FOCUS The Event Movie Cinema and Technology

Primarily and pre-eminently, Jurassic Park is a highly successful example of that most enduring phenomenon of the Hollywood cinema - the event movie. As such, as remarkable as it is in terms of technological and marketing advances, Jurassic Park can be seen as part of a lengthy tradition begun by Griffith and carried on by the moguls of the classical period.

The 'event movie' was not - as is commonly accepted - a result of the rise of television. Its resurgence in the 1960s was a response to that challenge - but it was not a new phenomenon. 'Hollywood' as a centre for film production had been kick-started when Griffith was sent there to film when the light and conditions were poor on the East Coast. Griffith was also responsible for the first genuine event movie - typified by epic scale, overarching production ambition and massive media campaign - with Birth of a Nation (1915).

Spielberg had already shown a masterly ability to plug into popular taste with films such as Jaws (1975), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) (see chapter 31) and ET - the Extra-Terrestrial (1982). Jurassic Park shares some of their strengths - and all of their weaknesses. These highly entertaining films are not concerned with character depth. Heroes like 'Indiana Jones' and the kids in ET are more or less comic book. At their best, Spielberg's films (or at least the best bits of admittedly episodic films) are gloriously engaging - for example, in the case of Indy shooting the swordsman or the forest of fingers pointing to the sky in ET. Spielberg's work glories in high production values and entertainment content. The criticism levelled at the (lack of) narrative and character development is clearly missing the point. Spielberg's films - like those of the Star Wars franchise (see chapter 28) - do not have the qualities associated with the classic Hollywood film of psychologically driven clearly motivated narrative linked by cause and effect, which, for example, Scorsese and other craftsmen have kept alive and well.

Perhaps the key weakness of Jurassic Park is that Spielberg is striving for character and narrative development and largely - as with ET - failing. Put simply - and perhaps crudely - Spielberg (like Lucas) is at his best when he keeps to the 'whizz-bang' qualities of cinema and rarely succeeds with anything with more weight. It could well be argued that Schindler's List (1993) is a notable exception to this - but that film is so personal a project as to be by its nature exceptional.

Whatever its weaknesses, Jurassic Park as a film and franchise was and remains vastly successful. The film - shot during late 1992 - was produced (to budget) for $63 million. In its opening weekend in the USA (13-14 June 1993) it took $50.2 million. That a film could recoup its whole production budget in week one of release can only be the result of masterly marketing. The final gross income in the USA was $356,784 million (at the time second only to ET). The non-US theatrical gross was $556 million, including £47.14 million in the UK. The fact that the US gross was very much less than 50 per cent of the $913.1 million worldwide gross was most unusual. Jurassic Park was a global phenomenon - and remains so via video/DVD and the sequels (The Lost World (1997) and Part III (2001)).

It is a true monster.

Undoubtedly some of the film's success was a result of the most ubiquitous marketing campaign utilised in cinema history up to that point. But, whilst we should take stock of the commercial and marketing acumen of the (Hollywood) machinery behind Jurassic Park, it is important to consider what it was about the core product - i.e. the film itself - that attracted global audiences.

A simple plot summary for Jurassic Park holds part of the answer - it is a piece of hokum but packed with the thrills of a fairground ride. Scientists develop a means of bringing dinosaurs to life using prehistoric DNA taken from blood that has been preserved inside insects encased in amber. Hammond (Attenborough) shows off his dinosaur 'theme park' to a selected audience of stock characters: the lawyer Gerrano, the mathematician/chaos theoretician Malcolm, palaeontologist Grant, palaeo-botanist Sattler and - in typical Spielberg style - Hammond's grandchildren (Tim and Lex).

Nedry - yes he really is called 'Nedry' - the disgruntled employee/computer expert, disables the security system so that he can make his escape with some stolen embryos. This enables all the dinosaurs to escape their enclosures - and the fun begins. The premise defies scientific logic: as Grant puts it: 'Oh my God. Do you know what this is? This is a dinosaur egg. The dinosaurs are breeding.' The plot clatters to its denouement via some very exciting special effects, some very hammy acting and heavy-handed swipes at 'science' and salutary lessons about the family unit. Even the dinosaurs teach us that the 'natural' is better than the technological. (Henry Wu: 'You are saying that a group of animals, entirely composed of females, will breed?' Ian Malcolm: 'No, I am merely stating that uhh . . . life finds a way.')

Malcolm - the chaos theorist - is the chorus who (constantly) points us to the moral. 'The complete lack of humility for nature that's being displayed here is staggering', and later: 'Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn't stop to think if they should.'

Jurassic Park can be positioned as an - admittedly spectacularly successful - example of cinema's response to technology, which is almost invariably as a quintessentially technological art form keen to utilise technological advantages and yet as a sophisticated and sensitive cultural product keen to express concern (indeed fear) about change.

Spielberg is a good enough storyteller to hammer home his message via some good old-fashioned sentiment. Ellie Sattler (the scientist so achingly maternal she is practically lactating) joins the chorus: 'I was overwhelmed by the power of this place; but I made a mistake, too. I didn't have enough respect for that power and it's out now. The only thing that matters now are the people we love: Alan and Lex and Tim. John, they're out there where people are dying.'

The plot device that allows the kids to be available as potential dinosaur fodder is that their parents are divorcing. When they are abandoned again - under dinosaur attack - the message of protection is clear: Lex: 'He left us! He left us!' Alan Grant: ' But that's not what I'm gonna do.' The film's world première took place in Bill Clinton's White House in aid of the Children's Defence League. By the end of the film we are left in no doubt that Lex and Tim's vulnerability has not only humbled their grandfather; it has also bought the palaeo-couple together in a new closer (and potentially procreational) relationship. That a film so global in its appeal could carry such a persuasive and all-pervading message of 'traditional' and 'natural' (i.e. North American) family value could well lead any reflective commentator if not back to Marx than at least to Antonio Gramsci's concept of cultural hegemony.

Some Things to Watch out for and Consider

* As already noted this film is packed with ironies:

It is deeply 'concerned' about science/technology and yet is in itself a showcase for 'computer graphics' (Spielberg saw an ILM demonstration animation of a T-Rex chasing a herd of galamides across a virtual recreation of his ranch and decided to shoot nearly all the dinosaur scenes using this method. The close-ups utilised computer-controlled 'animatronics' (note that the Academy Awards were for technological excellence)).

It is deeply cynical about 'marketing' - the audience thrills to the monsters destroying the merchandising paraphernalia of 'Jurassic Park'. Yet the film was a vehicle for a vast sales campaign - of the very artefacts seen in the film, which were on sale worldwide. In a key moment of the film Ian Malcolm makes the following speech: 'I'll tell you the problem with the scientific power that you're using here: it didn't require any discipline to attain it. You read what others had done and you took the next step. We didn't earn the knowledge for ourselves, so you don't take any responsibility for it. You stood on the shoulders of geniuses to accomplish something as fast as you could and before you even knew what you had you patented it and packaged it and slapped it on a plastic lunchbox, and now you're selling it, you want to sell it!' Are you struck by an irony here? Is Spielberg deliberately questioning his own position as a film-maker? If not - can he be forgiven?

• In 1993 Spielberg made both Jurassic Park and Schindler's List. He has consistently made serious (if sentimental) films on very serious subjects, whilst being responsible (as producer or director) for the most vulgar of entertainment blockbusters. Is their any dichotomy between these two activities? Have the two areas of activity influenced each other? (For good or for ill?)

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