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Postcards from Jurassic Park: Why the ’90s Movie Summers Will Last Forever

'90s Week: A critic reflects on the summer movie seasons of his youth, when it felt like Hollywood was coming of age at the same time as its target audience.

When I was nine years old, my dad told my mom that he was taking me out for ice cream. What he didn’t tell her was that — on our way to Baskin Robbins — we’d be making a pit stop at “Jurassic Park,” a movie that she had forbidden me from seeing on account of the fact that it would obviously scare the living shit out of her ultra-neurotic son. This was in June 1993, about three months after a Terry Brooks fantasy novel had terrified me into thinking that the actual Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse were going to ride across our front lawn at night; in my defense, the suburbs of Connecticut seemed like a perfectly natural place for them to begin their attack.

In the end, I was so profoundly traumatized by the opening scene of that poor dinosaur handler being killed by the velociraptor that my mom didn’t even put up a fight when I asked to rent “Pulp Fiction” on VHS two summers later; by that point, the damage had already been done. Her son had been corrupted. Watching John Travolta say “fuck” a million times and shoot a guy in the back of a 1974 Chevy Nova wasn’t going to make things any worse. I was already ruined and ready for more.

At the time, of course, I didn’t understand that the movies hadn’t always been like this, or that end-of-the-century classics like “Jurassic Park” and “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” would soon become symbols of a decade when summer blockbusters were the world’s most visible battleground in an ontological war between the comforts of the past and the anxieties of the future — between the nostalgic pull of return, and the almost self-annihilating drive to experience something new. All I knew by the time I got home that night and checked my bedroom closet for velociraptors (don’t judge, they’re very sneaky) is that everything had changed, and I already wanted to go back.

I did. A lot. There wasn’t much else to do for a Jewish kid with a film critic’s physique in an ultra-WASPy town where all of the other prepubescent boys were already the size of Winklevosses. And the movies only became more inviting as my other hobbies were taken away from me. When I showed up for the annual travel hockey try-outs on the last weekend of August 1997, and saw that all of my fellow peewees had apparently been injecting horse steroids into their hairless bodies all summer long, I instinctively turned around and walked to the nearest screening of “Kull the Conqueror” (a rare Kevin Sorbo/Harvey Fierstein collab!), my enormous bag full of skates and shoulder pads sitting on the floor of the aisle beside me. I would never play hockey again.

I would, however, spend any number of other nights and afternoons ensconced in one of the local cinemas (back then, a mid-sized town might have several options to choose from within a 20-mile radius), especially during the summer, when my friends always wanted to come with me. It helped that the movies weren’t something to do so much as a place to go; they were a refuge, a sanctuary where an insecure pre-teen could sit in the dark for hours without sulking, a room where everyone faced the same way and was made equal by the glow of the flickering lights on screen. It also helped that anyone who didn’t see “Face/Off” before seventh grade started in September was obviously a huge fucking loser, but that’s neither here nor there.

At that age, every season is a transitional period — every day a tumult — and the six full summer movie seasons that separated the end of “Jurassic Park” in June 1993 from the start of junior high in September 1999 would find me returning to the local multiplexes with all the desperation of a cave diver clinging to their guide line in the darkness. Those were the years when I fell in love for the first time, and not just with the nude picture of Jenny McCarthy that took me three hours to download over the dial-up connection on my parents’ computer (my sense of the feminine ideal would soon evolve, but “Dune” fans should take comfort in the fact that I’ve always had questionable taste). They were the years when I started finding the kind of people I had never imagined, and losing the kind of people I had never imagined living without. They were the years when I would try to figure out who I wanted to be while also desperately holding onto some essential part of who I already was, and every time I went to see a big summer movie it felt like Hollywood was coming of age right alongside me. Or vice-versa.

Like me, it was halfway between the unfettered imagination of the ’80s and the resigned disillusionment of the aughts; between the practical creature comforts of yesterday and the seductive digital promise of tomorrow. Like me, these studio blockbusters were absolutely fixated on the future, and like me they couldn’t quite fathom what it would actually be like (I remember my mom taking me to see “Virtuosity,” and both of us feeling like they hadn’t quite figured it out).

Eventually, the movies provided their own kind of timeline — they mapped out my formative years for me. I don’t remember when I first started obsessively scouring the local paper for showtimes and reviews, but I know for a fact that when the “The Lost World” opened on May 19, 1997 I somehow convinced my parents to drop me off at the two-plex in the center of town for the 11am screening instead of taking me to school. The dinos had gotten the drop on me a few summers earlier, but this time I would be ready. I would be first in line. I would be on the receiving end of a historic eye-roll from the theater’s profoundly unenthused manager when the guy showed up at work on a Friday morning to find a toothy 12-year-old standing by himself under the marquee and looking up at him like he’d just watched Santa Claus himself climb out of a rusty Miata. He must not have heard that the T-Rex attacks San Diego in this one. Fingers crossed that guy found another job before the “Star Wars” cosplayers started lining up two summers later. I wouldn’t be one of them, but I was still invested enough for “The Phantom Menace” to teach me about the queasy aftereffects of having to convince yourself that you love something.

I remember the “Movie Nazi” at the Majestic Theater in Stamford, CT, a lanky bleach-blond buzzcut of a man who would walk through the aisles with a flashlight during the previews (and sometimes even after the feature had started), searching for underage kids who might have snuck into R-rated movies. Did the MPAA pay him a bounty or something? He once kicked me out of “Blade” in the middle of the blood shower sequence, prompting me to shout, “But Stephen Dorff hasn’t even shown up yet!” as he yanked me up the aisle like the world’s saddest truant officer. A few years later he would do the same thing when I took my crush to see “Almost Famous,” even though I’d already seen it at a sneak preview the week before. At the end of the night, when I embarrassingly told my friend that she was my Penny Lane, she had no idea what I was talking about. Maybe that’s for the best.

I remember seeing “Con Air” at the Stamford Mall on a Saturday afternoon and thinking the movie felt like some kind of synesthesiac vision inspired by the popcorn smell that was saturated into the carpets in the lobby. There used to be a time when the summer movie season felt categorically different from the rest of the year, and not just sweatier or more desperate.

I remember seeing “There’s Something About Mary” at the mall the next summer, and spotting my seventh-grade English teacher a few seats down from me about two seconds before Cameron Diaz put Ben Stiller’s jizz in her hair. I felt like we shared a dark secret after that, even though he never saw me and it wasn’t a secret. When I saw him in the hallway at school that fall, I nodded to him like we were in the CIA.

I remember seeing Stephen Sommers’ “The Mummy” remake on opening night, and feeling like the entire town was there. Even to an uncultured kid like me who’d barely heard of the Boris Karloff version (but knew Brendan Fraser’s entire filmography by heart), the communal space that this new movie had carved out somehow made the whole thing seem true to the spirit of the 1932 original.

I remember convincing my dad to drive me to a multiplex 45 minutes away because I had to see “The Iron Giant” before it slipped into the months-long abyss that stretched between theatrical releases and DVD sales, and how audibly he muttered a Tracy Letts-esque “oh, fuck” in a room full of kids when he realized the movie was animated. He sobbed at the end, or at least I think he might have if he hadn’t left to smoke a cigar in the parking lot and do the Sunday crossword puzzle by the time Hogarth met the Giant.

I remember seeing “The Truman Show” on one of those endless June nights when the sun is still in the sky after you come out of a 7 P.M. screening. The theater was packed with a cross-section of people who were just looking for something to do, but everyone had the same dazed light in their eyes in the lobby when it was over, like we were all just realizing what movies could do. I wouldn’t get to experience anything like that again until “The Waterboy” came out that November.

I remember seeing “Bowfinger” on a muggy August afternoon at a theater between two Stamford strip malls — the kind of place that would open and close for months at a time at random, appearing like an oasis whenever a movie like “Being John Malkovich” needed a portal between another world and our own — and laughing so hard that the manager asked my friend and I to leave. We snuck back in just in time to hear Steve Martin say, “Did you know Tom Cruise had no idea he was in that vampire movie until two years later?,” and were immediately banished again. I have no regrets.

I remember seeing “Armageddon” with a group of friends at the Avon Theater in Stamford, CT, and yawning incidentally at the exact moment I went to put my arm around the girl I liked (do kids still pull that move, or did it die along with celluloid?). I wasn’t trying to be a coward — quite the opposite, in fact! — but I couldn’t help that I was totally exhausted by the time Ben Affleck starts floating around Mir with Peter Stormare. I still haven’t forgiven Michael Bay for that, fortunate as I feel to have grown up at a time when a 12-year-old’s social life could be at the mercy of bad pacing.

I remember seeing “Mission: Impossible” and “Spy Hard” in two different auditoriums of the same theater in a single afternoon during the summer of 1996, and liking them both equally. I also remember thinking that Brian De Palma was very stupid for killing the biggest star in the world, Gordon Bombay, in his movie’s first scene (an opinion I held until the opening shot of “Snake Eyes” did strange things to my brain two years later).

I remember seeing a double feature of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and the Whoopi Goldberg vehicle “Eddie” with my parents the day before they shipped me off to sleep-away camp for the summer (as a “one last meal” kind of thing), and feeling like the world contained such incredible multitudes.

I remember being shipped to a different, more hostile program two summers later — the kind of Outward Bound-like thing where everyone drank rainwater, pitched their own tents, and got bullied by a counselor who looked like a curly-headed Jesus Christ — and clutching onto the Entertainment Weekly I’d stolen from a New Hampshire gas station like it was the One Ring of power. It wasn’t long before I could quote the “Saving Private Ryan” critics’ grid with the letter-perfect fidelity of a bible verse (straight “A”s! A modern miracle!), and when I finally got to see the actual film that August I cried tears of happiness throughout the entire Normandy Beach sequence. My sincerest apologies to all involved.

I remember seeing the trailer for “Masterminds,” and realizing that I knew what a bomb looked like.

I remember watching “Jack” in a completely empty theater sometime towards the end of August 1996. It was the first Francis Ford Coppola movie I had ever seen, and while I could tell that something about it was a bit off, I was struck by how pointedly the film spoke to the ineffable sadness of growing up, a subject that most of my favorite coming-of-age movies at the time tended to soften (“The Sandlot”), confuse (“Hook”), or make seem way too cool in a French, pseudo-incestuous sort of way (“Léon: The Professional”).

I remember seeing “Teaching Mrs. Tingle,” even though I don’t remember why.

I remember begging my parents to take me to see “Eyes Wide Shut” at the Majestic on opening night, and sitting between them so that the Movie Nazi wouldn’t get any ideas. It was a calculated risk. We listened to Bloomberg Radio on the way home and nobody spoke.

I remember watching “Run Lola Run” in the same two-screen theater where I’d seen “Jurassic Park” and “The Lost World,” which had begun a slow pivot towards arthouse fare after a new multiplex opened nearby. I left the movie convinced that techno was my one true destiny, thus bringing an abrupt end to the “Baba O’riley” obsession that “Summer of Sam” had instilled in me the previous week — I may have slightly missed the point that Adrien Brody’s wannabe punk wasn’t supposed to be a role model.

My Underworld phase cooled off by the fall (“Beaucoup Fish” still goes hard!), and pledging allegiance to Tom Tykwer ended up being a more chaotic choice than it seemed at the time, but I’ll always love that shitty twin cinema for maturing alongside me. To experience the likes of “Mulholland Drive” or “Dancer in the Dark” in the same dark room where I’d seen “Casper” and “Camp Nowhere” seemed like the most natural thing in the world, but in hindsight I can appreciate how unusual that was. The summer movies of the ’90s were often derided as being made for teenage boys, and it’s hard to deny that they were; for a newly Bar Mitzvahed white suburbanite whose only real concern in life was how to marry Jennifer Love Hewitt (Jenny McCarthy found dead in a ditch!), the movies were nothing if not the perfect place to hide and be seen at the same time.

But to me it almost felt like the movies themselves were teenagers, too, and not just because so many of them suddenly took place in high school. They were older than I was, perhaps, and the keeper of so many secrets that I was desperate to learn, but still forfeiting their innocence faster than they could make sense of how best to replace it. Buying a ticket gave you the power to stop time for two hours, but also — in the immortal words of a once-popular song — it forced you to sit with the fact that “every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end. Yeah.”

The movie theater where my dad took me to see “Jurassic Park” is an Apple Store now. The Baskin Robbins where we bought ice cream afterwards is a bank, and the “Jurassic” franchise might as well be. My dad died in 2015, and the last conversation I had with him while he was still lucid was about “Chappie.” He never got to meet his only grandson, but sometimes we play a game where my toddler shouts “Jurassic Park!” and then giggles as I gently claw at his tummy like a velociraptor.

Everything seemed like it was going to last forever, but nothing actually did; I guess what you get for investing your formative memories in a medium that changes at 24 frames per second, both onscreen and off. I can only be grateful that I put those memories in a place that’s always kept them safe for me — grateful that the movies I remember seeing at that age have remembered me so well in return.

This article was published as part of IndieWire’s ’90s Week spectacular. Visit our ’90s Week page for more.

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