Jurassic Park 3D: Excitement and Extinction

Looking great, Spielberg's dinosaur-zoo thriller is back in theaters—while they last

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Universal City Studios, Inc. & Amblin Entertainment, Inc.

Are dinosaurs scarier in 3-D? Some censors think so. When members of the Australian Classification Board saw the 3-D conversion of Steven Spielberg‘s Jurassic Park, they changed its rating from the original PG to a slightly sterner M — their equivalent of PG-13, which is the movie’s rating in the U.S. The Board’s decision was in synch with Spielberg’s; in 1993 he said, “I do think this movie is inappropriate for children under 13.” An Aussie studio exec scrambled to find a marketing angle in the more restrictive designation for JP3D. “Certainly, it’s a first,” said Mike Baard, Managing Director of Universal Pictures Australasia, “the first time the very same film has been rated differently because of the impact of 3-D. That says to the audience they’re going to have a different experience as a result.”

He’s right. JP3D is the very same film, frame for frame, though each frame has been artfully altered to Spielberg’s specifications by the Stereo D digital swamis who also converted Titanic and The Avengers to 3-D. Otherwise, it’s identical to the 1993 version. The only things that have changed are the viewers (so much older now), the technology behind special-effects pictures (so much more sophisticated) and the very notion of how and where to see a movie.

(FIND: Jurassic Park’s Dino skull among TIME’s Top 10 Skulls)

For the uninitiated, Jurassic Park was the blockbuster — $914.7 million at the worldwide box office, or in real dollars about $1.7 billion, which would put it just behind Avatar and Titanic — that Spielberg made from Michael Crichton’s bestseller about dinosaurs running wild in a theme park. In preparing this 20th-anniversary celebration, the director didn’t Photoshop guns into walkie-talkies, as he had in the 20-years-later rerelease of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial in 2002. Nor did he go the more elaborate, indeed twisted, route of his pal George Lucas, who in 1997 released versions of the earliest Star Wars films that updated the visual effects, changed elements in a few scenes and, in the process, outraged the movies’ most devout, possessive admirers. Aside from the faux 3-D — also available in a spiffy IMAX version — Spielberg has not tainted or tinkered with Jurassic Park.

Some might have wanted him to. On the Furious Fanboys website, Jeremy Conrad writes that “people hoping for deleted scenes such as Ellie picking the extinct plant leaf or Tim finding the stones that the Triceratops swallowed to make it sick will have to wait to see if Spielberg will ever release those.” Others may recall that the director tried to film the book’s creepiest scene, where the Tyrannosaurus rex curls its tongue around a child hiding inside a waterfall. That icky frisson didn’t get into the movie because, Spielberg said, “the tongue we made just wasn’t convincing. It looked like Dino from The Flintstones.” So no leaf, no stones, no tongue.

Nor did JP3D get what it really needed: a script conversion. A true synopsis of the screenplay by Crichton and David Koepp would read: Fascinating monsters chase boring people. In the book, the entrepreneur John Hammond, whose scientists have brought dinosaur species back to life for his crackpot-genius idea of a prehistoric theme park, was a fiendish Frankenstein of capitalism. But since Spielberg saw a lot of himself in this visionary with a kid’s reckless enthusiasm, Richard Attenborough portrayed Hammond as a Santa Claus bringing kids presents. (Attenborough’s next film role was playing Kris Kringle in John Hughes’ remake of Miracle on 34th Street.) Except that some of these presents want to eat their recipients.

(READ: John Skow’s review of Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park by subscribing to TIME)

Hammond has invited three specialists — paleontologist Alan Grant (Sam Neill), paleobotanist Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern) and mathematician Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) — to view the park he has created on an island off Costa Rica and give it their blessing. Hammond’s grandchildren Lex (Ariana Richards) and Tim (Joseph Mazzello) are also there, basically as bait, but also to force the child-averse Alan to realize that he has the makings of a good dad. Back in the actual plot, disgruntled computer whiz Dennis Nedry (Wayne Knight) shuts off the park’s electricity, disabling the electronic barriers that separate monsters from men. Then stuff happens.

That stuff is pretty amazing. As I wrote in TIME back then:

Dinosaurs live. You are there, once upon a time, before mammal walked or man dreamed. You can pet a triceratops and, if you wish, examine its droppings. You can feed a vegetarian brachiosaur, whose movements are graceful, endearing. At times the beasts (animated, mostly, by the computer-sorcerers from Industrial Light & Magic) move in a hazier space than the humans in the foreground, but in the intimate scenes the dinos are utterly convincing….

Then he scares you witless. Here come a nosy tyrannosaur and a fan-faced, bilious dilophosaur. Nastiest of all are the velociraptors, smart, relentless punks in packs — Saurz N the Hood. They have a special appetite for kids, just like the great white shark in the movie that made Spielberg’s rep. Now it has some worthy successors: primeval creatures with personality and a lot of bite. Jurassic Park is the true Jaws II.

(READ: Corliss’s 1993 review of Jurassic Park)

What you see now is what you got in 1993, but with glasses. The conversion makes strengths and limitations of the effects more evident. Alan, Ellie and the kids appear even farther away from the back-screen dinos whose stampede they’re watching. But up close and personal, the creatures — like the seven-ton T. rex puppet-machine created by Stan Winston — are marvelously tactile. The benign ones invite the viewer to pet them. The ferocious ones virtually sear you with their dragon breath.

When Spielberg said, of the Jurassic Park visual effects, “I just opened the toolbox and took out every tool there was,” he must have meant that he handed those tools to ILM masters Dennis Muren and Phil Tippett — or that they created them and he said, “Nice tools.” In 1992, when George H. W. Bush was President, the Internet was an infant and the movies’ digital technology was in its prehistory, Muren and Tippett and their team brought the Jurassic Park action scenes to magnificent, plausible life. Their work is even more impressive in 3-D, since the dinosaurs, lacking long, strong arms for grabbing prey, tend to attack with their giant heads and nasty teeth. Those heads now look to be breaking the screen’s invisible fourth wall. The monsters bob, you shrink.

The 3-D process adds not just dimension but depth — a technological extension of cinematographer Gregg Toland’s deep-focus innovations in The Grapes of Wrath and Citizen Kane. The change in perspective creates greater intensity. As Spielberg has said: “The kitchen scene works great because there’s so much distance between the end of the long counters and the door where the two raptors enter. … You’ve got the same sense of perspective when the kids are trapped in the car, and the T. rex starts attacking the car. And for the first time, because of the 3-D, you’re really able to feel that you’re inside the car. You really get a sense that you’re trapped along with them.”

(READ: TIME’s inside look at the Jurassic Park visual effects

Like other Spielberg smashes (Jaws, E.T. and Raiders of the Lost Ark), Jurassic Park became a theme-park attraction — a machine to stoke awe and fear, in its audience and its maker. When supervising construction of the Jurassic Park roller-coaster adventure at Universal Studios Hollywood, he would get off before the final plunge into the water; he was afraid to take his own thrill ride. That anecdote indicates the director’s weirdly close connection with his audience: he is each sacred monster (whose dangerous instincts he put on screen) and each scared kid.

The kids who were frightened out of their seats when they first saw Jurassic Park are in their twenties or thirties now. As parents, they will want to take their own children to JP3D. And they may wonder if the very young, who see movies alone on the micro-screens of computers or YouTube, can still feel the jolt of a big-screen experience. To them, 1993 seems like prehistory; and Jurassic Park, which marked an advance in visual-effects technology no less amazing than Hammond’s Tyrannosaur sanctuary, is itself a dinosaur. Few action picture use the Winston-style puppets these days; seeing Jurassic Park, even in 3-D (itself the revival of a fad from the 1950s), is like walking through the Museum of Not Quite Natural Movie History.

(READ: Corliss’s review of the Jurassic Park Blu-ray edition)

JP3D is being released in theaters in part to display the conversion, but mostly to promote the DVD coming out Apr. 23. In essence, Universal is renting halls so people will buy a product to watch — as they consume most other content — in their homes or on mobile devices. That hints at the scariest aspect of thinking about Jurassic Park: that the real dinosaur may be the 100-year tradition of moviegoing. Not yet extinct but surely endangered, and of imposing size but cumbersome means, it dominated the entertainment world for most of the modern age, until the more convenient and sedentary pleasure of modern movie watching erased the need for the old moviegoing.

And the sense of community created by sharing a terrific film with a rapt audience in a large auditorium? Texting makes that available instantly and more intimately. If movies in theaters are the dinosaurs, texting and Twitter and Facebook may be the catastrophe that wiped them out. The meteor is social media.