OK, just to be clear, I don’t hate Jurassic Park. It’s got the best dinosaurs we’d ever seen in a film up to that point (by a long shot) and it’s got a number of really gripping sequences (that terrifying opening, the T-Rex attacking the jeep, the velociraptors come out in full force). But even so, I don’t think it’s something I could actually call a good movie.
(Incidentally, this is #35 in a series of 47 posts about movies, with topics selected by my friend, each given to me after the previous one is written. For more information, check out #1 here.)
When I saw Jurassic Park, I couldn’t help but think of Jaws, for what I think are obvious reasons: both directed by Spielberg, monster movie, man vs. improbable animal. The drama in Jaws is grounded by three powerful characters who are all clear and distinct. The contrast and conflicts between them, particularly when they are all delivered via top-notch performances, is riveting. The relational dynamics amongst Quint, Brody and Hooper are highlighted by their shared battle for survival, and this battle is compelling because the characters mean so much to us.
None of that is present in Jurassic Park. Instead, you have a film that is not completely sure whether it’s telling Jaws with dinosaurs or ET with dinosaurs. Is this a film about humans struggling to survive against monsters? Or is it a film about children caught up in the wonder and joy of seeing dinosaurs brought to life? The film never completely finds its tone, and so as a result, in the midst of the amazing sequences referenced above, you’ve got ridiculous moments like Alan Grant trying to be funny by pretending to be electrocuted by a fence in front of traumatized kids. You’ve got silly moments like people feeling comfortable petting a dinosaur the size of an apartment block, and then having it sneeze on them. You’ve got conflicted moments like the T-Rex being the “hero” at the end, in spite of being a maddening threat earlier and eating that poor, humiliated lawyer.
Jurassic Park and its sequels have always tried to work in a vibe of inspiration–we are supposed to be overwhelmed at how amazing these creatures are, as well as terrified by them. That’s a worthwhile tone to aspire for but the whole franchise has always struggled with it. So that’s led to things like lots of “Life…finds a way,” speeches and lots of lingering shots of people staring in amazement. But it’s also led to lots of humans being profoundly stupid, and that starts right here in the first movie.
Bob Peck plays Muldoon, a hunter who we all thought was super-cool. But he dies. Why? Because the velociraptor tricked him with its super-clever hunting strategy…a hunting strategy that a paleontologist who has never seen a living dinosaur is fully aware of; whereas Muldoon, who observes dinosaurs up close and personal for his job, seems oblivious to. And also because of his questionable strategy guarding Ellie by lying around in the jungle trying to trap the velociraptor rather than just going with her. But I guess we like him because he appreciates the grandeur of these creatures and even gives one a compliment before it kills him.
But even before that, you have Arnold, played by Samuel L. Jackson, who apparently thinks it’s an easy-peasy thing to just run across the grounds of the broken dinosaur zoo and throw a few switches. Of course he’s going to die. When he doesn’t come back, only then does Muldoon break out all his big guns. Why on earth not do that earlier?
If they’re not stupid, then the characters are pathetic, like the lawyer Gennaro (Martin Ferraro) who is overcome by fear and then meets his cruel end screaming on a toilet in a broken outhouse. Because greedy, cowardly humans basically deserve to be crushed by the monsters they tried to control.
Or Wayne Knight’s Nedry, who is both pathetic and stupid. He’s so annoying that the audience wants him to die from the first moment he appears, but when you finally get to his big scene, it takes forever for it to finally happen, and all we can do is patiently endure until the obvious to take place.
None of the characters in Jaws, even the obnoxious mayor, are treated so badly. I know it’s not completely fair to say a movie isn’t good just because it doesn’t live up to another masterpiece, but it just highlights how cartoony so much of this film is.
The main characters suffer from a more serious problem, which is that they are simply not that interesting, and even bland. I mean, Jeff Goldblum’s Ian Malcolm is the most memorable just because he stammers out funny things from time to time. But there’s no real conflict between them, no real personality dynamics for them to play off of in their interactions with each other. Alan Grant has a small emotional journey about learning to not dislike kids, but it’s transparently shallow. There’s no sense of genuine emotional reality to the relationship he has with the two children; it’s clear that it’s something that has been grafted onto the story and is not intrinsic to it.
Maybe the worst of all is John Hammond, played by the great Richard Attenborough. We see him as the lovable wizard of a grandfather, who pulls open the curtain on a world of wonders. The other main characters all see this is as a bad idea, but the movie never gets into why Hammond has done what he has done. What has compelled him to create the park? What does it do to him to see it go so wrongly? It’s the most obvious, most interesting aspect of any character that could have been explored in this story, and it’s completely sidelined. He gets berated by others a few times, but he turns out to be a purely functional character, just there to get things going and to explain why they kids are present. Indeed, everyone in the movie is purely functional, there with no purpose but to react, run away or get eaten. Rather than grounding us in the middle of the spectacle (like the characters in Jaws, Close Encounters, or ET, for example), they just get in the way of it.
This isn’t a movie about the people, it’s about the dinosaurs, and though the dinosaurs are amazing spectacle they are not interesting characters. And boring characters yields a flat story.
So that’s why I don’t like Jurassic Park, generally.
PS: When I first saw Jurassic Park, I just thought it was absurd that there could be a whole island full of living, breathing dinosaurs with hundreds and hundreds of employees involved in developing them, transporting them, feeding them, etc., without that becoming public knowledge. It’s an improbability on the same level as believing that America faked the moon landing and nobody has offered any proof in nearly fifty years.
Now, in contrast, my brother at the time argued that he thought there could easily be all sorts of secrets of the same immensity going on in the world right now and we’d never know. Maybe he’s right. Who could know?