I was only 8-years-old when Jurassic Park came out, which means I had no idea what I was getting myself into. But there I was, an oversized tub of popcorn in one arm and an immense soda in the other, sitting in a plush theater chair in frenzied anticipation.
I don’t remember when I first saw the trailer, but it certainly made an impression; the dinosaurs I saw in books and talked about in school were alive, roaring, stalking, wreaking havoc. At that age, dinosaurs were all I cared about. They were terrifying monsters, and it was amazing to think that they once roamed the Earth. The same spot I’m sitting right now could have been occupied by a brontosaurus.
After learning about the movie’s existence, the only thing I wanted to do that summer was see it. Eat, sleep, Jurassic Park. That’s what my life was like at 8-years-old.
I’d seen The Land Before Time as a little boy, so I figured I was more or less prepared me for what was to come. If I could survive Littlefoot’s perilous journey through a prehistoric apocalypse, I could easily handle the spectacle of a dinosaur theme park. I loved theme parks, and I loved dinosaurs. That was a winning combination in my eyes.
But, my goodness, seeing Jurassic Park in the theater nearly made me pass out from sheer terror. It’s something that I always think about whenever I catch the movie on TV, an experience that, even all these years later, feels like it happened yesterday. And that’s what it was for me: an experience. I wasn’t merely observing things moving onscreen; I was reacting, both emotionally and physically, to what was unfolding.
As cliché as it sounds, Jurassic Park was executed so expertly that I responded as though I was somehow participating in the movie. I hung on to every word, every character interaction, every pseudo-science explanation. And when Steven Spielberg gave us our first glimpse of Jon Hammond’s dinosaur experiments, my reaction wasn’t any different than Dr. Grant’s. Mouth agape, in complete disbelief.
This was at a time when CGI hadn’t really dominated Hollywood. Back then, it was either really, really poor CGI, or practical effects. But Jurassic Park took advantage of both in such an unprecedented way that was it still holds up today. Watching it now on TV, a lot of the movie is very convincing—you can tell what’s CGI and what’s not, but the sheer ingenuity and direction is absolutely magisterial.
Take, for example, our first introduction to the T. rex. Once Dennis Nedry takes the park’s grid offline, the tour is cut short right in front of the T. rex exhibit. Very slowly things start to go down hill, until finally Lex Murphy, looking into the exhibit’s cage where a goat had been chained up, realizes that the poor animal is no longer there.
“Where’s the goat?” she asks.
As the camera pans in for a tighter shot on Lex, it looks up toward the car’s glass roof, and that’s when it happens. The goat’s bloodied leg comes crashing down, producing a heart attack-inducing thud. That just about sent me jumping out of the theater. And that was just the start of what was an incredibly tense scene, which sees the T. rex topple one of the cars, eat a man while he’s on the toilet, and nearly consume the two kids.
I was shaking I was so scared. Literally shaking in my boots. I’m pretty sure I closed my eyes when the T. rex came stomping through the electric fence, and only occasionally looked at the screen with my hands clasped across my face. It was amazing to me how visceral the scene was; there was an actual blood-thirsty dinosaur onscreen, and to this day I still think it’s one of the best scenes in Hollywood history.
What’s even more amazing to me is how Steven Spielberg used CGI, practical effects, weather, sound and direction to make it all happen. The life-sized animatronic T. rex was a whopping 20 feet tall, 40 feet long and weighed 17,500 pounds. Spielberg utilized a real life dinosaur in the movie, and it really comes across in a meaningful way.
Even the spectacle of the T. rex was no match for the genius of the kitchen scene, during which Tim and Lex evade a trio of Raptors in very tight quarters. It’s without a doubt one of the most terrifying scenes ever put to film, and proves that, when working with the right material, Spielberg can film some amazing horror scenes. It sent shivers down my spine when the raptors first got inside and started doing their raptor calls.
I remember asking my parents if we could leave the theater at that point. The shock and terror of Jurassic Park literally made me feel sick, and I could no longer handle it. They rebuffed my request, however, so I was forced to continue. It was an excruciating, exhilarating, unforgettable ride, something that no other film has been able to match to this day.
There are other scenes throughout Jurassic Park that display the same innovation and magic. When Dr. Sattler is in the underground compound turning the power back on, she gets a terrifying surprise at the moment you least expect it. And so on.
Nothing in my childhood had such a profound effect on me like Jurassic Park did. And when I see it now, it’s like I’m back in that theater, large popcorn tub in one arm and soda in the other. During those two or so hours, dinosaurs were real, roaming the Earth, just as they did millions and millions of years ago.
I’m indifferent toward the other two Jurassic Park movies, and I’m not sure how I feel about Jurassic World just yet; I’ll make up my mind after I see it. But I already know it can’t touch the wonder of the first film. The timing, direction, and my age certainly played big factors; movies simply aren’t made that same way Jurassic Park was.
I’ll always have that memory of seeing Jurassic Park in the theater, and the kind of emotional rollercoaster it took me on.
That’s what movies can do. That’s why, for me, it’s still the best horror movie I’ve ever seen. It was the perfect combination of computer wizardry and ground-breaking animatronics, and a completely unique piece of Hollywood history. Even today, it still fills me with a sense of wonder, astonishment and fear in a way no other movie can.