Friday, May 22, 2015

Jurassic Park

Welcome back to FlashBack Friday! There haven't been a ton of theatrical releases I've wanted to cover lately (despite being the beginning of summer movie season), so I thought I'd revisit an old favorite in anticipation for this summer's Jurassic World. To give a little background about my history with this series, I saw each of them as soon as I possibly could and enjoyed all of them to some degree. For Jurassic Park, that meant I had to wait until it came out on VHS so that my parents could cover my six year-old eyes whenever there was something a little too scary or violent happening on screen. I remember getting Jurassic Park merchandise and counting down the days until I could see the movie for myself. Needless to say, I absolutely LOVED this film even at my young age, and re-watched that tape until I had almost every line of dialogue memorized. I'll get into my thoughts on the sequels over the next couple of weeks, but surprisingly over the last six or seven years I probably only saw this movie once. I didn't own the DVD or Blu Ray at that time, so it wasn't really convenient to view it even if I wanted to (which I'm sure I did at some point). Thankfully, a couple of years back Universal Studios had the brilliant idea to re-release Jurassic Park in 3D, which I just couldn't resist, despite my general dislike for the gimmicky format. Throughout this review I'll share some of my thoughts from that viewing as well, but I was still pretty excited about watching this again at home (having finally bought the Blu Ray set). Everyone knows this movie by now, so beware of SPOILERS from this point forward if you somehow haven't seen Jurassic Park.

Dr. Alan Grant is a world-renowned paleontologist, working in Montana and digging up dinosaur bones with his partner, paleobotanist Dr. Ellie Sattler. After a tragic accident mars the outlook of several key investors, billionaire John Hammond recruits the two scientists to sign off on a new amusement park he's been secretly developing on an island off the coast of Costa Rica. Grant and Sattler are hesitant until Hammond offers to fully fund their dig for the next three years. They are joined on the island with mathematician and chaos theorist, Ian Malcolm, as well as a sniveling lawyer named Donald Gennaro. After an awe-inspiring encounter with a resurrected Brachiosaurus, Hammond takes the group back to the visitor's center to explain how this miracle has been accomplished. Using fossilized mosquitoes extracted from Amber, the genetic engineers reconstructed the prehistoric animals' DNA strands (with an assist from present day amphibians to complete the code) while making them all female to ensure population control. Though undoubtedly revolutionary, their methods have raised some red flags to the group of visiting scientists, who see this flippant use of genetic technology as a crime against nature. This reluctance is later validated when a disgruntled IT worker disables the security systems in certain areas of the park in an effort to extract frozen embryos and sell them to a competing company. A Tyrannosaurus Rex is therefore able to escape from his paddock and kills Gennaro while pushing the others off a cliff. While Malcolm is later rescued by Dr. Sattler, Dr. Grant along with Hammond's two grandchildren must navigate their way back to the visitor's center across the unsecured landscape. After taking a calculated risk that involves shutting off all power to the park, the Velociraptors have also escaped from them holding pen and are terrorizing the survivors in the visitor's center. Thankfully, the T-Rex appears at the last moment to save the day, killing the murderous bipeds before they can make a meal out of our protagonists. The movie ends as the scientists agree not to endorse the park as they fly off into the sunset.

That's pretty much the entire plot of the film, so if you haven't seen it then I apologize... it must suck to have never seen this awesome movie. So many memories rushed back from the instant the Universal logo came on the screen with jungle animal noises in the background to set the mood. I'm sure I said this in my review of Raiders of the Lost Ark, but Spielberg has an uncanny knack for immersing an audience into a story instantly and almost effortlessly. During the initial raptor attack that sets our story in motion, we don't get to see the terrifying creature responsible for the carnage, but for a fleeting glimpse of its menacing eye through a slit in its cage. What really frightens the viewer isn't what it looks like, but rather the sounds it makes. The sound design of this movie was incredible, and definitely worthy of the Oscars it was awarded back in 1994. Using a combination of a variety of animals (dolphins, geese, walruses, etc.) they've created one of the most spine-tingling noises in all of movie history. This won't be the last time I bring up the sound design, but this creepy opening does a terrific job of setting the tone for the rest of the film.

Then we're introduced to our main characters. As a kid I was a big fan of Alan Grant, and I totally understand why. The guy is kind of a gruff, Indiana Jones-ish dinosaur expert (though not nearly the action hero Indy is) who always seems to know what to do in any given situation. We find out a few things about his character up front - he doesn't like kids, he's in a serious relationship with his partner, Ellie Sattler, and he has a slightly fearful respect for the long extinct creature they have just unearthed (the Velociraptor itself). What I love about this cast is that none of them were household names at the time of Jurassic Park's release. That allowed them all to completely disappear in their roles, and the naturalistic manner in which they deliver lines (particularly the fantastic Jeff Goldblum) makes it hard to believe that they aren't improvising them on the spot. I've seen some criticism for the characters being a little flat in this movie, which I can't necessarily deny. We do get some character motivations for each of them, and moments where each person is important. However, apart from Dr. Grant and John Hammond, none of the characters are really that well explored. If the movie weren't as entertaining as it is, this might be a bigger problem for me. As it is, though, I don't really notice the lack of character development until long after the experience of seeing dinosaurs brought back to life is over.

As we journey to the park, the music composed by Steven Spielberg's almost constant collaborator, John Williams, really takes center stage as we see some beautiful landscapes of Isla Nublar (or Hawaii, which I believe is where this was shot). His sweeping theme begins as the island first comes into view and really hits its stride when the Brachiosaurus fills up the screen. It's an instantly memorable piece of music that is probably one of Williams's best, in my opinion. Not only is the thematic music great, but Williams also does some of his scariest music since Jaws whenever the raptors are involved in a scene. Still, seeing this scene on a big screen back in 2013 (I did not mean for that to rhyme as much as it did) was awe-inspiring to the point that I may have actually shed a tear. Sam Neill and Laura Dern sell this scene so well that I actually believe that these scientists are seeing the personification of their life's work before their eyes, and it's beautifully done. It's easily the most inspiring scene of the film and one of the most memorable moments in movie history.

Then the movie pumps on the breaks as we get a classroom-style exposition scene where "Mr. DNA" delivers the best pronunciation of the word "dinosaur" I've ever heard. While this is an informative scene, it may be a little distracting in retrospect. Regardless, it's over pretty quick and the movie transitions into the most intellectually stimulating conversation of the film. Ian Malcolm, though perhaps not the most reliable source for ethical boundaries, calls out the geneticists at InGen for their questionable experiments, even equating it to the "rape of the natural world." It's a pretty fascinating debate, exploring the nature of mankind's reach exceeding his grasp and the moral dilemma that comes with scientific advancement. In fact, this scene is so electric for me that it's a little disappointing that we never get this level of sophistication again. There are so many exciting, edge-of-your-seat moments in this film that I wouldn't have minded a few more intellectual debates between the differing viewpoints of our scientists.

Having said that, nothing compares with the AWESOME scene we're about to get when Dennis Nedry shuts off the electric fence containing the park's most formidable attraction, the Tyrannosaurus Rex. Every moment of this scene is utterly iconic, from the rumbling footsteps causing ripples in the water cups on the dashboard, to the gradual reveal of the T-Rex swallowing a goat whole after its dismembered leg crashes to the glass roof of the tour vehicle below. It was incredibly ballsy of Spielberg to play this entire scene without music, but I can't imagine it any other way. The tension is palpable as the T-Rex bites through its wire cage and slowly bears down on the helpless humans before it. It even has a scene that my parents wouldn't let me watch as a child, where the T-Rex bites into a toilet-sitting Gennaro and thrashes the lawyer back and forth like a rag doll. But going back to my deconstruction of the sound-effects, I remember my seat rumbling from the sheer force of the T-Rex's roar, which was unlike anything I'd ever heard. They accomplished this iconic sound by combining a baby elephant, a tiger, and a crocodile, which produced perhaps the most unsettling monster roar in movie history. I really can't give enough praise to these sound designers for their fantastic work.

One thing that has become a bit of a problem for me, however, is the logic and continuity of each scene. There are times when car doors become open and closed between shots, only to have Timmy attract the T-Rex's attention by closing it again in the next shot. The geography of the scene is also confusing, as there appears to be a massive cliff where no such drop existed when the T-Rex emerged minutes before. These types of continuity errors are probably only going to bother you if you've seen this movie a hundred times like I have, but I do wish Spielberg had tightened it up just a little bit. Later on, a T-Rex is going to magically appear in the visitor's center without any explanation as to how it got in there. Still, the sight of the creature roaring in the lobby with the sign "When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth" floating to the floor is so cool that I wouldn't want to risk losing it by changing the scene. This movie is certainly good enough to forgive a few flaws here and there. Just try not to look for them and you probably won't even notice.

A lot happens in the film's ending, but it happens so fast that it wouldn't be worth walking through it one scene at a time. There are several lines that I love to quote as often as possible, such as "clever girl..." and "hold onto your butts!" Some other highlights include the excruciatingly tense kitchen scene where the raptors are weaving through the isles, closing in on the two terrified kids. The fact that the raptors figured out how to open doors was so simple yet incredibly scary, and its struggle to break into the computer lab with Dr. Grant pushing on the other side is pretty gripping... except when you realize that Timmy is just standing there watching his sister work the 90's era computer instead of, I don't know, making himself useful to the life or death situation they're in! Ellie can't get the gun because she's pushing (rather ineffectively, I might add) on the door with Dr. Grant, and Timmy could easily pick it up and hand it to them. It's a little infuriating, but the subsequent scene where the raptor shows off its leaping ability by nearly biting off Lex's leg is so cool I can forgive that plot hiccup.

The movie ends a little abruptly for my taste, but I definitely didn't need a protracted 15 minute diversion to finish the story off like the next film is going to give us. Ultimately, despite the little flaws I can find here and there, Jurassic Park is one of Spielberg's best films and has so many iconic moments that I can't imagine anybody not liking it. It may not be as intellectual as I would have liked, but if you want more of that then I suggest picking up Michael Crichton's novel, which is excellent though quite different from the film adaptation. This movie is as much a part of my childhood as any Indiana Jones film, and I'm sure I can attribute much of my childhood love of dinosaurs to this movie's incredible depiction of them. I have a feeling this level of quality won't be matched in any of the subsequent films (though I'm keeping my fingers crossed for Jurassic World), but I am sparing no expense on this film with my rating. Four stars!

JURASSIC PARK is rated PG-13 for intense science fiction terror

** What did you think of Jurassic Park? Have you revisited it lately? Let me know in the comments and don't forget to like my Facebook page! **