September 21, 2009

Theater Seens: Jurassic Park

If my memory serves me correctly, Jurassic Park was the first movie I saw in a movie theater three times. I've done so with a few movies since (School of Rock being one of them), but I'd never done it before that summer of 1993. For a 12-year old boy it offered a veritable trifecta of awesomeness: 1.) child characters that I could relate to during the fun moments and feel braver and older than in the scary moments; 2.) John Williams' majestic score (just listen to that thing, chills from the first note of the prelude!) for which I would soon be learning to play exhilarating timpani rhythm in the percussion section of my middle school band, and 3.) action-packed adventure, complete with real, living dinosaurs.

It wasn't that the dinosaurs just looked real, it was that they were real, at least for a few moments in my mind. Reflecting back on this movie, I am convinced it was one of the three movies released in the 1990's that changed cinematic visual effects forever, the other two being James Cameron's Terminator 2: Judgement Day and James Cameron's Titanic. (As I mentioned in the 2009 movie forecast, I'm hopeful that Cameron will once again deliver an unprecedented sight with Avatar; no, I will not watch a trailer.)

The visual effects in Jurassic Park were so awe-inspiring that they weren't even shown in the trailers - a strategy that studios would be wise to consider to help build word of mouth advertising these days. Interesting to consider, isn't it - a massive budget and not even a money shot to get people excited? In the teaser trailer you saw in late 1992, and in the theatrical trailer that whet your appetite prior to the film's June 1993 release, you didn't see a single dinosaur. Watch them below- just a glimpse of T-Rex's foot, a silhouette, snout and claw of a Velociraptor, the back of a Triceratops, and side view of the head of a Brontosaurus (or maybe it's a Brachiosaurus; my elementary school education is fading), but never a full-on dino shot. The theatrical version might have been the best trailer of the decade in that sense that it showed a lot of facial reactions, but no sense of what these characters were reacting to.

As a result of this marketing, of course, most people had a once-in-a-lifetime experience in the movie theater that summer (or thrice-in-a-lifetime, in my case). I don't know about you, but when I first saw the dinosaurs along with Ellie and Alan and Ian (shown below), there was an audible and sustained gasp in the movie theater around me. For a moment - just a split-second - dinosaurs were literally brought to life for the first time in human history. Really, I don't believe that the brain could immediately process the sight, and until it did what we were seeing was not computer imagery but actual footage of dinosaurs walking the earth.

Sixteen years later it all looks fake, of course, but that's beside the point. The point is that I will never forget the experience in that theater of seeing dinosaurs for the first time. As I said, I didn't observe a similar reaction in a movie theater audience until the breathtaking sinking scene in Titanic (coincidentally another one profiled in this series). These days seeing a dinosaur on screen isn't awe-inspiring but yawn-inspiring, and that's if it makes any impression at all. For example, I know there were a bunch of dinosaurs in Land of the Lost last summer but I can barely remember them (I'm sure I could just watch the trailer and they would be on full display, because, you know, that's how it is with trailers these days).

Do you have any memories of seeing Jurassic Park in the theater? Was there a similar reaction from the audience? It's a little sad we can't be wowed by CGI and animation as much any more these days.

Welcome to Jurassic Park, indeed.


  1. Actually, I do have memories of seeing Jurassic Park in the theater, mostly because it was the first of many movies I ended up seeing with my long-time high school girlfriend at a stage where her parents didn't allow her to do anything alone with a guy. At least, that was the rule. Somehow she convinced them that on opening weekend of Jurassic Park we weren't going to be taking off our clothes in the back of the theater (and miss the movie!?!) and so for the first six months or so going to movies was the one thing we were allowed to do alone. Then we skillfully added lunch or dinner afterward. Then we worked in 'hanging out' at my house before going to the theater. And after that the no-being-alone-with-a-boy rule was as good as dead. But I digress.

    Anyway, I remember getting to the theater early and standing in the llllong line for tickets, which was great because it just meant standing in line with the girl I had a huge crush on; at that age it amounted to quality time. Also, I was excited because I had read the book and felt its dinosaur-reincarnating magic.

    Given my love for the book, there was no way the movie could live up to it, and so, for me, it didn't. I was miffed about all the scenes that were left out, including the ones they managed to work into later Jurassic Park films. And though I loved Attenborough and Goldblum, Laura Dern gives a typically fakey performance, and Sam Neill isn't Harrison Ford.

    But I don't fault your experience. This was a good summer movie to be thrilled by. However ...

    I wouldn't bet my life savings on it, but I am 95 percent sure that the teaser-trailer approach of not showing the dinosaurs was killed long before the movie was released. I remember this because I had a cool English teacher who loved movies. We kept stoking one another's excitement for the release of Jurassic Park, and (before either of us had seen it) he said he thought the studio blew it by showing the dinosaurs in the trailer -- essentially undoing their smart approach with the very-advanced versions that you link to above. We agreed that a Jaws approach would have been best, and that the perfect trailer would have had no dinosaur glimpses at all until the very end, when it would cut to that shot of the raptor's nose breathing steam against the window. (Just enough of a tease!) Alas, by the time I saw the movie (and I swear it was opening weekend), I'd seen many times the intial sighting of the dinosaurs and the stampede of Whatever Those Were and the T-Rex and the raptors. On top of that, I think they were already doing "How'd They Do It?" features on shows like Entertainment Tonight about the CGI.

    Now, it's possible I saw the movie its second weekend, I suppose. And maybe in that one week the trailers changed, post-release, as they often do now. Possible. But I'm pretty sure. The no-dinos version worked for a while. But, money being the root of all evil, I think they bailed on that campaign in the weeks approaching the release.

  2. First of all, I love the story - and the others you recently told on your blog about in-theater experiences. It's a lot of fun to look back on these memories, particularly when the details are clear.

    I actually read the book after I saw the movie, but I did read The Lost World prior to seeing that, so I can definitely understand your disappointment with JP. Interesting notes about the trailers and ads, too. I don't remember much about the trailers and was crafting my message based on seeing them now, but maybe you're right - maybe they were recut and the dinos were on display well in advance.

    Plus, if the marketing campaign really was that broad (and I'm sure it was), chances are they were shown on TV shows and some commercials. Heck, I think I ate a Jurassic Park meal at McDonald's. It was some outrageous meal, a triple cheeseburger, fries, drink and ice cream or something. Funny, and fortunate, that that's all gone bye-bye.

    Well no matter the campaign beforehand (and I think I did see it in its first week), the audience reaction is the strongest evidence I have. People were gasping for breath during that eye-popping first scene. And you can just see how Spielberg milks it, too.

    Don't forget that he doesn't show the velociraptor in the opening attack in the cage, either. So at least he provided some Jaws-like build up again for a while.

    On a side not, I hate that Hulu has 35 seconds of advertising before this clip.

  3. Although not as good as the book, the movie wowed me. I may well have seen it three times at the movies. I love dinos, monsters, and just about any movie that takes place in the jungle. I was impressed by the CGI and I still am. I think it still holds up - because Spielberg uses some substantial tried-and-true effects to augment the CGI. In the appearance of the T-rex, there's dark lighting, rain, an animatronic head - and it all comes together nicely. When we see the full dino - to me - it holds up today against the best CGI.

    My story - I'm afraid of stray dogs as it is - and I had just seen the movie and was crossing the parking lot, thinking about those raptors, and some 20-somethings were hanging out by their cool cars with a Doberman or something and the Doberman barked viciously and lurched at me, and I freaked out. I yelled at them to get their fucking dog (raptor) on a leash, and they laughed at me.

  4. As for audience reaction, I remember the theater being packed and I remember people being very satisfied with what they saw. I also remember people saying that the T-rex-attacking-the-kids scene was the scariest scene they had ever seen.

  5. I don't see it now as anything important or memorable, but I fully understand that's not the point. Of course, there's little doubt that John Williams's score with its bold themes, orchestral rhythms and choral interludes shows the master at the top of his game with a technically ingenius effort. At the time of the film's release, it was certainly seen as a novelty, and the weeks leading up to the opening were exciting for movie fans. The CGI was startling, but decades later that luster has been diminished. Of course, SCHINDLER'S LIST was soon to b ereleased, and Spielberg fans really had bigger fish to fry. A wonderfully passionate remebrance, replete with those engaging personal anecdotes!

  6. Excellent points about the CGI and use of animatronics, Hokahey. It really adds real texture and weight to the effects as opposed to all of the CGI extravaganzas these days, the two Hulk movies being major culprits. Looked the Hulk could move like a ballet dancer.

    Funny about the dog - I don't know if I would have had the wherewithal to say anything, and that's if I wasn't already running in the opposite direction.

    The T-Rex scene? I actually wasn't that scared, and come to think of it I wasn't that scared of much from JP. I think my biggest jump by far came when Sam Jackson's severed arm lands on Dern's shoulder.

    Sam, it's insane but I don't think I ever realized that JP and Schindler's were released within six months of each other. It blows my mind that Spielberg knocked both of those out in the same year. What other director could do two completely different genres at the same time and have them both considered classics for generations to come?

    And the John Williams score has left as much of a legacy in my mind as the dinosaurs. It's really one of my favorite themes of all time.

  7. I was born in the early '90s, so I can't relate to your experience as it would have been very difficult for my parents to drag me to the theater and have me sit there for two hours :).

    However, I do agree with your comments in regard to the Jurassic Park trailers. It's brilliant marketing in the fact that they choose not to show the dinosaurs. I wish that kind of marketing was still used today, but the majority of trailers give away way too much. That's why I'm a big fan of teaser trailers (Inception and Up in the Air), because they make you interested in the film without presenting an outline for the film's plot.

  8. Definitely, Danny, but I actually don't even trust "teasers" anymore these days. I'll never watch a trailer online and I'll change the channel when watching TV. In the theater the best I can do is plan to show up late, and otherwise just close my eyes. My friends laugh, of course, but it's worth it for me to go into a movie absolutely blind!

  9. Good for you...I guess I don't have the willpower yet to stay away from the teaser trailers...In due time.

  10. Well it's always a question of whether it's a "real" teaser trailer or not. I think the teaser for The Dark Knight was a real teaser, just dialogue over the bat symbol. Those I can handle - it's the teasers that show big juicy bits just to get you hooked. Even a teaser for JP these days would absolutely show the dinosaurs, and therein lies the problem.

  11. I remember seeing it with my Mom,Brother and sister the day it was released. June 11,1993. That was one of the best days of life.When we saw the trailer on tv,we just knew we had to see it. I remember the lines were extremely long and we had to wait a half hour just to get our tickets. The T-Rex Scene was absolutely terrifying. The Audience jumped out of their seats and all you could hear was screams across the theatre. When the Raptor goes after Lex in the kitchen scene,the moment the raptor let out that blood curdling,high pitched scream,I was so scared I cried and my mom had to take me out until the scene was over.Another moment that had people going crazy was when the Raptor almost gets Lex's leg in the Air Ducts and Grant and Ellie pull her up just in time. The Audience literally jumped up out of their seats during that sequence. After the Movie was over, we all applauded,and still to this day this has been the most thrilling Theatre experience in my whole life. Seeing Dinosaurs on the screen for the first time was BREATH-TAKING!

  12. Thanks so much for sharing, Corey! I don't know what I could add to your thoughts other than definite agreement on all counts.

    I find it extremely rare in 2011 to be "wowed" by something in the movie theater - probably happens once a year if you're lucky.


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