Saturday, November 19, 2011

Director's Spotlight #2.8: Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director’s Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. November and December are devoted to Steven Spielberg, with November dedicated to his classic adventure films. November ends with the last classic Spielberg adventure film: 1993’s Jurassic Park.

Grade: 86 (A-)

From 1975 to 1982, Steven Spielberg released four instant classic adventure films: Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. A remarkable track record by any standard, these films captured the imaginations of critics and audiences alike. But Spielberg, like any artist, wanted to expand his horizons. His first two attempts at mature films, The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun, certainly had admirers, but neither had the same success as his earlier films. His attempts to mix fantasy with adulthood, Always and Hook, fared worse. But Spielberg had another card up his sleeve: an adaptation of Michael Crichton’s novel Jurassic Park. The result, still his most financially successful film, served both as a return to and as a grand sendoff to his classic adventure films.

Eccentric Billionaire John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) has an idea for a theme park, but he won’t reveal exactly what it is. His frustrated lawyer, Donald Gennaro (Martin Ferraro), insists he bring in outside opinions for whatever he has planned. Enter paleontologist Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill), his paleobotanist assistant Dr. Ellie Sadler (Laura Dern), and genius mathematician Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum), none of whom know exactly what to expect. But they’re all amazed at what Hammond has done: the “crazy son of a bitch” has cloned and brought back to life dinosaurs of all shapes, types, and sizes: Triceratops, raptors, brachiosaurs, and tyrannosaurs.

After initial amazement, the three consultants express their qualms: Hammond is playing God, and there’s no telling what the danger is. The group continues their tour into the park along with Hammond’s grandchildren, Alex (Ariana Richards) and Tim (Joseph Mazzello). Meanwhile, head computer programmer Dennis Nedry (Wayne Knight) sabotages the park’s security system in order to steal the dinosaur embryos for a competitor. But there’s unintended fallout: the dinosaurs get loose, and head technician Ray Arnold (Samuel L. Jackson) and security warden Robert Muldoon (Bob Peck) can’t get the system back on line. Now people are dying, and with Grant and the kids stranded in the park, time is running out.

First off, it must be said that the film looks great. Jurassic Park marks Spielberg’s first extensive use of CGI (indeed, one of the first extensive uses of CGI in film history), and it’s a stunning blend of digital effects and real settings and characters. CGI has been misused and overused from its inception, but from Jurassic Park to A.I. to Minority Report and War of the Worlds, Spielberg’s integration of CGI and practical effects has been near seamless.

None of the fantastic effects would matter, though, if not for Spielberg’s mastery of old fashioned moviemaking. As always, the Howard Hawks “men on a mission” and “men vs. force of nature” storylines are here. Hitchcock, of course, is a major influence in the of the suspense scenes orchestration: raptors stalk and peer around corners;  monsters or villains seen first through shadows; the T-rex attack is dragged out to near unbearable lengths; and the gradual introduction of the dinosaurs is as masterful as that of the shark in Jaws: first there’s only a glimpse of the raptors, then we meet the herbivores, then the babies, and then the horror starts.

There’s a new influence too: Spielberg goes all the way back to classic monster movies like Frankenstein (the basic story and ethical questions) and King Kong (Goldblum even references it). The introduction of the T-rex is a particularly shrewd mix of Hitchcock and Kong: first there’s only sound and vibrations, then a hint there’s something wrong, and then we’re in way over our heads.

Many remember Jurassic Park for the non-stop action, often as intense as anything in Raiders. But while the white-knuckle intensity kicks off at the fifty-minute mark, the film’s dialogue-heavy first act is as loose and shaggy as Jaws, with a gradual reveal of the monsters and a long introduction of the film’s world, its scientific particulars, and its fun characters. There’s a good deal of overlapping dialogue a la 70s Spielberg classics. Many of the characters even parallel those of Jaws: Grant as the reserved, prickly protagonist (Chief Brody), Malcolm as the eccentric, wisecracking, sometimes amazingly condescending expert (Hooper), and Muldoon as the tough-guy hunter who makes a fatal mistake (a more mentally stable Quint). Sadler, meanwhile, is a Marion to Grant’s Indy: just as intelligent and capable, and often called upon to help save the day when everyone’s out of their depth (her reaction to Hammond insisting she should stay behind because she's a woman is priceless).

Hammond, of course, is the mayor, or the government, or whatever classic Spielberg character doesn’t respect the awesome power of a force of nature. He’s trying to control something he doesn’t understand, and while there’s no doubt that he had good intentions, he didn’t consider the consequences of his actions. In Spielberg world, man’s arrogance makes him think he can control something uncontrollable. Hammond is more powerful than many of said characters, absurdly wealthy and surrounded by yes men, and when the people who know what they’re talking about tell him what’s what, he believes he’s right and that everything will work out just fine (Jaws/Raiders). He even allows his own grandkids to enter the park before there’s any guaranteed safety (Jaws again). Hammond was written as a cold, calculating businessman, but Spielberg and screenwriter David Koepp wisely sweetened the character. And why not? Spielberg respects his showmanship.

Spielberg has less respect for Nedry, the arrogant programmer. There’s motivation to his actions: he has money problems after past mistakes, and while Hammond won’t cast him out, he’s not going to give him extra help. Nedry’s desperation, self-importance, and all around selfishness drives him to betray his employer, a man clearly willing to give him a second chance. Jurassic Park marks one of the first clear examples of another Spielberg theme: men whose selfishness blinds them to the feelings or well-being of others. An offshoot of the “men controlling nature” theme, the key difference here is malicious intent. That key difference also leads to Nedry’s comeuppance.

The film’s major character arc is in Grant’s treatment of children. In Grant’s introduction, he frightens a young boy who didn’t show him or his dinosaur proper respect. When Grant comes to Jurassic Park and meets Tim and Lex, he finds them as annoying and off-putting as he finds most children. Tim is a devoted fan of Grant’s writing while Lex has a schoolgirl crush on him. But when the chips are down, it’s Grant who saves the kids. Grant’s maturity comes when he bonds with the kids; by the end, he’s gone from reluctant protector to admirable father figure. The eternal optimism of early Spielberg shines through Jurassic Park; no matter how horrifying the events of the film gets, there’s always a light at the end of the tunnel, and even the most cynical hearts can melt. After the stumbles of Always and Hook, it’s refreshing to see Spielberg approach adulthood honestly.

There’s one especially important theme to Jurassic Park: the dark side of technology. Spielberg’s interest in men trying to control forces of nature bleeds over into the real (well, less mystical) world. This theme was certainly in the margins of past films (Empire of the Sun, the Indiana Jones films, even 1941), but with Jurassic Park, Steven Spielberg first clearly expressed his concern that improper use of technology could have drastic consequences. There’s classic Spielbergian wonder a la Close Encounters and E.T., but it all segues into terror. Like Frankenstein blown up to King Kong like proportions, there are men playing God in Jurassic Park, and in the immortal words of Goldblum’s character, “Before you even knew what you had…you’re selling it.”

No one has considered the moral and ethical consequences of their actions; it’s all about what they could do, not what they should do. And there’s a body count because of it. This theme plays a major part in almost every Spielberg film since: Schindler’s List, Amistad, Saving Private Ryan, A.I., Minority Report, War of the Worlds, even the breezy Catch Me if You Can. This idea could also serve as a criticism of the poor use of CGI and modern moviemaking from many of Spielberg’s contemporaries, particularly George Lucas. Oddly, Jurassic Park’s sole flaw comes from Spielberg using technology he didn’t understand: it’s easy to forgive minor plot holes or “movie” moments, but the film’s understanding of computer hacking near the film’s climax is lacking, to say the least.

In Jurassic Park, several characters maintain that evolution finds its way past barriers. It’s a fitting metaphor. The film marks a turning point in Spielberg’s career: it’s a return to form after two poor fantasy outings. It’s an embracement of adulthood and of new, more complicated themes. It’s a summation of where Spielberg had been, where he was, and where he was going. And with that, the director bid adieu to the real, classic Spielbergian adventure film and raced onwards toward maturity (though this year’s The Adventures of Tintin looks like a return to good old-fashioned Spielberg movie magic). The final shot of the film wraps it all up: a helicopter (a great invention of man), filled with hope and the solace that something good survived, moving towards the great unknown.

The initial plan for Director’s Spotlight in December was to cover Steven Spielberg’s work in the 2000s, but it doesn’t seem to make much sense to hold off on the five historical films I didn’t cover just to wait for Spielberg’s Lincoln next year. As it is, here is the tentative Director’s Spotlight schedule for December:

November 28: The Color Purple/revised Empire of the Sun
December 1: Schindler’s List
December 3: Amistad
December 4: Saving Private Ryan
December 5: A.I.: Artificial Intelligence
December 8: Minority Report/Catch Me if You Can
December 10: The Terminal
December 11: War of the Worlds
December 12: Munich
December 14: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (with special appearance by The Lost World: Jurassic Park)

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