Jurassic Cinema: Jurassic Park (1993)

Jurassic Park (1993)
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Written by Michael Crichton & David Koepp
Sam Neill, Lara Dern, Jeff Goldblum, Richard Attenborough

In 1993 Spielberg set out again to tackle the blockbuster, and in the process redefined the very type of picture he pioneered. He created a cinematic experience that has stood the test of time in ways most major pictures could only dream of. Few special effects heavy blockbusters can hold on to a glimmer of hope that they will be still held up as a gold standard of the craft some two plus decades on. To be remembered with such passion and genuine love. It was a film that started many a cinematic journey for audience and filmmaker alike, and it is a film that is still ranked among the greatest. Not just of creature features, or blockbusters, or effects movies. But of film itself.

That is because at its core it is very much propelled by the same machine as Spielberg’s original blockbuster, Jaws (1975). It is a film about a killer shark, yet it features very little killer shark. He was forced through the limitations of the technology available at the time to make a very different picture. One that focused on the “what it” rather than the “hey, here’s a giant shark.” What if that shark was lurking in the water? What if it was waiting to strike? When will it strike next? Who? With no shark, he put the focus on the characters instead. Well developed, believable, and likeable characters that ensured that we weren’t just along for the ride, we were very much a part of the ride.

It wasn’t about the special effects, but the emotions surrounding them. When he made Jurassic Park in 1993, there was no technology to make dinosaurs look the way they look in the finished picture. They couldn’t simply pick the program they wanted to use and go from there. They had to build that software as they went. They had to experiment and develop on the fly. Entire test methods were discarded in favour of others. New programs were developed specifically to their needs. The result was a need to use the effects sparingly, using them not as a focal point but as an accentuation of the emotional core of a scene.

The result is very much a character picture that happens to have dinosaurs in it.

It is a picture that understands the importance of “less is more.” When the first dinosaur appears it is a grandiose moment, one of the first shots of its kind in modern film history. And to this day it holds up as one of the greatest cinematic reveals. In that instance, as John Williams’ score swelled and the camera panned up, we could believe with 100% conviction that dinosaurs walked the Earth once more. It is not the special effect that drives the scene, but the emotion of it. OUR emotion. Suddenly we are invested in the story just as the characters are.
But even then, it is not the dinosaur that is the initial focus of the scene. We’re not simply shown a mass of pixels. “Here, marvel! Wonder!” We are shown the mouth agape expressions of the characters we’re following along with. They react as we do. It’s a dinosaur! It is just as spectacular to the characters as it is to us.

It is a detail lost in the vast majority of films that attempt to walk the same path (including later Jurassic Park films). The audience surrogate characters are there to help us traverse the world. How they react affects how we react as an audience. In both positive and negative fashion. If the characters in the movie can barely bother to muster any interest, why should we? We are watching a movie, but in their world what they are seeing is real. If the thought of seeing real living, breathing dinosaurs can’t muster some amazement, how can one possibly expect the audience to follow suit?

One of the worst examples of this I’ve seen in recent years is Oz the Great and Powerful (2013). It is a film where a con man magician from the American Midwest in 1905, 22 years before television was display for the first time, has almost no reaction to being transported to THE WORLD OF OZ. Instead of absolutely losing his sanity with the wonderment of what he was experiencing, he shrugged it off and took it all in stride with nary a pause. That moment ruined the movie for me, sapping it of any investment it may have had. Because if that character finds little to be surprised by in the situation, what possible reason could I have?

But when the characters are utterly blown away by what they are seeing, then we in turn are blown away by what WE are seeing. It forms an instant connection between us. Suddenly we are standing right there with them. Which means when they later find themselves running for their lives, we are invested in them. We care about them, and we want them to live. To survive. To have their happy ending.

Spielberg has always been a character director first and foremost. At times he has perhaps taken that too far into the realm of over sentimentality, but for the most part he is one of the most capable directors of the day when it comes to developing, presenting, and maintaining our relationships with the characters on screen. His most potent tool is the “every-man.” Even when the character is someone we would never in a million years consider ourselves, we can relate. Chief Brody is the chief of police, butting heads with the local government. He’s also a family man trying to keep his family safe. Indiana Jones travels the world battling evil. But he’s also an archaeology teacher with a messy office. Tom Cruise is TOM CRUISE. But he’s also a single father that works at a dock.

Alan Grant is a palaeontologist that fights velociraptors. He also has trouble with computers and is set in his ways.

Many of Spielberg’s male leads fall into one of two categories: father, or teacher. Moreover, often times the characters transition from the latter to the former over the course of their story. In particular Indiana Jones, who went from the lovable rogue to father over the course of his films. Until he knew of his son he was the teacher, willing to impart knowledge while looking out for those he was with. Here too we have Alan Grant, a man who starts off generally loathing the idea of children but by the end seems to have accepted the paternal role. Granted (pun) Jurassic Park III (2001) muddles his character slightly, but much of Grant’s journey through Jurassic Park can be seen as him coming to terms with and accepting his role as a father.

He is a contrast to John Hammond, who is also the fatherly figure to his dinosaurs. But in a very different way. Grant is hesitant to take on the role. He is dismissive and generally wants nothing to do with it. But when forced into the role he finds it fits him well, and he changes to adapt for the requirements. He evolves. Hammond imprints upon his dinosaurs. He oversees them. Indeed, he created them. He is a helicopter parent, one that imposes himself upon every step of their journey. In the end his park, and his children, reject him. 

You also have the contrast of Ian Malcolm, a scientist who focuses on chaos. He also has a bunch of ex wives and children. No plan. No desire. He simply acts, and deals with the consequences as they come.

Spielberg’s issues with his father and fatherhood are well known, to the point they are often pointed to as a negative factor in many critiques of some films, War of the Worlds (2005) in particular. But Jurassic Park, the one with the dinosaurs of all films, is perhaps his most personal in that respect. It is a comparison of different views on parenthood, and how one may deal with them.  

Ultimately, John Hammond witnesses the demise of his child. Life found a way, rebelling against its creator in the most violent fashion. Some have argued that “life finds a way” doesn’t really apply, and that the park would have worked fine had it not been for Denis Nedry’s greed and flipping of switched. However, in The Lost World Hammond states that a hurricane hit Site-B, placing the workers in jeopardy and forcing them to evacuate the island. But not before letting loose all of the dinosaurs currently active. 

The implication there is that, given how likelihood of InGen’s systems to fail catastrophically, the same would have happened to Jurassic Park proper. In the film, all non-essential personnel are sent home before the storm hits. To the point that only the owner of the park, three staff members (two of which are basically I.T.), and six tourists remain. Nedry’s action didn’t help the situation, but they likely did nothing more than hasten the inevitable. In a very grand circuit, life will ultimately find a way. Sometimes it is through hurricanes, other times through disgruntled employees.