Sunday, May 29, 2011

Jurassic Park

Friday, on a whim, Becca and I watched all three of the Jurassic Park movies. I don't think I'd really seen any of them in several years, but I was kind of excited about revisiting the first one.

Jurassic Park came out in the summer of 1993. That was the summer I turned 17, the summer between my junior and senior years of high school, and I was incredibly excited to see it. I had read the novel for extra credit in my biology class (a re-take; I missed some important parts of freshman bio a couple of years earlier when I got incredibly ill and missed almost an entire month of school), and was actually a big fan of Steven Spielberg at the time. Add to that the fact that I had loved dinosaurs since before I could say the word, and I was on pins and needles for the movie. I saw it 13 times over that summer.

Looking at the movie now, I can still feel some of that sense of excitement. The memories just sort of came flooding back at how much of an event this movie was. In a large way, it's the kind of event movie that doesn't exist anymore, and hasn't for a very long time. There was something mysterious about it, something you just had to experience. There was a pull to it that, sure, was largely hype, but for a 16 year-old, seeing Jurassic Park was less a decision and more of an imperative. In those days before the pervasiveness of the internet and the professional trolls shitting on everything and before DVDs and torrents it was something you just had to do, or else you'd just be left out of this cultural event.

I think the movie still holds up, for what it is. It's a lot less glorious to look at now that I'm 34 and can see a lot of the narrative weaknesses. They took a novel that had long passages of ethical debate and turned into an old-fashioned science scare monster movie. I tend to respond poorly to science scare movies; I think a lot of the points raised in Jurassic Park about ethics are imbecilic and poorly argued. The most egregious moment, for me, is when Jeff Goldblum's Dr. Ian Malcolm takes Park impresario John Hammond to task because his team "didn't earn the knowledge for themselves" but simply read what others had done and expanded on it. Which is, for rational people, how professional science works. Otherwise, what is the point of a scientific conference? Malcolm, a scientist, certainly did the same in pursuit of his PhD at some point. The argument is so weakly constructed that Spielberg and company make me wonder if they're actually saying that every scientist must first discover the secrets of fire before embarking on a scientific career.

There are a lot of the Spielbergian weaknesses in the movie, too: the preoccupation with divorce, the accentuation of simple moralism over thoughtful ethic, the simplistic delineation of good and evil professions, the redemption of the well-meaning but unfathomable father figure. A lot of it is simply window dressing to the real point of the movie, which is the special effects. For the most part, the dinosaur effects don't look dated; they still hold up. That first look at the brachiosaurus is full of as much wonder as it was in 1993 (in large part because of one of the last John Williams scores that I truly love), and the velociraptors are just as terrifying. The tyrannosaurus rex is one of the great movie monsters, full of nature's power and fury. As a narrative on the ethics of science, it falls pretty flat, but as a suspense movie, it still works.

Jurassic Park is, to me, the last time Spielberg was really Spielberg. The Spielberg of my childhood, who made fun and touching and funny movies about aliens and Indiana Jones. After this, he basically crawled up his own asshole.

As much as I still enjoyed--not loved, but enjoyed--Jurassic Park, I don't care much for its first sequel, The Lost World. In fact, I think I enjoyed it less this time than I ever did. It's just such an ineffectual movie that exists for no other reason than to make money. The book is pretty much the same way. I remember trying to read The Lost World when it was originally released. After reading Jurassic Park (and then The Andromeda Strain) in high school for bio extra credit, I ended up reading most of Michael Crichton's books after that. I was a fan of his by the time The Lost World came out, and I was working at Barnes & Noble by that time, so I took my copy right home the day it came out and... it was awful.

It was a terrible, ineffectual book that felt like a chore to read. It flew by, but nothing stuck. I was turned off immediately because the main character was Ian Malcolm, who died in the first book but not in the movie, and whose return to life was basically given no explanation at all. (At the end of the first book, it's explicitly stated that the Costa Rican government, who are holding most of the characters under a sort of house arrest, refuses to bury Malcolm's body.) At the time, it was pretty well-publicized that Ian Malcolm was going to be the main character in the book because Jeff Goldblum was the only actor willing to star in a sequel film. So Crichton gives us some guff about Malcolm mistakenly being declared dead several times, and winking that he was "only mostly dead" (ugh), and basically trying unsuccessfully to justify Malcolm's existence all the while knowing he can't, because the decision is purely commercial. The entire book, which is nigh unreadable, seems cynically designed to be a Steven Spielberg movie, right down to the plucky young people.

It's obvious both the novel and film exist because of commercial pressures. Crichton and Spielberg are both bowing to the great commercial idea that, if something makes scads and scads of money, you just have to keep dipping into the well. The thing is, neither of their hearts seem to be in it.

Ironically, despite Crichton bending over to tailor his novel to become something Spielberg would make into a movie, the film itself almost completely departs from the novel. It's cynical and commercial in its own way. It's got the usual Spielberg characters (although the inherently evil rich guy who wants to profit off of technology run rampant seems a little more self-loathing than usual), but completely misses the suspense of the first movie. Things just happen in a series of action set pieces punctuated by occasional wisecracks and half-hearted pronouncements about environmentalism, and there's also a mean-spirited parody of the great Dr. Robert T. Bakker (who didn't care for the first movie), and occasionally cinematographer Janusz Kaminski gets in some truly effective shots (like the velociraptors in the tall grass).

The scenes in San Diego, with a rampaging T. rex... well, I enjoy that part. It's really the only place the filmmakers can go at that point. It's the last untouched set-up for dinosaur action, and it seems to be the only time Spielberg is actually enjoying his movie. I know that's the most criticized scene in the film, but why? It's the only time the filmmakers let themselves go. It's the only cinematic segment of the damn movie.

That brings us to the third movie, Jurassic Park III. I actually like this movie best. First off, Spielberg didn't direct it, even though it does feature one of the most Spielbergian tropes of all time: the divorced couple who go through an improbable tribulation which only teaches them how important their marriage really was. All the genetically-engineered dinosaurs in the world are basically just there to provide object lessons about how awful it is that women want divorces. At least in Spielberg's mind...

But the lack of Spielberg's attachment to this movie means two things. First, that we don't have to see him in any more interviews gassing on about "scientific eventuality," trying his damnedest to flee the "science fiction" label. And second, that after two films ridiculously asking the kind of "Are there things in God's creation that man is not mean to change?" questions that would embarrass even Nathaniel Hawthorne, we can finally just relax and enjoy a chase film with dinosaurs.

Joe Johnston, a director I always like, just made a damn monster movie. Finally.

And yes, there's still the half-hearted imprecations of ethics in science, but here those are what they're supposed to be: background to make the characters seem more real while they try to get from point A to point B without being eaten by various species of dinosaurs. This movie even goes one step further and ups the stakes, as sequels are supposed to. The Lost World gave us two rexes instead of one; Jurassic Park III gives us the spinosaurus, which is bigger and deadlier than the T. rex (and, in a great moment, the filmmakers press the point home by having the spinosaurus meet the biggest badass from the first two films and dispatching him handily).

So, where the first movie was clumsy and the second movie was only made for commercial reasons, it's the third movie that I've always enjoyed the most. It's the only one that doesn't feel like it was made to showcase effects or make another truckload of money; although both of those factors certainly went into the decision to make a third film, it's the only one that feels like the filmmakers remembered that an audience would also want to enjoy the movie, too.

Jurassic Park III isn't a great film, but it's an awfully fun one.


Caffeinated Joe (Wings) said...

I remember being so blown away by Jurassic Park when I saw it. Such an amazing movie at the time.

Haven't really watched either sequel completely from start to finish. Never felt the same draw to them as I did that first time around.

Daskaea said...

I am forever in love with Monster NOM movies and because Jurassic Park 1, 2, & 3 are the cannon for the best in Dinosaurs of the genre, I can't help but be smitten. I am in love with T-Rex, Velociraptors, Spinosaurus, all of it. I love Nom movies that run on high budgets like Deep Blue Sea because I just find them so thrilling. As for attempts to be deep and meaningful? I am inclined to agree with your assessment. Man, now I really want to watch them all. Ah, I love my dino noms.