14 April 2013

WELCOME TO JURASSIC PARK

Jurassic Park is a beloved classic of popcorn cinema, still a cultural touchstone two decades on, and as keen a demonstration of Steven Spielberg's peerless skills at directing clean, effective populist entertainment as anything you could ask for, so I imagine it will be able to survive just fine if a schmuck blogger like myself gets to piping up that maybe - maybe, I promise - it's not as good as I thought it was when I was 12, and could not have been more securely in the film's target audience if Spielberg came to my house during pre-production to ask what I thought might make for a good setpiece (though even at 12, I couldn't fucking stand the child actors here). Not because it's dated: on the contrary, it is as shiny and glorious today as it was on 11 June, 1993, when its CGI dinosaurs revolutionised the very fabric of blockbuster filmmaking, looking better not only than effects-driven movies of the same period, but better, frankly, than half of what gets released nowadays. I was just talking about that, so I won't repeat myself, but the basic point is: Jurassic Park was always a movie about two things, 1) dinosaurs walking with all the weight and plausibility of real animals, and 2) the horrible failure of technology that puts them in a position to eat several people, and the action-packed second half that gets the characters we like out of harm's way. Those two things still work, and thus we can rightfully say that Jurassic Park hasn't aged a day and is exactly the movie it needs to be still, just as it was when it was brand new and not part of the popcorn movie canon.

That being said, the movie Jurassic Park needs to be and the movie Jurassic Park could be if it wanted to be oh so much more are not identical; and in 2013 as in 1993,the biggest stumbling block the film has is, unfairly and inevitably, it's not Jaws. Generically, the two films are in pretty much the same wheelhouse: primordially frightening giant animals that are kept mostly offscreen for the first hour terrorise the heroes and the audience, eating several people along the way. Both films feature a specialist in just the kind of animal at issue, with a pet theory about their behavior; both involve capitalist pressure to do nothing about the monsters until it becomes deeply necessary to do something; both have really astonishing sound work and John Williams scores that do a lot of the heavy lifting, though the latter point is more typical of all Spielberg films than just his monster movies.

The critical difference is that Jaws has all this as the exciting, thrill-filled seasoning to an intoxicating study of characters in a moment of personal and physical crisis, and is not just a tremendously addictive adventure movie, but also a really fine and lasting piece of cinema. Jurassic Park has the addictive part down pat, but the rest, maybe not quite. With a fairly large cast of characters, only two emerge as having more than the most rudimentary character traits - the protagonist, Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill), and the warm, grandfatherly billionaire whose hubris causes the whole damn mess, John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) - and the interpersonal conflicts are of a wholly more reedy scope, though more in line with the well-noted daddy issues that became more and more a part of Spielberg's career as he went on and became more of an auteur.

It's a film heavy on bedazzlement and light on complexity, that is to say, and the good news is that the bedazzlement is of a highly refined sort, as befits a filmmaker who had by 1993 run out of things to prove as a popular entertainer, and needed only to constantly reaffirm his dominance over everybody else in the industry (in 1993, of course, Spielberg was looking to prove the exact opposite: that he could make something serious and mature, and the result was Schindler's List). There is no doubt at all that Jurassic Park so reaffirms: if not for the gorgeous way that he and cinematographer Dean Cundey (the last time Spielberg worked with any DP besides Janusz Kaminski*) frame the rolling hills of Hawai'i or the shafts of interior light that play so effectively with the dino animatronics (also something I was just talking about), then for the crackerjack pacing that he and longtime editor Michael Kahn manage to wring out of the energetic action scenes and the more subdued plot scenes, and the enormously rousing thriller setpieces that are the result of both: the scene where grant and young Tim Murphy (Joseph Mazzello) scramble out of a tree as a jeep falls down after them is as good as any such scene in the whole of the 1990s, from its inventive use of the car's headlights to the rattled Williams score. And yes, it is maybe weird that my favorite sequence from the dinosaur thriller lacks any dinosaurs, but that's just how good a filmmaker Spielberg could be.

Only a truly confident or remarkably self-unaware filmmaker (and Spielberg has been both) could skirt self-parody as nearly as Jurassic Park frequently does; I think primarily of the first time we see the film's revolutionary CGI dinos, in a sequence that could not be more clich├ęd in its Spielbergisms: the jaunty Williams score cuts to a halt, cuing us to pay attention; there are shots of people looking in stunned amazement to promise us to start holding our breath in preparation; there is a cut to big visual effects framed from a low angle, and Williams comes back with the second and more perfect of the movie's two primary themes (the more awestruck horn one, not the bright, trumpet-driven "fala, we're going on a journey" one). It's every bit the way you'd set up a sequence if you wanted to poke fun at Spielberg's tendency to gawk at eye candy, but it works: it is every bit as mesmerising as the director thinks it is, because his ability to manipulate and impress the viewer was at this point at its height.

It being fairly overtly the case that Spielberg wanted to get away from this kind of filmmaking precisely because it was more shallow and insubstantial than he wanted his career to be about - an impression confirmed by his palpable contempt about making this film's sequel - it's a cheap shot to therefore note that, despite the elegance and effectiveness of Jurassic Park's thriller sequences, there are story problems by the bucketload and hardly any characters worth the name; they're not what the film is for. On the other hand, they're not necessarily what a killer shark movie or a swashbuckling matinee adventure are for, and Jaws and Raiders of the Lost Ark both benefit immeasurably from the tender loving care obvious in every frame. Condensed and largely revised by David Koepp and Michael Crichton from Crichton's novel, Jurassic Park is at least a triumph in that it tones down the more obnoxious elements of the book, primarily its smugly hip insistence on chaos theory as a tool to beat up on science (I've always been kind of amazed that, for a writer whose work tends to rely on the coolness factor of science-fiction, Crichton's books that I've read are uniformly disgusted by technology), but it still suffers from a whole lot of exposition that's fascinating the first time you see the movie and distinctly draggy every time thereafter.

It doesn't help that a lot of the exposition is dedicated to narrative dead ends: between the frog DNA, Ian Malcolm's (Jeff Goldblum) lengthy diatribes about the uncontrollability of life, and Grant's discovery that the dinosaurs have been able to switch sex and therefore breed, you'd think that the fact of wild-born dinosaurs might have anything to do with the plot, but you'd be mistaken. There's no other single plot point that takes quite as much energy to establish without paying off in any way, but there are plenty of little go-nowhere details: the sick triceratops (the book explains what's going on, but the movie does not, and ends up with several lines hanging out in space as a result), the fact that Hammond's grandchildren are visiting his island to stay out of the way during their parents' divorce (a fact which does not remotely inform either of the child actors' performance, nor the way their characters are written).

It's a graceless screenplay, basically, with a lot of lectures and padding that really just gets in the way, though some of it is interesting in and of itself (it's fascinating to think that in 20 years, the dinosaurs-became-birds theory has gone from an "ooh, how weird!" novelty, as it's presented here, to such an accepted part of modern taxonomy that, in effect, birds are dinosaurs, which therefore never went extinct). No less sloppy for being fascinating, but the filmmakers (Spielberg and Williams in particular) keep the movie bounding forward enough that it's not something you'd necessarily notice.

The much bigger problem is the almost uniformly dreadful dramatis personae: Grant at least gets a character arc, even if it's a bit overfamiliar and conservative, and Hammond is treated with such dignity by a director who maybe over-identifies with him, that he comes off well even if his flea circus story is frankly silly. Malcolm is a tedious, self-righteous boor reedeemed solely by Goldblum's cheery, sardonic performance and sterling line readings, and that's enough to make him the easy third-best. Otherwise, we have not-yet-famous people in tiny nothing roles (it's disorienting to see Samuel L. Jackson play, effectively, "guy who reboots the computer"), and Laura Dern giving maybe the worst performance of her career, all gawping and staring and chomping down on technobabble (though her comfortable flirting with Neill is pretty great). Far, far worse are the Murphy siblings: Lex (Ariana Richards) and Tim, two attempts to humanise the material for a younger viewer and to provide a catalyst for the grown-ups that fail miserably. Spielberg's career is littered with extremely well-managed child performances: from Close Encounters of the Third Kind to Empire of the Sun to A.I. Artificial Intelligence. I have absolutely no clue what went wrong here, and the only thing keeping me from declaring it the worst direction of child actors in his career is the foreknowledge of this film's own sequel; but they are terribly grating little people, in the shrill, chatty performance, and in the pointless, pandering writing. They add nothing but artificially heightened stakes, and not one moment in the film is improved by their presence; several, like the brachiosaur in the treetops or the computer hacking climax (remember when hacking was a thing movies? Ah, the '90s), are actively lessened. I suppose the excellent T-Rex attack on the jeep would be impossible to incorporate without those characters, or functional analogues, but it might have been worth the effort to figure out a way to make it happen, and spared dozens of nasty little moments throughout.

Lex and Tim don't "ruin" Jurassic Park, any more than the go-nowhere subplots and archaeology lessons do; they make parts of it much less fun to watch, but like I said, Jurassic Park is the best version of itself, and it is a very lovely thing to have around. There's no denying its effectiveness as a thriller, and as a wish-fulfillment spectacle; only its psychological depth and thematic resonance, and you'd have to be pretty much an asshole to demand those things of a dinosaur adventure movie. It's just... well, the Jaws thing. We know that Spielberg can have his cake and eat it to; Jurassic Park might have the most beautiful, tasty frosting, but it's still mostly empty calories, and simply not as rich an experience as the very best giant monster movies in history. But the dinosaurs themselves are everything they need to be, even if science has caught up with the movie and then some (and the velociraptors - magnificently designed, malevolent beasties, with serpentine faces - were scientifically idiotic even in 1993; it has never been clear to me why the filmmakers didn't just go with Deinonychus, which would have perfectly filled the role needed without taxonomical illiteracy), and certainly no film before or since has given us a vision of living dinosaurs captured with such high-spirited, engaging cinema. It's a movie that effortlessly taps into the secret dreams of ever little kid ever, and cannot help but be delighting.

Reviews in this series
Jurassic Park (Spielberg, 1993)
The Lost World: Jurassic Park (Spielberg, 1997)
Jurassic Park III (Johnston, 2001)

15 comments:

Vilsal said...

I noticed some of the story problems as a ten-year-old after reading the novel. The next time I watched the film, they didn't lessen my enjoyment a bit and still don't, nor do any of the other faults you mention. Watching it is such a blast of nostalgia I lose all critical faculties.

As for the sequel, I'm half-convinced the script is taking the piss out of Chrichton's alarmism. Every single death on the island is caused by the supposed heroes and the T-Rex's escape and rampage on the boat is blatantly impossible and stolen from Dracula of all places.

Regular GeoX said...

The reason they didn't go with deinonychus has always seemed pretty obvious to me: the word "velociraptor" just sounds way, way cooler, and it wasn't as it most people were going to know the difference.

Jeremy said...

Saw this was just the other day with a friend. I told him there was a "fat guy falling down" sound effect about to show up with Newman is trying to get away. It happens, EVERYBODY busts out laughing. Good times.

Not a patch on Jaws(few, if any, thrillers are), you won't remember any of the characters outside Dr. Malcolm's all black too-cool-for-school sardonic wit, but it's a damn good popcorn movie.

David Greenwood said...

I really hope you eventually review Jurassic Park III, which I easily preferred to The Lost World, mostly due to Sam Neill's joyful "can you believe they're paying me for this shit?" performance.

I also like to imagine how JP3 would have gone if I'd directed it. They spend so much time building up how smart the raptors are (like, remember how smart you THOUGHT raptors were? They're like WAAAAY smarter than that) and it never pays off at all.

So I like to imagine the cast arriving at some velociraptor suburbia, where the dinosaurs all wear suits and go to work in office buildings, and grow their own organic human meat, so they don't really care to chase these "wild" humans anywhere. Then the entire human cast gets crushed by a meteorite, and we spend an hour watching a Velociraptor "Days of our Lives".

DeeperUnderstanding said...

Yeah, "even Nedry knew better than to mess with the DEINONYCHUS fences" just doesn't have the same ring to it...

hayley said...

What strikes me about this movie is how grounded the camera is. Special effects films nowadays like to go crazy with swooping shots that looks like someone attached a handicam on a hummingbird.

Spielberg here rooted his camera, mostly at eye level (to better look up at the dinosaurs), and then used a simple series of pans and zooms to mostly get his point across. It's all so classically shot that sometimes I think that dates the film more than the special effects do (dates as in it is a style modern blockbusters don't do much of anymore).

By the way, this movie inspires more "I remember I how old and where I was when I first saw it..." type stories than any other film I know. It may be the most influential film of its generation.

Will said...

>simply not as rich an experience as the very best giant monster movies in history.

As I consider myself something of a conisseur of giant monster films, I'm curious to know what you consider to be the "very best" ones. Obviously the original Godzilla springs to mind, and I have a few other ones that I would suggest as being classics of the genre, but I'd love to hear what you think of as "classic" monster movies.

RickR said...

"Spielberg here rooted his camera, mostly at eye level (to better look up at the dinosaurs), and then used a simple series of pans and zooms to mostly get his point across. It's all so classically shot that sometimes I think that dates the film more than the special effects do (dates as in it is a style modern blockbusters don't do much of anymore)."

True. He employed the same shooting style in "War of the Worlds", to great effect.

Cody said...

"it still suffers from a whole lot of exposition that's fascinating the first time you see the movie and distinctly draggy every time thereafter."

That was exactly what was going through my head as I watched the 3D re-release (which was unsurprisingly a fucking hatchet job). I swear the movie I saw twenty years ago didn't spend this much time endlessly pontificating on chaos theory and gender-switching DNA and the like.

But what really matters- the first T-rex attack, the raptors in the kitchen, and my personal favorite suspense moment, the climb up the soon-to-be activated electric fence- still works, and I'm pleased to no end that this is now regarded as a classic adventure film.

Tim said...

Vilsal- That's not a half-bad theory (it's hard to imagine intelligent filmmakers thinking that TLW:JP could be taken seriously), and I'll be able to try applying it pretty darn soon...

GeoX- A good point, except that "raptors weren't that big!" stories were all over the entertainment media at the time. God knows what would have happened if the internet had been a thing.

Jeremy- That effect always kills me. So tiny on the sound mix, but such a perfect touch.

David- Oh, definitely. Tomorrow, unless I end up getting bogged down in other things.

DeeperUnderstanding- Also a good point. What can I say, I was an unforgiving dino nerd as a kid.

Hayley- Fantastic observations! Perspective has always been one of Spielberg's strong suits, and I think what we're seeing here is an attempt to let everything really soak in, not to be rushed along, and always to see the damn action. I miss movies where you can see the damn action.

Will- As far as American films go, the unimpeachable masterpieces, to me, are first and above all King Kong '33 and Jaws, and I'm of the opinion that Them! is a legitimately great movie, hokey sci-fi trappings or not. The Incredible Shrinking Man probably isn't appropriate, but I think the spirit is there. And when we open it up to include kaiju eiga, that adds a lot: easily Godzilla, Godzilla vs. Mothra, and Mothra, and probably a few others, but I'm not always great at remembering which title goes with which movie.

RickR- WotW is one of my absolute favorite popcorn movies of the '00s, in no small part for its clean style. It's a damn pity that Spielberg is content to make dramas now, because he has always been better than just about anyone at combining classic style with leading-edge technology.

Cody- It's really weird: so much of the movie is boring, and yet even while I'm sitting through it, I'm simply not at all bored. Still probably going to see the 3-D, even though I've been afraid it was exactly the hatchet job you call it.

Benjamin said...

I was eight when this came out. It's the first movie I can remember seeing multiple times (three or four) in theaters, and even though today was the first time in forever that I'd seen it, I'd still call it one of my favorite movies. Even when I was younger I caught some of the logical gaps (the way the T-Rex paddock next to the road suddenly becomes a 40-foot cliff face, the way that raptor in the power station comes from just absolutely nowhere), and they're even more obvious now; the T-Rex in particular has a way of defying geography in every single scene that it's in. But it's just so damn well-crafted that I just don't care.

As a Hollywood time capsule it's fascinating. It was strange to realize that the Mr. DNA video, if done today, would be done entirely with CG technology that this movie largely pioneered.

David Greenwood said...

If we're talking Kaiju I must once again sing the praises of "Gamera, Guardian of the Universe" and it's two sequels. Freakin' boss.

DeeperUnderstanding said...

Benjamin, thank God someone else noticed that that cliff by the T Rex paddock comes from OUT OF NOWHERE and is geographically impossible. It's bugged me ever since I first saw the film and no one else ever seems to notice or understand what I'm talking about!

Tim said...

Or how about the fact that Sattler and Muldoon can zip up and down said cliff in the time it takes for Malcolm to say pithy things about impact tremors?

Chris said...

The handling of that cliff was a 360 degree botch job, but it's sandwiched by two fabulous T-Rex scenes, so as Benjamin said: we just don't care.