Holding On To My Butt, 25 Years Later: 'Jurassic Park' Revisited

(Welcome to Nostalgia Bomb, a series where we take a look back on beloved childhood favorites and discern whether or not they're actually any good. In this edition: Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park is 25 this year, so let's make sure we're not crazy about still loving this one.)

The great film truant Ferris Bueller once said, "Life comes at you pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it."

Of course, Ferris wasn't being chased by a nine-ton T. Rex.

Some people measure their years by the changing of seasons, celebrations of wedding anniversaries (or divorces) or school being out for summer. Not me. Until recently, I chose to mark the passage of time by how many years it had been since the release of Jurassic Park.

I'm not sure quite how JP became my benchmark. I didn't see it in the theater when it opened in 1993; I wasn't that into dinosaurs, and my 6-year-old brother would have thrown an absolute shitfit if my parents had excluded him. That first viewing came a few years later, the same brother diving behind the couch every time a velociraptor or dilophosaurus came into view. I still haven't watched it on the big screen.

It was, however, impossible to miss Jurassic Park's marketing juggernaut. Universal Pictures plunked down a monstrous (for that time) $65 million advertising the movie; the average spend in 1993 was $14 million. Director Steven Spielberg wanted to intrigue audiences without giving away too much; the first trailer features no dinosaurs whatsoever, and the second only limited glimpses. In the months leading up to the release, a rival studio exec snarked to Entertainment Weekly, "This movie is all about hype. The big question is, will it live up to the hype?"

As we still say in 2018, LOL. Jurassic Park grossed more than $914 million worldwide in its initial run, becoming the highest grossing film ever (until it was surpassed in 1997 by a certain boat movie). That's to say nothing of the action figures, clothing, piggy banks, fast food toys, video games, fake velociraptor claws, puzzles, lunchboxes, board games, backpacks, costumes, breakfast cereal and fanny packs that flew off shelves worldwide. Real, physical shelves, people! This was the '90s!

Beyond its box-office explosion, the movie was a technological trailblazer. With a blend of pioneering CGI and life-size animatronics, never had dinosaurs felt so real, so accessible, so possible. Spielberg, for us '90s kids, had created a prehistoric Neil Armstrong. Everyone remembers where they were when dinosaurs walked the Earth again.

Jurassic Park's landmark nature is probably how it came to occupy such a lofty place in my timeline. Can you believe that something that was such a BFD for so many people happened 10, then 15, then 17, then...25 YEARS AGO?! I honestly had to stop using it to measure time when we hit 20 years, when broad denial began to set in about both my age and my metabolism.

Still, this summer marks 25 years since Dennis Nedry took a direct shot of venom to the eyes. Does the movie's then-groundbreaking use of CGI stand up after all this time? Is it as good as we all think it is? I had to rewatch to find out.

A Perfect Opening

When I was in college, the school paper published a series of comics by a kid who was attempting to draw the entirety of Jurassic Park into a comic strip. He spent the first four panels zooming in on the Universal logo. It was brilliant, and lasted less than two weeks.

With my critical hat on, I ignored the old-timey big spinny Earth, and noticed for the first time how brilliantly Spielberg structures the movie's first four scenes. Let's break down these initial 10 minutes:

We open in a dark, rainy jungle, where an almost entirely unseen creature outsmarts and ravages one of its captors (leading to the movie's first quotable line "SHOOOOOOOOT HAAAAAAAHHHHHH!" Maybe that one's just me.) What was that thing?

Cut to a river in a different jungle, where a stuffshirt lawyer is ushered into a mine to admire a chunk of amber with a giant bug inside. What!?

Cut to an archaeological dig, where Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill) casually grabs Dr. Ellie Sattler's (Laura Dern) butt, menaces a kid with tweezed eyebrows and signs his life away to John Hammond (Richard Attenborough), a millionaire dressed like Tom Wolfe at Margaritaville. What is this rich guy's deal?

Cut to a tropical cafe, where we meet our villain, Dennis Nedry (Wayne Knight), dressed like Newman at Margaritaville. He's concocting a plot to steal 15 dinosaur embryos from Jurassic Park's lab in exchange for $1.5 million. (I know this was 1993, but $100,000 for an embryo that could become an actual live dinosaur is highway robbery.)

Despite the rapid jumps between location and mood, the scenes don't feel disjointed, partially thanks to a score by the great John Williams. The amber mine scene in particular evokes shades of the Indiana Jones movies, but personally, that's never a world I'm mad about revisiting.

In conclusion, our introduction to "Jurassic Park" holds up even better than I remember. What a delightful surprise.

Clone High

With Drs. Grant and Sattler on board to inspect Hammond's island project for dangers that couldn't possibly be lurking around every corner, it's time to meet the dinosaurs! This is probably the part of the movie I was anticipating the least; they didn't look so great when I tried to rewatch it in college. (Caveat: I was stoned.)

It turns out that 2006 me was being overly critical. Our first dino, the brachiosaurus, holds up pretty well in both super wide shots and up-close zooms on its leathery hide. The animation gets a little Godzilla vs. Mothra clunky when the old gal hops up on two legs to chomp at a particularly juicy branch, but it's forgivable. I'm really curious what it would be like to watch this scene with a JP virgin (do those even exist?) for a nostalgia-free critique.

Oh, yeah, I almost forgot: Oddball "chaotician" Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) has joined us with a pretty low amount of fanfare given his eventual place in the meme/pop culture cannon. Dr. Malcolm, our voice of reason, is also, naturally, a horndog, and wastes no time setting his sights on Dr. Sattler's butt.

Back at the lab, our doctors and stuffshirt lawyer are ready to learn about the miracle of cloning, AKA making a dinosaur using blood from an amber-encrusted mosquito. While the technology is obviously dubious, it felt remotely possible in 1993. Remember, Dolly the sheep wasn't even produced until 1996, and the Human Genome Project was completed in 2003. Regular civilians knew jack shit about the realities surrounding cloning, so who was to say you couldn't mash up ancient dinosaur juice with frog DNA and make a T. Rex? We could have been doing this in our basements years ago!

While Grant and Sattler start masturbating furiously over the dinosaur eggs, Malcolm is much more dubious and jumps into a monologue that includes what's probably the movie's most iconic line: "I'm simply saying that life, uh, finds a way." It's actually a pretty great speech; we would do well to heed nuggets like, "I'll tell you the problem with the scientific power you're wielding here. It didn't take any discipline to attain it," in today's political climate.

The Kids Aren’t Alright

Jurassic Park is paced like a theme park ride; the medium-level scare at the beginning lets you know this movie won't be f***ing around, then Spielberg backs off and lets the audience relax with scenes of gentle grazing herbivores and cartoon DNA strands. But it's not long before the roller coaster car starts climbing – along with your heart rate – when the group, joined by Hamnmond's grandkids Lex (Ariana Richards) and Tim (Joseph Mazzello), drives through the massive wooden gates and into the park.

The next few scenes are pretty much filler, because we need something to carry the story through until night falls and everything is 900% scarier. It turns out that a tropical storm is about to hit the island, and everyone needs to evacuate immediately even though this could have been predicted days ago, but whatever, everything is 956% scarier when it's dark AND raining. Nedry scrambles the island's security and electrical systems in pursuit of his embryonic prize; the tour groups stupidly exit their vans to meet a triceratops; and Ray Arnold (Samuel L. Jackson, impressively subtle) tells us to hold on to our butts.

You'd do well to heed his advice. The thrills, chills, carnage, natural fluids and mayhem that make up "Jurassic Park's" midsection are no less masterful 25 years later, even when you know certain characters will survive. It's easy to forget what's going to leap out of the darkness, and how moronically Nedry meets his fate.

Some more hot takes:

  • Fun fact: One of the movie's best special effects is super low-budget trick. To create the illusion that a stomping T. Rex was causing ripples in a water glass, crew members threaded a guitar string under the car's dashboard and plucked just the right note.
  • If this was such an impressive tropical storm, why did the rain last for, like, 45 minutes and then completely clear up?
  • In hindsight, sweaty Jeff Goldblum with an open shirt may have caused some initial stirrings for dark, swarthy men deep within my preteen bosom.
  • I'd forgotten about the scene where Dr. Sattler has to go to the electrical shed to reboot the power and encounters both a velociraptor and Sam Jackson's severed arm. It's brief, but nasty.
  • The shot where Grant and Hammond discuss the latter's foibles over an entire freezer's worth of ice cream is beautifully lit; Hammond, somehow still in pristine whites, is bathed in light and sees himself an infallible figure, even in the face of so much destruction.
  • "CLEVER GIRL."

Just when you think our protagonists are safe comes the scene I've always found the scariest: Kids versus velociraptors in the kitchen. Lex's jiggling green Jello mirrors the water glass vibration of doom, and the siblings make a mad dash for an enclosed space with only one door, because raptors can't open doors, right? WRONG.

The kitchen's stainless steel surfaces provide a stark contrast to the lush jungle scenes while underscoring the nasty truth: Even in a human environment, there's nowhere to hide from the raw power of nature. Fortunately, the raw power of nature is confused by walk-in coolers and reflective surfaces, so the kids make their umpteenth miraculous escape and I finally exhale.

The Whimper After the Bang

Rumor has it that Spielberg added Jurassic Park's final battle, in which the T. Rex "saves" the screaming group of humans from becoming a raptor snack, at the last minute. This is supposed to be the last hill of the roller coaster, the big drop into the briar patch on Splash Mountain. To be honest, it's pretty meh compared to watching a guy get chomped off a toilet. All the humans do is scream and run out of the room to safety, with enough wits about them to drop a few snarky one-liners.

It's quite a letdown after the hour of thrills we've just been through. I can imagine that upon first viewing, the serene sight of pelicans gliding over water and bloodied children falling asleep would feel like a necessary moment for audiences to catch their breath. But for an old pro, the moment falls flat.

But it's nice to know that, overall, Jurassic Park holds up, just not entirely in the ways I'd expected. It's an old friend worth revisiting, a technology time capsule that sucks you in like so much blood from a fossilized mosquito's tiny corpse. In this case, your nostalgia is correct.