Skip to main content

Yeah, but, John, if The Pirates of the Caribbean breaks down, the pirates don't eat the tourists.


Jurassic Park
(1993)

I’m uninspired by the prospect of seeing Jurassic Park 3D. Rather than going to such a length I thought I’d revisit one of the ‘berg’s biggest movies two-dimensionally, as nature intended. It is, after all, it’s twentieth anniversary.


I saw the film twice in the cinema on its initial release, something of a rarity usually reserved for films met with high esteem or requiring further cogitation. That wasn’t the case with Park, it was for purely for reasons of being sociable. The second visit confirmed my reservations, and seeing it again now only reinforces them. This is a very well made film. Spielberg is at the height of his powers. The use of special effects is frequently stunning, putting many a movie to shame made several decades down the line. But it feels cynical and hollow.


Sometimes overtly so (the pre-emptive displays of Jurassic Park merchandise could be viewed as oh-so-clever and self-reflexive, but the alternative is that it’s shamelessly crass). Sometimes because the script is so calculated that it lacks any real inspiration. The virtual retread a few years later would only confirm the shortage of really great ideas. But Michael Crichton was essentially doing an undisguised Westworld with dinosaurs, plus a bit of cod-science thrown in, so why should that be surprising? And Spielberg had long wanted to make a dinosaur movie, an entirely understandable itch to scratch. It’s just a shame he made this, rather than mounting a remake of The Land that Time Forgot.


Jurassic Park really scores with the set pieces. Once you’ve listlessly endured the not-really-very-good introductory sequences, that is. Sam Niell’s Dr Alan Grant freaks out a fat kid by describing the predatory habits of velociraptors. Richard Attenborough’s hammy Scots accent masquerading as a character introduces us to the science via a cute (read, patronising) cloning-for-idiots cartoon. An employee of the Park is up to no good in a really loud and obnoxious manner (he’ll get his!), only made bearable by the Wayne Knight’s gleeful performance.


Then there’s the introduction to the dinosaurs. Having the characters as audience surrogates is okay when its Grant and Ellie (Laura Dern). When it’s a pair of kids (hey, this is Spielberg) who happen to be Hammond’s niece (Lex, Adriana Richards) and nephew (Tim, Joseph Mazello) you wonder if you’ve strayed into some strange throwback Disney movie. To be fair to Richards and Mazello, their performances are fine, and Spielberg’s smart enough to not to make them precocious (although a climactic life-saving bit of computer whizzery on Lex’s part stretches patience pretty thin). But there’s no reason for them to be there, other than that’s what you used to do in family movies.


Worse, Spielberg regular John Williams ladles on the majestic grandeur of these beasts with a syrupy trowel. There, I’ve said it. I don’t like his Jurassic Park theme. It’s symptomatic of every identikit, fawningly emotive score he’s delivered in the past 20 years. Don’t get me wrong, he knows exactly how to punch up the dramatic scenes, but the cheap awe and spectacle need muffling.


To an extent, the director is just remaking Jaws. With better special effects. He relishes holding back his big reveals (an opening velociraptor attack with the camera only ever showing its victim, a cow lowered into their enclosure shows us nothing but frantic foliage). He revels in building tension (the famously rippling glass of water as the T-rex approaches, Knight’s encounter with a dilphosaurus). And it cannot be stressed how masterfully he integrates the effects. The combination of CGI and practical is nigh-on seamless, and the foregrounding of the physical elements (wind and rain, light and dark) lends weight and tangibility to them. Spielberg seems enthused here in a way that was only sporadically evident in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and was almost entirely absent from Hook. It’s just a shame he didn’t build a better script.


Surely its straightforwardness is to its credit? Entrepreneur invites scientists to his dinosaur theme park. Theme park goes wrong. All concerned must escape to safety. If it was as tightly wrought as the premise makes it sound, yes. I might have preferred James Cameron’s (who tried to buy the rights) take, but he’s not exactly economical and to-the-point either. Spielberg being Spielberg, other less-desirable ticks and obsessions intrude clumsily on the main plot.


Most pointedly, Grant doesn’t particularly like children, so the film is obliged to follow his journey from cruel relish at scaring the little ones to reluctant, then hearty, recognition of the joys of fatherhood. To achieve this, we are told, the only thing necessary is to endure a life or death experience with prehistoric monsters. All the while acting as the surrogate parent to a couple of little urchins. It’s as irritatingly unsubtle as that. Every time Grant stumbles forward in this new parental paradigm, Spielberg cuts back to doting Ellie who just knows Grant will be making babies with her in no time.


If this weren’t bad enough, Neill is unutterably dull in the role. It’s not as if this is his fall back position, but cast the actor in a solid, dependable part and he starts to blend in with the furniture. There’s a lack of vitality at the core of the film. I don’t know that the permanently tranquilised William Hurt or the increasingly somnambulant Harrison Ford (both were offered, and turned down, the role) would have made Grant more interesting but you’d at least have felt their presence more directly.


It’s left to the supporting players to inject a bit of life into the proceedings. Of which, Jeff Goldblum (as Dr. Ian Malcolm) is more than capable. He’s easily having the most fun here; I suppose you could call it the Han Solo part, except that he’s put out of action just as the excitement starts. Goldblum’s one of my favourite actors; I love his delivery, and the idiosyncratic emphases he places on his sentences. His manner is a curiously antithetical combination of the excitable and the laidback. He enthuses over Chaos Theory in a way that makes it sound far more interesting than Grant’s fusty old dinosaurs. In theory, Goldlbum’s return as the lead in The Lost World should have been a masterstroke. Unfortunately, again, the script was the problem.


Then there’s Bob Peck as Muldoon, the game warden, whose “Clever girl” is one of the most famous lines in the film. It’s a great “warning” part, not as show-off as the grizzled old veteran played by Robert Shaw in Jaws, but possessed of instant gravitas nevertheless. Samuel L Jackson’s chief engineer Arnold is a fairly thankless role, but he makes it memorably wearied and (particularly today) notable for chain-smoking.


The climax of the film always struck me as curiously curtailed. Spielberg stages a breathless half hour or so of velociraptoring before the intervention of a friendly neighbourhood T-Rex enables our protagonists’ lucky escape. It’s a deus ex machina for our heroes and cuts off mid-melee. Throughout, Spielberg is very reticent with his dinosaur violence. Humans are fair game, but we don’t see any dinosaurs shot, blown-up, gored, dismembered or otherwise exsanguinated. That’s what you call Cameron for, I guess. I did like the falling “When dinosaurs ruled the Earth” banner fluttering down as the beasties form a tableau rumpus, however.


Most of all, Jurassic Park was a missed opportunity. It was a chance to do something really fresh and exciting with dinosaurs using modern technology, but Crichton’s tale is blandly formulaic; that the film works as well as it does is all down to Spielberg (the screenplay is credited to Crichton and David Koepp; the latter is a solid director in his own right, but is his work-for-hire for Spielberg has been consistently not-quite-there). The sad thing is, the series has become the last word for dino-stories. They’ve surfaced occasionally (Peter Jackson’s King Kong, the misfiring comedy take on Land of the Lost) but neither in central roles, nor wholly successfully. And now that Jurassic Park 4 is on the horizon, is there any hope that it won’t just be another stir-and-repeat of the previous three? It’s a shame Joe Dante (one of the original rights-bidders) couldn’t have been given free reign on John Sayles’ aborted script for it.

***1/2

Popular posts from this blog

If I do nothing else, I will convince them that Herbert Stempel knows what won the goddam Academy Award for Best goddam Picture of 1955. That’s what I’m going to accomplish.

Quiz Show (1994) (SPOILERS) Quiz Show perfectly encapsulates a certain brand of Best Picture nominee: the staid, respectable, diligent historical episode, a morality tale in response to which the Academy can nod their heads approvingly and discerningly, feeding as it does their own vainglorious self-image about how times and attitudes have changed, in part thanks to their own virtuousness. Robert Redford’s film about the 1950s Twenty-One quiz show scandals is immaculately made, boasts a notable cast and is guided by a strong screenplay from Paul Attanasio (who, on television, had just created the seminal Homicide: Life on the Streets ), but it lacks that something extra that pushes it into truly memorable territory.

Your Mickey Mouse is one big stupid dope!

Enemy Mine (1985) (SPOILERS) The essential dynamic of Enemy Mine – sworn enemies overcome their differences to become firm friends – was a well-ploughed one when it was made, such that it led to TV Tropes assuming, since edited, that it took its title from an existing phrase (Barry Longyear, author of the 1979 novella, made it up, inspired by the 1961 David Niven film The Best of Enemies ). The Film Yearbook Volume 5 opined that that Wolfgang Petersen’s picture “ lacks the gritty sauciness of Hell in the Pacific”; John Boorman’s WWII film stranded Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune on a desert island and had them first duking it out before becoming reluctant bedfellows. Perhaps germanely, both movies were box office flops.

Piece by piece, the camel enters the couscous.

The Forgiven (2021) (SPOILERS) By this point, the differences between filmmaker John Michael McDonagh and his younger brother, filmmaker and playwright Martin McDonagh, are fairly clearly established. Both wear badges of irreverence and provocation in their writing, and a willingness to tackle – or take pot-shots – at bigger issues, ones that may find them dangling their toes in hot water. But Martin receives the lion’s share of the critical attention, while John is generally recognised as the slightly lesser light. Sure, some might mistake Seven Psychopaths for a John movie, and Calvary for a Martin one, but there’s a more flagrant sense of attention seeking in John’s work, and concomitantly less substance. The Forgiven is clearly aiming more in the expressly substantial vein of John’s earlier Calvary, but it ultimately bears the same kind of issues in delivery.

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989) (SPOILERS) There’s Jaws , there’s Star Wars , and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws ’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy , to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “ more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie ”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “ mainly boring ”. Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the

Say hello to the Scream Extractor.

Monsters, Inc. (2001) (SPOILERS) I was never the greatest fan of Monsters, Inc. , even before charges began to be levelled regarding its “true” subtext. I didn’t much care for the characters, and I particularly didn’t like the way Pixar’s directors injected their own parenting/ childhood nostalgia into their plots. Something that just seems to go on with their fare ad infinitum. Which means the Pixars I preferred tended to be the Brad Bird ones. You know, the alleged objectivist. Now, though, we learn Pixar has always been about the adrenochrome, so there’s no going back…

No one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.

The Matrix  (1999) (SPOILERS) Twenty years on, and the articles are on the defining nature of The Matrix are piling up, most of them touching on how its world has become a reality, or maybe always was one. At the time, its premise was engaging enough, but it was the sum total of the package that cast a spell – the bullet time, the fashions, the soundtrack, the comic book-as-live-action framing and styling – not to mention it being probably the first movie to embrace and reflect the burgeoning Internet ( Hackers doesn’t really count), and subsequently to really ride the crest of the DVD boom wave. And now? Now it’s still really, really good.

I’m just the balloon man.

Copshop (2021) (SPOILERS) A consistent problem with Joe Carnahan’s oeuvre is that, no matter how confidently his movies begin, or how strong his premise, or how adept his direction or compelling the performances he extracts, he ends up blowing it. He blows it with Copshop , a ’70s-inspired variant on Assault on Precinct 13 that is pretty damn good during the first hour, before devolving into his standard mode of sado-nihilistic mayhem.

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991) (SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

When we have been subtle, then can I kill him?

The Avengers 6.16. Legacy of Death There’s scarcely any crediting the Terry Nation of Noon-Doomsday as the same Terry Nation that wrote this, let alone the Terry Nation churning out a no-frills Dalek story a season for the latter stages of the Jon Pertwee era. Of course, Nation had started out as a comedy writer (for Hancock), and it may be that the kick Brian Clemens gave him up the pants in reaction to the quality of Noon-Doomsday loosened a whole load of gags. Admittedly, a lot of them are well worn, but they come so thick and fast in Legacy of Death , accompanied by an assuredly giddy pace from director Don Chaffey (of Ray Harryhausen’s Jason and the Argonauts ) and a fine ensemble of supporting players, that it would be churlish to complain.

You ever heard the saying, “Don’t rob the bank across from the diner that has the best donuts in three counties”?

2 Guns (2013) (SPOILERS) Denzel Washington is such a reliable performer, that it can get a bit boring. You end up knowing every gesture or inflection in advance, whether he’s playing a good guy or a bad guy. And his films are generally at least half decent, so you end up seeing them. Even in Flight (or perhaps especially in Flight ; just watch him chugging down that vodka) where he’s giving it his Oscar-nominatable best, he seems too familiar. I think it may be because he’s an actor who is more effective the less he does. In 2 Guns he’s not doing less, but sometimes it seems like it. That’s because the last person I’d ever expect blows him off the screen; Mark Wahlberg.