Saturday, June 13, 2015

Blockbuster Overload: Jurassic Park

In preparation for my upcoming review of Jurassic World, I am re-running my previous Blockbuster Overload piece on Jurassic Park.

Rating: 2 ½ out of 5 Stars

Jurassic Park (Widescreen Collector's Edition)Jurassic Park is the Steven Spielberg directed film based on the Michael Crichton novel of the same name that marked a major turning point in visual effects as CGI animation took the next step forward in making the fantastic come to life on the movie screen. The film, which also succeeded in introducing the terms velociraptor and raptor into the common vernacular, focuses on an attempt by billionaire John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) to create a “wildlife” park populated with living dinosaurs. By taking DNA samples from fossilized mosquitoes in-cased in amber, scientists working for Hammond manage to clone the giant lizards, creating modern day real life dinosaurs. Hammond invites several scientists (played by Sam Neill, Laura Dern, and Jeff Goldblum) to observe this park and to give their opinion on whether it would be safe for tourists in order to assure his investors. But hey, it’s a Steven Spielberg movie and it would make for a pretty boring flick if they showed up, signed off on it, then left. Weaselly geek Dennis Nedry (played with conniving villainy by Seinfeld’s Wayne Knight) is in the mix trying to steal a fertilized dinosaur egg for a rival corporation. His machinations result in multiple SNAFUs that find the scientists fleeing through the park with many hungry dinosaurs in close pursuit.

While Jurassic Park represented a significant leap forward in onscreen visual effects, it also marked an important shift with mega-budget blockbusters that would become much more noticeable in the years to follow.  This movie was delivered to the theaters not so much as a film designed to tell a great tale and inspire audiences but more so as the first part of a planned franchise that would ultimately branch out into multiple sequels, comics, games, theme park rides, toys, etc. Unlike the early days of the blockbusters in the 70’s when young filmmakers like Spielberg and George Lucas were inspired to unlock the potential of movie-making and bring the fantastic to life on big screen with films like Jaws, Star Wars, and Raiders of the Lost Ark, this film (like Jedi and the Star Wars prequel films that would follow) was much more about creating a product with an extended shelf-life. Previous movie franchises such as Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Star Trek, and the long-running Bond movies had proved their earning potential with a sustained, dedicated audience that would return for each installment. So why not start focusing on blockbusters as a franchise? Jurassic Park definitely had much potential in that area which I believe proved a strong draw for Spielberg and his backers when approaching this project.

Not to say that Jurassic Park is necessarily a bad movie. It can be quite enjoyable if for no other reason than its visual effects. Long gone were the days of a man in a rubber dinosaur suit (for Hollywood at least) or stop motion animation (though I still look fondly on that sfx genre) or regular-sized lizards made to tower over actors with blue screen effects. The CGI giant lizards of Jurassic Park were among the most realistic movie monsters we had ever seen on the big screen (though 1981's Dragonslayer did a pretty good job with go-motion a decade prior), and still stand up today as state of the art despite the technical leaps forward since 1993. But instead of using this wizardry to enhance the story and to give the viewers the fulfillment of a well-rounded film experience, the special effects became the movie. Because without the breath-taking CGI, this movie quickly falls apart. It has little in the way of character development (though Jeff Goldblum once again managed to fill in the blanks of a sparse script and steal the show) and even less in the way of story to cover the gaps between action scenes. Thematically, it harkens back to Spielberg’s Jaws a bit as well as plenty of other disaster and creatures-run-amok films, and the story is pretty much on auto-pilot through much of the film. And along with its copy-and-paste dialogue, Spielberg resorts to one of the most manipulative gimmicks ever devised (that he would return to time and again through his carrier): the child-in-jeopardy ploy. He constantly tries to tug at the heart-strings of the audience by placing Hammond’s grandchildren in harm’s way throughout the film, even though we know they will never wind up as dinosaur kibble. Basically, in my book when you turn to the child-in-jeopardy spiel, the inspiration well has completely run dry.

Jurassic Park is the Hollywood equivalent of a rollercoaster ride and it succeeds on that level, but never rises above it. It wowed audiences with its dazzling CGI and became the biggest grossing movie up to that time (topping Spielberg’s own E.T.), but that was the plan all along. You can’t convince me that this film was ever seen as anything other than the launching point of a franchise. The art of film-making never came into play here as the focus of attention remained firmly on creating a new brand (that would go on to gross nearly $2 billion plus thus far). And the cynicism that had crept into the Star Wars franchise by the time of Return of the Jedi existed right from the beginning with Jurassic Park and drove it to the big screen and beyond. And while blockbuster franchises had existed since the 70’s (and perhaps the 60’s if you include the Bond films), Jurassic Park marked a significant shift toward these becoming a corporate brand much more interested in pushing a product than advancing the art of film-making. That shift in attitude would become more prevalent throughout the rest of the 90’s and would pretty much dominate the blockbuster genre in the 00’s and beyond.

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