Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Same Old Same Old

Steven Spielberg is probably the most gifted filmmaker of my lifetime.

But I'll be the first to say that sequels are just not his thing.

He's a terrific story teller, but his inclination is to tell the story in a single sitting, usually not in installments — even when the response to one of his movies appears to be a cry for more — and move on to the next project.

"Jaws," for example, was great. The sequels, not so much. But Spielberg really didn't have a hand in them.

Inexplicably, he was the director of both the original "Jurassic Park" and "The Lost World: Jurassic Park," which premiered on this day in 1997. The original was a first–rate example of Spielberg's filmmaking at its best; the second was an uncharacteristic example of giving in to the temptation to make some easy money essentially repeating yourself.

Well, it might have been better if Spielberg had repeated himself. Instead he tried to concoct an entirely new story with basically the same ingredients. Spielberg knows how to push all the right buttons to get the desired response from the audience, but these movies centered on the dinosaurs that had been created by Richard Attenborough's character in the first movie. It was almost as if Spielberg directed a documentary.

(That would have pleased my journalism professors. Their advice to us was always that, whenever we wrote about something, we should be like flies on the wall. "The reader shouldn't even know you're there," one of my professors said.)

Attenborough had a cameo role in the sequel. So did the child actors who played his grandchildren in the earlier movie.

And Jeff Goldblum was back — but none of the others returned. Instead you had Arliss Howard, Julianne Moore and a whole new cast of good guys and bad guys, all brought together to explore an island where the dinosaurs had been bred before being brought to Jurassic Park where they would be the main attraction. When the park was abandoned, the isolated supply island was forgotten.

Except by the audience. If I remember correctly, there was nothing to forget because this island was never mentioned in the original.

That was just one of the many hurdles Spielberg had to clear in order to make this movie. And I guess he succeeded in most of his objectives, but when the movie was finished and showing in the theaters, it lacked the one thing it needed the most, the one thing that just about every Spielberg movie has — a sense of awe, of wonderment.

Call it the Wow Factor. It is when Spielberg merges all the best elements of filmmaking that are at his disposal at the time.

I remember that moment in the original "Jurassic Park." It was when all the guests saw a wide assortment of dinosaurs in an open field. There was no comparable moment in the sequel.

I'm not saying Spielberg didn't try. But the dinosaurs in his sequel were always aggressive. The audience knew why, of course, and understood. But it got in the way of what one expects from Spielberg. He is the gold standard, always on the cutting edge.

His imagination takes us places we never dreamed we would go. He does the dreaming and turns it into movie reality. To borrow the words of 19th–century British poet Arthur O'Shaughnessy, Spielberg is "the music maker and the dreamer of dreams."

Sequels just aren't his thing.

Making movie magic is his thing.

Spielberg has never struck me as a director of violent movies. I know he directed "Jaws" — but the shark never became a malevolent monster. It did what animals do — it hunted for food. In "The Lost World: Jurassic Park," the dinosaurs were malicious. They killed indiscriminately. Hunger had little to do with it.

Oh, there was a sense of wonder — initially — from some of the cast members — and most of the folks in Spielberg's audiences.

It could hardly be avoided. Spielberg's dinosaurs appeared to be the real thing. It was hard for audiences, whether watching the original or the sequel, not to be astonished by what they saw.

But where Spielberg came up short was by not reimagining the material and coming up with a unique story that did the visuals and the human characters justice.

That's when Spielberg has always been at his best — when, in addition to the movie making bells and whistles, he also gave audiences a story that surprised them, that wasn't what they expected.

Film critic Roger Ebert agreed with me, by the way.

"Perhaps the time to do the thinking on this project was before the first film, when all the possibilities lay before Spielberg," Ebert wrote 20 years ago. "He should have tossed aside the original Michael Crichton novel, knowing it had given him only one thing of use: an explanation for why dinosaurs might walk among us. Everything else — the scientific mumbo–jumbo, the theme park scheme — was just the recycling of other movies."

Recycled is the right word, I think. When I saw "The Lost World: Jurassic Park," at a theater, I kept thinking that I had seen it before — just not with dinosaurs. I still can't say that it reminded me of a specific movie, just a genre — the monster movie.

Another thought that I had was that Spielberg's dinosaurs were always getting loose and terrorizing humans in the rain. In the original movie, it was during a rain storm — at the time I presumed it was some sort of tropical storm — that the dinosaurs escaped their pens and roamed the island.

They did essentially the same thing under the same circumstances in the sequel, and when I watched the movie, I presumed again that it was some sort of tropical island.

But then the plot called for one of the adult dinosaurs to be taken to San Diego where, sure enough, it was raining. Now, San Diego has a very agreeable climate most of the year with little rain — maybe a foot or so all year.

So that part, that this vessel carrying a living dinosaur, arrived in San Diego on one of the few rainy days of the year, probably surprised some people in the audience — but that really isn't the kind of surprise I've been talking about.

It was more recycling.