My Jurassic Park theory
I have a theory about Jurassic Park.
It was re-released in 3D last week to mark its 20th anniversary, so it seems a good time to share a theory I have about this beautifully crafted monster movie.
But it is a theory that requires a little context.
In 1992, when Steven Spielberg made Jurassic Park, he was not the celebrated director you know today - accepted into the canon of great auteurs and with two Oscars on the mantelpiece.
No, Spielberg was struggling. The blush was off the rose. He was no longer the wunderkind who had burst on to the scene in his 20s with the breakout TV movie Duel and the biggest-grossing film of all time, Jaws. Jaws was now 18 years behind him and he was in his mid-40s.
His last two pictures, Hook and Always, had flopped and were dismissed by critics as syrupy and insincere. Before that, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade had won praise, but not exactly broken new ground.
And then there were his attempts at serious "adult drama" with the Color Purple in 1985 and Empire of the Sun in 1987. I personally like those films, but critics at the time were sniffy and derisive.
The main criticisms were that he was borrowing heavily from his idol David Lean and was failing to mature into a great director. Many felt he was trapped in childhood.
"In a way, Spielberg is to film what Michael Jackson is to pop. Both grew up within their respective arts rather than in real life, their human growth on perpetual hold."
"Spielberg seems unable to come to terms with anything real."
"You can feel Steven Spielberg trying to reach into a deeper part of himself, to get past the boy-genius image that the public has of him -- and that perhaps he has of himself -- and bring the adult artist to life...
''In telling the story, Spielberg has revealed more about his own deep-seated ambivalence over leaving his childhood world behind than he may have realised. It's a film about the moviemaker's anxiety over growing up. In 'Empire' and his other films too, adults carry a kind of taint: They're outside the hallowed circle of innocence. And with this picture, Spielberg signals his realisation that to grow as an artist he must venture outside that circle as well. But the movie is also a symbol of his reluctance; it leaves him caught between the two worlds, with one foot in the circle and one foot out.''
In other words, he was seen as a lightweight struggling to mature as an artist.
So, in 1992, Spielberg was a wildly successful director responsible for many of the most lucrative movies of all time, but he had a lot to prove.
I also think he wanted to be accepted by the Hollywood community as an artist as well as a director of lucrative movies. And there is one way you can be dramatically embraced by that community - an Oscar for best director.
Spielberg was nominated for best director for Raiders of the Lost Ark, ET and Close Encounters, but won nothing. The Color Purple and Jaws were not nominated for best director, but were nominated for best picture. As Ben Affleck knows, that is the Oscar equivalent of saying: "Good day to you, sir. I. Said. Good. Day.''
Check out this video of Spielberg learning he has been passed over for a best director nomination in 1977 for Jaws.
He is clearly disappointed at "getting beaten out by Fellini". He makes this little speech straight into the camera:
"This is called commercial backlash. I don't know if anyone knows the words commercial backlash, but when a film makes a lot of money, people resent it. Everybody loves a winner, but nobody loves a winner.''
Fifteen years later, in 1992, Spielberg was still waiting for that best-director Oscar. His attempts at serious movies had not met with universal praise and he appeared to have lost his touch with the smart blockbuster fare that made his name. In fact, he had been snubbed at the Oscars again and again. He was at a creative crossroads and I believe Jurassic Park subtly reflects this brief identity crisis.
I think the character of Jurassic Park creator John Hammond represents where Spielberg found himself creatively in 1992.
Obviously, Jurassic Park can be enjoyed as just a great monster movie and there is an obvious message about the dangers of playing God. But I think there is also a subtle personal message in there from Spielberg. It's just a little facet of the film that seems to be personal. It seems to be a story about a creative showman who is struggling to find meaning in his work, take his skills to the next level and win praise from his peers.
For a start, Hammond is played by prestigious, and Oscar-winning, director Richard Attenborough. A living embodiment of a director embraced by the Hollywood community. He won best director for Gandhi in 1982 - his fellow nominee in that category was Spielberg with E.T.
Also, consider two scenes in the film. The first is where Jeff Goldblum's character, Dr Ian Malcolm, is questioning Hammond's ambitious Jurassic Park venture. He says:
"You stood on the shoulders of geniuses to accomplish something as fast as you could, and before you even knew what you had, you patented it, and packaged it, and slapped it on a plastic lunchbox, and now you're selling it."
Does this sound familiar? It sounds like an excerpt from one of the reviews of Empire of the Sun. The criticism of the merchandising, the criticism of his rapid ascent at a young age, the criticism of borrowing heavily from David Lean or "standing on the shoulders of geniuses". It is all there. It feels like Spielberg critiquing himself.
Then there is a key scene later in the film. Hammond is despondent. His park is falling to pieces and his niece and nephew are lost in the raptor-infested jungle. He talks to Laura Dern's character about his predicament. He says:
"You know the first attraction I ever built when I came down south from Scotland? It was a flea circus, Petticoat Lane. Really quite wonderful. We had a wee trapeze, and a merry-go... carousel and a seesaw. They all moved, motorised of course, but people would say they could see the fleas. 'Oh, I see the fleas, mummy! Can't you see the fleas?' Clown fleas and high wire fleas and fleas on parade... But with this place, I wanted to show them something that wasn't an illusion. Something that was real, something that they could see and touch. An aim not devoid of merit.''
I don't think it is too hard to make the leap from Hammond's desire to move on from the flea circus to something more meaningful and Spielberg's need to mature as an artist and be accepted by his community.
Hammond and Spielberg are both showmen who want to create something more meaningful and be accepted by their peers. Hammond wants the approval and respect of the scientists he has helicoptered in to Jurassic Park at great expense, Spielberg wants an Oscar from his peers.
Hammond is Spielberg's alter ego.
But, while Hammond doesn't get his wish, Spielberg was about to see his dreams come true.
After wrapping on Jurassic Park in late 1992, Spielberg flew straight to Poland to start filming his next movie. He monitored progress on the dinosaur visual effects at the end of each shooting day in Poland, balancing the two pictures in his mind.
The film he was shooting in Poland was Spielberg's second film released in 1993. It was Schindler's List. The two films were released within months of each other. Jurassic Park was a massive hit and won huge critical praise. Schindler's List, released later that year, was Spielberg's breakthrough as a director of "serious" films. He had tackled one of the darkest chapters in 20th century history, the holocaust, and created a film that answered all his critics.
In the space of a year, Spielberg proved he could still direct great rollercoaster blockbusters, but could also take on weighty subjects with just as much skill and aplomb.
Schindler's List won seven Oscars in 1994. Spielberg won for best director. At the podium he said:
"This is the best drink of water after the longest drought in my life."
He had won. In the words of Hammond, he had created something that wasn't an illusion. An aim not devoid of merit.