It’s September 1993. I’m six years old, sitting in a dark cinema somewhere in the outer suburbs of Sydney (Penrith, maybe?) with my mum, my aunt and my two little brothers. By the end of the film, I’ll be the only one of our group left still in their seat, my tiny eyes glued to the screen. I’m seeing something the likes of which I have never, ever seen before.
It’s March 2013. It’s 20 years later. I’m now 26 years old, sitting in a dark cinema (this time an IMAX cinema in Melbourne) with two friends and the man I’ll one day ask to marry me. And it’s the same film. I haven’t seen it on the big screen since September 1993, and my future fiancé has never seen it at all. By the end of the film, my two friends and I will be a sobbing, ecstatic mess.
It’s March 2017. I’m now 30 years old, sitting in Hamer Hall at the Arts Centre with another friend, one of his friends and his cousin. In front of us is the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and a giant screen. As the lights go down and the old Universal logo moves across the screen, the sounds of a jungle slowly fading in, I start to shake with excitement, my eyes welling up already. The conductor lifts his baton, and a rumble of drums I first heard when I was six years old - and have heard more times since than I can comprehend - begins. It’s a rumble that’s a part of who I am. By the end of the film, me and every other person in the concert hall will be on their feet cheering.
There are those films it’s impossible for you to be objective about. Any potential flaw or weakness doesn’t matter, because how you feel about it supersedes all those flaws. Just hearing the name of the film fills you with a deep, all-consuming joy. That is how I feel about ‘Jurassic Park’. I just can’t be objective about it. Never have been, and probably never will be. In fact, almost everyone I know can’t be objective about it. Which is bizarre, because at a cursory level, it’s just a film about dinosaurs and science run amok, it’s all special effects and thrills and old-fashioned entertainment. But that’s the thing - ‘Jurassic Park’ isn’t just that. It’s so much more than that.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about why people have such an emotional response to ‘Jurassic Park’. I’ve watched it constantly for 25 years and have never once gotten bored of it. I own multiple copies of it. I have the score on a limited edition vinyl that would be the first thing I saved if my house was on fire. I started work at Melbourne Museum just to be near an exhibition related to it. I even want to walk down the aisle at my wedding to the theme music. Many of my friends are even more fanatical, with huge collections of posters, toys and memorabilia, even trips to Hawaii just to stand in the places where it was filmed. But why? An easy explanation would be the craft of the film, which my lack of objectiveness will tell you is perfect. It’s a perfectly directed, perfectly written, perfectly performed, perfectly designed, perfectly shot, perfectly edited, perfectly scored, perfectly realised film. It knows what it is: a balls-to-the-wall thrill ride of staggering energy, tenacity and skill, and achieves it with greater aplomb than any other adventure film ever made. But that isn’t the reason. I reckon it’s something far deeper than that.
I was six years old when ‘Jurassic Park’ came out. For many people of my generation, it was the first big film outside of a Disney animated film we would have seen at the cinemas, and with the golden age of 80s fantasy films very much over, we hadn’t grown up with those kinds of films on a big screen. We also hadn’t seen a dinosaur like that. I mean, no one had, but think about what that moment would mean to an adult, and what that moment would mean to a kid. For a kid, a dinosaur is the ultimate. They’re bigger than you can comprehend, belong to a world where the scale of everything was beyond your imagining, and are utterly primal in a way that nothing alive now could be. They were also gone. It is impossible to see a dinosaur except as a skeleton, and the best cinema could offer at that point was the Rite of Spring sequence in ‘Fantasia’ or the melancholy of Don Bluth’s ‘The Land Before Time’. There was no way, as a little kid in 1993, that you could ever see a dinosaur.
But you’re sitting in a dark cinema in 1993, a group of cars stop on a grassy hill and the faces of the two palaeontologists (the one profession every kid knows about) drop in disbelief. The camera pans, an animal calls, violins begin to play and... there’s a dinosaur. It’s not a cartoon or a skeleton. It is, as far as your young brain is able to comprehend, a living, breathing dinosaur. The fact that the first one we see is a brachiosaurus is a stroke of genius, because it is both one of the biggest and one of the most loved. It isn’t fantastical or ridiculous, and in that moment, one of the finest moments of computer visual effects in the history of cinema, it isn’t impossible.
Steven Spielberg built a cathedral to our imaginations, John Williams wrote a glorious mass to fill it and we were invited in to stand in wonder at the beauty and ferocity of it.
That’s a moment that defined an entire generation of children. We who were at that perfect age to take in ‘Jurassic Park’, a generation for whom Alan Grant and Ellie Satler became our heroes and the velociraptor the creature of our dreams and nightmares - for us, ‘Jurassic Park’ is our ‘The Wizard of Oz’, our ‘Star Wars’. It is a sacred and special thing, almost impossible to describe, and we still feel the same reverence for it now that we felt then. Steven Spielberg built a cathedral to our imaginations, John Williams wrote a glorious mass to fill it and we were invited in to stand in wonder at the beauty and ferocity of it. We were allowed to laugh and gasp and hide behind our seats, and every moment and subsequent trip back into the cathedral has only deepened our love for it.
What Spielberg and his team created is something that has and always will stand the test of time. It is a film wholly about wonder, that wills us to look in wide-eyed awe at the impossible, that celebrates that most pure and ecstatic feeling of joy and amazement. They presented these creatures, in a level of photorealism that has lost none of its ferocity a quarter of a century later, not as monsters but as animals, as much a part of the landscape and the ecology as the animals we could see out of our windows. Visual effects made it possible for us to see them, but that level of respect and mutual awe in their existence breathed life into them. Every performance in the film is a testament to the realisation of that - the smile on Sam Neil’s face as he breathes with the triceratops, the smirk Jeff Goldblum gives at the sight of the brachiosaurus, the deep gut fear in Laura Dern’s eyes as she faces off with the velociraptor. We believe it is there because they help us to believe it, because they share that wonder and fear with us. Few films are as generous and inviting an experience for an audience as ‘Jurassic Park’, the cinematic equivalent of the best rollercoaster you’ve ever been on, breathless and audacious and dangerous.
That Spielberg should craft the ultimate cinematic expression of pure wonder is all the more potent when you try to comprehend how he could have made it at the same time as ‘Schindler’s List’. It makes sense that, while exploring the worst moment in human history, one of loss and despair and pain, he should fill his other film with life and wonder and imagination. ‘Jurassic Park’ feels like a film that is needed, not just by us but by the people making it. Perhaps it’s that need to exist that keeps us coming back to it. We need its shock, its joy and its awe. As the world we live in becomes all the more confusing and precarious and unfair, maybe we’ll always need to come back to it.
I love ‘Jurassic Park’ with every fibre of my being. I love it as intimately as I love the dearest people in my life. Like the dinosaurs in the film, it completes my DNA and makes me who I am. When I watch it or when I listen to John Williams’ impossible score, I see all the potential in the world we live in, the potential in the imagination, the potential in dreaming big and believing in the awesome wonder of our planet. And it makes me feel six again, sitting alone in that dark cinema because my little brothers and my aunt are too scared, and my mum has taken them outside. The rumble of drums begins and I’m back there again, holding my breath and eyes wide in awe. Just me, standing in this incredible cathedral next to Alan Grant and Ellie Satler and John Hammond, engulfed in a music that sounds like life itself, holding their hands and looking up at the impossible.