In which I rave about Jurassic Park April 13th, 2013
It was the summer of 1993 and I had been waiting for weeks. I paid my $3.50 at the counter, paid another $5 at the other counter for some popcorn and a soda, and sat down in a newly renovated theater in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan. In addition to a new screen and new upholstery, the renovation had added a row of speakers running the length of the theater on both the left and right sides. The lights dimmed, and then something happened which would forever change the future of cinema… stuff started flying past my ears, hurtling from the back of the theater and crashing onto the screen. Whirling blades of energy flew overhead as I sat locked to my seat.
What I’m speaking of is of course the original DTS Digital Theater Experience intro trailer, introducing a new era of cinema where sound could come not just from the front of the theater, but from all sides. Granted, surround sound wasn’t completely new, Dolby had several theatrical technologies, but they were expensive and not many movies were using them. DTS was setting out to change that with new hardware that could be produced much cheaper and was significantly easier to add to film prints. Steven Spielberg has partnered with them to get it rolled out into over 600 screens across the nation just for his new film, the first film ever released with DTS, Jurassic Park.
Jurassic Park was a mind-blowing experience to 12 year old me, it was the film that made me want to work in cinema technology. The roars of the T-Rex and Velociraptors coming from all sides excited me like no film ever had, and firmly set JP as my #1 favorite movie of all time. When it came out on video I would frequently spent evenings in my grandmother’s darkened basement with the stereo cranked up so I could feel the roars of the dinosaurs. I have bought the movie five times, in four formats. I have watched it so many times that I have memorized the film shot for shot and can quote the entire script almost verbatim.
I have been waiting twenty years to get another chance to see this movie in a full theatrical setting. So, as you can imagine, I was pretty friggin excited when I heard it was coming to theaters again, and then equally dreadful that it was getting the 3D conversion treatment. In general I hate 3D movies, the only 3D conversion release that I’ve seen which I felt actually improved the film was Nightmare Before Christmas. For most movies the 3D just doesn’t add anything useful, you forget it’s even there after a while. I entered the theater today with some trepidation about if this was going to ruin my favorite movie. Thankfully, it did not, but first lets talk about “IMAX”.
I love real IMAX, and by real I mean true, 10 story tall screen, 12,000 watts of audio, filling your vision IMAX. There are less than 80 real IMAX theaters in the nation, usually just a couple per state, if that. What you see many theaters now calling IMAX is not true IMAX, it is a reduced specification designed to be cheaper and easier to implement. “IMAX” has a lower framerate and smaller resolution than true IMAX. I find the entire concept of “IMAX” to be laughable and insulting to cinema, but it’s here to stay so I might as well take advantage of it.
Jurassic Park, like all of Speilberg’s movies before he switched to digital, was shot using a film format called Super 35, which uses the entire space of the 35mm frame without any lensing (as opposed to Panavision or Cinemascope, which squeese the image to fit a wider frame onto the print). Theatrically the film was released with an aspect ratio of 1.85:1, and that is what you will find on the DVD and BluRay releases, but that is actually cropped from the original print which sat closer to acadamy 1.32:1. IMAX has an aspect ratio of 1.41:1, so for this re-release the film was enlarged to include the entire print.
What that means is that there are literally things on the screen which you do not see on the home video release. I noticed this the most in two scenes. The first was when we encounter the Brachiosaur shortly after arriving on the island. On the DVD, the dinosaur’s head is completely off frame for much of the shot, but on IMAX you can see the entire dinosaur. The second place it was most obvious were the indoor shots, such as in the cloning lab and the control room. Much more of these rooms is now visible and it makes the sets feel more spacious.
The film has been digitally restored for this release to a new 4K capture with 7.1 sound, and it really shows. The sharpness of the film has been massively improved, and details that previously weren’t noticeable are now easily discernible (for example, I had no idea Nedry’s shirt when we first meet him had words on it). You can see how the raptor pen had been hastily constructed from molded concrete (the layers are noticeable), and the park buildings show clear signs of still being under construction, with unfinished walls in many of the rooms. The difference is as sharp as the move from VHS to DVD. The sound is as chilling and impressive as it was that day back in 1993. The first time the T-Rex roared, it felt like I was right there in front of him.
Now, lets talk about the 3D. I have to admit, this film really was improved by the 3D adaption. Combined with the taller framing it adds incredible depth to wider shots, especially outdoors. The T-Rex paddock feels like a huge space instead of a narrow little canyon. The main lobby of the park visitor center feels like it could hold a hundred people. The open fields where the gallimimus run free feel like they’re miles across. Truly it makes Jurassic Park feel like a massive complex. I also found myself noticing set elements which clearly had to have always been there, but which I paid no attention, such as people in the background of shots.
However, when the 3D fails, it fails so badly that it is distractingly obvious. Surfaces which clearly should have depth appear like flat walls with a texture mapped on to them. The headlights on the cars, for example, look like a photo of a headlight plastered onto the corner of the vehicle. A craggy waterfall in the background which looks as smooth as drywall. Televisions and computer monitors which visible have curved surfaces, but appear to be flat boxes. Reflections and lens flares posed a particular problem, hovering in the foreground like obnoxious bugs. With all that the 3D added to the film, I still feel like 3D should be reserved to films that were actually shot in 3D. The conversion process just cannot create imagery that wasn’t recorded.
In conclusion, Jurassic Park is absolutely worth seeing in IMAX and even in 3D, but don’t be surprised if the latter takes you out of the movie occasionally.