We’re back! I took an extended break over Christmas, which was nice, but I’m happy to be back and covering more films. This week I decided to go back into the recent past to cover some films that were huge when they came out, and look at whether or not they still hold up. This week’s films are:
Steven Spielberg – Jurassic Park (1993)
The Wachowskis – The Matrix (1999)
First a quick note on the credits. Since The Matrix was made, the Wachowski siblings have both transitioned from men to women. But at the time, they identified as men. Their credit in The Matrix is “The Wachowski Brothers”, but I’ve credited them as “The Wachowskis” here, as that is their current credit when they collaborate.
Both of these films were major blockbusters, hugely successful, and revolutionary with their special effects. But effects driven films frequently fall down as technology gets better. So do these films hold up?
Let’s get into it.
Jurassic Park (1993)
Jurassic Park is the story of a fantastic new amusement park, containing actual dinosaurs, cloned from DNA. John Hammond, the owner of the park is getting pushback from his investors after a worker dies working with one of the animals. He invites archaeologists and other scientists to the park to certify that it is safe. Dr. Grant, Sadler and Malcolm arrive and begin to notice the problems immediately. But when a rogue employee turns off the security systems to try to steal some specimens, the park is thrown into chaos. Will they be able to regain control?
The film is directed by Steven Spielberg and stars Sam Neill, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum, and Richard Attenborough as the leads. There are also some great actors in smaller, memorable roles like Samuel L. Jackson, BD Wong, and Wayne Knight. Even the child actors are great in their roles. Spielberg has a knack for getting good performances out of children, and this film is no exception.
When this film came out, it was revolutionary. No one had ever pulled off special effects like the dinosaurs in this film. The way they did it was through a clever mixture of computer generated graphics, and practical effects. It was held up as proof that computer generated graphics could work, but it actually uses a lot of puppetry in addition to it’s CG effects. In almost every case, when there’s a closeup of a dinosaur, it’s a puppet. But when it’s a wide shot, where we can see the whole creature, it’s CG. Spielberg is able to get high detail puppets that can interact with other objects and actors easily, but also do wide shots where animals are fully visible and mobile. This flexibility is the key to the film.
Of course, none of this would be possible without talented animators, puppeteers and puppet builders. I personally consider puppeteers a form of animators, just with a different material. And the puppeteering in this film is exceptional. The dinosaurs, particularly the velociraptors feel vicious and alive. The T-Rex also takes a turn as a puppet, and is menacing. There’s an amazing moment that shows the level of detail they went to on the puppets. There’s a shot in the T-Rex’s first scene, where the children are trapped in a car, and holding a flashlight. The T-Rex lowers his head to look in the window, and the light catches his eye. When the light hits his eye, his pupil dilates in response. That is an exceptional setup and payoff, done entirely with the puppet.
The CG models look good, but aren’t as high quality as they are now. Spielberg works around this by generally shooting them from a distance, or at night or in low light. The initial introduction of a dinosaur we see clearly is a giant dinosaur we see as the scientists are riding into the park. The model is sold in a few ways. First, he uses his actors. Sam Neill’s reaction in this moment is one of the iconic film moments. He stands up in the Jeep unsteadily, barely able to get his sunglasses off, messing up his hair in the process. He cares about nothing except seeing whatever’s in front of him. He then turns Laura Dern’s head, who also gives an amazing reaction. At this point, we still haven’t seen what they’re looking at. As the camera turns, he employs his second tool, the music. The John Williams score swells and we hear the iconic theme music as we see the model from a distance. The third thing he does here is smartly incorporate the dinosaur model into the existing environment. It would have been easy to leave the animal in a clearing, so we could clearly see everything, but he actually puts a couple of trees between us and the animal. This sells that the dinosaur is really there, not just painted on. Finally, he places his actors in the frame so that we can judge the size of the creature.
Looking at the model now, it’s animated really well, but it looks kind of blurry, not sharp at all. However, Spielberg is able to sell it because he’s really good at this. I’m actually not a huge Spielberg fan. I find his films pretty safe, and they frequently talk down to the audience. But there’s no denying that he made all the right decisions here.
But if this was just an effects showcase, it would be completely forgettable. There’s a strong film in here, and I think it’s Spielberg’s best. It’s essentially a disaster movie. I considered doing a pair of disaster movies this week, but after looking up lists, it turns out most disaster movies are bad. So I skipped that idea. But what makes a disaster movie? It generally occurs in some kind of remote location, or somewhere not easy to escape from. It’s also somewhere that often seems safe or familiar. An airplane, a skyscraper, a large boat, to name a few famous examples. Also, there’s almost always a character warning someone in charge that a disaster could occur any day now, and being ignored. And of course, the disaster happens, and the rest of the film is everyone dealing with this tragedy.
In Jurassic Park, the remote area is an island, which they are assured is safe (“I spared no expense!”). Dr. Grant and Dr. Sadler have some issues, but also are fascinated by the dinosaurs, but Dr. Malcolm sees the danger. He is a proponent of chaos theory, which deals with unpredictability in large systems. He knows that things won’t work exactly as Hammond has set up, and warns him that this place is unsustainable, that the safety checks they’ve implemented won’t hold. Hammond waves off his concerns.
But then comes Nedry. Dennis Nedry is the man who wrote the automation programs for the park, but he’s in financial trouble. Another company has offered him 1.5 million dollars to smuggle live embryos out of the park to boost their research. To do this, Nedry has decided to turn off many of the safety features of the park under the guise of a maintenance program in order to get in and out undetected. But on the day he’s ready to implement the plan, a massive storm hits the park. Rather than wait for a more opportune time, Nedry goes ahead, crippling the park during a major storm. Further complicating matters, the scientists and Hammond’s grandchildren are out in the park on a test tour. The power goes out as they end up at the T-Rex paddock. With the power out, the T-Rex escapes, and terrorizes the nearby cars. Ian Malcolm is injured, the lawyer accompanying them is eaten, and Dr. Grant and the children are knocked into the T-Rex paddock, down a 30 foot drop.
Let’s pause here to talk about one of my biggest film annoyances. The T-Rex manages to exit the paddock at the same level as the road, but when going back over, Dr. Grant and the children suddenly have a 30 foot drop to deal with. One of these things is a lie. Get it together, Spielberg!
OK, anyway, it’s up to Dr. Alan Grant to protect the children, while everyone else deals with getting the park back online. Dr. Grant’s arc is the most interesting here, as he’s been set up as someone who really dislikes children. Trapped in the park as the responsible adult, he has to let all that go, and become the father he needs to be.
Back in the control center, we move into a suspense film, as the raptors are let out, and they become the new villain. Smart, ruthless, and vicious. The Velociraptors are setup from the start of the film as some of the smartest dinosaurs ever, and Spielberg pays it off in the last third of the film once the initial disaster has ended. To my memory, Velociraptors were not well known dinosaurs when the film came out. This film popularized them the way Tyrannosaurus Rex was popular before then. They’re a great villain. They’re unpredictable, and continually surprise us.
The two sections crash into each other as the survivors have to turn on the parks systems and escape the park. It’s a tense, satisfying conclusion.
This is a personal favorite, and I believe it’s Spielberg’s best film. It’s essentially a disaster film, and I think that in a different setting, without the dinosaurs it would still be effective.
But people mainly remember this for the dinosaur effects. In 1993, this film was years ahead of effects technology. No film could match it’s digital effects for years and years afterwards. I would even go so far to say that the effects here weren’t surpassed until our second film of the day, The Matrix. Let’s get into that one now.
The Matrix (1999)
The Matrix centers on Neo, a computer hacker searching for a figure known only as Morpheus, who he believes can tell him what The Matrix is. He feels out of place in the world, with a boring office job during the day, and a life outside the law at night. But when he finds Morpheus, a terrible truth about the world is revealed: the world isn’t real, and Neo must leave everything behind to become the savior of this new and unfamiliar world, fighting in the computer simulation he used to call home.
Of course, that is a seriously underwhelming description of the film, but it’s heavily plot-driven, and it can get a bit complex. The film is written and directed by The Wachowskis. This wasn’t their debut, but it certainly launched them into the elite director circle. The film stars Keanu Reeves as Neo, Laurence Fishburne as Morpheus, and Carrie Ann Moss as Trinity, in her first big film. As the main agent in the computer simulation is Hugo Weaving, also becoming a big name because of this film.
Like Jurassic Park, when this film was released, it was revolutionary. I remember the hype being so huge it was unbelievable. I went to see it assuming there was no way it could be as good as people were saying it was. But the first time I saw it, I was totally blown away. Right from the opening moments, the film held me in rapt attention.
The film mixes genres in a really interesting way. The early part of the film plays out like a kind of techno-noir. The world is bathed in shadows, and we deal with a dark and gritty world. From the beginning, we’re told something is off here. The police arrive to try to capture someone named Trinity. But when they confront her, she floats up in the air, almost seeming to stop time, before easily dispatching them.
Thus, we get cinema’s first instance of bullet-time. The effect is fascinating, and is born entirely out of the way cameras work, rather than CG effects. The filmmakers essentially built a giant ring of cameras that the actors stand in. With all the cameras filming, the filmmakers can then switch between any camera they want. When switching from one camera to an adjacent camera, it appears that the camera is moving around them smoothly. To enhance the effect, the Wachowskis decided to slow down time when it was happening. The effect was something never seen before. It gained the name bullet-time because it was most famously used later in the film to show Neo dodging bullets.
Besides bullet-time, the other interesting thing about this film is that the actors perform their own fight scenes. In a lot of films with hand-to-hand combat, the film would show close-ups of the actors doing a couple moves, then break to a wide shot where you can’t see their faces clearly, replaced by stuntmen who can perform more impressive moves. But in The Matrix, we frequently stay up close, and even when we’re further out, we can clearly see the original actors in the fights. With current technology, effects artists can perform facial replacement, essentially pasting the original actors face onto a stunt performer, but at the time, the actors had to do everything themselves. It wasn’t a common practice at the time, but it really works here.
The film is straight hero’s journey, with Neo refusing the call, meeting a wizard, having the curtain pulled back, etc. But while the structure is fairly straightforward, the film doesn’t feel stale. It feels fresh and original. The effects are part of this. The music, which is exceptional, is another. But the world and the mystery surrounding it is the main thing that makes the film feel unique. At the start of the film, the audience doesn’t know much, just that things aren’t quite right, and Neo is searching for Morpheus to tell him what The Matrix is. When he finally hears from Morpheus, it’s to tell him how to get away from the agents chasing him. Neo is captured anyway, and in a fairly scary scene, the agents somehow remove his mouth, and then activate a bug which crawls into his navel. You don’t often see body horror in an action film, but it fits in with the aesthetic, and gives us more to wonder about in this strange world.
Even when the film is ready to reveal it’s secrets it keeps us guessing. The scene where Neo is finally pulled out of The Matrix plays out without the audience knowing exactly what’s happening. The film plays out the suspense and mystery even past the reveal, while we see a long sequence with Neo coming in and out of consciousness as the crew of Morpheus’ ship work on his body, rebuilding his atrophied muscles.
We as the audience don’t learn the real solution to the mystery until later, when Neo is finally able to leave his room. Morpheus takes him into a simulation program, entered by inserting a plug into an outlet on the back of his head, and explains the truth. While Neo believes it is 1999, it is in reality 200 years later, after a massive war between artificially intelligent robots and humans. The robots have enslaved humanity, using their bodies to produce electricity, keeping their minds occupied in a massive computer simulation: the Matrix.
I find the mystery aspect of the film incredibly satisfying. Even seeing it this time, knowing all the twists and turns, the film does a great job of giving up little pieces of the mystery, but still surprising you when all is revealed.
And once the film moves past the mystery, we see Neo learning how to work in this new world. Morpheus has told him that he is essentially a superhero or a god in this world, and he can manipulate it in ways that others cannot. He tells him he is The One. This is obviously a lot of pressure to put on someone, and Neo initially rejects his role. We also see some sequences of Neo learning, sparring with Morpheus and losing badly. This makes it all the more satisfying when he accepts his role, and becomes The One that everyone believes he is.
So the special effects are exceptional, as is the music. The acting from the main four characters, Neo, Morpheus, Trinity and Agent Smith is excellent all around. But for the most part, the supporting characters aren’t great. Joe Pantoliano as Cypher is good, and Gloria Foster, who plays The Oracle, is excellent. Her character plays against expectations, and is a refreshing change of pace in the middle of the film.
The only thing that changed for me in this viewing was the action scene in the lobby. In this scene, Trinity and Neo, in an attempt to rescue Morpheus, invade an office building, killing everything that moves, using massive amounts of ammunition and their enhanced moves. The scene is a ballet of violence. Everytime I’ve seen it previously, I was wowed by the incredible choreography and fighting. But this time, all I could think about was a pair of strangers walking into an office building and opening fire and how horrifying that would be. It’s unfortunate, but that’s the world we live in now.
The Matrix is one of those unforgettable movies that is both revolutionary and incredibly satisfying. Forget about the effects, forget about how it changed the way people made action films, and even video games, this is just a really good film. The first half plays out a mystery. And a lot of films might have wrapped up with the solution to that mystery, but here, we get what is essentially a superhero origin story afterwards. When Neo finally realizes his power, and stops bullets in midair, I have a big stupid grin on my face and more often than not, I end up cheering. This one is obviously a personal favorite.
The Double Feature
These are two intense films, but they both also have a really essential human core. That’s the thing a lot of action films are missing. In both of these films, even though the action scenes and special effects are stunning, they would still be worthwhile films without those things. In the current era of films, spectacle is front and center, and we just get little drops of humanity in our films. A couple scenes here and there that attempt to humanize our heroes on their way to the next action scene.
But these movies are from an earlier era, where we get long character development scenes, where even the action sequences lend themselves to what the filmmaker is trying to reveal about the characters. When Dr. Grant is attacked by the T-Rex, he selflessly decides to protect the children, even though he’s been ambivalent towards them before. The rest of the film all the choices he makes are there to protect the kids. Every action sequence he’s a part of moves towards that goal.
Likewise, early on in The Matrix, Neo is almost totally helpless. But we see him change and grow through the action scenes. First being easily handled by Morpheus in a sparring match, before eventually accepting his role and taking on Agent Smith instead of running. His whole arc is accepting this power that was thrust upon him. And that arc is largely revealed through the action scenes.
I wish we got more action films now done with the care and attention to the human details that these films were. We get some flashes here and there, so I’m hopeful someone will have the guts to really bring back this kind of filmmaking in action movies. Of course, everything is cyclical, so it will happen eventually.
I took a couple of weeks off. And this post was a harder one to write. I’m trying to focus harder on quality with these posts in the new year. So I might slow down my pace if I feel like a post isn’t really working. I haven’t been totally happy with every post I made in the past few months. I don’t want to fall into the trap of posting simply because I have a deadline. This blog is for me, and I want the quality to be high. So don’t be surprised if I miss a week here and there. It just means I’m working to write a better, more insightful post.
So what about the next set of films? I’ve been doing fairly well-known films the last month or so, and I want to get back to something a bit more obscure. But I guess it depends on what counts as obscure. Next time, I’m going to do a couple of films from one of my favorite directors Luis Buñuel. I have a few of these myself, but I’m turning to FilmStruck for the following two:
Luis Buñuel – The Exterminating Angel (1962)
Luis Buñuel – Belle De Jour (1967)
I’ve seen both before, and The Exterminating Angel is one of my favorites, so we’ll see how it goes. See you next time.