I write reviews, but not because I want to criticize things. Actually I like to learn how to write and tell stories, so that is why I write them. On one level to learn to write the reviews themselves and on another level to analyse the storytelling of that which I am writing about. Also I like to look at pictures as part of storytelling. And I like to make pictures.
In this post I want to take a look at Jurassic Park, the movie made by Steven Spielberg based on a script written by Michael Crichton, which was an adaption of the book written by Michael Crichton himself. I will focus on the movie and not discuss the book or compare it to the book as I never read the book. It is also not important to me as I want to write about storytelling in the movie Jurassic Park.
I picked Jurassic Park simply because I just saw it together with my daughters and I think it is a good example of storytelling. It might surprise people that I never have seen the movie before, but there is a simple explanation for it: I live under a rock. Yup, a lot of things escape my notice.
Jurassic Park is a good tale and probably would have been an exceptional tale if it wasn’t for some (very) weak parts. I will try and address those weak parts as we go along so we can consider them and perhaps learn from it. Note that what follows are spoilers as this post is meant to analyse the story and thus will reveal the story and that means: spoilers ahead.
Summary of the movie
A group of people made up out of scientists, a laywer and two kids, inspecting a theme park filled with living dinosaurs before it opens become the target of ravening dinosaurs when a disgruntled employee sabotages the security systems to steal dinosaur embryos. After a few encounters and deaths the group and the park owner escape by helicopter.
The story of Jurassic Park is about a rich old man named John Hammond who is the head of a bio-engineering firm and who made a theme park filled with living dinosaurs on an Island belonging to Costa Rica. Before the park opens he invites a group of three scientists to inspect the park; the paleontologist Dr. Alan Grant, the paleobotanist Dr. Ellie Sattler and the mathematician Ian Malcolm. The scientists are joined by a lawyer representing some otherwise unnamed investors who are concerned about their investments after an employee has been attacked by a dinosaur. In addition they are joined by Hammond’s grandchildren Lex and Tim Murphy.
The group gets a tour of the park during which they run into problems as the electrical touring cars fail. These problems become serious when Dennis Nedry, a disgruntled employee of Hammond, sabotages the security programs to steal dinosaur embryos and deactivates the electrical fencing that help keep the dinosaurs inside the park. In addition a storm approaches the theme park to make matters worse.
The group is attacked by a T-Rex that eats the lawyer and the group splits in two. Grant and the two kids flee further into the park, while Sattler calls in the help of the head warden of the park, Robert Muldoon to help the now wounded Malcom. The three then reach the main building where Hammond and his chief engineer Ray Arnold are frantically trying to get security systems and fencing back online. They discover that the computer running the software that controls the park is made inaccessible by Nedry, who is nowhere to be found as he tried to escape the park with the embryos, but got killed by a dinosaur.
Hammond and Arnold decide that to restart all the systems to get them working again and gain access. So they shutdown all systems, but to start them they have to throw some switches in a nearby underground bunker. Arnold leaves for the bunker but disappears, so Dr. Sattle and Muldoon, leave for the bunker as well. When they reach the bunker raptors appear. Muldoon fights them and is subsequently killed, gaining time for Sattler to enter the bunker to restart the systems. Sattler succeeds in doing so and then discovers that Arnold has been killed by a raptor that is inside the bunker. She manages to escape the bunker and returns to the main building.
In the meantime Grant and the two children, Lex and Tim arrive at the main building after a stay in a tree and a trip through the park. Lex then uses the computer system to activate the parks systems and this allows them to call for help. In the meantime a raptor appears in the main building and the group decides to make their way to the helicopter pad. Chased by raptors part of the group gets cornered by them in the central reception area, but they escape when a T-Rex attacks and eats the raptors.
Everyone then leaves the island by helicopter.
The story in parts
Stories are cut in parts that have a certain purpose. These parts follow each other in chronological order in which time usually follows a natural order. In Jurassic Park the story develops along a natural and predictable way. There are no jumps or flash back for instance. and time is not garbled up with things that occur later in the movie actually occuring earlier in the story.
The first part
First there is a part in which the stage is set and we get introduced to the characters and some background. In Jurassic Park, this part is actually pretty long as it takes a whopping 35 minutes. To keep us interested we get a few cliffhangers along the way.
But first let’s first meet the main characters: Dr. Ellie Sattler and Dr. Alan Grant. We meet some other people along the way, including two kids, but in the movie the camera will follow these two. With an exception being made for the two kids at some moments. Grant will head out with the two kids and Sattler will team up with Malcom and other secondary characters. My eldest daughter said Ellie is the blond haired girl that is only good for getting into danger so she can be saved by men. I said she can’t be as she is a doctor and main character. It turned out that my daughter got it right.
If you want to strip the story down to essentials then it’s Grant who is the main character as he is the only one who has a story arc of sorts in the movie and he actually develops(he is learns to deal with kids!) Non of the other characters have any kind of arc and some are just in the movie to get eaten.
The other two important characters in the movie are god and the devil. It’s Hammond vs Malcolm as Malcolm, dressed appropriately in black, directs criticism against the creator of life Hammond(dressed in white) for meddling with nature and predicts he will be unable to control of his creation. It’s humans playing for god. It is science vs nature. And most of all: it’s a storytelling device to set the mood for what is about to happen. It will go wrong.. I tell ya! It will!
Beyond these roles they don’t have much more to add to the story. Hammond is the creator who witnesses his creation going wrong and we get a kind of wrap up into the end of the movie where he and Ellie discuss the failure. Malcolm flirts with Ellie Sattler for short period in the movie but then is out of the story because he is wounded. Yeah, he doesn’t get eaten.
And then there are kids who are there to get threatened so an Grant can save them and bond with them as a surrogate father.
And then there are the people who are meant to be eaten. The lawyer with dubious morals, the thieving nerd, the chain smoking black guy and the courageous but ineffectual park warden. They even got names in Jurassic park, but no personality. They are just lunch. And of course to give us the feeling that there is danger. For without someone getting killed or eaten we wouldn’t think the main characters are in any danger.
The story itself
The very first thing we see is the attack on the employee. This establishes various things. It alerts us to the danger involved: some dinosaurs are dangerous animals you know. It immediately grabs our attention. It gives a reason for the lawyer to be there and it is one of the reasons for the main characters to be there: Grant is invited partly to condone the park.
The second cliffhanger is about fifteen minutes into the movie. Here we witness Nedry making a deal with an representative of a competing firm to steal some embryos from Hammond. Nedry will be instrumental to the chaos of the latter part of the movie. His is a computer nerd and he is heavy build because computer nerds live in attics eating junk food and drinking coke. An unhealthy mind creates an unhealthy body. Or is it the other way around? We get to the characters somewhat later.
The third moment is not a cliffhanger, but more to shake us up a bit. A cow gets lifted into the park and is eaten by a dinosaur. Since the movie is PG we are spared the bloody bits and we see just some plants shake and hear shrieks. It’s not very scary. They also no doubt wanted to delay showing the monster. Not showing monsters is a very good practice. Only I felt a bit sorry for the cow. We learn from this part that Spielberg has a sadistic streak in him. Or do meat-eating dinosaurs only feed on live animals? Tsh. Choosy buggers.
To keep us interested also during this part of the movie we are enticed with the possibility to see some dinosaurs. Surprisingly the first dinosaurs appear about twenty minutes into the movie and they are the only ones we see in the first part.
Well… not quite.. we see some dinosaurs being born in this scene that reminds me of Alien somehow. No face hugger jumps out of that egg though. It’s a bird that hatches from an egg.. Eh.. a baby raptor.
We have some other things occur in this part.
There is nice sequence about 20 minutes into the movie that explains how they created the dinosaurs. This bit is actually introduced quite smartly as it’s introduced in the story to the main characters as what is going to be presented to the visitors of the park, but it’s also meant for the watchers of the movie to understand a bit of the science behind the movie.
At 32 minutes into the movie there is the discussion between god and the devil which I mentioned earlier which is part of a bigger discussion about using science to create these dinosaurs. Grant and Sattler: you don’t know what might happen. Malcom(the devil): it will go wrong. The lawyer: if there is a profit in it then do it. I found this attitude for a lawyer a bit strange as it seems to me that a lawyer is more concerned with lawerlike things and that profits are more the concern of business types. In fact a lawyer might as well be against it because of the judicial complexity this causes.
The second part
The second part starts about 35 minutes into the movie and last for about fifteen minutes. This is where the tour starts that will expose the the main characters to danger. Incidentally this is also the part where the children are introduced. If you were to cut of the whole first part from the movie you might still be able to follow the movie. This part is therefore a lead up to danger: the start of the movie. In other words a second setup.
This part is mostly for setting up some interaction between the various characters as until now we have just been introduced to them and we have been enticed with the non show of dinosaurs. Time for some action. The pace of the story picks up as various things start to happen. Malcom flirts with Sattler. Hammond and Nedry get into an argument. Malcom makes some snide remarks in the camera that Hammond reacts to. And Grant leaves the car, dragging the rest along. For some strange reason Sattler steps out of the car at the wrong side. I guess this might have something to do with the camera.
The party gets out so we get to see the first dinosaur upclose . It’s a triceratops. Hurrah! But it is ill! It is also the last time we get to see a dinosaur that close, except for a meeting with a brachiosaurus. And of course when people get eaten or attacked.
It’s about 50 minutes into the movie and it’s time that things start to happen before people start to leave the theater.. Hence things happen: the nerd makes his move, the rain hits the park and the electrical fences and cars start to fail.
Continued in the next post (as this post is long enough).
To be continued…