Saturday, February 9, 2008

Impact Tremors: Steven Spielberg and "Jurassic Park," Revisited

At once both wondrous and petrifying in its beauty, Jurassic Park is a revelation in filmmaking. It is often overlooked, perhaps disregarded as a mere Box Office treasure. It's also become somewhat of a novelty, a landmark in, not fabulous cinema, but American spectacle. Plus, it's old by now, fifteen years, and long in the dust of current CGI marvels, but this movie has something that others of its kind lack. When I say others of its kind, I refer not only to science fiction films, but horror films as well, and family films, and when I say what the others lack, I refer not only to CGI mastery, but also to a great and earth-shattering sense of subtlety. Think about it. When I say the words "impact tremors," what do you see? Jeff Goldbum perhaps? A trembling puddle in the shape of a footprint? A mutilated car? Two children beneath a clear dashboard, a quarter of an inch away from death, screaming for mercy from a prehistoric beast? And all from what? Impact tremors. The water in the cup. Chaos theory, according to Dr. Ian Malcolm.

Jurassic Park
is tremendously scary. Even at the age of 22 as I watch it from my living room couch on an ice cold day, I find myself staring, hand over mouth, eyes wide, maybe even a tear. And the familiarity of it all! This movie is a massive part of my generation's childhood: the possibility of not only dinosaurs, but of movies that can actually move you. To tears, to paralyzing fear.

Surely Steven Spielberg is no stranger to suspense and wonderment. He has a natural knack for scenes that call on several different emotions at once, that provoke thought from every angle, as we first experienced in Jaws, next with E.T., and then with Jurassic Park. He uses the subtleties of our everyday lives--puddles, Reese's Pieces, bicycles, sunbathing--and spins them into something strange, something heartfelt yet eerie, sometimes downright scary. These subtleties are the reason that Steven Spielberg will go down as one of the most influential directors of all time. They're also the reason he has a billion dollars. He has this way of inspiring dire beauty in unsuspecting places. Jurassic Park contains only a few of these examples, as the most poignant can be found in the climactic moments of E.T., when a young boy must let a healing creature, half of his heart, sail away into the cosmos. Moments of the heart in Steven Spielberg's greatest work don't go unaccompanied, however, by moments of blistering fear. While Jurassic Park has its dinos, E.T. has the men from the government, their astronaut suits and all of those long, white tubes. As a child, I feared those tubes. As an adult, they make me cry. And while E.T. is not a horror film, it still inspires fear, and I long for the days when movies didn't have to belong to a single genre. When children's movies didn't have to be about dancing vegetables and scary movies didn't have to squirt blood all over the place. But all those days are gone.

Which is why, of course, the modern horror movie is a joke. I love the term "torture porn," and I wish I knew who coined it, because I'd give them a big, fatty high five. $4.8 million spent on fake blood and limb-severing scenes will only get you so far when it comes to scare tactics. By now, nobody cares, and Eli Roth should either go back to film school (did he go to film school?) or simply watch Jurassic Park, because then maybe he'd see that what he's doing is not making a new face for the horror genre, and with the exception of maybe one scene in the original Hostel, he's not scaring anyone at all. He's only causing people to upchuck their lunch. Or to laugh very loudly, which is what I often do nowadays when I see a fountain of blood that is meant to be taken seriously, because I've seen that same fountain of blood at least fifty times before, and I've seen it handled much more expertly, as you probably have as well, by directors Quentin Tarantino and Tim Burton. For this very reason, horror flicks like Psycho and Jurassic Park will be forever scary, because like all the greatest films and novels and actors and actresses in the world, they never reveal their hand. The use small amounts of the bloody stuff and leave the rest up to suspense, and suspense is what leaves the knuckles white with terror, not nasty throat-slittings and visible compound fractures.

While Steven Spielberg may not be the master of suspense (that would be, of course, Alfred Hitchcock), he is still quite masterful. Fifteen years after I first saw Jurassic Park, it still frightens me to tears. I still remember the parts that truly scared me when I was eight--when the little boy is electrocuted and must be revived with CPR, or when the bloody goat leg flies onto the windshield. Or in E.T. when the flowers begin to wilt or the men drive by outside. These moments still move me to this day, though differently than when I was eight, because a truly great movie, horror movie or heartfelt tale alike, matures with its audience. New layers unfold, but the old ones still live, and as you begin to tremble, you're touched with a nostalgia that yanks you back to that very first viewing. I often wonder if my children will have these same experiences with the watered-down, profit-hungry filmmaking of today. I don't know. Most of me doesn't think so. But just to make sure they do, I'll show them films like Jurassic Park. For movies like this to people like me are the the true makers of sweet nostalgia.

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