Back Row Thoughts: Everything is Correctable

Two weeks ago, I finally righted a wrong. There are very few regrets I have in my life, especially when it comes to movies. Even the worst films imaginable don’t truly elicit a feeling of remorse or shame. But 29 years ago, I had one of those rare moments.

I’ve mentioned this offhandedly before, but here’s the whole story. In the summer of 1993, the hype leading up to the release of Jurassic Park was massive. It looked like the type of movie that would be a complete game-changer, even to a 10-year-old kid like me. I looked forward to it for weeks and weeks. I couldn’t wait to see dinosaurs realistically rendered on the big screen. It was going to be one of my formative experiences, surely.

One Saturday, the time finally came. My mother and my grandmother took me and my sister to the local mall, the site of the nearest multiplex. One by one we lined up at the box office to get our tickets. Everything had fallen into place.

And then, I chickened out. For reasons known but to the Flying Spaghetti Monster, and ones that I don’t even remember, I got cold feet. A temporary fear washed over me, and I bailed. Instead of seeing one of the greatest adventure films of all time in the theatre, I bought a ticket to go see Super Mario Bros., playing in another auditorium. For what it was, I sort of enjoyed the movie, even though I knew objectively that it was bad. As a fan of video games and of Bob Hoskins, it was a meaningless distraction, and it was my first exposure to John Leguizamo and Dennis Hopper. But really, the film represents one of my greatest shames. I saw an out, I justified it instantly in my head, and I took it.

I ended up waiting in the mall’s food court for about a half hour after the movie was done (as it was shorter) for the rest of my family. My mom loved it, my grandma loved it, my sister was mildly and momentarily traumatized by some scenes (she was only 9 at the time), but even she loved it. I knew I had missed out. Years later, I learned that when we were kids, my mother actually watched any new movie we wanted to see in advance, to know whether or not it was okay for us (a prudent move if you have the time and means), so she already knew beforehand that there was nothing that was going to scar us.

There was truly nothing to fear. Yet, I took the coward’s way out. Knowing what I know now, I’m honestly kind of surprised that my mom never tried to stop and reassure me, but that’s neither here nor there at this point. I let a moment of weakness deprive me of something important, and it weighed on me ever since.

In the aftermath, I did everything I could to find some way to absorb the film. I even read the novelization of the movie. Not the actual novel by Michael Crichton, mind you, the novelized transcript of the film, which was available in my school library. Remember the episode of The Simpsons when Bart was banned from seeing The Itchy & Scratchy Movie (also the title of the episode) as a punishment, so he tries to read a massive book to replicate the experience? That was me, though thankfully the Jurassic Park novelization wasn’t nearly as long. My mom and grandmother had no interest in seeing the movie again, and they wouldn’t leave me in the mall alone at age 10, so I lost any hope of a second chance.

Knowing the plot of the movie (and not being the least bit frightened by any of it), I put in a pre-order for the VHS as a birthday present for my mother that October. Seeing the gift, and knowing that, as a kid, almost any gift bought with real money was as much for me as it was for her, she watched it with me. I didn’t get scared at all, and even on a small, 13-inch TV, I fell in love with the movie, ruing my earlier hesitation even further. I watched it so many times over the next two years that I wore out the physical tape.

From that day on, I vowed to never miss another Jurassic Park movie in the theatres. Sadly, none of the sequels have come close to that original masterwork. The film is by no means perfect, and there are plenty of errors that have been pointed out over the years, everything from the T-Rex paddock having a dead drop on the other side of the fence for the car scene despite it being flat land when she emerged, to the fact that Tim wouldn’t have actually been electrocuted by the fence because he wasn’t grounded, to the embryo pods that Dennis Nedry steals from misspelling the names of the dinosaurs, to say nothing of the inconsistency of when the T-Rex’s footfalls cause tremors or make sounds.

But all those flaws are, in their own way, part of the charm, because Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster accomplished the two key goals that every subsequent film has failed to realize: you need realistic dinosaurs doing awesome dinosaur shit, and you need explorations of mankind’s folly in meddling with nature. Spielberg knew that those were the points that really mattered, and he executed them so well that the minor cosmetic and continuity flubs were little more than Easter Eggs or novelties for fans to dissect with each other after coming to the understanding that everything else was brilliant.

Of all the sequels, The Lost World is the only one that even comes close to a continuation of the original film’s legacy, mostly because it’s the only one that also has a Crichton novel to use as source material. There were a TON of changes made, and the film leans more into comedy than anything truly thrilling, but you can tell that Spielberg et al at least tried. There are cool dinosaur moments (the raptors sneaking up on the poachers in the tall grass is one of the finest scenes in the entire series), and there’s at least a token acknowledgment of how corporate greed can cloud people’s visions when it comes to science and nature they simply don’t understand. Is it a good movie? Not really. But there are at least hints of quality.

From then on, it’s almost entirely downhill. Logic is displaced by batshit idiocy. Jump scares substitute for genuine tension. The innovative blending of animatronics and CGI is jettisoned in favor of computer animation so cheap that it makes Denver the Last Dinosaur feel realistic by comparison while Stan Winston spins in his grave. And worst of all, every film basically follows the same pattern.

Just run them down. How many films feature kids? The answer, all of them. Are any of those kids even half as compelling as Tim and Lex? Fuck and no! And yet somehow, Maisie Lockwood got two bites at the apple. How many of the films feature people going into the jungle to hunt and/or escape dinosaurs? ALL OF THEM! This is especially grievous considering the last two movies, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom and Jurassic World Dominion, were BOTH set up as centering on the honestly intriguing idea of what would happen if dinosaurs and man had to coexist in modern society. That novel concept was instead relegated to montage so we can just repeat the same beats.

How many films involve corporate avarice? All of them except for Jurassic Park III. How many of the films require our heroes to be saved by the T-Rex as a deus ex machina, a T-Rex Machina, if you will? Only The Lost World eschewed that cliché. How many films end with the bad guy getting eaten? Again, somehow, only Jurassic Park III escaped that fate, mostly because there was no real bad guy. Sure, Billy was a douchebag and Mr. and Mrs. Kirby are essentially glorified kidnappers, but their collective hearts were in the right place, which was sadly not a raptor’s stomach.

It’s the same thing over and over again. So why do I keep coming back? Two reasons. One, I don’t want to make the same mistake again (or, uh, all new ones, to quote Ian Malcolm) and miss out on something truly spectacular, however unlikely it is at this point. Two, I somehow find myself drawn to John Hammond’s flea circus. I know it’s an illusion, that there is no control (or a functional script, for that matter), but each time I go in with the hope that maybe, just maybe, they’ve righted the ship.

Because as Hammond once told Ellie Sattler over ice cream, everything is indeed correctable. Of course, that’s also the frustration, as the makers of each sequel know they can do things properly but they actively choose to just throw a new coat of paint on what’s already there. Despite that, there are fits and spurts that hint at the franchise potentially recapturing that magic almost every time. In The Lost World, the idea of greed overruling common sense with deadly consequences was a semi-novel concept that wasn’t explored in the original, as Hammond was more idealist than pure capitalist. The first Jurassic World gave us a living, operational park and let us watch it collapse (I mean, they had to know they were doomed the moment they hired Jimmy Fallon to do video guides), while at the same time engineering original dinosaurs (even though it was shamefully bad CGI). The last two films painfully teased the thought of prehistoric creatures in modern society. And even the blasphemously bad Dominion had one brief moment of intrigue with the dino black market. That could have been amazing, especially if it existed as a means to hold the world hostage lest predators be released on the public.

But instead, each time the actual idea with merit is dispensed with in favor of formula and generic nonsense that baffles any true fan. I mean, literally Fallen Kingdom can’t happen if any character acknowledges that Isla Sorna is part of the canon. That’s how bad it gets. And even the few good bits we do get are marred by something stupid, like having to watch Bryce Dallas Howard somehow outrun the T-Rex in heels before it can fight the Indominus.

And what’s worse is that every time the series does this crap, it becomes more and more forgettable. Think about it. I bet the average person could recite at least a half dozen or so lines from the original Jurassic Park. But what about after that? What’s the most memorable line from The Lost World? “Increase your rate of climb,” maybe? But even then that’s just a reference to the vastly superior, “Must go faster.” What about the others? The only line anyone remembers from Jurassic Park III is the raptor saying, “Alan!” in that horrible dream sequence scare or Téa Leoni screaming, “BEN?!” through a megaphone. Between the last TWO films, the only dialogue I remember is Maisie’s horrifically bad justification for dooming mankind by releasing dinosaurs on the public at the end of Fallen Kingdom: “They’re alive, like me.” And as for Jurassic World, there’s only one line anyone remembers, and it’s because it’s the lamest attempt at an in-joke possible: “Verizon Wireless presents the Indominus Rex,” followed by Lowery Cruthers’ resigned “Ugh.”

Still, as I said, hope springs eternal. More than anything else, there was one pure reason for me to watch Dominion a fortnight ago. That was to correct my nearly three-decade mistake. I missed Jurassic Park in 1993 due to a momentary lapse in my resolve. When it was re-released in 3D in 2013 for the 20th anniversary, I had to miss it again, as I was working at ESPN pulling 12-15 hour night shifts and was simply too exhausted to venture the 10 miles to the nearest theatre to me.

But finally, mercifully, gloriously, my local AMC provided me with an opportunity this month. A double feature. Pay $30, see the new movie (whatever) AND the original. At last I got to see Jurassic Park on the big screen, the way it was intended. I very nearly wept on several occasions. I can almost quote the entire film from beginning to end, but watching it there made me feel like I was 10 years old again, getting back that opportunity I blew almost 30 years ago. It felt like watching something brand new. It was everything I dreamed it would be. I was Alan Grant holding the triceratops as it breathed and raised its diaphragm. And in a direct comparison with the new movie that followed, the original’s visual effects held up better than anything Colin Trevorrow plastered on the screen for Dominion.

This is where the hope comes in. If I can make up for a mistake nearly three decades after the fact, there is still a glimmer of a chance that this franchise can do something great again. Universal has said – and even directly advertised – that Dominion is the end of the series, but we all know that’s bullshit. It’s won the box office for the last two weeks, even beating Lightyear in one of the rare instances in recent years when summer blockbusters have directly competed with one another, and the studio execs even said before the movie’s release that they were taking a “wait and see” approach to future installments depending on this one’s success. So even though it’s patently false advertising, we know there will be more Jurassic movies in the coming years. And in that vain, we know that the potential is there to make them just as magical as the original. Almost any mistake can be rectified, nearly any regret can be redeemed. And if not in this case, there’s always the original, which can be re-released in theatres until the end of time, and I’ll still convince myself that I can see the fleas.

Join the conversation in the comments below! Do you have any cinematic regrets? What are your thoughts on this particular film series? Can Jeff Goldblum be my dad? Let me know!

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