Tuesday, February 11, 2014

30 For 30: Jurassic Park

I turn 30 on February 18th. I want to celebrate this, and get myself back into writing, by spending a few weeks rambling about the 30 things that have meant the most to me over the years. These will be from music, movies, books, videogames, and maybe even art and other things for good measure. I feel like my life has been much more about the things I've experienced than it has the people I've known or the places I've traveled to, and these 30 things have helped to make my 30 years more than worth all the innumerable bad things. Expect heartfelt over-sharing and overly analytical explanations galore! In part 8, we consider what makes a truly great popcorn film, and how entertainment can be artful.
Dinosaurs have enjoyed periods of popularity since paleontology began, but at no point were they so ubiquitous as in the late 80s and early 90s. Maybe this is a product of my own myopic view of the world, since I grew up during this time and was obsessed with dinosaurs from a very young age. But I don't think you could argue against the impact Jurassic Park had on a generation of moviegoers. It is as important a cultural touchstone as Star Wars and Jaws were for their time, and likely inspired many of those who grew up to pursue paleontology and other scientific fields. In another lifetime, I wouldn't be writing this; I'd be in Montana or Alberta on my hands and knees, cleaning away dust and dirt from fossils with a toothbrush.

In fact, I took a class in college called Jurassic Physics, and one of the weeks we focused on the scientific inaccuracies in Jurassic Park. It's funny that as a kid I was a little bothered by the movie's depiction of Velociraptors, since the film clearly patterned their creatures more after Deinonychus, but that was only the tip of the problems, as it turned out. Still, considering some of the liberties taken, Jurassic Park's point isn't to be completely accurate. Keep in mind, we can never really know how much it got right. Paleontology is, after all, a science of inductive reasoning because we can't concretely test any of the hypotheses without a time machine. The point, then, of Jurassic Park's science is the same as in any science fiction: that it serves the story in a way that is not only plausible, but also believable. I can't speak to how realistic the technology is in Star Trek but because of the way it's portrayed I never question it. The same goes for the T. Rex in Jurassic Park. The movie works so well as entertainment, science fiction or otherwise, that you don't even question the illogic of the T. Rex somehow sneaking into the building, without notice, during the ending fight with the two Velociraptors.

Ironically, this was a banner for a museum retrospective on the TV show Dinosaurs

Steven Spielberg gets away with this kind of thing a lot in his films but other than Internet nitpickers, who gives a shit? When movies are trying to be entertainment more than art, you need to have Chief Brody blow up the shark at the end of Jaws even if the ending in the original novel is far more plausible. After all, we are talking about an absurdly large shark that is smart/vengeful enough to not only attack their boat when they're drunk and singing, but to, against all instinct, throw itself up onto the deck of a boat that is already sinking. As a movie Jaws isn't going for gritty realism; it's a popcorn flick, not an expensive-five-course-meal-and-bottle-of-wine flick.

So I have to wonder why it is that I think a popcorn flick like Jurassic Park still holds up, even gets better with time, while other popcorn flicks from my youth have atrophied into guilty pleasures. Let's even keep this somewhat relevant by contrasting Jurassic Park with the film Independence Day, both of which Jeff Goldblum appears in. I used to love both movies when I was younger but I think Independence Day is just a dumb, dumb movie when I watch it with an adult's perspective. I'm not even talking about the scientific accuracy or anything like that. I simply mean that I still get lost in Jurassic Park's world and characters but I never believe anything about Independence Day.

To put it simply, I see Ian Malcolm when I watch Jurassic Park and I only see Jeff Goldblum playing himself when I watch Independence Day. It goes beyond writing or acting. It's something intangible, a quality that Spielberg manages to bring to even his most maudlin and poorly executed films, like The Lost World: Jurassic Park and Indiana Jones and The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull. Even if he seems to be doing a project for the money or to appeal to a wide audience, I feel like Spielberg cares about his movies and wants people to like them. He has a vision he wants to execute and succeeds at doing so. If some of his films are filled with one dimensional characters and don't have any interesting ideas that linger with you once they're over, you feel as though it was his intention to have those things but something got muddled along the way. Meanwhile, Independence Day tries to have characters with some kind of emotional arc and development, but it feels like the usual Hollywood hack crap. It tries to have something to say, but does so in the most clumsy, ham fisted ways—consider the over-the-top speech given by Bill Pullman at the end, or the groaningly obvious scene where Israeli and Iraqi pilots join forces.
This one's for the ladies...

I think the reason Jurassic Park continues to grow on me is that it features so many interesting ideas and messages without having to force feed information or opinions to the audience. You could argue that some of its messages—technology is bad! Man shouldn't try to play God!—are overly obvious, but that's not really the film trying to say that to the audience. It's the characters arguing about these ideas with each other. What the movie does present to the audience is all the good and bad things that can happen and lets the viewer think about them afterward. Sure, genetic engineering dinosaurs is portrayed as a foolhardy use of science, but the movie isn't saying that all genetic engineering is bad. Ian Malcolm makes this point during the dinner argument scene in response to John Hammond suggesting he wouldn't have a problem with using genetic engineering to create a flock of endangered condors. Malcolm responds by arguing that Man playing God to correct the mistakes of Man is one thing; Man playing God to correct the mistakes of God is quite another.

Ultimately, though, you're left to decide for yourself. Even something as simple as the villain of the movie isn't as cut and dried as it seems. I mean, yes, the dinosaurs do kill people, but isn't this due to the hubris of Man to re-create them and try to control them in the first place? Isn't this also due to the greed of Man, or anyone one man, who doomed his employers for money from an even-less-ethical rival company? Meanwhile, Spielberg wisely avoids making the dinosaurs into vengeful killers. What I mean is, the dinosaurs may seem to be the villains of the film when you're a kid, but really, it's the humans who play the good and evil roles. Yes, the T. Rex and Velociraptors come after our heroes, but this isn't portrayed as being their sole intent. At one point our hidden heroes are witness to the T. Rex chasing down and eating other dinosaurs, giving it the believability of a carnivorous animal instead of just a movie monster out to get the main characters. Were Jurassic Park handled by the people behind Independence Day, the T. Rex would have somehow noticed our heroes and came after them instead.

Mostly, though, I think Jurassic Park continues to mean something to me because it demonstrates that, just as you can do artful things in an entertaining way, you can do entertaining things in an artful way. Spielberg manages to give us a sense of awe at the majesty of nature throughout the film, whether it's the first reveal of the dinosaurs—to which even the cynical Ian Malcolm reacts like a stunned child on Christmas morning—or the way the sheer enormity and dominating force of the T. Rex turns cars into something akin to a chew toy for a dog. Perhaps more important is Spielberg's artful way with characters. Consider the way Dr. Grant gradually warms up to the two kids throughout the movie—we are shown that he becomes attached to them, and by implication more comfortable with the idea of having children of his own, without there needing to be a scene where Ellie looks at him and says “so I guess you're ready to have kids now!” Consider, too, the way the movie bucks the Hollywood trend and has kids in it that aren't annoying and worthless; just as the film is empowering to women via Ellie's character, it's empowering to children, too. As much as I love Aliens, it bothers me a little bit that Newt is portrayed as this little girl who survived on her own without weapons but then turns into a kind of damsel-in-distress as soon as adults are on the scene. In Jurassic Park, not only are Lex and Tim able to escape the Velociraptors on their own, but Lex is established as a “hacker” whose computer skills prove just as useful as any of the adult men from the earlier parts of the film.

Too bad he doesn't have a lightbulb in his mouth, that'd make for a great Uncle Fester impression

With movies like Jurassic Park and Back To The Future, you don't need me to tell you how good they are. Everyone has seen them and already knows. The interesting thing to note is that they aren't just dumb popcorn flicks. There's things to consider and talk about afterward, ideas and ethics to debate. This is why modern popcorn films like Transformers and older ones like Independence Day leave such a little impression on you once they're done. They're all surface and flash with no heart or brains; any thinking to be done is done for you or ignored entirely. Jurassic Park may at first glance seem to be in line with these films; it was, after all, renowned for its then-cutting edge special effects. But so was Terminator 2, and neither film neglected their story or characters, whereas with most popcorn films, they would probably have less story and characters, and more action and special effects, if they could get away with it. As George Lucas once said, “a special effect without a story is a pretty boring thing.” As George Lucas often demonstrated with the Star Wars prequels, a boring story with pretty special effects is a shitty thing. Here's hoping the people behind Jurassic World have learned this lesson.

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