Saturday, April 6, 2013

When Dinosaurs Ruled the Multiplex: JURASSIC PARK

Returning to Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, back in theaters for its 20th anniversary, is a hugely enjoyable experience. The by-now classic story of a theme park of cloned dinosaurs descending into chaos one stormy weekend is not simply the fun dinosaur picture I had thought it was as a younger person renting the VHS. Seeing it dwarfing my senses on the big screen reveals it to be an uncommonly skillful work of blockbuster engineering. Its building blocks are stock schlock spectacle with a pulpy Michael Crichton novel streamlined by the author and David Koepp into a screenplay of B-picture archetypes: the noble scientists, the kindly mad billionaire, the smarmy lawyer, the slimy saboteur, and the cute kids. What Spielberg and his collaborators understand is that just because a scenario lends itself to certain tropes doesn’t mean it can’t transcend them through masterful craftsmanship.

This time through, I was struck most of all by the film’s structure. At the time of its release, some complained that it got to the point too quickly, unlike the long tease of Spielberg’s Jaws. Why, the scientists gape at a living, breathing CGI brachiosaurus first thing upon arrival at Jurassic Park, after all. Those critics were so dazzled by the effects that they felt they were a distraction. Now, though, when CGI spectacles can and do cram digital doodads into every cranny of the frame and modern pacing would have a full-blown dinosaur setpiece in the first reel, it’s easier to see how the time in the Park is so carefully built up. For a long period of time, we follow Dr. Grant (Sam Neill), Dr. Sattler (Laura Dern), and Dr. Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) as the white-haired rich man (Richard Attenborough) introduces them to the way the theme park operates and the audience gets to hear all about each of the dinosaur species and their behaviors. Spielberg dips into pleasant popcorn philosophy – chaos theory, “life will find a way” – and introduces cute, instantly sympathetic kids (Joseph Mazzello and Ariana Richards) while casually situating lived-in performances into a just-convincing-enough sci-fi scenario.

Part of what gives pleasant weight to these quickly sketched and off-handedly fully-formed characters is the sense that the performers are finding ways to put unexpected twists on the sometimes clunky lines. They may be archetypes, but they feel pleasingly low-key and real, or at least real enough. Goldblum’s always been a master at putting an offbeat cadence to his dialogue, looping words around as if they’re arriving in his head so quickly that they back up while he decides if he’ll second guesses each clause as he speaks them. Dern is always quite good as well. At the time, she was coming off a string of eclectic performances in the likes of Peter Bogdanovich’s Mask and David Lynch’s Wild at Heart and here provides a center of glowing capability. She, like Sam Neill (also doing great work), provides the film with a great center point. They’re sympathetic and knowledgeable professionals and it helps ground the film in a feeling of determined professionalism. I especially like the subtle arc their relationship has. It’s romance underplayed marvelously. Between that and the fairly restrained Grant-learns-to-like-kids sub-subplot, those who fault Spielberg for hitting emotional beats too hard should find some pause.

When the dinosaurs attack, the scientists and park technicians for the most part maintain a sense of scientific curiosity and harried practicality. They leave the freaking out to the audience. And what a freak out it is. When the power goes out and the storm rolls in, the movie about a theme park gone mad turns into the ultimate amusement park ride, delivering jolts of perfectly orchestrated creature feature horror at irregular intervals. By now, we’re well aware of what the park’s limitations are and what the dinosaurs are capable of. Spielberg has been operating with the knowledge that the best roller coasters aren’t all high-speed dips and loop-de-loops. You need plenty of time to build there through a meticulous climb. It can make the drop all the more fully, memorably terrifying to be aware of the danger well beforehand. Say the words “raptors in the kitchen” to anyone who has seen Jurassic Park and the whole tense sequence comes rushing back.

To the tune of John Williams’s tremendous score, Spielberg, with cinematographer Dean Cundey and editor Michael Kahn, brings a wit to the staging and a satisfied snap of no-nonsense visual competence to the setpieces. The utilitarian pop art beauty of the imagery captures visible beams of Spielbergian high-powered flashlights and casually emphasizes gadgets and weaponry, making vivid figures of action out of convincingly real-world workaday academics and scientists. The film becomes a relentless thrill machine that builds terror as much through anticipation as on screen happenings. In a film of spectacular (and largely still convincing) dinosaur effects (a blending of practical and then-new computer graphics), one of the most memorable images is the simplest, the sight of vibrations rippling in a cup of water, an ominous impact tremor of foreboding, foretelling the arrival of a T. Rex on its way. Because we’ve come to know and care about the characters and are well aware of the potential carnage the prehistoric creatures can bring, Spielberg can make the sight of a character staring past the camera at something unseen by us so nerve-wracking. And then, out pops the dinosaur, teeth chomping, roar rattling the theater’s speakers. It’s worth the build up to be so startled.

Spielberg’s a master filmmaker not because he can get these responses, but because he can modulate so quickly without losing a grip on the audience’s emotions. Take, for instance, the sustained terror of the first T. Rex attack. Its massive head has burst through the sunroof of the first jeep, pinning two screaming children underneath its gnashing teeth. We cut to the second jeep for a split second as Goldblum wipes fog off the windshield so he can see what’s going on. It’s such a slight release that it registers as both a funny throwaway gag and a minor escalation of tension by denying information about the real danger for that moment. Jurassic Park is perhaps the best creature feature of the last two decades, much like Spielberg’s own Indiana Jones films are the best adventure serials of the last three. He, to paraphrase Hitchcock, another master audience manipulator, gets pleasure out of playing the audience like a piano. It works just as well today as it did when it was first released. Just ask my sister, who saw it for the first time ever when I took her with me to the multiplex yesterday. She was quite literally on the edge of her seat.

Note: The rerelease is unfortunately in largely superfluous 3D. It subtly pops the depth in a few moments and sometimes a blurry object in the foreground will appear marginally closer that it should. I, for one, was happy that it was unobtrusive enough that I quickly forgot it was 3D at all and simply enjoyed seeing the movie again.

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