Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Steven Spielberg, part XX: Okay, 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.  (Well, that, and the raddest dinosaur rampage ever seen up till that point in film history.)

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: moderate
Note: This is a re-redited version of a review posted in June 2015, to commemorate the release of the rather bad fourth film in the Jurassic Park series, Jurassic World.  But let's forget that, and go back 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.  And so, in that spirit, let us recap its plot, and with as much snark as seems necessarywhich turns out to be 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, one apiece in the fields of Leather Jackets as well as 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 Sattleran unproductive pair so far, but it's only Sattler who 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, quite 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, equally 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 as 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 representatives of the actual Jurassic Period to present itself in Jurassic Park, a Dilophosaurus, has been reborn instead 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 name, 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 pluralize cleanly in the English language.  And since the (highly-controversial) hypothesis that dromaeosaurids were highly-intelligent pack hunters is so much cooler than any other alternative, velociraptors they simply 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 slightly 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 at the time 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, of course, is a sin; and it brings him afoul of the closest thing Jurassic Park has to Jesus, Alan Grantlater, 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.  And it would 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 also 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 respect, it only follows Crichton's fearmongering novelif only with intermittent fealty to the novel's narrative incident.  With large random chunks of the book having been removed by Koepp as if by force, you'll find orphaned lines of dialogue and story ideas clinging to the final screenplay of Jurassic Park like the bloody fingernails discovered at an abduction scene.)

But 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 generated by 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, as much as I might love Goldblum, and even this particular Goldbulm performance, I detest Ian Malcolm with the same passion that I despise the lazy nihilism his philosophy ultimately represents.

Thus Jurassic Park aims to be a survival thriller with half-baked Frankensteinian overtones, and, in the hands of any other director, that would be that; but it has another goal, too, virtually incompatible with the first, not even entirely present within its script.  Famously, Jurassic Park undertakes to awe you right into oblivion with all 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.

So 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.  Ignore the arch sci-fi racism and 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 didactic 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 one of the most gloriously manipulative scores which that master-manipulator John Williams ever wrote, do so much more than it ever even seems reasonable that they should.  There's such a profound hopefulness in Spielberg's direction, practically absent in the script, that the rote collapse of Hammond's dream seems, for a time, only a possible fateeven though you know that, at about 40 minutes into the movie, 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 palpable.  (Remember when Jaws straight-up killed a kid?  Wasn't it great?)  And there are more than a few moments"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 a filmmaker who knows 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 Isla Nublar at all.

Jurassic Park would prove to be Spielberg's last untroubled entertainment for many years, as he prepared to embrace subjects far weightier than a t-rex; yet it must be his most mysterious since Close Encounters itself.  For, despite all the death and destruction Jurassic Park occasions, it is far less often about the dangers of some circus man's God complex than it is the sheer majesty of all these extinct giants, which he has miraculously brought back to life; and even in the moments of human peril, it is the majesty of Hammond's monsters that remains paramount.

And so, despite a smattering of primitive CGI that has not aged quite so well as its vocal proponents claimset against animatronics which, by contrast, have aged just beautifullySpielberg's magnificent beasts are so all-powerfully soul-stirring in their impression that those of us who got to see it at just the right age shall always tear up at the sight of that brachiosaur, reaching for the high leaves.

Andperhaps it goes without sayingwe'll never be able to think of velociraptors the right way, either.

Score:  9/10

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