I am as light as a feather, I am as happy as an angel, I am as merry as a school-boy. I am as giddy as a drunken man.
Why? Because miracles do happen.
After two miserable sequels, the world had no reason to expect anything good from another Jurassic Park movie; in fact, we had every reason to expect we would be better off without one – and it’s not as if the trailers did much to assuage our feelings of apprehension that Jurassic World would be a heaping pile of dino-dung. Why the hell would anybody build a park on the site of the previous disaster, and who would be stupid enough to put up the insurance? What kind of morons would buy tickets to visit a place with that kind of horrible and undoubtedly very high-profile history? Are we really supposed to get excited over the sight of Chris Pratt using Raptors like a pack of hunting dogs to track some new mutant dinosaur? Doesn’t the whole thing feel desperate and ridiculous?
And yet, in spite of every ill omen, Jurassic World turns out to be the most enjoyable blockbuster in recent memory, easily eclipsing the moribund Marvel superhero franchise. How this miracle was achieved, I am not quite sure – perhaps through some bureaucratic oversight, Universal Pictures hired some people who actually wanted to make a good movie? Maybe someone realized that, in a marketplace saturated with special effects, just doing another formulaic dino-munch-athon was not going to cut it?
I suspect that both may be the case: some talented people realized the challenges they faced and devised clever ways to meet those challenges. In particular, Jurassic World works because it is almost as much about Jurassic World the film as it is about Jurassic World the tourist attraction. The premise is that audiences grow jaded with familiar wonders; this attention-deficit-disorder requires an ever increasing escalation of scale in order to continue selling tickets; unfortunately, escalation can lead to disastrous results for audiences, who end up being assaulted instead of entertained.
In essence, this is the situation in which the makers of Jurassic World found themselves: back in 1993, showing regular dinosaurs – with the added novelty of computer-generated imagery – was enough to wow viewers; twenty-two years later, the familiar beasts are old-hat, so upping the ante is necessary. Thus, is born the new Indominus Rex; fortunately, the ensuing disaster is visited upon the on-screen audience in the park, not the real live audience in the theatre, because the filmmakers seem completely aware of how far wrong this strategy could go.
After all, they had only to look at Jurassic Park III, which gave us the Spinosaurus. Remember him? No? I’m not surprised. Spinosaurus is the equivalent of a “new and improved” product that provides exactly what you got before but in new packaging. It’s just a T-Rex with a sail on its back, and though having it kill a T-Rex early in the film is supposed to strike terror in our hearts, we all realize that – regardless of whether it looks a little different and kills the monster from the previous films – a Spinosaurus can’t kill you any deader than a T-Rex, so in practical terms there is absolutely no difference.
At first, Indominous Rex seems to be Jurassic World’s Spinosaurus – just another bigger, badder T-Rex, no doubt intended to sell new tie-in merchandise. Fortunately, it turns out to be something much better than that. Indominous becomes a self-referential plot point, in which the filmmakers acknowledge what circumstances are forcing them to do (create a new dinosaur as a marketing gimmick) and then ruthlessly satirize the result while ultimately inviting us to root for the old-school dinosaurs we lovingly remember from the first film.
And if my prose makes this sound like a dry, intellectual exercise, I apologize, because the result is a kick-ass, high-octane adventure that perfectly manipulates its pop entertainment elements – which is to say that, whether or not Jurassic World features sophisticated drama and in-depth characters, it makes you feel involved with the on-screen events,so that, even if the scenario plays out in a way that might seem predictable of even trite when viewed with cynical, retroactive disdain, you will fall under the spell while the film unspools before your eyes – fearing the threat and rooting for the heroes to defeat it. Or to put it another way: the film can get away with roasting a lot of chestnuts, because it cooks them to perfection and makes the audience hungry for more.
Indominous Rex (the dialogue acknowledges the absurdity of the name, manufactured – like the creature itself – to sell tickets) is a freak of science, a gene-spliced hybrid that emerges as the modern equivalent of Frankenstein’s Monster – an abomination that has no right to exist in our world of naturally evolved organisms. Intelligent and ruthless, the creature kills for sport – a hint that pays off late in the film, revealing that Indominous is something more sinister than just a redesigned Tyrannosaur.
In short, Indominous is almost a dictionary definition of a monster, which beyond any doubt needs to be exterminated, and much of the triumph of Jurassic World is that the battle that ensues is not a Transformers-like exercise in empty visual flash; it’s a textbook example of the value of rooting interest: I cannot remember the last time I anxiously cheering for a character to be put down for good (unless it was the moment in Evil Dead II when Ash jabs his finger at the severed head of his undead girl friend and angrily intones, “You’re doing down!”).
Of course, this is no easy task; it requires some satisfying inter-species cooperation. Not only does Owen (Pratt) ride out with his Raptor-pack; Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) unleashes a useful ally at the climax. The sly joke is that these two dinosaurs were mortal enemies at the conclusion of the first Jurassic Park, but now they set aside their differences to help humanity defeat the monster.
In a weird kind of way, Jurassic World is the franchise’s equivalent of Ghidorah, The Three-Headed Monster, in which Godzilla teams with former foes Mothra and Rodan to fend off the new threat. The difference is that, avoiding camp, Jurassic World sells the idea with a straight face conviction that precludes us from even questioning the convenience that a worthy opponent for Indominus just happened to be conveniently waiting in a pen to be unleashed for the climax. I certainly wasn’t going to question it, because it was sure as hell what I wanted to see happen.
To spread some credit around to the humans, Pratt and Howard and effortlessly appealing in their roles; yeah, they’re fairly typical movie characters, but they’re watchable and even believable. The two brothers at the center of the story are likable instead of annoying (and neither one defeats a Raptor with a kick from the parallel bars). It’s also nice that even some nominal bad guys – execs and scientists responsible for Indominous Rex – seem sort of like people, and sometimes even make a halfway decent attempt to do the right thing, as when new park owner Masrani (Irrfan Khan) pilots a helicopter attempting to shoot down Indominous – even though he is not fully qualified for the task. It’s always nice to see B.D. Wong (here as the dino-designer), and Vincent D’Onofrio does good work as the film’s one officially unredeemed asshole, who wants to use the Raptors as dog soldiers. Guess what happens to him?
But while you’re guessing, remember this: the joys of Jurassic World do not being and end with seeing an unlikable character get what he deserves (a la the lawyer in Jurassic Park). This movie wants to bring you back to a state of mind where a rampaging dinosaur would have you scared shirtless. (Did I just write that? Must have been a typo!) When Indominous escapes his pen, you are not chanting, “Go, go – Godzilla!” You are moaning, “Oh no! Oh hell! Everybody – run!” It’s a sign of truly impressive film-making when even the disposable “red shirt” character inspires more sympathy than blood-lust in an audience that has paid to see a creature with an appetite for destruction go on a wild rampage.
That rampage is rendered with excellent CGI that is not merely pretty; it also suggests a believable physicality – a sense of inertia and momentum seen in real object but lacking in most digital work, which tends to betray its virtual origins. The 3D aspect is reasonably well-used: true to form for recent 3D films, the effects tend to be less in-your-face than the old school “comin’ at ya” shots of the 1950s and 1970s, but the extra dimension helps convey the sense of gargantuan size, and there is one great shot of a pterodactyl trying to fly out of the screen to escape a predator.
Despite its wonders, not everything is perfect in Jurassic World. Some early scenes do not strike the intended note (an early aerial shot, backed by swelling music, implies a sense of grandeur that simply is not visually evident in what looks to us like a standard theme park layout). The over-reliance on digital dinosaurs robs the film of the satisfying blend of computer and mechanical effects that worked so well in Jurassic Park, providing a live-action texture and immediacy that yielded a greater sense of human-saurian interaction. And finally, near the end, Jurassic World goes a little bit “Ray Harryhausen” on us, in a bad way.
To my surprise, I had bought into the Raptor scenario up till then, which had Owen interacting with the predators like a tamer dealing with lions: yes, he could get them to obey commands, but that didn’t mean he would turn his back on them. Still, there was some sense of a bond, insofar as Owen was the “alpha” member of the group, the pack leader upon whom the others had imprinted when they were born. This bond is tested, strained, broken, and possibly repaired in the film’s third act, which sees shifting alliances that lead to some shuddery plot twists. At the end of the day, certain characters make a decision to stand not with their biological kin but with their adoptive relative – even at risk to their own lives. And for too long during this sequence, Owen stands there like one of those slack-jawed heroes in an old Ray Harryhausen stop-motion monsterfest, watching while a friendly creature does his fighting for him. As much as I was rooting for Indominous Rex to take his well deserved fall, I was practically yelling at the screen for Owen to get off the sidelines and get some skin in the game – you don’t just stand and watch while your brothers-in-arms become dino-chow.
It’s ironic that, in a film which tries to add a glint of humanity to the usual blockbuster formula, the heroes turn out to be not so much the humans as the cold-blooded reptiles. In a weird kind of way, despite my misgivings, I’m okay with that. Because it’s nice to see old enemies united against a common foe; T-Rex is still the Lizard King, and like the end of Jurassic Park, the climax of Jurassic World takes you back – mentally, at least – to a time When Dinosaurs Rules the Earth.
Jurassic World (June 12, 2015). Directed by Colin Trevorrow. Screenplay by Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver and Colin Trevorrow & Derek Connolly, from a story by Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver, based on characters created by Michael Crichton. Cast: Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Irrfan Khan, Vincent D’Onofrio, Ty Simpkins, Nick Robinson, Jake Johnson, Omar Sy, BD Wong, Judy Greer, Jimmy Fallon. PG-13. In IMAX 3D.
I am as light as a feather, I am as happy as an angel, I am as merry as a school-boy. I am as giddy as a drunken man.
Do you ever feel your Sense of Wonder being overwhelmed? We certainly did this past weekend (in terms of quantity if not quality) with no less than six horror, fantasy, and/or science fiction films opening in U.S. theatres – some nationwide, some in limited engagements. EVIL DEAD, THALE, and EDDIE: THE SLEEPWALKING CANNIBAL were covered in a previous Spotlight Podcast earlier this week. That leaves JURASSIC PARK, 6 SOULS, and THE BRASS TEAPOT for this follow-up edition.
Podcasters Lawrence French and Steve Biodrowski delve deeply into the prehistory of the Steven Spielberg classic, based on Michael Crichton’s novel, which has been re-released in a new 3D conversion, including IMAX engagements. Does depth add a new dimension of terror to the 1990s computer-generated imagery? And how does the film hold up two decades after its original release?
After that, Biodrowski offers capsule comments on 6 SOULS (a supernatural thriller starring Julianne Moore) and THE BRASS TEAPOT (a comic-fantasy about a couple who discover a teapot that gives them free money – when they hurt themselves). Lawrence French wraps up with an account of seeing producer Thom Mount (who was interviewing director Roman Polanski via Skype at the Roxy Theatre in San Francisco) and learning from Mount that there is director’s cut of Roger Corman’s neglected FRANKENSTEIN UNBOUND (1990) lying in the Warner Brothers vaults. If only Warner Brothers could be persuaded to release that version on Blu-ray disc!
On the April 5, 2013, Universal Pictures re-releases the blockbuster JURASSIC PARK – this time converted to 3-D and IMAX. Back in 1993, when it was originally released, this film was a quantum leap in the craft of computer-generated special effects, which not only replaced the old-school stop-motion process but also allowed for smoother integration of live-action and special effects. Some critics carp over the alleged dearth of character development, but JURASSIC PARK displays a true sense of wonder in its depiction of amazing prehistoric creatures brought back to life.
Directed by Steve Spielberg. Screenlay by Michael Crichton and David Koepp, based on Chricthon’s novel. Cast: Sam Neill, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum, Richard Attenborough, Bob Peck, Martin Ferrero, Joseph Mazzello, Ariana RIchards, Samuel L. Jackson, BD Wong, Wayne Knight, Gerald R. Molen, Miguel Sandoval. 127 minutes. Rated PG-13.
With LAND OF THE LOST opening today, I was thinking of doing a list of “Top Ten Dinosaur Movies,” until I realized that unearthing ten such titles would take more effort than mounting a major paleological expedition. In order to spare myself the struggle of rounding out a list of ten, I considered revising the title to “Hollywood’s Greatest Dinosaur” movies, but that risked resulting in the shortest article every written. The sad fact is that there are few good – let alone great – dinosaur movies. Too often, the special effects outweigh the stories and acting, leaving little to enjoy besides the spectacle of rampaging reptiles.
But when you stop and think about it, what more do you need? Dinosaurs are among cinema’s biggest stars. The very sight of them – when achieved with technical competence and some style – is more than enough to stir our Sense of Wonder. With that in mind, my list will work on the theory that great dinosaur movies consist of movies featuring great dinosaurs, regardless of the overall quality of the films.
I covered many dinosaur titles in The History of Prehistoric Movies, which focused on films set in the past. In order to avoid too much duplication, I will emphasize films featuring dinosaurs that have survived into the present day. So if it seems as if films like ONE MILLION YEARS B.C. are being short-changed, just click through on the link to the older article to see these films get their due consideration.
THE LOST WORLD (1925). This silent film, based on the novel by Arthur Conan Doyle, is the first feature-length movie to showcase stop-motion dinosaurs. (One showed up briefly in Buster Keaton’s 1923 comedy THE THREE AGES.). The special effects by Willis O’Brien (who went on to do KING KONG) are crude by today’s standards, but they still have a certain charm that makes them endearing. When it’s captured brontosaurs escapes into the streets of London, the film establishes the tradition of a rampaging prehistoric beast on the loose in a modern city – a plot device that would recur many times thereafter. There were several remakes, usually using lizards or rubber suits instead of stop-motion. A 2001 version for BBC used computer-generated imagery to good effect.
KING KONG (1933). The giant ape is the star of the show, but Willis O’Brien’s menagerie of prehistoric monsters gives him a run for his money – including a brontosaurus, a stegosaurus, a pteranodon, and an elasmosaur. The dino-highlight of the film has to be Kong’s battle with a T-Rex (seen at the top of this page), which is one of the great fight scenes ever recorded on film. Overall, the stop-motion effects have improved noticeably over THE LOST WORLD. They may not be completely convincing in the sense of being “realistic,” but they establish their own style, perfectly suited for the film’s fantastic storyline. The 1976 remake featured no dinosaurs, just a giant snake. The 2005 version had some great dinosaurs, but ruined the impact with some ridiculously over-the-top sequences.
FANTASIA (1940). Disney’s medly of animated sequences set to classical music includes “The Rights of Spring,” which depict primitive prehistoric life, including some wonderful dinosaurs. In a grim sequence backed by Stravinsky’s powerful music, a stegasaurus falls prety to an allosaurus. Pretty dark and grizzly stuff for Disney.
ONE MILLION YEARS B.C. (1966) features Raquel Welch and great stop-motion dinosaurs by Ray Harryhausen, one-time protoge of Willis O’Brien. (Covered in The History of Prehistoric Movies)
THE VALLEY OF GWANGI (1969). Ray Harryhausen is back, this time with a dinosaur who survives into modern times in a hidden valley, until some ranch hands find him and bring him back to civilization, putting him on display like a circus act. Inevitably, the allosaurus breaks free and mayhem ensues. As usual, Harryhausen’s stop-motion work is technically excellent, and he brings some style to the creature, giving it as much personality as a ravenous reptile can muster. As usual, the movie itself is weak, serving only as a showcase for the title character – who is worth the price of admission.
WHEN DINOSARUS RULES THE EARTH (1971). A follow-up to ONE MILLION YEARS B.C., this time with stop-motion dinosaurs provided by Jim Danforth. Lots of great special effects in this one. (Covered in The History of Prehistoric Movies)
CAVEMAN (1981). Starring Ringo Starr, this one is played for laughs, but Dave Allens’ special effects are actually very good, especially when it comes to combining human actors with the dinosaurs. The T-Rex in this one is far from fearsome, but he is well suited to the comic tone, especially when he eats some berries that give him a buzz. In fact, the dino’s comic “performance” comes close to stealing the show.
MY SCIENCE PROJECT (1985). In this comedy science fiction film, about a kid who’se high school project goes wrong, there is a brief scene in which a time warp places a T-Rex in the school gymnasium. Achieved with rod puppet effects, this is one of the most convincing uses of the technique to depict a dinosaur – in part because the cramped location prevents the dinosaur from moving very much, thus hiding the limitations of the technique.
THE LAND BEFORE TIME (1988). Former Disney animator Don Bluth directed this prehistoric tale of talking dinosaurs searching for a safe valley. This is a very good family film with cute characters that appeal to children and also some reasonably adult story-telling. The death of the lead character’s mother – at the claws and teeth of a T-Rex – is harrowing without being explicit. There were several direct-to-video sequels, none of them memorable.
JURASSIC PARK (1993). This is the film in which computer-generated imagery replaced stop-motion as the best way to breathe life into the extinct animals known as dinosaurs. Steven Spielberg’s film version of Michael Crichton’s novel was widely derided at the time of its release, but it still holds up over sixteen years later thanks to its great special effects and the suspense the director achieves. The film also introduced a new dino-star – the Velociraptor – who for the first time challenged the T-Rex’s crown as the all-time most valuable dinosaur – until Rexy puts him in his place in the spectacular finale. This is probably the best dinosaur movie ever made (depending on whether or not you count KING KONG as a dinosaur movie). The sequels, THE LOST WORLD: JURASSIC PARK and JURASSIC PARK III, cant take a bite out of the original.
DINOSAUR (2000). Disney is at it again, this time with using computer-generated animation instead of the old hand-inked technique of FANTASTIA. Like THE LAND BEFORE TIME, this features talking dinosaurs, but here they are rendered with special effects that make them almost lifelike, in spite of their dialogue and human emotions. Another nice touch is that the backgrounds are all live-action plates, not drawings. The result is not quite a total success, but the opening sequence (of a mammal’s egg being stole from its nest and dropped into a dinosaur’s nest) is a breath-taking piece of cinema.
NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM (2006). Perhaps the most memorable image of this comedy, starring Ben Stiller as a night watchman in a museum, is the sight of a T-Rex skeleton that comes to life. The special effects perfectly captures the initial thrill of fear that turns to relief when Stiller’s character realizes the Rex merely wants to play fetch with one of its own bones.
LAND OF THE LOST (2009). After seeing this film, I had to come back and add it to the list. Although too much of the comedy falls flat, the dino never disappoints. In fact, Grumpy the T-Rex is a real sceen-stealer. What’s really impresive is that, thanks to “Crash” McCreery’s designs and some great special effects, Grumpy really does look convincing and threatening when you first see him, but then without missing a beat, he turns into a comical character, getting at least as many laughs as the more overtly humorous Rex in CAVEMAN. The joke is that Grumpy loses interest in eating the humans and becomes more focused on avenging the insult he receives from Will Ferrell’s paleontologist, who derisively notes that the tyrannasaurs has a brain the size of a walnut (words that come back to haunt him when Grumpy leaves a humongous walnut for him to find).
MYTHICAL PREHISTORIC BEASTS
Lots of movie monsters claim to be dinosaurs, but we omitted the mythical ones from out list above. For those who are interested, here are some of the most notable movies featuring fictional dinosaurs, often revived in modern times by radioactivity.
THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953). Ray Harryhausne’s rhedosaurus is a delightful on-screen monster, but you won’t find it in any paleontology book.
GODZILLA (1954). Japan’s answer to BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS features a creature (achieved with a man in a monster suit) that looks a bit like an upright T-Rex with plates on its back vaguely like a stegosaurus. And it’s way too big to be a real dinosaur.
THE GIANT BEHEMOTH (1959). Eugene Lourie, director of BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS, offers a virtual remake, this time with Willis O’Brien, Ray Harryhausen’s mentor, creating the stop-motion effects. The creature looks more or less like a brachiosaurus, but it appears to be carnivorous; it swims like a plesiosaur; and it emits radioactive waves as only a movie-monster can do.
GORGO (1961). Director Eugene Lourie offers up a third and final film about a giant prehistoric monster attacking a modern city. This upright-walking sea beastie is identified as a dinosaur in the dialogue, but it looks nothing like a real dinosaur.
Many other films have featured dinosaurs, but too often, Hollywood saved bucks by using cheap puppets, lizards in makeup, or men in suits. The films may have been entertaining in a juvenile way, but by offering discount dinosaurs, they lost their chance to top our list.
ONE MILLION B.C. (1940). This black-and-white effort, starring Victor Mature and Carol Landis, features “dinosaurs” that are actual reptiles with fins and horns glued on (the technique of live lizards had been pioneered in 1934’s THE SECRET OF THE LOCH). Sadly, this results in some all-too-real animal cruelty, when a juvenile alligator and a gila monster are allowed to tear into each other on camera.
THE LOST CONTINENT (1951). Cesar Romero and crew crash-land on an island with some cheap stop-motion dinosaurs, which receive little screen time.
KING DINOSAUR (1955). Astronauts land on a planet inhabited by an iguana pretending to be a T-Rex.
BEAST OF THE HOLLOW MOUNTAIN (1956). This film gets points for novelty by mxing dinosaurs with cowboys. The prehistoric beast is not seen until the end; achieved with stop-motion, it is is puppet-like, but there is a good sequence of the predator running.
THE LAND UNKNOWN (1957). Another trip to a lost world, this time inhabited by rubbery looking dinosaurs.
JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH (1959). In the tradtion of ONE MILLION B.C., some briefly glimpsed lizards and baby alligators pass for dinosaurs in the 1959 adaptation of the Jules Verne novel. The 2008 remake, starring Brendan Fraser, features a chase scene with a CGI Tyrannosaurus Rex that is pretty decent, and it had the added bonus of being in 3-D.
DINOSAURUS (1960). A T-Rex and a Brontosaurs are realized with passable stop-motion – pretty convincing if you’re a kid, but not when you see the film as an adult. Still, the fight scene between the Rex and a steam shovel is a good idea.
THE LAND THAT TIME FORGOT (1974). Based on the novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs, this features mechanical dinosaurs, some of them miniature, some of them full size. They don’t look too bad, but their limited movements give them away. The sequel THE PEOPLE THAT TIME FORGOT was much the same.
PLANET OF THE DINOSAURS (1977). Astronauts crash-land on a planet full of stop-motion dinosaurs. The effects are not bad, but they lack the Harryhausen touch.
BABY: SECRET OF THE LOST LEGEND (1985). Based on real-life rumors about a surviving brontosaurus, this adventure film offers up mechanical dinosaurs with faces that are way too cute and anthropomorphic. It’s as if someone wanted the beasts to look like E.T.
CARNOSAUR (1993). Low-budget producer Roger Corman rips off JURASSIC PARK but instead of modern CGI, he utilizes old-fashioned mechanical dinosaurs, including a full-size T-Rex. The design and look are not too bad, but the movements are slow and sluggish. The same mechanical dinosaur reappeared in two sequels and in 1994’s DINOSAUR ISLAND.
This film deserves the highest of all praise: it actually lived up to its hype when it was released in the summer of 1993. This is the event for which dino-fans had been waiting; it is the 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY of its genre – the best dinosaur movie ever – one whose special effects render previous efforts obsolete. (Admittedly, it’s not as good as the original KING KONG. But KING KONG is not a dinosaur movie; it’s an ape movie, with the dinosaurs as costars.)
A reasonably faithful approximation of its source material, the film streamlines the structure of Michael Crichton’s novel and even retains some of his ideas, while adding wickedly clever touches of black humor, courtesy of co-screenwriter David Koepp.
As with JAWS, director Spielberg juggles the fates of his characters (compared to what happened in the book) and opts for a more spectacular ending, a sort of dino ex machina; the latter change may violate conventional dramatic structure, but one can hardly fault its effectiveness.
Technical credits are excellent, although John Williams, as usual, emphasizes the obvious (lush music for lush settings, etc.). Industrial Light & Magic’s computer wizardry imbues the creatures with amazing life: full-motion shots feature some incredible interaction with actors, and intercutting with Stan Winston’s full-scale, live-action versions is virtually seamless.
As with the novel, the human cannot quite compete with their saurian co-stars, but that doesn’t stop the cast from giving good performances, especially Jeff Goldblum in a role obviously tailor-made for him. Amazing enough for Spielberg, the children are not overly sentimentalized; if anything, they are exploited for all the fear they can elicit thr4ough their terrorized reactions to the rampaging reptiles. The PG-13 excises most of Crichton’s gore, but Spielberg ratchets up the suspense to compensate.
This was the best science-fiction/horror film of 1993 and easily the best film of Spielberg’s often overrated career up to that point. (SCHINDLER’S LIST came out later that year). Genre films don’t get much better, at least on a visceral-visual level. Inevitably, such a popular attraction draws its share of nay-sayers, but we should not allow these cynics to prevent the rest of us from opening our eyes in childlike wonder, exhilarated and stunned by the technique and artistry that brought dinosaurs to life as never before. The final glimpse of the triumphant T-Rex, roaring while a “When Dinosaurs Ruled the earth” banner floats to the floor, is sheer visual poetry; in comparison, Bruce the Shark from JAWS resembles a toothless minnow.
In print, author Michael Crichton’s JURASSIC PARK often read like a dissertation on Chaos Theory, with the action serving as a dramatic illustration of the lesson being taught. There was plenty of suspense and gore, but in between the dramatic dinosaur attacks, Crichton offered up pages and pages of intellectual discourse, most of it through the mouth of Dr. Ian Malcolm, who acted as a sort of modern-day Cassandra, warning of the dangers to come.
Amazingly, the exercise was almost entirely successful, creating a book that was simultaneously a rousing adventure story and a fascinating piece of intelligent science-fiction. The film version, of course, could barely begin to scratch the surface of the novel’s text; instead, the screenplay gives a cliff notes condensed version of Chaos Theory. As a result, the movie tends to come across as a fairly simple, almost classic piece of alarmist sci-fi – a sort of high-tech version of Murphy’s Law: “If something can go wrong, it will go wrong.”
The book, although also open to this interpretation, was far more detailed and nuanced. The point was not simply that genetic engineering is potentially dangerous and science invites disaster by tampering with Nature’s domain. It was that, in a complex world with innumerable variables, it is often impossible to predict consequences with any reasonable degree of accuracy. Science, as a doctrine, is concerned with how to do accomplish something, not with whether that accomplishment is the right thing to do.
In the case of the story’s artificially recreated reptiles, the dinosaurs are not a new Frankenstein monster terrorizing their creator; they are simply wild animals – but animals whose behavior patterns are unknown. It is therefore impossible to predict their actions and/or completely control them, but the people involved in the project are too arrogant to admit that they do not have a 100% grasp of the situation. Inevitably, this leads to disaster.
The film version offers a thumbnail version of these events, presented with greater visceral impact because of the excellent computer-generated effects; however, the novel still stands on its own as an excellent piece of literary science-fiction, thanks to the far more detailed examination of the ramifications of the situation. Crichton clearly wanted to entertain his readers; fortunately, he did not shy away from trying to illuminate them as well.
When the film was released in 1993, the video and DVD market were in the process of cutting into the theatrical life of motion pictures, which were spending less time in theatres before heading to home video shelves. JURASSIC PARK (along with PULP FICTION one year later) bucked this trend: JURASSIC PARK played continuously in theatres for over one year after is initial release.
In the same issue of Cinefantastique (October 1993) that contained my original capsule review of JURASSIC PARK, a letter appeared from a disgruntled reader who asked, “Was I the only one who wondered what happened to all the park rangers and geneticists in JURASSIC PARK?” Whether Mr. Ron Murillo was the only one who pondered this question is unknown, but dialogue in the film makes it clear that the staff leaves by boat before disaster strikes (although this is not shown). This may be a cheap dramatic device to clear the decks and streamline the movie, but technically, it is not a continuity error.
Jurassic Park (1993). Directed by Steven Spielberg. Screenplay by Michael Cricthon and David Koepp, based on the novel by Crichton. Cast: Sam Neill, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum, Richard Attenborough, Bob Peck, Martin Ferrero, Joseph Mazzello, Ariana Richards, Samuel L. Jackson, B.D. Wong, Wayne Knight.
“Paradigm” was just another word for a model, but as scientists used it, the term meant something more, a world view. A larger way of seeing the world. Paradigm shifts were said to occur whenever science made a major change in its view of the world.
-Michael Crichton, JURASSIC PARK
In his novel Jurassic Park, Michael Crichton comes close – or so it would seem to a careless reader – to reworking the standard science fiction plot of portraying the havoc that erupts when scientists meddle in things they were not meant to experiment with. However, instead of telling us that there are some things man was not meant to know, JURASSIC PARK tells us there are things we cannot know. The plot of the disaster which engulfs the park is an illustration of the book’s theme: that there are limits to our ability to under¬stand and control the world and that science, whose premise is that we can understand and control everything, is an out¬dated system that needs to be replaced by a new paradigm.
Of course, that’s not what’s going to draw audiences to theatres this summer. People will come because they want to see dinosaurs roaring and rampaging across the big screen. And as a matter of fact, Crichton originally conceived his dinosaur-cloning story as a screenplay, minus the thematic subtext. “I had become interested in the notion of obtaining dinosaur DNA and cloning a dinosaur in 1983,” he recalled of his initial effort. “The script didn’t work, and I just waited to see if I could ever figure out how to make it work. It took quite a few years.
“It was a very different story,” said Crichton of the original script. “It was about the person who did the cloning, operating alone and in secret. It just wasn’t satisfactory. The real conclusion for me was that what you really wanted in a story like this was to have a sort of natural environment in which people and dinosaurs could be together. You wanted the thing that never happened in history: people in the forest and swamps at the same time as dinosaurs. Once that notion began to dictate how the story would proceed, then everything else fell into place, because there are certain things that I wanted to avoid, like the dinosaurs in New York City – that’s been done.”
Working with his new slant on the story, Crichton opted to write a novel. “I didn’t revise the script,” he said. “By the time I got around to doing it, there were other considerations. The most important is that it wasn’t clear that anyone would ever make this story into a movie, because it would be very expensive. So one way to get the story done was to write a book. I could do that.”
Despite the story’s origins as a screenplay, the novel ex¬pounds on its thematic material in depth, mostly through the character of Ian Malcolm, played by Jeff Goldblum in the film, a mathematician whose eponymous theory “the Malcolm Effect” predicts the failure of the park. Of course, this ma¬terial had to be condensed or deleted when the story came full circle to being a script again. “I feel very strongly that books should be the best books they can be, and you should not worry about what the movie will do,” Crichton said of his uncinematic approach, which makes the novel stand up as a work in its own right rather than a stepping stone to a film deal. “In movies, a little bit of that kind of dialogue goes a long way. A movie like JURASSIC PARK is not the format to have extended discussions on the scientific paradigm.”
Crichton did several initial screenplay drafts for Spielberg, retaining the basics of his novel in condensed form. “I think everyone’s feeling was they liked the book in its overall shape and structure, and they wanted to keep that. So the question was how to get it on film since there are some parts – but not a tremendous number of parts – where it’s clear that you can just lift it out and the structure remains. It was a question of paring down and trying to keep things from the original, simplifying.”
Further describing the adaptation process, Crichton went on to note that, “It’s a fairly long book, and the script can only have somewhere between 10 and 20 percent of the content. So what you’re really trying to do is make a sort of short story that reproduces the quality of the novel and has all the big scenes retained and has the logical flow that appears in the much longer and more extended argument.
“A similar issue has to do with what you call `visceral things,”‘ said the author-adapter. “You can have gory descriptions in a book, because everyone is their own projectionist. I’ve al¬ways found it unwise to do that in a movie, because it throws you out of the movie. As soon as you see guts, you immediately think, `Where did they get them? How did they do it?’ You do not believe for a moment that that’s actually happening. Since I see it as an insoluble problem to present viscera, the movie wisely doesn’t do that. I also think the explicitness of the violence serves a different purpose [in the book]. You don’t have certain advantages a movie has, so in a way the violence is a way to say, `These are real dinosaurs, and take them seriously, 0 Reader.’ In the movie, if they look wonderful, then you take them seriously; you don’t have to see them tear people open. Your decision about taking them seriously is based on other things, so [graphic violence is] unnecessary.
In the adapting process, Crichton was forced to drop several scenes he would like to have retained, but his previous experience as a screenwriter taught him to be philosophical about the process. Noted Crichton, “Scenes went for all kinds of reasons: budget reasons, practical reasons, in the sense that they were difficult to do; they went out of the belief that they were repetitive in some way. But I think the primary thing that drives something like this is budget. You have to stop somewhere and where you stop, people will say, `Oh, that was my favorite scene and it’s not in.”‘
Although authors sometimes adapt their own novels to the screen in order to try to protect their work from hampering filmmakers, this was not Crichton’s intention; in fact, he did not initially intend to do the adaptation himself. “I didn’t have it in my mind to do the script, but Steven said, `We really need somebody to pare this thing down into some kind of manageable shape so we know what to build and it has to happen fast.’ I said, “I do have the advantage of having tried many versions of this, so I know what works; I’ll whack it down. Then when you want to do your character polishes, get somebody else.’ I really wasn’t able to stay with the project for three years; I had other things to do. I really didn’t want to do the script; I had a lot of confi¬dence in Spielberg.
“There are disadvantages to having the original writer,” continued Crichton. “People think writers fall in love with their own words. I don’t have any sense of that at all. What’s difficult for me is that in doing a story like this, you do several drafts which change the story dramatically from one to another – at least that was what happened in this book. So you’ve rethought it several times; now you have to rethink it again for a movie, and it’s just hard to re¬think it too many times. It’s hard to take the same elements, toss them up in the air and re¬arrange them again and again and again.”
Crichton is confident that those elements have been re¬arranged into a satisfactory order. “I think it’s going to be a pretty amazing movie,” he suggested enthusiastically. “I think it’s going to have stuff in it that people will be floored by – they are not going to believe what they see. That’s always nice.”
In discussing his live-action dinosaurs in JURASSIC PARK, makeup effects expert Stan Winston referred to Willis OBrien’s KING KONG as “yet to be surpassed.” But the praise ir O’Brien had an edge. Winston bore the confidence of one who expected his work to be the top dog come June. But dinosaur film fans, who have seen many a live-action dinosaur fall on its face, will need a lot of convincing. “Steven [Spielberg] wanted to do live action as much as possible,” said Winston. “He asked how much we could do. I, being a little insane, told him we could do a great deal. He asked. ‘How?’ My response was. ‘I don’t know, but since it’s something we would love to do, we’ll figure out a way.’ I think that’s pretty much what Steven wanted to hear.”
Figuring out a way required revising the script and dropping some sequences, such as when the T-Rex takes to the water. “If we don’t feel we can do exactly what’s scripted, then it’s a matter of going back and adjusting to work within certain parameters,” said Winston. The parameters are not necessarily, ‘Can you do it?’ My gut feeling is that with the magic of the film-making process we can do anything, given enough time and money. The question is, ‘How can we do it within limitations on money and time – how much we’ll spend, how much can we get done?’ To bring in a movie of this scope on the dollars they spent, we were very frugal. Nothing in excess of $50-million is cheap, but investment equates to return. What you see on the screen will in every way justify the expense of this movie.”
Winston noted he faced two major challenges on the film: the artistic challenge of making the dinosaurs look good and the practical challenge of bringing them to life. “Our job was to create the most realistic dinosaurs that anyone has ever seen,” said Winston. “We did an enormous amount of research. We maintained a legitimacy to all of the available knowledge when it came to what dinosaurs looked like and how they lived. We had to take that reality and make it as interesting, as dramatic, as beautiful, and as spectacular as you have ever seen.”
As with men, not all Raptors, for example, are created equal. “Danny DeVito and Arnold Schwarzenegger are both men,” noted Winston. “We had to make artistic judgments in the creation of our dinosaurs to make this Raptor or that Tyrannosaurus the neatest one you’ve ever seen? A lot of that is instinct, not right or wrong.”
Winston saw the task of bringing the dinosaurs to life his biggest challenge. “They had to act,” said Winston. “We couldn’t cast a gorgeous actor who couldn’t deliver a line; we had to create saurian Robert DeNiros and Jack Nicholsons. That’s stretching it, but in the broadest sense of the term, we did need to create characters that performed. I think what we accomplished is beyond anything like this that’s been done in motion-picture history. I’m hoping the audience will feel as I do.”
The biggest influence on the look of Winston’s dinosaurs was the work of artist John Gurche. “I have an enormous amount of respect for the feeling of reality, drama and character in his work,” said Winston. “That’s what we shot for: that our dinosaurs were as dramatic and beautiful as a Gurche dinosaur.”
Winston began with a series of pencil renderings by staff artist Mark “Crash” McCreery. “I’m surrounded, fortunately, in every area – from sketching to painting to sculpting – by an unsurpassed group of artists,” said Winston.
Once the sketches received approval from Spielberg, fifth-scale miniatures were built, then full-scale sculptures.
“We attacked our sculptures in a much more technically engineered way,” said Winston. “Instead of just sculpting free-hand, we took our fifth-scale sculptures and sliced them into pies, so to speak, so we had a sculpture put together like the hull of an airplane; then we blew those slices up five times, recreated those hull pieces, and put the armature back together, so that we had an armature that was very close to the finished structure of the character. Then it was a matter of detailing: putting on the skin and doing the final sculpting on an armature that gave us the shape.”
At the same time, Winston and his crew were deciding on a variety of methods to bring the dinosaurs to life: cable-actuation, radio-control and computer-governed hydraulics. The most innovative method was strapping the top half of the T¬Rex to an airplane flight simulator.
“That concept came from Craig Caton, one of my key mechanical coordinators,” said Winston. “It limited a certain amount of shooting ability, because for many of the shots we would only be able to shoot the T-Rex from the waist up, but it seemed like a perfect way to do the broad moves-it’s a tried-and-true method of taking a lot of weight and giving it a mutli-axis.” Winston’s crew also built an insert head, hoisted by a 13,000 lb. crane, and insert legs.
For the Tyrannosaur’s more complex movements, Winston developed an idea “that came to me in the middle of the night: a performance-capturing Waldo. It was always a concern how we were going to puppet this enormous guy. We did have some people with us whose background was amusement park-size creatures like King Kong. The conventional method was, on a slide-pot board, to log in the actions of the hydraulic character, motion by motion; then, once that action is created, the computer memorizes it, and you can play it back over and over again. But it takes a long time to program that action and we needed to be able to take direction on a set. So I came up with the idea of recreating the dinosaurs’ inner structure mechanically – which we had already done in mock-up-so that we knew how everything would move. For every joint or axis of motion, we placed a linear potentiometer – which is a slide-pot, so to speak, that looks like a little piston. If we could get those little pistons to match the movements of the hydraulics, then instead of putting them on a control board, we could put them in place of where the hydraulics would be in the full-size character. This gave us a small version of the insides of the big version, so that any movement we gave to the small T-Rex as a puppet – holding onto it as a puppeteer and mov¬ing the head – would go right into the dinosaur, and he would do what we wanted, in real time. It worked beautifully.”
The film’s Triceratops and Bilophosaurs (a poison-spitting species) were filmed totally live using Winston’s creations. For the Brachiosaur, Winston’s team built only the head and neck. For the Raptors, Winston’s crew employed a variety of rod puppets, cable and radio-control versions, as well as the conventional man-in-a-suit approach. Fuller shots of the T¬Rex, Brachiosaur and Raptors were augmented with ILM’s CGI work.
Winston said matching his dinosaurs to the computer-generated versions of ILM was not one of his concerns. “It didn’t influence the design at all,” he stated. “They took exactly what we designed here and duplicated it. Phil Tippett was a major influence. I think that a great deal of any continuity that we have between live-action and computer-generated is greatly due to Phil and his helping us create as realistic dinosaur motions as we could. Phil’s a dinosaur himself.”
The only dinosaur to visit the Hawaii location was the Triceratops, for a scene where the creature is found lying ill That left the majority of dinosaur effects to be filmed am stage, under the supervision of Michael Lantieri.
“Michael worked very closely with us,” said Winston. “We had certain requirements from a floor effects standpoint, a crane, for instance, to operate characters externally. We knew what was needed from his team and how any physical apparatus, interior or exterior, would marry. It was a perfectly coordinated marriage of teams.
“I would say that about the whole movie,” Winston continued. “It was the most perfectly coordinated movie I’ve ever worked on, from set design art direction, floor effects to creature effects. Every aspect of this film was a team effort, helmed by a director I had an enormous amount of respect for, even though I had never worked with him. Now, having worked with him, I know that it is no accident that Steven Spielberg is Steven Spielberg. He’s an incredible director, and he has an amazing feel for film. This could have been the worst working experience of my life, because it was the biggest. It turned out to be the opposite. It was a joy to go to work every day. It was the best working experience I’ve ever had, with the exception of directing my own movies.”