Friday, June 09, 2023

30 Years Ago Today: Jurassic Park

"If there is one thing the history of evolution has taught us it's that life will not be contained.  Life breaks free, expands to new territories, and crashes through barriers, painfully, maybe even dangerously..."

Jurassic Park (1993)

In October of the year 1990, the Human Genome Project began mapping the DNA building blocks of humankind, and a new era of genetic science was upon us. 

As had been the case with the atom bomb in 1940s and 1950s genre cinema, this dawning chapter in man’s scientific understanding was quickly recognized by intrepid Hollywood filmmakers, and immediately recruited as a template for new silver-screen initiatives.  

Specifically, the “science run amok” horror and sci-fi films of the 1990s -- much like their “don’t tamper in God’s domain” predecessors (Them! [1954] for instance) -- explicitly concerned the idea of a new Pandora’s Box being wantonly and recklessly opened. 

And once opened, that box could not be closed…or at least not easily closed.  

Thus genre cinema gave the world such DNA-based horrors as The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996), Mimic (1997) and Deep Blue Sea (1999). The biggest blockbuster of this brand, however, was undoubtedly Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (1993), a work based upon the best-selling 1990 novel by Michael Crichton.  

According to critic Malcolm W. Brown in his New York Times article “In New Spielberg Film, a Dim View of Science,” – Jurassic Park “revived” the image of Frankenstein in terms of “amoral scientists unleashing forces they can’t control.”

Furthermore, Brown concluded, the film featured an “anti-science message.”

In terms of Jurassic Park’s thematic DNA, the “science run amok” conceit was indeed powerfully vetted, and, yes, it concerned scientists unleashing forces they weren’t able to control.  

Yet the message of the film wasn’t necessarily so much anti-science as pro-responsibility.  The scientists who created the dinosaurs in the film did so explicitly for profit, and because technology made it possible.  In other words, they went climbing a dangerous mountain…because it was there.   

By unleashing the “most awesome force this planet has ever seen” -- namely genetics – the scientists featured in Jurassic Park failed to respect and heed nature itself, much as Brown’s critique suggests.  But what the Spielberg film actually seemed to seek was not a total curtailing of scientific progress, but rather some sense of modesty and judiciousness on the parts of those who chose to tamper in God’s domain. Janet Maslin got it exactly right in her review, noting that Jurassic Park involves “both the possibilities and the evils of modern science.”

Indeed, it would have been remarkably hypocritical for Jurassic Park to eschew science and progress entirely, since the film itself exists, primarily, because of advancements in technology, particularly the new special effects breakthrough of computer generated imagery.  

The film thus owes much of its power, even to this day, to its breathtaking dinosaur specimens.  These “living biological attractions” move and roar and rage with a sense of realism previously unseen in the cinema.  The dinosaurs in the film even seem to boast personalities or specific characteristics, from the nobility of the T-Rex to the cunning, cold intelligence of the Velociraptors.  For all intents and purposes, our eyes register these creatures as "alive" and no bad effects exist to undercut that accomplishment.

More to the point, perhaps, the idea underlying Jurassic Park is that “life will find a way,” and that if man chooses to play God by creating new life, he must also possess the modesty to understand that he cannot control that life, once he sets it in motion.  Science even boasts a champion in the film, after a fashion, in the voice of "rock star" mathematician Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum), who hunts for some sign of restraint or modesty from the geneticists, but finds none.  His view of the world -- Chaos Theory -- provides the key to understanding Jurassic Park the amusement park and Jurassic Park, the film.

I often write here on the blog, and in my books, about how a film's visual form should reflect or mirror the content. I consider this the highest value of the art: revealing to us in images a reflection of the film's theme or meaning. 

I admire Jurassic Park so much because Spielberg understands this dynamic perfectly. Many compositions in the film as imagined by the director showcase the idea of technology as the "monster" to be reckoned with.  Since the film concerns the dangers of relying on technology without first judging technology in terms of how it affects the surrounding landscape, this approach is appropriate.  

But lest this approach sound preachy or heavy-handed, Spielberg leavens Crichton’s jargon-laden narrative – one highly reminiscent of Westworld (1973) – with large dollops of visual humor and roller-coaster ride tension.

In short, for all its debate over modern science, Jurassic Park remains a great entertainment 30  years later: a thrilling, action-packed movie that, while never quite possessing the same cutthroat mentality as the book, nonetheless boasts some unbelievably suspenseful moments. The T-Rex attack on a tour caravan by night and the hunting of two children in a kitchen by a tag-team of Velociraptors leap to mind in this regard. 

These scenes retain surprising power, three decades after the film was released. The powerful idea underneath those images is quite resonant: what if man "recreates" with science a being with the power to usurp him, to replace him on the food chain?  The T-Rex attack, and especially the Velociraptor hunt remind us that except by a quirk of destiny, dinosaurs may have "ruled the world."  

Is man so foolish and imprudent a creature that he could undo that favorable destiny, even after God "selected" dinosaurs for extinction?

“Creation is an act of sheer will.”

On Isla Nublar, an island close to Costa Rica, InGen CEO John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) has harnessed cloning technology and genetic engineering to create a new breed of dinosaurs.  

Utilizing dinosaur DNA found in mosquito corpses trapped in amber -- and filling in the sequence gaps with frog DNA -- Hammond has brought back to life specimens including a T-Rex, triceratops, brachiosaurus, and even the pack-hunting velociraptors. 

Now, Hammond wants to share his discovery with the world at large, and to that end has created an amusement park for the wealthy, Jurassic Park, where visitors can pay to see the extinct species.  However, an accident involving a Velociraptor and the death of a park worker instigates investor concerns about the safety of the park.  Hammond now needs experts to sign off on the park for his lawyer, Gennaro (Martin Ferrero), and he recruits paleontologist Alan Grant (Sam Neill), paleobotanist Ellie Sattler (Larua Dern) and mathematics expert and chaotician Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum).

These experts are joined at the park by Hammond’s grandchildren, Tim (Joseph Mazzell) and Lex (Ariana Richards), but the first tour goes badly when a high-tech saboteur, Nedry (Wayne Knight) de-activates the park’s safety systems in hopes of stealing trade secrets.  The dinosaurs, including the T-Rex, escape their paddocks as a dangerous storm washes across the island

While Dr. Grant, Tim and Lex attempt to stay alive in the wild park, the others work to re-boot Jurassic Park’s computer systems, a task which is made exponentially more difficult by the fact that the clever – and merciless – velociraptors are now free to hunt.

“You think they'll have that on the tour?

From Jurassic Park’s opening scene, director Steven Spielberg reveals his penchant for visual humor, but importantly, visual humor that buttresses or reflects the movie’s theme.  

As the film opens, for example, we see a group of nervous, armed men standing in a nighttime jungle.  From their expressions, we know that they now face grave danger.  The film then cuts to shots of trees rustling, and leaves swaying as something unseen moves through the shadowy foliage at a high altitude.  

Importantly, this is a shot that, if you boast any familiarity with monster movies, is quite commonplace.  

You’ll see it in Guillermin’s King Kong (1977), for instance, just as Kong is about to appear for the first time and take Dwan (Jessica Lange).  It’s the trademark moment when the monster is about to be revealed, standing high above man, coming into a clearing for his first close-up, essentially.

And yet what emerges from the jungle in Jurassic Park is not a biological monster or beast, as we would expect.  Instead, it’s a man-made machine -- a dinosaur paddock or container -- on a crane.  This shot is our first indication that the dinosaurs are not the true monsters of Jurassic Park.  Rather, that honor goes to technology or science that has been allowed to run amok.

This leitmotif is carried on throughout the film, in a variety of ways.  The protagonist, Alan Grant, for example, is a proud technophobe.  “I hate computers,” he announces early on, and this point of view is reinforced by his experiences on the island.   When Alan is on the amusement park tour, for instance, the computers don’t fail, but the electrified fences do, meaning that dinosaurs are free to escape and endanger him.  He is constantly, throughout the narrative, being imperiled by products of technology, from DNA-enhanced dinosaurs to failed security systems.

Also, during the height of the film’s climactic action, a Velociraptor jumps up on a table in a control room, and bright images from a computer monitor are reflected upon its face.   Superimposed over the dinosaur’s visage, specifically, are the letters representing DNA code: A, C, T, and G.   This shot expresses well the nature of the dinosaur: he's man made; science made.

Once more, the message is clearly that these dinosaurs are not the source of the danger themselves, but that the unrestrained, irresponsible science that created them represents the true menace.  I must admit that I deeply love this particular composition (pictured at the top of the review), because it declares in one still what Jurassic Park concerns: danger created by overreaching science.  You can't blame the animals for being what they are; but you can blame amoral science for bringing these dinosaurs back into the mix.

Genetic science isn't the only kind of "progress" that gets tweaked in this Spielberg film. In short order, Jurassic Park invites us to peer and gawk at virtual reality gloves, CD roms, driver-less cars and night goggles, even.  The idea seems to be that -- at the time of the film -- we were on the verge of taking a giant step forward in terms of our understanding and application of technology.  We were either going to go forward responsibly and carefully, or chase recklessly behind our science, “just racing to catch up,” as Alan Grant worriedly notes.  Again, it should be noted that this thematic through-line needn’t be seen as being merely anti-science, rather one in favor of the notion that human morality should dictate our scientific investigations.  We must control our tools, not let them control us. 

"Spared no expense," Hammond's near-constant refrain isn't a statement of morality, after all. It's a statement noting that all available resources were utilized.  Thought was not given as to whether they should have been utilized on this endeavor in the first place. 

Still, Hammond in the film, a man much softer and friendlier than his counterpart in the novel, boasts good intentions regarding his amusement park.  Although yes, he wants to make money, what he seeks more deeply is the respect of his audience.  After starting out creating “flea circuses,” he feels desperate to create an attraction with inherent value or merit, hence the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park.  But Hammond has allowed his own insecurities to take over his good sense. He has let his desire to please others short-circuit his sense of  moral responsibility.  Finally, even he can't endorse his own park.  

If "creation is a sheer act of will," as Jurassic Park suggests, then one must pose two additional questions.  First: whose will, in particular, stands behind the act of creation?  And secondly, what is driving that sheer act of will?  Insecurity? Avarice?  If human failings stand at the need to push scientific boundaries to their limits, then we’re all bound for a lot of trouble.  As James Spence wrote in his essay, “What’s Wrong with Cloning a Dinosaur,” human beings boast a “limited capacity to control our own technological innovations.”  

That's okay, so long as we are mindful of it, and take precautions, I suppose.

All of this dialogue about scientific responsibility might have come across as pretentious in the hands of a lesser director. And indeed, one on-the-nose scene with Hammond and Sattler discussing the dangers of the park does play very much that way, and should have been cut back radically. 

But for the most part, Spielberg plays lightly with the film's premise, and incorporates a number of visual jokes.  

One of the funniest, by my estimation, occurs as Lex -- sitting in the cafeteria -- spots a Velociraptor on approach.  She turns to jello, literally, even as she holds a spoon of green jello in her hand.  

The girl and the jello both begin to jiggle at the same time.

The film’s action scenes, furthermore, appear inspired wholly by Chaos Theory.  Events seem to spiral out of control, with each random event causing increasingly dangerously and random results.  Alan rescues little Tim from a car lodged in a tree, for example. They escape the car and the tree, but then the car falls to the ground…over and above them, and they barely survive.  “Here we are…back in the car,” Tim says, and the line is funny because the moment seems unpredictable and spontaneous.  So many moments in Jurassic Park actually play that way, with spontaneous incidents generating chaos and disaster.

Another great in-joke involves a T-rex chasing a car in motion.  We see the dinosaur’s toothy mouth open wide, filling the screen.  Right beneath it reads the legend: “objects in mirror are closer than they appear.”  In some way, this is another lesson about the danger of technology: it can sometimes distance us from that which is menacing...and close-by.

All these witty moments suggest to me that Spielberg had a great deal of fun making Jurassic Park, perhaps because in terms of the heavy lifting, he had a good template in the script by Crichton and Koepp.  The script was solid enough that Spielberg could direct his energy towards creating sharp-as-nail visuals, ones that actively reflected the content, and even had some fun with it.         

“How’d you do this?”

Why does Jurassic Park hold such a powerful grip on our imagination and affection, even after thirty years? 

For me, I know it’s not just Steven Spielberg’s sense of directorial humor, or even the message about morality guiding scientific progress. 

No, it’s the dinosaurs themselves.  

I realize this isn’t true for younger generations, but I grew up during an era when dinosaurs on film invariably disappointed.  They never looked quite real.  Sometimes they appeared...laughable.  They never seemed to move with authenticity, or with the grace and majesty I knew they really, really should possess.

That all changed with Jurassic Park.  When a gorgeous, majestic Brachiosaurus lumbers across the screen at approximately the 20-minute point in this Spielberg film, the secret dream of all dinosaur-lovers is potently fulfilled.  You feel as if you are seeing a real, living, breathing creature, not an over-sized lizard projected over a miniature landscape, or a man in a suit.  No, you are seeing the regal dinosaur as it was meant to be seen.

I still recall the first time I saw that Brachiosaurus scene in Jurassic Park.   It brought a tear to my eye.  In rendering the dinosaurs so beautifully, so nobly, so wondrously, this film understood my unspoken dream as a dino-loving child. One I’d forgotten I’d ever even had, at that point. There’s just something so glorious, so right about the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, especially in conjunction with John Williams’ rapturous score.  

For me, this movie felt like a destiny fulfilled, somehow.

Because there is not an ounce of phoniness in their physicality, Jurassic Park truly awes. I don’t want to lavish all the credit to the CGI, either.  Special effects genius Stan Winston (1946 – 2008) created animatronic, life-sized replicas of many dinosaurs and controlled them using cable actuation, rod-puppets, cranes, radio control, hydraulics and whatever else could sell a scene effectively.   

Amazingly, Winston’s mechanical creations blend perfectly with the digital creations of Phil Tippet and Dennis Muren at ILM so that we believe, truly, dinosaurs walk the Earth again.  This idea also gets dramatic visual punctuation in the film.  There's the valedictory image of a real life T-Rex occupying the former space of a T-Rex skeleton, as a banner reading "When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth" flutters before him.  

In short, this is a magnificent passing of the baton, as though a new generation of special effects are supplanting the skeletons of the old one.  Certainly, these dinosaurs ruled the box office in 1993. And given their outstanding appearance, justifiably so.  When I think of Jurassic Park, I think of a tense, funny, intelligent film about "living biological attracts so astounding" that they indeed captured the "imagination of the entire planet."  

For those of us who wondered after Hook (1991) if Steven Spielberg still had it in him to re-capture the magic of Close Encounters, or Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jurassic Park was our rather definitive answer, and the beginning of a beloved movie franchise to boot.

1 comment:

  1. The comic strip "Calvin & Hobbes" often showed the titular boy playing with his toy dinosaurs, and imagining that they were real. Cartoonist Bill Watterson writes that after "Jurassic Park" came out, he stopped doing dinosaur strips for about six months, because he felt that his drawings couldn't compete with big-budget special effects, and he didn't want Calvin's imagination to seem less vivid. On a general thematic note: at around this time, the musical "Jekyll & Hyde" had had its regional premiere three years before, and in 1995 embarked on a tour ahead of its 1997 Broadway opening. Which is only tangentially relevant, except it's interesting to note that stories about the risks of trying to control nature were enjoying a heightened popularity with audiences of a variety of media at the time.


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