Posts Tagged ‘michael crichton’


Jurassic Park: A Personal Journey and a Multimillion Dollar Movie

dinoheads

Jurassic Park
I loved dinosaurs as a kid. That much is clear. I watched all the dinosaur shows on TV. I played with dinosaur toys. My family visited Dinosaur National Monument. My brother, much more adamant in his love, declared his future profession to be paleontology. The wonderful part about dinosaurs was knowing that they really existed. This is as close to a real monster that Earth may ever see.

And there were so many of them. Hundreds, maybe thousands of varieties of dinosaur. Their time on Earth lasted for hundreds of millions of years; they did much better than we have. Their downfall was not by their own hands, either. It took a giant rock falling from the sky and its severe aftermath to do in those fearsome creatures. How much more dramatic can you get?

When the novel Jurassic Park arrived in our house via my dad, I was first intrigued by the cover. First, the title and picture. “Jurassic Park,” like a National Park, except having something to do with dinosaurs. The picture, of a skeletal T-Rex, practically demanded that I read at least the first few pages.

Needless to say I was immediately hooked. The book delivered exactly what the cover anticipated. A crazy, rich, brilliant, cruel, oblivious entrepreneur named John Hammond discovers a way to bring dinosaurs back to life. He then makes the next logical step: raise these beasts on an island so they can be gawked at by fat tourists for extraordinary sums.

There are problems almost from the beginning. In order to quell the insurance men and the lawyers, Hammond brings in a team of scientists and a mathematician to take the park tour. Due to a disgruntled employee (who happens to be the guy writing the code for the park’s computerized security systems) and a freak tropical storm, all the electrified fences go down and the dinosaurs run free, eating man and dinosaur alike.
dino attackI saw Jurassic Park, the film, on opening day. We had bought tickets weeks in advance. Upon the good advice of the theater, we showed up over an hour in advance. There was a long line already, and we queued up. When the audience was seated, and before the show began, an usher walked to the front of the theater. He advised us that this would be “very loud,” and as the words echoed in the large theater you could feel the buzz of excitement in the audience. It was a feeling that did not dissipate until long after the end credits rolled.
dino haunchesTo say that seeing Jurassic Park was the culmination of my childhood may be an exaggeration, but it isn’t a big one. I can still remember watching the film from my seat, extreme front left. Seeing living, breathing dinosaurs felt like a graduation of some cosmic kind. I had spent my entire childhood imagining dinosaurs, not quite able to put flesh on the bones. They seemed so close to me yet were separated by millions of years. We would never meet through that chasm. Until Jurassic Park.

Jurassic Park was more than a story about people being chased by dinosaurs. It was the idea that impossible things are no longer impossible. It was a brave new world. The hacky dialog, the plot holes (there were only two, but they were oddly obvious), the changes from the novel were not important. Did you see that tyrannosaurus rex? The brachiosaurus grazing? The gallimimus moving in herds? These are powerful images. These are the things that make us realize how large the universe is, how connected we are to all beings. Dinosaurs are not only real, they are here.

I hadn’t seen Jurassic Park for many years when I was moved to rewatch it last week. It is kind of like the Beatles of my movie memory. I watched it so many times as a kid that I practically had all the lines memorized. I didn’t need to watch it as much anymore. It was there already, inside me. What made me pull it out? I don’t know, but you’re reading the result of that spur-of-the-moment decision. I needed to put in words why this movie is such a big freaking deal.

The effect of watching one of my favorite childhood movies through the jaded eyes of a twentysomething was almost as revelatory as watching it for the first time in that theater. This time I was not waiting for the velociraptors to attack; I was listening for the articulation of the movie’s themes and watching the camera as it turned and pivoted to capture perfect shot after perfect shot.

First of all, it is an incredibly solid movie. It looks good even after 15 years. The special effects hold up surprisingly well. (You can always spot the clunky animatronic, or “auto-erotic,” as Donald Gennero would say, dinosaurs by their jerky movement.) The music is so catchy (thanks, John Williams). The actors are good even if the dialog is not. It was obviously made by professionals not as a cheap summer thrill ride but as a hopeful statement to future generations. After King Kong, it is the only movie to get why we want to see giant monsters on the big screen.

Steven Spielberg may be one of the greatest camera operators of all time. Instead of jumping from cut to cut, he moves the camera as the scene is happening. It is deliberate but not artificial. You wouldn’t even notice it the first time around, but he’ll start somewhere, turn, then turn again, grabbing three moments in a single take. Not only that, each moment is perfectly framed. Planning that kind of thing must be tricky for even the most skilled cameraman.

Second, I noticed a surprising number of in-jokes. Richard Attenborough, renowned for his nature documentaries, was cast as god-killing businessman John Hammond. I chuckled at the thought of this man, so interested in the natural world, who would have been too smart to blithely toy with biology as his character does.

Before the visitors to the Park take their fatal tour, they are compelled by Hammond to watch a short cartoon about how the dinosaurs (or, “dino-sawers”) have been bred. In the cartoon, a four-legged, lumbering dinosaur is shown trodding along. We knew better than this, even in 1993. Dinosaurs just don’t move that way. But the cartoon was not a mistake. It was, I believe, an homage to Gertie the Dinosaur. Gertie was the creation of master cartoonist and animator Winsor McKay. (See here and here.)

B.D. Wong was cast as the stereotypical Asian Scientist working on the dinosaur embryos. Wong is perhaps best known for his role in M. Butterfly, a play about a male Chinese spy who dresses as a woman to extract – ahem – information from a guileless male American diplomat. Why cast B.D. Wong when any old Asian would do? In the hatchery, the characters discuss the dinosaurs’ breeding habits. Wong’s character, Dr. Henry Wu, informs the visitors that all the dinosaurs have been bred as female. When they prod him, he is baffled. Female dinosaurs spontaneously turning into males? Impossible.

Before the Park is plunged into total chaos, we see Hammond and computer tech/chain smoker Ray “Hold onto your butts” Arnold scanning Nedry’s computer for clues on how to bring the computers back online. Taped to the computer is a picture of Dr. Robert Oppenheimer, a physicist involved in the Manhattan Project and credited as the father of the atomic bomb.

These things all appear in the opening hour of the movie. They are, perhaps, there to create something out of nothing. Instead of a tedious hour building to the action, we are treated to a series of subtle (and quite adult) jokes and references. Thus the action, the “meat” of the story (ha ha), comes as almost a surprise to the viewer who has been involved in spotting these little hidden treasures.

triceratops head

I’ve been very admiring of the movie so far. However, there are things that I wish could have been changed. Overall, the tone of the movie was much too upbeat. This is a story about the cruelty and indifference of nature. Why candy coat it, Spielberg? Of course it is precisely because Spielberg directed it that it was so upbeat, in spite of all the dinosaurs eating people. That’s his M.O. What he brought to the film in terms of his impeccable eye for editing and composition far outweighs, at least in retrospect, the loss of suspense and rawness. Suspense and rawness are good for one viewing; Jurassic Park brings something new to the table even as I rewatch it today.

One of my favorite parts of the book that unfortunately did not make it to the film was the demise of Hammond. He was killed in the most embarrassing way possible: poisoned by compys, tiny dinosaurs hardly bigger than puppy dogs. The movie made Hammond a much more sympathetic character: too sympathetic, if you ask me. Any man arrogant enough to fund Jurassic Park would not be doing it out of some sort of youthful sense of wonder. My guess is that any man funding Jurassic Park (and it would have to be a man) killed his youthful sense of wonder long ago, probably by strangling it in a dark closet, chopping it up into little pieces, and making his maid carry it out with the rest of the day’s garbage.

The Lysine-deficiency and the breeding subplots were shunted off to the side, barely mentioned in the film. I wish they could have explored them a bit more, as they were revelatory aspects of the book. The fact that Michael Crichton had mapped out these details shows his dedication to the story. They should not be hidden away; they are important and interesting.

Finally, every movie has a scene that desperately needs to be cut. Why Spielberg decided to leave in a leaden, heavy-handed exposition scene in the middle of the action-packed second half remains a mystery. I’m referring to the “flea circus” confession of John Hammond. In it, he and Ellie Sattler eat ice cream in a deserted cafeteria while dinosaurs stalk other members of the tour. Hammond talks about his youth, watching a flea circus. All the little rides, the wonder of it all, blah blah blah. We already know why Hammond wants to create dinosaurs. EVERYBODY WANTS TO CREATE DINOSAURS. That’s a given. Why create some half-baked rationale for something so glaringly obvious? I would have preferred they included some more information on the lysine contingency or the dinosaurs’ spontaneous sex changes.

I’ve so far not mentioned some of the greatest rewards of this movie upon repeat viewings. They are:

The character Robert Muldoon. Some of the best lines are uttered by him: “Shoot her!”, “Clever girl…” Every time he mentions the “Raptor paddock” I get chills. Why his character has to die is another of the film’s mysteries. He, of all the characters, should have known how to escape a tricky situation.

The shot of Ian Malcolm after his leg has been torn to shreds by the tyrannosaurus. He props himself up by one arm, his jacket open. For some reason, he is shirtless. Jeff Goldblum’s chest glistens from rain and sweat, and the camera lingers lovingly. This is perhaps the most sexual shot in the entire movie.

The sly mention of renowned paleontologist Robert Bakker. Without his research, this movie would not have been possible. The photos I’ve taken that appear in this essay are from the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. Dr. Bakker helped design the dinosaur exhibit in that museum. It is, bar none, the best dinosaur exhibit in the entire world.

The character of Nedry, played by Wayne Knight (known best for being Newman in Seinfeld). When I was a kid, I saw his character as the worst desecration of the book. His character felt totally out of place. While the book was sombre, he was slapstick. Now I see him as a reminder of human folly. Instead of a bland, boring computer nerd, he’s something interesting to watch. His slovenliness underscores the film’s theme of technology versus nature. Technology, or at least taking a shortcut without doing the proper research, will always lose out to nature. The simple fact is, nature has had millions of years to prepare for every contingency. How can we compete with that? Nedry is the embodiment of that.

Finally, the way chaos theory is defined in the movie is nothing short of hilarious. Instead of pages-long, rambling speeches by a doped-up Malcolm, we get a silly little lesson demonstrated by dripping water down Ellie Sattler’s hand. What is chaos theory? you may ask. Chaos theory is when the dinosaurs escape and eat all the people.

Jurassic Park is greater than most movies. It helped define who I am today, and I am happily surprised that it still holds new meaning. Its flaws only make it a more interesting subject. Jurassic Park was a powerful idea when I saw it as a kid. Now, it is a well-made movie I enjoy even when I know the exact moment the velociraptor will pop out of that air vent.

Long live dinosaurs.

dino sillhouette


michael crichton 1942-2008

As many you who read this blog already know, dinosaurs are more than a passing fancy for me. Of the many books that deal with dinosaurs, the best novel to do so is Jurassic Park. The man who wrote that book and went on to co-write the screenplay to the movie, Michael Crichton, died on Tuesday. After all the terrifying, visceral, bizarre ways he devised his characters to die, not only in Jurassic Park but in his many science fiction novels, he himself succumbed to cancer at the relatively young age of 66. It is that fact – something as simple and powerful as your own cells turning against you – that makes the death of one of my childhood heroes even more hard to take. I always imagined Crichton being carried away by Vikings, or zapped into another dimension. Not cancer. It’s an insult to such an imaginative man.

To say that I was influenced by Jurassic Park is like saying I was influenced by air. Jurassic Park is, without a doubt in my mind, the best dinosaur story ever written. The movie is among my favorites, although it only captured about 1/3 the story of the book. Crichton’s logical and somewhat cynical take on a man who clones dinosaurs for a theme park was softened by Steven Spielberg for the film version, although the special effects and Spielberg’s great sense of pacing an tension made the movie the seminal moment of my childhood.

Crichton’s other books left a big impression on me as well. The Andromeda Strain, Congo, Sphere, and Terminal Man are all stories so strange and so interesting that their main plots, if not every detail within the novels, still stick in my brain.

Crichton was a nerd; a tall skinny white guy who liked to do voluminous research on each story before writing a sentence. He was interested in time travel, other dimensions, history, and hard science. He was the successful grown-up a boy from Arizona could look to when the boy wondered about his future. Crichton showed that there was room in the world for nerds, not just in windowless research labs but in Hollywood, as well.

I’ll leave you with a page from the book The Making of Jurassic Park, by Don Shay. In it Crichton explains how the idea for writing a novel about dinosaurs came about.

Thanks for everything, Michael.

michael crichton