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Saturday, June 26, 2010

Jurassic Park and Spielberg 2.0

(June 2010)

Recently I attended a midnight screening of Jurassic Park, the blockbuster that saved Steven Spielberg's status at a time when, following Always and Hook, some entertainment pundits were declaring the end of the Spielberg era. The inaugurator of "Spielberg 2.0," setting a new standard for film studios in terms of marketing and financial expectations just as Jaws did in 1975, and thereby working faster to change the output of Hollywood releases for the subsequent years, Jurassic Park was not looked upon with the same critical fondness of the director's previous blockbuster fantasias, such as Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and E.T.: The Extraterrestrial, so much as it was greeted warmly as a proficient science fiction story that pioneered new special effects and marketing techniques. It was hollow in comparison to the earlier trend-setters, and viewed more cynically. Jurassic Park gives ammunition to Spielberg's enemies for its trite sentiments regarding family, its bigness and braggadocio, its manipulations and throwaway characters who weren't treated with a fraction of the respect of its forebears. Spielberg seemed to be saving his more potent ammunition for Schindler's List, which would come out six months later, and Jurassic Park was an expertly crafted piece of thrill ride engineering geared to use the medium to stir the viewer. As John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) tells his guests locked in their seats, "It's kind of a ride."

And in this sense, reviewing Jurassic Park on a big screen 17 years after its release, Spielberg's suspenseful techniques were never better than with this particular ride: borrowing Jaws' restraint in showing the monsters (there is about 15 minutes of dinosaur footage in the whole 2 hour film), Spielberg stretches out his suspense while also playfully commenting on the reflexive elements of his amusement park ride, as Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) taps on the camera lens (being watched by movie director Richard Attenborough) and says, "Excuse me, but you do have dinosaurs here, don't you?" Spielberg is taking cue from the Hitchcock of The Birds, lulling us with inaction to the brink of boredom -- and then swiftly attacking. The suspense elsewhere plays out beautifully with the rippling water cup and puddles as the Tyrannosaurus approaches; the cuddliness of the Dilophosaur that erupts suddenly into a venomous frilled specter of death for Wayne Knight; the unfortunate cow being lowered into the velociraptor den and then being devoured, heard but not seen; the kitchen game of cat and mouse with the raptors; the Jell-O shaking in Ariana Richards' spoon as a raptor's shadow draws near; and so on and so on. I was also struck by how quickly the film sets up a claustrophobic atmosphere of entrapment and gruesome portents, as the protagonists willingly enter an isolated top-secret island 70 miles from Costa Rica, and then are undone by the perils of imperfect contingencies that destroy electronic communications and security measures, as the tropical storm is hurtling violently outside. In a 1993 Entertainment Weekly interview, screenwriter David Koepp named Roman Polanski as his key influence, precisely because of how claustrophobia is so powerful a suspense tool in his films. The lack of a fail-safe plan that consequently leads to almost certain doom is worthy of Stanley Kubrick, whose The Shining this film overtly alludes to during the kitchen hide-and-seek between children and hungry dinosaurs.

But it's not only the element of suspense that has aged positively in Jurassic Park. Though this Michael Crichton adaptation is admittedly not a razor-sharp character study, the quick offhand banter between the mostly two-dimensional leads (Sam Neil, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum, Richard Attenborough, Martin Ferrero) is shockingly relaxed and well performed when compared to most any other human interaction in a blockbuster film of the last 15 years. For instance, during the scene when we first meet Dr. Alan Grant (Neil) and his paleobotanist girlfriend Ellie Satler (Dern) digging up velociraptor fossils in the Badlands of Montana, we observe the expected anthropological elements which will become elemental to the story, mostly having to do with Grant's theory that dinosaurs have more in common with warm-blooded birds than cold-blooded reptiles. As Grant points to a computer generated CAST (computer assisted sonic tomography – where a slug is fired into the ground, setting off shock waves that are assembled into an x-ray) image of the fossils below, we notice the monitor's screen jumbles when his finger touches it. It throws him temporarily off and gives the scene a spontaneous, if minor, human anchor.

It was this moment that threw me off during the recent screening, and drew me closer in. As I continued to watch Jurassic Park, an eerie notion took shape. Though critics of Spielberg, myself included, love to point out his work's lack of reflexivity when compared to other filmmakers of his Movie Brat generation, Steven Spielberg was all-too-aware of what he may have been creating with Jurassic Park and its possible negative implications for the future of movies, which in furthering his ability to capture his vision and ensure his success would possibly also make his kind of artist extinct. With his longtime collaborators Stan Winston, Dennis Muran, and teams from George Lucas' Industrial Light and Magic, Spielberg with Jurassic Park was going to use computer generated effects in such a way that would possibly change the movies permanently. "Computer Graphics" regarding special effects was an oft-used word in the early 1990s, following James Cameron's The Abyss (1989) and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), where even a cheap horror movie like The Lawnmower Man (1992) garnered interest because of how it showcased full sequences generated by a computer, with posters, displaying the film's brief moment of "cybersex," being sold in mass quantities at your local mall's Suncoast Pictures or Shinders. 

In creating Jurassic Park, Spielberg's challenge, and advantage, was to create real dinosaurs interacting with humans without a reliance on animatronics (which the film still uses, quite well), stop-motion, or miniatures. Audiences had to accept the dinosaurs, long extinct animals from 65 million years ago, as real participants in a story, the same way Michael Crichton's characters experience them as cloned products of engineering in Isla Nublar. Spielberg completely succeeded, and unlike John Hammond's guests in Jurassic Park, the film's audience was delighted and awed, in spite of whatever hackneyed moments or the ludicrousness of the abrupt ending, where Spielberg and his collaborators had altered most of the darkness and misanthropy of Crichton for a fanciful happy send-off. (Too bad, because it would have been funny revenge for Spielberg to have the director who beat him for 1982's Best Director Oscar eaten by little green scavenger dinosaurs). The conclusion of Jurassic Park, the thrill ride experiment, showed that Spielberg was more interested in the thrills being generated by the tourist sights within his audience than the darker implications of the story. To end the film like the Crichton novel would surely have stirred audiences, but would also leave them with a soured sense of human nature and the capabilities of modern science.

Yet it is something of a post-human ending. CGI has become ubiquitous, and real spaces are secondary to the capabilities of the hyperreality created by computers: the dinosaurs have indeed gotten out of their cages and eaten up most of the real people. 3D is one more step towards the completion of a Singularity, eradicating the separateness of Image and Audience, where all that remains is Escape into another world. This past weekend, Roger Ebert was complaining how much better the new James Mangold spy thriller, Knight and Day, would be if only there wasn't the interruption of CGI "action magic." Instead of being a tool used sparingly to texture a film, CGI has gradually become the invading roommate whose buddies threaten to overwhelm the whole house, taking our food and stinking up the place. First the dinosaurs, then the actual people, and with Avatar the whole world. The hyperbole of CGI action cinema is spectacular, but in films like 2012 or The A-Team (another film which compelled Ebert to voice his frustration), it's the shear impossibility of the spatial relationships which makes them cheekily hilarious, and thus, perversely entertaining. A simple chase in a Hollywood action film can't exist anymore. I admire the car chases of Bullitt and The French Connection, but were those films made in today's world, would they achieve a whole new level of ludicrous speed? I was marveling at the 1975 film Three Days of the Condor the other day, one of the best thrillers of all time, and I thought there was no way that this picture could exist as it is presently, if it was remade by a Hollywood studio in 2010. An independent film, maybe; but then who would see it? With Knight and Day, that's a significant thought for me, considering that James Mangold has always represented a kind of unique brand of meat-and-potatoes moviemaking within the studio system (3:10 to Yuma, Walk the Line, Cop Land, Heavy).

In Jurassic Park, we are witnessing a metaphor for the future of filmmaking. This was hardly lost on a lot of critics in June 1993, who noted how the posters for Jurassic Park the film were plastered everywhere on the fictional park, on cars, doors, toys, shirts, etc. The marketing was the same as the marketing seen within the diagetic text of the film, and as I mentioned above, the characters and the audience were equivalent in bearing witness to the real-world arrival of long-dead animals. We feel, in part thanks to John Williams music, exactly what Alan Grant and company feels when they turn around and are in open-mouthed awe upon seeing the gigantic brachiosaur, Spielberg using his standard "close-up of awe." We might also note the line used by John Hammond throughout the film regarding the construction of his attraction park, "Spared no expense!" This could have been Spielberg and his producers talking about their own film, and Universal's marketing department talking about a campaign involving toys, clothes, videogames and McDonald's. This is why casting an actor who was also a renowned film director, Richard Attenborough (A Bridge too Far, Gandhi, Cry Freedom, Chaplin, Shadowlands), was appropriate for the character of theme-park creator Hammond. Jurassic Park, Spielberg intuited, would in time become a film that would be seen to be more about the movies than about dinosaurs.

The aforementioned scene about the CAST image, where Grant is shown a velociraptor fossil on a computer, reflects on Spielberg's position as representative movie director. Because of how the CAST and general computer technology is progressing, Grant is told by a colleague, "Soon we won't even need to dig anymore." "Where's the fun in that?" Grant asks. The analog practice of fossil digging, like the analog process of moviemaking, will be lost as the cinema of the singular artist or visionary becomes extinct in wake of what Robert Kolker, in his own writing on Spielberg, calls the cinema of the graphic designer. Truly, it is easy for us to deride filmmakers for making this leap. All one has to do is watch a "making of" featurette on a film like Kurosawa's Ran or Apocalypse Now, and sympathize with a group of exasperated craftsmen and artists working against the clock and against their wallets to create something magnificent, or as Stanley Kubrick said, "writing War and Peace in a bumper car." And yet, isn't the adversity of those obstacles part of what makes the images stirring? Would we want a computer to help Werner Herzog to drag his boat through the Amazon in Fitzcarraldo, or would we want computer generated helicopters in Apocalypse Now? We know that likely, while Herzog would stubbornly perhaps not acquiesce, Coppola would have loved to be able to just have two helicopters and then generate the others generated with a computer. Is the grueling nature of filmmaking, something that holds convenience far away from us, also part of its treasure? I cannot answer truthfully because 1979 is not 2010, but the question of Coppola's Valkyrie sequence troubles me deeply. Alan Grant, we are told early in Jurassic Park, is a "digger." He works with earth, he toils and he labors. He "gets his hands dirty," a phrase used by Malcolm in Jurassic Park. The age of computers threatens to eradicate the fun physical aspect of his work.

The portents of that early scene are reverberated more loudly when Grant ends up in Jurassic Park and understands that John Hammond is able to generate his own living, breathing dinosaurs, "real" examples of the thing Grant makes a living on by theorizing about. Precisely because no one knows the truth about dinosaurs, paleontologists are able to make money and earn notoriety by theorizing about them and writing books; Grant himself, a character that was an amalgamation of real paleontologists Robert Bakker and John Horner, stresses that dinosaurs were probably warm-blooded creatures, unlike other reptiles, and thus closer to birds. His theory, which could probably be the focus of a lecture-gilded lifelong career of talking and status advancement, is immediately recognized as a reality when he encounters the living biological specimens of dinosaurs. The mystery of analog investigation and hypothesis vanishing, he realizes that pretty soon he will be out of a job, or as Malcolm tells him, "Don't you mean 'extinct.'" The lab team of Jurassic Park, headed by Dr. Henry Wu (B.D. Wong), represents the coming digital age of instant duplication and convenient creation of something out of nothing. This is the new world of science, just as Grant is the old, just as Jurassic Park is the new world of moviemaking. Filmmakers in 1993, upon seeing Jurassic Park, were probably thinking the same thing that they are thinking now, since the release of Avatar and the success of 3D: as Grant says, "we'll probably have to evolve too."

Jurassic Park makes the equivalence of its characters for the viewing audience more blatant during the "theater ride" on which Hammond puts his participants, as Grant, Sattler, chaos theory mathematician Malcolm, and sleazy lawyer Donald Gennaro (Martin Ferraro) are seated in a microcinema with a roller-coaster seat fastener keeping them locked into place, as they watch Hammond interact with his own filmed image and the scientific secrets of Jurassic Park unspool. What Hammond does not anticipate is that these select viewers are not passive viewers who will simply surrender to the ride. They desire inquiry and discussion and actually want to move beyond the rectangle of the screen and be inside the lab where the dinosaur DNA is handled by geneticists. Spielberg's own audience, or the audience for any summer blockbuster, is not nearly as inquisitive or second-guessing. The artisans and theoreticians like Grant, Sattler, and Malcolm are skeptical and weary, if thrilled; Gennaro, from whom the funding for Jurassic Park comes, only sees what the studio executives in 1993 must have seen while previewing Spielberg's effects: "We're going to make a fortune."

Essentially, with this new power that the movie director/park curator is able to wield with technology, there is the inevitability of things getting out of control as events swirl into an incoherent hurricane of chaos where the human beings end up getting devoured by the digital recreations. Malcolm remarks about the "inherent dangers" of this awesome force, and though he is talking about genetic engineering, I apply his words to computerized filmmaking and how studios would adapt Spielberg's discoveries. "You wield it like a kid that's found his dad's gun...It didn't require any discipline to attain it. You read what others had done, and you took the next step. You didn't earn the knowledge for yourselves, so you don't take any responsibility for it. You stood on the shoulders of geniuses to accomplish something as fast as you could, and before you even knew what you had, you've patented it, and packaged it, and whacked it on a plastic lunchbox, and now you're selling it...You're scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could do it, that they didn't stop to think if they should." 

The power of recreating reality with computer graphics, like the power of recreating extinct animals, is profound, but may it also be dangerous? In Jurassic Park, the recreation results in chaos, which is why these early scenes in the microcinema and the lab are so marvelous: they build a comfortably enclosed space held together by a steady stream of electricity that keeps flesh-devouring creatures locked up; but any contingency system, especially held together by surveillance technology and telecommunications, hangs on a very fragile thread, and control and stability is an illusion. The filmmakers too are sure that their convenient recreations of reality will not interrupt the flow of cinema's treasury of images, and we're safe from the power of illusions. "It's still a flea market," Sattler despairingly tells the illusionist Hammond in a later scene. This scene between the two characters, as Hammond relays the story of how he first got into creating amusement park attractions (a flea market in Scotland), and how Sattler comes close to tears in trying to bring him to reason, always annoyed me as a superfluous and poor Spielbergian tack-on moment. But now it's suddenly affecting as a commentary on where Jurassic Park would take the movies. Sattler was, like we are as viewers, entranced by the power of Jurassic Park (and "Jurassic Park"), and she admits that this power was something that had to be respected beyond mere escapism and frivolous amusement. 

Malcolm predicted the entropy of Hammond's dinosaur world as mathematical necessity, given not only human faith in contingency systems, but with what is inherent in Nature. Digital worlds and digital thinking are linear, 1 or 0 binary units communicating. It's simply not in the cards that Hammond or chief engineer Arnold (Samuel L. Jackson) could imagine that the computer specialist Nedry (Wayne Knight) would outsource his talents and shut the system of Jurassic Park down in order to steal dinosaur embryos for a rival company (though the unkemptness of Nedry's desk, which pisses Arnold off as he tries to log on to Nedry's computer, is a reference to the cog Nedry represents in the Jurassic Park electronic machine – this fleshy overweight man is Nature, ruled by impulse and the need to consume – whether its soda, pie, money, or the debts that lead him to find better avenues for revenue). Nedry's own linear plan of escape is similarly foolproof, considering he's made previous test-runs from his desk to the laboratory to the island dock where he would escape with the embryos in a shaving cream can. What gets in his way is the reliable unpredictability of the weather, of Nature, which sends his jeep to spiral out of control through muddy roads and an invisible line of light as he struggles to see through a rain-soaked wind-shield. Losing complete control of the time and his spatial direction, he finds himself in the paddock of the venomous dilophosaurus, is blinded by venom, and then consumed, as the shaving cream can filled with precious dinosaur embryos, like a classic Hitchcockian MacGuffin, falls down a slope and is covered in descending mud, forever lost. The futility of rational thinking is voiced by Malcolm as the thrill ride begins, "God help us, we're in the hands of engineers."

Jurassic Park is filled with such moments of irritating claustrophobia and madness as rational linear thinking becomes moot, and the primal takes absolute control. But in true Spielberg fashion, at the end, we are safe – not only physically after the roller coaster gut-churning suspense, but also psychologically. The Dr. Frankenstein figure of Hammond from the book was someone who became devoted to constant self-delusion which would have made for a fascinating film villain, but here he becomes a cute and precocious old codger. The movie director has wielded his technological power, and finally learned to be cautious and respectful. The likeable character of Malcolm dies in the book (he's resurrected in Crichton's sequel), though here he makes it out safely along with Hammond, Grant, Sattler, and Hammond's two grandchildren. Meanwhile, Gennero and gamekeeper Muldoon (Bob Peck), two characters that survive in the book, become dinosaur food in the film. The Chaos combatancy between Hammond and Malcolm is cooled, and Jurassic Park can end happily. The film director and amusement park curator Steven Spielberg would go on to continue working with CGI in a large way, but in science fiction creations that I would deem the most dazzling and responsible use of the technology in Hollywood special effects fantasies, AI and Minority Report, where clearly the human element of the drama wins out over the electronic cybernetic element, the former film being a rare special effects film where one can speak highly of performances (Haley Joel Osment and Jude Law).

But if Spielberg is more like his Jurassic Park protagonists, the rest of Hollywood, as indicated by Ebert's recent reviews, bears the mad scientist detritus of the Crichton novel's Hammond. George Lucas' new Star Wars films became an instant possibility after Jurassic Park, as did plans for Kubrick's original ideas for AI, and Cameron's Titanic along with his teenage conception Avatar (Lucas himself apparently handled much of Jurassic Park's post-production as Spielberg went to Poland to work on Schindler's List). The next year, Spielberg's protégé Robert Zemeckis released Forrest Gump, which impressively used CGI to revise American history (something which points to the form's possible danger), and mega-producer Jerry Bruckheimer, along with a talented young director named Michael Bay, would use this new technology to crank the terrestrially impossible to the volume of 11 on a 1-10 scale, with films like Bad Boys and its sequel, The Rock, Armageddon, and Con Air (directed by Simon West). There was also Spielberg's sequel The Lost World, suitably thrilling but ultimately mind-blowing in how ridiculous it is, and the Roland Emmerich bigger-is-better CGI Irwin Allen-on-steroids epics Independence Day, Godzilla, The Day After Tomorrow, and 2012, where the abilities of CGI proved indeed that it could indeed destroy the planet Earth. Lucas' Star Wars prequels were cutting edge and fast-moving, but lacked the mythic resonance of the older films, in addition to the spatial texture of the marvelous production design; they felt like cartoons. Bay's Transformers films, produced by Spielberg, reveled in a lack of earthly connection as the machines took over, with loud noises and muscle-flexing completely absorbing anything of real-human-body-in-space interest. Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings were often also probably over-the-top (how many swirling tracking shots of a computer-generated environment do we need?) but the computer spaces seamlessly, for the most part, were amalgamated with New Zealand's natural landscape, and Jackson, a very talented dramatist in addition to being a technophile, knew how to work with great actors in making stand-out performances, and how to create emotion. But such remarkable work is tempered by the tragedy of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, where the stunt-laden and icky wildlife excitement of the 1980s films were replaced by digital prairie dogs and scorpions. There was an interesting voyeurism to the original Indiana Jones films (or for that matter, Star Wars), and I think Jackson successfully retains this for the most part in Lord of the Rings, as if we were being SHOWN a world that had always existed, while in the CGI-drenched landscapes resulting from the Jurassic Park embryo, we were watching a world that was consciously created by graphic architects working in a computer lab (God help us, we're in the hands of engineers). This is the sense one might get upon rewatching 2000's Ridley Scott film, Gladiator, which had very sophisticated visual effects in its reconstruction of ancient Rome. Nevertheless, the sense I get (echoed in Ebert's thoughts on the film) is that Rome does not look like anything more than a videogame setting; this is too bad for Ridley Scott, who says that he likes to "create worlds," but in his other pictures those "worlds" give us that thrilling sense of voyeurism, at seeing something real but which we've never been able to encounter (Blade Runner being the best example). For movies in the post-Jurassic world the result is convenience, but the same convenience one gets in writing an off-the-cuff email message when compared to constructing a hand-written letter. It is hard to put a finger on the final difference because it amounts to an intuition, and thus one runs the risk of sounding like an incorrigible geezer and Luddite, but it certainly exists. And perhaps to not evolve with it means to become extinct.

The sequence of Chaos, like in Ian Malcom's theory of John Hammond's park, cannot be turned back or contained. But watching Jurassic Park, with its prescience and proficiency from 1993 this last week after 17 years of a paradoxical progression and entropy in mainstream cinema, was a moving experience for a film-buff. If Spielberg 2.0 amounted to a new creation that would contribute to what Jean-Luc Godard believes is the end of cinema, the playfulness with which it plays out still makes me smile. Consequently, Jurassic Park has aged wonderfully in its big-screen presentation, and I think it ultimately is the better Spielberg film of 1993, as opposed to Schindler's List. In wake of the constant cavalcade of movie Loud Noises, tiresome staccato action-movie rhythms, and laughable preposterousness that makes us "ooo" and "aaahh" for a couple hours, Jurassic Park should be seen by curious current audiences to witness how the shallow and stupid summer blockbuster can be done right.

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