Jurassic Park (1993)

★★★★

Director: Steven Spielberg

Release Date: June 11th, 1993 (US); July 16th, 1993 (UK)

Genre: Adventure; Science-fiction

Starring: Sam Neill, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum, Richard Attenborough

Who knew rippling water could be so menacing? Steven Spielberg’s early 90s dino classic swings from a slyly humorous thrill-ride to a tense environmental duel harbouring geopolitical connotations. Visually enticing beyond its years, the opening of Jurassic Park’s gates ushers forth a landmark in technological achievement on screen with effects that wouldn’t look too far out of place amongst the CGI blockbuster behemoths of today. There are one or two missteps along the way, most notably a paternal plot strand that feels forced rather than instinctive and an outrageous accent that seeps from the mouth of Richard Attenborough which at times threatens to boil over into caricature territory. Subtlety mightn’t be on the menu (that spot is reserved for human beings) and nor should it be in this rip-roaring tale of imagination, immorality and animatronics.

After a worker is killed by an errant Velociraptor, lawyer Donald Gennaro (Martin Ferraro) converges on Jurassic Park, an island owned by entrepreneur John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) and inhabited by cloned dinosaurs. Hammond simultaneously invites doctors Alan Grant (Sam Neill) and Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern), a palaeontologist and palaeobotanist respectively, to join the certification jaunt knowing the pair have more than keen interest in the fossil business. Mathematician Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) gets wind of the goings-on too and accompanies the party on their venture around the island that is prospected to open publicly in the near future. They ought to fix that fencing first though.

From the moment our ragtag band of explorers and suits reach their ill-fated destination, David Koepp’s screenplay based on Michael Crichton’s novel — also a co-writer here — strikes up a juxtaposition bearing an awesome visual gloss, but with a dirty underbelly. We first see the immense dinosaurs roaming across the landscape at the same time as Dr. Grant and company, the creatures’ awe-inspiring repertoire generating a sense of splendour. However, it’s not long before crass ignorance and abject misconduct take over; touring car doors are missing locks, the park is understaffed, a disinterested slob controls central safety measures and flimsy wired fencing is implemented as a harnessing mechanism. In essence, the park is a sham.

This notion of lawlessness disguised as grandeur is developed further as it latches onto certain characters. In a scene pivotal to the narrative’s apparent wary message, the group settle around a sleek table to discuss degrees of wrong. Is humanity’s imperious domination over nature — mirrored by CEO John Hammond’s genetic manipulation and cloning — immoral? Effectively, is this the rape of the natural world, to paraphrase mathematician Ian? Financial gain is presented as the ultimate destination for some (“We will have a coupon day or something”) whereas it’s the inherent allure of discovery for others. Spielberg refrains from indirectness here, instead placing his cards on the table and facing the query head on. The film asks questions that are perhaps even more relevant to this day, and doesn’t shirk away from picking sides. It’s a mature approach that, coupled with a visual affluence, successfully challenges the viewer to consider external prosperity gained at the cost of nefarious biochemical control and human tyranny over nature.

Tonally, Spielberg hammers a balance between the geopolitical and the humorous. Admirably, there’s no shortage of the latter as we see a witty, banterous dynamic rear between the various characters on display. As resident number-cruncher Ian, Jeff Goldblum scoops and skilfully delivers many of the funniest quips. Goldblum’s timing is terrific and the film would’ve benefited further if he had garnered more screen time towards the conclusion. Sam Neill’s Dr. Alan Grant relays humour cut from a blunter cloth, and his pseudo-Indiana Jones demeanour — the attire, the adventurous mind, the standoffish personality — is a tad camp, but amusing when paired alongside Ian, his polar opposite. In fact, an ongoing campiness exists throughout the film, embodied by zoomed-in camera shots on shocked faces and the occasional line cheesy in obviousness (“They’re approaching the tyrannosaur pen”).

The only significant issue Jurassic Park must contend with is a sub-plot that is unnecessary in existence and contrived in execution. John Hammond’s grandchildren arrive mid-way through, and it just so happens that they find themselves under the care of Dr. Grant, who dislikes children (“They smell”). Though the actors do a fine job and present a duo of child characters who are not in any way annoying, their inclusion feels primarily like a method solely intent on generating sympathy where sympathy is superfluous to requirements. At a stretch, it is conceivable to consider that the intention behind these characters is to reflect civilisation’s should-be protective instinct towards nature, though there is already enough weight behind this particular cog.

Other than Richard Attenborough’s disastrous Scottish accent that chimes more off-putting than funny, the remaining performances invariably contribute peripheral goofiness and/or tension. Laura Dern is Dr. Ellie Sattler and endears from start until finish. Samuel L. Jackson’s hard-headed poise is particularly humorous, playing a cigarette smoking engineer who oversees many of the park’s operations. Computer geek Dennis Nedry (paha) grumbles in his chair and bumbles in the rain — pathetic fallacy is almost a character on its own — and funny man Wayne Knight portrays this ineptness as well as anybody. And aside from the accent, Attenborough does well as the increasingly flaying visionary whose plans are progressively falling apart.

When we aren’t laughing or contemplating moralities, a brooding atmosphere grabs hold and gains momentum as the film evolves. The T-Rex reveal is timely; held back long enough to allow simmering anxiety and in turn create a mystique that bellows danger upon the dinosaur’s appearance. Cinematographer Dean Cundey captures the mechanical appearance of the park where metal fences, armoured vehicles, durable weapons and giant food dispensers retract from the dinosaurs’ animatronic motions, subsequently accentuating their perceived fluidity. Some scintillating sound work complements the tremendous visual array and bolsters said ominous atmosphere.

“We never had control, that’s the illusion!” bellows Dr. Sattler as proceedings begin to go awry. The line effectively sums up an inquisitive narrative that denounces immorality, but also wholly contradicts the efforts of Spielberg and co who absolutely always have control and resultantly chisel out an optical cinematic milestone.

Daybreakers (2010)

★★★

Directors: Michael and Peter Spierig

Release Date: January 6th, 2010 (UK); January 8th, 2010 (US)

Genre: Action; Drama; Horror

Starring: Ethan Hawke, Willem Dafoe, Sam Neill, Claudia Karvan

As a commentary on modern-day civilisation and western domination, Daybreakers is very good. As a scattered action romp where humans are pitted against vampires, Daybreakers is not too bad either. Where the film does fall on flat on its face though, is when it tries too hard to combine the two without properly answering all of the questions or delivering the most exhilarating action. In the end, there is just far too much going on.

Daybreakers is set a decade in the future, in 2019, where the human race is almost entirely extinct and the world is primarily inhabited by vampires. As the number of remaining human beings diminishes, so too does the amount of blood, the vampire’s means of function. A dominant vampiric corporation headed by owner Charles Bromley (Sam Neill) sets out to find an adequate blood substitute, while researcher and reluctant vampire Edward Dalton (a vampire named Edward? that will never work), played by Ethan Hawke, aligns with a group of humans in order to find a cure and save mankind.

From the get-go, Daybreakers develops a collection of parallel analogies with life in the present day, and all of the social, environmental and political problems the world currently faces. For example, the rapid depletion of human blood and local conflicts over obtaining the substance can be understood as a reference to the imminent decrease in water levels around the globe, along with the ‘water wars’ going on in many third world countries. In Daybreakers, cities are controlled and domineered over by a ruthless police force, much akin to the security forces inhabiting dictatorship regimes in varies reaches of the planet, where many civilians are wrongfully oppressed (in the case of Daybreakers, the humans). These are only two of a whole host of succinct and well established connections that writers and directors, the Spierig brothers, obviously had in mind when creating the film. The directors’ thematic inclusions are stimulating, as their representation of modern society works very well throughout. When attempting to incorporate select societal elements into a film it is important to ensure that the piece does not become too overawed with commentaries, and that it does not become a parody of modern existence. The film successfully steers clear of any such dangers for the time it spends on-screen. If part of the job of cinema is to get its audience thinking about issues relevant to them, then Daybreakers hits a home run.

However, where the film begins to lose its way is when the narrative itself becomes to over-run by plot points and sub-plots. The directors do so well in keeping the societal analogies in check that they seemingly forget about the actual events of the film, and the sheer volume of goings-on. Not only is the set-up to the main story confusing and does not really make much sense (Ethan Hawke’s character works for a corporation dealing in blood harvesting, yet he is opposed to drinking human blood and is sympathetic towards humanity), but before any of the main plot-points can be concluded, more and more sub-plots are added to proceedings. Along with the group of humans and Hawke attempting to find a cure and Neill’s corporation making inroads into discovering a blood substitute both playing out on-screen, so too does Hawke’s tumultuous relationship with his brother, Neill’s battle with the remorse he holds over the disappearance of his daughter and an underlying problem with subsiders around the city (vampires who feed on themselves, subsequently turning rogue). With all of these separate events divulging information at the same time for the audience to attempt to soak in, matters quickly become overbearing. The absence of many of the sub-plots would not have made the slightest difference to the outcome of the film.

Daybreakers also runs into trouble as it progresses along the cure story-line. A key event in the narrative takes place mid-way through the film which is intended to have harrowing connotations with what came before it and what comes later on. Unfortunately, the reveal goes the other way and comes across as a tad lazy and nonsensical. With that being said, this problem does sort itself to a degree as Daybreakers nears its conclusion, and to the Spierig brothers’ credit, the final few scenes are very smart and well thought-out. The film looks tremendous, with everything from the metallic, sharp city-scape to the visceral, gory horror elements mesh together to create a diverse-yet-encapsulating visual offering. Sam Neill is wonderfully wicked as the rich, oligarchical business leader who shares one or two similar characteristics with Mads Mikkelsen’s Hannibal Lecter. The rest of the film is efficiently cast, as Ethan Hawke (who has a vampire-like quality to his look in general) is effective in his role as the well-meaning protagonist. Willem Dafoe’s charismatic turn as “Elvis” Cormac is a far cry from his usual outings, and he is slightly underutilised here.

Running at just over an hour and a half, Daybreakers does not overstay its welcome as it brims with ideas and comments on modern society, successfully posing questions to its audience and generating the mind. However it simultaneously loses focus on the meat of events, as too many things are going on at once when a simpler narrative would have been the perfect accompaniment to the thought-provoking themes which the film boasts.