Alright- I know I said I wouldn’t write about pop culture anymore, but… well, I lied. What I meant is I wouldn’t try to pretend like I’m the poor man’s IGN or AV Club or something. But I feel like it’s appropriate to write about pop culture when discussing how if affects my life and my opinions as an aspiring artist.
Jurassic Park is one of my top ten films of all time. It not only encapsulates everything that little 1993 Alex loved, but is also a great example of what I want to achieve as a screenwriter and filmmaker. Some of my more auteurish friends and film school confidantes may think that’s a pretty low bar of aspiration, but let’s take a look at what my current Top 10 Films are, to get an idea of who I am as a writer:
1. Pulp Fiction (1994)
2. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
3. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)
4. Citizen Kane (1941)
5. Blue Velvet (1986)
6. The Matrix (1999)
7. The Dark Knight (2008)
8. The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
9. Jurassic Park (1993)
10. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
David Cronenberg’s Videodrome comes in at a very close eleventh place- I almost put in there over LOTR. As you can see I have a penchant for the epic and grandiose- even the oldest and most classic film on that list, Orson Welles’ iconic Citizen Kane is full of revolutionary camera techniques and special effects and tells a story that spans an individual’s entire life. You’ll also notice that most of the films are fairly modern, most from 1980-today. Now I do not present this list as the ten best films of all time- they are merely my favorite films, and I acknowledge that many other films are more intellectual and artistic than these ten. I am a student of cinema and of fine art, but French new wave and mumblecore and neorealism are facets of the art form that do not really appeal to me. It’s something I struggle with often, as I consider myself an artist and am a fan of the avant-garde, but when given a choice between watching a movie with aliens or a black and white film filled with depressed French people, I’ll nine times out of ten pick the former. It’s just who I am.
What I find frustrating however, is how the genres that attract me- science fiction, fantasy and horror- are often belittled or consider unartistic. I feel this is unfair- I do not believe Jurassic Park has any less merit to it than Breathless, they are simply works of art composed with different paintbrushes. The latter may stimulate one’s mind more than Spielberg’s dinosaur opus, but JP stimulates the senses and on a purely technical level, is almost pitch-perfect. JP isn’t without its big ideas- like the novel it is based upon, it ruminates on whether mankind can truly control nature- it’s just that these big ideas are subtext, and not the point of the film. At its heart Jurassic Park is just an adventure film, but it’s also a character study and it excels at both.
Though the special effects, for the most part, still hold up today, that is not what impresses me about Jurassic Park. What blows me away is how it so perfectly fits the classic American cinematic structure- it could almost be presented as the perfect example of the structure American filmmakers have been following since Citizen Kane. First, you get an amazing teaser that sets the tone and gives you a hint of the dino drama to come. It’s the perfect hook, and as Muldoon yells “shoot her!” you know Spielberg’s got you in the bag. A second teaser flawlessly presents the audience with a lot of exposition without being too obvious about it. We then get several scenes that not only introduce us to our main characters, but also set things up for later in the film (e.g. Grant explaining the hunting patterns of velociraptors, hunting patterns that ultimately lead to Muldoon’s doom). Casting is perfect, as is acting. Everyone, from Sam Neill to Laura Dern to Richard Attenborough to Jeff Goldblum seamlessly slide into the skin of their character- hell, even Newman from Seinfeld does an outstanding job. These are true actors- actors who give their all regardless of genre. Without these performances nothing in the movie would feel believable. In fact, I can only imagine the amount of pressure on Sam Neill’s shoulders during production as his performance is the fulcrum of the film.
Jurassic Park is about two things: man’s inability to control nature, and Alan Grant’s journey from curmudgeonly paleontologist to family man. As Grant evades dinosaurs he also learns how to interact with children, and also comes to grips with the fact that now that Hammond has cloned dinosaurs his life’s pursuit has basically been rendered inert. This is why I found Jurassic Park III so insulting, because it basically ruined Grant’s entire arc from the first film. Instead of settling down with Ellie and having kids as is implied at the end of JP, the two are now separated and Grant is still childless. Not only that, but he’s still working as a paleontologist and seems even more depressed than before. Plus, the conceit for why he returns to dino hell is utterly contrived- at least in The Lost World they gave Jeff Goldblum a plausible reason to go to Isla Sorna.
Spielberg invented the blockbuster with Jaws but it often seems as if none of today’s big budget directors (lookin’ at you Michael Bay) have actually seen any of his films. Today, with the advancement of computer generated imagery, blockbusters are all about the special effects, and not the characters that inhabit the world. Spielberg’s work is so effective because the effects never take center stage- they’re just a backdrop for the characters to interact with. If Michael Bay had directed Jurassic Park, the characters would have been cardboard cutouts and the majority of the film would be money shots of dinosaurs fighting each other. NOBODY GIVES A SHIT ABOUT FUCKING FIGHTING ROBOTS. What we care about are people we can relate to, and it’s pretty shocking to me how many modern films, both big budget Hollywood tentpoles and independent pictures, utterly fail at this basic filmmaking concept.
While watching Jurassic Park for the umpteenth time last night I realized that if I were to write a film like that I would be content with my life. I’m an artist, but I’m not Philip Kaufman. These are the stories I want to tell, and I won’t let anyone tell me that they aren’t art. A more subdued, dialogue-heavy film may be more intellectual, but it can never achieve what blockbuster masterpieces like Jurassic Park can: transporting you to and fully immersing you within a fantasy world for two hours. If I’m given the opportunity to do that, I’ll die happy.