Rating:The newest movie by Steven Spielberg, Jurassic Park 3D, is a throwback to ‘90s Hollywood, but it sports a bizarre, exploitative irony more in line with the works of enfants terribles Brian De Palma and Harmony Korine. That said, Spielberg’s career has made quite the unusual career turn in recent years. The director once at the forefront of mightily ambitious, innovative Hollywood blockbuster filmmaking has seemingly backtracked into a haze of sentimentality and old-fashioned wistfulness, as if the 66-year-old is stuck in a past that still deemed him relevant. Somehow in all of this, however, Spielberg has never been more fascinating and self-reflexive as he is today following the release of his newest film, the strangely anachronistic Jurassic Park 3D, which reveals a long-beloved director’s preoccupation with filmic retrospection through the formula of the Hollywood blockbuster.
The result is truly disarming, though the path to this new sublime Spielberg era has not been easy. After a failed experiment in blending the cartoony aesthetic of Hergé’s comics with live action in The Adventures of Tintin, Spielberg reverted to old, more familiar territory, indulging in an obscene degree of saccharine nostalgia with War Horse. The film seemed like a clear demonstration of a filmmaker losing his touch, but War Horse could not have been more relevant given its 2011 release, joining a wave of films that waxed nostalgic about cinema, including Hugo and The Artist. Lincoln, released last year, was a valorization of American politics from a bygone era, and formed the ideological opposite of his newest film.
With Jurassic Park 3D, Spielberg has truly outdone himself, exploiting his own nostalgic tendencies (and those of other directors) to produce an utterly bleak critique of Hollywood commercialism that still manages to make room for a celebration of spectacle (though even those gestures are turned ironic through a freakishly adroit use of ’90s CGI for the dinosaurs). This is a film so experimental it seems incredulous that a studio would ever greenlight the production. Jurassic Park 3D is not just a throwback to ‘90s Hollywood blockbusters, it feels and operates as if it were from that decade. While J.J. Abrams’ Super 8—produced by Spielberg—retrofitted the visual grammar of ‘80s and ‘90s filmmaking (many of its touches Spielbergian in scope), Spielberg takes Jurassic Park 3D to a whole new level of self-reflexivity.
Jurassic Park 3D follows a paleontologist couple, Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill) and Dr. Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern), who are asked to sign off on Jurassic Park, a new theme park island created by John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) that showcases real, living dinosaurs. Joined by Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) and Hammond’s grandchildren, Tim and Lex, the group travels the course but is left unaided when a morally scrupulous employee-gone-rogue, Dennis Nedry (Wayne Knight) knocks many of the systems offline in an attempt to steal dinosaur embryos for his own private sale. This causes everything to go awry—ironically after several heated back-and-forths about Hammond’s questionable ethics in creating the park in the first place—and everyone on the island is forced to escape the wrath of a Tyrannosaurus Rex and several velociraptors. Despite the wild ambitions of Hammond in mass-marketing the greatest theme park of all time to make a fortune, fucking with nature was not only a misguided idea, but a downright dangerous one, and the parallels here to Hollywood commercialization—symbolized through lunch-box merchandise and amusement ride enclosures—is a left-of-field “fuck you” to a system that made Spielberg’s career. The film is a bold and ambitious move, as daring as Hammond’s park.
Making a fantastical version of a pre-existing popular amusement ride is understandable, since Hollywood had already started reversing the typical trajectory of franchise merchandising with Pirates of the Caribbean (five films later, it proves to be a lucrative model). What is less clear is why a Michael Crichton novel was first adapted into a Universal Studios ride, and 20 years later, is now finally receiving an onscreen dramatization. Perhaps Spielberg caught onto the absurdity of the scenario and used it for his own clever context, choosing the work of a once-beloved, now-outdated sci-fi author who hasn’t had a book adapted for the screen since 2003’s Timeline. Equally perplexing is the fact that Jurassic Park 3D is only available in 3D, a hasty post-production addition that frequently ruins the agile compositions and camera movements. The use of 3D is so bad in Jurassic Park 3D it reminds me of the disgusting spike of 3D films released immediately after the success of Avatar, a trend that could only be described as a cash grab.
Or perhaps Spielberg requested it specifically to exploit the faceless, corporate approach of Hollywood. And perhaps Spielberg is on track, spotting another new trend: Dinosaurs. HBO recently announced a new film about rival paleontologists called Bone Wars, starring Steve Carell and James Gandolfini. Speaking of actors, Spielberg runs the gambit here, employing a few choice actors who have been wildly popular since the ‘90s, and others who fell out of favor. What better old-school performer to bring into the fold than Dern, whose talents always demand more recognition? Her last memorable film performance was in 2006’s Inland Empire, but Spielberg obviously chose Dern after her recent inspired performance as Amy Jellicoe in the underrated and recently canceled HBO series, “Enlightened.” Samuel L. Jackson also falls into this category, though the casting of Goldblum as a sexy mathematician and Knight as a variation of his Newman character is clearly intended as an ironic joke. Then there are faces I haven’t seen in years, like Attenborough (I believe his last most notable role was Kris Kringle in The Miracle on 34th Street). The film deftly handles the advanced ages of these seasoned actors playing younger roles; yes, the dinosaur CGI may emulate old techniques, but digital enhancement helps to wipe out every last wrinkle, age spot and sagging eye circles from all of the adult actors. Dern, who is still quite beautiful, looks no older than 25 here, and Neill’s crooked eyebrows look only vaguely scary.
For a film with an impressive degree of authenticity in remaking ‘90s Americana (complete with an explicit reference to CD ROM!) and Hollywood sci-fi blockbuster conventions, Spielberg has paved the path for a new realm of ironic commentary in Hollywood cinema. There’s been a lot of hype around the release of Jurassic Park 3D, though the only clear response pre-release is the peculiar outrage about the press embargo from critics. Here’s hoping a modicum of critics and viewers get the message instead of revelling in the sheer spectacle.