Posted October 4, 2011 by editor in Retrospectives
 
 

Spielberg: Jurassic Park


‘Clever Spielberg…’

Even before the publication of Michael Crichton’s superb novel Jurassic Park there was a bidding war amongst film studios for picture rights and it’s not difficult to understand why; a dinosaur movie with acaptivating and(relatively) realistic plot always had the potential to be a hugely successful blockbuster.  Universal eventually paid Crichton a hefty $2 million for both the movie rights and screenplay but were rewarded with a film which eventually made over $900 million at the box office, becoming the most financially successful movie of all time until the release of Titanic.  But Jurassic Park was more than a financial success; it was a movie that captured the feelings of fascination and awe that the terrible lizards evoke in both our children andour inner child.  The record increase in palaeontology students following the film’s release is therefore perhaps the greatest compliment to the work of Steven Spielberg as it shows the excitement surrounding the world of dinosaurs that the film managed to create.

Themovie’s plot is based around the character John Hammond’s attempts to create a theme park to displaycloned dinosaurs in a controlled environment.  The dinosaurs are created from DNA found within amber-fossilised mosquitos, with gaps in the missing genetic code filled in with amphibian DNA.  Needless to say, attempts to control the dinosaurs are in vain and a fat man attempting to steal embryos shuts down the park’s system allowing the dinosaurs to escape.  They also start breeding meaning their population will soon spiral out of control.

There is, of course, the question of how a team of scientists who are able to use the most modern and complex of animalcloning methods were not aware that certain members of the frog species can change sex.  A quick trip to the local zoo might have been prudent.  But this is an important lesson that the film attempts to convey; humans should not use the technology that they discover without fully understanding the impact of its use.  There are also other clear themes throughout the movie.One is that chaos theory dictates that any attempt to control nature on a widespread scale will inevitably end in disaster.  Another is that using genetic engineering to reintroduceextinct creatures is potentially dangerous.  A final message, and perhaps the most important one ofthem all, is that if you’re a fat man attempting to complete a complicated heist, don’t attempt it in the middle of a tropical storm in a park full of dinosaurs.

Admittedly that last one might not necessarily be the most important in the eyes of Michael Crichton when he first wrote the novel, but the scene where Wayne Knight’s character is attacked by the crested lizard is certainly the most frightening moment in the film in my eyes.  Others may point to the kitchen scene with the Velociraptors, or the Tyrannosaurus attacking the car, but for me the fantastic build of tension as the oblivious thief is hunted and then killed is absolutely terrifying.  Crichton depicts the scene far more graphically; I won’t go in to detail but suffice to say that Jurassic Park would NOT have been a PG if that scene were directly transposed from the book.  But the film shows that graphic violence is not always necessary for a tense and frightening film, something that some modern film-makers tend to forget all too easily.

Perhaps the best example of the power of suspense in Jurassic Park is the famous Tyrannosaurus introduction; a cup of water sitting on a dashboard is not in itself a terrifying spectacle, but in the hands of Steven Spielberg it is turned into a source of fear.  And that innocent cup of water brilliantly illustrates the skill of the director;armed with a budget of around $63 million he manages to create his most iconic moment with a guitar string and a plastic cup.  Comparisons can certainly be drawn with Spielberg’s earliest directorial success Jaws where a handful of musical notes were transformed into a harbinger of death that could cause surfers to swim for their lives at the very sound.  However, unlike Jaws, where the emergence of the slightly comedic big fish actually distracts from the underlying tension within an otherwise fantastic piece of cinema, the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park are truly terrifying and realistic, and when the Tyrannosaurus finally appears he is majestic.Considering the film was released in 1993 it is genuinely astounding how brilliant the CGI is in this movie.  The first Brachiosaurus appearanceis stunning and the scene where a herd of Gallimimus are being chased ruthlessly by Tyro genuinely took my breath away.

But any discussion of the dinosaur stars without mentioning the infamous Velociraptors would be incomplete.  The film’s main antagonist is portrayed as being around ten feet tall and incredibly intelligent.  Granted, they are slightly different from the recent portrayals of Velociraptors on BBC documentaries, but one must admit that the kitchen scene would probably have been slightly less frightening if the children were being hunted by a pack of oversized chickens.  To further defend their depiction, apparently the raptors are close in appearance to the ‘Utahraptor’ which was rather fortunately discovered during filming.  So I’m willing to let Spielberg off.Anyway, the feisty villains take down the badass hunter Muldoon, master the art of door-opening and then ruthlesslystart hunting Doctor Grant and company indoors.  As luck would have it, an unlikely hero in form of a Tyrannosaurus comes and sorts them out in the end.  Nice one Tyro.

So the film is visually stunning, brilliant in its moments of suspense and has an interesting plot that makes sense (without too much analysis).  But what of the human stars of the film?  Doctor Grant is a palaeontologist who dislikes children with a passion at the start of the movie.  Obviously, therefore, he becomes burdened with Hammond’s grandchildren and learns to tolerate and then enjoy their company.  Whilst I found Grant’s character slightly wooden, the two children were surprisingly convincing and conveyed genuine fear in most of their scenes.  One particular highlight was their reactions to the Tyrannosaurus destroying their vehicle, although allegedly the response was aided by the fact that the animatron was not actually supposed to break the glass roof of the car!

Jeff Goldblum’s character Ian Malcolm deserves special mention.  As a mathematician with a love for women and cracking jokes he is probably the most interesting character of the movie.  He also acts as the moral voice of the film, expounding his dislike of Hammond’s attempts to play God and interfere with nature.  But his best moments are undoubtedly those where he shows his dry wit and the scene where Malcolm is incapacitated in the back of a Jeep whilst being pursued by a hungry Tyrannosaurus is a particular highlight.  Most characters would be terrified into silence after the experience, yet Malcolm has the composure to be facetious, quipping ‘think they’ll have that on the tour?’Samuel L. Jackson also appears in the movie but unfortunately he is very much a subsidiary character and does not have many lines.  In fact, the character’s greatest impact on the film is probably the shock moment where his arm attacks the female lead.  Bob Peck’s hunter character is similarly fairly marginal, but his steely demeanour draws the viewer’s attention every time he appears.  Who can forget the Velociraptor hunting scene?  Those clever girls…

Laura Dern and Richard Attenborough also turn in decent performances, but this movie’s success was never going to be based on the quality of the acting.  Whilst character development isundeniably important for any movie, audiences of Jurassic Park were not expecting acting-master classes; theyexpected visually impressive dinosaurs and that’s exactly what they received.  In fact, Jurassic Park’s visuals were so impressive that other film-makers were inspired to start on projects that they had only dreamt of making before, resulting in a wave of movies in the late 1990’s and early 2000’sthat utilised the CGI effects that Spielberg had proved could be so stunning.  But Steven Spielberg should be applauded for turning what could have been a shallowdino-fest into a tension-filled, frightening and fascinating adventure movie that the whole family can enjoy.  And for that reason Jurassic Park shouldbe heralded as a truly great movie.

David Townsend


editor