I read Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park before I got to see the movie. The book was dark and very interesting – it had a lot to say about chaos theory and man trying to control something he doesn’t understand and so on. The technical portions, especially relating to chaos theory, were fascinating.
However, when Steven Spielberg made it into a movie, he realized something very crucial: however intellectual the book might want to be, its premise had its roots in wonder and childhood fantasy. And it is from this perspective that he made it. It is an intelligent choice, I think. The movie has enough thrilling moments to guarantee a great ride, but those are just excellent high-voltage versions of stuff you’ve seen in countless movies before. What I found most memorable about the movie was a couple of scenes which I shall describe here.
The first one is the scene where they see the dinosaurs for the first time. Think about the key characters in that scene: a skeptical mathematician and a couple of people who have researched dinosaurs for years. The mathematician is less excitable, but the other two have been living with dinosaurs in their head for years. It wouldn’t be a stretch to assume that they got into this line of work as a result of their childhood fascination with dinosaurs — one doesn’t choose paleontology as a career the way one chooses software engineering. And here they are, witnessing a scene that they’ve reconstructed for years on the basis of fossil evidence. Dinosaurs. In the flesh.
It’s beautiful the way Spielberg constructs that scene. Grant is the first to see it, looking at something that seems like a tree trunk but moves a bit and stretches upwards until it meets the torso and the long neck of a Brachiasaur. The camera pans upwards slowly, and you share in his wonder. At some level, I suppose we know it is all special effects, but for a moment there, it feels like a childhood fantasy come true. And you can see in Grant and Ellie’s eyes, the sheer exhilaration of that moment.
The other scene is one that everyone remembers. For anyone that has read about dinosaurs, the Tyrannosaurus Rex (or T-Rex, as the book and movie refer to it), is the equivalent of the Bengal tiger in that world. Except it was a lot bigger. And since none of us have actually seen them, they have grown in our imagination to be the biggest, meanest monsters that ever roamed the earth. Jurassic Park actually provides us with a meaner animal, namely the Velociraptor, but the first encounter with the T-Rex leaves an indelible impression.
I love the way Spielberg sets it up. Earlier in the day, the tourists go past the T-Rex enclosure and see nothing. For most of us whose vivid imagination had built up the image of a terrifying creature, this is a bit of a let-down. But Spielberg, that master of string-pulling, knows what he is doing. He lulls us a bit by showing us inconsequential scenes involving Triceratops and mucho prehistoric foliage before having the discontented nerd sabotage the system. The vehicles are left stranded near the T-Rex enclosure, and the fences are no longer electrified, although these people don’t know it yet. You realize that this might be a recipe for danger, but it really hits home when you hear those thuds and see those ripples in the glass of water. No sign of the monster yet, mind you. But that moment with the ripples has you primed.
Suspense always trumps surprise in terms of getting an emotional reaction. “There’s a bomb under the table. It goes off, that’s surprise. It doesn’t go off, that’s suspense,” said Alfred Hitchcock. Most directors don’t understand this principle. Especially those connoisseurs of gore who make slasher epics involving implacable enemies with scythes, hooks and what not.
Spielberg is among those few directors who understands the value of not showing something. There are scenes in Jaws, for instance, where you just see people in the water looking around frantically. No sign of the telltale shark fin that we are so used to. The beauty is, he’s established by then that there is a shark somewhere around. So, by showing nothing, he lets the character’s (and therefore your) fear take over.
I understood this principle in first person recently, when I visited the Ranganthittu Bird Sanctuary near Mysore. My wife and I took a ride on the lake in a rickety little boat. I thought it would be fun. This, of course, was before we saw the crocs. Huge ones, at least eight feet long, swimming quietly alongside the boat. Frankly, those large unblinking eyes made my blood run cold. And you know what was scarier? Not seeing them and wondering where they were.