Today it's Steven Spielberg's 1993 megahit Jurassic Park. Based on Michael Crichton's 1990 novel (also called Jurassic Park), Jurassic Park tells the story of an eccentric billionaire who gets the bright idea to open an ecological preserve on a remote island near Costa Rica. The rub is that this preserve is populated with DINOSAURS! That's right, a team of scientists has recovered fossilized mosquitoes containing dinosaur blood, from which DNA has been extracted and complemented with genetic material from frogs to create a whole new race of giant lizards (ahem, bird ancestors)! The billionaire flies in a team of scientists and a lawyer, plus his grandchildren, to evaluate the park so they can get the go-ahead from the investors to open the place to the public. Of course all the dinosaurs get out and all hell breaks loose, and what ensues is one of the most successful blockbusters of all time, which spawned three sequels and counting.
So why can't I just sit back and enjoy the goddamn dinosaur movie you ask? Well, read on and I'll lay it all out for ya. Here we go....
Jurassic Park was the first movie in a long time to portray dinosaurs in a realistic way, and it's light years ahead of every film before it in that respect. The dinosaurs in this film look and sound amazing. They're scary, they're awesome, they're occasionally funny, and they have little behavioral quirks like real animals do. The blend of state-of-the-art animatronics and early CG almost totally holds up to this day, and represents one of a long list of spectacular achievements by ILM. When we sat in that theater in 1993, we were plunged into a world of goddamn fucking dinosaurs and it was incredible.
|My god, just LOOK AT IT.|
The one actor who steals the show from the dinos, if such a thing is possible, is Jeff Goldblum as the peculiar, sardonic mathematician (chaotician, chaotician) Ian Malcolm. Malcolm provides most of the film's humor but also has several great lines and speeches about how dangerous the idea of a dinosaur park is, both in the immediate sense and in the long-term. From the comedic standpoint he's basically the Han Solo of Jurassic Park, and his character was so popular they made him the lead in the sequel, despite Malcolm having been killed off in the original novel. Yes, Michael Crichton had to resurrect Malcolm via retcon in the The Lost World so Goldbum could be in that film. Of course in the second movie he's a total wet blanket and nowhere near as cool as in the first. Goldblum would essentially reprise this role in Independence Day as well.
|You might be cool, but you'll never be |
Ian Malcolm backlit by a projector, wearing sunglasses inside cool.
Much like in Jaws, Spielberg made sure to take his time in building up to the dinosaurs here, spending most of the first hour showing us everything BUT them. So by the time these animals appear onscreen we've already gotten to know and care about the characters (and thus what happens to them), and we're fully immersed in this world in which prehistoric bird/reptile things actually coexist with humans. Then when we finally see the Brachiosaurs for the first time there's a true sense of awe. Spielberg is a master at setting a baseline before unleashing something truly otherworldly on us. One of the great examples of this is the introduction of the T-Rex. It's teased for a while, then the cars get stuck in the rain, we see the electric fence get torn down, we see the remains of the goat he ate, and then we hear his footsteps and see the tremors they cause. This is an amazing use of suspense before the terrifying attack.
A Sense of Wonder....for a Little While
The dinosaurs truly inspire a sense of wonder when we first get a glimpse of them. Both the characters and the audience experience various "Holy shit" moments at beholding these larger than life creatures. Unfortunately this feeling doesn't last long because we need obligatory chase scenes for the last hour of the film, but for a while there we really had something.
|I'd have pooped my pants.|
Still, the action-adventure elements are so skillfully staged, acted and directed that we get swept up in this thrill ride and Jurassic Park becomes a well-made summer popcorn flick. The scares have teeth (like when the T-Rex attacks the kids and there's only a sunroof panel between them and his mouth), the chases have suspense (like the scene in the kitchen involving the kids trying to outsmart the Velociraptors), and the action for the most part feels earned. There are few directors as capable of creating satisfying populist movies with a heart and a brain as Spielberg.
One of my favorite scenes in the movie (certainly the best dino-free scene) occurs when Hammond and his team of scientists (plus the lawyer) meet over lunch to discuss the logistics and ethics of Jurassic Park. Hammond has a wide-eyed enthusiasm for his pet project which blinds him to the greater moral implications of resurrecting long-extinct species and thrusting them into close quarters with human beings. The three scientists, Malcolm in particular, express deep, major concerns with this project, and the scene basically encapsulates the themes of the film. From the visual style of the scene to the fantastically written dialogue, this sequence is right up there with the "USS Indianapolis" scene in Jaws. We get a great sense of each of the main characters and how they think, just through this one conversation. I wish more of the film had been devoted to the arguments and concepts discussed here.
|"And now you're selling it, you wanna sell it, well...."|
So yeah, Jurassic Park has quite a bit going for it. But sadly it's not all great. Here's some stuff I had problems with....
I hate the Dennis Nedry character. I hate him. And not in the way one is supposed to. Played by Wayne Knight (Newman!) as a bumbling, gluttonous opportunist, Nedry is purely a plot device to allow the dinosaurs to escape their enclosures and run amok on the island. There's literally no other reason for this character to exist. Aside from one funny moment at the beginning ("Dodgson! We've got Dodgson here!") he doesn't even particularly work as comedy relief, nor is he needed - Malcolm's got that covered. If this character had to be in the movie, couldn't they have written him as a competent schemer so he'd at least be interesting to watch?
|Was Nedry the only tech guy Hammond knew?|
Everyone hates laywers, and so the Gennaro character is written as a weasely, one-dimensional nuisance, who goes from being opposed to the park because he represents wary investors, to being all for it because of the profit to be made. And then, since everyone hates lawyers, Gennaro is the first character to be eaten, much to the audience's delight. Could the screenwriters not have done anything more with this character? And if not, why is he here?
The character of Hammond in the film is very different than in the book. John Hammond as written by Michael Crichton is an icy profiteer for whom the park simply represents a huge economic investment. Spielberg wisely gave the character pathos and changed his primary motivation to a genuine love for dinosaurs and a desire to wow children. So why is he in the Shitty section? Well to me it felt like Spielberg went a little too far in making him likable, to the point that he became unrealistic and grating. He's an eccentric, overly optimistic, grandfatherly Scotsman and after about an hour I didn't want to spend any more time with him. Surely there's a middle ground where the character is a bit more morally ambiguous and thus more compelling, and then maybe the film wouldn't need to be cluttered up with the two half-assed antagonists mentioned above.
|Hey Santa, take it down a notch.|
Dinosaurs or Monsters?
The real problem I have with Jurassic Park is outlined here. The first half of this movie is unquestionably terrific. The character introductions, the slow unveiling of the park and its attractions, the awe-inspiring visuals, the ratcheting suspense, it's all great. And then in the second half the film devolves into your typical action-horror, abandoning all the central themes touched upon earlier. Don't get me wrong, this action stuff is technically impressive and the effects are legendary, but about halfway through, Jurassic Park stops being a thematic exploration of science, technology, ecosystems and cloning, and turns into a competently-made monster movie. The previously interesting characters simply become fodder for giant lizard things to chase and sometimes eat. Imagine if the payoff of this film were about actual ideas instead of just regurgitated summer fluff.
-The stupid kid who says the Velociraptor skeleton doesn't look scary is a pretty terrible actor. And what the fuck's this kid doing at a paleontological dig anyway? Get back in school, ya little brat!
-I said earlier that the scene where T-Rex terrorizes the kids in the car is great. But everything after that sequence makes no sense logistically. The T-Rex paddock is ostensibly low enough in comparison to the main road that there's some measure of safety, but high enough that the visitors inside the car can get a good view of the T-Rex. When they put the goat there to tempt the dinosaur everyone can see it easily. When the electric fence goes out, the twenty-foot T-Rex is able to step up from its paddock to get to the main road. So we're talking what, a ten-foot difference from one side of the retaining wall to the other? Then why, when the T-Rex pushes the car over the wall, does it fall a good twenty feet before landing in the top of the tree, which is another good forty feet high?? How would anyone in the visitor cars be able to see the T-Rex inside its paddock? And how did it climb out of its paddock if the drop is that far down?
|We're supposed to believe the T-Rex climbed over THAT?|
-And then when the car gets stuck in the tree, and Grant and the kids have to get out of its way before it falls on them, why don't they just climb sideways in the tree and let the car fall past them, instead of trying to race it to the bottom? This is like that scene in Prometheus when the donut-shaped ship is about to roll over the two women but neither of them thinks to just run to the side and evade it.
|Go get the kid and then MOVE OUT DA WAY!|
-John Hammond repeatedly uses the phrase "spared no expense" to describe the extravagance of every aspect of this park. Yeah, he spared no expense.......except apparently on the IT guy. Because who needs computer systems and a security grid that work consistently? Ya know the little things the ENTIRE park depends on?
-In order for the T-Rex to make his surprise appearance at the end and save everyone from the Raptors, he'd have to be silent like a ninja. Earlier in the film his footsteps caused tremors that vibrated cups of water. Now suddenly no one hears him coming at all? What is he, Batman?
|So he had to crouch through that doorway and yet no one saw or heard him?|
-Also it's established at the beginning of the movie that T-Rex's sight is based on movement? How could they possibly know that from studying fossils?
-The scene where Malcolm gets horribly injured by the T-Rex is totally cheap and contrived. Grant takes out a road flare to distract the T-Rex from the children. He throws it into the paddock and the T-Rex stars to go after it, but is interrupted by Malcolm and HIS road flare. Ian, ya just saw Grant do the road flare trick and it was working. Why would you fuck that up? Maybe it's just a poorly edited scene and Malcolm and Grant were supposed to try the same thing at basically the same time. But the way it's presented, Grant's ploy works until Malcolm screws it up and the T-Rex comes after him instead.
|See? Grant had it under control.|
-The 12-year-old Lex is supposed to be a computer nerd (a "hacker" in the parlance of early 90s films written by people who knew little about computers) whose expertise is so robust she can navigate the island's complex computer system. Yeah ok. No wonder Hammond spent so little on Nedry - evidently a child could understand this infrastructure.
-Why would Arnold have to go all the way across the park to the maintenance shed to complete the security system reboot? That seems insanely inefficient, given that such a reboot temporarily leaves the dinosaurs free to escape their confinement.
So yeah, 24 years later (Holy shit I'm old) Jurassic Park is still one of the great summer popcorn movies. But given the visionary director behind it all, I expect more. Spielberg's made countless classic films that appeal to a broad audience without dumbing anything down or treading worn-out territory. Jurassic Park could've fully explored the idea of humans and dinosaurs coexisting, could've fully explored the dangers of tampering with nature, could've fully explored the different characters' responses to this appalling new technology, without resorting to familiar monster movie tropes. But the filmmakers went the safe, profitable route here and simply gave us a movie about dinosaurs chasing people. And then they did it three more times.
That does it for ASM this week. Thanks for reading, and comment below!