12 June 2015

The Road to a Blockbuster: Hey! Dinosaurs!

When I first watched Jurassic Park (1993), I'm not sure I even realized it was a good movie. I mean, some part of me must have known that it was one of the greatest blockbusters of all time, but I was probably 6 years old, almost 7. I feel like I saw it in theaters, in which case it was probably the first PG-13 movie I ever saw. And when I say I'm not sure if it was even good, I mean I really didn't give a shit about anything besides dinosaurs.
If this had come out in 1993, I would be a
 paleontologist right now. Or a motorcycle stuntman.

My generation was overwhelmed with schuppigegefühle, which if you don't know, is a German term that has no real English equivalent. It may be surmised as humans overcome with Dinosaur-based emotions, and directly translates to "scaly feelings." We had schuppigegefühle, and we had it hard. For years after the film, during every recess we weren't playing "dig in the dirt" anymore, which had been our most popular game. We were playing Jurassic Park, regardless if any of the other kids around it knew it or even wanted to play. It was a hazardous time for everyone involved.

That's the thing about the original Jurassic Park, though - it captured so much of the zeitgeist. Not only did it make Dinosaurs really cool via actually instilling them with intelligent, dynamic movement (which owed a debt to the most important pop cultural dinosaur ever, Deinonychus), but it jumped on contemporary scientific theories, namely the postulation that dinosaurs evolved into birds. We've extrapolated that today to the extent where it's possible that even mighty T-Rex may have been covered in feathers. Jurassic Park took us out of this era of looking at dinosaurs, thank goodness.

On a cinematic level, though, it was also extremely advanced. While CGI had done some great stuff, with Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) wowing audiences a few years prior, Jurassic Park was an absolute showcase for the new technology. And it almost didn't happen. Steven Spielberg was looking into animatronic/stop motion before producer Kathleen Kennedy accidentally caught someone playing around with making a running T-Rex on the computer. The rest is movie history.

Besides all this it's also a fantastic engrossing story with chills, thrills, and spills galore. It's the most fantastic example to date of a movie that departs significantly from its source material in character and tone, improves on scientific accuracy, and even just straight up plays with plotholes so effectively you don't even care. Yeah, a giant pit comes out of no where, but it makes that scene awesome, and yeah, somehow a T-Rex, whose footsteps shaking the earth is a huge iconic moment, gets to sneak up on the gang at the end, but when the result is this? No one minds.

So clearly this is one of those rare moments where everything clicks together and you get a full-fledged phenomenon firing on all cylinders surging towards near unanimous critical, commercial, and cultural success. So why won't Jurassic World (2015) fare the same? I said it.

Part of that has to do with The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997) and Jurassic Park III (2001), which were both fucking terrible. And who is Ian Malcolm's daughter's mom? Not like I'm racist and Ian can't have a black daughter, but he sure as hell can't have one with Julianne Moore. And that daughter must have been alive during Jurassic Park, right? Dinosaurs are still awesome, but they've become less awesome in the wake of their ubiquity. How come the dinos in King Kong (2005) look worse than Jurassic Park?

That's a complicated question. I'm sure some of it is just nostalgia. The other part may be that that Business Insider article up there is right - there was all that hoopla for really just four minutes of screentime. The rest are practical, real-world effects - implication, shadow, animatronics, and reactions. The result is that your brain paints over what is real and what isn't and you're more likely to just accept the whole thing as real. This is a lesson that scant blockbusters have learned since. I'll throw in another Cracked article to follow that up, which actually very summarily tears apart what little we've seen of Jurassic World.

Can Jurassic World pump new life into the franchise? It's tough to tell. Spielberg in '93 was already one of our most accomplished game-changing directors. Colin Trevorrow has one full-length feature under his belt, Safety Not Guaranteed (2012), which is a dry and sly character study taking place in an isolated small town with extremely limited special effects. Who knows how he got the Jurassic World job.

Apparently, Jurassic World also ignores new science instead of pushing it like Jurassic Park did, but I really care less about that than I do about story. And evidently that story is pretty decent, which is gratifying. And that first teaser sure had its share of wow moments. We've never seen an actually functioning Dinosaur Theme Park before, which is a good way to push the franchise forward in time while walking that balance between giving us something new while sticking to what has worked in the past. And after all, who cares if it sucks, because it's not like the franchise will be ruined forever. That already happened. I mentioned earlier that I had no idea whether or not Jurassic Park was a good film or not, because at that age it was tough to tell what a good film even was. I do, however, have a distinct memory of watching Jurassic Park III in the theaters and it being one of the first films that I watched and actively thought as I was seeing it "Wait...this makes no sense. This is terrible. Ellie! The River! She can't know to send a SWAT team in from that information!"

The cast for Jurassic World is impressive, lead by Vincent D'Onofrio, Bryce Dallas Howard, and Chris Pratt, the latter of which couldn't be hotter right now. This is far from the playful tone of Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), though, which seemed like the perfect vehicle for the doofy star. This is a big moment for just about everybody involved. This is absolutely the #3 most anticipated film of 2015, after Star Wars: The Force Awakens and The Avengers: Age of Ultron. Ultron has obviously crushed some huge numbers (although right now it's actually one spot behind Furious 7 [2015] worldwide all-time, but I've got to imagine that changes. Right? Fuck, maybe not.), but I'm not sure it's had quite the critical adoration or cultural reaction that The Avengers had, even if personally, I thought it was leaps and bounds ahead of its predecessor.

Anyway, what do you think? Will you be catching Jurassic World this weekend? Or will you stick Jurassic Park in your videocassette player? Or better yet, split the difference and watch like, the Compy scene, the Raptor tall grass scene, and the T-Rex vs. San Diego scene from The Lost World? Leave one.

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