Lights, Camera, Conversation… “Twenty years after”

Posted on April 19, 2013


Some thoughts on seeing ‘Jurassic Park’ on the big screen after two decades.

The human mind is amazing – like an attic. You’ve forgotten all about the things up there. And then, one day, you stumble upon something and you realise it’s been there all along. Sitting inside the cinema hall during the 3-D release of Jurassic Park, I found that the slogan used to promote the film during its initial run in 1993 was still stashed away inside my head: “An adventure 65 million years in the making comes to you in 5 days.” Or something to that effect. In those pre-Internet days, I used to visit the USIS library a lot, and this full-page ad in the New York Times – mostly blank space, except for the slogan on top, the credits below, and, in the middle, a circle enclosing the outline of a dinosaur skeleton, the film’s logo – caught my fancy, probably because I was thinking about getting into advertising at the time. I did. That stint was brief. But the film has endured – at least in the cultural imagination, if not quite as a piece of cinema.

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Let me explain. Watching the film on the big screen for the first time after twenty years, I was frankly a little bored. Some stretches still work, like the one that alternates between people climbing over a 10,000-volt electric fence after a power outage and the attempt to restore power to the storm-hit island. We know the outcome – yet the thrillingly manipulative cross-cutting gets to us. But the problem, elsewhere, is that there’s nothing to look forward to except the dinosaurs. The characterisation – which is what is supposed to sustain the film during the long intervals between the dino attacks – is strictly one-note. Jeff Goldblum’s mathematician exists solely to provide dire warnings about chaos theory. He does show a rather unhealthy interest in Laura Dern’s character, but that angle is quickly snuffed out. The film doesn’t know what to do with him after a point. He gets injured and he retires from the action.

Even the dialogues are shockingly perfunctory. The big speech by the impresario played by Richard Attenborough, about his beginnings with flea circuses, is turned around to dino-talk pretty quickly, and it’s tempting to compare the lines in Jurassic Park to those in Jaws, whose topics ranged from the crime rate in New York to Japanese submarines to the intricacies of knot-making. There was even a song about Spanish ladies. Both Jaws and Jurassic Park are glorified B-movies – “creature features,” if you wish – and both begin similarly (a girl is pulled into the water by an unseen shark; a man is pulled into a cage by an unseen dino), and yet, only one of them is a classic, worth watching again and again. And that’s because we come to invest in the people even outside their mission of capturing the shark. Watch the first hour of Jaws today, and you may say you’re watching a laid-back character study.

Whether with our films or with Hollywood films, whenever we point out that something mass-audience-oriented isn’t especially good, a few people will say something like “Oh but who cares about the people or about dialogue? I want dinos and I got a terrific set of dinos.” That’s fine for a first or second viewing, but it doesn’t make a film endure. Besides, the dinos themselves don’t endure (though John Williams’s stirring score certainly does). Some of the creatures look fake and rubbery, and watching Jurassic Park today is to remind yourself that yesterday’s groundbreaking technology is today’s mild embarrassment – given that the gold standard for a computer-generated creature, today, is the terrifyingly realistic tiger from Life of Pi. Twenty years from now, when this tiger is considered a mild embarrassment by viewers, I wonder what computers will be able to generate on screen. Lifelike human beings, making actors redundant?

Jurassic Park, today, is remarkable mainly as the end of one phase of Steven Spielberg. He made Schindler’s List that same year, and his “serious” films have gotten far more interesting than his lighter ones. Seeing The Adventures of Tintin or Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, it’s clear his heart isn’t in these big popular entertainments anymore. (At least the latter film drew on the Indiana Jones mythology and our affection for the earlier adventures kept us invested; the former was a disappointment to Tintin fans, to Spielberg fans, and to fans of whiz-bang entertainment.) Of late, it is in his darker films – Minority Report, War of the Worlds – that we see the filmmaker who made Jaws. This is a strange turn of events, that someone who redefined mass entertainment and made us happy to be children again is now doing his best work in films for grown-ups.

Seeing a film far removed from its cultural context summons up unexpected reactions. Today, I look at the thieving computer architect, played by Wayne Knight, and I think “NEWMAN!” (You have to say it the way Jerry Seinfeld says it in his TV series.) And some shots reveal themselves through the lens of film history – the tracking of a leather bag, early on, reminds me of Hitchcock’s tracking of a purse at the beginning of Marnie. Perhaps the most touching exchange in the film comes about when the blood-sucking lawyer says that they can charge anything – “2,000 a day, 10,000 a day, and people will pay it.” And the Attenborough character rebukes him gently. “This park was not built to cater only for the super-rich. Everyone in the world has the right to enjoy these animals.” He could be talking about the modern-day movie. Where else, for a couple of hundred bucks, can the man on the street transport himself to a place beyond his wildest imagination?

Lights, Camera, Conversation… is a weekly dose of cud-chewing over what Satyajit Ray called Our Films Their Films. An edited version of this piece can be found here.

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