Starring Sam Neill, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum, Richard AttenboroughWritten by Michael Crichton, David Koep
Science Fiction - Universal Pictures ‧ 127 minutes
In 1975 Steven Spielberg made a little movie about a killer great white shark terrorising a small coastal town, and in the process he changed the landscape of film forever. Suddenly people had a reason to be afraid of going in the water, and a reason to flock to the theatres in droves. It was a picture like none other. Not simply a film, but an event.
The summer blockbuster was born.
In 1993 Steven Spielberg set out again to tackle the blockbuster, and in doing so he 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 hope to be 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, 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's carried through every first encounter with the dinosaurs, appearing first through the perspective of the characters. Our introduction to the triceratops? In the distance, through a window. The t-rex? The camera first sights it through the blood soaked window, as the children see it, before rising up and bringing the audience up to see it for themselves. The raptors? Cloaked in plants and darkness. Simpler scenes, like the brachiosaurus meeting, are introduced through the facial expressions of the characters. Even tense scenes of horror, like the raptor chase in the kitchen, is established through a shadowy outline and a face through a window.
We are never just SHOWN a dinosaur. The dinosaurs are never cinematic in of themselves. They are never put on display for the audience to observe, "ooh" and "ahh" about, then move on. They are never elevated out of reality into the realm of movie monsters. It's something that keeps them, and the film as a whole, grounded in a much needed way. It keeps them from becoming masses of pixels, and keeps them as organic, natural occupants of the world we are observing. It puts them on the same level as the characters, or the setting, or a chair. They are REAL in this world, which lets us believe they are real in ours.
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 knowing they are merely watching a movie?
One of the worst examples of this I’ve seen in the past decade 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 displayed for the first time, nine years before World War I, and 34 years before the release of The Wizard of Oz) 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.
It’s a very modern style, the aloof, “I’ve seen everything nothing is cool” style. Pair it with the undercutting of dramatic moments with an out of place one liner and you have the perfect soulless modern blockbuster. That aspect of the character ruined the movie for me, sapping it of any investment it may have had. If that character finds little to be surprised by in the situation, what possible reason could I have sitting on my couch?
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. It grants an inanimate mass of pixels a very real, very tactile presence. 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. But he’s also a family man trying to keep his family safe in a new and strange place. Indiana Jones travels the world battling evil as a globetrotting Nazi-punching archaeologist. But he’s also a professor with a messy office and a pile of work to tend to. Tom Cruise is TOM CRUISE. But he’s also a single father that works at a dock who will do anything to protect his children.
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. Before 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. He finds his place in the environment and continues to thrive as a result. Hammond imprints upon his dinosaurs. He oversees them. He created them, so they are HIS. 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. And in doing so they leave him with no place. Unwilling to bend and adapt to the world he is a part of, he is left to die off.
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. On life finding a way.
And while one could argue that “life finds a way” doesn’t really apply here given that, were it not for Denis Nedry’s greed and sabotage, the park would have worked as planned. But in The Lost World it’s not sabotage that brings the facility down, but a hurricane. Nature itself attempts to right the course of the ship Hammond has capsized by upending the natural order. Even without the greed of man intervening, nature would have done the job itself.
Also they don’t know how to properly install seat belts, so the park was doomed from the start.
But the film doesn't bog itself down with heady concepts or philosophy about the meaning of life and chaos theory et al. It moves at a brisk clip, establishing the stakes with a brutal and still thrilling opening that shows up almost nothing, but tells us everything. The manner in which the forklift carrying the cage emerges from the trees with a roar, not unlike a t-rex. The dinosaurs aren't the threat. It is Jurassic Park itself that is a danger. An unnatural thing.
It is very much in keeping with the themes that man is the uncontrollable force here. And that force is portrayed with a wealth of actors that hit every nail on the head. On occasion falling just short of being fully realized, they nonetheless contain the sturdy backbones needed to keep them from being blank slates. And it is what Spielberg does with them that makes them real, allowing us to overlook any hollow spots in their character in favor of emotional moments and developments.
A mix of hopeful, cynical, and sarcastic. Of bitter and miserable. Of driven and fearful. Every character has motivations. Every character has a reason for being in the movie, and never dip to the point of simply ticking boxes. And everyone always has something to do. Even the children. While the adults are busy waging their battles to restore order to the park, the kids are simply trying to survive. Where a more modern film might see fit to load itself with characters to feed the bodycount and chaos (Jurassic World falls prey to this in a dreadful fashion) here the film quickly does away with the unnecessary bloat.
It also means that, for a film where dinosaurs eating people is no small part of the appeal, every death has meaning. It's not a mass slaughter of fifteen or twenty faceless figures (again, Jurassic World...). It's Gennaro, the lawyer that saw dollar signs before seeing the jaws that would devour him. It's Nedry, the architect of the park's downfall undone by greed. It's Muldoon, realizing with a begrudging acceptance that he isn't the best hunter on the island. No moment is there to just fill time.
In a world where blockbusters regularly crack the 150 minute mark, Jurassic Park is a rare 2+ hour film that feels like it not only fills the time efficiently, it could run longer to no detriment.
- January 4, 2018