Jurassic Park, Dinosaur Mayhem, and the Significance of Character

Posted: June 8, 2015 by Blaine Grimes in Uncategorized
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MV5BMjM2MDgxMDg0Nl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNTM2OTM5NDE@._V1__SX1391_SY669_There are a number of reasons as to why Jurassic Park is a modern classic; and since Jurassic World releases later this week, I figure it’s as good a time as any to reflect on the the movie that started it all. So, I’m going to briefly highlight one way in which I think Jurassic Park succeeded, and then relate that to one of my fears about Jurassic World.

One reason that Jurassic Park has enjoyed (and will likely continue to enjoy) such tremendous staying power over the years is that it is fundamentally more than a dinosaur thriller. Hear me out: dinosaurs eat, escape, smash, and scare in Jurassic Park, which is but another way of saying that it is not less than a dino-thriller. But at its heart, Jurassic Park is a character-centered and character-driven film.

It is character-centered insofar as it fundamentally tells a story in which characters undergo change. Dr. Grant (Sam Neill), who is first introduced to us as a curmudgeonly, kid-averse paleontologist, learns that children are people too. Dr. Sattler (Laura Dern) discovers a newfound respect for the power of nature. Richard Hammond (David Attenborough) finds out that he just might have been a little wrong about being able to control an island of dinosaurs, and Dr. Malcom (Jeff Goldblum) learns that you don’t run from the T-Rex.

Moreover, Jurassic Park is a character-driven film in that the vast majority of the dino-action that takes place is focalized through a main character. In other words, the dinosaur-y bits in Jurassic Park work—evoking fear, wonder, amazement, and terror—precisely because they place the audience in those situations with the main characters. Consider, for instance, the encounter with the Brachiosaurus early in the film. Spielberg’s camera stays on Dr. Grant in a closeup, as he marvels at the off-screen creature. This same slack-jawed look is passed from person-to-person, the camera lingering on their gaze, refusing to show us what we want to see. Then, as John William’s iconic score swells, Spielberg cuts, and the dinosaur looms large in front of us. It is an amazing scene, and I posit that it has maintained its staying power because it is rooted in Dr. Grant’s reaction. The special effects are nice (and were groundbreaking at the time), but ultimately it is the audience’s identification with a man who has devoted his whole life to digging up the fossils of these creatures that imbues this moment with such cinematic magic.MV5BMTk1MTIwNDY1Nl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwOTg4OTI3OA@@._V1__SX1391_SY669_

Through this character-centered and driven action Jurassic Park avoids one of the most common pitfalls of modern action movies, namely meaningless and ungrounded mayhem. Everyone (apparently) thinks mass destruction in movies is, like, totally cool; but when said entropy is not situated in a concern for characters, it becomes little more than eye-candy and thus loses its power to stay with us long after we leave the theater. My initial fear is that Jurassic World will fall prey to this trap. However, I remain hopeful that Colin Trevorrow will follow in Spielberg’s footsteps by giving us some characters that make it worth a trip to the park.

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