“I wanted to show them something that wasn’t an illusion.”
A re-watch of Jurassic Park is an obvious choice given the release of Jurassic World, which I’ve yet to see but I feel like I already have, if that’s not too cynical a view. I have fond memories of Jurassic Park – I literally remember the scene where Laura Dern and Sam Neill’s jaws drop as a living dinosaur moves in front of them, as in the cinema there was literally the same reaction to the state-of-the-art computer effects that brought the dinosaurs to life.
I was very interested in a recent reading of Jurassic Park that has the movie in some way connected thematically to its actual place in cinema history – the CGI dinosaurs that were so crucial to its success, and the position of Spielberg himself as a John Hammond-esque puppeteer of popular cinema. The idea that the film itself is about movie-making or creating myths, a preoccupation of cinephile Spielberg – “What you got in there – King Kong?”.
Hammond, played by Richard Attenborough in the original, is the enthusiastic puller of strings of Jurassic Park, the popular attraction. Just as Spielberg pulls the strings of Jurassic Park the film. Hammond sits lonely beside his Jurassic Park merchandise slurping melting ice cream. T-shirts, lunchboxes, tie-in products with the logo out front – was this the version of authorship that Spielberg ever expected of himself. Is the film somehow a lament for the blockbuster cinema that the director almost found himself trapped within? An admission of guilt almost? “You packaged it and patented it and stuck it on a plastic lunchbox”. As CGI dinosaurs tear apart the theme park, is it part-joyful catharsis for the film-maker?
Hammond is seen as a paternal figure, a sort of all-purpose creator, the director of the attraction. He announces that he’s been there at the birth of all of the dinosaurs, acting like a proud mother/father. His staff are like unruly teenagers, with Dennis Nedry the ultimate angry child – “Thanks Dad” he announces after another spat. He’s like a doting parent so lost in his creation that he forgets any notion of humanity or morality. How much of himself Spielberg saw in Hammond is unclear, but as the director of the movie one does have exactly the same relationship with crew and actors, and has to maintain the same level of tunnel-vision on the spectacle of the movie.
Think of Hammond as Spielberg, at the introductory presentation to Jurassic Park. The visitors sit in a mini-cinema, and Hammond the ringmaster interacts with a film-version of himself on the screen. He fluffs his lines, and spoils parts of the film. He sits at the back of the screening and talks about how the music will be changed in the sequence they’re watching – very much the self-obsessed director making excuses for his own creation. His guests don’t want to watch his film – they duck out for a taste of real life instead.
There is a constant tension in Jurassic Park between the spectacle of the theme park as an attraction, and the real life concerns of humanity. Twice in the film the hero literally exits a ride mid-presentation, breaking the safety bar to explore the science lab, and running from the moving tour to treat a poorly Triceratops. The contrast between the guided sections of the tour, which fall flat at every turn, and the happy accidents of the excursions behind the scenes – to the Triceratops, the feeding of the cow to the Raptors, the birth of a new dinosaur in the lab. The limits of spectacle – nothing that is shown to you can compare to the experiences of real life.
Sam Neill’s everyday paleontologist seems an intentionally bland everyman antidote both to the slick theme park, and the slick blockbuster film built around it. He hates computers – his first touch of a computer screen sees the image break up in unexplained static. Yet the dinosaurs of Spielberg’s grand creation are, in crucial moments, computer generated. It’s as if the hero isn’t playing the game – is he the part of the director’s personality that longs to escape and break free from the ephemera of blockbuster event movie-making. He can’t even work out the helicopter seatbelts that take him to Jurassic Park, deciding to simply knot the belts together himself – a sign of his maverick disruption to the proceedings. And he hates kids – Spielberg’s E.T. crowned him the king of the kid’s-eye-view.
I’ve always found the character of Ian Malcolm interesting too, played by Jeff Goldblum. He represents the character of the narcissistic ‘star’, who I’m sure Spielberg had plenty of contact with, in the film a rock-star-like mathematician with an interest in chaos theory. It’s odd what little part he actually plays in the film. He explains his notion by using the way a drop of water flows off the back of your hand in a chaotic manner. But I have always thought that what Malcolm is actually explaining is the basis for the huge part chance plays in the way the film ultimately plays out. And this film uses chance as a convenient driver of so much of the action. The way the car falls from the tree just out of reach of the fleeing characters. The way the Raptor slips on the ice in the kitchen freezer. The way the T-Rex appears at the split-second required to save the day at the end of the film. Malcolm is Spielberg’s way of breaking the fourth wall to excuse the dreadful coincidences that litter the film.
Think of the ‘bloodsucking lawyer’ in the film as well – the dreaded creepy suited money-man despatched to check on the progress of the theme park like a dreaded executive sent to check the progress of a film on-set. He warns Hammond about his budget and the prospect of the park being shut down. Spielberg of course faced that exact issue with the very famous story of the creation of Jaws, which went vastly over budget. And just like Jurassic Park, nothing worked properly on that project either. And even faced with the incredible spectacle of a real dinosaur, the lawyer can only enjoy the sight by thinking of the money that is going to be made, cynicism at every turn. At the first sign of trouble he heads off to hide in the toilets and meets a sticky end.
Of course the dinosaurs themselves are the ultimate disruptors in the film. There is ultimately a huge irony in the theme of ‘life finding a way’ or the forces of nature, mutated and angry, wiping clean the notion of humans thinking that they can create at will. They cannot tame the monster – ultimately Spielberg’s career as a showman has led him to be a polarising figure, and his friend and collaborator George Lucas (who edited Jurassic Park while Spielberg was shooting Schindler’s List) would know that more than most. And the force of nature that overcomes the spectacle happen to be embodied in dinosaurs operated on a practical level by animatronic models and CGI effects. These expensive effects, practical and computer-generated, dominate the movie and proved to be the ultimate draw at the cinema – as John Hammond himself says about his own creation, “We’ve spared no expense.”
There’s a telling, famous moment in the film where Bob Peck’s gamekeeper looks in the wing mirror at the approaching T-Rex. It’s a visual joke – the mirror says ‘objects may appear nearer than they actually are’ and we laugh because when a T-Rex is chasing you the illusion is truly fearful. But it’s also a play on the idea that the T-Rex actually is an illusion created by computer – it is not nearer than it actually is, it is not even real at all, the wing mirror is entirely wrong.
This motif of reality and illusion is played out throughout the film. At the first dinosaur dig, computer technology ‘reveals’ the thermal illusion of the dinosaur buried in the Earth. The heart-stopping sequence with the Raptors in the kitchen has a raptor dive at Lex only for it to be revealed that it’s only a reflection of her that fools the raptor (which in itself fools us). Indeed when Lex first sees the Raptor’s shadow holding up a spoonful of wobbling jelly, the silhouette of the Raptor appears in line with a theme-park painting of a raptor – a painted illusion, shadowed by a cinematic illusion, played for dramatic illusion in the film.
There’s also a lot of computer interaction in the film. I’ve mentioned that the hero hates computers. But yet computers created the spectacle that made the film such a hit. Yet the computer system creates the failures that bring the theme park to its knees in the first place. There’s also a strong connection between the idea of computer code, and the DNA strands that make up the basis of the recreated life that gives birth to Jurassic Park in the first place. The famous image of the Raptor in the control room, with code projected onto her skin – is it the code of the DNA that was retrieved to create her, or the code that makes her live in the cinema?
Hammond sits next to his merchandise and slurps his melted ice cream and talks about the flea circus he used to run in his youth. And how the illusion of the flea circus (spoiler: there are never any fleas in a flea circus) drove him to try and create something real. It could literally be Spielberg himself talking about his creations – “It’s still a flea circus. It’s all an illusion”.