This weekend I got the chance to once again see Jurassic Park on the big screen with it’s new 3D conversion. First, to be perfectly honest, I don’t care to talk about the 3D because 3D itself doesn’t have much of an effect on me, apart from noticing it for maybe the first 10 minutes of the film and then completely forgetting about it for the rest of the film. So if 3D’s your thing, from what I saw it looks pretty good. Other than that, I want to delve right into the film.
I saw Jurassic Park like many people when it first came out in 1993. I remember the experience like it was yesterday. We went to the just opened AMC Town 6 theater in Burbank. What I remember most was that this film was the first time I sat in a theater with stadium seating. The theater was brand new, the sound was exquisite…it was really the ultimate movie going experience. I loved the move when I was 11 years old and there were those moments of sheer terror that blew me out of the water. Over the years and subsequent viewings I’ve had more time to process the story and the film itself. It’s been a very long time since I’ve seen the film all the way through as I look at it now through adult eyes. To be honest, this isn’t one of my favorite Spielberg movies, but I enjoy it for what it is, even if there are parts of the story that don’t quite mesh (which I’ll get into). This movie was made at the same time as Schindler’s List, and is in my opinion the pinnacle of Spielberg’s career. Everything after Schindler, for me has been a slow decline, where his movies still had moments of greatness, like Private Ryan for example where the main plot is nowhere near as exceptional as the incredible D-Day attack in the first 20 minutes.
Now we’re in the age of Kingdom of The Crystal Skull, Warhorse, and Lincoln, where Spielberg has now lost the one thing that kept even his weakest stories afloat: Character. Character if anything is the one thing that has epitomized the success of the best of Spielberg’s career. Without great characters to empathize with, we would never have the sense of wonder and joy of the fantastic in his films. We would never feel any of this had we not seen it through the eyes of these wonderful actors who portray these characters. It’s the reason a film like Jurassic Park works so well on audiences. We can’t help but love the characters in this movie even if the story might begin to loose its focus from the first half in favor of the popcorn adventure of the second half. We love Alan Grant, the kids, the funny, womanizing Ian Malcom, Ellie, Hammond, and even great supporting characters such as Nedry, Mr. Arnold, etc. There was even a funny bit I had never noticed before that made me laugh. When Dodgson is meeting Nedry to deliver the embryo canister, he gets out of his cab and leaves the door open. We see in the background the cabbie get out of the car, shut the backseat door and throw Dodgson an angry gesture. For a character that just has one scene, it’s great that Spielberg still showed in that little moment just to show what a son-of-a-bitch Dodgson is, and that he has no respect for anyone subservient. Touches like these are great because Dodgson represents Hammond’s competitors trying to get their hands on the valuable dinosaur embryos, and because he only has one scene, a lot is done in that moment to make this one shot character memorable. Spielberg does this with all the characters in the film, giving them each a little trait the audience can latch on and identify with, such as Hammond’s Walt Disney like enthusiasm, Ian’s womanizing, the fact that Grant doesn’t like kids, Lex who thrives on being a computer nerd and vegetarian despite being chased by carnivores for most of the film. Gennero’s sudden turn to greed once he sees what a gold mine the park really is.
As for the story, the problem the film has is that it sets up a lot of interesting ideas about DNA, genetics, Chaos Theory, the fact that the dinosaurs are all female to keep them from breeding, but there’s no payoff to any of these story points except to set up the set piece of the characters being chased by dinos in the second half of the film. There’s nothing wrong with the way the second half of the film plays out because obviously that’s the most fun part of the movie, and it’s the most engaging in that we care so much about the characters that we don’t want to see anything terrible happen to them. But there are things, for example, like the idea of the dinosaurs being female, but the frog DNA chosen causes the dinosaurs to inexplicibly change sex and breed anyway. What’s funny to me about this is it almost seems smarter if the bred them all as males at least to deny to dinosaurs a physiology system that would allow them to lay eggs. When Grant later finds the eggs, we see that the dinosaurs are in fact breeding on their own, but there’s no real payoff except to say that “Life found a way”. Which is interesting commentary but doesn’t really say anything regarding the rest of the film. What goes on like in the dinner scene where Malcolm is complaining to Hammond about playing God and never earning the responsibility of the knowledge for himself, these are all fascinating ideas and debates that are discussed, but then abandoned when it comes time for the dinosaur chase. This doesn’t change my enjoyment of Jurassic Park knowing any of this about the story, it’s just that as enjoyable as the film is, it isn’t as tightly structured with its ideas as, say, Spielberg’s earlier films like Jaws, Raiders, or E.T.
I have three favorite sequences in this film. The first is the sick triceratops scene. I think it’s a beautiful moment for Grant, and it’s a terrific setup as we’re introduced to the triceratops from Tim’s perspective, walking through the tall grass and then seeing the dinosaur revealed. Grant goes on about how beautiful she is, even feeling every breath, and it gives us some backstory that the triceratops was Grant’s favorite dinosaur as a kid, tapping into that childlike wonder in him that seemed forgotten when we first meet him.
My second favorite scene is where Hammond talks about his first attraction, a motorized flea circus. Again, this is a scene that gives us a lot of wonderful history on Hammond, a dreamer and a creator who wished for the day that his creations weren’t an illusion, but something real that people could see and touch. It even touches a little into Hammonds dark side and his compulsion to play God with his line “Creation is an act of will.” Ellie has to shake him back into reality when he becomes more concerned with the outlook of the park than the lives of people they love who are in danger. Hammond struggles through this with the rest of the film as his dream begins to crumble. The back and forth debate in his head with the park vs. the well being of the people he loves is one of the stronger moments of the film.
The third sequence, and possibly my favorite in the film is the raptors stalking the children in the kitchen. For those who know me well, I’m a sucker for child endangerment in films, and this is most definitely one of the scariest sequences put on film. We learn just how smart raptors are quite simply because they figured out how to open doors. They’re strategic and incredibly vicious. The only thing I’m curious about is that in the earlier scene when Muldoon is talking about the raptors, and one of them being particularly vicious, taking over the pack, I kind of wonder which raptor he was referring to. It doesn’t take away the scariness in anyway, but the whole setup and the way the sequence plays out is just brilliant.
I had an interesting discussion once about this film with my life drawing teacher regarding the effects work and animation done on the dinosaurs in this film. One of the things we all agreed on is that the dinosaurs in this film are the most convincing out of all the Jurassic Park films. One of the reasons for that was the stop motion animation work done by Phil Tippitt and his team. Originally, the computer technology used for the full motion dinosaurs was so new that nobody was sure it was going to work. As a back up, Phil Tippit did stop motion animation of all the dinosaur sequences, including the T-Rex attacks, the brachiasaurs, the Gallymimus sequence, and the raptors in the kitchen sequence. These stop motion films served as reference for the CG animators, giving the dinos a sense of weight and timing. More attention to weight especially makes the dinosaurs more convincing because Tippitt was relying on real life puppets to animate. The other Jurassic Park films skip this process entirely which is a shame as much as it is frustrating, because the animation in those films isn’t nearly as convincing or interesting. In breaking new ground with the first film, the creators were forced through circumstances and a lack of technology to find ways to make the dinosaurs not so much realistic, but instead BELIEVABLE, which is the one thing we strive for more than realism when making films. I discuss this in another post called Realism and Believability in the Movies.
But quite frankly that’s what also amounts to the success of Jurassic Park as a film as well. While we strive for a story that is tight where all the pieces are in place, it’s the believability of the characters that makes the film real for us. Spielberg gives us character moments spread throughout the film. One of my favorite acting moments in the film is where Malcolm is explaining chaos theory to Ellie while at the same time hitting on her. In a subtle way we can see she’s a little creeped out by his overbearing advances. It’s a good moment of interaction among the characters. Grant likes to scare children, such as the obnoxious kid in the beginning of the film to get him to show “more respect” for velociraptors, or faking Lex and Tim out getting electrocuted by the fence. Or even Hammond sitting by himself eating ice cream and his moment with Ellie when he talks about the flea circus. These little moments add up to our empathy with the characters.
Jurassic Park is by no means a perfect film. But for a Spielberg movie, it’s still makes for a great, engaging ride, with terrific visuals and giving us a reason to care about these characters, something that is sorely missed now from his more recent efforts.