“Welcome to Jurassic Park”: a theatrical experience so bad I remember it as much as the movie

Thirty years ago yesterday, Jurassic Park opened in theaters, after quite a lot of hype. I remember at the time the general reaction initially was “Pretty good, not Spielberg’s best, but a really solid effort, but too bad he didn’t have the kinds of technical difficulties on this movie that kept him from showing too much of the shark in Jaws because that created the film’s mood,” yada yada yada.

I always found that criticism a bit wrong-headed, but I had to wait until the second time I saw the movie to figure out how I felt about it, because the first screening I attended was so abysmally awful, thanks to the theater, that I felt it unfair to judge the movie based on that screening.

There used to be a hotel in Olean, NY called the Castle Inn. It was, apparently at one time, quite a place: a very large restaurant with numerous medieval-themed dining rooms and the exterior made to look like a castle, and then a whole lot of “luxurious” rooms in several buildings. (Here’s a history of the place, which was apparently quite the going concern in the mid-20th century. I suppose it had the usual charm of the 20th-century over-the-top roadside attractions like Wall Drug and others.) The place had a pool, and a nine-hole golf course out back, and…a movie theater. The Castle Cinema. When we first moved there, the Castle Cinema was basically a large single-screen theater that wasn’t that bad.

But ten years later? It was terrible.

The decline began when the owners decided that they could obviously make more money by adding a second screen. However, there was no way to add to the existing building, which was hemmed in on its lot. So they did the next best thing: they cut the existing building in half, so you had two shoe-box style auditoriums side-by-side, each with its own screen.

Obviously this reduced the screen size significantly: each auditorium had what I’m sure is the smallest movie theater screen I’ve ever seen. I imagine that some rich folks own teevees with larger screens.

And the new wall between the two auditoriums was not sound-proofed very well, a problem which the owners got around by turning the volume on the movies down.

Also, if you remember reading Roger Ebert’s writings back in the day, one of his biggest pet peeves about movie theaters was theater owners who tried to penny-pinch by turning down the brightness on their projectors, thinking to not have to buy expensive movie-projector bulbs as often. This resulted in films often looking terrible.

That’s what happened to Jurassic Park the first time I saw it: the Castle Cinema made it a murky, hard-to-hear crap-fest, instead of the rip-roaring fun man-versus-nature adventure movie it actually was.

Oh! The Castle Cinema would have ONE guy working. Doing EVERYTHING. He’d sell some tickets, and then when the popcorn line got long enough, he’d slide over and do that for a bit. Eventually he’d break away and go turn the damned movie on. This meant that movies at the Castle never started on time, and they frequently started twenty minutes or more late. And that screwed things up because the Castle never advertised movie start times with any thought given to the movies’ actual running times; unless it was a three-hour film, they advertised four screenings a day: 2, 4, 7, and 9 o’clocks. Jurassic Park is 127 minutes long, so guess how that turned out.

In short, the Castle Cinema was a horrible place to see a movie, and not long after the Jurassic Park debacle, during which entire plot points were missed entirely because we either couldn’t hear the dialog explaining them or see the events displaying them (since half the movie takes place at night), I ended up seeing the movie again at a mall theater in Buffalo. (A General Cinema theater, precisely…and I’m pretty sure General Cinema has gone away too, but they at least could show a movie well.) In fact, seeing Jurassic Park there so irritated me that I refused to see movies at the Castle again. If a movie I wanted to see played at that theater, I would drive to Buffalo to see it.

The Castle Cinema is long gone now, as is the Castle Inn, the Castle Restaurant, and the Castle Golf Course. When we moved to the Olean area in 1981, Olean itself had already peaked and was on the decline. But the signs of the peak were still in evidence in the businesses that existed (and soon started failing), the vibrant (for then) downtown street, several factories, and connections to larger businesses in Buffalo, Pittsburgh, and farther away, New York City.

But back to the movie: the second time I saw Jurassic Park, I got it.

The afore-mentioned critique that the film needed to show less dinosaur has always struck me as an odd one. Yes, that accident of a poorly-functioning shark model led to increased tension and suspense in Jaws, but Jurassic Park isn’t Jaws. The earlier film was about a single monster terrorizing the people of Amity; this film isn’t really a monster film at all. Jurassic Park is about what happens when two apex predators come into contact with one another, and the advisability of scientific “progress” at all costs. Sure, parts of Jurassic Park are definitely monster-movie-ish, but I don’t think the movie is actually a monster movie at all. The dinosaurs, the movie tells us, are not malevolent creatures bent on eating humans; they’re animals, created and thrust into an ecosystem that has evolved beyond them.

Jurassic Park is a much less subtle film than Jaws was; where Jaws suggests its themes, Jurassic Park states them outright and often, usually via some good dialog put in the mouth of Jeff Goldblum. While you can’t go wrong with giving Jeff Goldblum things to say, the film’s constant pointing out of what a bad idea it is to resurrect dinosaurs gets a bit repetitious. Still, it’s worth it to hear lines like “Yeah, but John, if the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ breaks down, the pirates don’t eat the tourists.”

Being a Steven Spielberg movie, Jurassic Park delves into issues of parenthood. By now we’re out of the realm of kids from broken homes, and instead we’re focusing on a scientist who has little desire to be around children…so of course, he’s forced to spend the movie escorting two kids through the most dangerous theme park on the planet. Mostly this works, once the actual thrills start; the movie gets a lot of the cloying material out of the way early, thankfully. After that, it’s all Movie Relationship Magic, because what better way to form bonds with other people and learn truths about oneself than through shared life-threatening danger?

Jurassic Park‘s build is slow. We don’t really see any dinosaurs until around twenty minutes or so into the film, and when we do, rather than make them scary, Spielberg makes them objects of wonder. This is a wise choice. First of all, it is wondrous; few cinematic reveals top those jeeps coming to the top of the rise and Sam Neill lazily looking off to the left and then suddenly realizing just what is happening. And that thing he says! That wonderful thing he says when he realizes that his own scientific hypotheses regarding dinosaurs are being confirmed: “They move in herds…they do move in herds.”

Laura Dern’s character is a bit short-changed by the film; she does strike a blow against “sexism in survival situations”, but she doesn’t get much by way of opportunity to demonstrate that as a scientist she is every bit as smart as the Sam Neill character. At least she is capable and strong; the movie doesn’t make her into a shrieking damsel-in-distress. But aside from her desire to study the sick triceratops, she doesn’t get much chance to be the expert here. That’s a shame. And it’s kind of telling that the movie’s credits list Neill’s character as “Dr. Grant”, while it lists hers as “Ellie”.

Some of Jurassic Park does seem admittedly dated today, particularly the hacker girl’s recognition of the software: “It’s a Unix system! I know this!” Though she isn’t really doing any real hacking; we don’t see her boot up a command-line interface and start typing madly in an effort to retake control of the system. No, she just mouses her way through a GUI file system until she finds the one for the security systems.

These are all pretty minor complaints, though, because the movie is otherwise full of moments that never fail to thrill me when I watch the film. The T-Rex attack is still harrowing to this day–and was there ever a more whoa visual effect than the T-Rex’s pupils contracting when he leans down and the flashlight is in his eyes? And you can’t beat the entire last act, with the velociraptors on the loose, all the way from “Clever girl!” to “Unless they figure out how to open doors” to the raptor with the genetic code being projected onto its face.

Jurassic Park absolutely did show me things I’d never seen before in a movie, and it cranked the bar upward several more notches. It was certainly much easier to think of dinosaurs in a real, living way after this movie came out. Of course, like all such blockbusters, Jurassic Park sired a franchise of sequels, only one of which–the first one, The Lost World: Jurassic Park–I have actually seen. That sequel is a much more uneven movie than the original, and it has some escapes that are simply not believable, but it’s not without its charms. I have no idea where the franchise has gone since then, but that’s OK; I’ve still got the original. I’m not totally sure if Jurassic Park is a classic, but…people still remember it and it’s still watched, so maybe it is.

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One Response to “Welcome to Jurassic Park”: a theatrical experience so bad I remember it as much as the movie

  1. Jason says:

    First of all, I would say that, yes, Jurassic Park is a classic. For one thing, it’s now acknowledged as a turning point in special-effects technology that basically led to the Star Wars prequels, the MCU, etc. And I think it’s generally better regarded now than it was in ’93, when, as you point out, everyone kept trying to compare it to Jaws for some reason. I haven’t heard that particular rhetoric in some time, and I believe (entirely anecdotally) that the movie is judged on its own merit now. Or possibly in relation to its sequels/reboots (Jurassic World is essentially that), which all have their pluses but are generally inferior to the original.

    For me, I think JP is a terrific funhouse of a movie that is inextricably wrapped up with a good time of my life, so I can’t help loving it. I also believe it’s a significant point in Spielberg’s career, demarcating his earlier crowdpleasing phase from his post-Schindler’s List phase, which I think has been a lot more hit and miss, and frankly a lot less entertaining.

    Now, as to that theater you describe… yikes! I am solidly pro-theatrical experience and also willing to overlook a lot of less-than-ideal conditions, but that place sounds absolutely awful. And it reminds me of one we used to have in the Salt Lake area, the Century Domes… a cluster of two or three dome-shaped auditorium structures linked around a central lobby. At one time, each dome was a single screen, but at some point they got subdivided just like you described, with all the concurrent problems you describe. I saw Flash Gordon there as a kid. I think the last thing I saw there was The Doors, and it was a miserable experience; you couldn’t hear the quiet dialog scenes at all over the rumbles of whatever was exploding next door…

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