Spielberg, like many film directors, appears to be far more interested in film than life – interested in film, and interested in audiences, and how to move them through film. His fiercest desire is the largest possible audience, which competes fiercely with his second-fiercest desire, the longing to hit his audiences right over the head, to hit them harder than they’ve ever been hit before, and, not so incidentally, harder than they want to be hit.
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In 1952, Steven Spielberg saw his first film and was he disappointed! He thought his dad was taking him to see the circus. Instead, they saw a movie about a circus! What a letdown!
The film that Spielberg saw was Cecil Be DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth, a thoroughly forgettable spectacle that I also saw way back in 1952. But there’s one scene that I’m absolutely sure that Stevo tucked away in his mind: after the circus train is struck by another train in a spectacular collision engineered by some evil gangsters (is there any other kind?), we watch the effects of the collision work their way through the train, cars buckling, careening, and crashing in a seemingly endless cacophony until, finally, out of their shattered cages come the big cats! We entertained you? Well, now, you’re going to entertain us! As protein!1
There’s a similar, though far more powerful moment in Jurassic Park when the T. Rex, of whom we’ve only had brief glimpses, breaks through the fence that surrounds his paddock and steps down on the roadway to roar his defiance at those who would cage him, for all the world like a screen monster climbing down from the screen and stepping out into the audience. You came here for thrill and chills? Well, here they are! I’m your worst nightmare, come to life!2
Spielberg, like many film directors, appears to be far more interested in film than life – interested in film, and interested in audiences, and how to move them through film. His fiercest desire is the largest possible audience, which competes fiercely with his second-fiercest desire, the longing to hit his audiences right over the head, to hit them harder than they’ve ever been hit before, and, not so incidentally, harder than they want to be hit. Show folk live in fear of offending the ignorant masses, the flyover folks, the ticket-buyers, the great unwashed. Wouldn’t it be fun for once to turn the tables, to make them suffer as we have? In the Jurassic Park franchise – four films in twenty-odd years, with a fifth on the way – Spielberg has been able to eat his cake and have it too, entertain and terrify, satirize both himself and his audiences, while sucking up grosses that run in the billions. Because great box office is the best revenge.
We’re all familiar with Sweet Steven, who labored to make ET just the sweetest, and most profitable, little fucker who ever came down the pike, who gave us more schmaltzy aliens in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and gave the Holocaust a happy ending in Schindler’s List.3 But Stevo first made his bones with Jaws, a classic example of the great American scream machine, a film that, with its naked chick in danger, severed foot, and eyeball-hangin’-out-of-the-socket head, took middle America further out of its comfort zone than any film since The Exorcist.4 And Jaws would have been much more brutal than it was if the suits would have let Stevo have both his way and a PG rating. As it was, in his opinion he had to settle for subtlety rather than gore. But he got his own back with the “melting Nazis” conclusion of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), thrusting middle America deep into EC Comics territory.5 Raiders and its sequel, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), along with Poltergeist (1982), created the PG-13 rating, meaning, more or less, “this is a terrible movie and if you send your kids to it it’s your own fault.”
It really isn’t necessary to analyze Spielberg (although I did that in my review of Catch Me If You Can), because Stevo does it for us: “Poltergeist is the darker side of my nature, it’s me when I was scaring my younger sisters half to death. In Poltergeist, I wanted to terrify and I also wanted to amuse – I tried to mix the laughs and screams together.”
By the time Spielberg came to make Jurassic Park (1993), he was beginning to come to terms with at least one of his childhood demons – being a Jew – because he had started work on another film at the same time, Schindler’s List. Whether or not this had an effect, Jurassic Park is not quite up there in the shock department with some of Spielberg’s earlier thrillers, but as for chicks, Stevie still had a lot of doubts, though he worked hard to overcome them.
Jurassic Park is a very meta film, a film that is almost about itself. Impresario Steven Spielberg is bringing dinosaurs to life for us just as impresario John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) is bringing them to life in the film. Jurassic Park author Michael Crichton depicted Hammond as a “dark Walt Disney,” and probably saw the real Walt Disney as pretty dark, depicting an “Adult Disney”-style theme park run amok in WestWorld way back in 1973.6 Spielberg, on the other hand, clearly aspired to be the “Disney of Today,” the creator of America’s dreams. In the film, we sometimes get Crichton’s Hammond – genial showman on the outside, heartless, money-grubbing egomaniac on the inside – and part Spielberg’s Hammond – creator of dreams. But part of Hammond’s split personality is Spielberg’s own ambivalence about himself – “Yeah, I’m full of it and I always have to have my way, but I deliver in a way that the rest of you peons can’t imagine!” Thus, we see Hammond barging into Dr. Grant’s trailer and popping his long-saved bottle of celebratory champagne because, well, Mr. Ph.D., I’m a billionaire and you’re a wage slave, and this is how we billionaires roll! Jump on board or be left behind!
But before we get to Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill), we have the opening of the film, cribbed shamelessly from Jaws, a night-time encounter with a ruthless, unseen menace.7 Seeing the film today, even though Jurassic Park is famous for helping usher in the era of overwhelming CGI special effects, they were still very expensive way back in 1994, and Spielberg is consciously hoarding their shock value, as well as his pennies, in the early going, keeping his menaces hovering just off-camera.
Eventually we assemble the team that’s going to vet Jurassic Park, located on Isla Nublar in the Caribbean: Donald Gennaro (Martin Ferrero), a clearly expendable lawyer; Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum), a hip “chaotologist,” so cool that he wears a black leather jacket in the tropical rain forest; Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern) a paleobotanist who somehow displays a virtuosic knowledge of Triceratops physiology/coprology despite majoring in, you know, plants; and Dr. Grant, an actual dinosaur expert.
Also present on Isla Nublar are Hammond’s two grandkids, Alexis (Ariana Richards8 and Tim Murphy (Joseph Mazzello), plus disgruntled computer nerd Dennis Nedry (Wayne Knight), whose greed and lack of respect for “Nature” set the plot in motion. On top of all this we have Jurassic Park game warden Robert Muldoon (Robert Peck)9 and Jurassic Park computer expert and token spade Ray Arnold (Samuel L. Jackson), two characters who do little more than provide exposition and, ultimately, dinosaur food.
There’s a great deal of exposition in the early going of the film, everything from Velociraptor vision to “dino DNA” – in itself a nice parody of dumbed-down theme park science. Crichton’s 1990 novel ingeniously combined a variety of hot science topics, including both genetic engineering and chaos theory, with the solid gold box-office appeal of dinosaurs, but all that talky-talk works better in print than on the big screen. To break the monotony, Spielberg gives us a major treat, two Brachiosaurs in the flesh, a promise of wonders to come.10
Throughout the exposition, Jurassic Park displays a massive dichotomy that is never resolved. On the one hand, it’s wrong to play God! On the other hand, dinosaurs are so fucking cool! A veritable devil of a dichotomy, it runs unresolved throughout the entire Jurassic Park series. On the one hand, it’s wrong, but, on the other, if it didn’t happen we got no picture.
In the early going, Jeff Goldblum’s Ian Malcolm displays such a smirking, oleaginous charm11 that we figure he’s being set up as the atheist who either finds God or ends up being eaten in righteous retribution for his failure to do so, either with or without a Sidney Carton flourish at the end. Not only does he try to steal Dr. Grant’s girl right from under the obtuse doctor’s nose, he condescends to her repulsively, “explaining” chaos theory to her as though she were a 16-year-old schoolgirl. Worse yet, Spielberg has her responding like one. Hey, I’m only a PhD in paleobotany! What do I know about science stuff?
But once Hammond unveils his wonders, it’s Malcolm who leads the charge against the whole idea, even though he doesn’t play the God card, instead claiming that the whole thing is “unnatural” and therefore “bad.” “Nature selected the dinosaurs for extinction,” he tells Hammond, an entirely unscientific remark, since there is no decision-making apparatus of any sort sitting over evolution and deciding what should or should not happen. In addition, this argument has nothing to do with chaos theory, Malcolm’s supposed specialty, and when things do go wrong, as they do, spectacularly, it has nothing to do with the specifics of chaos theory – we aren’t seeing the operation of a nonlinear system where “trivial” variations in starting sequences lead to unpredictably large variations in outcomes – but rather a confluence of unexpected events – an insider’s betrayal, a massively disruptive storm – that lead to catastrophe.12 Fortunately, none of this matters very much once Spielberg gets the story underway. Stevie may not know science, but he can put a plot together like nobody’s business.
A major storm is headed for Isla Nublar, leading to the departure of all non-essential personnel. However, that doesn’t include the vetting team, because Hammond’s financial backers are demanding immediate verification of the park’s commercial viability. The guests are put into driverless, electrically propelled jeeps, which will of course later on fail, leaving them stranded. The tour is a nice parody of nature park visits where the animals display their ability to conceal themselves from gawking humans. “You are planning to feature dinosaurs on your dinosaur tour?” snickers Malcolm, while Hammond fumes helplessly.
Meanwhile, Wayne Knight’s Dennis Nedry – short, fat, awkward, socially inept – comes crawling up from the underground to have his revenge on the fancy folks, sabotaging all the park’s security systems so that he can steal the precious dinosaur embryos and claim a taste of the good life for himself. As the systems shut down, they isolate the cast into four groups – Hammond and Ray in the computer control room, wondering what the hell is going on; Dennis alone with the embryos; Ellie caring for the sick Triceratops; and Alexis, Tim, and lawyer/coward Donald in one stalled jeep and Ian and Alan right behind them in the other, trapped in a tropical downpour by the T. Rex paddock when the big guy decides that, with the electricity down, it’s finally showtime.
The attack of the T. Rex is perhaps the greatest set piece in all of Spielberg’s œuvre, little things maddeningly going wrong at precisely the wrong time, escapes giving birth to new dangers, defenses becoming traps, an outrageous sequence of cascading catastrophes – one damned thing after another, as Dorothy Parker might say – that keeps us on the edge of our seats for a good quarter of an hour.
The T. Rex first announces his presence by dropping a goat’s leg on top of the first jeep, Spielberg returning to the severed leg in Jaws. When the T. Rex breaks through the fence, Donald does the lawyerly thing, abandoning the kids without a backward glance and hiding in the bathroom. Discretion is the better part of valor, after all, and, anyway, how can I defend my clients’ interests if I’m dead?
Alexis, in the meantime, has, in chicklike manner, panicked and accidentally switched on a searchlight, which she (naturally) cannot figure out how to turn off. I’m not sure why a T. Rex would be attracted to light, but this one is, leading to the virtuoso CGI shot of the big guy’s pupil contracting from the glare. Once the T. Rex has decided that the contents of the jeep look edible, he knocks in the glass roof with his snout. The screaming kids use their hands and feet to use the glass as a shield for protection, while the steel frame of the roof keeps the T. Rex from spreading his jaws wide enough to engulf his prey.
Frustrated, the T. Rex flips the jeep over while the kids continue to howl. Well, now they’re safer, actually, because the big guy can’t bite through the jeep’s undercarriage, can he? Well, no, but he can stamp the whole thing flat, can’t he? That doesn’t quite work. Instead of collapsing, the jeep sinks into the muck for a foot or two. Even a T. Rex foot can’t push the jeep entirely beneath the surface, but it hardly matters, because the mucky water starts to rush into the half-submerged jeep, just about drowning poor Alexis and Tim, who clearly cannot catch a break here. This is a favorite gag of Spielberg’s – while you’re hiding in your “castle,” you find it’s become first a cage and then a deathtrap.
About this time, Ian, showing surprising concern for the welfare of juveniles – and a surprising lack of concern for his own skin13 – climbs out of the second jeep and starts waving a flare. The T. Rex lumbers after him, knocks him aside, and crashes into the john where cowardly lawyer Donald is still cowering, like the craven lawyer he is, and is finally eaten for his sins. With the T. Rex distracted, Alan rushes to help the kids. Alexis is able to escape from the jeep, but Tim is still inside when the T. Rex returns. Alexis, rather amazingly, is able to control her sissy girlness and obeys Alan’s simple but difficult rule, “Don’t move!” even when the dinosaur is roaring in frustration14 and then sniffing and snorting around their huddled figures like an inquisitive steam locomotive. Apparently dismissing them as some sort of inedible tree stump, the T. Rex goes back to the jeep, which he somehow senses still contains something alive. He starts batting the upside jeep around, spinning it like a top and endangering Alan and Alexis. Eventually, they’re forced to clamber up on the concrete shelf that abuts what was the T. Rex’s paddock but now mysteriously has become a sheer, fifty-foot drop. Alan grabs some helpful dangling cables and “walks” down the cliff with Alexis hanging on while the T. Rex sends the jeep whistling after them with Tim still in it. Fortunately, the jeep lodges in an enormous tree swathed in enormous vines, looking very much like the treehouse in Walt Disney’s Peter Pan, which Spielberg saw in 1953 and remade in 1991 as Hook.
Alan and Alexis make it down to the base of the tree, and Alan, after calming the hyperventilating Alexis – “He [Donald, the shithead lawyer] left us! He left us!” – heads bravely back up the tree to get Tim. As he opens the door of the jeep and leans inside, he places his hand on the steering wheel to steady himself, causing the front tires to turn, destabilizing the jeep. Racing against time, he pulls Tim from the jeep and heads down the tree while the branches buckle and snap with immensely dark, woody tones. The two finally make it to the ground, collapsing between two enormous roots when the jeep comes crashing down behind them, landing on its nose and then falling forward with a second deafening crash, not quite crushing them, thanks to the sheltering roots, after which Spielberg finally gives our ears and the rest of our nervous system a break. Alan and the kids go for a hike – I’m not sure why – and eventually climb up in another enormous tree, which is clearly magical and will protect them from all harm. In the morning, they get to pet a Brachiosaur and everything’s copacetic, except that Alexis does get sprayed with Brachiosaur snot – basically because she’s a girl. Spielberg’s trying, but he’s definitely still having problems with that misogyny thing.
Meanwhile, poor miserable Dennis (remember him?) is discovering that, with all his clever tricks, Mother Nature can still fuck with him. In fact, since he’s sinned against both Nature and Capitalism, it’s a sure bet that his fate will be a particularly unpleasant one. Once more, everything goes wrong. Dennis races through an overwhelming downpour toward the dock, where, in all probability, no ship is waiting for him. Even if it’s there, where are they going? But he can’t go back, so he has to go forward, his glasses fogging, skidding off the road, smashing a road sign so that he can’t even tell if he’s headed in the right direction.15 When the jeep is hopelessly stuck, he struggles on, unspooling cable from the jeep’s winch to tie it around a tree when he encounters a Fuckuopasaurus, looking remarkably like one of the Gremlins critters, who toys with Dennis before blinding him with a blast of poisonous vomit and then ripping him to pieces. As Dennis endures his doom, we see the can of Barbasol fall from the jeep into the flooding stream, which then deposits it in a pool of soft mud. And then? Could the embryos live? Well, no. It’s a cute dummy plot point by Spielberg, with a hint of the fate of the $40,000 Marion Crane steals in Psycho, a prize for which a poor soul risked, and lost, everything, and which similarly ended up buried in muck.
Also meanwhile, Ellie and Muldoon return to park headquarters, where Hammond and Ray are sitting around scratching their asses and wishing they hadn’t subcontracted software for the entire park to Dennis. When it’s clear how massively Dennis has screwed them over, Hammond sends them back out in a regular, gas-powered jeep to rescue the kids. Instead, of course, they find only Malcolm, whom they load into their jeep just as the T. Rex reappears. Clearly, the big guy is still ready to party, and he gives chase with steps of thunder. But they get away, and they get back to park headquarters. In the most meta scene in the film, the camera scans past Jurassic Park gift shop shelves loaded with Jurassic Part merchandise and memorabilia, which may as well be the real thing – Hollywood ridiculing its own obsession with marketing and monetizing itself. Ellie encounters Hammond sitting in the ruins of his own kingdom, a reverse Midas who has gained the power to convert gold into dross. In an earnest, kitschy confession, he tells her of his first attraction – a flea circus! The tawdriest, most banal, most fraudulent “spectacle” of all, with the stage no bigger than a man’s hand, and a cast of zero! But that doesn’t matter. In show business, only one thing matters. “They believed it was real! They believed!”
Now, of course, they can’t help but believe, and, all too often, can’t help but be eaten, a fate that befalls both Muldoon and Ray. Ian, with an injured leg, doesn’t get eaten, but otherwise disappears, plotwise.16 It’s left to Ellie to crawl into the very belly, bowels, and entrails of Jurassic Park to first shut down and then reboot the whole thing, brilliantly tying the two parts of the picture together, because naturally Alan and the kids are climbing over “dead” high-voltage wires just as Ellie is getting set to turn on the juice. This time around, Tim rather than Alexis proves to be the chump, refusing to leap from the high wire until he gets a taste of the 20,000 volts that’s waiting for him. Fortunately, Alan proves up to the task of providing CPR, learning in the process that there’s more to life than digging up fossil bones.
Before all this happens, there’s another ingenious buried plot point, when Alan stumbles across what’s supposed to be impossible in Jurassic Park, dinosaur eggs. All the dinosaurs are female, but it appears that some have spontaneously mutated and become male. “Nature always finds a way!” exclaims Alan reverently, even though an hour earlier we had been hit over the head with the message that “Nature” had selected dinosaurs for extinction and that it was “wrong” to bring them back.17
Anyway, once Tim’s mobile, the three make it back to park headquarters, where the kids are let loose on the dessert buffet of every kid’s dreams, which they can eat sans supervision, it not occurring to anyone that the dinos are still out there, leading to the final set piece, our encounter with the “smart” dinosaurs, the Velociraptors, which lets Alexis demonstrate that girls can kick ass.
Velociraptors, not featured in Crichton’s book, are neither as big nor as smart as depicted, but Spielberg and probably others realized that the greatest adversaries in film have both cunning and brute force. It’s the Velociraptors’ ability to unravel the knots that the humans tie for them that makes the encounter especially thrilling. Along the way, Spielberg gives another truly great image, when one of the Velociraptors stumbles into a display where samples of the genetic code – the four-letter codons that “spell” the amino acids that make up a specific protein – are projected onto him – the created encountering its creator. The lizard stares half-knowing and half-unknowing at the message that gave it birth. Who will prove the superior, reason or the beast?
Alexis finds that outwitting Velociraptors is one thing. Disposing of them is another, and ultimately the entire cast, balancing precariously on the T. Rex skeleton in the Jurassic Park display hall, seem marked for extinction when, implausibly but satisfyingly, the T. Rex smashes through everything and takes out both Velociraptors. Apparently, no one’s allowed to eat humans but him! While he’s taking care of the Velociraptors, the mere humans are legging it for the jeep. The film ends with what’s left of the cast soaring above the waves in a powerful helicopter – leaving us with an image of technology triumphant, which seems to be Spielberg’s own conviction, despite the fact that the whole “message” we have just gotten is that Nature always wins.18
I’ve read that Spielberg insisted on directing Jurassic Park II (1997) because he was so irritated by what Universal and director Jeannot Szwarc did to Jaws II. I’ve also read that Spielberg called directing Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, the second Indy film, “the worst experience of my life.” Well, directing The Lost World: Jurassic Park, aka Jurassic Park II, was probably the second worst, because the film is awful, even though, much like Jaws II, it made a pile. Stevie is up to all his old tricks again, except that this time they’re really old. The Man versus Nature theme – or rather the “Capitalism is destroying Nature” theme – is heavily recycled, and I’m rarely willing to take morality lessons from billionaires, even sober, monogamous ones like Stevo. There are two T. Rexes this time, and a high-tech, duplex trailer instead of a measly jeep, which the T. Rexes try to push off a cliff, allowing Stevie to add some new twists to the “shelter/death trap” theme that he used so well in both Jaws and Jurassic Park, but third time is definitely not the charm for me this time around. The one major twist is bringing a T. Rex to “civilization,” or at least San Diego, which I did not like at all. In the jungle the dinosaur is king, but here in the good old USA, any military unit, or any militarized police force, of which we have so many, could take out a T. Rex in a matter of minutes, not that we’d want to see that.19)
However, I am a very big fan of Jurassic Park III (2001), the least successful of the four films. JPIII follows, very closely, the basic frame established by Spielberg, who produced the film, but director Joe Johnston turns in a stripped-down model, the most modest of the four, the least meta and the least complex. Less thought, more action! Sounds like a plan!
We begin once more with a Spielbergian flourish, a brief, gripping set piece tangentially related to the rest of the film. An unidentified man and boy – father and son, we presume – are parasailing in the Caribbean, obviously heading for Isla Nublar or Isla Sorna or Isla Somewhere. Out of the blue, well, something happens. The boat that was towing their parasail is wrecked on the rocks and they’re floating free to who knows what and to who knows where. Then we cut to Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill once more), who didn’t show up for The Lost World. Alan is a bit out of sorts with the world these days. Everyone wants to hear him talk about the InGen dinosaurs, while he only wants to talk about the “real ones.” A visit with Ellie (Laura Dern) simply confirms his isolation. She’s married now, with a little boy, Charlie. Out on a dig, he tells eager grad student Billy Brennan (Alessandro Nivola20 that the fossil business isn’t what it used to be, that in fact it’s just about time to pack it in. Billy’s neat trick of recreating the vocal resonator of a Velociraptor via 3-D printing has come just a little too late in the game.
Or has it? Suave, big bucks couple Paul and Amanda Kirby (William H. Macy and Téa Leoni) walk into Alan’s tent. Seems they’ve got a little proposition for Alan and Billy. They’d like to engage in a little dino-spotting – from the air, you understand – with Alan for their guide. You see, Paul likes to write checks – lots of checks, with lots of zeroes – and the rules that apply to other folks just don’t apply to him. Three years of bone hunting the old-fashioned way paid for by a two-day flyover? Sounds like a deal! Too bad Alan isn’t privy to what we hear, and what we see – a couple of bad-boy soldiers of fortune doing a little target practice with a 20-mm cannon and a plane fuselage painted to look like a T. Rex. Is “Kirby Enterprises” as full of jive as InGen? Could be!
Of course, such proves to be the case. Instead of a flyover, the plane lands, and Paul and Amanda, Alan and Billy, the mysterious “Mr. Udesky” (Michael Jeter), and our two soldiers of fortune, “Cooper” and “Nash” (John Diehl and Bruce A. Young), scarcely have time to stretch their legs before they’re up against one of the coolest dinosaurs ever, Spinosaurus aegyptiacus, an amphibious, fish-eating cross between a T. Rex and a crocodile.21 As you might guess, Cooper and Young don’t last very long, but in between their deaths there’s a very nice sequence depicting what it’s like to fly through the treetops rather than over them. “We haven’t landed yet,” says Alan, attempting to deplane but missing the ground by some 30 feet. When the Spinosaurus comes a-calling on the treeborne aircraft, Amanda starts acting like a Spielberg chick, screaming her head off without bothering to tell anyone why she’s screaming.
But they find out soon enough. In more Spielbergery, the survivors find the wingless fuselage to be both haven and coffin, eventually scampering out before the Spino can quite crush it flat. He’s big but they’re fast.
Their flight brings them face-to-face with a reeking, fly-blown corpse the size of a pickup that, strangely, no one can smell until they’re right up on top of it. The bad news is, there’s a T. Rex on the other side! Naturally, the big guy gives chase, running them back to the other big guy, who isn’t pleased with the company. The two have a massively satisfying showdown, with (naturally) the Spinosaurus coming out on top, allowing the featherless bipeds to get away and fill us in on the backstory. It seems that Paul and Amanda aren’t rich. In fact, they’re not even a couple, not anymore. That father and son we saw in the prologue, that was their son, Eric, but the guy was Ben Hildebrand, uptight, nerdy Paul’s free-spirited replacement. So everything they told Alan, including the check with all the zeroes, was just a line, to help them track down Ben and Eric. And Mr. Udesky, well, he’s not so mysterious, and not so tough. He’s not really the outdoors type at all, more of a “booking agent” – just a bit of a Hollywood in-joke, since there’s nothing quite so unheroic as an agent.
Once the backstories all get straightened, allowing us to pretty much guess how the plot is going to go – the human side of it, anyway – the disparate group of wanderers stumble conveniently on the ill-fated parasail that we saw Ben and Eric riding at the start of the picture, now hanging from a tree and looking considerably worse for wear. They then stumble even more conveniently on the modern screenwriter’s crutch, “found” video, carried by a digital camera Ben and Eric had with them at the time of their crash, allowing us to see Eric dropping to safety before fading to black. So he’s alive!
When Alan and Billy decide to take the parasail along, Johnston gives a us blast of Spielbergian/EC horror when poor Ben’s rotting carcass22 tumbles out, his skull naturally swinging right into our faces. Poor Amanda waxes exceedingly girly at this point, screeching horribly and managing to get entangled in the parasail, so that she and Ben are locked in a hideous farewell embrace. Screaming hysterically, she frees herself and races off into the jungle, not really a smart move, actually, but you know chicks. They have an instinct for dumb. Paul races after her and finds her trembling and flinching in a dino nesting ground. “Raptors,” breathes Alan, when he catches up. It keeps getting worse all the time. Once a thoroughly surly Alan has assured them that they all face almost certain death, the unhappy five quickly stumble across perhaps the most beloved trope in all of sci-fi, the ruined city of the future, in this case the headquarters of InGen, the apotheosis of corporate hubris and greed that created this reptilian Garden of Eden. “What is it?” asks Amanda, staring at the cluster of buildings, dominated by a huge, wrecked dome. “As far as I’m concerned,” says Udesky, getting one of the best lines of the picture, “it’s the Four Seasons.”
As the gang troops in the once state-of-the-art facilities that the jungle has reclaimed as its own, the ghost of a Velociraptor flits past in the background, an omen of things to come. Walking through the sodden offices, Amanda spots a filthy, mud-stained desk phone. “What the hell,” she says, picking up the receiver and showing some spunk for the first time in the picture. Naturally, there’s no dial tone, but at least she did something.
In what has become pretty much a de rigueur sequence in sci-fi these days, the gang files past a “creepy fetus” display – pickled, half-formed, half-deformed creatures floating in cylindrical tanks of dank, mysterious fluid – a trend started by the Alien films, I believe. “Is this how you make a dinosaur?” wonders Amanda, setting up Alan’s ponderous retort, “No, this is how you play God!,” even though, as I’ve complained before, the film, and the characters, frequently endorse the opposite judgment – that being able to see living dinosaurs is the coolest thing ever! – with far more fervor and conviction.
Amanda gets ahead of the rest, and encounters a particularly large specimen. As she studies the beast, she notices that its eyes are moving! The son of a bitch is alive!
What follows is another superb smart humans versus smart dinosaurs rumble, fully on a par with the sequences Spielberg put together in the original Jurassic Park. The raptors, so agile and cunning, with both razor-sharp claws and razor-sharp minds, not to mention some seriously advanced communication skills, seem unbeatable, but, hey, we’re the ones with the opposable thumbs. The gang gets away, all except Mr. Udesky. The poor guy was one brave little booking agent, and there ain’t many who can earn that title.
Billy, Amanda, and Paul all make it to the treetops, but Alan is seemingly surrounded until his scaly attackers are driven away by gas bombs! It’s Eric, covered in a home-made camouflage poncho and hiding out in a wrecked tank truck, living off of stale energy bars. Alan and Eric spend the night in the trailer, while Paul, Billy, and Amanda enjoy a tall tree. In the morning, the two parties set off separately for “the coast.” After some random traipsing, Eric hears a familiar sound, the jingle to his dad’s cell phone! Shouting joyfully and racing through the jungle, the two groups finally meet, well, pretty much, because there’s one of those Jurassic Park-sized walls between them. Even worse, what I forgot to tell you is, the cell phone isn’t in Paul’s pocket. It’s inside the Spinosaurus! Oh, yeah, he’s there all right, and damned hungry too, but the humans on the wrong side of the wall find a chink that lets them through to the right side. Sorry, dude! Go eat some fish!
Mom and dad and Eric embrace, but while they do so, the Spinosaurus trots down the fence a hundred yards or so, finds a weak spot, and bursts through! The fish can wait! By this point, any reasonably sentient viewer has realized that “good” people can outrun a big dinosaur. The five make it to another InGen installation, with a functional Spinosaurus-proof fence and gate. After the big guy gives the gate the shoulder and it still won’t budge, we can relax and catch up on a plot point or two, namely, that Billy, well, he sort of picked up a couple of raptor eggs a while back. Since Paul’s check turned rubber, Alan’s digs will need some alternative form of financing, and raptor eggs ought to fetch a pretty good price on someone’s black market. Well, we all know that tampering with Nature is, well, absolute evil, and Alan gives Billy a thorough tongue-lashing and gets into it with Paul over the issue of the eggs’ disposal. “What’ll they do if they catch up with us and we have the eggs?” Paul asks. “What’ll they do if they catch up with us and we don’t?” Alan counters. So it’s definitely time to find that damn coast, which providentially appears to be right out the back door, or at least a river leading to it, if you can just find your way down a thousand-foot cliff.
They exit the complex to encounter an extensive set of gangways, scaffolding, and stairs that ultimately will take them down to sea level, but the trip scarcely looks inviting. Clouds of mist obscure the path; arches of chain link fencing cover the gangways, protection against something or other; mysterious, limey deposits litter the bridges and stairs that groan and tremble at every step. What is this? We better get a move on. The gangways seem so shaky that our weary pilgrims must cross them one at a time. As Eric sets out on his journey, the sun suddenly breaks through the clouds and Alan realizes what they’re up against. “Oh, my God. It’s a bird cage.”
Well, pretty much. They’re Pteranodons, giant flying reptiles with a twenty-foot wingspan.23 Naturally, one of them swoops down and carries off Eric. Amanda, now showing some real spunk, races along the gangways, heedless of her own safety, shouting desperately “I can’t see him! I can’t see him!” Billy slips on the parasail and makes the jump, ultimately saving Eric, but succumbing, it seems, to the Pteranodons’ beaks, while Alan and Paul watch helplessly on.
The war against the Pteranodons is perhaps Johnston’s finest moment as an action director, the movement from spooky uncertainty to frenzied action matching anything Spielberg had done, and taking particular advantage of the vertical dimension added by the winged, goblin-like creatures, who seem to have emerged from the lower depths of hell.24
Escaping at last from the bird cage, the gang finds something left by InGen that actually works, a riverboat with a full tank of gas, as well as a specimen cage that looks like it’s built for raptors. After an initial scare, when they hear Paul’s cellphone’s jingle once more, they catch another break. The phone’s not in the Spinosaurus anymore! It’s in his shit! Pawing bravely through the muck, they find the little device, which, it seems, is almost indestructible. As night falls they’re finally en route to that near-mythical coast when they’re hit by the final element of Spielbergian JP mise-en-scène, a tropical downpour. Oh, and did I tell you, Spinosauri can swim?
Yeah, the big guy is back and ready to party, setting up an extremely elaborate Spielbergian set piece reminiscent of Jaws, with the Spinosaurus standing in for the great white. While the Spinosarus is raising hell, Alan manages to put a distress call through to Ellie, except that it’s four-year-old Charlie who answers the phone. “Tell your mother that it’s the dinosaur man!” Alan tells the kid, who is more focused on Barney, the once ubiquitous purple PBS T. Rex. The gang seeks shelter in the specimen cage, which the Spinosaurus promptly tosses into the drink, imprisoning them under water. Fortunately, Paul manages to escape and heroically draws the monster’s attention toward himself and away from the others, allowing Alan to use a flare gun to ignite gasoline spilled on the water to drive away the beast and, coincidentally, causing Amanda to fall back in love with him (Paul, that is).
In the morning, they finally approach “the coast”! They’re so close they can hear the surf! Yes, they’re almost safe, but not quite there, because the raptors have caught up with them at last, and their egg-stealing asses are in a serious bind. The gang crouches, trembling, on the earth, anticipating the final assault as the raptors snort and sniff, focusing on Amanda. “They think you have the eggs,” a trembling Alan tells her. She trembles as well, and then gathers herself, and, in a brilliant stroke of feminist kitsch, she tells Alan “Give … me … the … eggs!” Yes, chick to chick, mom to mom, dino to human, the exchange is made. The raptors have the eggs. Then, in a final, final twist, that I’m afraid was a bit over my head, Alan whips out the resonator that Billy crafted (remember that?) and manages (somehow) to give them some sort of distress call that sends the raptors scampering off. But since they can see, and hear, where the message is coming from (they’re supposed to be smart, remember?), why does that trick them into leaving? Well, anyway, the do, scampering off, eggs in mouth and wrath assuaged, the Balance of Nature restored.
And now to the coast, for the final wrap-up. They’re greeted by the entire US Army, more or less, because Ellie got the message! And not only that, Billy’s okay! Echoing the conclusion of JPI, they ride home in a helicopter, soaring high about the waves, except that this time they’re joined by Pteranodons. “Looking for new nesting grounds,” Alan guesses. Because seagulls could use a little competition.
After JPIII, I was more or less dino-satiated. It was the best dinosaur movie I’d ever seen, and I could enjoy it even more on my 60-inch home screen with 7.2 surround sound, without having to sit through the first 15 dino-free minutes. But Spielberg, rather amazingly, still wanted more, and started planning a fourth film almost immediately, despite JPIII’s less than spectacular numbers. Somehow, even with Stevie calling the shots, JPIV fell into a spectacularly prolonged Development Hell, the film not emerging until this year, officially produced by Frank Marshall and Patrick Crowley, a joint project of Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment and Thomas Tull’s Legendary Entertainment, with Colin Trevorrow as director and virtually an all-new cast, reasonably enough, since who likes to look at old people?
The most recent Jurassic Park, officially called Jurassic World, is very heavy on the meta and the Corporate Greed versus “Nature” (whatever the fuck that is), which is precisely what I liked least about the original Jurassic Park. Michael Crichton died in 2011, when “Jurassic World” was still deep in gestation, but he might have liked the outcome, a film that satirizes both modern-day theme parks, which, of course, have grown enormously since Crichton first ridiculed them back in the early seventies, and the feckless masses who throng to them. It seems that InGen has finally gotten the wrinkles ironed out of its sauropods, and Jurassic World is a smash. America’s middle class has turned its back on Sea World and all the rest. Why go to Sea World and watch a killer whale eat a fish when you can go to Jurassic World and see a Mosasaur eat a great white?25
But the feckless masses who swarm to theme parks, well, they’re feckless, rather like movie audiences. They always want more! They’ve seen T. Rexes! They want something bigger and meaner! And they’ve seen smart raptors! How about some really smart raptors? As with the original Jurassic Park, at this point Jurassic World is effectively parodying itself.
Well, what the public wants, the public gets. Prada-wearing ruthless business gal and park manager Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) is determined to make that bottom line snap, crackle, and pop, and Mother Nature be damned. She’s cooking up a new hybrid dinosaur, a Motherfuckasaurus officially called an Indominus Rex. At the same time, motorcycle-riding, leather jacket wearing, and (probably) cigar-chomping regular guy/he-man Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) is training a whole mess of Velociraptors to stand up and salute, kind of an Island of Dr. Moreau kind of thing. At the same time, Claire’s niece and nephew, Zach and Gray Mitchell (Nick Robinson and Ty Simpkins), are coming for a special tour, now that mom’s getting a divorce. Claire, who’s both too busy and too fastidious to actually mingle with the common folk, dispatches Zara, her classy, English-accented PA Zara (Katie McGrath)26, to take care of them.
Will the Indominus Rex prove to be more than a handful? Will the Velociraptor training program prove to be quasi-fascistic plot? And will Claire’s sphincter be psycho-spiritually loosened by Owen’s warm, genial, masculine presence? Well, yes. And, also, the kids will be saved, while the feckless masses will be first inconvenienced by a park shutdown and then terrorized and probably shat upon by pterosaurs, which I think is what Spielberg and show folk in general would like to do to us ticket-buyers. We’re so afraid of you! Well, goddamnit, this time you’re going to be afraid of us!
Jurassic World, which I would rate as “watchable” (unlike The Lost World) but a half dozen notches below Jurassic Park III, was the most successful of all the JP films, earning a whopping $1.6 billion even before its release on DVD. So is there a JPV in the works? Yes, indeed. And I’ll probably see it too.
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Note: This article appeared first in slightly different form in the author’s indispensable blog Literature R Us. Go there now for wit and wisdom on everything from jazz to politics to literature, high, low, and in between. Unless otherwise indicated, all images are screenshots from the films or from freely available YouTube trailers.
- In fact, the big cats aren’t much of a plot point in The Greatest Show on Earth. They get herded back in their cages (somehow) without eating or even biting a soul. TGSOE is a time capsule of the most dubious nature, to be sampled only by the most valorous. It is, in its own way, a remarkably meta film (as well as being remarkably bad). In the early fifties, both the circus and the movies were being threatened by an extraordinary electromagnetic menace – television – and then legendary film director Cecil B. DeMille went to the extraordinary length of recording a stentorian prologue that both celebrates the circus, bringing thrills and laughter to children of all ages, and reminds us that it is also a “ruthless machine that runs over anything and everything that gets in its path!” – sort of like CB himself. The “message” – that the guys with sawdust – or celluloid – in their blood always come through in the clutch proved to be so much wishful thinking. By 1957, the cathode tube was king. [↩]
- The T. Rex’s descent bears a fascinating resemblance to another classic proscenium-breaking sequence in film, the shower murder in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. In Jurassic Park, the dinosaur steps down from the screen to attack the audience. In Psycho, the audience pulls open the screen to attack Janet Leigh – “an impression of a knife slashing, as if tearing at the very screen, ripping the film,” as Hitchcock put it in a note for the shooting script. It would be interesting to know what Spielberg thought of Psycho, particularly if he saw it when it first came out. [↩]
- Many Jews naturally resented seeing Spielberg make millions off of “their” Holocaust. As a non-Jew I found most of Schindler’s List to be impressive, though it did slide hard into the kitsch in the last fifteen minutes. [↩]
- The R-rated Exorcist was far harsher than Jaws and is (probably) the most brutal general audience film ever made. The enormous success of the book, which, to my mind, was mostly written to allow ordinary Americans to read about anal sex with a good conscience, helped “legitimize” the subject matter of the film. Author William Peter Blatty helped as well, by insisting that the book was “really” about being a good Christian, as opposed to a vomit-spewing demon. [↩]
- Once legendary, EC Comics are probably fading from public consciousness, as the generation who grew up on them fades into senility and the grave. Stephen King lovingly recalls their decaying corpse/dismembered body parts ethos in his memoir Danse Macabre. Highbrow film critic Robert Warshow wrote an unwittingly entertaining “real time” takedown of EC in his essay “Paul and the Comics,” which can be found in his collection The Immediate Experience. Graybeards like myself can remember the “panic” over horror comics in the early fifties that left EC publisher William Gaines with only one title in his stable – Mad. Guess what? He didn’t worry. [↩]
- Disney installed an “Audio-Animatronic” Abraham Lincoln in Disneyland in 1965. In WestWorld, set in “the future,” guests can engage in gunfights with android gunslingers and get in bed with android dance-hall girls. [↩]
- If I were moving a dinosaur, I wouldn’t do it at night. [↩]
- In an interview, Richards said that Spielberg hired her based on her screaming ability. When she screamed, people who couldn’t see her thought she was really in trouble. Spielberg caught some flak for the heroines of both Indy Jones films, Karen Allen and Kate Capshaw, who after “cool” beginnings (Karen winning a drinking contest and Kate singing “Anything Goes” in a Shanghai nightclub) do little but scream thereafter. All-time scream queen Fay Wray said she screamed throughout her scenes with King Kong so that people wouldn’t forget he was carrying her. [↩]
- Muldoon is a vestigial version of “Quint,” Robert Shaw’s swaggering shark expert from Jaws, easily Spielberg’s greatest character. Only Quint’s anarchic life force can save mankind from the Beast, but, having vanquished the Beast, he too must die, for he and the Beast are really brothers. Neither can fit in the confines of “civilization.” Spielberg had a similar big-game hunter character in Jurassic Park II and, once more, could find no role for him, because it’s impossible for a mere human to kill a dinosaur in a film these days. Dinosaurs, like whales, have become symbols of “Nature,” and it would be “wrong” to kill Nature. I strongly suspect that Spielberg’s concept of Quint was heavily influenced by the figure of John Wayne, even though, to my mind, Wayne’s screen persona was the opposite of anarchic, being rigid and repressed, a moralizing bully. [↩]
- At the sight of the enormous beasts, everyone leaps out of the jeep to behold them. In all the Jurassic Park films, it’s an established rule that all herbivores are gentle. In fact, today’s large-scale herbivores, like hippos and rhinos, are extremely aggressive. However, I have myself petted an elephant (a small one, about half a ton) and it is a very touching experience. I was a freshman in college in 1964, and for our mock convention an alumnus rented an elephant. He was, perhaps, the happiest man I have ever seen. If you want to rent an elephant, do so. [↩]
- Not only does Ian have the black leather jacket and obligatory shades, his open shirt displays both chest hair and even the hint of a medallion. Since the last two aren’t really emphasized, it’s difficult to decide if the intended effect is satirical or “straight.” [↩]
- Forty years before Jurassic Park, sci-fi legend Ray Bradbury concocted a short story, “A Sound Like Thunder,” involving a T. Rex that not only illustrated chaos theory but named it – “the Butterfly Effect” – a decade before the scientists got around to doing so. In “A Sound Like Thunder,” a time-traveling hunter alters history by accidentally killing a butterfly while hunting a T. Rex during the Cretaceous Era. [↩]
- Apparently, the original script just called for Ian to run away in the same manner as Dennis, and, one guesses, to be eaten like him as well, a just reward for all his bad-boy sniggering and (presumed) lack of faith in a Higher Being, but Goldblum, who, after all, knows how movie stars are supposed to behave, demanded a rewrite. [↩]
- It’s a (fairly) good bet that dinosaurs didn’t roar. The only living reptile with a loud voice is the male alligator, and (naturally) it’s a mating call. [↩]
- Dennis’ wild ride, and the earlier brief scene where he gets his Barbasol embryo carrier, have suggestions of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1953 classic The Wages of Fear, remade as William Friedkin’s 1977 career-ender Sorcerer. [↩]
- Ian’s irrelevance to the plot after he distracts the T. Rex suggests that Goldblum had enough clout to have his character “saved” but not enough to have the whole plot rewritten to feature him. [↩]
- This whole bit strongly implies that the dino eggs will feature in a sequel, but in fact they don’t play a role in Jurassic Park II, which involves a second island with even more dinosaurs. None of this is ever explained because who cares? What counts is lots and lots of dinosaurs. When you’ve got lots and lots of dinosaurs, who needs an explanation? [↩]
- Spielberg’s relations with his father were decidedly mixed, but as a boy he was deeply impressed by the old man’s stories of flying “over the Hump” in World War II, taking supplies to allied forces in China by flying over the Himalayas. [↩]
- There is one real surprise in JPII, when Ian/Jeff Goldblum meets his daughter Kelly (Vanessa Lee Chester), who is like totally black, like Miles Davis black. So what did her mom look like? We never know, because she’s run off to Paris, as Ian informs us bitterly, sounding (a lot) like an LA screenwriter bitching about his bitch of an ex-wife spending “his money” on the Avenue des Champs Elysees. Being a teen-aged black chick, Kelly has so much PC coolness (and acrobatic ability) that she is able to do, justly, what no other human can do, to wit: kill a dinosaur. (We don’t know that the Velociraptor is dead, but the kick she gives it looks pretty damn lethal. [↩]
- How does an Alessandro Nivola play a Billy Brennan? Acting! [↩]
- I saw a wonderful Spinosaurus skeleton in the National Geographic Museum in DC a couple of years ago. Unfortunately it’s in Morocco now, where the bones came from. Unlike T. Rex and other giant carnivores, which are basically all head (and mouth), Spinosaurus had large, massively clawed forelimbs, for catching and rending fish and other prey. [↩]
- Rotting, but, once again, somehow odorless. [↩]
- Pteranodons are pretty much Hollywood’s pterosaur of choice, perhaps because of the large, bony crests that protrude from the backs of their heads, making them look very much like witches. In a scene of classic sixties kitsch, Raquel Welch was borne away by a Pteranodon in One Million BC. The recently discovered Quetzalcoatlus is far larger, with a wingspan of at least 33 feet, but lacks the photogenic crest. [↩]
- A sharp-witted viewer (i.e., not me) will realize at this point that it was a Pteranodon that attacked the boat towing Eric and Ben’s parasail at the beginning of the film, thus precipitating the entire adventure, a plot point that the film leaves implicit and unexamined. Of course, if one Pteranodon could escape the cage, why couldn’t the others do so as well? I guess we’ll never know. [↩]
- Spielberg (and, I suspect, many other show biz types) believe that what the public really wants to see is something big being eaten by something bigger. In the original Jurassic Park, Spielberg shows us a hapless cow being lowered alive into the raptor paddock, lets us listen as the invisible raptors rip the poor bovine to shreds, and then shows us the bloody harness hauled up afterwards. [↩]
- In real life, McGrath is Irish, though in the film Claire describes her as “British,” which only works if McGrath is Northern Irish (and only if she’s Protestant Northern Irish). [↩]