Rewind Review: Jurassic Park (1993)

Introduction

It was hard to know how to categorize this old writing. This was a lengthy reaction piece, not quite a traditional review, that I wrote after viewing the film in my Films of Spielberg class. Part of why I chose to post it here is how it ends, which (scout’s honor) I did not recall until I re-read it, not that it takes a clairvoyant to predict Jurassic World, but it is longer for here roundabout 12 years ago.

Jurassic Park (1993)

Yes, it was the box office champion of the world when it was first released, but in a way I feel that Jurassic Park did suffer from bad timing as it came out only a few months before Schindler’s List. If there had been more separation between the two or maybe if the Academy viewed ’93 like they viewed ’00, Spielberg would have had two Best Director nominations. Although, I’ll always think it’s underrated.
According to Spielberg he got on the project when working on ER as a film script. Spielberg asked Crichton out of curiosity what his next project was. Crichton was hushed, as writers usually are. Then he finally gave Spielberg only two words: dinosaurs and DNA. Spielberg got it immediately and wanted to be the first to read it. Crichton agreed but he said Spielberg would have to direct. The rest is history. Sometimes you’re good and lucky.
The concept of this film is so tremendous I don’t know how everyone wasn’t out flocking to make dinosaur films of every and any kind. The only thing I think that kept people away were budget concerns. Dinosaurs were quite big in the silent era but then faded away. What a lot of people fail to recognize is that this story is so tight; it’s so well acted and flat-out well done. It’s unquestionably a cinematic masterpiece that is as grand as it is great and here’s why…
In Spielberg’s renowned tradition the dinosaurs are kept out of view early on, so we’re not bombarded. In many action movies people are moving around so long and so much that all focus is lost. We get taken into Jurassic Park very slowly, first we’re on Isla Nublar and the tree shake and we get a subjective shot from inside the dinosaur cage the handler gets attacked but we see no blood nor any “monster.” And in the very beginning the issue of responsibility, which is a theme throughout, is raised.

Jurassic Park (1993, Universal)

We then move to an amber mine in the Dominican Republic, the globe-hopping Spielberg loves to do in the Indiana Jones films only occurs here in the first 20 minutes. The atmosphere and setting of Isla Nublar is huge in this film. The purpose of these scenes is two-fold being to introduce the safety questions surrounding the park and also for the exposition of the fact that two experts will be needed to approve the park. Alan Grant is brought up and we only learn that he is a digger.
We then move to Montana. We see Alan Grant (Sam Neill) on a dig, there’s an annoying kid (Whit Hertford) to whom he demonstrates a raptor attack with his 6” fossilized claw. This also foreshadows the very last of the dinosaur attacks in the film. Not only is that introduced but also the notion that the T-Rex’s vision is based on movement. It also serves to establish the relationship between Grant and paleobotanist Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern). They are then visited via helicopter by John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) he asked them to come to the island, never really reveals the true nature of the park, and bribes them by offering to fund their digs for three more years.
We then move to San José on the Costa Rican mainland where Dennis (Wayne Knight) meets with Dodgson (Cameron Thor) and we see there is a conspiracy afoot, in which, he will be paid quite a bit of money for fertilized embryos. Knight, best known for his supporting appearances on Seinfeld and 3rd Rock from the Sun gives a great performance as a the nervous, over-anxious, bumbling conspirator.

Jurassic Park (1993, Universal)
Upon arriving on the Island, Grant and Sattler are introduced to Dr. Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) he provides a lot of comic relief and also has his own unique scientific perspective juxtaposed with Sattler’s knowledge of plants and Grant’s knowledge of dinosaurs.
This is without a doubt some of John Williams’ best work in scoring. It’s definitely some of his most melodic and well-placed work. The main theme appears at the right spots and stays in your head long after the movie is over.
We’re shown a sign upon arrival reading “Danger!/1000 Volts” which is another piece of foreshadowing. Another sign that provides a little hint is “When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth,” which is draped over the exhibit of skeletons.

Jurassic Park (1993, Universal)

Another great touch is its timing. It’s 20 minutes before we see a dinosaur in its massive glory. Spielberg knows this is what we’ve come to see and isn’t going to throw it out too much or two quick or it might get stale. After this we move into the plausibility aspect and walk the audience how it could and did happen through a film strip and a little cartoon character named Mr. DNA.

The film shows its intelligence when dealing with cloning whereas most films just gloss over the issues that might make it more difficult or simply changes a few laws of natural science around to make it more convenient for themselves. In Jurassic Park one of the first things we see is that cloned dinosaurs are born where other cloning films might make them full size from the get go. Secondly, there are gaps in the DNA sequences which are filled by frog DNA which comes into play later.

When walking in the park we get some information in the Raptors which actually shows later films have kept the series consistent in that regard. One place in which there may be an inconsistency in parts 2 and 3 is that on Isla Nublar there is a plan called the “Lysine Contingency” in which, the dinosaurs are purposely engineered without the amino acid Lysine and if they are not given doses through injection or in food they will fall into a coma and die. If this is the case, how are they still even alive in parts 2 and 3?

Jurassic Park (1993, Universal)

Another clever link-up is first Dr. Malcom uses water to explain Chaos Theory and then cups of water shaking is the clincher that tells us the T-Rex is after these people. This only occurs 63 minutes into the film; this is not what one would call action all the way. Case in point, the big chase with Dr. Malcolm looking back at the T-Rex and the famous “Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear” shot, doesn’t begin until the 82nd minute of the film.

We’re occupied with suspense elements with the plot to steal the embryos and Dennis’ encounter with a Dilophosaurus. Coupled with the attempt to try and get the systems back up and running after the virus made itself known with Dennis’ caricatured image in the scene repeating “Uh-uh-uh, you didn’t say the magic word.”

A major element of fear that these dinosaurs cause is that these people realize that there is only so long that they can run and outdistance these beasts before they are caught. There is a lot of hiding. Tim (Joseph Mazzello) is forced to hide under the Jeep when the T-Rex is stomping on it. Later on he is hanging in the tree and they rest for the night perched on a branch. The same holds true for the fear we feel when the tandem of Raptors are after the kids, during this part we also see a genetic sequence displayed in light on a Raptor which is quite an impressive shot.

Jurassic Park (1993, Universal)

While waiting out the night Hammond tells of how he used to run a flea circus and how he used to love to make people happy. He said he wanted his park to be something real but is told it’s the same thing because there’s no real control over the animals.

The situation escalates when we find the dinosaurs are breeding even though they are all supposed to be female. The explanation there is that the gaps were filled with frog DNA. Frogs have been known to spontaneously change gender and it has occurred here. Life has found a way.

The dialogue in Jurassic Park is just great and I could go on an on listing smart and snappy lines that are funny and/or thought-provoking but it all just works. In this film Spielberg yet again showed his unique talent for having people and things that come out of nowhere and just scare you. What cements Jurassic Park’s greatness is when the Raptors meet up with the group on the museum/lobby. This element of Spielberg’s greatness comes when the Tyrannosaurus Rex, while the Velociraptor is the breakout species of the film, T-Rex is the star – and saves the day by knocking the Raptors aside allowing the people to escape as the main theme chimes in with perfect timing. As the banner rains down the T-Rex gets into the perfect pose and roars. It’s one of the most personally pleasing moments I’ve ever experienced and it was the work of a crowd-pleaser and a true genius.

Jurassic Park (1993, Univesal)

What marks Jurassic Park the most is how it ends. In this respect, it understands its own modesty. There’s no corniness at the end of the first or the third, I’m trying my best to forget the sequel. They got away. That’s what mattered in the end. There may have been a lot going on but that’s about it right there, they’re flying away.

Jurassic Park is a classic film which succeeds at something very difficult taking creatures many people loved as kids and showing the scary side of them and having us embrace that too. The anti-cloning sentiment won out quite easily, but with the T-Rex saving the day we see that these creations are victims of circumstance and not so unlike Frankenstein’s monster.

Paleontology is a science I devoted most of my childhood to. It’s also one that’s full of new discoveries and theories which provide unlimited amounts of material. Just one example is that in recent years many paleontologists through kinetics and computer simulation now support the T-Rex was a scavenger and not a hunter as believed since its discovery. This is a franchise I think has a lot to stand on and a built-in audience and I wouldn’t be surprised or disappointed if it were to continue.

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Welcome to Jurassic World, Part 1: My Personal History with Jurassic Park (1993)

Statement of Intent

It bears stating that in this sprawling series that it is not my goal here to change anyone’s mind with regards to Jurassic World (or any other film in the franchise), and how it fits in the larger Jurassic empire. It is merely my intent to discuss them, especially the most recent, why I enjoy it quite a bit, and how it fits into the series to date. This is something I’ve been mulling over for a while. The reason is not that the movie is incredibly deep or dense, but it has a lot to do with how it plays against the series to date, which required re-viewing to underscore certain salient points.

So while I am on the pro side of the argument it is not my intent to do the flip-side of what’s discussed here.

I will discuss some of the flaws in the most recent one, as well as in the series as a whole; as well as why I really like it and why certain critiques don’t jibe that well with me.

Personal History

Bernardo Villela (1988, All Rights Reserved)

Yeah, I had the wrong nomenclature for “crest,” I was seven. Wanna fight about it?

First, since I haven’t had an opportunity to discuss Jurassic Park much here in the past a bit of history may be appropriate. Even in my Spielberg retrospective, after his lifetime achievement award, I didn’t cover it specifically.

Many children run the gamut of a select few jobs they dream of doing when they grow up. I did most of them as well, the only one that was probably a bit out of the ordinary when I was young, and that I came back to, was my desire to be a paleontologist. Yes, all kids seem to inherently love dinosaurs but not all of them take an interest in the applied study of learning about them and hypothesizing about them based on fossil record.

My reborn interest was sparked in my partial-reading of Chrichton’s novel, I  then acquiring more mature scientific texts than I had before. In grade school, my first book in a writer’s workshop class was on dinosaurs (pictured above).

As a child I’d seen Baby, the random Dennis the Menace film with dinosaur involvement, Denver the Last Dinosaur, and whatever else I could with dinosaurs in them. Clearly, Jurassic Park was going to be different, which is what had me anticipating it greatly.

Jurassic Park (1993)

Jurassic Park (1993, Universal)

This film was huge for me and many others. When I first saw Jurassic Park it was clearly my favorite film of all-time to date. At a time when I was very into retroactive creation of BAM Awards from the year of my birth to 1995 (before the extemporaneous ones started) Jurassic Park owned a bit of hardware in 1993 as well.

The set-up for the film is a classic such that it was used as the go-to example of a “What if?” inspired scenario in my introductory screenwriting course in college. “What if dinosaurs were brought back to life and walked the earth with modern man?” really cuts to the heart of the awe of the first film.

Truly, it’s a sensation that will not be duplicated. The story hadn’t been tackled yet, effects had reached a new threshold, you add something that sparks a childish curiosity and excitement in adults; in a film told through the lens of a director who defined adventures for millions of kids and brought that youthful outlook and wonder the to oldest of soul; and you had a virtually can’t miss formula. And it didn’t.

Jurassic Park (1993, Universal)

Furthermore, for me in my doe-eyed innocence it not only played into that wish-fulfillment but also brought before me a nightmare I had never truly contemplated: how wrong it could possibly go, and how two species who’d been the dominate forces on earth during different eras really couldn’t co-exist.

What will also invariably set the first film apart from all those that follow, this is true of any series but particularly this one, is that it’s so new that the audience and characters are eased into it. There are questions that need to be answered, rules that need to be established. One thing that is tremendously well done is that Dr. Grant and Dr. Sattler really don’t know what they’re signing up to go look at.

The world is isolated and small, the park has not opened and is seeking investors; it’s more focused in its narrative than any subsequent film. With everything being new, with great pains being taken to suspend disbelief, with brilliant scientific debate; the first film sets a rock-solid foundation upon which all other follow-ups can build with confidence regardless of how successful they are.

However, amidst the wonder and the blinding brilliance of the film as a thrilling adventure, with impeccably defined characters, contrasts, and spectacle; it seems at time we don’t take into account that there was hubris, miscalculation, and at times downright stupidity from some of the characters. And as great as it is there is even a pretty big “Oh, come on!” Now, most of what I have to say will be about what it sets up because those pave the way for decisions made further down the line.

Science

Jurassic Park (1993, Univesal)

With so much of this being new, and also with Jurassic Park being a story that was interested in actually living up the name of science-fiction properly, there was more time and more need for the characters  to question how such things were done.
Among the scientific points of discussion that come up are: The Lysine Contingency, lysine being a necessary enzyme to sustain life is something the engineered dinosaurs do not produce but the park geneticists administer. It is a theoretical fail-safe should people die or the animals need to be euthanized.

The scientists rightly ask how gaps in the genetic sequence are filled. They learn that amphibian (Tree frog) DNA to fill in, this is what opens the door for spontaneous change of sex (they were all engineered to be female). Due to the single-sex environment the scientists believe they have instilled another control, and will be able to ensure a stable population.

Being a film that postulates on the return of dinosaurs long-held debates in the scientific community could be settled (theoretically) here. The behavior of herding in the first film is confirmed; the debate as to whether the creatures are endothermic (warm-blooded) or poikilothermic (cold-blooded) is settled. At least theoretically, and like in almost any work of science-fiction most of the facts are built-up and supported to make them plausible, such that the instances of artistic license are more earned. In this film license is taken with the Dilophosaurus, a species wherein there exists no evidence to support either the claims of a neck frill or venomous expectoration. Even more license is taken with the Velociraptor, which is made a bit taller than that specific raptor.

Crichton modeled his raptor after Deinonychus, which per Gregory S. Paul’s classification would be of the raptor family. Incredibly, as fate would have it, the discovery of the Utahraptor shortly after Winston Robotics created the first vindicated this visual impression and use of a more dramatic name (as opposed to Deinonychus), of the raptor by looking very similar to what they built, though strictly speaking the actual Velociraptor is a much smaller predator.

Motifs and Themes

Jurassic Park (1993, Universal)

Jurassic Park never would have been the hit it was around the world if all it was concerned with was dinosaurs. What it has to say about its characters and humanity in general is what takes it a place above and beyond many other films in its genre. Aside from a ground-breaking idea and technology there also is an exploration of important themes in a universal light against a preternatural backdrop.

“We can talk about sexism in survival situations when I get back,” quips Ellie Sattler as she’s about to head off to try to power the park back up manually when Hammond (Sir Richard Attenborough) was concerned about her leaving. If there is one thing that has been a constant throughout it’s that the series has made attempts (this film was the most successful) to put smart, intelligent, skilled women in key roles.

Ellie is a very rounded character. Aside from her obvious professional acumen she is also not averse to marriage and children. This is one of the things that make her and Dr. Grant great foils. He doesn’t like kids. Therefore, there is tremendous comedic payoff when Hammond’s grandchildren (Ariana Richards and Joseph Mazzello) come and Grant gets saddled with them.

Furthermore, it introduces kids into the series as participants which is a constant. Much like I started writing about these films talking about my childhood fascination with dinosaurs, kids have to be brought into the action in a story like this so kids engage even closer. In 1950s sci-fi films there was almost always a kid involved so those kids going to the double-features had someone they could more closely relate to; the same goes here based on the tale as Hammond says they are “the target audience.” So if your tolerance for child actors happens to be low you better check that at the door because kids will be part of the proceedings in this series for better or worse.

Jurassic Park (1993, Universal)

The kids are the target audience and the park clearly has to be made safe for them as Dr. Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) humorously observes “When the Pirates of the Caribbean breaks down the pirates don’t eat the tourists.” Which links up with perfectly to the conversation Ellie has with Hammond in light of his flea circus story: “It’s still the flea circus, John. You never had control. That’s the illusion!”

And the lack of control, and the self-deception is apparent when you think back on the rebuttals the scientists had for Hammond when they were talking over dinner.

“I tell you the problem with the scientific power you’re using here, it didn’t take any discipline to attain it.”
“You stood on the shoulders of geniuses to accomplish something as fast as you could.”
“…your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.”
“How can you know anything about an extinct ecosystem?”
“Dinosaurs and man, two species separate by 65 million years of evolution have just been suddenly thrown back into the mix together. How can we possibly have any idea of what to expect?”

I know many know those lines but bear them in mind for I feel they echo throughout the series to date.

Perhaps the most balanced character and the most centered in terms of accepting what the reality of the situation is, and having sufficient respect and admiration for these creatures is Muldoon (Bob Peck). He’s the game expert, and has been out on safari and seen most, if not all, the world’s large land predators, sure he is essentially a hunter but he has no delusions of control and knows better than to underestimate these creatures (consciously), and that is the cardinal sin of most characters in the series and how they meet their end.

“Really?”

Jurassic Park (1993, Universal)

Speaking of their end. This brings me to the biggest “Really?” moment in Jurassic Park. Yes, I love it but even this movie has one,  the electrified fence. Now, this isn’t a bad horror film where I wanted a character to die, but based on the way it was staged I had trouble believing Tim would survive. It was tense, I was nervous, and relieved but from the beginning, since I first saw it was the biggest head-scratcher for me.

Even with that incident it’s still great, it’s just that one moment that sticks out like a sore thumb.

Conclusion: The Nostalgia Factor

Jurassic Park 3D (2013, Universal)

I re-watched Jurassic Park before writing this piece. I could probably watch it again right now, and then tomorrow. My contention here is not that I think that Jurassic Park a bit more unfairly looked upon through the rose-colored glasses of nostalgia than most. My contention is merely that whether our view of the first film is nostalgia-tinged, realistic admiration or honest dislike each film deserves judgment on its own merits and to not be beholden to its source material, a previous installment, or prior version of the film. Sure, certain factors can make this difficult but it bears saying. “It’s not as good as the first” is not a valid complaint, and even though I despise the next installment, I won’t play that game rather discuss the issues there.

Sure, the next films are going to take some liberties and make some jumps but they’re building upon what occurred first and expanded from there. Some better than others.

Film Thought: What’s Your Favorite Film?

After having updated this year’s 31 Days of Oscar, someone commented, after seeing my reaction to Imitation of Life “That’s my all time favorite movie.” The conversation that ensued essentially came to this conclusion: “What are the odds?”

The conclusion I drew separately was “Hmm. Well, what if I hadn’t said anything, and I never knew?” Even film buffs who watch bajillions of things have one favorite that they can point to. The difficulty usually becomes trying to pick a top 5 or 10 say – definitely in going beyond that.

Even I, who am usually extraordinarily reticent to proclaim the best film ever made, have my answer: which would be A.I., however, every time I see Citizen Kane I think it kind of sits above being ranked. In doing my recent Spielberg list I was reminded that he supplanted himself as having made my favorite film of all-time when he made A.I. The film I’d last thought that of was Jurassic Park, and before that My Girl for very personal, and probably not so cinematic reasons. My point is a favorite film is a part of you for a number or reasons, it marks you and you it, whether for all time or at the very least in a time and place in your life.

What I came away from that conversation most curious about was “What’s your favorite film?” The general your, meaning almost anyone I talk to. I want to hear them, and see them if I haven’t. And a friendly note: if you ask someone their favorite film, and you set out to see it, do not expect it to be yours too, please just take it for what it is.

So there’s the question, I’m curious to know, if you can name just one favorite what would it be?

Best of Spielberg

Here’s a second installment of a list idea I’m borrowing from Brian Saur. Here I will discuss the films of Steven Spielberg. Spielberg is probably my favorite director of all time. I did an Ingmar Bergman list first, in part to track what I still needed to see. With Spielberg my impetus was to finally be up to date on his narrative features, which sadly I wasn’t.

As with any list, rankings may make thing seem worse than they are. There are 30 films on this list. Make no mistake I like 28 of them and am a snarky fanboy on one, and three have at one point been my all-time favorite, including my current number one (if pressed to answer). Here goes…

30. The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997)

Jurassic Park 2: The Lost World (1997, Universal)

This is the sequel Spielberg supposedly gave Universal so they’d leave E.T. alone. That’s almost enough to bump it past last place but I can’t. Even though I loved the score and effects it was still one of the worst, most confounding thing I saw that year. The third film and news of a fourth have softened that hurt, but seeing newly-introduced annoying character and the follow-up to my then favorite film of all-time relegated to a Godzilla/King Kong knock-off hurt.

29. 1941 (1979)

1941 (1979, Universal/Columbia)

I did try to like this. My professor tried to get me to like it. I just don’t. Spielberg doesn’t care much for it either and has moved on to bigger and better things.

28. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008, Paramount)

Nuking the fridge only happened in one scene people, Shia LaBeouf had many more scenes than that and Cate Blanchett seemed uncomfortable. Spielberg has since honestly confessed what his reservations were about this film. Hopefully that molds a better fifth film should it occur, though he certainly doesn’t need there to be one.

27. Amistad (1997)

Amistad (1997, Universal)

As oddly engaging as Spielberg’s restraint in Lincoln is, if memory serves, there was an attempt at such here too that doesn’t work quite as well. I remember Honsou and Hopkins impressed but not much else.

26. The Terminal (2004)

The Terminal (2004, DreamWorks)

Unlike Catch Me If You Can, which appears shortly, I wasn’t even compelled to go out and see this one theatrically. It’s an interesting and well-handled idea that I can indentify with on a few levels but it’s just not one of his best.

25. Twilight Zone: The Movie (segment 2) (1983)

The Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983, Paramount)

I saw this recently also and Spielberg’s segment fits him to a tee (residents of a retirement home become young again) and is the second best in the anthology in my estimation behind Joe Dante’s zany one.

24. Poltergeist (1982)

Poltergeist (1982, Paramount)

One can debate the nuances and politics of whether Spielberg really directed this. To be brief: I have it on good authority that he directed most of it and just didn’t take the credit because he couldn’t per DGA rules at the time. This is a title where I could rant and rave childishly about how “My opinion is different than yours!” but I won’t. Poltergeist is fine, it just never had a tremendous amount of impact on me.

23. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984, Paramount)

To address the white elephant in the room: I do not have any issue with the character of Shortround whatsoever. Temple of Doom lands here more for being the third best in the series and Kate Capshaw than anything else.

22. Catch Me if You Can (2002)

Catch Me If You Can (2002, DreamWorks)

This is one of those that falls into the category of “There’s nothing really wrong with it, I just can’t get into it.”

21. The Sugarland Express (1974)

The Sugarland Express (1974, Universe)

This is an unusual but involving one with a great turn by a young Goldie Hawn.

20. Always (1989)

Always (1989, Universal)

This one film I finally saw last year so as I could finally create this list. I had avoided it because in clips and trailers you could not get a sense of the totality of the film. It is Spielberg’s first remake, but it’s a fairly well modernized one that features Audrey Hepburn‘s final performance.

19. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977, Columbia)

Spielberg has said that the end of this film dates him as a filmmaker. I understand his point entirely but he does set it up very well. Also, in a bit of fanboy wish-fulfillment, I’d suggest the end of this film and the end of E.T. swap, but it is a very visual and evocative film with the added bonus of an acting-only participation by François Truffaut.

18. Hook (1991)

Hook (1991, Columbia)

The mark of a great director is making something that seems illogical, that shouldn’t be able to work, work. This is his best example ih that regard.

17. Minority Report (2002)

Minority Report (2002, DreamWorks)

If Robopocalypse, or something like it, ever comes to fruition it would complete a Dark Future Trilogy for Spielberg, which may seem antithetical to his ethos but something he said he’s not averse to when discussing A.I.

16. Munich (2005)

Munich (2005, DreamWorks)

I welcome departures from directors. Spielberg is perhaps more underrated in terms of his diversity than any other director. His hits and classics have commonalities to them such that it makes people think he repeats himself constantly. These two selections shake that notion massively. Munich is a dark film, where there can be no happy endings. It’s a chillingly rendered tale of an ugly incident in history that cannot be buried.

15. Lincoln (2012)

Lincoln (2012, DreamWorks)

Lincoln almost isn’t a Spielberg film, it plays with such classical restraint and removal that it’s almost anti-auteurish, but it’s still very engaging and convincing.

14. War of the Worlds (2005)

War of the Worlds (2005, Paramount)

I think this film might get overlooked in part because it stuck close to the source material, but also because it’s the kind of film Spielberg “should” take on. However, when you consider how often he’s made aliens benevolent a surviving an alien apocalypse tale is a little different for him. That and it’s another rather imperfect family.

13. Jaws (1975)

Jaws (1975, Universal)

Here’s where rankings can get you in trouble. Jaws is great. I have nothing I can say against it, except the intangible “I like other works in Spielberg’s canon a lot better.” I have and can see Jaws many times over. It’s just a matter of preference when you start slotting them.

12. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981, Paramount)

Yes, the Indiana Jones and the was later tacked on. Spielberg and Lucas have combined perfectly three times in this series. They take a serialized approach to a feature and update classic tropes very well and memorably.

11. The Adventures of Tintin (2011)

The Adventures of Tintin (2011, Columbia/Paramount)

When Spielberg is at his best he combines technological innovation with great stories. Although I fell under the spell of seeing motion capture for the first time in The Polar Express, it was imperfectly ahead of his time and didn’t make a jump toward verisimilitude until this film. It’s a very viable tool other animation properties should and could use. Not only that it’s a great take and a global re-introduction of a beloved character. Not many directors go from live action to animation or vice versa, this is a seamless jump.

10. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989, Paramount)

I am a fan of the Indiana Jones series, albeit a Johnny Comelately to it, and this is my favorite one. More explanation can be found in the link above.

9. Duel (1971)

Duel (1971, Universal TV)

If there was ever a made-for-TV movie that prove that it’s a meaningless distinction, it’s this one. I have to remind myself it is one. Only once in a hundred times when I think about this movie do I recall that. It’s taut, brilliantly suspenseful and relatably frightening.

8. War Horse (2011)

War Horse (2011, DreamWorks)

War Horse is one I need to revisit, but this one vaults up the list due to improbability. Spielberg is one of the directors I go out and see regardless, however, I didn’t expect much here. I was anxious for Tintin, but this one shook up my whole best of the year list. Very surprisingly emotional and engaging.

7. The Color Purple (1985)

The Color Purple (1985, Warner Bros.)

One of the most embarrassing moments in Oscar history is perhaps the fact that this film is the biggest oh-fer, garnering eleven nominations and no wins. Spielberg created some controversy by even taking this film on. I think the end result proved he could do it and paved the way for his more mature dramatic works later on.

6. Empire of the Sun (1987)

Empire of the Sun (Warner Bros.)

I saw this in 2002 just after having taken my Spielberg course. I hadn’t really heard of it ’til then. It was referenced as Spielberg’s “most European film” by my professor and one that I began anticipating in A.I.-like fashion, which should’ve set me up for disappointment, but didn’t. It’s dense and takes some wading but when you get there it’s special. Not to mention there’s a brilliant performance by a young Christian Bale.

5. Schindler’s List (1993)

Schindler's List (1993, Universal)

The next two films are ones that I really admire, have great affection for, but am leery to revisit because they are taxing experiences. However, they’re important and I hope their legacy continues through oncoming generations. A while ago, I recall I saw a kid picking up Schindler’s List at a video store and it was heartwarming, as I saw a burgeoning cineaste.

4. Saving Private Ryan (1998)

Saving Private Ryan (1998, DreamWorks)

It took me a while to see this one. The tale of saving the last surviving brother is the MacGuffin, a very Spielbergian one. However, the reaction I had to this film, though very different than many of his works, was one of the strongest I had. It was a new aesthetic for him and in many ways a revolutionary work.

3. E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

Nearly any child of the 80s grew up on Spielberg films. I will be doing a focus on Disney, which I surmise that unless you saw re-releases and VHS tapes you weren’t getting the golden age of that studio. However, if you grew up in the 80s, regardless of who you were, odds are every few years Spielberg changed your life. E.T. is an imaginary friend come true, it’s not necessarily always an alien, but many of us were Elliot, which is what makes it resonate.

2. Jurassic Park (1993)

Jurassic Park (1993, Universal)

Suffice it to say that upon its release, when I was still quite young, this was probably the most amazing theatrical experience I’d ever encountered. I’ve found myriad great films since then but this one has not lost its luster in the slightest. When I first saw it, this was the greatest film of my lifetime. It was the dream of every dinorsaur-loving child brought to life for better and for worse.

1. Artificial Intelligence: A.I. (2001)

Artificial Intelligence: A.I. (2001, DreamWorks)

I’ve already written a tome about this film, which I have posted on this site in installments. Making a new or different case for it would be nearly pointless.

That Movie Sucked: Trailers That Give Too Much Away

I had a recent Twitter conversation with Larry Richman, after he had attended an advance screening of Someone Like Us, and he had some interesting thoughts on the film. I told him I was glad to hear some of them after having seen the trailer. When he watched the trailer he confirmed what I feared: The trailer essentially gives away the entire movie.

I am doing my best to forget the details of said trailer before seeing it and won’t link to it here, but it does raise the point about why trailers feel the need to be so spoiler-laden. Now, there are certain realities I know and acknowledge, such as: I believe (and correct me if I’m wrong) it’s mainly the marketing department (in a studio) in collaboration with the producers who select highlight type moments, good footage and shop them out to companies who specialize in cutting trailers together. They usually get two or three different versions and choose one. Essentially, it’s a sub-contractor relationship. However, this outsourcing of the job isn’t the only reason that over-sharing in trailers occurs, if you ask me. The first part is that some involved with the film select segments to supply the bidders. So the selection has to be a bit more guarded.

What is going to compel me to see a movie is not necessarily knowing the synopsis, not that synopses are innocent of giving away too much (far too often on the back of a film you are told not just the first act break but the second also). What will compel me is getting a sense of the tone of the film with some compelling images that make me wonder “What’s that about? I have to see that!”

Some notable examples of this for upcoming films are:

Les Miserables (Teaser)

The Road (2012)

Even way back when in the Golden Age and before when audiences were not as sophisticated in certain respects as they are now, trailers disseminated information through voice-over and text but not too much of the story was seen and heard through actual footage:

1930s

Dracula (1931)

When I went to YouTube I just typed in the very generic search of “1930s Trailer” and sure enough I got more or less what I expected. A presentational pitch with hyperbolic text, grandiose announcements and key images that intimate what the film is but give very little real information. A lot of times with older films you were allowed to see a piece (sometimes a large piece) of a scene play out but you had little context by which to understand it. It was all just supposed to be enticing.

1940s

Casablanca (1942)

Approximately a decade later the formula was still pretty much the same. The hard thing is watching trailers for films you’ve seen already, for some the edit seem to be giving away a lot of the story because you know it, but it’s really not. Think of the moments in Casablanca that became iconic and none of them are here the farewell, “Louis, this could be the start of a beautiful friendship…”, “…shocked to find that there’s gambling going on in this establishment”, “As Time Goes By,” etc. Yes, this trailer is selling the adventure and danger much more than it is the romance but it’s not shying away from it either. The ethos is still similar in these two examples compelling images, backdrop, genre, stars but not the whole film.

1950s

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

My favorite professor in film school, Max Simkovitch, was not only great at planning double and triple features but also at screening clips and trailers. Therefore, even if something didn’t quite make it on the syllabus, we were made aware of it and tempted to see it. His horror/Sci-Fi class was where I first got a glimpse of Suspiria and then I had to track it down. We also watched The Invasion of the Body Snatchers there and while I can’t argue that this is a brilliant trailer, it is fragmentary enough in the ethos of its time to succeed. There is the frame of panicked reaction. First, you assume insanity then as images compound you think there’s more to it. The best part is the impact of the film is far greater than the trailer and the trailer doesn’t show it all, or intimate it all either. The bad part is that it doesn’t show you just how very good this movie is.

1960s

Psycho (1960)

Now, I will grant you that there are many things that allow this trailer to be as unique as it is. Firstly, you’re dealing with Alfred Hitchcock one of the greatest directors to ever walk the face of the Earth. However, he was also by this point a TV personality too. So his pitching his own film in an extended trailer is not so odd. However, what’s really brilliant about this Psycho trailer is how it seems to be telling you everything but there is so much misdirection and trickery afoot.

1970s

The Exorcist (1973)

Now, this is absolutely brilliant. There is next to now visual information revealed. There is one high contrast shot of Regan, no clear indication of what many of the shots mean and you don’t see the face of the exorcist. That creates the reaction you want. It gives you the emotional tenor of the film and compels you to want to see it. The voice-over works in conjunction with the images and scenes as opposed to presenting them. This is a clear indicator of the evolution of movie trailers. However, this sophisticated near artistry will in the course of the next forty years of film history will lose its restraint and start to give away too much information.

1980s

The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

Granted here’s another case where you’ve got a lot going for you as you set about creating a trailer: this is the follow-up to the most successful box-office smash of all-time as of this trailer’s debut, you have John Williams’ score and incredible visuals. Yet the temptation could exist to overplay your hand but it’s laid back. You have an exciting kinetic montage, with no information of any kind divulged really and the voice-over only comes in at the very end for one line. Perfect.

1990s

Jurassic Park (1993)

I tried to get a Spielberg film on for the 80s, I couldn’t because I thought of E.T. but the trailer I found had an incessant narrator who wanted to delineate every emotional beat in the whole film. With this short, if not brilliant Jurassic Park trailer, I think I re-affirm my point. Spielberg’s images are always strong. Here the story does a lot of the selling anyway, so just briefly touch upon what the chaos in the park is and make it a short, quick sell.

2000s

Peter Pan (2003)

For quite a bit of time I thought of Peter Pan as a standard-bearer of shorts. It had been some time since I had seen the trailer but I remembered how it had set the expectations very high for me, and then I saw the film it lived up to or exceeded practically every one of them. However, it also is a great illustration of how treacherous a game the cutting of trailers is. For above, what you have is the second version of the trailer. Multiple versions of trailers existing is nothing new, but what struck me as most interesting is that the minutest of changes could have such a drastic impact. When I found the #2 trailer I knew pretty quickly it was the one I liked for it seemed a more fragmentary and tonal presentation of this vision of the story whereas the #1 (below) felt a lot like a demonstration “Here’s this part of Neverland and this part and that part.”

The Present

As for the newer crop the trailer fo Dark Shadows is bad, but does contain a similar tonal dissonance to the actual end product. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is an excellent trailer.

Dark Shadows (2012)

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

A recently compelling one, that convinced not only me, but many people to see the bad movie being hocked, was that of The Devil Inside.

It’s widely acknowledged that the marketing job done by Paramount to make this film a financial success while thudding with critics and audiences alike is astoundingly good. Another recent Paramount win was the viral marketing effort, the introduction of the “Demand It” concept prior to the release of the first Paranormal Activity film. However, regardless of whether you liked the film or not, the trailer is practically all the highlights of the film. Watch below…

Now, I will readily admit that I, as someone who frequents multiplexes and art houses alike and have a tendency to be quite early, such that I watch not only the trailer but the pre-show, will view these more times over than the average spectator. However, the success of the studios, the box-office both domestically and globally relies on everyone, and trailers are one of the best methods to repeat your business. You have a captive audience, a packed auditorium for the latest tentpole, all the big movies want to advertise in front of it. Whereas sometimes commercials work better because they can give less away, a trailer gives you anywhere from 90 to around 150 seconds to give your best pitch. So please try and tantalize not bore.

When a short film of mine Suffer the Little Children got into Shockerfest, we were afforded the opportunity to buy commercial time on local cable airwaves to advertise our screening. With only 30 seconds and my proclivity to tease rather than over inform, this is what I decided to do:

Here you’ve seen quite a few of the major plot points in the story, however, without knowing the Stephen King short story upon which the film is based you don’t necessarily know the context or the significance of the events. The shots come at you quickly, with juxtapositions that are apropos of nothing and little dialogue is heard. You are given the tone of the piece and some allusions as to what it’s about but you are not told everything. That’s as it should be I feel, even given more time to play around.

Far too often, after seeing a trailer, I will snidely say to myself “That movie sucked.” Now, of course, I’ve learned that the trailer is never a good indicator of what the film is. However, while I do want to be compelled to see the film by the trailer I don’t want to feel like I watched the movie. I felt John Carter, despite other marketing missteps at least attempted to compel with images first and not giveaway all the plot intricacies therein. The removal of the qualifier ‘of Mars’ from the title, the reticence to be upfront about the literary pedigree of the tale right off the bat likely had more to do with its failing, than a trailer that didn’t spoon-feed absolutely everything.

I think above there are plenty of examples of how to do it and how not to do it, and I hope that we get more good than bad in the future. However, in the meantime caveat emptor, buyer beware is definitely a motto to live by. Most recently I heard warnings to stay away from the trailer for Sinister. He is correct. The movie does look very good but there is much information in the trailers. So happy viewing but try and avoid spoilery trailers.

The Flip Side: Seeing the Movie Then Reading the Book

Asa Butterfield in Hugo (Paramount)

Recently I re-posted a series of articles I wrote on The Site That Shall Not Be Named (no it’s not the Dark Lord’s site) about how to divorce oneself from the source material when you’re watching an adaptation of a beloved book, comic, TV Show or what have you. If you want to read that series start here, otherwise bear with me.

In that series I really tackled a problem many face but mainly it pertained to books and their readers the most. To be more specific people who happened to have read the book prior to watching the film, which is a tough transition.

However, a twitter friend of mine and blogger in his own right, recently posted this intriguing entry:

People who follow me at all know I read a lot.

I read books now more than ever, used to read more newspapers and magazines.

But, I hear all the time, I want to see say “Hunger Games” but I need to read the book/books first. I personally prefer seeing the movie first.

Books are a totally different format, richer, longer, have subtext, a medium of words. Film is a medium of images and sounds, and quite a bit shorter at around 90-120 minutes. The average screenplay is 95-125 pages long, the average book is around 300 pages. It’s simply different.

For me a good example of this is Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo”. Although the book the “Invention of Hugo Cabret” by Brian Selznick is very cinematic, and the look is in the movie, Scorsese adds scenes, depth of character and a few other things I don’t see in the book. I did see “Hugo” before reading the book, and think if I read the book first I would have used my image of the book to cloud the movie and not loved the movie for what it did well but get trapped in comparisons.

An example of a book I did read first which clouded my judgment of the movie is “Jurassic Park.” I quite enjoyed Micheal Crichton’s novel, and I missed several scenes (especially the river scene) that were in the book in the movie. Although Spielberg does a good job with it, I find actually the monster movie “The Lost World” to be more fun. I think this is partially because my view of the book hurts the movie.

Another example for me from a recent movie is “The Hunger Games.” My wife has read through this series twice already, and I am still around 20% in the first book. I quite enjoyed the movie, and wonder if my judgment of the book would have clouded how I see the film.

Basically movies and books are entirely different mediums. If you try to make the movie just like the book you get boring movies like Chris Columbus’s Harry Potter 1 and 2, which although good and nowhere near as rich to me as Cuaron’s version that shares the vision of the book but doesn’t feel the need to get everything in Harry Potter 3 (still the best of the series to me.
What do you think?

The general points up there I agree with almost without exception. I wanted to quote the post mainly for context and also as shorthand to expound on my observations on this opposite phenomena I didn’t examine.

I completely agree with the assertion that one musn’t read the book before seeing the movie. The book is not Cliff’s Notes to the film. The film has to sink or swim on its own merits. With regards to The Hunger Games, I liked it but I knew innately that there was backstory and subtext from the book only being hinted at on screen, however, it didn’t ruin the film for me.

With regards to subtext allow me to make a minor semantical point: yes, many films are surface only but when you study them you learn to read them (I’m not being poetical, we say that) and seek the subtext. Some films are what they are; vapid or brilliant there’s not much else going on, those are few. There will be more forthcoming dialogue simply because the examples are ones I so closely relate to but I will transition, believe me.

Another thing that even I didn’t really examine in the prior series is that there really isn’t a direct correlation between pages in a book and a screenplay. One can make it, and I have, for a mathematical argument but truly the literal conversion of book to film can have so many more variables. A good example would be Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust. I stuck with it and finished it and liked, despite it being the most challenging read of my life. Such is the stream of consciousness and transition from reality to memory to fancy to dream that it makes it a very involving and exhaustive experience. Were you to take certain pages out of the book and transcribe them to screenplay form you could have so many changes of time and location that one novel page could be three to four screenplay pages. Again, if you’re a completist and being literal. A good film of the book would have some of those montages implied in the writing but not all of them.

Certain writing styles do imply montage as Eisenstein talks most about in the book of his I’m in the midst of and what can be done in a paragraph of prose may take a page or more in a screenplay depending on how you decide to exploit it cinematically. This is just further food for thought when thinking about taking something that’s purely text and turning it into visuals.

With regards to the example of Hugo above it’s amazing that we both reached virtually the same conclusion about the film having inverted reading schedules. I took The Invention of Hugo Cabret out of the library and devoured it because it was a quick read, liking the story much better than the presentation thereof and then though I knew Scorsese and Logan made certain changes I felt they enhanced the film and made it the best of 2011.

Sam Niell in Jurassic Park (Universal Pictures)

With regards to the Jurassic Park films, I actually tried to read the book and I failed to complete it despite needing to write a book report on it. That did not diminish my desire to see it or affect my view of it. I absolutely adored every second of it. Being a budding cinephile and a kid who at more than one point wanted to be a paleontologist it was, and will remain, one of the most exhilarating movie-watching experiences of my life. It’s magical. On the other hand, I didn’t try and read The Lost World, I disliked it a lot. How much? This much. I was pleased to learn in my Spielberg class that part of the reasoning behind his doing The Lost World was that Universal had been begging him for a sequel since 1982 and he would not hear of it being E.T.

Michael Gambon and Daniel Radcliffe in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (Warner Bros.)

As for the Harry Potter films: I love them and I love the books. My love for both is separate but equal, to re-appropriate an old phrase. I always read them before I saw them but with the few production delays they had the gap between reading and viewing grew as the films moved on. My favorite is The Half-Blood Prince, it’s the apex of the story cinematically and in the books I feel so much of what was built in the series lead to that point. The Prisoner of Azkaban is great but like many of the films they stumble at the goal line, metaphorically speaking but that one just loses the ball entirely with the very last image and piece of voice over. Only part of the issue with the first two films is Columbus. The other part is that the books steadily grew in size through the course of the series. Slavishness to the novel was easy, and maybe a requisite to establish the franchise at the beginning. As the books grew slavishness became more difficult to accomplish, nearly impossible, thus the films truly came into their own as a separate but equal enterprise.

So having said all that in the interest of piggybacking and elaborating on points I previously made; What about seeing the movie first and then reading? I am very intrigued by the idea but I do not have much practice with it. I have a few candidates in mind to try it with but let’s see what case studies I have (Yes, we are quite literally discovering it together, hence why I wanted to write this post).

Jack Nicholson in The Shining (Warner Bros.)

The Shining

I decided to pick up a Stephen King book because I saw The Shining. I was just into High School and it was the first time I enjoyed being scared. I was averse to horror before then. I learned from King and went on to read many that he read. However, the film and the book are very different beasts. I had no problem with having a cast in my head, King even acknowledges that in a foreword or afterword of one of his books, but like I said it was different. I didn’t dislike it. I don’t disagree with King’s comments about Kubrick either, yet I still enjoy Kubrick’s riff on the story more than the book or the mini-series. Do I skew to the movie for having seen it first? Yes. However, then there’s The Hunger Games. I tried to read it as a library book. Hardly started. I then saw the movie still knowing next to nothing and would likely enjoy the book more.

Pet Sematary

Miko Hughes holding a copy of Pet Sematary

Here’s one where if you make me pick which one I like I’ll kick, scream and refuse. I love them both so, so much.

Storm of the Century

Colm Feore in Storm of the Century (ABC)

Ha, I’m such a cheater because this is a screenplay but regardless I may be in a minority but I really enjoyed it in both incarnations.

Hellraiser/The Hellbound Heart

Doug Bradley in Hellraiser (New World Pictures)

Clive Barker brings such imagination and originality to everything he does it’s hard to be disappointed but it is a somewhat different interpretation of the vision than the one he put on screen I find. Similarly, he’s working on a comics series of Hellraiser now, which is incredibly good.

The Exorcist

Linda Blair, Max Von Sydow and Jason Miller in The Exorcist (Warner Bros.)

With all apologies due William Peter Blatty the movie rips the book to shreds quality-wise. However, the reading experience was just fine.

Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption/The Shawshank Redemption

The Shawshank Redemption (Columbia Pictures)

It wasn’t a tainted reading experience in any way and it’s evidence of why Frank Darabont is Stephen King’s best adapter.

The Body/Stand by Me

Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Jerry O'Connell and Corey Feldman in Stand by Me (Columbia Pictures)

In a similar way to Stephen King’s reaction to Darabont’s The Mist he also loved this one because of a crucial change Rob Reiner made for the better. Reading it was fine, watching it more lively. In this case it might’ve tainted it in my mind from having seen it so much.

Apt Pupil

This story as written is outstanding. Yes, the cast remained the same but the story delves into the psychology of the situation in ways the film scarcely attempts. You should read it.

The Langoliers

The Langoliers (ABC)

Augmented by having seen it first in part because I love the mini-series up until the very end. It’s like King says, the story just falls into place so smoothly and that translates on to the page and the mini-series is great until one of the worst third act blunders, and effects shots ever.

Misery

Kathy Bates and James Caan in Misery (Columbia Pictures)

How can having Kathy Bates in your head not make it better?

Cycle of the Werewolf/Silver Bullet

The Cycle of the Werewolf (Signet/Berni Wrightson)

It’s a totally different beast entirely. It’s a short little book with Berni Wrightson working his magic illustrating it, giving you new images to focus on.

Creepshow

Creepshow (Berni Wrightson/Signet)

Quite frankly with the premise of Creepshow being tales in the style of old EC Comics how can it not be a good comic book, seriously?

Burning Secret

Burning Secret (Vestron Pictures)

I’m surprised I had forgotten this one. This tale is quite literally the perfect example of this list. I saw this film by chance on Netflix. I was rather intrigued by it and was curious to read the book. The book was rather short and a quick read. The adaptation is great because it develops cinematic subtext without using any of the inner-monologue inherent in the prose. What this does is create an air of mystery and a questioning of motives, at least to an extent, which never happens in the book. The strength of the book is that you get explicit detail about the thought processes of each character. In short, you get slightly different but very well-realized renditions of the tale. In each version the medium is exploited brilliantly.

These are likely the only examples I can be completely certain of. Having thought on them: Yes, the argument does have merit. It can be better and more enjoyable to watch and then read. This might mean that The Hunger Games and A Song of Fire and Ice are in my future.