Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Hit Me With Your Best Shot - Jurassic Park

I was nine years old when Jurassic Park was first released in 1993. I'm pretty sure all of my classmates saw it in theaters at least once, being young boys and all (is there anything that young boys love more than dinosaurs?), but I never did. I was a fragile little thing, and deathly afraid of anything even remotely scary. So while I loved archaeology and really liked dinosaurs, the movie was rated PG-13, and was thus too scary for me (plus, the raptors in all the ads were terrifying). I ended up watching it at a youth group sleepover maybe a year or two later on a really, really small screen, and I enjoyed it (and didn't close my eyes even once!), but didn't love it in the way all the other kids seemed to. I've maybe seen it once since then.

So, thank God for 3D re-releases and weekends with nothing to do, because if there's one thing Jurassic Park 3D proves, it's that this fucker demands to be seen on a big screen. Because the entire thing is pretty goddamn majestic.

And also, it's weird.

Seriously, this may be the weirdest blockbuster of the 90s. First, there's the cast. When you think of smart action heroes, even now your brain does not automatically gravitate towards Laura Dern and Sam Neill, let alone Jeff Goldbum (who hilariously spends as much of the movie's second half as possible posing for a beefcake calendar). And there's Samuel L. Jackson, just along for the ride (seriously, how is it possible for one man to be in so many iconic films?!?), and Wayne Knight, as a greedy bad-guy tech wizard. And throw in BD Wong, just because. And then, there's the opening sequence, which is kind of incoherent, and makes a point of not showing the creature in the box. Come on, Steven Spielberg. We know the movie's about dinosaurs - it's on your goddamn logo! In fact, we don't even get to the island until a third of the way in, and when we get there, after the initial establishing shots we see very little dinosaur. And it's SLOW. And Jeff Goldblum tries to explain chaos theory while simultaneously trying to seduce Laura Dern, and it's all very weird and heady (but apparently not nearly as heady as Michael Crichton's novel) and not at all blockbuster-like.

But then, once that storm hits and the power goes out and all hell breaks loose, Jurassic Park lets loose with some fantastic action and suspense pieces. And the cinematography is a key part of that. Dean Cundey really uses the entire frame, often placing important pieces of information in the background, ever so slightly out of focus, and there are a whole bunch of really fun camera angles (like when the kids and Sam Neill are climbing the electric fence). And they really take advantage of the power going out, too, using the play of light and shadow to make the dinos look even more other-worldly. The thing is so well shot, actually, that I had a really hard time picking out the "best" one.

Going in, I was pretty sure it was going to be one of three iconic shots: the first ridiculously majestic shot of the dinosaurs in the park, the water cup on the dashboard of the van, or the final shot of the T. Rex (you know the one). And it was really hard not to pick that last one. It's iconic for a damn good reason. The T. Rex looks (and sounds) awesome, and the banner falling down is a perfect visual joke. When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth, indeed.

But seeing Jurassic Park again, this time as an adult, I was struck by just how prevalent the science talk is throughout. I mean, what blockbuster (even today, let alone in the 90s) even attempts to engage in conversation about chaos theory when there are dinosaurs just waiting to stomp into frame and eat someone? And there's a lot of science talk. A LOT. But, on the other hand: Man, that T. Rex looks AWESOME! So in the end, it came down to two shots in the running, with one emerging the clear victor. The runner-up is the first time the T. Rex almost nonchalantly stomps into frame - a really chilling moment that even now made me bounce up and down in my seat. But the victor, which knocked me on my ass when I saw it this time, is pretty much the perfect shot to encapsulate all that Jurassic Park is (and could have been more of):

In that moment, the logistics of how the DNA strand is being reflected onto the raptor don't really matter. Neither does the plight of our main human characters. This shot is representative of the true fight at the heart of Jurassic Park: Science versus nature. Modern technology versus good old-fashioned survival of the fittest. That raptor may have been created in a test tube and engineered to be female, but she (or he - who knows?) is in charge now, and she will do what she must in order to survive. We can "create" a dinosaur in the modern day, but once it's here, there's no telling what it will do. And that possibility makes this scary/beautiful image that much scarier.

Plus, it instantly reminded me of another great 90s movie, Gattaca. Yay, nostalgia!

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