Friday, April 26, 2013

Jurassic Park - 20 Years Later

 "Hold onto your butts."
- Samuel L. Jackson (pre-Tarantino dialogue)

I can't believe it's been 20 years since Jurassic Park obliterated records in the summer of 1993.  I was 12 at the time and remember being alternately thrilled and terrified by the CGI rendered carnivores Steven Spielberg unleashed on audiences around the globe.  Now it has been reissued in 3D, a post-conversion effort that caused me a severe migraine and forced my hasty departure from the premises after only 30 minutes.  My opinion of the 3D format shrinks every time out, and except for two previous theatrical experiences, I've always preferred movies in boring old 2D.  The picture is brighter and you aren't subjected to those intrusive goggles.  Fortunately, the theater manager took pity on my sensitive noggin, granting me a refund, which I subsequently used to experience the old school treatment just a few days later.  

Note: If I could've chosen only one hit from 1993 to receive the 3D treatment, it would've been Mrs. Doubtfire, if only to see audiences jump when Robin Williams emerges from the fridge covered in frosting and yells, "Too Da Loo!"

You know a movie made its mark when you still remember where you first saw it.  For me that experience occurred in Maine on my extended trip as a Junior at Camp Cedar.  That following February I was on vacation visiting my grandmother in Boca Raton.  My brothers and I used to drive her golf cart around the premises, drawing cockeyed expressions from the over-70 crowd.  There's a very distinct turn in the road at her club, with tall looming trees and nothing but green for a small block.  To this day it forcefully reminds me of Jurassic Park.  When it arrived on video cassette (rectangle DVDs with no menus or options) the next year, one of my best friends practically ran it on a 24 hour loop, or at least every minute he wasn't learning the intricacies of Mario Kart on Super Nintendo.  I'm not sure which of these technological relics dates the era more, but it was a tremendous time to be a kid.     

Though Jurassic Park doesn't hold up quite as well today - the story is paper thin, its reputation diminished somewhat by a pair of terrible sequels - it was nonetheless a milestone in visual effects that signaled a growing fascination with box office reporting.  Three years after its release, Independence Day became the fastest film ever to top $100 million and studios have engaged in an endless battle for opening weekend supremacy ever since.  Only eight films reached unofficial blockbuster status in 1993, or less than a quarter of the 31 releases that qualified in 2012.  Rising ticket prices are a huge contributing factor to today's higher grosses, but when you consider studio impatience, the number of new releases in a given month, and the speed with which movies are yanked out of theaters, it's becoming increasingly difficult to make an impact.   

I'm not sure any director ever had a better year than Spielberg did in '93.  Not only did Jurassic Park become the second highest grossing film ever to that point (behind his own E.T. The Extraterrestrial), but Schindler's List came out six months later and dominated the entire Oscar season.  That he created two successes of that magnitude, so dissimilar from one another, in such a short time, led many to believe Spielberg could do anything.  Many still regard the Holocaust drama as the finest film of the 90s, certainly one of the most important.  Jurassic Park doesn't share that pedigree, but it does offer its own unique treasures.  Wanna see cinema's largest pile of shit? Check.  How about a brachiosaurus that chews like a cow? Check.  Ever wonder what Seinfeld's Newman would look like getting blasted in the eyes by sticky dino-venom?  You've come to the right place.  

Compared with other blockbusters from that era, Jurassic Park certainly isn't as cerebral as Terminator 2, as character-driven as The Fugitive, as tragic as The Lion King, or steeped in irony like Forrest Gump.  But it's significantly bigger and louder, arguably offering more spectacle than the others combined.  On more than one occasion, I found myself reacting to the sounds of the film rather than the visuals.  It was like an exercise in auditory memory (snuck that in to impress the Mrs.), from the booming T-rex roar to John Williams' iconic music featuring two separate, universally recognized themes.  But nothing tops the sound of Dennis Nedry's (Wayne Knight) high-pitched pleasure squeal upon realizing he can discretely transport dinosaur embryos in a bottle of shaving cream.  His early meeting with Dodgson is easily the best non-dinosaur scene in the movie and kind of made me wish they didn't kill off Nedry, although he certainly had it coming.  They couldn't have spun him off as a scheming dinosaur detective on NBC?  I would've bought stock in that series.  

On balance, Jurassic Park remains one of the fastest two hours you can spend in a theater.  Commercials murder the pace when it airs on cable, while the smaller screen diminishes its visceral impact.  The opening hour is actually much better than I remembered, featuring most of the films best lines courtesy of Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) in full sarcasm mode.  

- After seeing Dr. Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern) aggressively dig through a mountain of droppings from a sick triceratops: "You will remember to wash your hands before you eat anything?"  

- Following repeated disappointment over a lack of sights on the tour through the park, he asks a disgruntled John Hammond, "Now eventually you do plan to have dinosaurs on your dinosaur tour?"  

The humor mixes nicely with shots of genuine awe, although I wish the script delved deeper into some of the more intriguing ideas only hinted at in the finished product.  The motto "Life finds a way," a key component in explaining Malcolm's Chaos theory, is only discussed superficially.  Lines describing the gender-bending nature of rare West African frogs (crucial in explaining the potential for breeding on the island) and the obstacles in combining the problems of a zoo with those of an amusement park, are largely overlooked.  

The thrilling second half, which kick-starts once Nedry shuts off power in the park, is basically a series of loosely connected attack scenes crossed with occasional character introspection.  Amazingly, we only spend about 20 minutes total with the infamous T-rex and even less time with the velociraptors.  I could've sworn the final hour was nothing but dinosaurs devouring tourists, no doubt a result of the indelible impression these creatures originally made on me.  Somehow there are only five death scenes in the film (four in the park), including the prologue in which a gatekeeper is unceremoniously annihilated.  Even Spielberg isn't above killing off anonymous black characters.  Come to think of it, there's only two black characters in the film and both become dino-dinner.  I heard it took years to sew Jackson's arm back on following his generous sacrifice.  Interestingly, the lone Asian in the film is spared.

Spielberg stages a number of memorable shots in the park, wisely choosing nighttime rain for the initial T-rex attack.  The water ripple in a giant footprint is tremendously effective, since he'd earlier exposed the meaning of that same ripple in a cup of water preceding the first attack.  There's also that scary rearview mirror shot of the monster closing in on a fleeing jeep, which was later ripped off to great comedic effect in Toy Story 2.  However, the scene that frightened me most at a young age featured a pair of raptors stalking Hammond's grandkids in the kitchen(wise move inviting little kids to a dinosaur park test run by the way).  That scene is only about three minutes long, but to a 12-year-old whose heart was about to explode, the intensity seemed to last forever.  I vividly remembered Timmy freezing up against hanging metal spoons terrified to budge, as well as a raptor nearly tearing Lex's leg off when she's dangling like bait minutes later.

Then there's Muldoon (Bob Peck), the British hunter and dark horse MVP candidate of Jurassic Park.  He's the most serious character in the movie, yet he has the calves of a soccer player, pronounces the word "paddock" funny, and looks like he should work at Outback Steakhouse.  He also delivers a superb little grin that speaks volumes once his technologically advanced jeep outruns the mighty T-rex.  Unfortunately, Muldoon is also one of least effective "expert" hunters of all time, his eventual demise caused by failing to recognize that he's the one being hunted by clever velociraptors.  Poor guy.  His last thought must've been, "I'm dumber than a dinosaur." 

But in the end, the true legacy of Jurassic Park may be as an allegory against bad parenting.  I'm speaking of course about the unintentional comedy of Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill), who Dr. Sattler inexplicably keeps encouraging to have children.  Let's have a quick rundown of the incomprehensible decisions Grant makes when entrusted with children, from least offensive to arrest worthy . . . . .

- When it's dark in the pouring rain and a power outage has disabled the security fences, Malcolm asks Grant if the kids are ok, to which he casually responds, "What's to be scared about?  It's just a little hiccup in the power."  Never mind the fact that their disabled cars are parked in the T-rex section where a live goat has been left to attract a prehistoric, hungry monster that loves to hunt.  Not only that, the closest adult to Tim and Lex is a wimpy, balding lawyer who decides to sprint for the nearest toilet stall as soon as things get rough.  

- Grant promises the kids to stay up all night in case the T-rex comes back when they're asleep, although the next time we see the three of them he has blatantly passed out.  I get that he's tired, but if there's one thing every adult should know, it's to never break a promise to a child.  Furthermore, for their protection he chooses to doze on a tree ledge tall enough for a 40 foot brachiosaurus to knock them off with its nose if so inclined.  Nice one Doc!

- For someone considered the world's foremost authority on dinosaurs, Grant is kind of a moron.  He has to ask an 11-year-old the name of a pack of dinosaurs sprinting towards them at full force in an open field.  Once the T-rex emerges out of nowhere and rips one of the creatures spleens out, Grant just sits there in a trance behind a log, gazing at the bloodshed.  He also sadistically makes Lex, a pronounced vegetarian, wait and watch the feasting despite her pleas to leave.

- He tortures a fat kid in the films opening 10 minutes, using a velociraptor claw to show him in graphic detail what it would be like to be eaten alive.  He slashes the boy three times, the final one coming slowly across the stomach.  Grant claims the kid should show some respect, but his demented smile says otherwise.  Are we sure Alan Grant isn't certifiably insane?  Inexplicably, none of the other professionals at the dig site call him out for his borderline child abuse.  

- He causes unforgivable psychological damage to Lex by pretending to electrocute himself when nobody's sure if power in the park has been restored.  She screams while Grant holds onto an electrical fence like a lunatic.  This action would undoubtedly earn a custody hearing, if not a short jail sentence for Grant, even had it not come at the end of a day spent running from humongous predators.  Timmy is so amused by the trick, I'm surprised Grant doesn't just pick up Lex and toss her over the fence headfirst for fun.  

Add it all up and I think it's fair to call Dr. Grant one of the worst prospective parents in the history of cinema.  One brief moment with the kids sleeping on Grant's shoulders in the chopper at the end of the film can't undo a smorgasbord of insensitivity, torment, and dozens of irresponsible decisions.  His transformation is hard to swallow, but it's only one of Jurassic Park's numerous question marks.  The most obvious goof involves the mysterious cliff that appears out of nowhere following the T-rex attack.  Grant and Lex escape down a large wall by rope as the jeep is tossed over the ledge, but it clearly couldn't have been there.  Equally strange is Dr. Sattler orgasmically whispering the word "run" after ditching a velociraptor, offering no possibility of Grant hearing her warning.  Of course we must mention the climax, in which the mighty T-rex emerges to save the day.  Shouldn't he have been trapped somewhere in the park once electrical power returned?  Even if I buy his sudden appearance, there's zero chance he'd be able to fit through the main door of the welcome center.  Additionally, I trust someone was notified that a healthy raptor remains locked in the freezer.  Someone will have to return the island eventually to contain the park no?  Imagine that surprise awaiting an unsuspecting mailman.   

Despite all that, Jurassic Park truly is a well-oiled machine.  It's epic, it's very funny (sometimes intentionally), and occasionally awe-inspiring.  A few weeks ago my brother discovered a JP drinking game online entitled "A drinking game 65 million beers in the making."  Not coincidentally this was posted just after the theatrical rerelease date.  Highlights included taking a drink every time Nedry eats something, along with references to outdated technology (CD-ROM!).  When people are inventing new games attributed to 20-year-old movies, that's probably a good indicator that a film has stood the test of time.  


Alex Chernyavsky said...

Awesome review. Thanks!

Zach Pava said...

Thanks Alex. Appreciate it.

tarah said...

I am impressed :). The only scene I remember IS the kitchen scene.

Zach said...

Kitchen scene terrified me when I was little!