Still the Flea Circus: The Complete Jurassic Park

Jurassic World arrived on DVD during the London Film Festival, so Mr Moth decided to have a little festival of his own and watched all the Jurassic Parks to date. Here are his findings.

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Welcome... To Jurassic Parkses.

Jurassic Park

Let’s not mess about, Jurassic Park is a classic. Spielberg is on top form throughout, keeping his tendency toward “magical childlike wonder” under tight control during the early dinosaur reveals and putting his foot firmly down for the action moments. He opens the jewellery box and lets you see the sparkles, but snaps it shut on your fingers when you reach for them. This is the man who directed Jaws working with the man who directed Raiders of the Lost Ark. John Williams gives him a theme that ranks among his best; a swelling, epic score that builds like a sunrise over an ancient landscape. The cinematography is as beautiful as Spielberg gets, which is plenty beautiful.

Crichton’s science, while thoroughly researched and painstakingly set out on the page, is stupid, but the book was less about the realities of creating the Cloneasaurus and more about how much of a hard-on he had for chaos theory. The dinosaurs were just a peg to hang Ian Malcolm’s pontification from. Every few pages there is a chaos theory diagram.

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Chaos in action!

The film gives Malcolm approximately five lines about chaos. Then it’s all dinosaur all the time, except it isn’t – there’s just over ten minutes of dinosaur footage in the entire movie. Not even quarter of an hour in the two hours of running time, but your memory would swear different, wouldn’t it? I know mine would. The rest of the time is spent talking, or running around or, crucially, looking at things. Things off-camera. Things that aren’t even there. Things that are there, but are just too gobsmackingly mindblowing that the camera trains itself on the expression of the looker, not daring to expose the majesty of the looked-upon. Considering how restless the camera is – prowling the undergrowth, sweeping across plains, gliding in close to the protagonists, there’s barely a static shot in the whole film – that’s quite an achievement.

So there’s very little dinosaur in the most famous dinosaur film in cinema history [citation needed]. That’s fine as long as the story is good and happily it is. It’s Crichton’s standard plot: “Scientists meddle in that which they do not understand, use it for all the wrong reasons, it bites them (literally in this case) on the ass in short order”. It’s Westworld with dinosaurs. Jurassicworld, if you will, but we’ll get to that.

The tweaks to the book are minor (in plot terms) and smart – Hammond here is genial and well-intentioned, not the crabbed miser of the book. Dr Grant hates kids, which gives his character somewhere to develop as he bonds with Lex and Tim during their time on the run from hostile dinos. Gennaro, the lawyer, is treated a little unfairly as he is very much a heroic character and not a coward who gets eaten on the bog BUT THAT’S SHOWBIZ, KIDS, no-one likes lawyers (nb I am married to a lawyer so I do). A bunch of characters are merged or dropped. Dr Henry Wu gets about three lines but is billed above John Arnold who is played by Samuel L Jackson before he was Samuel L Jackson (Pulp Fiction would hit a few months later). Everyone involved gets a snappy line or a good wisecrack. In all, the situation is treated more as an adventure than a crisis and that’s OK with me.

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Oh, well, as long as I'm OK...

Its set-pieces are so well-known they hardly need rehashing here, but they are where the money is. The incredible Tyrannosaur attack is a Spielberg signature sequence but the lead in to it shows how great the storytelling is – when the power goes out, we’re in the control room. We know the tour Jeeps are on the electric grid. Muldoon asks “Where did the Jeeps stop?” then cut straight to the stalled cars, in the rain, right by the Tyrannosaur paddock. That’s how you tell an audience that the shit is well and truly about to hit the fan. Also note that both the initial Tyrannosaur attack and the tense-as-fuck Raptors in the kitchen sequence are almost completely dialogue-free. This sort of economy, this sort of flair, is entirely absent in the sequels.

The Lost World

Like this one, for example. God, The Lost World is a misfire. This is what happens when Spielberg is convinced to do a sequel that doesn’t have the words “Indiana Jones” in the title; it screams of boredom and contractual obligation. Cutting from a screaming child being attacked by dinosaurs (her dad is Ethan Rayne from Buffy, which was distracting) to Jeff Goldblum doing a massive yawn is both shockingly dark for a PG-rated Spielberg and rather on the nose. The director of Jurassic Park has done dinosaurs. He’s over them. Massive yawn. Oh, we’re on an island? Tyrannosaur in the jungle, eh? YAAAWWWWN. The introduction of the dinosaurs – the moment in Jurassic Park that knocked audiences back as hard as it did Sam Neill’s Alan Grant – is fluffed. Stegosaurs just appear from the side of the screen and we’re done. There’s no wonder, no spectacle. Even John Williams can’t be arsed to create a memorable soundtrack; the soaring Jurassic Park theme is entirely absent, with a duff “jungle adventure” score in its place. Like everything else, it feels like a placeholder for the real thing. When Malcolm comments that “that’s how it starts, with the oohs and aahs but then later there’s the running, and the screaming”, it’s funny but it’s not true. We’re not ooh-ing this time, so the running and screaming better be good.

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Sarah Harding, sadly not a biologist... I'm the only person who finds this funny, aren't I?

Sadly, while we remain on the island even the action sequences feel enervated and joyless. The centrepiece double T-Rex attack on the giant caravan should be tense and exciting. Julianne Moore (who gives a performance well above the material as the amusingly named Sarah Harding) inching across rapidly-cracking glass over a drop onto jagged rocks elicits little more than mild interest as Jeff Goldblum and, for some reason, Vince Vaughn bellow about above her. There’s a lively moment when velociraptors are forming swirling patterns in long grass as they attack a team of hunters, but it’s soon undone when Ian Malcolm’s daughter, in the shittest ever example of Chekov’s gun, kicks a raptor in the face thanks to her skill on the asymmetric bars.

However, when the action moves to San Diego Spielberg kicks whatever second unit director was doing the work out of his chair and gets back in control. The last half an hour or so is like an entirely different film; the restless camera is back, the atmosphere is richer and everyone feels more engaged. Also, they’ve got rid of Vince Vaughn, thumbs-up emoji. I guess Spielberg was just more interested in filming Mr Dino Goes to Town than Jurassic Park 2. It leaves you feeling like maybe that wasn’t such a bad film after all but it was, it was a bad film.

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Quick, look at this rad shot and forget about Pete Postlethwaite.

Just because I mentioned the book for the first film, I should also say that the book of The Lost World is hilariously bad. It reads less like a serious attempt at a novel and more like the outline of a film, which is ironic in that barely any of it actually made it into the script. One can but imagine how pissed off Crichton must have been about that, especially after having totally thrown away some of the integrity of the well-received first book on a casting decision. See, Ian Malcolm dies in Jurassic Park but I guess Jeff Goldblum has a good agent so he, um, made it through the, ah, film, you see. In order to bring him back for the sequel, Crichton basically looks us in the eye and says “Yeah he didn’t die. I know I said he did but he didn’t. Going to make something of it?” and that’s it. For this, he gets two character names and a mobile home into the film. Poor guy. Oh, and a fuckload of cash so I suppose not that poor.

Jurassic Park III

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Up up and away! Soar to mediocrity!

Jurassic Park III is… well, it’s not like the other films. Abandoning Crichton’s “Science out of control” theme entirety, it is instead a story about a family coming together through adversity. That adversity being dinosaurs, because this is a Jurassic Park film if only nominally. Joe Johnson is now in the director’s chair, which is honestly a bit of a relief because imagine if Spielberg was having to direct dinosaurs attacking people on a tropical island again. It’d be so half-arsed he’d probably end up just giving a PowerPoint presentation. Johnson is competent and unspectacular; he clearly has a good cinematographer working on this, but there’s only so much they can do to make up for the fact that he, well, isn’t Steven Spielberg.

Where The Lost World gave us Jeff Goldblum in the lead, this returns to Sam Neill (with a cameo from Laura Dern, just as Dickie Attenborough showed up at the start of Lost World) as the hero. In support are William H Macy and Tea Leoni – who we are supposed to believe are married – and Alessandro Nivola. You know. He was in Face/Off. I think Jurassic Park II killed his career, just as surely as the Spinosaurus kills a Tyrannosaur about halfway through this.

The what? Yeah, Spinosaurus. You know. Big thing. Snout like a crocodile. Massive sail on its back. Like a big Baryonyx. COME ON, THIS IS SIMPLE it’s a Spinosaurus.

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HI FELLAS!

Yeah, this gambit really didn’t pay off, did it? I mean, sure, my daughter loves Spinosaurus but she’s a dinosaur nerd. And it turns out it actually was much more like a crocodile than shown here, which adds to the curious impression that there was in intentional Peter Pan subtext to this whole film. Bear with me on this one.

It’s not perfect, but there are rudimentary parallels. A boy who lives in an isolated land. The protagonist flies there. The “bad guy” turns out to be the father (I realise this is more of a panto convention, but that’s actually the more relevant reference point. There is even an “It’s behind you!” moment during the attack on the plane). The scariest thing there is a large crocodile – and how do you know it’s approaching? You hear the object in its belly. In this case a satellite phone, but the effect is the same. It’s the Tick-Tock Croc. Spielberg was involved, don’t tell me this wasn’t intentional.

At the same time, this is as I say a film about a family. The adventure has been scaled down, the focus narrowed. I’m not saying it can’t work, just that it doesn’t work. The stakes are too low. The Lost World may have been a dud, but at least it was a dud that understood the game. Dinosaurs! Loose in the world! Science gone mad! Corporate greed! The third instalment of a film series usually ups the ante, but Jurassic Park III throws in its hand and asks if it can play Snap. The dinosaurs are a catalyst for reuniting an estranged couple, reforming the nuclear family. Sure, that’s how 90% of James Cameron films end up but that’s not the point. Joe Johnson is unable to lift the thawing of these petty hostilities above the level of a true-life drama, even as velociraptors stalk the characters and pterosaurs loom from the misty skies above.

HOWEVER, it’s a comparatively sprightly hour and three quarters (all the others clear two hours) and has some cute moments. It’s inconsequential but, unlike The Lost World, it doesn’t feel particularly cynically made. Ineptly, perhaps, but that’s a more forgivable sin. Also – early sighting of a 3D printer, which means the technology in this film is more prescient than in the first (“This is a Unix system!” no, Lex. No, it really isn’t, have you ever seen a fucking Unix system, they look like ass. You don’t fly around the file structure, you’re thinking of Starfox).

Jurassic World

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Yay we made it! Do the Jurassic World shuffle!

Some spoilers for this film here, folks, just to warn you. Ok? Cool.

I have to admit, I was torn when they announced that Jurassic Park 4 was definitely going ahead. On the one hand, it was exciting to think how they would expand and improve on the Jurassic Park legacy. On the other hand, Jurassic Parks 2 and 3. Then the first trailer arrived and yeah I was SUPER STOKED FOR THIS, woo Jurassic World OMG they opened the park! Amazing! The prospect of the dinosaurs rampaging through throngs of holidaymakers, well, it’s always been the dream hasn’t it?

I don’t know when I lost my enthusiasm, but somewhere between the final trailer and the film arriving in cinemas. I didn’t bother seeking it out at the pictures, deciding they’d blown it. This was a wasted opportunity. Early response seemed to confirm it. Even my Dad didn’t like it and he likes JPIII. So what a shame.

You know what, though? I – obviously – had to watch it for this piece and ACTUALLY I quite liked it.Not to be contrarian about it, I just liked it. It was too long (although it was no longer than the original. It just felt it), granted, but it did a lot with the ideas of the series. It wasn’t just using “An island full of dinosaurs” as a jumping-off point for a load of jolly adventures. It goes back to Crichton, in many ways. The Westworld/Jurassic World echo is not, I think, unintentional. It thought about the endgame of a theme park full of genetically modified dinosaurs, of how the public would react; excitement, fear and shock from the San Diego incident mellowing to curiosity, fading finally to an indolent boredom. In a way, the model for this was right there in the sequels. Jurassic World acts as its own meta-commentary.

So how to up the ante? In one of the quieter scenes, one of the best scenes of the series, new InGen owner and only likeable character in the film Simon Masrani demands an explanation for the whole “massive, genetically modified dinosaur eating people” debacle from Dr Henry Wu (He made it through Jurassic Park! Yay! Despite dying in the book too! I love Dr Henry Wu and have written fanfic about him). Wu explains a lot of things – that the dinosaurs were manufactured to look like our idea of dinosaurs, that you can’t make something scary without it being scary and, when told that he made a monster, that it’s all a matter of perspective. “To a mouse, a cat is a monster. We’re just used to being the cat.” All this, over a cup of tea. I LOVE THIS SCENE can you tell? I’ve literally chucked the main plot of the film away in this paragraph.

More than this, though, the film also starts to explore the role of the funding in any major scientific breakthrough. That is to say – can the military use it? Who is actually funding it? While the military applications of ravenous dinosaurs seem limited, to be honest, the commercial funding is plausible. It’s played for laughs, but you know there would be a Verizon Indominus Rex.

One of the big criticisms of this film is the film’s treatment of Bryce Dallas Howard’s character, Claire. Most of them are fair – she is berated for being career obsessed by not only the characters but the film itself. She is looked down upon as uncaring, unmotherly, unfeminine. Owen, played by Chris Pratt in “lunkish” mode, essentially calls her frigid. When she does find her spirit of adventure, she indicates it by making a point of showing more skin. This is all fair. But, hey, her character arc is a melding of two from the first film; she has no time for children, does what she can to avoid them in fact, but after being forced to bond with two of them she is ready to have her own. Just like – exactly like – Dr Grant. And she realises that the theme park isn’t infallible, that it must be abandoned, when human life is threatened. Just like Hammond. And she does it all backwards in heels.

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And flares!

This is an imperfect argument, I accept, but I think the impression I had of the film from the reception it got was a bit too negative. It is also much more fun than I expected, with lots of satisfyingly geeky references to the earlier films. Not just things like whatsisname’s authentic Jurassic Park T-shirt, or the dilophosaurus footage reused as a hologram but, say, the Jeep the kids fix up? That’s the one Hammond is in when we meet the first dinosaur of the series. Actually, while we’re on that scene HOW THE HELL is that visitor centre still there, completely untouched? InGen are so incurious about their own property that they just left it all there, “expensive” nightvision goggles, custom Jeeps, everything? Even the banner is still there. What?

Where it is extremely unlike its predecessors is in the body count. How many people die in Jurassic Park, on screen? I count four, five if you include “finding a severed arm” as on-screen. In Jurassic World that number is 25. Twenty five! And some in horrific ways. Like when Claire’s English assistant is offed by a combination of pterosaur and mosasaur in one of the most prolonged and unpleasant death scenes of the series, it stops being fun and starts getting uncomfortable. She isn’t the only one to be comprehensively murdered in front of us, either. Vincent D’Onofrio’s arrogant military liaison has his arm ripped off, right there. And Masrani is so very much killed in his helicopter crash I’m amazed they didn’t cut away to his tombstone “Simon Masrani: Died in a helicopter crash and is never coming back. Ever”. One wonders what Irrfan Khan said about Colin Trevorrow’s mother.

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RIP

Trevorrow does a decent job, by the way, giving the whole affair a clean modernity and keeping the set-pieces brisk, breathless and crunchy. The only time the audience is overwhelmed by the action would seem to be intentional – the confusion deliberately mirroring the confusion felt by the characters. He has as good a feel for the direction of the younger actors as Spielberg, too, which helps a lot.

So after almost 8 hours of oohs and ahhs followed by the running and, and the screaming, what have we learned? Not nearly as much as we should have. We still rush headlong into the wonder of discovery, meddling with things we perhaps don’t understand, without stopping to think not simply if we can but if we SHOULD. Did Jurassic Park need three sequels? No, it did not. Were they entertaining? To an extent, yes, and some more than others. Does that justify bringing them into existence? I’m not here to judge that – spend your money how you like. By the time of Jurassic Park III, the film makers had nothing left to say and they said it badly. But the box office for Jurassic World shows that there was an appetite for more, and it’s to its credit that it didn’t simply rehash the same ideas but BIGGER. Well, it did, but it did so in such a way that rehashing them but BIGGER was exactly its point. We never learn, even when we’re being eaten by the monsters we make – just ask Steven Spielberg.

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About Mr Moth

Mr Moth writes - mainly about pop music, videogames and other trivial nonsense - for Mostlyfilm dot com. He also writes poetry, short stories and personal waffle for his own site mothinabutterfly.net (and has even done a book). Known weaknesses: Strontium-232, electro-pop.

2 thoughts on “Still the Flea Circus: The Complete Jurassic Park

  1. It’s kind of a shame that Spielberg had to tweak the first film’s score so the “T-rex attacks in the kitchen” becomes a last-minute rescue instead of how Williams interpreted it, i.e. a big predator killing a small one because it’s nature, and the humans being lucky. Agreed on the sequel music, especially since the Imperial March and the mine car stuff were from sequels.

    1. I was hoping you’d weigh in on the scores! I was surprised by how undistinguished the Lost World was, and had to check it really was Williams. Good point about the Imperial March, it was almost like he needed more time to get a proper theme together for Vader.

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