The subtext of Jurassic Park series
It took me a while to hook up with the third Jurassic Park movie, largely because someone other than Stephen Spielberg directed it.
After witnessing the butchering other directors did to the follow-ups to Poltergeist, I approached Jurassic Park III with dread – even though Spielberg did serve as the film’s executive producer.
Reviewers were also unkind. Ticket sales reflected a general distaste for the third of the series perhaps reacting to disappointment with The Lost World – the second film in the series Spielberg did direct. Even I had a negative view of Lost World, though I have come to modify that position since.
In recent viewings of all three films, I have come to realize that the negative impressions come as a result of the fact that the original film was so remarkably well-done, not because the follow-up films were done poorly.
This fact only comes into focus when you study each of the films closely and take note as to what works and doesn’t.
Spielberg’s fingerprints are very clear on the first two films, although echoes of his touches are also in the third, paying homage to the master film maker who revolutionized special effects with the first Jurassic Park.
In special effects, the later films are actually better than the first film if only because the technology grew as each film was made. The Lost World’s action sequences far outstrip the original film, and in some ways are much more impressive than those seen in Jurassic Park III – partly because the third film really didn’t do much more than the second film did except to give us different dinosaurs. But in this regard, Jurassic Park III still holds up better in the series than the fourth Raiders movie – largely because III had a strong story line and the characters did much more than merely follow in the footsteps of the previous films.
The plot lines of each film are simple.
In Jurassic Park, the death of a worker in the jaws of dinosaurs causes investors in a new dinosaur park to ask for a review by outside experts. Although the inventor of the park spared no expense of technology, but was less generous with the man who developed his technology. Although the park has problems of its own, these are made worse when the technician shuts the park down in order to smuggle out some of the embryos, and eventually leads to the breakdown of all the systems, and further death.
The second film involves a second dinosaur site the efforts of a corporation to exploit the dinosaurs by bringing them back to a zoo in the United States, while the original master of the first film seeks to document the creatures at the second site in order to win public opinion against the exploitation. The conflict between the good guys and bad guys leaves to mass death, an invasion of urban America by mother dinosaur, and unraveling of the new park plans.
In the third film, a child lost on the remote island drags the hero from the first film to Site B against his best wishes, where we again get a sense that the dinosaurs are the more intelligent species as the humans struggle to make their rescue and their escape.
In consistencies exist in the string of Jurassic Park films – such as the fact that The Lost World mentions the fact that three people died in the first film when in truth, five people did.
Spielberg seemed determined to cause mass slaughter in The Lost World, so we lose a lot of the impact a single death has. While the third film kills off less people than the second film, we do not get the same impact we do from the deaths in the first movie. Every death in the first movie sends chills through the audience; this is not the case in the later two films.
Less problematic is the concept of “Site B” in The Lost World serving as the breeding ground for the creatures in the original movie since we never really knew where the creatures came from in the first place.
The real differences between the films lies in Spielberg’s genius to develop subtext, which was fully developed in the first movie, less so in the second, and notoriously lacking in the third.
The concepts of family, technology and science are fully realized in the first film through the subtext, so that we get a richer backdrop to the film’s action line that is much less developed in the second film, and barely touched on in the third film.
The original Jurassic Park, however, is much more concerned with ideas than either of the two follow-up films so that it becomes much more “talkie.”
It is clear from The Lost World that Spielberg sought to escape the talkie aspects of the first film in order to provide a much more powerful action film. In some ways, he succeeded. The trailer scene remains one of my favorite action sequences of all time, rivaled only by the truck scenes in Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. Yet the trade off lessened The Lost World in that we also lost some of the more subtle stuff Spielberg needed to make the first film work despite its talkie nature.
Changes of camera angles and patterns of shots used to give life to otherwise stagnant conversations also gave the first film a three-dimensional aspect the other films lacked. This is particularly true in the jeep shots which I call the Chaos sequence and the dinner shots earlier. One of my favorite sequences of the first movie involves the sick dinosaur and one particular extended shot I stop the DVD player to watch again and again.
The later films do not evoke this same visual respect in me although they are very well-crafted.
In some ways, Spielberg – in making The Lost World – resorted to shorthand in an attempt to evoke what he achieved through repeated thematic representations in the first film. Problems with technology so subtly applied in the first film were less effective in the second because they were much more obvious. He evoked the family problems in the second film with a heavier hand than he did in the first. While the third film presented us with both as well, they were largely stripped of any sub textual support, dumped upon us without the magnificent beauty of the first film.
Since I will be writing in more depth in future essays on this, one example should show what I mean.
In the first movie, we get the sense of false dependence on technology in the opening scene when brute force of the raptor foils the plans to relocate the creature into the pen and results in the death of one of the workers. Later, at the dinosaur dig, the computer screen reacts badly when the hero touches it. We get his distrust of the computer technology when it is suggested technology might some day replace physical digging.
Once at the park, we begin seeing technology breaking down, sometimes with human help, sometimes without, yet always with the concept that technology is only as good as the people who are operating it.
This theme of technology out of control is reinforced again and again, scene by scene, until it pulls the film together by the end, when it is the combination of human skill and technology that helps defeat the monsters – yet even then, the technology isn’t the answer, and the human’s must flee.
We get touches of this in the second movie, but not the amazing tapestry. The main character in this film bangs his cell phone several times, gets the wrong frequency in another attempt, and in one case, can’t reach his party because she simply turned her cellular telephone off. Technology even causes the death of one person because he has head phones on when his friend screams for help. (I’ll go into more depth in another essay).
The gives us a cellular phone and other superficial elements of the other two films, but almost no build up at all.
This lack of shot by shot, scene by scene support for the subtext is why the second and third films seem less satisfying.