Film Club / Feels Less Like a Movie and More Like a Dream

Jurassic ParkJurassic Park
Directed by Steven Spielberg

 

 

 

 
 
 

I’m sorry for being so completely predictable but you do realise that Jurassic Park is an anti-Capitalist parable right?

Yeah Alan Grant is the emotional glue of the movie. He’s a Bizarro Spielberg Father Figure in that instead of spending the movie running away from kids (see: Martin Brody, Roy Neary and whoever Elliott’s Dad was…) he spends the movie slowly opening himself up to them. Which yeah is nice and cute and everything. But obviously Ian Malcolm is the ever-beating brain of the show and when he speaks you know you’re supposed to stop, listen and pay attention.   Yeah it’s incredibly quotable stuff (“Yeah, yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.”) but if that’s all you’re paying attention to then it might lead you to the mistaken conclusion that this is a movie about the dangers of unchecked Science (cut to South Park voice: “Thank you Mr Scientist“). Although obviously that’s what the film wants you to think – you leave the cinema nodding your head and wisely saying “And that’s why we shouldn’t play God and build dinosaur theme parks.”    But even tho he’s all like “Boy, do I hate being right all the time” it’s worth pointing out that Ian Malcolm actually gets it wrong. His whole doom-saying theory thing is that if you genetically reconstruct dinosaurs and build a theme park around them then something something chaos theory something something “life will find a way” and they’ll somehow manage to escape through all their electric fences. (Oh wait here’s Alan Grant chiming in too: “Dinosaurs and man, two species separated by 65 million years of evolution have just been suddenly thrown back into the mix together. How can we possibly have the slightest idea what to expect?”)  

Thing is tho. When you watch the movie you should notice that the dinosaurs don’t escape and go on the rampage because of the intricacies of chaos theory or the hubris of the scientists or because “life finds a way.” Nope. The reason they all get out is because Newman Dennis Nedry messes around with the mainframe so he can commit industrial espionage but then because of inclement weather conditions gets killed by a Dilophosaurus. And ahem I don’t think Ian Malcolm foresaw that happening at all (unless it’s in one of the deleted scenes?)   And coming to the point that you know I’m already going to make: you do realise that industrial espionage is a consequence of living in an economic and political system in which a country’s trade and industry are controlled by private owners for profit rather than by the state right? Rather than being a result of scientists tampering with mother nature or whatever.   

(“We’ve spared no expense.” etc)   Plus at the risk of cheating and using secondary sources there’s a whole bit of Jurassic Park (the book) where John Hammond does a big speech about how it makes much more sense building a dinosaur theme park rather than using his vast resources to discover a cure for cancer or whatever. The argument being that if he invented a cure for cancer government regulators would get involved and he wouldn’t be able to make a profit but hell – if he makes a dinosaur theme park then there’s no government oversight involved and he can charge as much as he likes for tickets.    Again – it doesn’t seem like Science or the Dinosaurs are really the main problem here…   But then hey – that’s the beauty of Ideology right? Because it’s baked into our assumptions about how we see the world we just see it as normal and common place and it means that when things go wrong we place the blame upon the things that exist outside of that. So instead of saying hmmm maybe a system that produces these sorts of conditions is kinda fucked up we just think it’s the conditions that are fucked up. Like there’s nothing intrinsic to the idea of Science that means it has to be harmful. Ian Malcolm again: “Um, I’ll tell you the problem with the scientific power that you’re using here, 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 patented it, and packaged it, and slapped it on a plastic lunchbox, and now [bangs on the table] you’re selling it, you wanna sell it.”   

That’s not Science dude. That’s Capitalism. It’s just so close to your face that you can’t even see it.

 

I don’t think it’s going too far to say that Jurassic Park is one of the most important movies of the 90s. Maybe the most important movie in terms of cultural penetration going waaay beyond filming and becoming a sort of advert for biotech and of course helping to kick start CGI. In that decade the only films seen more often were Titanic and Phantom Menace and while both were also remarkable for their use of computer graphics, thankfully neither of those films even got sequels.

The thing is Jurassic Park also earned that massive audience because it just gives you everything – the cast is great, the  concept is genius, the action has a vague plausibility, and it looks so good you want to live on crazy dinosaur island. Spielberg, if nothing else, knows how to play dramatic tension like an instrument and as soon you get past the T-Rex scene the film never lets the audience relax. It’s like Spielberg greatest hits of Indy, Jaws, and er Hook all rolled into one masterpiece. And while of course it’s famous for having dinosaurs it’s real trick is to make villains out of dinosaurs you never even cared about. 

Me (an idiot): Ooh a Velociraptor, what’s that like a baby T-Rex? 

You (a well informed Jurassic Park veteran): Nah mate, their basically like the xenomorphs from Aliens. Yeah, they will hunt you down and rip out your liver before watching their friend eat you and your family. 

Me: But Dilophosuarus. That’s a shit name for a dino…

You: let me stop you right there, they spit poisonous acid and melt your eyes if you even look at them. 

It’s just got everything an 8 year old could want while somehow maintaining some sort of grown up sensibility to do with cloning ethics and exploitation. 

Speaking of grown up sensibilities it’s interesting what Joel was saying about it being anti-capitalist and I wonder if that is deliberate or just an artefact of being a 90s plot where greed was the go to motivation after evil communists didn’t mean much any more. That being said Communist Jurassic Park would also have been awesome but it’s nice that they went beyond having moustache twirling villains and instead show that even if you have a really nice capitalist grandad who brings back dinosaurs (you know… for kids) that’s not enough to overcome the flaws in the system. 

Although of Jurassic Park is a highly contained chaos in a largely closed system which is ruthlessly explained throughout. I know that the suggestion of even small fractures leading to giant cracks in bottle systems is part of the critique that Crichton and Spielberg are exploring but alongside X-Files, Midi-Chorians, and the Matrix baby farm I feel like I spent half that decade having attractive people in glasses over-explaining ridiculous situations and then leaving my poor little mind to pick over the inconsistencies.  Whether it is counterpoint or escalation, it felt just as satisfying when Cloverfield just refused to have any explanation for their monster, or any suggestion that people are at any point in control of the situation: “no in movie video guide exposition, no monster experts and no sexy mathematicians to hold your hand, here’s your monster, it *might* have come from space or the sea, fuck knows.” But this attitude was only possible because Jurassic Park did all the hard work to make audiences demand more from monster movie writers in the first place. 

My history teacher used to talk all the time about how American movies in the 70s were obsessed with refighting the invasion of Vietnam, and even in 80s blockbusters you can see the various takes whether through George Lucas’ plucky Ewoks against the imperial machine; or Indiana Jones explicit portrayal of all local people as bloodthirsty savages; or Predator’s suggestion that Americans were beaten in the Jungle because they were coddled and over-reliant on technology. 

It’s easy to imagine Jurassic Park taking a different direction, with an ending more like Predator where the reluctant Zoology expert is forced to rely on his wits to defeat the dinosaurs. No tech, no team just animal instincts as, smeared in mud and camouflaged against the trees he cleverly lures the raptors into his trap. As the Raptors plunge to their deaths over a waterfall they look back at him like some sort of reptilian Hans Gruber before disappearing into the rapids below. Our hero staggers out of the jungle just in time for the FBI poindexters to show up in their helicopters. He resists first aid from a glamorous medic and listens impatiently to the Chief chewing him out for disobeying a direct order, then he suddenly hears something. Grabbing the Chief’s gun he turns and fires a bullet between the eyes of the T-Rex which explodes covering the scientists and FBI agents in guts. Slowly walking over to the huge carcass our hero lights a match off the remains of its scaly hide and starts puffing at a cigar he stashed away at the beginning of the movie. “Tri-cera-top that Chief.” He smirks. And roll credits. 

Instead in Jurassic Park the guy with the gun gets dispatched very quickly and unceremoniously; and the main characters – a palaeontologist, a botanist, an old man, a mathematician and 2 kids, are exactly the sort of nerds who would, as society rebuilds itself from the sentient dinosaur uprising, likely only be kept alive for organ farming or risky genetic experimentation. Yet it’s not their survivalist skills that are required, instead the day is partially saved by one of the kids understanding the Park’s computer file structure but mainly just all the characters running away from danger as fast they can. No clever MacGuyver tricks, no shoving the dinosaurs in an airlock, no taking advantage of Chekhov’s Electric Fence they set up earlier in the film, just the cast dashing around. 

Maybe this is because the reality is that an AR15 rifle would turn even dinosaurs into Swiss cheese, but that would have been a little odds with the slightly stretched naturalist messaging in the movie. The film works really hard to show dinosaurs are living creatures who cannot be turned into pets, and that is undermined if they can turned into mincemeat at a moments notice. Although of course the real message that comes through is that all wild animals are vicious bastards who cannot be trusted. Indeed the film has the same message about computer nerds, which as we all know is also fair. At least this way the “good guys” get to win without utterly destroying  the aggressor (just leaving them to be eaten by a T-Rex).

In a way the fragility of the main characters helps the plot because while you know they probably won’t die, you are left to wonder how they could possibly fend off even a baby dinosaur, or even a large dog, and that significantly helps the tension because the audience are able to suspend disbelief enough to wonder what they themselves might do in a similar situation. Although the answer to that is of course simply find the rest of the armed security staff that are presumably somewhere on the island and hide behind them. 

Although on that detail the film creates a divide between nerds and wimps. Alan Grant is not the sort of wimp to (sensibly) run away from a T-Rex and hide in a toilet. He jumps out of the car, climbs electric fences, never considers wearing sunscreen and presumably shits all over the forest, pausing only to wipe his arse on a tarantula. 

Alan Grant is tough but also not a “hero”, instead he is a smart and above all takes personal responsibility. Jurassic Park helps create the post-Vietnam movie industrialist complex where rather than Bruce Willis of Moonlighting turning into Sylvester Stallone for Die Hard, you can instead “plausibly” have a Professors as a bold action protagonists and of course ultimately Keanu Reeves as the most badass fighter in the world by the end of the decade. Their role is to win by rising above the conflict: the dinosaurs and the machines and the Vietnamese aren’t your enemy, they are just inhuman beasts acting on instinct. Yes some individuals: the raptors, Agent Smith, or The Predator, act out a bit, but ultimately these films argue that we need to find some way to isolate them so that we can take a more societal approach to Dino-apocalypse/AI-Singularity/ intergalactic warfare and make space for clever men to prevail. 

While this certainly one way of doing things, the only conclusion is that a sequel ought to have been be led by James Cameron where he creates a massive Marines Vs Dinosaur jungle war. The failure of Hollywood to provide this is the greatest injustice of modern times. 

What makes a movie “important”?

One of the biggest regrets of my life is not seeing Jurassic Park in the cinema. Honestly I don’t really know what happened. Like that movie was EVERYWHERE. I remember the posters on the street. I remember the adverts on TV. I remember the toys in Woolworths. It was an all evasive presence. Like God. Only much cooler. Maybe I just figured that I’d already seen it already? Cultural osmosis already giving me the best bits already. I knew about the T-Rex. About the velociraptors. About (of course of course) the shaking glasses of water. I had no need to see the whole thing when I’d already seen it all already. Maybe? I don’t know. Maybe it was because I’d just grown out of dinosaurs and was more into space stuff?

I do remember the first time I saw it years and years later when it appeared on TV during Christmas (and oh my god the wait between a movie being in the cinema and being on TV was fucking eons when I was kid. I distinctly remember asking my Dad when I was a kid if we go to the cinema to see – of all things – Suburban Commando and then staring wildly in blank incomprehension when he said that I’d have to wait until it was on TV. What the fuck? I WOULD BE DEAD BY THEN). The one moment that stuck in my head like glue was the part where Speilberg fucking electocuted the kid which seemed somehow impossible to me (“But. But. But. You’re not allowed to do that!”) 

But yeah I also had the distinct sense that I had somehow cheated myself by not watching this dinosaur smorgasbord (my pitch for the alternative title) up on the big screen. Like watching the making of documentary (hosted by James Earl Jones!) I had a proper oooooh moment realising that Jonathan is totally right. Like yeah there had been CGI in movies before but previously the only real way to do it was to lean into it’s artificial nature. Most notably with The Abyss and Terminator 2: you could use it to create creatures that were underwater aliens and liquid metal robots from the future but the uncanny nature had to be part of the point. The behind the scenes story of Jurassic Park is that when it started out the aim was to make all the dinosaurs stop-motion (honestly!) and then some pig-headed CGI artists were like “what if?” and made a few demo reels of CGI dinosaurs and that’s how the future of the western blockbuster movie making was born. 
And yeah wow – the thrill of seeing real life looking dinosaurs on the big screen moving around and eating lawyers when that stuff shouldn’t have been possible is a thrill I wished I could have a front seat for (bucket of popcorn on my lap and cold drink in my right hand).

Does that make Jurassic Park important tho? Like yeah – it’s a technological leap I’ll give you that. But I’m not so sure about it’s impact in other areas. Like just keeping things in the action genre kinda sphere – there have been a lot of movies that have stolen a lot from Aliens, there’s been a lot of movies that have stolen a from Die Hard – but I’m not sure that there have been any real spiritual successors to Jurassic Park. (Even the sequels don’t really scratch the same itch. Apart from all the dinosaurs obviously). 

I think a part of this is that a lot of the pull of Jurassic Park is about the weight and power of those first moments of discovery. Alan and Ellie seeing a dinosaur for the first time. That slow build T-Rex reveal. “Yes, unless they figure out how to open doors.” And you know the problem with that you can only really do first moments once. Plus you know – how do you even come close to topping “Dinosaur Theme Park”? 

As a side-point and following on from Jonathan’s “fragility of the main characters” – does anyone else feel that as a movie Jurassic Park feels kinda… incomplete? Like it builds and builds and builds and then it just…. ends. I mean – yeah that final T-Rex moment is cool but I think there’s something about how our thrown-together nuclear family is basically total passive and at the mercy of much bigger and ferocious forces that just leaves me feeling slightly cheated? Plus the way that Ian Malcolm is side-lined for the second half of the movie just doesn’t sit right with me. It’s like I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop… I want more dinosaurs. Everyone surrounded. Certain death staring them in the face. Dennis Nedry shows up riding a Dilophosaurus laughing his head off. Then out of nowhere Ian Malcolm shows up (shirt still torn open) with this big fuck off weapon. Alan Grant cries out “Oh my god! You built it! My Dinosaur Gun!” John Hammond smiles and turns towards the camera – “We spared no expense.” Winks. 

Maybe I should stop watching so many action movies. 

So. I have a secret little pet theory that movies are best understood as dreams. And most complaints about plot holes are almost literally missing the point and there’s this thing that Jurassic Park does which is one of the most beautiful things ever that no one ever really talks about. 

Basically it all happens at the T-Rex paddock. 

You remember this place right?

And this guy: 

Goat boy here is the first indication we get that behind the fence the ground is still at the same height and level as the road. You can tell because they can see the goat no problem and you can even see bits of the fence (bottom right of the photo). 

Next up is this bit: 

Again it’s very obvious that this is all on the same level. The T-Rex walks up to the fence – rips through it – and then steps out onto the road. Its all on the same level. 

And then there’s messing around with lights and flares and running away and then car smashing and then HOLY SHIT this happens:

Obvious question here is: WHERE THE HELL DID THAT DROP COME FROM? 

I mean – wow:

I certainly don’t remember seeing that before when they were looking at the goat. 

Now the small brain reaction to this is to snort and say that this is somekind of plot hole. That Speilberg made a mistake in laying out the geography of the location. That he should have had an earlier overhead shot of the T-Rex paddock so you could see the drop and how it makes sense with the goat and the T-Rex being on the same level or something. Or that he didn’t really realise that he was contradicting himself and messing things up and if he was a better filmmaker then he wouldn’t have made such an obvious good. 

ALL OF THIS IS – OF COURSE – WRONG. 

Like I don’t know what your reaction was when Alan Grant and Lex first found themselves trapped between an angry T-Rex and a vertiginous drop into nothingness but mine wasn’t “oh dear! Plot hole!” but something more like – HOLY FUCKING SHIT. And basically it’s the point where Jurassic Park transforms from fun dinosaur adventure thing into actual nightmare. Like yeah maybe there was a part of you that thought that there should be a flat surface there but the fact that the heavy rain has somehow transformed it into an abyss is basically an extra large slice of dream logic AND THAT’S WHAT MAKES IT SO GOOD. 

Like maybe you can draw a map and make it all make sense but to do is to miss the point. The point is that it’s supposed to be a shocking moment. The point is for a second you’re supposed to feel like you’ve gone crazy. The point is that you’re supposed to think that this feels less like a movie and more like a dream because that – my friend – is exactly how the best movies work. 

I’m sorry but you wanted a story about a dinosaur theme park to be realistic? Ha. I mean yeah they do that whole thing towards the start with Mr DNA and that stuff about mosquitos in amber just to lull you into a false sense of security. A way to trick your conscious brain into dropping its guard so Speilberg can start sticking his knife straight into your limbic cortex. Sorry. 

I mean – he even adds insult to injury by having Ellie Sattler show up on the road / the same level that everyone else was on before:

Looking over the edge:

And then somehow (!?) magically appearing next to the smashed jeep:

And then a second later she’s back up at the top again:

These are not mistakes. This is Speilberg showing off. Showing us that he can warp time and space with a few simple shots and because it’s all in service of the story we won’t even notice it until we’re watching it for the fourth or fifth time. 

Or you know – in other words – it’s moviemaking. 

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