Friday, August 23, 2013

'Jurassic Park: An IMAX 3D Experience' (1993) directed by Steven Spielberg

The phenomenon known as infrasound has some very strange effects on human beings. These are sounds lower in frequency than 20 Hz, below the normal limit of human hearing. Infrasound has the effect of inducing anxiety, uneasiness, uncontrollable feelings of fear and awe.  In nature they're found in the roar of the tiger and other large predators - the  theory being that that human beings are hard-wired to experience a surge of adrenaline at hearing them - triggering a fight or flight response to escape a hungry predator.  When the Tyrannosaurus Rex, the undisputed star of Jurassic Park, roared full blast through the BFI IMAX sound system I felt that instinctive, primal fear - an awe that cut past all intellectual analysis right to the animal core of my brain.

2013 is the 20th anniversary of Jurassic Park's original theatrical release.  I vividly remember being taken to see it in 1993 as a kid and having my young, dinosaur-loving mind blown to smithereens.  20 years later the film retains its capacity to thrill.  Jurassic Park is a perfectly good film to watch at home, but it truly comes to life on screen this large. Not every film benefits from being blown up onto IMAX, but Jurassic Park becomes faintly transcendent the format inarguably the definitive way to experience the film.

The only slight bugbear is the 3D.  I'm always suspicious of 3D post conversion, particularly when the movie was released long before the technology was conceived of.  Though there are moments of beauty, the beams of torches and the multi-layered movement of foliage being particularly impressive, the overall effect is at best invisible and at worst rather shoddy. There are occasional strange artefacts on screen that really should have been digitally removed and worse, weird ghosting of actors faces in close-up and jerky motion in panning shots. To paraphrase Ian Malcolm, the producers of this re-release were so preoccupied with whether or not they could make a 3D version of Jurassic Park that they didn't stop to think if they should.  But, fortunately though there's the odd hiccup, there's nothing so remotely distracting as to spoil anything.

Jurassic Park is a classical example of what a blockbuster should be and though scarier, bigger creatures have lumbered across cinema screens in the interim, the film feels faintly timeless.  Much of this is down to the isolated, island setting.  Within this tightly controlled, corporate branded world the fashion is strictly utilitarian, the technology of the park outdated but clearly functional and the outside world of pop culture and politics completely shut out.  The film takes place within a bubble, the ultra-hi tech theme park/zoo setting still unique enough that there's only a handful of points of comparison.

In 1993, Jurassic Park was the undisputed pinnacle of special effects.  This was the first time that realistic living creatures had been rendered in computer graphics.  Not only that but they were in full daylight, in focus right at the centre of the shot.  When the characters blink in awe at the sight the towering Brachiosaurus they're acting as direct audience stand-ins. Both the characters and audience are stunned into submission, witnessing something genuinely new, not quite knowing how to process it.  The intervening years have taken some of the shine off these special effects, though Spielberg (with a big assist from John Williams' score) is such a master manipulator that his CGI dinosaurs still send shivers down your spine.

That you instinctively buy the creatures as real isn't just down to CGI wizardry, but to Stan Winston's brilliant animatronic puppets.  They give the dinosaurs real weight and presence in a way that even modern CGI still finds difficult.  These dinosaurs splash through the rain with rivulets of water running down their sides, they sink into mud, knock pots and pans over, their breath so powerful it blows the hat off our hero's head.  Perhaps the most tangibly physical dinosaur is the sick Triceratops.  On an IMAX screen you fully appreciate the level of artistic detail in this creation, its eyes, nose and tongue twitching with an organic wetness, the dusty scales across its body and tiny cracks along its horns anchoring the beast in the 'real'.  Most importantly, Spielberg lets his actors get up close and personal with the creatures; my favourite moment in this sequence being when Sam Neill's Alan Grant rests his head against the dinosaur's flank, and with a beatific expression feels it inhale and exhale.

Jurassic Park easily maintains its aura of spectacularness and on level of pure entertainment hits you with precisely the same power that audiences in 1993 felt.  What I wasn't expecting was the symbolic oomph behind this prehistoric rampage.  Though the film has a reputation as a cinematic theme park ride, there's a decent amount of subtextual meat to sink your teeth into.  Prime among these is the conflict between masculinity and femininity.  

In Jurassic Park, masculinity is associated with control and restriction.  The science that created and maintains the park is associated with overly confident male scientists and businessmen who understand very little about what they create.  In the scene where we see the baby Velociraptor hatch from an egg, the 'mother' is a faceless robotic arm - technology without emotion.  Dr. Wu, who is in charge of the dinosaur nursery, views it purely as a production line, not even immediately sure of what breed of dinosaur is being hatched.  This vision of irresponsible fatherhood unites pretty much every male character in the movie, from Alan Grant's dislike of children, Ian Malcolm's three absent children from numerous marriages, Nedry's abduction of embryos for profit, Gennaro's abandoning of the children under his care and John Hammond's inadvertent endangering of his grandchildren.

In contrast, femininity within the film is primarily represented by the dinosaurs, all engineered to be female - becoming symbols of uncontrollable nature.  Jeff Goldbum's Ian Malcolm as repeatedly refers to 'Mother Nature' and describes the process of creation that's led to Jurassic Park as "the rape of the natural world".  This 'rape' is outlined in greater detail when we learn that the male scientists have asserted control over reproduction within the park, seizing control of a primary female source of power.  

The women in the film, Laura Dern's Ellie Sattler and Ariana Richard's Lex Murphy are similarly treated well.  Both are terrified by the dinosaurs (though no more than the men are) but both are shown as utterly competent in their own right.  Sattler repeatedly displays a fierce analytical intelligence and later bravely volunteers to leave the safe compound and turn the park's power systems back on.  When Hammond objects, she witheringly puts him down "We can discuss sexism in survival situations when I get back."  Lex is similarly dynamic, risking her life to save her little brother by distracting the Velociraptors in the kitchen and displaying a comprehensive knowledge of computers that ultimately saves every other character still alive at that point.

When the dinosaurs break free of their enclosures and run rampant they become wrathful femininity unleashed.  On a visual level, the roaring, gaping mouth of the T-Rex is easily read as a vast vagina dentata.  When she rips apart and eats a hapless lawyer (whose first instinct upon seeing the dinosaurs is to commodify them), the consumption becomes a potent yonic act.  This dinosauric demolition of masculine power structures continues as we learn the dinosaurs have overcome their biological constraints and managed to breed within an all-female community - "sisters are doin' it for themselves".  Neatly, this is foreshadowed on the characters' arrival to the island - as the helicopter drops Grant struggles to do up his seatbelt, ineffectually mashing two female connectors together.  The other men smirk at him, but his makeshift solution is to tie the two ends together, creating a secure bind from two feminine elements.

By the final scenes, the male characters are reduced to scurrying away in pants-wetting terror from dominant femininity.  The dinosaurs have seized control of the island, bloodily tearing the reins of power from male control and asserting a primal, roaring matriarchy over the ruins of the infrastructure.  Masculinity, futilely trying to keep women in their place has been cast out.  The fact this process is explicitly identified as "life finding a way" makes Jurassic Park a unexpectedly feminist piece of cinema.

Sociological analysis aside, I can't imagine anyone not having a good time watching this on IMAX.  There's an admirable focus and purity here that few action films ever attain, a hefty intelligence behind every jaw-dropping action sequence.  Watching it at home won't ever be the same again after seeing it on an IMAX: the size of the screen and the bass rumble of the sound system accentuates everything makes Jurassic Park not only one of the best films of the 1990s, but one of the greatest summer blockbusters of all time.

Jurassic Park 3D is at the BFI IMAX from now until the 29th of August, and also at other IMAX cinemas across the country.

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