By Nick Milligan
I had a number of childhood obsessions, but looming largest amongst them was my passion for dinosaurs. I pored over books and watched documentaries on the ancient reptiles, learning my archaeopteryxes from my ankylosauruses. My favourite place on Earth was the Australian Museum in Sydney. If there was an established and accepted dinosaur, I knew its name. I’m not alone in this interest, of course, as the existence of dinosaurs continues to spark the imaginative synapses of young people around the globe.When the theatrical trailers for Jurassic Park appeared in early 1993, my dino-obsessed brain couldn’t contain its excitement. The arrival of this film would be the most important event of my life.
I counted down the days until its release in September that year. Frustratingly, it had been out in America since June. Not fair. Babies born of this century won’t be able to fathom the idea that a movie could be a cultural phenomenon. Every person you knew went to see a movie. It was discussed. It was seen twice or more. Those days are gone. Not even the latest Star Wars flick or an Avengers’ on-screen orgy can reap the same level of hysteria as landmark films of the previous century (though The Force Awakens is the closest a film has come for over two decades).
Now Tiger King enters the zeitgeist faster than anything on the silver screen. Jaws and The Exorcist were before my time, but Jurassic Park was of my time. When it opened in September 1993, Maitland Cinema 4 (now Reading) had the movie running all day, on all four screens, and there was a queue around the block for every screening. We don’t really queue for movies anymore. Now having six people in front of you can be too much. Where I differed from other nine-year-old kids was that I’d been fairly sheltered from scary movies. My mum had a clear idea of the sorts of films I was allowed to see at any given age (usually years after what seemed reasonable to me). But I was allowed to see Jurassic Park.
However what the trailers for the film didn’t really convey, was that Steven Spielberg’s latest masterpiece was not a kid-friendly outing. Jurassic Park was, and still is, a horror movie. Yes, a horror movie. Jason Voorhees’ machete has been substituted for the scythen talon of a velociraptor.It’s telling that, before its release, Spielberg stated very clearly in the press that he wouldn’t allow his eight-year-old son Max to see the film. “It was too intense,” he said. The outspoken critic of Hollywood violence, Michael Medved, said that any parent that took their child to the film was “guilty of unconscionable child abuse”.
Amazingly, Universal Pictures managed to get Jurassic Park a PG rating in Australia and the UK, largely down to its loose educational value. The UK’s National History Museum’s dinosaur expert Dr Angela Milner praised the movie’s accuracy and welcomed the classification, but admitted it might scare nervous children.
Like many horror movies, Jurassic Park opens with a death that sets up the coming jeopardy for future characters. In the opening of Spielberg’s other landmark horror movie, Jaws, we see a beautiful young naked girl scream in pain and terror as she’s dragged beneath the ocean’s surface by an unseen monster. In the opening scene of Jurassic Park, a humble crew member referred to as the “gate keeper” is slashed and devoured alive by an unseen monster as he screams in agony and dies in the arms of Bob Peck’s steely game-hunter-cum-park-ranger Muldoon. The horror is not lost on Spielberg. The combination of inhuman squeals and shots from the monster’s perspective are all tropes of the genre. Even my dino-obsessed brain was not ready for this. As I sat, wide-eyed, in my seat, my crippling excitement quickly turned to shock. Like, actually shock. Medical shock. I turned white. I felt faint. I felt like I would throw up into my popcorn. I sat, catatonic, through more of the film, the images washing over me. But I was still stuck in that opening sequence. My impulse was to leave. I turned to my dad and whispered that I had to go to the bathroom. There I sat in a cubicle, seat down, and stared at the back of the cubicle door. Terrified.
I eventually summoned the courage to return to the cinema. When the T-Rex finally eats that snivelling lawyer Gennaro, the guy marked for death the moment he appears in frame, I really needed to get out of there. I returned to the cubicle. My dad eventually came to find me and asked if I was okay. As this was 27 years ago, my memory is a little fuzzy, but I imagine I made up an excuse and said everything was fine. Dad returned to his seat and encouraged me to do the same.
I don’t blame him, not at all. I mean, it’s fucking Jurassic Park. On the big screen. For the first time ever. As I recall, I didn’t rush back into the cinema. I suspect I checked out the arcade machines and stalled for time. I have a faint memory of returning in time to see the velociraptor kitchen scene. That happens not too long after Laura Dern’s Dr Ellie Sattler triumphantly exclaims into her headset, “Mr Hammond, I think we’re back in business!” after rebooting the park’s generators. That’s when Jurassic Park becomes a full-blown slasher movie. It was night when we left the movie. I passed a lot of my school friends in the various two-hundred metre queues that snaked throughout Maitland’s CBD, waiting impatiently to get into their evening session. I told them how awesome it was. How much I’d enjoyed it. But really I was filled with sorrow and rued my cowardice. I’d counted the days to watch that film and, in the end, been too much of a chicken to even watch it.
I saw the complete film about a year later on rented VHS. On our tiny television. And, of course, I’ve watched it innumerable times since. But last night, for the first time in 27 years, I sat down to watch Jurassic Park at the cinema, this time on the gigantic Titan XC cinema screen at Reading Charlestown. I’ll save my rant about the film’s merits and how well it holds up for another time. But I will say this: as I extended the recliner seat and put my jacket over me as if it were a blanket, I was taken back in time. Not 65 million years, but to September of 1993, when a wide-eyed kid had the wind knocked out of him by a master filmmaker and the potentially harrowing power of cinema. I didn’t just watch the movie for the shabby, decaying version of me that exists today but for my nine-year-old self. I watched it for him. Thinking about that scared kid from long ago, I was sad at the thought that I might never again have as palpable a reaction to a movie and that my trauma represented an innocence that is truly lost. But, last night, when that first brachiosaurus appeared on screen, pacing gracefully through frame, brought to life not through DNA alchemy but the waking dream that celluloid affords us, I’m not ashamed to say I shed a tear.