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The Cult of Jurassic Park

The Blu-ray is out this week. And to a weird subculture this is the event of the year.

Enough about Star Wars fanboys. The Jedi Council is adjourned until there’s something new to bitch about. I’m here to talk about a rarer specimen: the Jurassic Park fanboy. We — yup, we — are out there. We have a tender-verging-on-deranged love for Steven Spielberg’s dinosaur epic, which is just out on Blu-ray. Consider the following:

Exhibit A: A midnight screening of Jurassic Park in New York City this summer. The seats are filled. Just as the movie begins, a drunken, amorous couple barges in and starts screwing around. The guy, judging from his insipid giggles, is sitting on the woman’s lap. A Jurassic fanboy’s voice fills the theater. He — and here I’m picturing an early 30s hipster in a T-shirt about as ironic as my own — sounds pissed. He threatens to throw these idiots out of the movie and back into The Tree of Life.

Exhibit B: Are you a “Single Interested in Michael Crichton?” Meet the love raptors stalking OkCupid.

Exhibit C: Ariana Richards played Lex Murphy — the blond girl in the purple baseball cap — in the 1993 movie. When Ariana goes out these days, she often sees a young man gaping at her in the same way Sam Neill once gaped at a Brachiosaurus. “I’ve come to know the signs well,” Ariana tells me. Jurassic Park, incidentally, was filmed when Ariana was 12.

I could go on. Suffice it to say, it’s time to back into Jurassic Park. Hold on to your butts.

When was Jurassic Park hatched? We could start in 1924, when the American paleontologist Henry Fairfield Osborn wrote about an “alert, swift-moving carnivorous dinosaur” — Velociraptor mongoliensis. We could start in 1970, when Steven, a young movie director, and Michael, a young novelist, had a chance meeting on the lot at Universal Studios. But I’m thinking we should probably start in 1983.

Entomologist George O. Poinar and his wife, Roberta, had begun taking DNA from insects trapped in prehistoric amber. They’d published an article about it in Science. One afternoon, a stranger dropped by their office in Berkeley, Calif. “Tall, pleasant guy,” Poinar recalls now. “Really lanky.” The man quizzed the Poinars about their work. He asked about amber mines in the Dominican Republic. Then, with his notebook filled, the man left. He never mentioned anything about a dinosaur novel.

Michael Crichton, in fact, was already trying to bring dinosaurs back to life. But he’d gotten stuck. “It is always a problem for me to believe in the stories that I am writing,” Crichton later wrote to Poinar, “and a dinosaur story especially strains my own credence.” When Crichton discovered the Poinars and their bugs-in-amber, he stumbled onto the foundation of a billion-dollar enterprise. It was a beautiful premise for a thriller, in that it both contained cutting-edge science and was ridiculously easy to understand.

Crichton’s 1990 novel — which, for my money, is still the purest and best form of Jurassic Park — is really a temple of facts. If you’ve read it 20 or 30 times, like I have, let’s say them together: Dinosaurs were probably warm-blooded. They were closer to birds than reptiles. Jack Horner, the real-life Montana paleontologist who popularized many of these theories, tells me that by the 1980s they had become well accepted in his circles. But to the casual dino-lover — and just about anyone under the age of 15 — Crichton sounded like some kind of oracle.

This is the first thing the return to Jurassic Park shows us: that Crichton’s novel works as much like a magazine article as it does a novel. In fact, the whole thriller-by-journalism style came from Robert Gottlieb, who edited Crichton at Knopf and later became editor of the New Yorker. When Gottlieb was editing The Andromeda Strain (1969), he said the book “should read like a New Yorker profile,” Crichton later recounted. Scientific facts — say, whether a tyrannosaur could see a stationary object — should be piled on top of one another to create suspense. This approach, Crichton wrote, “yielded a very cold, detached book that was also weirdly convincing.”

The plot of Jurassic Park was recycled. Crichton was an expert recycler. His Congo (1980) is King Solomon’s Mines (1885) with an ape-voice synthesizer and the racism dialed down. Sphere (1987) is Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870). And Jurassic Park is a reboot of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World (1912) — a title Crichton stole for his sequel. It was Conan Doyle who dreamed dinosaurs were hiding somewhere in Latin America; Conan Doyle who sent an egomaniacal academic to find them. (Then, Professor Challenger; later, our Dr. Malcolm.) What Crichton did, in literary terms, was like taking a classic automobile and installing a newer, more powerful engine.

Crichton did something else smart at the moment of conception. He realized previous dino nuts — from Ray Bradbury1 to the creators of Land of the Lost — had fallen head over heels for the T. rex. The big guy. But man versus tyrannosaur is just a replay of David versus Goliath. Man versus velociraptor — that’s different. That’s smaller. Crichton’s killing machine is 6 feet tall, with “cheetah speed” (to quote the mathematician Ian Malcolm) and brains to boot. If not for a bad bounce of the evolutionary football, Neill says in Jurassic Park III, “it is entirely possible that raptors, rather than humans, would have become the dominant species on this planet.”

We Jurassic fanboys know these Crichtonian facts are fudged. As he created his dinosaurs, Crichton relied on Gregory Paul’s 1988 book Predatory Dinosaurs of the World, which turned a larger animal, a Deinonychus, into a velociraptor. In fact, the Velociraptor mongoliensis was little more than half the size of its cousin in the book and movie.2 There’s no evidence raptors were Einsteins with claws. But it was too late. Crichton had waged what he called a “tremendous psychological campaign” against the reader. Little facts! A year after the Jurassic Park movie came out, raptors — or “raptors” — were famous enough to front a crappy NBA franchise.

It’s 10:30 p.m., and Terry is on the phone. I’ve been looking forward to this. I’ve never met a Jurassic Jedi master, someone who could guide me as deep into the book and movie as I want to go. Terry is that master.

By day, Terry Davis Jr. is a quality assurance technician for a cable company. He laughs when he says it — ha ha ha! Because by night, Terry’s real work begins. He calls it “digital paleontology.” Terry rewatches the Jurassic Park movies frame by frame to dig out fossilized treasures that you and I might have missed. The results are on his website, Jurassic Park Legacy.

Tonight, Terry and I are talking about one of his finds. He’s telling me he thinks John Hammond, Jurassic’s Steve Jobs, built his Site B factory shortly before his San Diego amusement park.

“Now, what about Jurassic Park Europe?” I ask, trying to impress Terry. “Hammond said he’d bought a tract in the Azores.”

“If you look at the slide show in the luncheon scene, you’ll see a reference to Jurassic Park Europe,” Terry says.

Did you non-fanboys follow that? I’m taking a single, unremarkable line from Crichton’s novel and weaving it into the larger Jurassic canon. That’s pretty good. But then Terry, my Jedi master, is doing me one better. He’s pointing to a shot exactly 37 minutes and eight seconds into the first movie in which the words “Jurassic Park Europe” are never mentioned but are projected onto a wall. That’s just crazy-good.

There’s some stuff you ought to know about serious Jurassic Park fans. On balance, they love the first movie; they’re OK with The Lost World; and they absolutely hate Jurassic Park III. (The proprietor of the Jurassic Cast podcast calls it “the abomination.”) Moreover, Jurassic fans have a moment that is their version of Greedo shooting first. “The big numero uno,” Terry says. It occurs in the third movie, when the Spinosaurus and the tyrannosaur get locked in a Hell in a Cell match. JPers hate this scene because it ends with the tyrannosaur getting killed.

This brings me to a second discovery about Jurassic Park: The dinosaurs are the protagonists. Maybe it’s because the humans are one-dimensional and the dinos, as we’ll see, are fantastically 3-D. Or maybe — according to some digital paleontology by Paul Lauter, a literature professor at Trinity College — it’s that Jurassic Park is a colonization story. Here we are in Costa Rica (site of decades-long Spanish colonization) and these, er, animals have been caged by greedy, technologically superior humans. You can’t help but root for the dinos. As screenwriter David Koepp once explained,3 “We wanted the animals to be really innocent. … We didn’t want to make them bad guys.”

Steven Spielberg even ditched his planned ending to the first movie4 when he realized the T. rex, the real hero, should make a triumphant return.

Then along comes Jurassic Park III‘s Spinosaurus, from a script co-written by Alexander Payne,5 and this Johnny-come-lately mauls the tyrannosaur.

“He killed him like a bitch,” Terry says.

Killed her, I reply. The dinosaurs at Jurassic Park are female.

My Jedi master corrects me gently. “The coloration patterns were male.” Terry has looked into this.

It’s interesting Terry should go there. “There” being gender studies. Because we need to talk about Jurassicfeminist theory. There are a few critics who look at Jurassic Park and don’t see man versus dinosaur. They see man versus woman.

Gaze — but not too threateningly — at the paper “‘There Is No Unauthorized Breeding in Jurassic Park': Gender and the Uses of Genetics” by Laura Briggs and Jodi I. Kelber-Kaye. Jumping off the work of critic Marina Warner, they read volumes into the fact that Jurassic Park‘s dinosaurs (a) are female (Terry’s T. rex excepted), and (b) have managed to breed on their own.

Jurassic Park‘s real theme, Briggs and Kelber-Kaye say, is women run amok. The she-dinos are reproducing without men and trying to stomp out the two-parent nuclear family (consisting here of Alan Grant, Tim, and Lex, with occasional appearances by Ellie Sattler, Grant’s partner). The critics look at Jurassic Park and see a racial theme, too. The Costa Rican dinos, they argue, represent “Third World” women. So Jurassic Park is not just about a threat to nuclear families, but to white families.

As Alan Grant might say: I bet you’ll never look at blockbusters the same way again.

Now, if you’re going to launch a feminist critique of Jurassic Park, you ought to at least get the girl’s name right. (She is Lex or Alexis, but not “Alexa.”) But I have to admit, Briggs and Kelber-Kaye do score some points. At the beginning of Crichton’s novel, Tim, the boy, is a “nerd” — an unmasculine science nut. Lex, the girl, is a Mets fan. And yet by the book’s end, Crichton has reverted back to rusty, old gender roles: Tim has gained courage while Lex is a quivering mess. (Richards tells me she read the novel before filming and was struck by how much more stuff she got to do in Koepp’s script.)

Feminist digital paleontology leads us to more amazing finds. Al Sullivan’s essay “When Dinosaurs Were Feminists” notes the throwaway scene near the beginning of the movie, when Dr. Grant can’t manage to buckle his seatbelt on the helicopter. Do you remember what Grant does? He ties together two of the same seatbelt parts — the female parts. Can that not be a little nod to the turbulent gender politics to come?

After the humans have escaped the island, one of the movie’s final shots has the two kids snuggling with Grant. It suggests that after “life finds a way,” chaos theory, and a series of beautiful disembowelments, what Jurassic Park is really about is Grant agreeing to mate with Sattler and create his own white, nuclear family.6 This isn’t the way I watch Jurassic Park, but let’s stipulate it’s not a crazy way to watch it. We Jurassic fanboys have been sold a Family Research Council pamphlet with velociraptors.

Ariana Richards was fresh off a reindeer movie when Steven Spielberg came to her with a strange request. He wanted her to make a scream reel. So Ariana looked into a camera and let fly. A few nights later, Spielberg was on his couch watching audition tapes while his wife, Kate Capshaw, dozed next to him. On TV, Ariana started screaming. Capshaw leapt off the couch and ran down the hallway to check on the kids. Ariana got the part of Lex, and a spot in the best scene in Jurassic Park.

You know it. It’s the scene in which the tyrannosaur attacks the Ford Explorers.7 It lasts exactly eight minutes and four seconds. The John Williams score goes completely silent for the duration.

Open: The sound of footsteps. Water vibrates in a plastic cup on the dash. Spielberg thought up that effect when he was driving to the set listening to Earth, Wind & Fire. Spielberg, we should note, was 46 years old when Jurassic Park was released. This wasn’t the young hell-raiser who made Jaws; this was, to use the critic Tom Shone’s phrase, your “disco-dancing uncle.”

Jurassic Park isn’t Jaws, not even close, but for those eight-plus minutes it nearly rises to Jaws-level moviemaking. Spielberg rolls out a series of diabolical camera shots. A zoom into the face of Tim (Joseph Mazzello). A shot tilted upward, toward the sun roof, where the bloodied goat’s leg lands after being torn off by the tyrannosaur. Then the T. rex stomps in, and Spielberg really gets going. The dino’s clawed foot, shot from behind, sinks into the mud. Grant tells Malcolm the rex can’t see them if they don’t move — a Crichtonian fact wedged in for realism. Then, Ariana’s scream — and what a terrifying scream it is, the kind that touches the protective region of your brain.

Jurassic Park isn’t a mean movie. (Amazingly, only five people die in a little over two hours.) But this scene is mean, which is part of its charm. It was supposed to be even meaner. Spielberg first imagined Richards screaming, “Daddy! Daddy!” as the tyrannosaur smushed the car.

There are two distinct bits of genius here. The first is the scale. Like Crichton, Spielberg realized the key to working with big animals was to shrink the playing field. So he shot almost the entire attack from inside the cars. “Otherwise, it becomes a Godzilla movie,” Spielberg said.8

The second genius bit is the look and feel of the dinosaurs. Ask yourself why they’re so memorable and you’ll probably remember they looked “real.” The T-1000 in Terminator 2, released two years before Jurassic Park, looked beautiful, otherworldly — but it wasn’t real. Dinosaurs were a childhood passion, a thing you knew. And in one of the greatest called shots in effects history, Spielberg and his team had rendered them on the big screen.

But consider the T. rex. Jack Horner, who was on set as a paleontological traffic cop, says, “Steven and I argued about a lot of things. Basically, if I could demonstrate something was true, and everyone agreed on it, he would change it. If it was an idea that didn’t have too much behind it, he would fictionalize it.” In other words, Spielberg and company made a serious effort to hew to the fossil record and deliver “real” dinosaurs. But whenever the record had a gap, they drove an Explorer through it.

The T. rex is a series of small gestures. Watch her pupil constrict, a touch Spielberg borrowed from E.T. Watch her breath fog up the windows. What she’s doing — and what the raptors will do later in Jurassic Park — is giving a performance. My god, Dr. Grant, she’s acting! And “she” doesn’t just consist of Dennis Muren’s brilliant computer effects. The computers tag-teamed with Stan Winston’s 13,000-pound model, which was dragged onto Warner Brothers’ Stage 16 for the shoot. The rex model was fully digitized, but Winston and his team often insisted on controlling it manually so they could get the nuance. It “acted its ass off,” Winston said later.

This is getting us close to the soul of Jurassic Park, so I make one last call to Phil Tippett. Phil — an Oscar-winning effects man who helped dream up Jabba the Hutt — was Jurassic Park‘s dino-director. Phil says what makes Jurassic Park click is that “it’s a movie from a different age.”

Though we remember it for the effects, Jurassic Park feels … palpable in a way few CGI-loaded movies do today. When the T. rex smushes the Ford Explorer, that’s a real Ford Explorer. When the electric fence topples, that’s a real fence. Richards says perhaps 80 percent of her dinosaur scenes were shot with Winston models, allowing her and Neill and other actors to actually be with the effects.

Fanboy-dom is about something irretrievable, a lost world of childhood. And here, from the age of Avatar, we can see it clearly. Jurassic Park, along with The Abyss (1989) and Terminator 2 (1991), were the stars of an amazing in-between period of summer-movie history. An interesting couple of years between the Analogue Era and the Computer Era. We were charging headfirst into the movie future, but we hadn’t quite left the past. Jurassic Park had 55 computer-effects shots; The Phantom Menace, released six years later, had around 2,000.

When he saw the first Jurassic CGI shots, George Lucas was said to have cried with joy. Ours tears are slightly different, shed because the glorious things to come were going to bury the stuff we grew up on. So forgive us Jurassic fanboys. After the tyrannosaur roared, our childhood movies — and, you might say, our childhoods — were officially prehistoric.

Bryan Curtis is the national correspondent at Newsweek and The Daily Beast. Follow him on Twitter here.


Previously from Bryan Curtis:
The Tijuana Sports Hall of Fame
S-E-C! S-E-C! S-E-C!
The Fiberglass Backboard

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Bryan Curtis is a staff writer for Grantland.

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