Why Jurassic Park is more than a Monster Movie

As the 20th Anniversary re-release of Jurassic Park approaches, I wanted to reflect on why the movie is worthy of true celebration, and is both more than the critics who deride it say it is and means more than those who are unthinkingly nostalgic about it suggest.

Some children experience loss all too early (a family member dies or leaves, for example).  But for the rest of us, dinosaurs present us with our first real lesson on mortality and the poignancy of existence.

A major part of my childhood was consumed by the keen awareness that these creatures that were to me not merely fierce or enormous–but beautiful–had once existed and can never again.  I knew that there was an impassable gulf between my time and their time.  I knew that I would never see a dinosaur in the flesh but would spend a great deal of time desperately wanting to nonetheless.

Whether I knew it at the time or not, I don’t believe it too much to say that feeling and contemplating the extinction of dinosaurs every day for the first decade of my life made me better understand the true nature of death, mourning and existence.

Jurassic Park is a great movie because it understands this and reveals this.  Is the film meant to be a complex look at the nature of mortality and non-existence?  No.  It is a fantasy action thriller that is primarily meant to frighten, titillate and otherwise entertain the audience.

But why that music?

You know the music.  You can hear it here.  Or here.

Action films and monster movies can be fairly standard when it comes to their bombastic scores, but I’ve always been somewhat startled by the fact that John Williams’s music is so emotional in this film.  I didn’t understand music until I heard the music in this movie.  It was the first CD I bought and listened to.

Somehow, the theme captured the sense of loss and yearning at the heart of my dinosaur obsession, and it seemed so strange that the movie would showcase that emotion because it seemed to exist only in me.  Could anyone else truly get what it feels like to desperately love something like dinosaurs?  This music suggested it was possible.

I distinctly remember running into my parents room or our living room whenever a TV commercial for the film would play (after I’d already seen it) and would use the theme music in the background (see above).  My father would watch me watch the trailer and point to his heart at its end and say “That get’s you right here, doesn’t it?”  He was joking (I think), but it did and does.

Films, storytelling, art…we all know they do what dreams do at their most pleasurable: provide for wish fulfillment.  I wished to see dinosaurs.  The movies prior to 1993 that showed dinosaurs failed to show me dinosaurs.

Jurassic Park showed me real dinosaurs, and it was brilliant because that’s what the film was really about: showing dinosaurs to people who desperately wanted to see dinosaurs.  I’m certain that every person watching the movie would be able to empathize with the characters who are being hunted and fear for their lives.  I’m not certain that everyone in the world can understand a scene like this:

Critics like to dismiss big event movies like Jurassic Park as low on story and high on technological wizardry.  All whiz and bang, no meat, no heart.  As if feats of technological wizardry must by definition be absent of heart and soul.  Ask the Tin Man and the Wizard of Oz if all that is mechanical lacks emotion.

The mere ability to see what the characters that populate Jurassic Park provided me a gift that few artists have since been able to top.  It showed me that storytelling–whether it be ‘technological wizardry’ or not–is capable of granting us something that the real world is not always capable of granting.  Yes, it may bend the rules of the world to give us what we want, but it is in that bending that we learn the real world better.  I’d have never known how much dinosaurs taught me about loss if I hadn’t seen Jurassic Park enough times to finally reflect on just why that music got me as it did.

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  1. Man, Jurassic Park. For all its flaws, this remains one of my favorite movies of all time. I’ve somehow never owned it, but every time it’s on TV I always stop everything I’m doing to sit down and watch it.

    For one, yes, it was the first movie that really made dinosaurs come alive. Even if science has proven some of it wrong since, it was still mind-blowing as a six-year-old to see dinosaurs walking around with people like that for the first time.

    For another, it’s a living fossil of the computer age. They recall a memory of a time when the Internet was a wild, unconquered thing, when computer skills were an elite skillset. My generation is probably the last in the world to really remember the Internet as being “new”, and something about that is so poignant to me.

    And of course, it revolutionized the way films were made ever since. That movie did for CGI what Citizen Kane did for the moving camera. It was massive and ground-breaking and we would not have the modern action film of today without it. (of course, the others responsible for the total revolution in filmmaking: The Matrix and Toy Story).

    Add all of that to the fact that it’s such a simple, timeless story about hubris. It’s just a re-telling of Frankenstein — and of the myth of Prometheus. The “Man tries to replace god(s) and suffers terrible consequences” story predates history and doesn’t seem likely to fall out of favor. Especially as our own technology continues to advance steadily onward, and we struggle to define our humanity against it.

  2. I’m a huge fan of Jurassic Park myself, but had only ever seen it on the small screen. Last year, though, one of the theatres in my city showed it one night, and the experience of seeing on a cinema screen was AMAZING. I heard small little asides from the characters that I never noticed before. Hell, before I saw it on the big screen, I never noticed that Laura Dern’s character wore earrings!

    Also, this is one of the few movies to give me recurring dreams. Every few months or so, like clockwork, I’ll dream that I’m in some sort of Jurassic-Park-like situation or setting. For some reason though, I’m always worried abot the T-Rex instead of the velociraptors.

    Anyways, I should stop babbling. It’s one of the best!

    • L.B. Gale

      Drive-ins across America should be revived just for this re-release. It’s great in theaters; it’s incredible at a drive-in!

  3. smartalek

    Really good observation about how a good movie and a good movie-score can augment one another, and collectively make the whole more than the sum of its parts.
    (It’s also one or the very few real-world justifications for the existence of the normally execrable non-word “synergy.”)
    For me, other examples of this include “The Russia House” (which I think was Marsalis); Zimmer’s brilliant work in “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “Narnia” (I only noticed recently that in the latter, he recycled some themes from the former; is it plagiarism when you steal from yourself? Is it ok if they’re both Disney products?) and “13th Warrior;” the phenomenal jazz-inflected “Usual Suspects;” and the brilliance of the integration of Clannad’s work and what sounds like.authentic 18th-c dance-music into the score for “Last of the Mohicans.”

  4. Nola Hinderliter

    Jurassic Park is a 1993 American science fiction adventure film directed by Steven Spielberg. It is based on the 1990 novel of the same name by Michael Crichton. It stars Sam Neill, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum, Richard Attenborough, Ariana Richards, Joseph Mazzello, Martin Ferrero, Samuel L. Jackson and Bob Peck. The film centers on the fictional Isla Nublar near Costa Rica’s Pacific Coast, where a billionaire philanthropist and a small team of genetic scientists have created a wildlife park of cloned dinosaurs.*^^”

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