[This post is my contribution to the Steven Spielberg Blogathon co-hosted by Adam Zanzie (Icebox Movies) and Ryan Kelly (Medfly Quarantine).]
As an 8-year-old, Jurassic Park held remarkably little sway over me in the days before I saw the film. I'd been caught up in hype before: Disney's Beauty and the Beast was my favorite movie by far for a time, and I remember counting down the days before I got to see it (seven times in theaters, a record unmatched by any film until Inglourious Basterds) and even being something of a prick towards my parents when I didn't get to go see it right away. Similarly, I'm pretty sure that word of the production of Home Alone 2 made me jump with excitement. I liked dinosaurs terrifically as a child; in the case of Jurassic Park, you'd think I'd have been jumping out of my skin. Alas, the preview was memorable but, once passed, left little impression on my young mind.
The reason, I think, is that at even that early point in time, I had mentally checked Steven Spielberg as someone to watch out for, in a bad way (ironic now, I know). E.T. had already rubbed me the wrong way, so clearly I was the one who had gotten off on the wrong foot (other than that negative feeling, I don't remember watching it, only knowing that it had happened). A few years later, I'd see and love Duel, but for now I was confronted with a film that had earned important notice amongst people my age (along with pogs, among other things of such importance) and, concurrently, in the local newspaper for having drawn such young interest in a PG-13 rated movie. My dad showed me editorials and cartoons on the matter as if (a) I gave a shit (I hadn't pressed to see the film, and would later be denied access to see The Nightmare Before Christmas; adventurous, my parents always are) and (b) such noise was worthwhile (already, media banter struck me as reactionary and inane). And when my first chance came to actually go see the movie, I actively dismissed it. Even I don't get my weirdness sometimes.
Suffice to say, when I finally was able to see it (a few months into its run, around Halloween, I remember), Spielberg's film disturbed me profoundly. I wasn't entertained so much as paralyzed, from the opening scene on (even the jovial first half couldn't overcome the effect). I remember ticking off the number of people who had died in the film, finding it (the film) to be horribly, sickeningly exploitative (this being the second time such an effect had happened to me: a terrible disaster picture in a tropical setting, When Time Ran Out, made for a disturbing television experience several years earlier; with no concept of special effects, these people drowning and burning were actually dying to my young eyes). My anger at the film culminated in the form of a written letter to one Mr. Spielberg, in which I disparaged him for wallowing in perceived filth and gore. I'm unsure of what happened to this letter; part of me wishes to read it, while another hopes it no longer exists, so as to not become potential blackmail fodder.
In time, I came to enjoy Jurassic Park (for the record, I've now possessed four copies of the film, the first, a VHS, being a gift, later a widescreen VHS, and two DVDs, the most latter bought for the purposes of this 'thon because the first DVD copy is still on loan to the co-host himself!), and more recently, to love it quite unabashedly. A late-night solo viewing of the film two or three years ago convinced me of its singularity: as an action film, as an auteurist vision, as a blockbuster, as a humanist statement. It's a masterpiece, and I'd go so far as to call it life-affirming. Among the many recommendables: Spielberg's exquisite character shorthand, a finely tuned orchestra, of performers, and the visual effects, which - although easier to spot these 17 years later - are still an enthralling landmark in digital evolution. The nighttime T-Rex attack might be the finest f/x set piece ever filmed, and that's coming from a died-in-the-wool Terminator fan (and you can throw all six Star Wars on the keeper pile, too).
What I eventually realized, with so much hindsight, was that Jurassic Park disturbed me at that age because this was a film that took death seriously. Unlike most of the flimsy monster movies I'd seen up until that time -- in which a cop snatched from traffic by the hungry jaws of a monster was just a throwaway figure in a fun but surface-deep framework -- this was the work of someone who considered the spirit and flesh and blood of everyone involved, even the cowardly lawyer and pudgy, scorned hacker. Films that toss off human life (singular or plural) without due cause (be it laughter or tears or something between) sicken me yet, but time has shown layers where previously none shown.
Spielberg was too experienced even at that point in his career to not be aware of an inherent silliness in the material (something Peter Jackson would fumble with in his adaptation of King Kong), and yet this awareness doesn't manifest itself as camp; it grounds the material, and with the help of technology, renders it as real as flesh and blood (Hammond's second act speech about a flea circus would be unforgivably lame if it wasn't such a blatant surrogate for Spielberg's intentions). By relocating the narrative pull away from the physical action (which is beautiful pop art) to the universal human impulses laced within (life finds a way), Spielberg elevates the material to the timelessly sublime.
It's this core of humanity that appeals to me so strongly in all of Spielberg's films, and yet he's not one without his darker sides. If Jurassic Park (and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and The Lost World, and Raiders of the Lost Ark, among others) tells us anything, it's that Steven likes to kill people in his movies. Humanistic or not, villains need dispatching, but his portrayals always hit a gut response of authenticity because they represent an actual loss. Nowadays, Jurassic Park's film-as-a-ride extravaganza is one of my favorite popcorn titles. And I'm entirely grateful that it, and not War of the Worlds, was there to torment my childhood.
A final tangential note: if you saw Jurassic Park at midnight at New York City's Sunshine theater early 2010 (a good showing, even if the audience was a little bit too ironic towards the movie for my taste), you'll probably remember the big audience cheer for Sam Neill when his character is introduced. Immediately following was a guy who then singly called out Laura Dern's name with meek enthusiasm. Yeah, that was me.
I love these faces.
Nedry and Hammond's past is deliberately obscured in this script. Is this line meant sincerely?
This is one of my favorite acting moments in the film. Compelled, as if by an involuntary force, to rush to the aid of the children, Alan realizes, immediately after getting the attention of the T-Rex, that he is now the prey of choice. His face twitches delightfully as he conveys dawning fear and redoubled resolution in the matter of about two seconds.
Listen at this moment for a antiquated slipping sound file, like something out of an old cartoon. Fitting.
He looked down.
What are they looking at? Limbs? Fleshy scraps?
I wonder how many takes this shot required.
I love how this gotcha moment suggests greater unseen intelligence of the raptors. One of those creatures had to stuff that arm into the crevice, as if hiding all traces of themselves before the arrival of the next potential victim.
Be vewy vewy qwiet....I'm hunting waptors.
If you don't give yourself away, cheap utensil hooks surely will.
Are you there, God?