Sunday, March 13, 2011

Steven Spielberg: Jurassic Park

At five stages in his career, Steven Spielberg has directed two films in the same year. In each case, both are targeted at a large crowd -- whenever is a Spielberg feature not? -- but one clearly exists to be a massive crowd-pleaser while the other, however grand in scope, is more personal. Usually, the films also offset each other, tackling some unifying aspect from different angles. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade showed Spielberg setting his father themes to rest for awhile, and, appropriately, the more low-key Always dealt with the theme of letting go. Nearly two decades later, War of the Worlds sought to capture the pandemonium of being trapped in the sensory overload of a sudden assault, while Munich dealt with those 9/11-inspired themes with a more analytical oversight.

The link between Jurassic Park and Schindler's List is not immediately as clear, for reasons one can only hope are obvious. Yet the adaptation of a Michael Crichton thriller about recreated dinosaurs and a biopic of a key symbolic figure of the Holocaust do have one element in common: both deal with the arrogance and tyranny of mankind. Schindler's List surveys our capacity for evil against each other; Jurassic Park demonstrates man's constant exploitation of the Earth.

Of course, the film is also, first and foremost, a thriller, and it demonstrates that Spielberg lost not an ounce of his ability to terrify in the two decades separating this film from Jaws. The opening scene sets the mind a-reel: a giant cage being shoved against a gate as men who look like mere foremen carry guns and tasers looking uneasy. Some kind of beast is inside the lumbering metal box, and when a worker lifts a gate for transfer, the unseen creature charges, knocking back the cage and sending the poor man plummeting into the the animal's mouth. The ensuing frenzy bewilders: what is in that cage? How can it move so fast yet be powerful enough to toss a large man around like a rag doll? The suspense still works years later, after we all know what's in that cage and, furthermore, that the tossing around is honestly ridiculous and more a blatant nod to the woman being whipped to and fro in the water. Spielberg, master of effects, makes them felt even in a scene where the dinosaurs are not visible.

Where Jurassic Park breaks from Jaws, however, is in the weakness of the actual human beings in front of the camera. Technical delays permitted constant rewrites of the Jaws script into one of the best screenplays of all time, a mainstream blockbuster with fully realized characters with motives and pathos. Everyone in Jurassic Park now looks less fluid than the 20-year-old computer animation, which has held up astonishingly well. Indeed, the dinosaur animation of this film, save for a few iffy spots generally involving too many creatures on-screen, looks better than a great deal of current work.

But those damn characters. The issue is evident immediately: in the badlands of Montana, paleontologist Alan Grant (Sam Neill) and paleobotanist Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern) dig up a velociraptor fossil as a group of tourists inexplicably hangs around the site. Well, I assume they're tourists; they cannot be dedicated paleontology buffs, as Grant gets into argument with a child unimpressed by the raptor and terrifies him into respecting a creature that went extinct 71 millions years ago. It's an absurd scene, serving to introduce these characters via their half-written traits that substitute for actual humanity: Alan hates kids and computers, Ellie has the smarts to match him but also serves as the mediator between Grant and the rest of humanity. Then, a Scottish version of a leprechaun arrives announcing himself as Mr. Hammond (Richard Attenborough), the beneficiary of Grant's dig. Hammond exudes "kooky eccentric billionaire," and he insists the two come out to a theme park he's devising. Along the way, they meet Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum), a mathematician who appears to have taken fashion cues from Miles Davis' '80s wardrobe.

But once they arrive on the Latin American island and a jeep pulls into a clearing, for one brief moment the turgid anti-momentum of the film's plot setup gives way to one of the most magical moments of Spielberg's canon, one that takes me right back to a childhood of obsessing over dinosaurs and the sense of complete wonder and awe this movie instilled in me at age 5. That brilliantly laid out sequence of the dinosaurs revealed first through gentle but forceful surround sound whoomps, then the facial reactions of stunned characters and finally the glorious shot of a brachiosaurus as the music swells. In that instant, nothing else matters, and one sympathizes with Grant going weak at the knees.

More than any modern director, Spielberg understands the power of cinema as spectacle. Spectacle does not automatically connote simplicity, and the power to please millions should not be written off as proof of hackdom. Just because Jay Leno builds his audience by diluting his once caustic brand of verbal peroxide with water doesn't mean everyone who become a household name sold his soul. Look at how perfectly Spielberg reaches for the audience's collective jaw and gently pulls it down; this movie began with suspense and fear, gave way to stiff narrative exercises, and then it morphed into this?

The director finds his groove here, using the next scenes, all of which build as much plot as the scenes leading to the arrival at Isla Nublar yet feel lighter, more engaging. A dated but fun segment answering the questions prompted by the sight of a dinosaur walking around -- chief of which being, "How the hell did this happen?!" -- and also tempers the fantastical element of the preceding reveal with genuinely clever pseudo-science from novelist Michael Crichton. Though his explanation is not only impossible but far-fetched even if one were to accept some degree of plausibility, the idea that scientists could get the DNA needed to clone dinosaurs from the drunken blood preserved in fossilized mosquitoes beats the hell out of any previous reason given in dino films for the presence of terrible lizards.

Crichton's setup also allows for explorations of the morality of genetic engineering in a time where scientific breakthroughs made work in the field possible -- two years after Jurassic Park, scientists cloned Dolly the sheep. Hammond expects to be worshiped by his assembled experts, but instead they all express reservations. Malcolm, who specializes in chaos theory, outright lambastes the park and notes that all the genetic safeguards do not guarantee perfection and cryptically forewarns, "Life finds a way." Grant and Sattler note the variables and unseen dangers as well, but they agree to go on a tour of the place. By this point, however, Spielberg has subtly meshed the excitement of the film's trademark scene with the earlier suspense, gracefully intertwining curiosity and terror as the genetic talk deepens.

The tour itself epitomizes the inability to manufacture life to be entertainment. The scientists might be controlling breeding by restricting gender to female, they might even orchestrate a fail-safe protein deficiency in case a creature gets off the island, but they can't make the dinosaurs show up at the edge of the fence in each paddock waiting to dazzle the audience, which by now includes Hammond's tween grandkids, the bookish, dino-loving Tim (Joseph Mazzello) and the hacker tomboy Alex (Ariana Richards). The group does not see the first dinosaur, nor the second. When they all finally come across one, it's a sick triceratops that can only be seen when Ellie spots it and gets out of the automated electric car and everyone follows suit.

Meanwhile, the head programmer of the park's advanced computer system prepares to betray his boss. Dennis Nedry (Wayne Knight) sits at his computer bank surrounded by food wrappers and cola cans, his keyboard likely sticky with grease. Swimming in debt despite being a key staff of the park, Nedry blames Hammond for not paying him even more and decides to sell embryos to a rival genetic engineering firm. If life can be manufactured, life has a price. Not only does cloning raise moral issues of playing God, it turns life into a commodity, a copyright other businesses try to steal.

Looking to cover his tracks, Nedry hacks his own system to shut down all the security features of the park so he can escape. In the process, however, he turns off all the electric fences, letting the dinosaurs get out. At last, the plot thickens, though it still has the viscosity hot sauce. For the rest of the movie, the humans run, hide and run some more from unleashed dinosaurs, either trembling at the onslaught of a T-Rex or waiting for an ambush by the smaller but smarter raptors.

Both predators offer more potential for Spielberg's thriller. The T-Rex, gargantuan, deafening and capable of crushing a whole man in one bite, makes even the massive shark seem simple in comparison. The director announces it by the motif of a soft thud deep in the background and a quiver of water in a puddle or glass, the calm before the storm. Whenever that massive head juts into view, the panic overwhelms. The velocirpators work in an opposite fashion. There is no warning, no trick to contain them. The T-Rex gives itself enough time to let its victims froth in terror; the raptor just strikes. Small, fast and resourceful, the raptors come out to play whenever a human might find itself in an area where it need not fear the tyrannosaur, ensuring that no place in the park is truly safe.

The "baddie" dinosaurs, like the rest of the creatures, are the collective result of four effects masters working in tandem: Stan Winston with his animatronics, Phil Tippet's go-motion, supervisor Michael Lantieri and digital animator Dennis Muren. Though one can tell when a puppet is being used and when the computer animation is on-screen (typically the animatronics are used for close-ups and direct contact with characters while the CGI dinos appear in long shot), the effects work borders on the seamless. Jurassic Park, a film about the potential side effects of technological growth, ironically set off a technical revolution in the cinema, introducing a breakthrough in storytelling potential that almost immediately morphed into a way to make big, silly effects on the cheap. How many movies today survive solely on CGI that dazzles an audience instead of working fluidly in a story? Why, the same is true of Jurassic Park itself.

In fairness, the film does have some clever writing. In smoothing out Crichton's technical writing and heavy plot, David Koepp made the wise decision to alter the characterization of Hammond, who in the novel was a conniving old huckster who abandoned pharmaceutical research for genetic engineering because, despite the gouging policies of Big Pharm, he could not charged as he pleased for medicine. The novel's Hammond would agree with the lawyer here (weakened into a thin stereotype for the movie) that he could charge tens of thousands for a single ticket. Koepp helps drive the point about the dangers of genetic engineering by casting Hammond as a kindly old benefactor who wants, Walt Disney-style, to see smiles on the faces of all the world's children. However, like Disney, Hammond has a hard ambition that cannot be hidden, not even behind that avuncular face, and he allows himself to overlook tiny flaws until they escalate into massive problems.

Elsewhere, however, the characters thin, from the lawyer to Alan, who loved children in the book because of their love of dinosaurs but hates them here so he can fit into Spielberg's running theme of emotionally distant father figures and to set up the ostensibly emotional plot of Grant learning to care for Hammond's grandchildren out in the park. Perhaps if Neill committed, he could make the character work, but he appears to have recognized that the dinosaurs would be the main attraction and coasts through the movie with his Indiana Jones-knockoff hat (and profession, come to think of it) while Laura Dern makes for the world's unlikeliest scream queen as she shrieks and swears in terror for the whole of her time on the island. She has a scene late in the film with Hammond in which she must deliver one of the most eye-rolling "HERE IS THE MESSAGE" speeches ever, and she over-emotes so blatantly it's hard not to laugh when she unhelpfully adds, "People are dying out there!" Only Goldblum is remotely animated, but he spends so much time dancing around tossing out quips that he only manages to cover up for the fact that Malcolm has no actual character.

There's also the issue of some sloppy editing. When the guests get out to see the triceratops, it's barely cloudy outside. After about an hour, a hurricane has blown in and lightning arcs the sky. Not 20 minutes later, it's pitch-black and raining in monsoon quantities, just so Nedry's escape can be all the more confusing and doomed. Alan shoots at raptors with a shotgun, but the glass he shoots shows bullet holes, not shot damage. The clearest example is, of course, the tyrannosaur paddock, which is ground level at the start and suddenly a 30-ft. gulf when the T-Rex busts out and shoves a car into its pen. Everything exists for maximum entertainment, but the lack of even basic continuity at times shows an amateurism that Spielberg never previously allowed in his immaculate work.

I will forgive a film thin characters and predictable plotting if it is told well visually -- it is a visual medium, after all. But Spielberg seems to have dialed back his style to make the computer animation easier for his staff as they felt their way around their own innovation, and Jurassic Park suffers most not from its characters but from Spielberg letting off the gas. Jaws worked so well as a thriller because the director was in control of everything. Here, he must rely on others to put stuff into his frame after he shoots, and he appears out of his element. Of course, he was charting new territory and the degree to which he incorporated CGI meant he had to be the one to brave these unknown waters, but there is an unease with digital animation in this film that Spielberg would only later overcome.

And yet, the film does achieve that maximum entertainment. Jurassic Park may sacrifice character, coherence, even style to grab the audience, but I cannot deny I still thrill at that brachiosaur, still sit on edge when Dern goes into that raptor-ridden bunker and still feel uplifted by John Williams' main theme, one of his finest compositions. Even so, like Hook, Jurassic Park can no longer make me ignore glaring issues for the sake of nostalgia. Its conservatism is particularly tedious: the film emphasizes the need for a nuclear family through Grant's storyline with the kids (who, frankly, are so annoying I wouldn't mind if they made toothpicks for the T-Rex), and it makes a justifiable yet overbearing critique of the unchecked progress of science. Hell, it even has a minor go at electric cars for being silly and reliant upon outside factors that limit our freedom.

Looking back, it seems the perfect blockbuster for the Clinton era, an attempt to add heart back to the blockbuster after the soulless '80s (even Spielberg used the decade to make the largely self-serving Indiana Jones films), but that do-good liberalism ties to old-school conservative values. In that sense, one must credit Universal president Sid Sheinberg insisted Spielberg make this film before Schindler's List: Spielberg, the ultimate Hollywood liberal, had to cleanse his palette with this film before moving totally into the humanism of his next feature. Taken with Schindler's List, Jurassic Park cements the director's domination of all aspects of mainstream American cinema, and for all the film's flaws, it still shows a man capable of pleasing hundreds of millions with the ease of flicking a light switch. Nostalgia be damned: when the film clicks, it transcends its weaknesses, even if but for one blessed instant. Sometimes, that's all it takes.


  1. Interesting take on it, Jake. I've never minded the JP characters. Maybe it's because I've seen Jurassic Park literally dozens of times, and have come to memorize the character's individual mannerisms as well as their dialogue. Grant, Satler, Malcolm, Lex, Tim, Gennero, Muldoon and Nedry (not to mention Dodgeson, with his atrocious "Secret Agent" disguise) are all hopelessly goofy, and yet I have a sneaky affection for them. But you're correct that John Hammond is the strongest character in the film, and Attenborough plays the part beautifully.

    When I reviewed the movie for the Spielberg Blogathon, I tried to make a case for the its goofy characters by suggesting that Jurassic Park is basically Spielberg's Howard Hawks movie: the characters have individual mannerisms; they play off the witty dialogue; they involve ridiculously-masculine men and Hawksian women; and the dinosaur chase sequences themselves are inspired by the safari chase sequences in Hawks' own Hatari!. In retrospect, I'm not sure if my case was well-founded--Ed Howard pointed out that the majority of Hawks' films consist mostly of long sequences of talking while not having to rely all that much on plot... and a film like Jurassic Park, well, definitely couldn't stand on two (four?) legs without its story. So I guess the film's style and structure appeals to a very small handful of Hawks films (Scarface; The Big Sleep; Red River; Land of the Pharaohs) that do rely heavily on a linear plot and on nonstop thrills, although, again, I'm not sure if my case is a strong one.

    But I actually think that the Jurassic Park characters eventually come across as heroes we can root for, even if they have some scenes here and there that are now painful to watch. Grant's cradling Lex and Tim in his arms at the end, for example, glancing at Ellie and thus signifying his readiness to be a father--that's pretty dumb. But it's enjoyably dumb. The Grant character is a little uninspired, but, I dunno... maybe the fact that SAM NEIL is playing him makes him a likable protagonist in the Chuck Norris vein (though far less right-wing and just much more cool). Laura Dern doesn't have as much opportunity with the Ellie Satler character, but I disagree with you about the scene where she vents at Hammond: the moment when she points to him him about how "you never had control!" makes for a nice comparison to the same conversation that Goeth and Schindler have in Schindler's List about how "control is power." It works particularly in Ellie Satler's case, when she admits, "I made a mistake, too: I din't have enough respect for that power, and it's out now." In a way, she's atoning for all that obnoxious ooh-ing and ahh-ing she does throughout the film.

    I don't expect future generations to find anything appealing about the characters, but what I appreciate about the JP heroes is that they inspired a love for dinosaurs in the children of the 90's that felt far more healthy than, say, the love that kids in the 80's had for Transformers, Care Bears and God knows what else. I like your point about how Jurassic Park was "the perfect blockbuster for the Clinton era." That's a neat way of putting it. And Clinton's endorsement of Schindler's List later that year makes the comment all the more appropriate. You'll probably end up reviewing The Lost World later on in this Spielberg retrospective, so I won't ask you about that one, but I'm curious: what do you think of Joe Johnston's Jurassic Park III, with that uber-campy Alexander Payne/Jim Taylor screenplay?

  2. I'm caught in between you and Ed on the Hawks comparison. It certainly has that wonderfully Hawksian vibe of trapping a cast in a situation that brings out all the individual heroism in group dynamic, but I agree with Ed that it relies too heavily on plot for it to really recall the finest Hawks movies: take the conflict out of Rio Bravo or Only Angels Have Wings and you've got characters worth spending two hours with. Take the plot out of this and you've got nothing.

    I think we can root for these people, but only because you can't really root for the animals. I expect them to get off the island but don't entirely care who makes it. But I think when they saddle Dern with those lines you mention, she's trying too hard to atone for everyone else and to scribble THEME all over the walls that it shows how undeveloped everyone is. There are actually moments where Spielberg, master even when totally out of his element (but my word, how quickly he learned to use computer effects within his usual level of camera expertise), evokes the themes without words. But then it's almost like, despite his success, he second-guesses himself and makes it super obvious to the point of tedium.

    I think that somewhere in between the darker but overly expository book and too-thin but occasionally awe-inspiring movie is some kind of masterpiece, perhaps not of ideas but of storytelling. There are aspects of both that are magnificent, but both are so flawed I wish Koepp had tried another rewrite to get it a bit closer to the tone of the book while giving Spielberg the room to make it so grandiose.

    But I can certainly get on board with JP inspiring a love of dinosaurs, although my own love preceded the film. It undeniably enhanced my love, however, and like I said in my review, when I see that shot of the brachiosaur I continue to be overwhelmed. I cannot name 10 scenes in all of film that touch me so purely. I made my parents take me to the museum in Atlanta multiple times a year to see the fossils.

    As for Jurassic Park III, I'm laughing just thinking about it. I might just go ahead and rewatch it after Lost World and review it, since I so rarely flex the sarcasm here these days. Man, what a miscast, underwritten movie.

  3. I'm a tutor in the CUNY (City University of New York) system. I just posted this on my Facebook page:

    Recently one of our students was writing a paper analyzing three Steven Spielberg films, which got me to thinking: in 1993 Spielberg released both Jurassic Park and Schindler's List. Amazing feat, releasing two such diverse films in one year. One is about a group of helpless people trapped in an enclosure with a bunch of monsters who want to kill them. The other is Jurassic Park.

    Addendum: I consider Jurassic Park the scariest movie I ever saw.

  4. Melanie, thanks so much for your comment, and the share! When I was a child this terrified me. I'm sad it no longer has the pull on me it once did.