As excitement builds for tonight’s opening of the new Jurassic World, I (like many of you no doubt) am remembering the magical experience of our very first visit to see the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park, several decades ago
My experience of Jurassic Park, though, was somewhat unique, because I enjoyed it in two vastly different theaters on opposite sides of the world, and at opposite extremes of the cinema-viewing technology (and audience) spectrum.
I vividly remember the visceral experience of seeing it for the first time upon release, in one of the then brand new dolby surround sound equipped multiplexes in San Diego. I was a graduate student in the University of California, San Diego at the time, and on campus in between field seasons in southern India when the movie came out on this very date in June 1993. As a biologist (studying dinosaurs, very tiny ones, as it turns out), and a cinephile, of course I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of watching dinosaurs come to roaring life in crystal clarity on the big screen, in one of the newest theaters, stadium seating and all! I remember the sheer thrill of seeing this for the first time:
This must be everyone’s favorite scene from the movie, surely! What had Steven Spielberg unleashed upon the cinematic world?!
Thrilled as I was with every scene bringing dinosaurs back to vivid digital life, though, I was also left disappointed at the rather one-dimensional caricature almost every human character had been reduced to from the already limited dimensionality in the source material. Yeah, yeah, we scientists like to complain about how poorly we are represented on film, and I could rage at a long list of cinematic transgressions against science and scientists, not just in the Jurassic Park movies. Nevertheless, that scene when we first meet the dinosaurs grazing on the plains remains indelible in my cinematic memory – even without the help of YouTube. And for that we must all be grateful for the wizardry of Spielberg and his crew.
A year later, the film finally reached the distant backwaters of rural Tamil Nadu in Southern India where I was doing field research on these migratory Green Leaf Warblers (little dinosaurs, as we now know them to be, true) on Mundanthurai plateau:
My local field assistants invited me to join them on an 8 km bicycle ride out of the woods and down the hill into the nearest town, for an evening at the cinema that could not have been more different from the experience in San Diego.
The amazing Sankaran and Kumar who made many a Ph.D. possible. Seen here with our toddler daughter, and a Slender Loris they had just caught for Kaberi.
This “theater” in Ambasamudram, the only one for many miles around, was in fact a massive warehouse / barn building, with a cloth screen strung up at one end, flanked by big box speakers sitting on the floor, and no seats! Instead of seats, the enormous bare floor curiously had a rope running right through the middle, dividing it into two long halves facing the screen. The mystery of the rope was solved after we had rushed in with the throngs waiting in long lines outside: it was a barrier to keep the male and female members of the audience separate. Obviously, with no seats, the cinema owners could squeeze in (and I do mean that literally) as many viewers as was physically possible. The cacophonous crowd quieted down as soon as the projector was turned on, for this was an audience in perhaps the most cinema-crazy state in India, having elected multiple film stars as chief ministers of the state.
The audience reaction to what followed on screen left me even more astonished than the film itself.
For in that rustic “theater”, packed in like cattle, watching a film entirely in American with no subtitles or dubbing, this Tamil-speaking audience reacted almost identically to the one munching popcorn in the plush stadium seats in California. The gasps of awe at the dinosaurs were, of course, to be expected and relished, but what really surprised me were the reactions to the human characters speaking largely incomprehensible American. The naughty chaotician’s cheesy jokes were laughed at, the old grandpa admired and then critiqued, and the T. rex cheered enthusiastically – especially when it ate the lawyer! Even though lawyers were seldom as prominent or despicable in rural Tamil Nadu as they are in the States.
That is when the true cinematic genius of Speilberg hit me: for he had, in reducing the human characters to simple tropes, turned them into human universals that anyone could relate to (or revile) – something that would likely not have happened had he worried about satisfying the picky nerd audience like me instead. My hat was therefore off to Spielberg as, indeed, a truly great B-movie director.
As we cycled back in the night, high on the adrenalin rush from the movie – and from having battled the throngs in exiting that crazy cinema hall – Sankaran and Kumar could not stop talking and asking me about the movie, and about dinosaurs, and how they had made them come to life on screen. We talked about them for days afterwards, while catching warblers in mistnets, or just walking through Mundanthurai’s forests. Hard core committed local conservationists as these two were, their newfound love of dinosaurs turned into wishful thinking: “Wouldn’t it be great if we could actually release one of the monster dinosaurs into this forest, sir? That will take care of all the poachers killing wildlife here! That’ll show them!”
The film also spawned perhaps the cleverest bit of political art I have ever seen. At the Tirunelveli bus station some months later, I stood and marveled and laughed silently at a poster mocking the then Chief Minister (and ex movie superstar) Jayalalitha (Jaya-Amma for short): it mimicked the iconic film poster, the one with the profile of the T. rex with the words “Jurassic Park” across it:
Except, the profile was that of Jaya-Amma, and the banner read “Jayassic Park“! To my eternal regret, I did not have a camera with me that day, nor did I think to peel the poster off the wall and steal it at the time. Jaya-Amma herself has had a remarkable political resurrection recently, having survived corruption scandals and jail time, only to come roaring back to devour Tamil Nadu politics again. Just as the dinosaurs are back on the big screen this weekend.
So hat’s off again, to Spielberg, and to the anonymous local artist who designed such iconic posters! And to Sankaran and Kumar, who will no doubt go to see the dinosaurs return to the theaters in Ambasamudram (I don’t know what they are like these days, but Google tells me that that little town has more than one theater now) soon. Perhaps with their children this time. And they may again wish for some dinosaurs in their backyards to keep their beloved forests intact.
Meanwhile I prepare to see it in California this weekend, with my 10-year-old self-proclaimed paleonerd daughter who is really excited about it because, she says, “It’s gonna be so stupid! They will get so many things wrong about the dinosaurs! It’ll be fun!!” That it certainly promises to be.