Retrospective: Jurassic Park (1993)

Holy shit, surprise, it’s another Retrospective series! I honestly wasn’t expecting to do another one of these, since they tend to take quite a bit of time, work and effort to put out to a level I’m happy with. That said, I was thinking back on the Jurassic Park film franchise just the other day and it was making me think of how interesting this series’ journey has been, which started giving me that writer’s itch. And so, let’s launch into this with the first entry in the series, 1993’s Jurassic Park

Pretty much the definition of an iconic poster. Simple, but so evocative. In fact, it’s so iconic that every subsequent poster in the series has aped it wholesale.

Normally I beat around the bush and try to act coy about what my overall thoughts on a film are in one of these reviews. I’m not even going to bother with that pretense here – Jurassic Park is a bloody classic. You know it and I know it too. I mention that up-front because it’s relevant to note that the film is based on the Michael Crichton novel of the same name which, somehow, is even better than the movie in my opinion. The novel hits most of the same beats as the film, although basically every scene or character is different in some manner. Some particularly fun examples of differences from the original novel are that the lawyer, Donald Gennaro, was originally written as a muscle-bound badass who punches a velociraptor in the face when it bites him in the arm, John Hammond is originally a petulant and unrepentant corporate villain, and that the big climax with the raptors involves far more of the creatures on the loose which the heroes end up having to fight with freaking rocket launchers. In addition, the novel has much more detailed discussions about chaos theory, while also fitting in so many action sequences that the novel would still be plundered for inspiration in the next 2 sequels. The novel is also notably far more violent, with scenes including such gory imagery as babies being eaten in their cribs, men being disemboweled and eaten alive and dinosaurs getting blown in half. I actually wrote a paper in 12th grade about all the differences between the film and novel and the only element which survives basically intact is Denis Nedry’s character, who is just as much of a slobbish buffoon in both mediums.

Anyway, before the novel was even published, Crichton and Steven Spielberg were in talks about the premise, which Spielberg thought was fascinating. A bidding war between 4 studios broke out, but Spielberg and Universal won it and got underway producing the film. Notably, Spielberg wanted to make Schindler’s List, which would be funded after he directed Jurassic Park. Basically, in the year 1993, Spielberg ended up putting out 2 of the best movies in their respective genres because the man is just that much of a legend.

Also key to the film’s success were its ground-breaking special effects work led by Stan Winston (of Aliens, Predator and Terminator fame) and Phil Tippett (who did stop-motion effects on Star Wars and RoboCop). Originally the dinosaurs were going to be achieved through a mixture of animatronics and stop motion, but Spielberg found the stop-motion effects to be unsatisfactory. Dennis Muren of Industrial Light and Magic claimed that they could use computer generated imagery to achieve the desired effects, which he demonstrated with footage that would form the basis of the scene of the T-Rex chasing Gallimimus (which prompted this exchange immortalized in the film: “When Spielberg and Tippett saw an animatic of the T. rex chasing a herd of Gallimimus, Spielberg said, ‘You’re out of a job,’ to which Tippett replied, ‘Don’t you mean extinct?’“). The CGI tends to get all of the praise, but most of the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park are actually brought to life with puppetry and animatronics, which are all top-notch and help to make the effects work even more impressive and life-like. That said, the CGI is often heralded for being better than anything that gets put out today, which is definitely a stretch. It is usually quite good, shockingly so for 1993 special effects, but you can often tell when CGI is being used and when animatronics are. In fact, at times the CGI is just straight-up poor, most notably in the “big reveal” scene where Alan Grant sees the brachiosaurus for the first time, and we end up seeing this unconvincingly-textured behemoth marching across the land. That’s actually rather unfortunate because it dilutes the impact of the scene a bit, although it would have been mind-blowing in 1993. Thankfully, CGI is never over-utilized, only being relied on when it is needed.

Jurassic Park is also gifted with a very talented cast, none of which puts in a poor performance.* Jeff Goldblum’s character, Ian Malcolm, is the clear standout just by virtue of Jeff Goldblum playing his usual brand of eccentricity, but he’s only a bit more entertaining than Sam Neil and Richard Attenborough’s characters. Hell, even the bit parts are intensely watchable, from Bob Peck’s badass game warden Robert Muldoon, to Wayne Knight’s bufoonish villain Denis Nedry, to Samuel L. Jackson’s sarcastic Ray Arnold. As I wrote earlier, nearly every character differs from their book counterparts, but the changes to John Hammond are the most impactful on the plot. Taking him from being a curmudgeonly and greedy bastard to a well-meaning, enthusiastic entrepreneur lends the film an air of tragedy, most keenly felt in the scene when he bemuses on his past with Ellie Sadler (capped perfectly with a heart-breaking reading of his signature line, “spared no expense”).

The very first thing that strikes you about Jurassic Park is John Williams’ score, which sets the tone perfectly. It puts you on edge when it needs to and swells you to excitement at the perfect times. When I was writing my notes while watching the film, literally my very first one was “Immediately, oh God the music”. Tying into this feature, the script and Spielberg’s direction build so much suspense that any sort of comprehensive list would just be a plot summary. That said, the t-rex attack is probably the textbook, standout example of how to build suspense in a major action sequence.

Jurassic Park is a film of two halves. The first half is used to establish the setting and plot, begin building up suspense, and (primarily) to provide the audience with speculative wonder and adventure. This emphasis on wonder actually makes the second half more impactful, because we get to see how amazing this island is and the creatures which inhabit it. It’s very easy to get caught up in John Hammond’s own enthusiasm for the park and root for its success in spite of any concerns of its safety, particularly during the “Mr. DNA” scene (which also happens to be an ingenious way to explain the admittedly ponderous scientific elements of the book in a quick and palatable way). Even when the film shifts from adventure into an action and horror in the second half, the sense of inherent wonder at this island still lingers at times, such as when Grant, Lex and Tim take shelter in a tree and witness a herd of brachiosaur feeding.

The second half of the film is where things go pear-shaped for the characters and all of the suspense that has been building up boils over into basically non-stop action-horror for the next hour. The survival-based half of the film seems to have been the main thing which has been seized-upon with subsequent Jurassic Park films, rather than the sense of wonder which sets this film apart so much from its sequels (not to get too ahead of myself, but Ian Malcolm lampshades the plot structure himself in The Lost World when he says “Oh, yeah. ‘Oooh, ahhh,’ that’s how it always starts. Then later there’s running and um, screaming”). This is notable because one of the most common complaints about Jurassic Park is that after the first hour, the characters basically spend the rest of the movie running away from dinosaurs rather than being developed. Only Grant and Hammond learn some small lessons in this whole time, but otherwise you could swap nearly any character out for another without impacting the plot any as everyone’s just running and reacting to the dinosaurs hunting them. That said, I don’t feel like Jurassic Park truly suffers because of this – it’s a notable weakness, but luckily the characters were already established well in the preceding hour and given distinct and likeable personalities, so we still care about them when the film isn’t giving us more reason to.

Other than that, I can only point out a couple other weak points with the film, but they’re really nitpicky. One would be the kids, Lex and Tim, who are basically just burdens. They do have thematic significance (helping to develop Grant’s character), provide some additional wonder and Lex manages to get the security system working again briefly, but otherwise they can be a bit of an annoyance and would begin the “obligatory child character” trope which would plague the series going forward. I also am mixed on the t-rex’s vision, which Grant conveniently knows is based on movement. On the one hand, it provides some more tension, but it’s also super convenient and largely ignored in any subsequent film (Crichton’s sequel novel even tries to retcon it out in very clumsy fashion). There are also some mise-en-scene issues with the cliff suddenly appearing in the t-rex paddock, but this could just be down to poor explanation of spacing, plus the film does a good job of making you not notice this anyway. Other than that, it’s kind of silly that the wrecked car chases the characters down the tree, but again… nitpicks. This movie freaking rocks, is a defining film from my childhood and is definitely amongst my favourite films of all-time. It’s a classic, no question.

9/10

Be sure to tune in soon for the next entry in this series, The Lost World: Jurassic Park!

*In fact, literally the only performance in the film which I would classify as “poor” is Gerald Molen, who plays Dr. Harding (aka, the guy who is looking after the sick triceratops). This is probably because he’s actually more of a producer rather than an actor who… wait… he produced 2016: Obama’s America? What the hell!?! Ugh, well now I’m going to cringe twice as hard every time he says, in response to the triceratops’ pupils being dilated, “They are? Well I’ll be damned!”
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Witch Hunts

Lately I have been reading Richard Beck’s We Believe the Children: A Moral Panic in the 1980s, a very interesting tale of the social and political attitudes which helped to foster the 1980s “Satanic Panic” regarding daycares being places of ritual satanic sexual abuse. Thankfully our society is so far beyond such ridiculous hysteria, but there is a through-line in the narrative which has been making me slightly uneasy about the way that #MeToo has been progressing, especially after the backlash faced by Margaret Atwood after she made a cautionary op-ed about the movement.

To put it simply, the title of We Believe the Children shows the philosophy which was circulating during the 1980s – historically, the stories of abuse done to children have not been believed, therefore it is imperative that we believe the children because they will be honest and are too innocent to lie about sexual violence. Now, obviously this isn’t a zero-sum game where you either believe the children or assume they always are lying, but there’s obviously a level of discernment which needs to be taken into account. The main issues in the case of these kids were that the parents essentially coerced their children into making up stories of abuse (thereby giving them actual traumas to deal with later in life), prosecutors would refuse to believe that the children were telling the truth when they said that they weren’t abused and would pressure them into giving a confession just so they would be allowed to leave, and the prevailing belief that children’s accounts should not be questioned*.

Now, before I get any further, don’t get me wrong – I think #MeToo is ultimately a good movement, and one which has been long overdue. However, in reading about how hysteria about child abuse overturned due process and led to grave injustices, I can’t help but get a bit uneasy about how #MeToo is progressing. In the article published on the Globe and Mail, Margaret Atwood calls for more transparency and cautions about “the historical dangers of ‘guilty because accused’ in which ‘the usual rules of evidence are bypassed.’ […] ‘Such things are always done in the name of ushering in a better world,’ she writes. ‘Sometimes they do usher one in, for a time anyway. Sometimes they are used as an excuse for new forms of oppression.'” The parallels to the witch hunts and Satanic Ritual Abuse of the past should be glaringly obvious just from that description. So what sort of response did Atwood’s words of caution receive?

Sigh. I get that Twitter isn’t exactly the place for reasoned discussion, and you can obviously make a real case about why Atwood’s argument is harmful, but bloody hell if this tweet isn’t the picture of the pigheadedness which typifies social justice types. Like, I disagree with the presentation of this tweet in basically every way. First, she calls for Atwood to stop warring with women, basically asking for there not to be a dialogue or any sort of gradiation within the #MeToo movement. Secondly, she talks about war on “younger, less powerful women”, which smacks of the highly flawed use of “check your privilege” to shout down contrary opinion. And third and perhaps most insultingly, she signs off with a call for Atwood to “start listening”… like, are you even aware of how that comes across? Does it sound like you’re listening to Atwood? Do you even think that she deserves to be listened to? Why should anyone give you any sort of respect if you aren’t going to give them respect in turn? And how dangerous is it that you seem to be arguing against fair and due process in a time when authoritarianism is on the rise? Is it only okay when it’s in the name of your own interests?

This controversy also happens to coincide with another public dialogue about how the name, shame and ostracize nature of #MeToo might be over-extending its reach, with an op-ed about allegations against Aziz Ansari dividing people on how far this movement should be reaching and whether there needs to be more thought given to control the damage it can cause. Is this more about educating people on proper consent and respect, or is it about naming and shaming for any sort of sexual grievance? Should we be comfortable with a situation where a public accusation can tank someone’s career and reputation with a presumption of guilt? This is very much the sort of questioning that Atwood was addressing and, if everyone is willing to listen, then such controversies might prove that “[#MeToo] is big enough to encompass another layer in the discussion”. These questions were not asked during the ritual abuse moral panic, and many innocent people suffered irreparable damage to their lives for it, including the children who were supposed to be being protected in the first place.

Now, there is one very obvious qualifier here which I must point out that differentiates #MeToo from the Satanic Panic, and that is that the accounts of women should probably be held to a higher level of reliability compared to that of children (who, as the Satanic Panic showed, were susceptible to coercion and coached statements). In addition to having the statistics to back up their stories, women who come out about sexual assault are almost always going to be subjected to uncomfortable levels of public scrutiny, leading to further harassment. And this is why I’m so uncomfortable about these developments in #MeToo – on the one hand, these accusations are statistically reliable and I can’t think of a high-profile case in this movement which I don’t actually believe to be true. However, on the other hand, we just saw how one false story can wipe away all good-will for a movement, with the story of the 11 year old Muslim girl who lied about being attacked as part of a hate crime. That whole embarrassment and the subsequent hatred it fostered could have been avoided entirely if some scrutiny was applied before it became a headline. That’s really what I’m concerned about in all of this – I want justice to be done for the women who have been abused, I would like guilty perpetrators to face that justice, I would like for the innocent to not be smeared unjustly and I would like to see attitudes towards sex and consent change for the best in the future. Unfortunately, I don’t have the answer on how best to achieve all of these goals, but I will just sit here watching #MeToo with some unease, watching to see if they compromise any one goal for the benefit of another.

*The obvious hypocrisy here being that the parents and the prosecutors, the people who are supposed to be defending the children, clearly did not believe childrens’ accounts when they said that they were not abused. They were under the impression that children will hide any abuse, which prompts them to force them into a confession, but that is just wildly irresponsible.

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