Jurassic snark


(c) Alfred A. Knopf


We haven’t reached the end of the summer yet, but it’s already obvious what has won the title of Biggest Summer Movie of 2015.


Jurassic World, fourth in the series about genetically-recreated dinosaurs running loose in a theme park, which began with the original, Steven Spielberg-directed film Jurassic Park in 1993, has raked in a brontosaurus-sized pile of money.  The last time I looked at the website www.boxofficemojo.com, its worldwide takings were about $1,581,000,000.  It’s now the third-most successful movie in history, trailing behind only the James Cameron-directed duo of Avatar (2009) and Titanic (1997).  I realised how popular Jurassic World was when it played at the cinema at the top of my street in Colombo.  Movies, even massive movies like The Avengers ones, rarely seem to stay longer than a week in Sri Lankan cinemas.  Jurassic World, however, managed to continue its residency there for a month-and-a-half.


Mind you, I’ve felt no urge to go up to my local cinema and fork out some Sri Lankan rupees to see Jurassic World.  No doubt I’ll catch up with it one day – probably ten years from now when I encounter it one Sunday afternoon showing on ITV2 in a sanitised, family-friendly version, i.e. with all the gory bits cut out.  But nothing I’ve read about it has convinced me that it’s worth making an effort to see now.  Film critics whose opinions I respect, like the Observer’s Mark Kermode, have described it as being bland, by-the-numbers and predictable.  Oh, and supposedly it’s a bit sexist too.


Actually, I haven’t been particularly impressed by any of the Jurassic Park movies.  And that includes the original Spielberg movie of 1993, which was based on the novel of the same name, written three years earlier by Michael Crichton.  Although a lot of people nowadays seem to view Jurassic Park as a classic, I thought it was a big let-down.  That was because I made the mistake of reading Jurassic Park-the-book before I went to see JurassicPark-the-movie and I felt miffed when what’d I’d visualised in my head during the book failed to materialise on the cinema screen.


I did have high hopes for the film.  Firstly, with Spielberg at the helm and a ton of Hollywood money behind it, Jurassic Park looked like being a very rare beast, a dinosaur movie with proper dinosaurs in it.  I’ve always loved the idea of dinosaur movies, but apart from those ones where the prehistoric beasties were powered by stop-motion animation – like the silent-movie version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World (1925) and the original King Kong (1933), whose dinosaurs were animated by Willis O’Brien, and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), One Million Years BC (1966) and The Valley of Gwangi (1969), whose special effects were the work of the late, great Ray Harryhausen – dinosaur movies before 1993 had contained dinosaurs that looked, well, rubbish.


I’m thinking of ones where the dinosaurs were plainly stuntmen lumbering about in rubbery dinosaur suits, like The Land Unknown (1957).  Or magnified glove puppets, like The Land that Time Forgot (1974).  Or unfortunate modern-day lizards who’d also been magnified and had had fake spikes, horns and fins glued onto them to make them look big and fierce.  The worst offender in that last category is surely Irwin Allen’s terrible 1960 remake of The Lost World, during which Claude Rains exclaims at the sight of one supposed sauropod: “It’s a mighty brontosaurus!”  While I was watching the film on TV, at the age of ten, I remember yelling back: “No, it’s not!  It’s just a stupid iguana!”


(c) Amblin Entertainment / Universal Pictures


The big-budget Jurassic Park was going to employ all the latest advances in animatronics and computer-generated imagery to get its dinosaurs right, so I wouldn’t have to worry about having my intelligence insulted by the spectacle of men in monster suits and overblown puppets and lizards.


Secondly, there was a buzz about Jurassic Park because it was rumoured that, for the first time in yonks, Spielberg was going to do something dark.  He’d spent the 1980s making movies with unbearably-high schmaltz levels: movies about cute aliens phoning home, and ghostly pilots moping about their still-alive girlfriends, and Robin Williams turning out to be Peter Pan.  Once upon a time, though, he’d directed punchy, at times nightmarish films like Duel (1972) and Jaws (1975).  Prior to Jurassic Park’s release, I was told by more than one film magazine to expect Spielberg to be back to his old schmaltz-free best.  Supposedly, Jurassic Park was going to be like Jaws on dry land.


As for Michael Crichton’s original novel – well, it’d never be mistaken for great literature but, reading it, I did think that with cutting-edge special effects and a skilful director it could make a hell of a movie.  Many of its scenes seemed intensely cinematic.  Actually, this wasn’t a surprise because Crichton himself had made films.  Most notably, he’d written and directed 1973’s Westworld, which is about a futuristic theme park that allows its visitors to indulge their most homicidal fantasies in mock-ups of the American Wild West, medieval Europe and Roman-era Pompeii.  These are populated by scores of human-like robots whom it’s okay to shoot or hack or stab to death because they can’t actually die.  Of course, a glitch in the system eventually compels the robots to start fighting back and then it’s the holiday-makers who get slaughtered.  Westworld, in fact, is a prototype for Jurassic Park, with the same theme-park setting but with the exhibits-that-turn-nasty changed from robots to dinosaurs.


I knew Crichton’s novel would get trimmed as it was turned into a film, but I was dismayed at how much of it was trimmed.  Jaws had shed a few gratuitous sub-plots that made its source novel, the 1974 bestseller by Peter Benchley, seem a bit flabby, and it was a lean, muscular movie as a result.  Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, however, was pared to the bone.  In its final reel the park’s pack of deadly velociraptors have escaped from their compound, the surviving humans are running around trying to avoid being eaten by them, and that’s about it.  The velociraptors rampage through the book’s final chapters too, but there are other matters adding to the suspense.  It becomes clear that some velociraptors have managed to board the supply-ship that services the island where the park is located and there’s a real danger that they’ll reach the American mainland and become an ultra-lethal invasive species.  The humans are also on a desperate quest to count the hatched eggs in the velociraptors’ nests, so that they can calculate just how many of the scaly killers are on the loose.


(c) Amblin Entertainment / Universal Pictures


Also simplified in the film are the fates of the characters.  The main characters, palaeontologists Alan Grant and Ellie Sattler, chaos theorist Ian Malcolm and the billionaire mastermind behind the park, John Hammond, don’t all make it to the end of the book.  Malcolm expires from injuries sustained from a dinosaur attack while Hammond dies after he hears the roar of a tyrannosaurus rex, panics and falls down a hillside.  (Ironically, the roar comes from the park’s PA system – Hammond’s two young grandchildren have been mucking around in a control room with some dinosaur recordings.)  Meanwhile, certain secondary characters, like the park’s lawyer Gennaro and its game warden Muldoon, survive the dino-carnage.  Gennaro is even allowed to show a degree of courage, which is unusual for a fictional corporate lawyer.


In the movie, though, Grant, Sattler, Malcolm and Hammond are played by big-name stars – Sam Neill, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum and veteran British actor / director Sir Richard Attenborough – who clearly had it in their contracts that none of them would suffer the indignity of being eaten by a dinosaur.  So they all survive.  But because this is a monster movie, which demands that monsters eat people at regular intervals, the supporting characters are gradually bumped off, including Gennaro and Muldoon.  This makes the plot very predictable.  Interestingly, one supporting character who got killed in the book but made it out of the movie alive is the geneticist Henry Wu.  Played by B.D. Wong, he’s the only character from 1993’s Jurassic Park who reappears in 2015’s Jurassic World.


Meanwhile, Attenborough’s casting is a symptom of one of the film’s worst features.  As played by the cuddly, twinkly Attenborough – who one year later would play Santa Claus in a remake of Miracle on 34th Street – the John Hammond in the film is way nicer than the one in the book.  The original, fictional Hammond is a callous, conniving and delusional arsehole who should’ve been played by Donald Pleasence.


Spielberg couldn’t bring himself to be nasty to Hammond, whom he no doubt regarded as a kindred spirit.  Hammond at his dinosaur theme park, like Spielberg in Hollywood, is merely trying to be a showman.  He wants to wow the masses by showing them sights they’d only seen before in their dreams.  How could he be bad?  Thus, we get a maudlin scene where Hammond explains his motives to Dern’s character by reminiscing about his first venture in the entertainment business – a flea circus.  (Attenborough also gives Hammond the worst Scottish accent in movie history, so he havers to Dern about bringing his wee flea circus “doon sooth” to London “frae Scotland”.)  Look at the size of the fleas in his circus now, Spielberg is saying.  What a visionary!


(c) BBC


The softening of Hammond’s character infects the rest of the film.  Though some of the velociraptor and tyrannosaurus-rex scenes are scary, it’s all a bit too upbeat.  Spielberg wants us to be awed by Hammond’s dinosaurs, not to shit ourselves at them.  John Williams’ musical score adds to the problem – his Jurassic Park theme, according to www.billboard.com, oozes with ‘astonishment, joy and wonder’; but since this is supposedly a sci-fi horror movie, shouldn’t it be oozing with some old-fashioned fear too?  And Crichton’s cynicism, about man’s inability to control the forces that he unleashes with his technological toys, is gone, needless to say.


But my biggest frustration about the film was that while Spielberg portrays Hammond as being like Walt Disney, the park isn’t like Disneyland – and it ought to be.  In the novel Crichton wonderfully juxtaposes the primeval and the high-tech.  There might be hordes of monstrous reptiles from earth’s distant past stumping around the wilds of Hammond’s island, but at the same time the place bristles with state-of-the-art sensors and cameras and is honeycombed with service tunnels crammed full of power-cables.  At its centre is Hammond’s console-packed control room where he squats like a space-age spider in a technological web.  The joy of the book is watching all this technology slowly, gradually start to malfunction and break down – until finally it’s useless.  And meanwhile, the prehistoric stars of the show are clawing at the scenery, hungry to get at the humans who’ve been pulling the levers behind it.


You don’t really get this impression in the film.  Attenborough’s control room looks a bit dingy, like he’s set it up in his garden shed.  And the dinosaurs just seem to be out in big fields with big fences around them – nothing in the background but foliage, nothing underneath but soil.  This Jurassic Park is more like Jurassic Farm.


No, while I sat through Jurassic Park in a cinema 22 years ago, I didn’t feel like I was watching a classic.  The main thing I felt was a great sense of disappointment – crushing me as effectively as if one of the behemoths onscreen had suddenly stepped out into the auditorium and trod on me.  For the authentic Jurassic Park thrill-ride, check out Crichton’s book.


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