Thursday, April 26, 2007

The Gates of Jurassic Park

One of the most successful films in box-office history, Jurassic Park represents a milestone in big-budget filmmaking. Seamlessly blending science with adventure, humor, horror, and suspense, the film utilizes puppetry and computer generated images to bring one of nature's oldest mysteries—the dinosaurs—to life. Upon its release, Jurassic Park boasted the most innovative and breath-taking onscreen effect sequences, particularly in regards to CGI, a new medium at that time. Since then, the film has stood as a model for special effects filmmaking, a landmark moment in blockbuster history.

To attribute this success solely to the film's groundbreaking effects, however, would be unsound. Though the effects do serve as the ultimate spectacle for the audience, Jurassic Park exhibits a true understanding of timing and build-up, of how to construct a cinematic sequence in order to wring out the greatest amount of tension. This can be accredited to Steven Spielberg, the acclaimed director of other smash hits such as Jaws and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Spielberg acts almost as a guide through Jurassic Park, expertly building conflict while ultimately adding a sense of representational duality through editing, framing, and iconography. As an example of such multi-dimensional representation, the gated entrance in Jurassic Park serves not only as a symbolic introduction to the spectacle of the film, but acts as a conscious product of the standard Hollywood blockbuster.

The gated entrance of Jurassic Park is, quite literally, a giant gate. It appears approximately one third of the way into the film, just as the characters begin the motorized tour. Before this moment, Spielberg develops escalating levels of excitement, briefly exhibiting a dinosaur and using time to verbally explain the mystery and wonder of the park. However, the tour marks the point at which the characters (and audience) will finally receive visual confirmation of what they've been waiting to see, and consequentially the tone of the scene reflects this ripe anticipation. It is only appropriate that the gate is introduced by a guiding verbal announcement: “Hey, look!” This statement identifies and defines the gate foremost as an object to look at, a spectacle—a direct convention of the blockbuster genre, if defined as such. Following this dialogue is the first shot of the entranceway, a lengthy long-distance tracking shot in which the gate appears to grow in size as the camera approaches it. This slow build-up both mirrors and accelerates the tone of the scene; the slowly decreasing distance between the audience and the gate, coupled with its seeming rise in size and stature, affirms and builds audience anticipation.

As the cars move along the track, we see awe and enthusiasm among the characters faces. Spielberg's next shot brings the audience into the cars, eye-level with the characters in the film. This direct association between audience and character strengthens the sincerity of the visuals, placing the audience inside the adventure, promoting a shift from passive to active view. It also allows Spielberg to contort the size of the entranceway yet again; now it fills the entire front window of the car, spilling out past the frame. The camera pans upward, using the open sunroof to capture the rest of the image. At this view the gate appears huge, towering over the motorized cars with its immense presence. Spielberg continues this theme with his next two gate shots—a canted angle crane shot, followed by a medium distance shot of the entrance doors closing, both of which give the appearance of the gate dwarfing the tour group.

This concept of size, particularly at the introduction of the park tour, signifies the spectacle that waits within. Spielberg's construction of the gate through edits creates a towering force, producing a physical representation of the powerful visual display present throughout the film. However, elements of mis-en-scene other than editing aid in this interpretation. John William's score pervades the scene, bombastically celebrating the arrival at the park gate. Characterized by ecstatic blasts of trumpet and the epic rise and fall of strings, William's theme for the film not only narrates emotions felt by the characters, but guides the audience disposition as well. The swelling of the music, particularly as the gate closes, toys with the audience's anticipation, portraying sonically what Spielberg had previously conveyed visually.

Similarly, dialogue acts to reiterate the theme of magnitude. As the cars move through the entrance, Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) quips “What do they got in there, King Kong?” This direct reference to the 1933 classic about a colossal ape amok in New York City—a special effects extravaganza that remains a large influence on blockbuster filmmaking to this day—creates a link between the films in terms of graphic scale in relation to the presence of a giant gate. Like in Jurassic Park, the gate in King Kong appears approximately one-third of the way into the film. Unsurprisingly, it looks almost exactly like the one in JP—a towering wooden structure studded with torches. Introductory dialogue (“Colossal!” “I want to know what's on the other side!”) establishes the spectacle of the gate, while a thunderous aboriginal ceremony at its front signifies a certain larger symbolic significance. As the ceremony moves forward, we see the gate open to unveil a religious altar; the natives scale the top of the gate to watch as Kong, the gigantic ape, completes the sacrifice.

At this point, the gate serves three cinematic purposes: a self-referential object realizing the grandiosity of the film, a diegetic object of protection and religious importance for the indigenous peoples within the story, and a barrier between the civilized world and the world of Kong, a dangerous territory where spectacle and special effects reign. Before the display of the gate, King Kong builds anticipation through dialogue: “Money! Adventure! Fame! It's the thrill of a lifetime!” exclaims Carl Denham, the punchy, persistent coordinator of the fateful trip. However, once the characters pass through the gate, they are overwhelmed by effects, turned into pawns for puppets and claymation figures. Later in the film, as Kong busts through the gate, the two worlds collide, and the final spectacle of the film is realized—the blending of chaos and civilization.

Ultimately, what purpose does the gate in Jurassic Park serve? In relation to the diegetic world of the film, the gate offers no protective use, disconnected from the electrified fences used to pen the dinosaurs. In fact, the gate is never shown in the film again! And though it presents the point at which the action bleeds into chaos, marked moments of effects before this point in the film separate Spielberg's building-block approach to tension from that of King Kong's distinct filmic binary. In the end, the gates of Jurassic Park represent a hypocritical sort of necessary excess, both within the world of the film and as part of the spectacle of modern blockbuster filmmaking. Constructed through multiple elements of mis-en-scene, the gate as an entity alludes to the important of size and showmanship without serving any other real function. It maintains the film's thematic narrative criticism of gluttonous entertainment-business practices (Represented, for example, by the lawyer, the JP products, “spared no expense,” etc), while at the same time succumbing to Hollywood's own brand of profligacy. Perhaps this complexity results from Spielberg's deft direction, but it seems more likely a product of Hollywood blockbuster tradition, where spectacle overrules necessity, even in this most minute scene.

Originally published on December 4th, 2005.


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