Monday, December 20, 2010

Jurassic Park (1993)

I love the way Jurassic Park begins. From the moment we see that classic 1990’s-style Universal Pictures logo displayed over faint, distant sounds of strange animals and creatures lurking far off into the night, we know we’re in for something big. And then we fade out. And then the evil twanging of a guitar string jumpstarts the opening credits. And then we are taken straight into tall, green weeds that are being crushed by something gigantic—a tractor. Spectators are watching, but the only figure making an impression on us is a game hunter with a shotgun. The scene starts out with him confidant that his men can tame a caged beast with "tasers on full charge," and ends with him wailing, “SHOOT HER! SHOOOOT HER!” The last thing we see is the blistered hand of a man slipping out of the game hunter’s grasp as he is about to be sucked away into the jaws of a velociraptor.

Jurassic Park can be interpreted, in some respects, as Steven Spielberg’s Howard Hawks movie. It is full of fast camera movements, lovely visual effects and snappy dialogue delivery, and yet it is also dominated by goofy archetypes: the horny cynic, the slimeball lawyer, the double-crossing fat guy, the eccentric black guy, the noble huntsman, the Hawksian female, and the silent, brooding protagonist who can’t stand those goddamned kids. Even a shot of a T-Rex smashing its head up against a moving car is lifted straight from a shot in Hawks’ own Hatari! (1962) of a rhinoceros smashing its head up against a moving jeep. When Spielberg’s film was released in June 1993, it was adored by audiences worldwide but nit-picked at by critics who felt like the characters had taken a backseat to their computer-generated counterparts: the dinosaurs. That Spielberg reportedly made over $250 million off of Jurassic Park (the most anybody had ever made from a single film) certainly didn’t help ward off criticisms that, this time around, he seemed to be more interested in spectacle than in story.

Well, you could have fooled me. I grew up with these characters. I grew up with Alan Grant, Ellie Satler, Ian Malcolm, Robert Muldoon, Donald Gennaro, Ray Arnold, Dennis Nedry, Lex and Tim. One of my earliest memories is getting to go to local video stores at the age of two and begging my parents to rent Jurassic Park just one more time. I don’t think I saw it in theaters, but once I discovered it on the television set in the privacy of my home, I knew it was a movie I would treasure forever. To this day I can name off each and every one of the silly characters in Michael Crichton’s absurd adventure story, and the screenplay by Crichton and David Koepp is one of those screenplays that I have memorized by heart. I can almost recite all of it, line-for-line. It’s gone on to be remembered as a Hollywood classic full of amazing dinosaurs and, yes, the goofiest characters you can imagine.

The movie has only one three-dimensional character: John Hammond, the billionaire mastermind behind the ill-fated theme park of the title. No doubt Spielberg cast Richard Attenborough in the role as a sort of favor to him for waxing poetic about Spielberg’s artistry at the 1983 Academy Awards (when Attenborough’s Gandhi beat out E.T. for Best Picture), and the performance by Attenborough in Jurassic Park is a true delight, echoing both Crichton’s conflicted beliefs about man vs. nature as well as Spielberg’s own reputation for obsessive showmanship. Hammond is a man who “hates inspections” of his business affairs and who spends large amounts of his money investing in, curiously, paleontologist sites; when he visits one for the first time, he remarks, “I can see that my $50,000 a year has been well spent!” His motto is "spare no expense," and he is about to reveal his latest expense to the world of science and, after that, the world itself. But he needs the endorsement of experts first.

It seems like Alan Grant (Sam Neill) and Ellie Satler (Laura Dern) are the most credible voices in the field, although the Spanish laborer Juanito (Miguel Sandoval, of Seinfeld fame) warns that Hammond may never get Grant to leave his Montana site because he’s “like me… he’s a digger.” One of the dilemmas that Spielberg encountered when setting out to make Jurassic Park was how to create the dinosaurs who would be appearing later in the film. Would he be using Ray Harryhausen stop-motion animation, or turn to another form of technology that was only in its budding stage at the time: computer-generated imagery? The initial skepticism Spielberg had about CGI makes its way into the Alan Grant character, whose first line in the film is, literally, “I hate computers.” Grant rolls his eyes when he witnesses at first glance a new program on the site that will help them scan bones underground and help eliminate their need to dig anymore—where’s the fun in that? We realize that Grant is actually an outspoken authority on dinosaurs; his colleagues chuckle when he insists that velociraptors were the ancestors of modern-day birds (a theory inspired by the theories of Grant’s real-life counterpart, paleontologist Jack Horner). When an annoying little kid (Whit Hertford) questions this theory, Grant is pleased to scare the wits out of the kid with a pornographic fantasy about a raptor spilling his intestines out.

One thing I noticed when watching the film again is that Grant’s theory about raptors as the birds of their time doesn’t seem to apply to the dinosaurs artificially created on John Hammond’s little island. How come Hammond’s raptors don’t know how to fly? One explanation could be that since Hammond has instructed his scientists to mess with the dinosaurs’ chromosomes, it may have impaired any special abilities they once had in the prehistoric ages. The chipper Henry Wu (B.D. Wong) explains, “Population control is one of our security precautions,” meaning that all the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park are female, thus canceling out any chance of sex, breeding or bad behavior. Or does it? Robert Muldoon (Bob Peck), the Kenyan game hunter who appeared in the first sequence, recalls chillingly the memory of a bitchy mother raptor that killed the majority of her pack and then trained the survivors to wreck the fences: “They never attack the same place twice. They were testing the fences for weakness systematically. They remember.”

Once inside the park, after lawyer Donald Gennaro (Martin Ferrero) warns Hammond that he’ll shut him down in 48 hours if not convinced by the park’s results, and after Hammond’s declaration that “in the next 48 hours, I’ll be accepting your apologies,” Spielberg transitions into the first great sequence of the film: the first plain sight of a dinosaur. One of Spielberg’s favorite shots in his cinema is the shot of a protagonist gazing upon something extraordinary with fascinated or horrified awe. We’ve seen it in Chief Brody’s witnessing of the Kinter boy’s death in Jaws, Roy and Jillian walking up the hill and gazing upon Devil’s Tower in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Oskar Schindler’s witnessing of the ghetto liquidation in Schindler’s List. In Jurassic Park, Spielberg closes in on Alan Grant as he sees something unbelievable in the distance, removes his sunglasses and stares wide-eyed at an unseen wonder. He gets Satler’s attention, and then she, too, has the same reaction. They are staring at a towering brachiosaurus, munching on leaves from the highest trees and creating thundering fissures when it lands its hooves on the ground. John Williams’ music swells as Hammond, pleased with Grant and Satler’s bewilderment, walks towards the camera, gawking at his spectacular creation. “Dr. Grant, my dear Ellie Satler,” he proudly orates, “Welcome… to Jurassic Park.” It is one of the most wonderful sequences in Spielberg’s entire career.

“How’d you do this?” Grant asks, amazed. “I’ll show you,” Hammond wistfully replies. Indeed, Grant, Satler and the wisecracking mathematician Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) are all initially stunned and fascinated with Hammond’s revolutionary creation; even Malcolm utters out loud, “You crazy son of a bitch, you did it!” It is really only after Hammond shows them how it’s done and explains to them how he’s going to foster his creation that they begin to question the ethical problems with his plan. Grant is worried about the fact that they can’t possibly know what to expect from the combination of two centuries-separated species—dinosaurs and humans—being joined together. Satler doubts they have a permanently controllable ecosystem. Malcolm, the cynic of the experts, is the most vicious of all: “You stood up on the shoulders of geniuses to accomplish something as fast as you could, and before you even knew what you had, you patented it, packaged it and slapped it on a plastic lunch box, and now, you’re selling it… you wanna sell it!” He accuses Hammond of having all the zeal of a kid who has found his dad’s gun. He equates Hammond’s “discovery” with a rape of the natural world. “I don’t believe it,” Hammond nervously laughs. “You’re meant to come down here and defend me against these characters, and the only one on my side is the bloodsucking lawyer!” “Thank you,” the underappreciated Gennaro mutters. No wonder he’s the first character to be eaten.

In his review for Variety, Todd McCarthy complained that Alan Grant “comes off rather like a bland Indiana Jones,” and that Ellie Satler “overdoes the facial oohs and ahhs.” These are valid criticisms, but Spielberg does make an effort to humanize Grant and Satler by giving them witty character behaviors. For example, onboard the helicopter ride to the park, while Ian Malcolm is flirting with Satler, we notice that Grant—sitting next to Satler—has a raptor claw drawn. It’s the only thing separating the horny Malcolm from Satler’s luscious legs, as if Grant is protecting his babe (his territory?). Grant, as already evidenced, despises kids, and is not a happy camper when Hammond’s grandchildren, Lex (Ariana Richards) and Tim (Joseph Mazzello), come along for the ride; he is not amused by Tim’s attempt to impress him with his own dinosaur theories, and shuts the door on him during one of Tim’s dinosaur speeches. Satler walks through the movie gaping in awe at one spectacular sight after another, making one question how she ever made it into the field of paleobotany in the first place. And Malcolm explains and explains and explains the theory of chaos until, pretty soon, he’s explaining it to himself.

The supporting characters have just as much fun. Gennaro reacts with stupefied awe at the sight of Hammond’s worker-bee scientists during a tour, believing them to be robots: “Are these characters, uh, auto-erotica?” Ray “Hold onto yo butts” Arnold (Samuel L. Jackson) flips out, for some reason, when faced at a key moment with the choice of either shutting down the park system or waiting for it to fix itself. The shady Dodgson (Cameron Thor) is so awful at blending in and looking like a secret agent, he has to be reminded that “nobody cares.” Computer technician Dennis Nedry (Wayne Knight) rolls his eyes during an economic lecture by Hammond about how “I don’t blame people for their mistakes, but I do ask that they pay for them” (“Thanks, Dad,” Nedry deadpans). In some respects, Nedry is the epitome of the evils of computer technology that Alan Grant fears: his ability to manipulate modern technology allows him to crush the dignity of his associates. There’s a feeling of discomfort when Lex tells Tim that her aspiration in life is to be “a hacker.” Will she grow up to be just like Nedry?

Some of the sequences in the film, including the more terrifying ones, can be interpreted allegorically. When the park system is shut down and then turned back on, Ellie Satler beams through the walkie-talkies that they’re “back in business.” Then a raptor emerges from behind her. Is this a cosmic joke with anti-capitalism undertones? And in the first truly scary sequence in the film, when the T-Rex makes its first appearance, breaking through the perimeter fence and menacing Lex and Tim while they remain trapped in their car, Grant, witnessing the attack in horror, comes to his senses. The Sight and Sound critic Harry Sheehan, recalling the earlier scene in which Grant menaces the kid on the digging site with a fantasy about being ripped open by a raptor, has a theory about this: “When the tyrannosaurus rex attacks [Lex and Tim] in their stalled car, [Grant] sits still in his own vehicle for what seems endless moments, watching in horror as his (barely) suppressed murder fantasy is played out in front of him.” Following Sheehan’s pointed observations, we notice that from then on, entrusted with the care of Lex and Tim, Grant ends up treating them with more respect. Of course, his delight in scaring them by pretending to be electrocuted in a later scene confirms that he still hasn’t gotten over his kiddie-torturing fantasies.

Koepp and Crichton’s screenplay also attempts to polish up the Ellie Satler character, even if her transformations don’t stand out quite as much as Grant’s do. Laura Dern has a great scene in which she sits down with Attenborough’s Hammond in the wake of the park’s disasters. Hammond is depressed about watching his dreams come crashing down and is found pathetically eating out of buckets of melting ice cream. He shares with her his idealistic beliefs that the park, unlike his illusionary attempts at creating flea circuses in the past, can still go on as long as they regain control. Then Satler tells him like it is: “You never had control… that’s the illusion! I was overcome by the power of this place! But I made a mistake too—I didn’t have enough respect for that power, and it’s out, now.” Is she wanting to atone for all the absurd oohing and ahhing she does in the opening passages of the film? The Satler character does have some odd touches, such as, for example, her random feminism; she fantasizes about a future in which “dinosaurs eat man” and “woman inherits the earth,” and at one point even accuses Hammond of sexism. But the melting ice cream scene is the one scene where she truly shines. It’s a shame the character doesn’t have more scenes like this in the film.

It should go without saying that the visual effects of Jurassic Park are sensational. The dinosaurs designed by Stan Winston, Dennis Muren, Phil Tippet and Michael Lantieri looked so real to me as a young kid; watching the film today, it is easier to notice some of the more fake CGI effects hidden in the corners, but the overall illusion remains startlingly intact. The rest of Jurassic Park is nothing short of a demonstration of technical mastery: the unforgettable Williams score; the glowing cinematography by Dean Cudney; the brisk Michael Kahn editing that makes this one of the more fast-paced and entertaining Spielberg films out there. Perhaps most overlooked among the film’s technical aspects are the amazing sound effects by Rod Judkins and Gary Rydstrom. Each of the two park tours that Grant and company ride during their stay on the park have excellent sound, from the cartoonish noise of the animated “DNA” tutorial (voiced by Greg Burson), to the car tour set to a voiceover by Spielberg’s Night Gallery colleague, Richard Kiley. And there’s more: water ripples in a plastic cup. Green gelatin shakes uncontrollably in a spoon. Malcolm is “fairly alarmed” by a booming impact tremor.

No question about it: Jurassic Park will stand the test of time as one of Spielberg’s more technically dazzling films. But as a character study, will it compare well to Spielberg’s richer studies of humanism? I doubt it. These characters won’t speak to future generations the way they spoke to us. The movie came out at a time when dinosaur discoveries were at their peak, paleontology was at its most celebrated and dinosaurs were every child’s favorite toy. But we live now in a new generation where that old fascination with dinosaurs is all but gone. Not only will people probably not be as impressed with the film’s questions about dinosaurs as we were, but they will probably also marvel at how we could possible feel any affection for such loony characters. Yes, all of the characters undergo some painfully hokey transformations during the course of the movie; Grant cradling Lex and Tim in his arms in the final scene, confirming his maturation into a fatherly stage, is the hokiest of all. However, the moment when John Hammond looks upon his crumbling creation one last time, before being guided into the helicopter and flown off to safety, is not so hokey. It’s a reminder that the movie is mainly centered on the failed dreams of this character.

If I have to reiterate it, I will: I love Grant, Satler, Malcolm, Lex, Tim, Muldoon, Arnold, Gennaro, Nedry and the rest of the JP gang. I grew up with them. They are among the first movie characters I could remember by memory. Anyone familiar with the sequels knows how they all turned out. Grant went solo. Satler married another man, had a son and abandoned her career. Malcolm went home to his kids and his ex-wives. Lex and Tim returned to their ordinary lives as bourgeoisie children—the life they enjoyed before being reduced from riches to rags for two whole days. Grant, Satler, Malcolm, Lex and Tim are the ones who will benefit the most from the consequences of Jurassic Park: they’ll get on with their lives, and if any of them come back, they will be prepared for more. But then there is John Hammond, sitting in the corner of that helicopter, looking with sadness and regret upon the amber mosquito of his cane—pondering about what might have been before everything went wrong.


  1. Nice piece, Adam. I love this film, of course — who doesn't?? — but I'm far from convinced that it's "Hawksian," the nods to Hatari! aside. It doesn't have the verbal density and wit of Hawks, but more importantly it doesn't have his relaxed tone. Hatari!, the most obvious reference point, is full of exciting animal capture scenes, but they're spaced out with scenes of hanging out where nothing much happens, where the whole point is the chatter of the characters as they interact and form bonds. The film winds up being 30% animal hunting, 70% talk, talk, talk. Spielberg is way too plot-driven to ever make a truly Hawksian film. This film is constantly barreling forward, at least once they all get to the island, and the characters consistently take a back seat to the action. That's what makes it such a blast, but it's a very different kind of pleasure than you find in Hawks.

  2. Fantastic look at this film! I hadn't seen it in years and then it popped up on cable TV a few months ago and I ended up watching it numerous times and re-discovering it. The film still holds up and is easily the strongest film of the series. Sure, you can nitpick at the flaws of this film but really, it is constructed as a thrilling popcorn movie and on that level the film more than delivers. I like that it has a little something for everyone and I remember, at the time, having a closer affinity to the kids but as I've grown up over the years, I find myself identifying with Grant and Ellie more and really enjoying the banter between them and Ian Malcolm. Jeff Goldblum gets some of the film's best lines and it's not necessarily how they are written but how he delivers them that makes him such a joy to watch.

  3. Like many (most?) Spielberg movies, the cringe-worthy scenes are nearly equal to the moments of greatness -- but the moments of greatness are enough. I haven't watched this in some time, but I remember vividly the 'feeling' of discovering the park, everything about Hammond, every terrific little moment with Goldblum, and, um, er, my overwhelming distaste for Laura Dern.

    What holds this film back, more than anything, is that Sam Neill and Dern just don't have the charisma of Harrison Ford-and-anybody (pre-Crystal Skull, of course). They do well enough. But if Spielberg had a do-over on this one, I think he'd have plucked someone with more inherent charm. Someone, in other words, who could go toe-to-toe with Attenborough.

    On a larger note: Due to work and holiday travel, I won't be able to contribute to this blogathon, as I'd hoped, nor will I be able to comment much. But I've already enjoyed reading the pieces.

    Terrific contributions. Look forward to what's still ahead. Nice job.

  4. Amazing. I am just like you, I know this movie word by word and has become one of my favorite movies of all time, and my second favorite Spielberg film.
    It truly holds up through time as it is entertaining as a kid, a youngster and an adultescent, in comparison to other childhood classics.
    I say that you have to live and breath this movie to really love it, to have lived the dinosaur/pantheological craze.

  5. Ed, since you know a helluva lot more about Hawks than anyone else around these parts, I may have to rethink my labeling of this movie! I guess what made me think of it as a Hawksian film were the snappy dialogue delivery (sometimes overlapping), the characterizations of the men as brutes and dunces and the women (well, Ellie Satler and Lex, at least) as iron-willed; and, yeah, the fast-paced chase scenes. It's definitely not a Hawks movie in the "hangout" tradition: I'd say the movie's actions scenes are inspired by Hatari!, but not its structure. Plot-wise, I'd compare the movie most to... well, probably to Red River, since that movie is basically one big journey (filled with buffalo stampedes, hotheaded confrontations between characters, etc). Maybe even to Land of the Pharaohs, with its straitforward plot--although that movie has a much slower pace. So, probably to Red River.

    J.D., I know totally what you mean about growing up with Grant, Satler and Malcolm and somehow finding yourself identifying with them. When I was a kid I never considered how goofy they all were: I just took them for what they were, and liked them. Neil's performance as Grant, when you take time to think about it, is rather unspired, but somehow I can't think about him that way for too long. I mean, it's Sam fucking Neil, you know?

    Jason, the sense of discovery one gets from watching this movie is probably why it's one of Spielberg's most effortlessly entertaining movies. I think only Minority Report compares to it on that basis.

    But wait... no love for Laura Dern??? Aww, come on, man. Sure, her work here is not among her finest--but Inland Empire, dude! Anyway, we're sorry you can't contribute to the blogathon, Jason, but please keep participating in the discussions! We love having you guys around here.

    Jaime, that's why I fear for future generations who come to this movie. They won't share the fascination with dinosaurs that we all had in the 80's and 90's. They'll probaby be like, "prehistoric creatures? So what?" Oh, it worries me.

  6. Adam, I see what you're saying, and there are certainly some connections. I just think of Spielberg as a plot director — certainly in this film, where most of the characters aren't exactly very deep — and Hawks as more of a character director. Even in the action-packed movies like Red River or Air Force, the emphasis is still on character in a way I don't think it is at all in Jurassic Park.

    And I hope Jason was just saying he didn't like Laura Dern in this. She's pretty annoying in this movie, but yeah, if she did nothing but Inland Empire her greatness would be secure on that basis alone.

  7. "Grant’s theory about raptors as the birds of their time doesn’t seem to apply to the dinosaurs artificially created on John Hammond’s little island. How come Hammond’s raptors don’t know how to fly? One explanation could be that since Hammond has instructed his scientists to mess with the dinosaurs’ chromosomes, it may have impaired any special abilities they once had in the prehistoric ages."

    Grant wasn't saying that raptors themselves *literally* learned how to fly, but was referring to the theory that birds are the evolutionary descendents of dinosaurs. Raptors in the prehistoric age certainly did not have flight abilities.

    1. Aside from that, terrific article. You've hit on some points that never occurred to me before, as a life-long fan of this film.


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