Posts Tagged ‘Steven Spielberg’

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No one ever told me that Poltergeist III is a great film—quite the opposite. Whenever the 1988 movie comes up (which rarely happens), it’s usually because someone wants to point out how Heather O’Rourke, who played little Carol Anne Freeling, died during its making, a tragic incident that contributed to the superstition that the Poltergeist franchise is cursed. Otherwise, the movie is maligned, the same way that Poltergeist II: The Other Side is maligned.

Well, I can’t really defend Poltergeist II, which is mostly a mediocre retread of the original 1982 classic, dignified only by Julian Beck’s performance as the evil Reverend Kane. But Poltergeist III, while exceedingly different from the first film, is a classic in its own right, and deserving of greater recognition.

Here’s why.


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dino dollAs I argued in my last post, Jurassic World is largely built around showing its audience things from the first film. Some people have told me that there’s nothing wrong with those references—that the new film is just an homage. I don’t deny that it pays homage, but I don’t agree that it’s OK.

I have no inherent problem with nostalgia—it’s a powerful emotion that I’ve explored in my own work. But the problem with Jurassic World is how it goes about treating that nostalgia. By and large, the filmmakers simply took things from the first Jurassic Park and dumped them into their film, rarely bothering doing anything more with them.

To cite but one example, think about how much work went into putting that 10,000 volts sign in Jurassic World, during an action sequence. Some crew members had to make the sign, the fence. They had to make it look dingy. Other crew members had to go film it. All this took time and money. (Nothing in a film is free and none of it winds up in the finished movie on accident.) Someone then had to edit that shot into the film so it didn’t disrupt the flow of the action, but instead provided a little boost—the boost of nostalgic recognition—to the sequence.

In my previous post, I counted at least forty-two of these references or homages or whathaveyou to the original Jurassic Park. That is on average roughly one every three minutes. (Minus credits, it’s more like one every two and a half minutes.) Those references, plus the CGI dinosaur mayhem, are the true content of Jurassic World. That is where all the time and money and effort and attention went. This is why the writing and the characterization in the movie are so poor, why the direction is so flat and devoid of tension—the money went to CGI and scattering familiar props throughout the movie. The filmmakers knew what people would pay to see. The kids got the dino action. Their parents got the nostalgia.

The original JP delighted kids and adults alike because it was thrilling. It used its formal elements concisely and economically to create the sense real people were in peril. The 10,000 volts fence provided one of the tensest action sequences: will Timmy finish crossing it before Ellie Sattler flips the switch restoring power? Prior to that, the night-vision goggles were a crucial part of the T. Rex attack scene, and used for one of the funnier jokes in the film:

Gennaro: “Are they heavy?”
Timmy: “Yes.”
Gennaro: “Then they’re expensive. Put ’em back.”

A few minutes later, Timmy uses those goggles to see the goat is missing.

Spielberg knew how to use the elements of a scene to simultaneously craft exposition, character, action. When John Hammond sits there all alone eating the melting ice cream, we understand at once that he’s a grown-up little kid who can’t believe how his plans are now melting all around him. It’s a wonderfully compact expression of that character, and part of its emotional power (pathos) comes from how elegantly it’s rendered. It also grows logically out other actions: Nedry turned the power off, and there are so many tubs of ice cream, so many flavors, because Hammond “spared no expense.” There’s nothing like that in Jurassic World, which is why the film ultimately fails as a tribute to Jurassic Park. It references the original endlessly, but it doesn’t embody its spirit.

One of my favorite moments in the original JP comes right after the scene where Alan Grant and Lex and Timmy have escaped from the T. Rex, and taken shelter in a tree—evading predators just like our hominid ancestors. Grant throws his fossilized raptor claw on the ground, and Spielberg cuts from that to a closeup of a Brachiosaurus doll. It’s a brilliant juxtaposition: we humans made toys out of dinosaurs, convinced ourselves via science that we were nature’s masters—but now we’re back up in the tree again, prey to nature. (This is a theme that runs throughout Spielberg’s work. See, for instance, my recent post on how Raiders of the Lost Ark is organized around Indy’s realization that there is a force—God—far greater than science.)

That plush doll reappears toward the end of Jurassic World, a toy on a wall in a souvenir stand during the dino finale. It isn’t doing anything; it’s just … there. And it’s sad to see those previous props and elements, once so skillfully employed, now simply scattered about, pretty pearls of nostalgia on a string, affording nothing but cheap frissons of recognition.

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Jurassic world parkThe makers of Jurassic World worked very hard to repeatedly reference the first Jurassic Park. What follows is a list of what could be called either “callbacks” or “homages.” (Spoiler warning, obviously.)


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