FlashBack Post: Originally published 01/2015
So you’re reading the newspaper one day, scanning the want ads for a new job and you come across an interesting one that is looking for some workers to help build a theme park on a small island near Costa Rica. Hmm, sounds good. You sign up, get hired, fly over and start clearing trees, building pens and paddocks, and it’s all pretty nice-an-easy. Sure, there’s some guy walkin’ around with a silly Bush hat and a loaded shotgun all the time, but what do you care? You’re outdoors, the guys are cool, some billionaire is paying the way. Sweet deal no matter how you look at it. Then one night they ask you to stop by the “raptor” cage and lend a hand, maybe throw some overtime your way.
You have no idea what the word raptor means, so whatever, you’ll make the money. You’ve been spending too many late nights in front of the TV anyway. Plus, you get to wear that cool “Jurassic Park” safety helmet you’ve seen them guys over on the other side of park wear. So they hand you a wicked cool looking electric two-pronged stick thingy and put you near the door of this raptor cage and tell you that for tonight, you’ll be the “gatekeeper.” Easy peasy. You remember a few fellas during lunch the other day talking about some dinosaurs or something and think sure, a dino theme park would be fun. You always liked that one with the spiky things on it’s back, and that one with the crazy long neck is kinda cool. Probably making some new-fangled animatronics or robots or something. Maybe a roller-coaster ride. Kids’ll love it. You’re just glad to be working. So by the gate you wait. That guy with the hat is here, seems kinda serious. He’s got his gun, but that’s nothing new. Oh look! Here it comes. A sealed up pen delivered by fork lift. The “pushing team” rushes in and something inside the cage sounds like it’s got an upset belly, but oh well. You’ve got your stick thingy. You’re just the gatekeeper. The shotgun dude tells you to climb on up and open the gate. So up you go, grab the handle and start pulling, already thinking about what you’re gonna do this weekend. A few of the boys are heading to the mainland to check out that new club. Lot’s of pretty girls’ll be ther–huh? What the–? Ahhhhh….
John Hammond, billionaire CEO of the InGen Corporation now has a problem. Seems one of his “gatekeepers” down at that new adventure park under construction on Isla Nubar has gone and made himself be lunch for that recently bioengineered dinosaur he just cooked up. Investors won’t be thrilled and the insurance is gonna go through the roof. Time to send some experts in to reassure all those involved that this was an isolated incident and having packs of carnivorous reptiles from sixty-five million years ago walk around in modern times is a good idea. Probably should send the grandkids down as well. They are, after all, the target audience. Or target meal, depending on which point of view you are referring to. Also on this tour are dino expert, paleontologist Dr. Alan Grant, his steady squeeze, Dr. Ellie Sattler, a paleobotanist that knows old-timey trees, a lawyer named Donald Gennaro who by default will be the first entrée, and mathematician Dr. Ian Malcolm, because apparently there’s more math to know about 13 foot tall meat eating reptiles than two plus two equals run you stupid fool!
Hammond, confident his theme park is the bee’s knees, packs his grandkids and the experts into a couple of self-guided tour vehicles and sends them on their way for a test run of the entire island’s special attractions. “Hooray!” shout the animals, “The buffet is open.” But there’s other issues John faces. Not all the equipment is working properly and a tropical storm is heading their way because Hollywood Screenwriting by-laws are pretty firm about compounding danger in movies. The Bush hat guy joins Hammond in the control room along with the park’s chief engineer as they initiate the system for its first run. Hold on to your butts.
Directed by Steven Spielberg, Jurassic Park was a worldwide phenomenon on release, inspiring a renewed interest in dinosaurs that has yet to diminish. Based on the Michael Crichton novel of the same name, the film examines man’s hubris in trying to control nature through the regeneration of extinct species by DNA found in amber. Set against a thrilling adventure, the movie counters the desire to do something with the question of whether it is right, represented by the all white dressed Hammond versus the all black dressed Malcolm. Hammond, seeing the idea of living dinosaurs as way to educate and entertain is perplexed by Malcolm’s contention that nature has a plan and to alter or otherwise change it is a mistake. Spielberg avoids a dense argument, allowing both sides to be revealed and decided by the viewer. There is unquestionable awe in seeing the creatures come to life, something that, until this point in cinema, had never been done so well, and yet throughout the story we are reminded of just how dangerous this decision really is, how little control we actually have, and why any loss of respect for nature can have dynamic and domino-like effect. Still, what most take away from the movie experience is pure joy. The frights and adventures, the laughs and excitement are fuel for the imagination. Not without its minor flaws, the movie is propelled almost solely by its premise and the sheer fun of seeing dinosaurs in action. They never disappoint.
That Moment In: Jurassic Park
Scene Setup: The first time the tour vehicles approached the T-Rex paddock, nothing happened. The park engineers tried to lure it out with a goat, but this accomplished nothing except keep an otherwise busy goat tied up. It was one in a string of frustrating non-encounters on the tour. But back at the control center, a man named Nedry (Wayne Knight) is involved in a scheme with a competitive company to steal dino DNA samples. Nerdy is in a unique position, being the park’s lead computer programmer in charge of much of the compound’s functions, including security, which he temporarily disables to gain access to the embryo storage facility. Problem is, this occurs as the tropical storm descends on the island. The power shuts down leaving not only the park on emergency backup but the two tour vehicles stranded out in the paddocks. Guess which one they are stopped at? Here’s a clue:
The Scene: No matter who were the stars of this film, and no matter which director brought it to the screen, the only reason any person watches Jurassic Park is for one single thing: Tyrannosaurus Rex. Jeff Goldblum could have been wearing a pink ballerina tutu a bright red clown nose for the duration of the movie and no one would have noticed as long as the T-Rex was right. The filmmakers really had one goal when putting this movie together: make the T-Rex look real, make it so we believe it’s real, and make it friggin’ awesome. They succeeded on all points. A lot has been written about how it began as a stop motion creation, but was eventually switched to CGI. This was way back in the pioneering days of CGI, when it really hadn’t proven itself to be a solid replacement for standard practical effects. James Cameron had done a convincing job with the water tentacle in The Abyss and then again with the T-1000 in Terminator 2, but it was in Jurassic Park where the technology really became established as a true wave of the future. While only 6 minutes of actual CGI was used in the film (hard to believe), it’s impact was so dramatic that it shifted the entire industry in a new direction and now whole films are made with CGI, not always with the same wondrous results. It was Jurassic Park that convinced George Lucas, who was on set often, that the technology was ready for him to continue the Star Wars series. So, thanks for that, Spielberg.
Spielberg knows suspense. He set a new standard for monster movies with his classic 1975 thriller, Jaws. In that film, reportedly because of numerous mechanical problems with the fake shark, he chose to limit the screen time in which the fish is actually seen, instead using camera tricks, editing, and music to raise viewer suspense. It worked. Audiences were terrified and they had hardly seen the beast. With Jurassic Park, he knew he had to show the creature full size and in action, but to make that appearance more memorable, he wisely plays with audience expectations.
The moment begins with what sounds like distant thunder, a gentle rumble that is first heard by Tim (Joseph Mazzello), the youngest of the kids. We hear it too, and instantly know what it is, what it has to be. Tim is in the back of the tour vehicle, his sister in the middle, and the lawyer in the front. Behind them all is Dr. Grant (Sam Neill) and Ian in the second car. It’s raining, it’s dark, and they have no way to contact the control room. The rumble comes again, but this time, Tim eyes a cup of water sitting on the dashboard. It vibrates, creating perfect concentric circles on the surface. The visual device clearly establishes that what is occurring is not airborne, like thunder. This is a tremor. Something is coming. This alerts Gennaro (Martin Ferrero), who now notices that not just the water is trembling, but the car itself. The lawyer rationalizes that it might be the power generators trying to come back on. Tim, wearing a pair of night vision goggles he found stowed in the vehicle scans the enormous now dead electric fence beside the car. Right away he sees that the goat, previously put out as lure is now gone. A second later, one of its bloody limbs falls onto the sunroof.
What works so well here is how Spielberg keeps the action tight and almost exclusively from inside the car. We are seeing what they do and by doing so, feel the same pants-peeing hysterics they feel. The camera swings up and around as the action moves from the front to the side and then up to the top of the car, all the while our eyes darting through the rain soaked windows searching for big teeth. When the severed animal leg splats against the window, we jump just as much as the people in the car. Tim, removing the goggles, gets a glance at the metal sign that reads DANGER 10,000 Volts, and a large reptilian claw gripping it, reminding us that the enormous, intimidating fence separating people from monsters is now utterly useless. Crap. And then we see it. For the first time, the T-Rex, its gaping mouth swallowing the remains of a now three-legged goat. A streak of lightning cracks as it gulps it down. Then it turns and eyes the car, or more preciously, the creamy nougat center inside.
Gennaro, recognizing that he’s about to be the first course of an all-you-can-eat smorgasbord decides to heck with the kids and abandons the car, bee-lining it to the nearby restroom. This accomplishes three things: (1) it immediately puts the children in perceived more danger as we generally consider adults as protectors; (2) lifts the suspense because the children are alone, and by removing the adult, we feel far more concerned for their safety and in turn fear the T-Rex even more, and (3) creates a situation where Dr. Grant will become the protagonist, a role still undefined at this point.
Before the T-Rex attack, Jurassic Park is a tame story. Aside from a tease of monster mayhem in the first few minutes of the film, the first hour is devoted solely to build up and character introduction. That’s right. The first hour. Rex doesn’t show up until just past the half-way point. But with the the Tyrannosaurus Rex on the loose, the film begins it remarkable shift from exposition to action. Before was a battle of words, between science and hubris, motivation and discipline. Now it’s a whole new ball game. Not only is Dr. Grant thrust into the hero role, he is given one of film’s greatest advisory. Spielberg definitively films the T-Rex as a villain, just like his shark in Jaws. It has no remorse, hunts and attacks voraciously, and kills in a horrific way. Indeed, the sudden, jarring violence of the attack, punctuated by the devouring of Gennaro, completely alters the tone of the movie. But this is a good thing. To soften the scene or in some way lesson the fearsomeness of the dinosaur would have been a mistake. Surely, it could have been much more gruesome. Spielberg allows our imaginations to cut an image of what Gennaro looked like after the critter mistook him for an appetizer, instead having Ellie be our eyes. The only blood we see is the that of the goat’s leg and a smear on Malcolm’s thigh. The rest is left off screen. And that is just fine. What we think we see is often far more terrible than what we do. Dinosaurs have a built-in appeal for young people and Spielberg made sure to have that target audience have something to identify with in the film’s cast, but he also made sure that most of them would require a few weeks in therapy.
After the attack, the film is a chase film where humans outrun (mostly) other dinosaurs. More than that, it is a children in peril story as they are the focus of the second most impressive sequence, this one involving two pesky raptors that have figured out how to open doors. But it is the introduction of the movie’s real star, and the presence it has throughout the film, that everyone remembers most.
Michael Crichton (novel), Michael Crichton(screenplay)
Sam Neill, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum