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?
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.