraces the wild and tries to understand it, protect it and champion it as utopian,
innocent and lovely. Somewhere lost in this political correctness is a magic that appeals to our basic senses.

Sanjukta Sharma is a Mumbai-based writer and critic
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