Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Looking Ahead by Looking Back

Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn't stop to think if they should.

Jeff Goldblum (Ian Malcolm)
Jurassic Park

I'm not entirely sure, but I think "Jurassic Park" was the last movie I went to see at the theater with my mother.

She died about two years after it came out so it is possible that we saw another one, but I really don't think so. She and I didn't really have an opportunity to see any other movies together after that. At least, I don't think we did.

It is a significant point for me because we used to go see movies together all the time — Mom always used to love to talk about a movie after she had seen it, and I like to do that, too, but, since she's been gone, it's been hard to find someone to watch movies with me.

Anyway, I was visiting my parents a few weeks after "Jurassic Park" hit the theaters. Mom and Dad had already seen it — and Dad is not the sort of person who likes to see most movies more than once — but Mom suggested that the two of us go to see it, and so we did on a hot Sunday afternoon in late June of 1993.

As I say, Mom lived nearly two more years after that, but we lived in different states at the time. I can think of a few times when I visited my parents in those two years, and it is possible that we saw a movie together on one of those occasions, but I honestly can't recall one.

Even if I am wrong, though, I like to think that "Jurassic Park" was the last movie Mom and I saw together if only because it was directed by Steven Spielberg.

I can think of several directors whose work I have enjoyed over the years, but I don't think any other director — at least, in my lifetime — has been as gifted as Spielberg at squeezing every conceivable emotion out of every frame of film in a movie.

Every movie he has made has been special, even the ones that were judged as mediocre (at least, when compared to Spielberg's most noteworthy achievements).

And "Jurassic Park" was hardly mediocre.

Of course, as there is with any movie, there were continuity problems. The one that always bothered me was the rainstorm that was severe enough to leave puddles that were deep enough to prevent the children from being crushed when a Tyrannosaurus rex flipped the tour car in which they were riding and stepped on it — yet, shortly thereafter, when Ellie (Laura Dern) came looking for Alan (Sam Neill) and the children, the ground was dry. Nary a puddle in sight.

Well, perhaps that is quibbling.

After all, there is very little wasted effort in a Spielberg movie.

Everything that is said, everything that is done on the screen, every prop, every item of clothing ... everything has a purpose. Spielberg is always messing with your head, giving you something that foretells something or harkens back to something, and often you don't realize it until you've seen the whole movie — at least once — and had a chance to reflect on it a bit.

And, in hindsight, one of the most interesting examples of that from "Jurassic Park" came when Richard Attenborough's grandchildren and Neill were stranded in the park at night.

One of the children (Ariana Richards) asked Neill, "What will you and Ellie do if you don't have to dig up dinosaurs anymore?"

"I guess we'll have to evolve, too," he replied.

In the context of the movie, it was a reasonable question. Attenborough's character — well, the technology he had pioneered — had rendered the traditional work of researchers obsolete by reviving long–extinct dinosaurs. In the story, people wouldn't have to look at dinosaur bones and try to imagine what they looked like. They could look at the real thing.

But it had more long–term relevance for me than I realized at the time.

In 1993, Spielberg showed movie audiences that computers would revolutionize special effects, and I believed it. What I didn't realize was how rapidly emerging technology was going to change so much of the world in which I lived.

In my field, journalism, the changes have come so quickly that they have caught many by surprise, and newspapers have scrambled to find ways merely to survive. Survival has meant changing the roles in the newsroom, and many jobs have been eliminated in the process.

People like myself and the folks with whom I have worked are becoming today's dinosaurs. I don't feel obsolete, and I'm sure my colleagues don't feel obsolete, either. Perhaps we aren't — but some of our skills are.

It wasn't that piecemeal in "Jurassic Park." Dinosaurs had been extinct for millions of years; apparently, it hadn't been a gradual thing, either. In fact, I am often amazed that so many dinosaur skeletons have been preserved virtually intact all this time.

But to revive the dinosaurs in "Jurassic Park," it was necessary to blend the DNA information that had been retrieved from fossils with DNA from frogs. The frog DNA filled in the genetic gaps. So, in a way, I guess it was piecemeal.

One of the things I remember being astonished by at the time — aside from the impressive special effects — was how little Neill was mentioned in the reviews I read. Most of the attention was given to Jeff Goldblum and Laura Dern and Attenborough.

Neill, as I recall, was treated almost as an afterthought when, in fact, he had about as much screen time as anyone else — as he and the children tried to make their way through a park in which all barriers between man and dinosaur had broken down.

Mind you, I'm not saying that I think Neill is a great actor. Frankly, I've always thought that he capitalized on his looks and probably couldn't provide a truly convincing performance if given a really challenging role.

But, in the 1990s, he was on something of a roll. "Jurassic Park" and "The Piano," two of arguably his best movies, were in the theaters at this time 20 years ago. He'd been in "The Hunt for Red October" a few years earlier, and he was in "Dead Calm" in 1989.

He was getting a lot of exposure. But he has never been what I would call a major star.

Ironic, isn't it? A blockbuster movie about the perils of reviving the past didn't foretell his future success — at least, not yet.