Sunday, June 14, 2015

Jurassic Week, part I: Some expense might have been spared


One of the strongest arguments for auteur theory there is, Jurassic Park is an undeniable classic, founded almost entirely upon the strength of its director's personality.

Directed by Steven Spielberg
Written by David Koepp and Michael Crichton (based on the novel by Michael Crichton)
With Sam Neill (Dr. Alan Grant), Jeff Goldblum (Dr. Ian Malcolm), Laura Dern (Dr. Ellie Sattler), Ariana Richards (Lex Murphy), Joseph Mazzello (Tim Murphy), and Richard Attenborough (John Hammond)

Spoiler alert (as if it applied in the first place): moderate

Pop continues to eat itself: this weekend witnessed the release of the fourth iteration of a franchise begun in 1993, the first in its series since 2001, and soon we shall see whether its returns have diminished, or if absence truly has made the heart grow fonder.  (Friend Brennan says "sort of.")  But for now, let's return to where it all began.

Nobody alive in Christendom today needs to be told that the original Jurassic Park is a great movie.  Eventually I will tell you thatbut I need to work up to it.  It's more necessary to remind you that Jurassic Park was never a perfect movie; only that many of us were at the perfect age to receive it.  In that spirit, let us recap its plot, with as much snark as seems necessary, which it turns out is a surprisingly large amount.

You'll agree when John Hammond says he's an amusements man.  A veteran of the cutthroat world of the flea circus, he now looks to vaster horizons, horizons vast enough to hold the world's strangest, scariest, and most magnificent menageriedinosaurs, resurrected by Hammond's arcane super-science, evidently for the sheer hubris of it.  Bringing fossils to life is no hobby, though, it's business, and Hammond intends to open his "Jurassic Park" to paying visitors.  To raise the enormous capital required, he's partnered with investors who demand some assurance that the potential green hell they've established on Isla Nublar won't go all Westworld on them.  For such things do tend to happen when they're being written by Michael Crichton.

The investors send their lawyer to assess the situation; he brings along his picked man, famed chaos mathematician Dr. Ian Malcolm, who also holds two more Ph.D.'s in the fields of Leather Jackets and Egregious Pretense.  Not to be outdone, Hammond approaches two paleontologists whose judgment might be informed by some kind of actual expertise instead.  This is the mating pair of Drs. Alan Grant and Ellie Sattlerunproductive so far, but only Sattler seems upset about their lack of procreation.  Hammond is cagey; Grant and Sattler are reluctant; but one huge bribe later, they're on their way to the island.  The scientists get ready to party hearty on Hammond's dime, foras he repeats several times, first proudly, but finally with a sense of melancholic irony"We spared no expense."

Completing the cast are Hammond's grandchildrenkids, coincidentally, being this film's most heavily-targeted audience.  He's invited them along because there's a good chance they might be threatened by carnivores, awakening Dr. Grant's paternal instincts in the processdaddy issues, coincidentally, being this film's director's most heavily-favored theme.

But in the end, Grant learned that his hatred of the stupid liabilities others call children was correct.

Initially thunderstruck by Hammond's thunder lizards, the scientists' skepticism soon reasserts itself, shortly before their groundless objections turn out to be grounded fully in screenwriting conveniencea buffoonish corporate spy, an importune tropical storm, and Hammond's near-total lack of foresight.  Safety isn't a priority at Jurassic Park; its animal pens don't even have moats, only electrified fences, whichnaturallygive out amidst all the intrigue.  The deadliest beasties all find their way out of their pens, beginning with a t-rex who's been starving herself in anticipation of the hunt, and ending with a trio of velociraptors who've been plucked bald and are mad as hell about it.

" 'ACAGTATTAGCC?'  You putz!"

Obviously: if one were to let the violence that Jurassic Park does to paleontology and biology affect them, one would be up all night cataloging its crimes.  Let's hit the high notes only.  The frankly idiotic idea that Tyrannosaurus's vision was limited to movement alone is a notion only a writer in need of a bogus thriller mechanic could love.  Meanwhile, one of the few actual denizens of the Jurassic present in Jurassic Park, a Dilophosaurus, has been reborn as a poison-spitting frill-necked lizard.

The raptors' featherless hides have been complained of so often by now that it crowds out the vastly more salient concern, namely that Velociraptor was the size of a poodle and about as dangerous.  It's an unfortunate thing that the best name in the whole paleontological canon belongs to one of the dromaeosaurid family's lamest cousins.  Sure, Deinonychus has the second best, andgive or take some plumageDeinonychus at least resembles the man-eaters of Jurassic Park closely enough that one needn't write a paragraph grousing about it.  But: Deinonychus doesn't cleanly pluralize in the English language.  And since the highly-controversial hypothesis that dromaeosaurids were highly-intelligent pack hunters is so much cooler than the alternative, velociraptors they had to begiant-sized, pluralized,  and smart.  (In Park's defense, Achillobator and Utahraptor hadn't been named by 1993.)

I don't belabor Jurassic Park's scientific infidelities to be crotchety (that's just a collateral benefit).  And let's give credit where it's due.  The film (and the book) deserve praise for getting ahead of the curve on the now-closed debate on dinosaurs' kinship to birds.  But faux-factualism is the shaky foundation of the A-budget B-movie that, on paper, would seem to be the only possible outcome of David Koepp's script, glorifying the discipline of paleontology while remaining actively hostile to anything that could possibly challenge any dumb preteen, such as yours truly, whose major exposure to paleontology was out-of-date children's books.

Our very first scene with the protagonist epitomizes the demands Jurassic Park makes of its viewer.  A young lad, having ventured out to a dino-dig in the American desert, accurately likens Velociraptor to a turkey.  This is a sin, and it brings him afoul of the closest thing Jurassic Park has to Jesus, Alan Grantlater on a child will pay him the proper respect, and be rewarded with a resurrection.  But this boy is impudent, and therefore finds himself subjected to an emotionally abusive and physically threatening tirade of misapplied science.  Naturally, with the indefatigable Sam Neill marshaling his surliness to the task, there could never be any question that we'd listen to some random dork instead.  It'd be senseless for me to pretend that Grant is not, by far, Jurassic Park's best character.  Though to the extent he, and perhaps Hammond, are the only characters, this may not be saying as much as I would hope.

It might be unearned, but the sense of putatively textbook-drawn realism provided by Grant is what Jurassic Park needs to undergird its moral messagewhich is, I hope you'll forgive me for saying, an anti-technology parable of unrelenting boorishness. (In this, it follows Crichton's fearmongering novel, albeit with only intermittent fealty to the novel's narrative incident, large random chunks of the book having been removed by Koepp as if by force.  Orphaned lines of dialogue and story ideas cling to the final screenplay like bloody fingernails discovered at an abduction scene.)

Let's confront the mamenchisaurus in the room.  Virtually every character has occasion to repeatedly accuse Hammond of playing God, but the most consistent of Jurassic Park's harps is, of course, Ian "Chaos Theory" Malcolm.  His sole function in the film is to constantly invoke that branch of mathematics; by his second scene he has already become a catchphrase-spewing non sequitur.  His contribution to the plot hovers above zero only by the simplest virtue of them allhe remains potentially edible.  Yet Malcolm must be the most iconic human to emerge from Jurassic Park, his existence validated solely by the freakshow line reads from his performerwho establishes, in the space of his few but memorable scenes, the basic template of the Jeff Goldblum Impression now taught by every accredited Klown Kollege in America.  Myself, I detest Ian Malcolm and the lazy nihilism his philosophy ultimately represents.

Thus Jurassic Park aims to be a survival thriller with half-baked Frankensteinian overtones, but it has another goal, too, virtually incompatible with the first.  Famously, Jurassic Park undertakes to awe you right into oblivion with the wonders made flesh by the very technology it depicts as irrevocably evil.  It asks "Do you believe in miracles?" right before it tells you instead, "Such is the folly of man."  It's an obnoxious combination that shouldn't work.

Oh, you know it works.

Let's back up just for a moment, for the brief time it doesn't work.  Alan Grant's distaste for children and taxonomic accuracy might be the first real scene in the movie, but before we can get to that we get the opening tease: a raptor eating half the film's black population before 90 seconds have elapsed.  Try to ignore the arch sci-fi racism; it's still one of Jurassic Park's most serious mistakes.  However easy and tempting the comparisons, Jurassic Park is as far as you could ever get from Jaws without leaving the Evil Nature subgenre altogether.  There was never a good reason, besides goosing the audience, for Steven Spielberg to recapitulate the opening to his far more cut-and-dried monster film.

Take that away, and I have nothing left but fawning adoration for the artist whose contributions, despite that false first step, shaped Jurassic Park into a true classic, rather than the confused mess of a creature-feature that it surely would have become in literally anyone else's hands.  Spielberg does what he's always done best: making a movie so entertaining and good andyesawesome, that all the plot and tone problems on the page are rendered harmless.  No matter how many times Malcolm's nearly-mystical bullshit threatens to force my eyes to roll completely out of my head, those Shots of Wonder that introduce us to the Park never leave the memory.  Low angles punctuated by well-timed cutaways to good actors staring up at something amazing, set to a gloriously manipulative John Williams score, can do so much more than it ever seems reasonable they should.  There's such a profound hopefulness in the direction, virtually absent in the script, that the rote collapse of Hammond's dream seems, for a time, only a possible fateeven though you  know that about 40 minutes in, that t-rex is going to get loose.

When the action does come, it could hardly be any better: the initial confrontation with the tyrannosaur is an indelible movie moment, monster thrillmaking at its very finest, and its end, with the devastated hulk of a Land Rover chasing Grant and the kids down a tree, is one of the most visceral sequences of its decade.  (But then, Spielberg's always had an eye for a cool car chase.)  There's a certain weakness that seeps in as the humans are whittled down to the principal castwhen it comes to the children, the lack of real danger is palpableand there are moments like "It's a Unix system!" that are absurdly dated (yet timelessly terrible).  But they pass so quickly, and are counterbalanced with other moments so fantastic, that one doesn't even mind when it seems like there's no way they'll ever top the first t-rex sequenceuntil, of course, through the canniness of filmmakers who know that the coolest part of a monster movie is when the monsters fight each other, they absolutely do.

For this, Jurassic Park remains one of the action-adventure milestones of the 1990s.  Yet there's an argument to be made that under Spielberg's control, Jurassic Park could have been just as fabulous an experience, even had nothing went wrong at all.  His film is far less often about the dangers of a God complex than its screenplay would dictate; far more often, it is about the majesty of these extinct giants brought back to life.  Despite a smattering of primitive CGI that has not aged quite so well as its vocal proponents claimalthough set against animatronics which have aged just beautifullyJurassic Park's dinosaurs are so powerful in their impression that those of us who saw it at the right age still tear up at the image of a brachiosaur reaching for the high leaves.  And it goes without saying that we'll never be able to think of velociraptors the right way, either, not without a serious act of will.

Score:  9/10

Other reviews in this series:
The Lost World: Jurassic Park
Jurassic Park III
Jurassic World


  1. I'm very excited to read your thoughts on this trilogy. I've only ever seen Jurassic Park (which I love), and I plan on catching up with the entire franchise this summer, so I'm looking forward to being able to read your reviews along with my marathon!

    1. Thanks Brennan! I have unpopular opinions to share!

  2. Personally, I find Ian Malcolm even less than less than zero percent necessary because I don't find the Goldblum template as enjoyable as the rest of the world seems to. Perhaps this stems from me not having actually seen The Fly and having introduced myself to Goldblum with The Switch? I'm a fundamentally flawed person, Hunter.

    1. His work as Seth Brundle is legitimately good work, before his ID4 collapse into full-blown Goldblumism. (Which is still entertaining, but is more-or-less overtly comedic.)