Stream of Consciousness: Jurassic Park

"If The Pirates of the Caribbean breaks down, the pirates don't eat the tourists."

Netflix, Amazon Prime, HBOGO, and various other streaming services have revolutionized the way we consume movies and television, and each week I’ll highlight the best these services have to offer in this segment: Stream of Consciousness.

I’m going to open this by being extremely upfront about something: Jurassic Park is my favorite film, and has been since I was five years old.  My parents, despite the fact that the violence and horror was probably not appropriate for my age, allowed me to watch this as a young child and I was in love ever since*.   I would watch it when I was sick, sad, happy, angry, you-name-it–it was my cinematic comfort food, and still to this day is a staple in my household.  Before I cut the cord and gave up cable, I would stop everything I was doing and watch it whenever it was on, reciting dialogue word-for-word as though the script had become fused into my DNA.  No other film has impacted me the way Jurassic Park did as an impressionable child, and it’s one of the truly visionary and influential pictures of the 20th century.

Based on the bestselling novel by sci-fi author Michael Crichton, Jurassic Park is the story of billionaire John Hammond successful attempt to clone dinosaurs and create a nature preserve for them.  To appease the park’s investors, Paleontologist Alan Grant, Paleobotanist Ellie Sattler, and Mathematician Ian Malcolm are sent to inspect the site for accuracy and to ensure the site is safe and secure.  Along for the ride are Lex and Tim, Hammond’s two grandchildren who are expected to be the child’s-eye-view of the park.  As Malcolm predicts, everything that could go wrong does, and soon the park is overrun as the dinosaurs escape their enclosures and chaos ensues.

Awesome is an overused word in our current collective vernacular, but it is easily the most accurate adjective with which to describe the visual splendor of this film.  The first time we’re shown the Brachiosaurus feasting on the tree, we’re immediately filled with the same jaw dropping wonder that Alan Grant feels.  Spielberg shoots this scene so deftly, showing us Grant and Malcolm’s reactions, then slowly zooming and focusing in on Grant, eventually settling on Sattler’s shock upon seeing the creature in all of its splendor. Throughout each of these reaction shots, the score beats with anticipation and the sound design features the subtle sounds of branches bristling and ends with the singing vocalization of the Brachiosaurus as she appears in the frame.

Much like Jaws, Spielberg took many liberties in his adaptation of Michael Crichton’s novel that improve on the film in numerous ways.  The biggest alteration comes in the character of John Hammond, transforming him from a deplorable, moustache-twirling, villainous businessman to a grandfatherly old man who just wants to show the world these beasts.  Hammond serves as a Spielberg surrogate, with an obsession with showing the world the miracles of his creation, and it is that obsession that both serves as his downfall (the closure of the park) and his most heart-wrenching scene.  Listening to Sattler and Hammond discuss the park over a bowl of ice cream is a signature “sentimental” Spielberg touch, allowing us to delve into the mind of the creator through something as simple as a story of a flea circus.

Another of Spielberg’s changes was to significantly reduce the amount of pseudoscience from the novel and instead focus in on the tangible details of the novel.  Utilizing something as unique as the video and carousel “ride” to dump these touches of exposition is a remarkably well thought out scene, both from a screenwriting and visual standpoint.  Spielberg fills the screen with lived-in and realistic details, such as the cheesy cartoon on display, the cheap theaters seats and roller coaster bars, and the pure white laboratory where the dinosaurs are born.  Everything feels like a zoo or amusement park that could exist in the real world.

It’s this attention to detail, along with the state of the art special effects, that leads to the grounded and visceral feel of the film.  In what might be the single greatest scene of his career, Spielberg shoots the first T-Rex encounter in the dark of a rainy night, allowing the limitations of his effects team to be subtly masked.  He then slowly introduces us to the Tyrannosaur, first through the impact tremors in the water glasses, then the missing goat (and the goat’s limb), and finally to the two-fingered hand on the disabled electric fence.  It’s a slow build that culminates first in the obscured profile of the Rex only for the camera to pan upward from the jeep windshield to unveil the crushing jaws and steely eyes of the Tyrannosaurus’s face.  Spielberg then pauses this unveiling for nearly a minute, allowing the characters to all react to what we have just witnessed, only to then fully unveil the behemoth both vocally and visually, with the jeeps in both the foreground and background providing a sense of scale to show how unbelievably huge this creation really is.

One of Spielberg’s greatest tricks is in creating an image in our mind that isn’t shown on screen, much like the shark in Jaws.  The dinosaurs in the film only appear on screen for a mere fourteen minutes of the two-plus hour film, but I doubt there is a single soul who left the theater angry that the dinosaurs weren’t in the film enough.  By creating such impactful scenes as the Brachiosaurus in the lake and the T-Rex encounter, he allows the iconography of those images become our lasting memories of the film.  The velociraptor attack in the kitchen is another example of Spielberg allowing simple things like shadows, facial expressions, and sound design to create a scene much larger than what we are actually witnessing.  The jiggling of Jell-O on Lex’s spoon and the rattling of a door handle are all we need to see in order to feel the immense terror the characters surely feel.

Spielberg’s other impressive skill on display is his ability to mask his script’s flaws through gripping set-pieces.  The T-Rex encounter is a phenomenal example of this, as prior to the electric fence breakout, the paddock side of the fence is about level with the ground the jeeps are sitting on.  Moments later, as one of the two jeeps are being pushed by the T-Rex beyond the fence, there is a massive drop off that Grant and Lex have to rappel down.  This massive continuity error would be easily noticed if not for the assured and steady hand of Spielberg.  The final scene in the visitor center, in which the T-Rex somehow silently appears unnoticed by both the survivors as well as the velociraptors hunting them is another moment that fails to make logical sense, but Spielberg’s bravado (what other director could pull off the “When Dinosaurs Ruled The World” banner drop without it being unbelievably corny) and John William’s sweeping score allow it to be a fist-pumping action beat.

1993 was the year of Spielberg, as the two films he had shot back-to-back, Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List, dominated both the box office and received overwhelming critical acclaim.  These two films, which could not be more different, earned over $1 billion dollars and racked up fifteen academy awards, with Jurassic Park winning three for its groundbreaking visual effects.  While it failed to surpass Spielberg’s E.T. in domestic box office receipts, Jurassic Park became the highest grossing film worldwide by a significant margin, helping to usher in the modern age of worldwide film distribution.

Much like Star Wars did in 1977, Jurassic Park became a touchstone for science fiction and special effects for the end of the 20th century.  Previous limitations faced by directors and studios were smashed with the realistic visual effects of the film that, to this day, hold up to even to twenty-five years of CGI development.  Large spectacle and impossibly large visual undertakings were no longer seen as impossible, and such films as Avatar, Titanic, The Avengers, The Lord of the Rings, and even the Star Wars Prequels were seen as viable projects in the post-Jurassic Park cinematic landscape.  It could be argued that no single film since has had as much of a lasting impact on Hollywood.

Jurassic Park is available to stream on Netflix.  Next month we’ll be diving into a world of nonfiction cinema, shining a spotlight on some of the great documentaries available on streaming platforms–a “Doc-tober,” if you will.  Our first film will be the 2011 feature Jiro Dreams of Sushi.

*Thanks, mom and dad.  You guys rule.