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Steven Spielberg's first big change to Hollywood was a side effect of Jaws -- shifting the studio compass away from director- driven 'personal' filmmaking (which admittedly wasn't making a lot of money) toward giant thrill-ride blockbusters that delivered bigger, louder and technically more advanced versions of old-time movie-going entertainment. His second real game-changer happened almost twenty years later, when his Jurassic Park introduced fully fleshed photo-real computer generated imagery to the screen. The changeover wasn't overnight, but in just a scant few years not a single Hollywood craft would remain untouched (or eliminated outright) by the application of digitally altered images. Sparked by Michael Crichton's truly brilliant almost-feasible method of bringing live dinosaurs to the modern world, Spielberg and his producers invested a mint in Stan Winston's enormous animatronic dino figures, amazingly lifelike creatures that far surpassed anything done by the previous maestro in the field, Carlo Rambaldi. Then, part-way into production, tests at Industrial Light and Magic showed Spielberg that he didn't need to generate wide shots of his dinosaurs in motion with stop-motion animation, a respected but time-consuming art form practiced by just a few devotees of Ray Harryhausen. Now it could all be done on computers. 1
I rushed to see Jurassic Park on its opening night and was shocked by how good the effects looked. Not only did the giant dinos move and stretch and belch and breathe in a way no stop-motion model could, the camera moved around them as if they were live-action subjects. With CGI there now seemed to be nothing that couldn't be brought to life on movie screen. Although we were frequently reacting to the Stan Winston Company's full-sized rubber monsters when we thought we were watching CGI, the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park were a home run with bases loaded. Twenty years later we've seen plenty of excellent computer animated critters and a lot of terrible garbage done on the cheap; movies are now jammed wall-to-wall with irritating CGI that's not much better than cel animation. Special effects has been taken away from a specialized group of artisans and artistes that dedicated careers to a variety of tactile, real-world skills. Now giant pixel factories house dozens of (specialized, talented) computer artists that combine their efforts as if designing a jet plane. If stop-motion movies weren't plentiful before, it's because producers and directors had to relinquish control of the effects scenes to the special effects artist. Now, a Spielberg Jr. can sit in a bar in Yucatán, review the day's file composites on his laptop computer, and send his instructions for changes back to Hollywood (or Paris, or Mumbai), where supervisors will meet with various project teams to carry out his instructions.
Jurassic Park was perhaps the last effects movie to really surprise us. At the time I thought it had a terrible script, but I was mostly reacting to its pre-marketed money-machine construction. Speilberg's critics had long griped that his movies were as flashy and forgettable as amusement park roller coasters, and the movie's dinosaur theme park is a thrill ride within a thrill ride, complete with dining facilities and consumable products for the tourists. The fully computer-controlled cars that wind through the park are pretty much "It's a Small World" but with reptiles instead of dolls. Author Michael Crichton recycled his Westworld concept of a computer-operated fantasy theme park that goes haywire and starts killing off its clientele. The main difference is that Jurassic Park has the budget to visualize such a promising popcorn idea. The uncomfortable disconnect is that the movie puts down Computer Futurism while entertaining us with its new miracles. Computers are ba-a-ad, because greedy people will use them to steal. Besides, any fantastic invention in a standard science fiction movie is guaranteed to break down and turn traitor just as soon as the ignition key is turned: spaceships, giant robots, weapons systems, what have you. But Jurassic Park itself was made by computers, which is go-o-od. Make up your mind, writers Crichton and Koepp.
Crichton's semi-quasi-pseudo-bona fide method for reviving dinosaurs involves extracting dino DNA from mosquitoes and growing them in host animals. It's a brilliant stroke: no more radioactive resurrections, frozen 'Paleolithic survivals', or unlikely Lost Worlds where giant carnivores would exhaust all the available protein in just a couple of weeks. Zillionaire John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) genetically designs dinosaurs the way folks now design $20,000 customized puppies that don't shed fur and smell like hand lotion. Rationalizing the existence of extinct animals used to be the weakest part of a dinosaur movie, something to be mumbled quickly in an expositional sentence. Jurassic Park takes almost two reels to show paleontologist Alan Grant (Sam Neill) just how Hammond's dino nursery works. It's like the chick-hatching exhibit at the Natural History Museum, only with cute little fanged reptiles popping out of their leathery shells.
Spielberg throws his entire bag of directorial tricks into this show, with plenty of push-ins to faces beaming with wonder (or contorting in fear) at the sight of the majestic dinosaurs. Nobody gets a chance to relax; to take a break from Jurassic jeopardy out in the jungle, Doctor Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern, all pumped up with emotion) lectures John Hammond on the importance of family. Not that it hurt Jurassic Park's box office one iota, but the weakest part of the show is its relentless trumpeting of so-called family values. Hammond's cute grandkids Tim and Lex (Joseph Mazzello and Ariana Richards) are an obvious flag to tell the other characters "what's important': Alan hates kids but gets all warm and fuzzy with his new junior assistants. Ellie watches with all her maternal instincts on Go. The movie trumpets the axiom that "Life Will Find a Way" without facing up to the reality of what happens when Life is set free to do what it will. Who will take care of all those children the randy author Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) will father? (Goldblum's star descent began in earnest when he took the Dick Wesson / Sid Melton comic relief role in this movie.) And all that "Life finding a way" hoo-hah eventually means that many of the people that presently overpopulate the earth are going to starve to death. Good old Hammond has engineered his dinosaurs to be biologically self-destructing, like the replicants of Blade Runner. But the first thing any Frankenstein Monster does is to find and destroy his own "off" switch. Hammond may not be trespassing on God's domain, but he's certainly trifling with the forces of nature in a very reckless manner.
Spielberg delivers big emotions ("everybody act BIG!") to match his PG-13 thrills -- one severed arm, a couple of victims ripped up behind the cover of bushes and a car windshield and a third plucked off a toilet (!) and gobbled up like spaghetti. The film probably got its rating by undercutting the horror with comedy. The man in the outhouse that becomes a light snack is a reference to a shockingly famous act of homicide against a New York cop by The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. Obsessed monster movie fans will recognize a seemingly endless, elevator-like descent in a helicopter as a borrowing from Universal's The Land Unknown. A sudden chow-down attack by a giant carnivore on a smaller dinosaur is quite a bit like the entrance of the title Allosaurus in Ray Harryhausen's The Valley of Gwangi. And of course the banner at the end, which represents the previous winner in the filmic dinosaur realism sweepstakes. Spielberg keeps in contact with his genre fans.
The bottom line on Jurassic Park is that it succeeded marvelously in achieving Spielberg's #1 goal: vacuum up every loose movie-going dollar in the known world, and initiate a franchise with a number of promising tie-in possibilities, such as a themed ride at Universal Studios.
Four years later Spielberg took a second dip into the prehistoric money pot with The Lost World: Jurassic Park, a sequel based on a subsequent Michael Crichton novel. We see the elderly John Hammond (and his two now-older grandchildren) briefly at the beginning, only to learn that the venal plans of an InGen corporate underling (yawn) have flaunted Hammond's instructions to keep Isla Nubla and its dinosaurs a secret.
Returning Park veteran Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) is tricked into making the trip because his girlfriend Sarah Harding (Julianne Moore) is already studying dinosaurs on a second InGen-owned island, Isla Sorna. Also suckered to the island is cameraman Nick Van Owen (Vince Vaughn), and Malcolm's own daughter, Kelly (Vanessa Lee Chester). No sooner do they land than they witness the arrival of a second InGen expedition. It has come to trap the dinosaurs for shipment to a theme park prepared in San Diego, an idea nixed earlier by the gentle Hammond. Professional big game hunter Roland Tembo (Pete Postlethwaite, taking the "Sir John Roxton" role from the Arthur Conan Doyle original), remains professionally removed from the greed and foolishness all around him. While the various dinosaur menaces, particularly those voracious raptors, chow down on InGen's mercenary crew (including thuggish Peter Stormare), a T-Rex thrashes Sarah and Ian's motor-home lab, eventually pushing it over a cliff like the helicopter in the 1960 The Lost World remake. The survivors make it back to San Diego with a full- grown T-Rex, which escapes during a dockside publicity event and runs amuck searching for its infant. Sarah and Ian have no choice but to snatch the display 'baby' T-Rex from InGen's new park and rush it back to the dock, hoping to get "mom" to follow. She instead snarls traffic while gobbling up passersby and a noisy dog or two.
This first sequel invites us to watch a pre-masscre of a family taking a break from a world cruise on their private yacht on Isla Sorna; they're such Grey Poupon types that the movie almost expects us to enjoy seeing them wiped out. Interestingly, the only kind of family we can imagine doing such a thing would have to be extremely, extravagantly rich... the Spielbergs, maybe. Almost like Revenge of the Creature, The Lost World: Jurassic Park completes its giant monster duty by bringing dinosaurs back to the big city. The rest of the picture is made of extravagant but not terribly exciting set pieces. We get a lot of dino tourism beauty shots that lead into the expected crazy action sequences. Instead of being chased down a tree by a falling car, our heroes are trapped in a pair of vehicles hanging half-over a tall precipice. The family-friendly atmosphere precludes Goldblum or Moore or Vanessa Lee Chester from dying, so the suspense that Spielberg works so hard to generate never develops. The "events" that follow seem rather generic, with people trying to avoid dinos on collapsing scaffolding, precarious bridges and sinking boats. It all seems like "plot points" borrowed from proposed but discarded theme ride scenarios.
It's by no way a cheap show, and there are plenty of fun moments. Vince Vaughn and Pete Postlethwaite have fairly interesting characters, even if the rest of the supporting cast is along just to be eaten alive. The dino on the loose in San Diego sequence is fun but too brief/ A welcome sick joke involves a dog and a doghouse, and a possible merchandising tie-in occurs when a Union Oil 76 ball is loosed to roll through a service station. And how can that T-Rex go half a block without getting tangled in phone lines, power cables and whatnot? The justice meted out to the "Mr. Bad Guy" corporate jerk is a bit too pat as well, as is Jeff Goldblum's character shift to concerned Daddy duty. But hey, Spielberg doesn't scrimp on the effects.
Some creative scrimping does occur on 2001's Jurassic Park III, where capable director Joe Johnston (The Rocketeer, October Sky) takes over for a generic re-hash of franchise elements. The script continues to compare dinosaurs "finding a way", with trite homilies about the irreplaceable, essential human family unit. Alan Grant (Sam Neill) is back in yet another plot in which a scientist, a survival expert and some gunmen are tricked to journey to the off-limits Isla Sorna. Ellie (Laura Dern) has married someone else but remains a helpful pal at the other end of a satellite phone.
This time the characters are a real credibility stretch. Homer Simpson-like hardware store owner Paul Kirby (William H. Macy, too much like his jerk character in Fargo) and his estranged wife Amanda (Téa Leoni) lead a criminally deceitful safari to find their son Erik (Trevor Morgan), lost on Isla Sorna weeks before in an irresponsible trespassing stunt. The gunmen are quickly killed (I'm not sure that anyone ever shoots a dino in any of these movies) and the survivors go through a number of close calls before Erik does indeed surface -- he's been hiding out in a tiny bunker, like the little girl Newt in Aliens.
From the cheesy main title reveal forward, the show plays like a ridiculously expensive version of a Roger Corman movie, with family values instead of girls in bikinis. The moral values on view are outrageous, as the parents are basically congratulated for leading innocent people to their deaths in the name of healing their broken family. Alan's own assistant Billy Brennan (Alessandro Nivola) turns out to be a lying rat, too, but it's okay because he meant well.
Other elements are strictly Spielberg idea rejects. A 'resonating chamber' molded by Billy from a fossil can sound a dinosaur call, and proves to be a good tool for confounding attacking Raptors. Téa Leoni is made to scream like a ninny while extricating herself from a Poltergeist- or Indiana Jones- like gnarly corpse. The airplane fuselage, smashed in a tree, becomes a veritable fun house when a super-colossal dinosaur attacks. The gag that probably got immediate approval from Spielberg has the big dino swallowing a noisy cell phone. It announces his presence, just as did the alligator with the alarm clock in Disney's Peter Pan.
Jurassic Park III isn't a bad show, it just lacks ambition. An effects scene of happy herbivore dinosaurs looks particularly bad, with flat lighting and a slightly fake, painted texture that reminds us of a children's picture book. I do resent the cheap execution of the Family theme, the stumbling block in too much of Spielberg's work. No matter what trouble some precious American brat gets himself into overseas, this film proclaims that it is a parent's right to lie to people, endanger their lives and call in the armed forces to recover the little jerk. Even in this apolitical context, showing the U.S. Marines storming an island belonging to Costa Rica is glaringly insensitive.
Universal's Blu-ray of the Jurassic Park Ultimate Trilogy is a really attractive disc set. I found nothing whatsoever wrong with any of the transfers, and the sound was quite good. In Blu-ray we can really admire ILM's first foray into full-on CGI monsters, and be amazed at how terrific are the full-sized dinosaurs created by Stan Winston's monster factory. Steven Spielberg's access to top acting talent makes all three pictures (in diminishing steps) very watchable.
Universal has stacked the three discs with the tons of archival shows done for earlier releases: featurettes, on-set video accounts, studies of designs and effects work, studio tours, director and actor profiles, a discussion with Michael Crichton, ILM promos, etc. A new show in HD is a serialized three-part making-of docu that gives us most of the top creatives and actors remembering their experience, such as the Hawaiian typhoon that struck right in the middle of the production of the first film. The standard Universal menu organization takes the viewer right to the desired item.
An insert card with codes for digital download of the three films is included as well.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. On 1941 I proposed that long shots of the jokers stuck at the top of the Ferris Wheel would look great animated with stop-motion. Spielberg probably nixed the idea because he was already up to his neck in expensive special effects; the producer was not a happy camper. But Spielberg also said it he thought it would look too 'jerky'. In 1978 stop-motion was still considered something for Claymation novelties and Gumby cartoons.
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T'was Ever Thus.