Friday, July 24, 2015

Movie Review: "Jurassic Park" by David Pretty

Jurassic Park was one of the last major studio summer blockbusters to be made with the skill and sensibilities that characterize 70's and 80's-era film-making. Even though Spielberg had a bunch of fancy new digital toys to play with, it certainly didn't make him complacent. As a result, the movie is well-plotted, well-acted and features interesting character arcs and still-relevant thematic underpinnings.

When paleontologist Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neil) and paleobotanist Dr. Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern) receive an unexpected visit from eccentric one-percenter John Hammond (Richard Attenborough), their curiosity is understandably piqued. Acting like the cat that ate the canary, Hammond tempts them with an offer they can't refuse: if they sign off on his secretive new prehistoric theme park he'll finance their research for the next three years. Naturally they agree to help him.

En route to the park's remote island location we're introduced to rock star mathematician and chaos theory proponent Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum). Malcolm already seems suspicious about Hammond's plan and when they get to the island his skittishness is vindicated. When they arrive on Isla Nublar they discover that the billionaire has used DNA recovered from blood in the bellies of amber-preserved mosquitoes to resurrect real, live dinosaurs.

The park's minor glitches soon go from vaguely annoying to potentially deadly when greedy computer programmer Dennis Nedry (Wayne Knight) disables the park's security systems during a botched heist. This strands Alan, Malcolm, insurance lawyer Donald Genarro (Martin Ferrero) and Hammond's two grand kids Lex (Ariana Richards) and Tim (Joeseph Mazzello) right by the T-Rex paddock. Soon all hell breaks loose and the human characters suddenly find themselves tumbling several steps down the food chain.

Unlike so many contemporary action movies which spoil so much in the trailers, Jurassic Park waits until your ass is firmly ensconced in that theater seat before trotting out the amusement park thrills. Indeed the script's philosophy appears to be "good things come to those who wait". Fortunately this isn't a chore since John Hammond's coy, child-like, "I-know-something-you-don't-know" attitude is ridiculously compelling. You wanna keep watching just to find out what the smarmy old codger is so excited about.

We also get some stellar protagonists to root for right out of the gate. Within a few economic moments of screen time we see that Sam Neill's Dr. Alan Grant is knowledgeable, passionate and hates children almost as much is Donald Trump hates Mexicans. Neill has a lot of fun with the role, throwing in some super-quirky moments which come off as inspired brilliance. I love his weak-in-the-knees reaction to his first dino-sighting, his intense, egg-sniffing soliloquy about the resilience of prehistoric reproduction and the scene in which he scares the fertilizer out of a disrespectful brat for liking velociraptors to giant chickens.

Eventually Spielberg hits us with a double-barreled blast of his trademark wonderment. When we see the first dinosaur at the twenty-minute mark, Sam Neill's reaction pretty much mirrors that of theater-goers back in 1993. The impact of this scene is further jacked up by a tantalizing crane shot that shows the character's stunned reactions, several low P.O.V.'s that Spielberg later exploited in the under-rated War of the Worlds and, of course, that rousing John Williams orchestral score.

Even moments of potentially-dry exposition are delivered with flair and originality. Granted original novelist Michael Crichton probably deserves as much credit for this as Spielberg does, but the park's animated orientation sequence is pure genius. Not only does this goofy little cartoon explain all the scientific mumbo-jumbo in an economic and entertaining way, it's also well in-step with the milieu. In a lesser film, like, oh, I dunno, a Star Wars prequel, Hammond would just stand there and yammer at the other characters in a ten-minute orgy of dialogue-delivered exposition.

After buying the film's main conceit wholesale we're then treated to one of the best scenes in cinema history. It's the sort of moment that modern blockbusters don't feel the need to include, always to their detriment. The characters meet over some haute cuisine and debate the ethics of Hammond's venture. Their host is both naïve and blasé about the whole thing, Alan and Ellie are dealing with unexpected feelings of extinction, and the lawyer is presumably touching himself underneath the table while thinking about all of that potentially- filthy lucre.  

Meanwhile Jeff Goldblum calmly packs up the entire scene and walks off with it, delivering one of the best cinematic mic drops evar:

This one simple moment distinguishes Jurassic Park from most of the shitty, interchangeable noisemakers that sluice out of the Hollywood poop chute every summer. It also keeps the film as fresh and relevant as it was back in 1993. The ethical dilemma posed by the same science used to resurrect the dinosaurs could very easily substitute for various contemporary hot button issues like genetic engineering, GMO's and singularity-level artificial intelligence.

That's not to say that the film is just a bunch of eggheads sitting around debating ethics. Things quickly get very hairy at the ol' T-Rex paddock. Spielberg, master showman that he is, has already established this location about fifteen minutes ago when Grant and company first passed by it. As audience members back in 1993 we all smiled with bloodthirsty anticipation as Hammond tried to lure the T-Rex out with a feeder goat. And just like the characters in the movie we were all gravely disappointed when absolutely nothing happened.

But this is exactly what you'd expect at a regular ol' non-dinosaur-related wild game reserve. Sure, you've given the animals a huge enclosure but this makes it a lot harder for us to see them. Clearly Spielberg is telling us that these creatures aren't going to emerge from the woods and start tap-dancing for our amusement. And therein lies the rub. We paid to see some hot dino action, goddammit, and if we don't get it, those Trip Advisor reviews are gonna be carnivore-level vicious!     

Spielberg then proceeds to trot out that old adage "be careful what you wish for." The torrential rain gets worse. After a flash of lightning the feeder goat suddenly vanishes. Intimations of impact tremors are first betrayed by a glass of rippling water. Soon the footfalls become palpable. A bloody goat leg flies out of the jungle and lands on top of the kid's tour car. And then everything goes completely and utterly bat-shit nuts.

Gary Rydstrom's sound design for all of the dinosaurs, particularly the T-Rex, is absolutely brilliant. After the beast heralds its approach with a DTS-optimized roar that sounds like a combination of a rabid elephant and reality rending asunder, we see a tentative limb test the fence for an electrical charge. The creature's subsequent attack on the tour vehicles is such a master class of action and suspense that viewers will find themselves perched on on the edge of their seat the entire time. Credit the actors as well for selling this elaborate smoke n' mirrors trick to a positively stunned audience.

Now admittedly Laura Dern's Ellie Sattler isn't half as interesting as Dern's actual performance. For example, Ellie likes kids because, hey, ALL GIRLS LIKE KIDS. Perhaps her best moment comes when the park first breaks down and they lose contact with the tour. She finds Hammond sulking alone in the cafeteria, gorging himself on the melting ice cream. During this poignant scene she manages to spur him into action all the while reconciling her own fears. I love that little throw-away moment when she absently samples the ice cream and then feels compelled to admit how good it tastes.

"I spared no expense," Hammond says, now resigned to the demise of his childhood dream.

This scene is particularly impactful because, through it all, Hammond has been relentlessly-optimistic, downright positive and impossibly genial. The fact that Richard Attenborough was cast as Santa Claus in the remake of Miracle On 34'th Street is no coincidence. He's just so earnest and wide-eyed that you actually find yourself hoping that this five-masted ship of hubris will right itself, even though it would be detrimental to your entertainment value.

Another choice scene involving Dern and Attenborough occurs much later when Ellie volunteers to manually reactivate the electrical grid. 

John Hammond: It ought to be me really going.
Dr. Ellie Sattler: Why?
John Hammond: Well, I'm a...And you're, um, a...
Dr. Ellie Sattler: Look, we can discuss sexism in survival situations when I get back.

This exchange might sounds a tad anachronistic but coming from the grandfatherly Attenborough the comment almost sounds like misplaced chivalry. Twenty two years ago it gave Dern a chance to remind us all that limitations placed on women in action movies is downright idiotic. Back then she still had to fight for her cinematic rights, even after the trailblazing efforts of Sarah Connor and Ellen Ripley.

What I like most about Dern's performance is that it's relatable. Ellie is a paleobotanist, not Lara Croft so it's no surprise that she takes a tumble during her desperate dash for the generator. At one point, the persistently-cranky Samuel L. Jackson gives Spielberg a hand in an impish nod to Jaws. Sorry, but if that shit happened to me I'd be all like ' I don't care if I dropped that four-hundred dollar floodlight on the floor, I'll drag that bitch twenty miles before I stop runnin'.'

After the T-Rex attack, Alan is forced to guide Hammond's two precocious grand kids all the way back to the orientation center. Now under normal circumstances, I'd accuse Spielberg of deliberately pandering to kids if not for the fact that Tim and Lex also appear in Crichton's original novel. At least the kids are well cast, serve up some low-level comic relief and provide grist for Alan's character arc.

The kids are also at the heart of the film's best sequence, the velociraptor attack. You wouldn't think it possible that Spielberg and his team could possibly top the T-Rex scene from earlier but you'd be wrong. Michael Kahn's crackerjack editing gives the set-piece a frenetic pace rarely matched by contemporary blockbusters. And despite the low lighting and a zillion reflective surfaces, master cinematographer Dean Cundey gives the sequence crystal clarity as well as a cool, icy tone that mirrors the dead eyes of the raptors themselves.

And even though I realize how ridiculously improbable it is, that final shot inside the orientation center is pure money. I still get chills hearing the T-Rex proclaim his dominance over the world as the "When Dinosaurs Ruled The Earth" banner flutters to the ground in front of him. It's the sort of moment that was clearly brainstormed on set and these little touches make Jurassic Park the stuff of pop culture legend.
Three years later Independence Day was released, presaging the end of intelligent blockbusters. Pretty soon it became de rigueur for summer tent pole action movie to blatantly embrace cliches, serve up laughably poor dialogue and / or wallow in rank stupidity. Every once and awhile a movie comes along that manages to incorporate style and substance but for the most part old-school sensibilities like character development, original plots and compelling themes are about as extinct as half of the cast of Jurassic Park.

Thankfully this venerable, twenty-two-year-old classic, forever preserved in digital amber, will always be around to remind us what a real summer action movie used to look like.

     Tilt: up.

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